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Everything You Need to Know About This Year's

Everything You Need to Know About This Year's "Best Picture" Nominees

By Todd Knaak

Okay, alright, okay, the Oscars are almost here. But before I examine the “Best Picture” nominees, I’d like to use the platform I’ve been given to touch on something more important. For the sake of being candid with you, Theoretical Reader X, when I first heard about the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, I didn’t believe there was a problem—I thought the nominees were chosen because they were truly the best releases of the year and tried to remain silent from the sidelines. So I took a step back from myself and tried to understand what people were truly saying. And even though a quick look at the nominees’ faces could spell it right out, it was a conversation with my friend’s older brother—Michael—that helped me see the problem’s bigger picture.

By not nominating one African American in the top 20 slots in 2016, the Academy is acting as an extension of the same mindset that racked the majority of the nation during the first Academy Awards in 1929. Michael’s point was that the Academy Awards are inherently prejudiced because they’re a symptom of a country founded on racism. Beasts of No Nation was not just snubbed because it’s a Netflix original. There’s a reason why Sylvester Stallone was the only nomination from Creed, and there’s something to be said about the white writers that will be representing Straight Outta Compton. The basis on which the Academy judges a film is still rooted in 1929. In fact, we as viewers consume movies in the same vein.

There’s freedom in selection—which the Academy needs to support because studios aren’t going to give us movies like Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation. But they won’t because we’ve been telling them we won’t watch it—studios are a business after all. Studios staying in power—like they have since 1929—keeps our progression frozen. We’re so set in our past’s mentality that we’re not even aware anymore. I say “Academy Award Winning film,” and you think The Godfather-type films to this day. Color and diversity doesn’t sell because of us, and that’s the problem. It’s not just the Academy or the studio’s fault—it’s all of ours. But how do we change that?

Using a night where the country’s wealthiest, most influential people are televised into our living rooms to put a dent in the US’s mentality is a cause worth shouting for. In order to engrain a new set of ideals over ones that have been pounded into us for centuries, we’re going to have to pound harder than our ancestors did. We have to reverse what they’ve done, because we are better than they were. We’re going to have to shout louder, continue talking about it longer, and never let it be simply shrugged off. Make movies about it, write songs about it, demand to be seen. But not to just change how the Academy thinks, but to change how our generation and the next thinks. Brains, heart, and fists. At least, that’s the only quasi-remedy I—a white 22-year-old Jew—can think of. I could be wrong.

Now let’s talk about the movies or whatever. If you’ve stayed with me this far, I’ll treat you by keeping it short and focusing mainly on one aspect of the movie that got it nominated. Per usual, I’ll include my self-explanatory rating system: What it is, what it really is, and but what it actually is.

P.S. How funny would it be if Leo won during this controversial year?

The Big Short

What it is: 91/100 (A-)
What it really is: 95/100 (A)
But what it actually is: Wolf-of-Wall-Street-with-actual-substance/100 (A+++++)

Al-fucking-right, The Big Short got nominated. Which means the director of Anchorman’s movie got nominated. Dwell on that. Adam McKay’s speedy flick covers the financial collapse of 2008 with Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, and many others they didn’t market as hard. The key things to note about this little gem? The goddamn editing, holy shit-thistle. Typically, I’m not a fan of loose/documentary-esque camerawork: zooms, shallow depth of field, etc. But The Big Short editor Hank Corwin (Tree of Life, Natural Born Killers) is a crafty little newt.

Each character plays a vital, yet different role in the story’s narrative. So if you watch real close-like, each character adopts a different style of editing (and cinematography for that matter). Christian Bale’s nervous wreck of a character: calm, quiet, methodical editing. Steve Carell’s boiling character: sharp, quick, deliberate cutting filled with crescendoing noises to push the viewer to the brink of being a teapot. Ryan Gosling: smooth, cinematic, performance-based, even breaking the fourth wall to remind you that his suave, collected character is in a constant performance; every shot feels like a reveal shot with him.

And most importantly, at least to me, The Big Short covers what, like, eight years? Investments, stocks—all that shit moves slow as fuck. The Big Short doesn’t make you watch the clock (get it? You’ll get it). But the editing makes Short zip along and feel like it takes place during a week, retaining a gradual sense of impending doom. From start to finish, this projects a sense of chaos and confusion in its movements, which complements the narrative more than you’d expect. You can feel the threat, the world about to collapse—even if you don’t fully comprehend what’s happening. Lord knows I didn’t. Which is not a fault of the movie, they bend over backwards to make it accessible. And it is, I just realize how so until the second viewing. 

