2016 Oscars Preview: The Best Picture Nominees Ranked

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The most coveted prize in all of Hollywood is the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year. As we’ve seen time and time again, the Academy is not infallible and often awards a forgettable film that hit a series of checkmarks for the year’s voters. This year, I’d say the Academy nominated 7 excellent movies and one that’s just okay for top honors, a far better average than past years.

Instead of staking my good name on what will take home the trophy, I’ve decided to rank the nominees in terms of quality from my authoritative and unquestionably correct point of view. After all, whatever winds up with the lowest ranking will likely take home the award. I swear these voters personally hate me. Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Or maybe I’ve got weak spots in the aluminum foil covering my windows.

8) The Revenant

Oscars 2016

Apparently, The Revenant was really, really hard to make and therefore is a superior movie, the pain providing a path to find a greater artistic truth. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s demands to shoot the film in natural light and in harsh conditions caused the film to go over budget amid reports of fighting on the set. Leonardo DiCaprio subjected himself to icy conditions in a role where he’d have to crawl and grunt while being really cold. He even ate bison liver despite being a vegetarian, so you know there were no limits to his suffering.

The suffering caused by The Revenant didn’t end upon the shoot. From there audiences were subjected to two and a half hours of Pain and Suffering: The Movie, all brutality without anything resembling a point. The film on the screen comes across much like the shoot, needlessly long and self-important. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is the saving the grace of The Revenant, with the virtuoso cinematographer capturing stunning vistas in entirely natural lighting. The saddest thing about The Revenant is that there’s a good movie in there, it just needed a better filmmaker to find it.

As far as the nominees for Best Picture go, The Revenant is the weakest of the bunch. What that means is that it’s most likely to take home top honors, because that’s how these things work.

7) The Martian

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Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel is the true crowd-pleaser in the group of nominees. The Martian received stellar reviews and more money at the box office than any other of the nominated films. All the accolades and box office success is well earned, though the Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) Golden Globe is really stretching it.

But even if I personally wouldn’t have nominated The Martian, it’s hard to deny the charms of the movie. Matt Damon leads a diverse ensemble cast that infuses quite a bit of comedy into the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars when a mission goes terribly wrong. Of course, there are numerous jokes to be made about how The Martian is an unrealistic science fiction adventure because America has a space program and a population that’s generally interested in space exploration. Jokes aside, The Martian aims to inspire the masses with a funny, uplifting story that wants to reignite our fascination with the stars.

6) Room

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Room is a movie that feels like two excellent movies cut into one. The first movie is a harrowing drama of escalating tension focusing on a young mother, played by the wonderful Brie Larson, and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who are forced to live in a soundproofed shed, where the young mother has been imprisoned by a crazed neighbor for years, sexually assaulted on a daily basis. This first half is unsettling and builds as the mother and child attempt to find a way out of the room, which is the only world that the young boy has ever known. Once they’ve managed to escape, they’re then forced to try and cope with life on the outside. From there on, Room is about the lingering pain of sexual assault and the vulnerability of some of its victims. Room is still a harrowing drama in these moments, though it’s not as tense in these later scenes as much as it’s heartbreaking.

Brie Larson is currently the favorite to take home the award for Best Actress, and it’s a well-deserved honor for the young actress. As her character, Larson was forced to run through such a wide range of emotions and commands on the screen in her moments of fear, uncertainty, and fleeting moments of optimism. The onscreen bond between Larson and the young Jacob Tremblay provide Room with its heart and soul.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is masterful in his use of space, making the extreme confines of the room seem more spacious in moments and all the more constrictive in others. Room isn’t likely to take home top honors on Sunday, but it’s still an excellent film that deserves a wider audience.

5) The Big Short

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The Big Short is a film about institutional arrogance. In the film, which is based upon the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, the financial institutions (predominantly consisting of white men) ignore all the warning signs of the intricate house of cards they’ve constructed. In a lot of ways, it resemble the Academy and the controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in the nominations, something that many Academy members have taken issue with as if they’re beyond criticism.

Adam McKay’s film is frustrating and funny in its portrait of the 2008 economic collapse. It features a robust ensemble cast, including Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Brad Pitt among others. McKay doesn’t allow one actor or another to tower over the work. The focus remains entirely on the issue at hand, with McKay injecting a number of fourth-wall breaking scenes to help inform the audience of the machinations behind the financial system. Most fascinating in the film is the manner with which McKay plays with cinematic form to emphasize the fact that there’s just something off about everything that’s transpiring on the screen.

The Big Short might wind up being the dark horse nominee that races past its competitors at the last minute. If that is the case, The Big Short winning wouldn’t be considered an upset but an ironic moment where an arrogant institution honors a story about institutional arrogance.

