Friday, February 26, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Picture

The Revenant could make history Sunday night if it wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Welcome to the final day of Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, a category-by-category breakdown of the Academy Awards, all leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 28. If you have not been to the site before or have not been in a while, click through the list to the right and check out our analysis of the other 23 categories. If you joined us all month, your support is appreciated, and be sure to check back tomorrow and Sunday for a couple more fun features ahead of the big night.

Best Picture

The nominees are

Despite what some will try to tell you – both earnestly and derisively – there is no formula for an Oscar-winning film, certainly not for Best Picture. Perhaps you have some vague concept in your mind of a prestige picture – something arty or high-minded. Well, that is fair. These awards are meant to be high-minded. They are not the People’s Choice Awards. They are these people’s choice, the Academy’s.

Even so, there is no single connecting thread among films such as Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, or No Country for Old Men. Those are the last eight Best Picture winners, and the only thing they have in common is quality. It is not as if these are exclusionary films, either, movies meant for the elite rather than the public. Only one of those films made less than $40 million at the box office, and three of them were blockbuster-sized hits, relative to their budgets.

No, the reason people like to claim the Academy is predictable or stagnant or boring is because the films they like do not win. All calls for increased racial and gender diversity are warranted and necessary, but as we have discussed, the Academy is not the root of the problem. It is the result. I do not begrudge anyone their boycott, but I also do not think it will solve anything. The Academy is simply an easy, highly visible target.

It is a weird world in which social media have made immediate reactions the only reactions that matter. True of almost everything now, it seems particularly true of art. New book? The consensus has formed before most of us have finished reading the dust jacket. New album? It is declared the greatest of all time, overhyped, and already overplayed before your download is even finished. New film? Well, we all know how that goes.

So, no matter which of these eight fantastic films wins, there will be a backlash, then a backlash to the backlash, then a thousand think-pieces on which film won, why, and what should have won. It will be talked to death for a day or two, then people will move on to the next thing. This is just the cycle of information now. However, thankfully, the work itself is not part of the cycle. Once the world moves on, the book is still there to read, the album to listen to, and the film to watch.

Keep that in mind over the next few days as you watch the Oscars or read about them. No matter what films win or do not win, were nominated or not nominated, every film you love is still out there to enjoy and share with others. No one person or organization can take that away. The art rises above it all. If the Academy stands for anything, it is the preservation of film – whether literally or in the public consciousness. If years from now people discover these films because the Academy nominated them, that victory will mean far more than any related to a little gold statue.

The Revenant (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu) – What more is there to say about The Revenant? It is a flawlessly executed, immaculately realized film about man’s struggle with nature, vengeance, and his own soul. Right now, Iñárritu is the filmmaker other filmmakers want to be. His ambition and skill are unrivaled in the industry. No one else is making the kind of technically masterful, ideologically investigative films he makes.

This is not just the Iñárritu show, however. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy give the performances of their lives. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki somehow finds new ways to paint with light and digital images. All the way down the line, every element of production fully commits to bringing the brutal and beautiful reality of The Revenant to life. We talked above about high-minded art. There is no film this year more artful or high-minded than this.

It absolutely can win Best Picture, and in fact, it is probably the frontrunner. A win would mean making history, the first time consecutive films by the same director will have won Best Picture. If that happens, it will be hard to argue against Iñárritu being the first to achieve it. Crafting two films as different but equally impressive as Birdman and The Revenant in back-to-back years is an achievement that deserves a place in history.

The Big Short (directed by Adam McKay) – You have to laugh so you do not cry. The Big Short employs a comedic lens to consider the massive fraud the banking industry perpetrated on all of us and the failure of seemingly anyone to care. People do not get away with huge crimes because they are crafty or smart or somehow do not get caught. The only reason crimes of this sort go unpunished is because we have created a system complicit – some might argue reliant – on their commission.

The Big Short is as infuriating as it is funny, the kind of film you shake your head in disbelief at as you try to forget that it is all real. It is too painful to acknowledge the truth. We were all lied to, and we all got screwed. We are still being lied to, and we are still getting screwed. Several of this year’s Best Picture nominees tackle vitally important topics, but this is the only one that directly affects each and every single one of us.