Mad Max

What it is: 94/100 (A)
What it really is: 98/100 (A+)
But what it actually is: Exactly-what-Uma-Thurman-saw-when-John-Travolta-shot-her-full-of-adrenaline/100 (Winner+)

With Mad Max, 70ish-year-old director George Miller (OG Mad Max, Babe, Happy Feet… wait what?) just whipped his shaft onto the table and broke it in half. You know what Mad Max is about because you, like everyone, couldn’t escape its massive praise. If you don’t, Google it, I don’t have time to explain to you. Let me just tell you what the fuck is great about this movie. Aside from the primarily practical stunts with real cars, flashy cinematography, 40-page script, perfectly-paced action sequences, what really made this movie a masterpiece was something few seemed noticed. George Miller hinted at it when he said the movie should be viewed in black and white with no dialogue. This is deceptively one of the best visual storytelling films ever put out there (because it does so without being boring as hell [why is hell boring?]).

I explain? i.e. We all know the female leads are quite nice to look at, but Mr. Miller knows how to elevate them beyond that. The ONLY time they’re sexualized in the movie is when you find them sopping wet after their initial escape. But what are they doing in that scene? They’re washing themselves of their captors’ grime and, most importantly, removing their chastity belts. The moment that belt hits the floor, the movie never paints them in that light again—they’re free beyond sexual objectification, they’re women, and they fuck shit up for the remainder of the movie. No words necessary in the scene—films are a visual medium. Even at the end, they rise upon a platform without Max, hand in hand.

More? The titular Mad Max is incessantly haunted by visions of those he couldn’t save throughout the movie, which tend to come at inopportune times and weigh him down. But in one, like, 15-second sequence, a little girl he witnessed die simply holds her hand up to her forehead—Max mimics. And what happens? A fucking knife flies and stabs through his hand, missing the intended death mark of, well, his face.

I’ve heard complaints these visions were never explained or wrapped up. But again, visual storytelling: These visions weren’t haunting him, they were keeping him alive, keeping him fighting. Their spirits were with him, giving him something to push on for. Or whatever. With that one 2-second moment, we are shown without it being directly explained—very un-American. There’s plenty more: like that one kid eating a bug he finds crawling on his hand (that seems funny, but it actually builds the world more than you can fathom). I’ll let you find the rest.

Mad Max probably won’t win, but it should because it has the best aspect of every other nominee: the nuance of Brooklyn, the editing trickery/ensemble work of The Big Short, the revolutionary technical aspect of The Revenant, the fully-thought out construction of Bridge of Spies, the playfulness of The Martian, the intimacy of Room (maybe not), and the storytelling ability of Spotlight.

The Revenant

What it is: 87/100 (A-)
What it really is: 93/100 (A-)
But what it actually is: Leo-and-Tom-Hardy/100 (Hunk+)

Oh boy, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, Biutiful, Babel) made a movie, so shit’s about to get real. And probably sad. Look, The Revenant—a sprawling tale of revenge set against an uncharted 1823 American wilderness—is without a doubt an incredible piece of cinema. Watching Leo (yes, I will only call him Leo) give 1500% commitment and respect to the true life martyrdom of his character, Hugh Glass, while bringing the viewer along for a nerve/stomach endurance test (noted when he literally acknowledge the camera lens (Seymour Glass)) is a spectacle to behold. Tom Hardy matches the ferocity, though with more lines to connect to, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Children of Men) continues inspiring a resurgence of classic camerawork with a modern twist through clever use of naturalistic lighting and lengthy oners.

Alejandro himself pushes his actors beyond the brink of method, forcing them to embody the skins of their nonfictional counterparts as he galvanizes the viewers with sometimes cryptic commentary on the human body and soul’s ability to transcend physical suffering when unconditional love, desire, and thirst for redemption is introduced. He even explores the cyclical nature of the universe—having people and animals alike lay their lives down so that Hugh Glass’s can continue. “For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops.”

But I didn’t like it much. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s a pretty straight forward movie when ingested at face value, which can be tedious if you’re not in it. I’ll watch it 12,000 more times because it’s dope or whatever, but that does not mean I get off on Leo trudging through the wilderness for like 3 hours. Even if it is a cathartic and visceral experience. It’ll probably win though because the Academy loves transformations, and this movie transforms its cast, setting, and aesthetic into an unflinching reality.

Spotlight

What it is: 93/100 (A-)
What it really is: 97/100 (A/A+)
But what it actually is: Not-the-best-but-definitely-my-favorite/100 (Michael Keaton+)

Spotlight is probably my favorite movie nominated. But ironically, I probably have the least to say about it, which for me speaks the most (dramatically ironic?). Are you sick of these unnecessary parentheses? (That’ll do.) Look, when I’m watching a movie I tend to analyze at the expense of my investment. But there are rare instances where every aspect of filmmaking comes together so splendidly that all my critiques fly right out the window. Spotlight is that rarity. I mean, at face value, the cinematography doesn’t stand out, there’s maybe one emotional breakdown performance (Mark Ruffalo), the soundtrack doesn’t pop out at you. But that’s not to say any of them are lacking; the opposite is the truth.