4) Bridge of Spies

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Steven Spielberg’s first film since 2012’s Lincoln flew under the radar for the most part. It wasn’t met with the universal praise that typically greets a work by the modern master of filmmaking. Spielberg’s film isn’t the historical drama that’s advertised, though it is based on historical events. Bridge of Spies is actually a moral dilemma about the struggle for the American soul. It may take place in the early ‘60s and deal with the Soviet Union, but the central conflict is just as relevant now as it was then – how can we claim the moral high ground if we don’t uphold those ideals towards our enemies?

As usual, Tom Hanks is great as the principled attorney James B. Donovan. But the real scene stealer of Bridge of Spies is Oscar nominee Mark Rylance as the suspected spy Rudolf Abel. Despite all the high stakes tension of spies and Soviets, Bridge of Spies is also quite funny in moments. The script co-written by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman injects minor moments of levity that cut the tension without dulling the edge of the story.

Bridge of Spies may not win the big one, but it’ll survive over the years and will eventually be recognized as an overlooked film from Steven Spielberg. In the meantime, the struggle for the American soul will continue and the film will serve as guide for those willing to be introspective.

3) Spotlight

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Like The Big Short, Spotlight is an ensemble about institutional arrogance. In this case, the Catholic Church in Boston and its longstanding and disgusting habit of covering up the sexual abuse committed by its priests. Tom McCarthy’s film is also a tragic critique of the decline of traditional journalism in the age of the internet, as the reporters of the Boston Globe uncover the layers of deceit over a lengthy investigation.

Michael Keaton leads a strong ensemble cast which includes Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, who are both nominated in the supporting categories. Spotlight is a film that avoids showy performances, nobody is transformative. Instead this is a very subtle work about the attempt to pull evil from the shadows and into the spotlight, only the reporters have no idea just how far the malfeasance goes.

It’s generally amazing that Tom McCarthy was able to craft one of the year’s best pictures after crafting one of the year’s worst, the Adam Sandler-led dramedy The Cobbler. Apparently, The Cobbler is one of those films that is so bad that only someone with incredible talent could make it. All of that talent is on display in Spotlight, which may very well shake some Catholics to their very core.

2) Brooklyn

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Had I caught Brooklyn before making my Top 10 list this year, it certainly would’ve found its way onto the list. John Crowley’s film starring Saoirse Ronan has no shortage of charms, from its dry Irish sense of humor to its lush cinematography. Nick Hornby’s screenplay adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel finds all the heartbreak and hope of an immigrant’s journey.

As Eilis, a young girl who leaves behind her family in Ireland to immigrate to Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan gives a marvelous performance as someone torn between two worlds. At first, she’s homesick for family back in Ireland before finally settling in. When she’s forced to return to Ireland, she finds herself once again torn between the life she’s left behind and the new life she’s established in America.

Brooklyn works as an interesting counterprogramming to Spotlight. Where the Catholic Church serves as a villain in Spotlight, the Church in Brooklyn plays a crucial role in welcoming immigrants into the brave new world of America. There’s a benevolence to this portrayal of the Church, with Jim Broadbent channeling all the goodwill possible for his kindly priest.  Brooklyn is among of the year’s finest, blending comedy and drama in a moving tale of a young girl trying to find her way in a new land.

1) Mad Max: Fury Road

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It’s rare that the best movie of any given year actually earns a nomination for Best Picture, especially if that film is a genre film. But that happened this year with Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s latest installment in his post-apocalyptic road films. But the odds are against Fury Road taking home the statuette for Best Picture, so the nomination itself feels like a victory and validation for those who have championed the movie.

But Fury Road isn’t just an average action film. As I’ve said before, it’s a revolutionary action film as well as a renaissance. There’s nothing like it. Mad Max: Fury Road is kinetic in its presentation, blending eye-popping stunt driving with the right addition of digital trickery. At any point in the movie, you can understand the spatial relationships between cars and characters – something that is increasingly rare in action filmmaking.

The action isn’t all that makes Fury Road the best film of 2015. It’s also thematically resonant, with its story of a cruel patriarchal society that will stop at nothing to control women in body and mind. Stepping into the iconic role originally played by Mel Gibson, Tom Hardy takes a backseat to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. And as the Republican primaries play out and Immortan Trump secures a stranglehold on the nomination, Fury Road becomes more and more relevant. This is a film that’s about power, patriarchy, and the need to confront these antiquated systems. Fury Road may not earn top honors, but it’s the best film of 2015, one that has left its mark on the cultural consciousness and is seemingly a prophetic portrait of a Trump presidency.

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