Barring an unprecedented victory by The Revenant, The Big Short has the best chance of taking the top prize. It has all the key nominations – Picture, Director, (Adapted) Screenplay, Editing, and an acting nomination – of which only one other film in this lineup can claim to have all (Spotlight). The Big Short won the Producers Guild award, which has predicted every Best Picture winner since 2007. The Producers Guild has not been wrong since it and the Academy switched to a preferential balloting system, which seeks greater consensus for a winner. If this is not the consensus pick, then the next film down is.

Spotlight (directed by Thomas McCarthy) – Here is how the preferential balloting system works, briefly. Voters rank all eight nominees. The film with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and its votes go to the second-ranked film on the individual ballots. This process of eliminating films and redistributing votes continues until one film garners 50 percent of votes plus one. What this means is that not only is it important to be everybody’s favorite film, but it is important to get a lot of second- and third-place votes as well.

Nobody dislikes McCarthy’s film. Even those who do not think it is the grandest artistic achievement of the year still think it is a good story well told. Spotlight will get a lot of No. 1 votes, and it will not be at the bottom of many lists. As films get eliminated from the balloting, many votes will be redistributed to Spotlight, as opposed to more divisive films such as The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. This film is a certain beneficiary of the preferential system, which is just as well since it is the best of the nominated films anyway.

McCarthy’s film is a masterpiece, grafting an arthouse sensibility onto a more middle-brow legal thriller and taking on one of the most important stories of this generation. Spotlight is not just the story of the investigative reporters who uncovered the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. It is the story of a city and its legions of faithful who were betrayed by the very organization they trusted with their souls. No film this year hits harder or pulls fewer punches than Spotlight, which makes sense for a drama about journalists. Nothing comes before the truth.

Mad Max: Fury Road (directed by George Miller) – If you said back in June that Mad Max: Fury Road would be a Best Picture nominee – all credit due to the few people who did – then you were either mocked or quietly dismissed. The third sequel to an action franchise that started nearly 40 years ago would not be anyone’s idea of a sure-fire Oscar contender. Add to that the film itself, which is a wild, adrenaline-fueled ride through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and you could forgive those who did not see its awards potential.

However, the one thing it has going for it that no other nominee – nor any other film this year – can claim is Miller. Miller is the brains, the soul, and the beating heart beneath all of this. At 70 years old and directing his first live-action film in 17 years, Miller has crafted a gonzo action epic that will be admired and studied for years to come. If sequels and reboots are Hollywood’s way of the future – as they are the way of its present – then this is the template by which all should be judged. Mad Max: Fury Road drives relentlessly forward rather than looking back. It infuses new energy and instills new ideas in a tired genre that apparently needed a kick in the pants from one of its old masters.

There were moments this season when it looked like Miller’s film might push its way to the top by sheer force of will. It is too big, too bold to ignore. Those moments seem to have passed, and the film will likely prove too divisive to win on a preferential ballot, though Miller is still a major threat to Iñárritu for the Best Director prize. The victory is for something this strange to get this close to the top award, and hopefully, it will inspire other films to take similar risks.

Room (directed by Lenny Abrahamson) – The power of great storytelling is that it puts you in the mind of the characters and allows you to experience, for a brief period of time, what they experience. Except for maybe The Revenant, which is on another scale entirely, no nominee this year does a better job of drawing the audience into the characters’ world than Room. The world it explores is claustrophobic, hellish, and frightening, but it is also all too real.

One thing that has been strangely forgotten throughout this Oscar season is the truth behind the fiction of Room. It is common for awards strategists to highlight their films’ importance through real-world parallels – Spotlight and the Catholic Church, The Big Short and Wall Street, The Revenant and the environment, etc. – but the tragedy of sexual slavery in this country and around the world has come up very little. One could argue it is more respectful not to use such a tragedy to campaign for awards, but those campaigns also have the ability to draw attention to an issue. It is unlikely it would have affected Room’s awards chances one way or the other, but it is unfortunate the opportunity to talk about such a pressing issue was mostly bypassed.

Abrahamson was a surprise nominee for Best Director, though wholly deserving of the recognition, and his nomination signaled strength for Room that had seemed to dissipate throughout the season. During the festival season last year, Room picked up the coveted audience award at the Toronto Film Festival. Since 2008, only one film to win that award has failed to be nominated for Best Picture, and three went on to win. Perhaps Room has proved a little too tough, too dark for some viewers, but it has lasted because those who see it do not soon forget its impact.