Everything is so straight-lined and to the point that they simply heighten each other and push this perfectly-paced and perfectly-written narrative forward. “Delete the adjectives and you’ll get the facts.” That’s what Spotlight does best because it knows its subject matter is the most important aspect. It’s about a division of the Boston Globe, dubbed Spotlight, that basically uncovered the mass molestation cover-up scandal committed by the Catholic Church. And it features a killer lineup: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and more. Let’s be clear, this movie does not speak out against religion or priests directly, it speaks out against corrupt leaders that hide behind “good-willed” institutions to exploit the idea of faith and desperate need; organized religion. It nearly sympathizes with one priest in fact.

The way it handles the emotional shame inflicted by these figures merely shows you, does not beg for your sympathy, which makes it more unnerving. Like hiding characters that you know were taken advantage of in the background of different scenes so you can sense the scale if the church’s impact. After the individual stories, once the numbers are revealed, you’ll feel the full weight of this institution’s actions. Before the credits, the movie gives you a massive list of cities with numerous outed molestation cases. And nothing will get your stomach churning like seeing your hometown. Neither will seeing how the Vatican “punishes” one of the film’s main priests after they learn of his actions.

“When you’re a poor kid from a poor family and when a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say ‘no’ to God?”

Brooklyn

What it is: 84/100 (B)
What it really is: 87/100 (B/B+)
But what it actually is: If-you-tell-anyone-how-much-I-liked-it-you-die/100 (#TeamItalianStallion+)

Again, if you tell anyone how much I liked this movie, you die. Simple. I’ll go to jail for it. But how could I not like this one? First off, it’s Oscar nominated; they’re usually pretty fucking good. Secondly, it’s just so damn sweet. And thirdly/most importantly, it is not just a The Notebook 2 situation like I thought it’d be. This here Brooklyn movie is not about romance and it’s deceptively powerful because it’s expertly-nuanced. I mean, I didn’t fully comprehend what it was really about until the last 10 minutes, when I unexpectedly welled up out of nowhere. It’s a female coming of age story that uses only uses romance to personify its Irish immigrant lead’s—Eilis Lacey (the otherworldly Saoirse Ronan)—internal debate.

Upon leaving her sister and mother in Ireland to go to school in Brooklyn (clever), the timid Eilis has take her first steps into a making a life of her own. She meets the most suave Italian fucker I’ve ever seen and romance ensues, but barely any of the movie focuses on this. He just represents the comfort of her individuality away from her roots. After a tragedy calls her back home, she meets fucking Domhnall Gleeson, who also simply is a metaphor for the safety and security of the known.

Without even realizing it, the A+++++ costume and set design subtly and gradually reveal her coming into her own through creative uses of the color palette and clothing. And by the time she literally stands up, rolls her shoulder back, and proudly shouts her own name into the face of the closest thing Brooklyn has to an antagonist, you’ll fully see her beautiful transformation. Brooklyn is a slow burner, but oh so satisfying. It captures a time that we all have trudged through—fighting off the cocoon that is the romanticization and safety of home to grow wings. And yeah, the movie’s kind of as cheesy as that last sentence. But who the fuck doesn’t like cheese?

The Martian

What it is: 82/100 (B)
What it really is: 88/100 (B+)
But what it actually is: Good-old-fashioned-popcorn-movie/100 (Matt Damon+)

I had some low expectations going into Ridley Scott’s The Martian because everyone talks mad shit for some reason. That may have played a part in why I thought this movie was deceptively better than people are giving it credit for. Look, I’ve seen Apollo 13, Interstellar, Sunshine, Gravity, and frankly I’ve had enough of the depressing, gut-wrenching dramas set in the endless unknown vacuum of space. Which is exactly why The Martian’s feel-good popcorn blockbuster format was a pleasant surprise. There’s a disco soundtrack, plenty of jokes, no evil character hellbent on thwarting Matt Damon’s return, and the character’s actually act like they’re friends and not lowkey dramatic lovers.

But the best part of The Martian is its pacing. Coming in at around two and half hours, this movie flies the fuck by—because you’re actually having fun watching it. Like 15 minutes in, Matt Damon announces, “I’m not dying here.” None of this wallowing in loneliness bullshit, he just starts the plot right away. Jeff Daniels plays a slightly satirical version of the intense NASA President, hilariously delivering one word answers in the driest possible fashion while he poking fun at the cliche but necessary lines in a meta fashion. “You’ll say you need 6 weeks, I’ll say two, you’ll somehow figure it out, and it will work.” Fuck going through the motions to move the plot forward, why not make it new?

Plus, by the end when the world’s major cities are filled to the brim with people watching live footage of the attempted rescue, you can’t help but smile, grip your pillow, and truly hope for the best. Cameos from Donald Glover types add to the lighthearted tone, and the world literally comes together to try and get this guy home—and so will you. Or you won’t, I was pretty baked when I was watching it.

Bridge of Spies 

What it is: 95/100 (A)
What it really is: 97/100 (A/A+)
But what it actually is: A-fucking-Spielberg-movie-starring-Tom-fucking-Hanks/100 (A+++++++)

I honestly don’t think I’ve met a single person that has actually seen Bridge of Spies. And I felt like such an old man for enjoying a movie about the Cold War in 2016 as much as I did. It’s about a lawyer (Tom Hanks, who reminds you, “Hey, I’m fucking Tom Hanks, why would you ever doubt me?”) who negotiates the trade of a captured Soviet spy and a captured American spy. But you guys, this is a Steven Spielberg movie, meaning there’s literally nothing wrong with it. He’s perfected his craft, I think we can all agree. I mean they shoot the shit out of this movie (old Hollywood style), the soundtrack swells with emotion, the acting is of the highest caliber, and there are seriously like 50 full circle pay offs by the end. After the first full circle, you get a bit emotional but you’re not teary eyed—until he whips out 49 more and you’re floored.

Bridge of Spies is the work of a team who could literally play every second of the finished movie in their heads before they even figured out which camera they were going to use. It’s thought out. There’s none of this “film everything” coverage bullshit, each shot is deliberate and still manages to move the plot forward even without dialogue. And most importantly, this should be the world’s most boring flick since it’s basically all roundtable discussions. But thanks to the Hanks, you’re on the edge of your seat even though a quick Google search will tell you everything that went down. Of all the nominated films this year, this one feels the most romantic to the art of filmmaking, particularly since Spielberg tends to be one of the last classic directors. We may not have many films like this left.

And yeah I know, I’ve heard the insults to the Berg, “He just paraphrases the true classics into the tightest, most marketable format.” To which I say shut the fuck up and watch Jaws, ET, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, or literally any of his other movies and tell me they aren’t the work of a master. I don’t know why this turned into a Steven defense. Mhm, Steven I called him. By the way, what kind of human can make Jurassic Park and then turn around and whip out Schindler’s List in the same year?

Room

What it is: 96/100 (A)
What it really is: 99/100 (A+)
But what it actually is: Emotions-I-didn’t-know-I-was-capable-of-feeling/100 (The thin line between joy and depression+++)

Let me start of by saying contrary to what you think (if you haven’t seen room), this is not a bleak movie in any sense. This is a movie of hope dammit! It’s just not The Shawshank Redemption kind of hope. Room is simply about a woman (played majestically by Brie Larson) who has been held captive in shack for 7 years by Satan in the form of a man called Old Nick, and now has a 5 year old son (yeah, you do the math and you can figure out who is dad is). Who, by the way, Jacob Tremblay, her kid, needs an Oscar today. Brie knocks it out of the park of course, but what the fuck is with this kid? He’s on another level, we’re witnessing a Daniel Day in the making. Until premature exposure to fame and drugs fuck it all up of course. What’s interesting about Room is it’s actually told from the perspective of the son, and they don’t get out of the room until about 30-45 minutes in. Then it becomes about adjusting to “normal” life.

Yes, it’s rather morbid, however, Room doesn’t crysturbate (beg for tears), it simply just plays out the way it would, like, “Yeah, that’s about how it’d go.” The tears are a byproduct. It doesn’t wallow in the psychological trauma these characters are battling, just allows you to watch. Yes, they have their ups and downs of course, how could they not? But through the course of the film, what you’re lucky enough to witness is a very gradual revival of very, very damaged people. And that’s what makes the ending to this film one of the most satisfying and poignant ones of the year. Or ever maybe.

I’d prefer to not talk about the technical aspects of the filmmaking—they’re all next level—because it’s really the writing’s ability to be grounded in the darkness of reality and then counteract act it with the beauty of the same reality that comes out on top. You’re gasping, sad, frowning, crying the whole time. Yet by the time the credits roll, you’re crying even harder, but this time, with the sides of your mouth touching your ears. Plus it makes you feel like a little dick for ever bitching about your life.

***

So that’s it then. Those are the movies. I am done. Now you can pretend you watched them at your Oscar party or whatever. You’re welcome I guess.

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