The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott) – In my review of The Martian, I talked about how satisfying it is to watch talented people work. Those comments were made in the context of the plot of the film, which follows a group of scientists working toward the common goal of bringing home an astronaut stranded on Mars. However, the same comments work just as well for the filmmakers behind The Martian, all of whom are talented craftspeople working together to bring a wonderfully imaginative, refreshingly un-cynical film to the screen.

I never mean workmanlike as a pejorative. There is nothing wrong with doing solid work on a difficult project. To me, it means unfussy, uncluttered, and unself-conscious, and in all those ways, The Martian is workmanlike. Scott depicts a simple, Robinson Crusoe-like premise in a straightforward fashion and does not feel the need to pile on overworked clichés or strained metaphors to impose deeper philosophical meaning on the story. It is meaningful enough to watch the process of science done well by talented experts, and it is engaging enough to watch an entertaining film made well by talented experts.

Bridge of Spies (directed by Steven Spielberg) – Only one director in history has had more films nominated for Best Picture than Spielberg (William Wyler with 13). As of this year, Spielberg has helmed 10 films that went on to vie for the top award. He is one of the most popular and successful film directors of all time. Some would say his success is because he makes popular entertainments such as the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park series, but I would argue it is because he makes good films popular.

What other director could turn a three-hour holocaust drama into a $300 million-plus worldwide grosser? Who else but Spielberg could craft hit after hit after hit without forfeiting his directorial vision or personal connection to his material? So, Spielberg returns this year with a Cold War thriller about a good man standing up for what is right in complex, difficult times, and he casts the ultimate good-guy actor, Tom Hanks, as his leading man.

Bridge of Spies is timeless. It could have been made in any era and proven successful because its message is powerful, its filmmaking is impressive, and its story is engaging. This film will not win Best Picture, following in the footsteps of eight other Spielberg films to fall short of the top prize once nominated, but the director has made his magic once again. He has turned a forgotten footnote from mid-20th century history into a rousing entertainment, a $160 million global hit, and a Best Picture nominee.

Brooklyn (directed by John Crowley) – Smart, elegant, and delicately handled, Brooklyn is an immigrant story for a time when there has never been more discussion of the American Dream and who is entitled to it. I do not think anyone would argue Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), the intrepid traveler at the center of this tale, has not earned the right to pursue the life she desires. Hers is one of millions of immigrant stories, and she stands in for all the people whose stories we will never hear, never know, because so many of these people were never given a voice.

Brooklyn will seem like the lightweight if feel-good choice among these nominees. Some have and will continue to dismiss it as a silly little love story, a frivolity that does not hold up to closer inspection. On the contrary, Crowley’s film absolutely requires closer inspection. Only upon deeper examination do the film’s layers become clear. There is a romance at the center of the story, yes – though I would also argue when the stories of most of our lives are told, there is a romance at the center – but the margins of the story are suffused with the color and detail of the hardships and perseverance that define the immigrant experience in America.

The final analysis

There are three films that could win this award – The Revenant, The Big Short, and Spotlight. Each has picked up a win with a major industry group. The Revenant won the Directors Guild, The Big Short prevailed with the Producers Guild, and Spotlight triumphed with the Screen Actors Guild. The Big Short and Spotlight, as mentioned, have all the key nominations, but The Revenant is the nominations leader, hitting in every crafts category, two acting categories, Director, and Picture. The Revenant won the top prize with BAFTA and the Golden Globes, but it is divisive where The Big Short and Spotlight might do well with a consensus vote.

The truth is no one could possibly say what is going to happen. The Revenant has looked impressive recently with those major wins at the Directors Guild, BAFTA, and Golden Globes, but it could all be an illusion. Nothing is certain until the envelope is opened. Last year, I predicted against the prevailing winds of the season and was dead wrong. This year, I will go where the wind blows, and if it leads me astray, so be it. I am banking on The Revenant to make history.

Will win: The Revenant
Should win: Spotlight
Should have been here: The Tribe

This weekend: A ranking of all 57 nominees, predictions in all 24 categories, and more

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