It’s late November now… and, shocker of shockers, the Oscar race is still wide open.
As usual, awards season is officially underway with hopeful contenders stacked one on top of the other. But less usual is the reasonably quiet race we’ve had thus far. There are not thunderously moving, high-impact prestige dramas like 12 Years A Slave or Lincoln, or ambitious cinematic achievements like Boyhood, or industry-pandering fare like Argo or Birdman or The Artist, or actors turning in solid performances who are clearly overdue, like Julianne Moore in Still Alice. There’s no crowd-pleasing blockbuster that could take the cake like Life Of Pi or Gravity. There’s not even as much of the usual middling Oscar bait like The Imitation Game or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close to contend with.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be. A few notable titles are still under wraps, and their quality could be game changers — most notably, Joy, The Revenant, and The Hateful Eight — but as of now, there’s no true frontrunner in any one race, as there often is by this time most years. The last three Best Picture winners had already been released by mid-November in their respective years, so if 2015 follows suit, then we’ve already seen this year’s Best Picture.
Is it Spotlight?
Whether you’re a fan of former president George W. Bush or not, you have to admit his term contained some profound low points, kicking off with 9/11 and ending in a nasty recession. You may or may not blame Bush himself for these and other pieces of unfortunate Americana in the 21st century, but let’s face it: as a nation, we’ve had better.
Several of the big blights the nation grappled with during the (second) Bush regime are reflected in films from the past 15 years, dealt with explicitly in Farenheit 9/11, Recount, United 93 and Oliver Stone’s W., and more subtextually in Munich or 25th Hour (or any number of others). It’s only about now, though, that we’re able to step back and see things in context, which is why we’re getting movies that deal with these themes at a smaller, more intimate level. We’ve seen a lot of movies about the forest. Now we’re seeing the ones that are about the trees.
We’ve heard many times that the so-called “War on Drugs” really is an actual war. Traffic, a Best Picture nominee from way back in 2000, remains the cinematic authority on the topic, and probably had more influence on the aesthetic of modern movies than almost any other film. Nowadays, plenty of dramas and thriller look like Traffic. Back then, only Traffic did.
Sicario, the latest film to take us south of the border to the war zone, shares a lot of DNA with its predecessor in terms of its look and feel — not to mention one of its stars, Benicio Del Toro — and a focus on of good cops feeling powerless against the forces of evil, weighing the pros and cons of compromising their values. Sicario might be the first of the films to tackle this subject, however, that actually feel like a war movie.
Many of us have had the experience of returning to a place we know from childhood. A place that once served as the stage for everything we knew, and suddenly, looks very small. Room stars Brie Larson as a woman we know only as “Ma” in the first act of this movie, because that’s the only context a five-year-old boy has of his mother. She is not a person with her own name, and her own history, and her thoughts and moods. We begin our lives as inherently selfish, and only gradually to we come to realize that everyone else’s inner lives are as rich as our own. They don’t just revolve around us.
Here it is, straight from the mouth of a film student.
I made this Top 10 list relatively early in awards season, before I’d seen a number of films that factored into the race that year — including The Hours, 8 Mile, Secretary, Frida, Talk To Her, and The Pianist, some of which came away with major wins (Best Actress and Best Actor included).
Reconsidering this list in 2015, I wouldn’t change a whole lot. There are a couple films I like better now than I did back then — like Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, which didn’t quite do it for me the first time around. Others, like Talk To Her, Secretary, and 8 Mile, I know I did like quite a bit when I saw them, but now it’s been so long that I’d need to see them again to know if they’d find their way onto my list.
And, full disclosure: I did make one change to this list from back in 2002, adding a film I saw shortly after making this list that has since become one of my favorites of the year. It seemed a shame to leave it off, considering that it was one of my favorites both back then and still now.
Which film did I add, and which one got kicked off to make room for it? I’ll never tell…
The Martian shouldn’t feel like such a treasure, and maybe twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have. Its closest cousin, Apollo 13, was nominated for Best Picture in 1995, back when feel-good movies could still dominate both the box office and awards season — which is not to say that they always did, but feel-good guys like Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis fared better then than they do now, critically speaking. Hollywood schmaltz is out of fashion — the occasional crowd-pleaser may sneak into the Oscar race now and again, but not that often.
We live in more cynical times now, and Ridley Scott is not a filmmaker you’d generally call “upbeat.” Chest-bursting aliens, brain-eating, a wire cutting through Brad Pitt’s neck, and two female BFFs driving over a cliff to meet their maker — these are just a few of the chipper cinematic scenarios Scott has graced us with.
So it’s surprising indeed that Scott is responsible for one of the most genuinely optimistic dramas to come along in ages. (Genuinely optimistic and genuinely good, that is.) The Martian has been released at the same moment as Zemeckis’ The Walk, which is interesting, since both are about men driven to achieve the impossible, isolating their protagonist from a crack team ensemble in the most crucial bits, with a hero who addresses the audience directly throughout the story, and a high likelihood that he will die (even if the audience is quite certain he won’t). The films share a common spirit and a light tone that may come as a surprise given their subject matter, but The Martian is the one with real gravity and emotional heft. Somehow, even with an upbeat outlook and some nimble comedy, Scott’s film stays firmly grounded in reality, so that we can genuinely feel those life-or-death stakes — and understand why its hero’s survival matters. One man’s life hangs in the balance, but it adds up to so much more.
It seems exactly enough time has passed to allow for a film that prominently features New York City’s fallen World Trade Center without any explicit reference to September 11. Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt has top billing, The Walk really belongs to two much bigger stars — the Twin Towers themselves, brought back from the dead in all their steel majesty in Robert Zemeckis’ latest technological feat.
Movies these days tend to be events. Even the smaller ones are often given the royal treatment, when it comes from a beloved, established filmmaker. Noam Baumbach is certainly one of those, yet he’s managed to avoid making capital-E Events out of his efforts, even when The Squid And The Whale had him hailed as one of the hottest auteurs of the new century.
In the past few years, Baumbach’s movies have been received as trifles instead. They come across as cinematic shrugs. “Maybe this works, and maybe it doesn’t!” each new film seems to say. In part, it might be because he’s been fairly prolific recently — 2015 saw him release both While We’re Young and Mistress America. Or maybe because it’s easy enough to compare his movies to those of Woody Allen — both in craft, content, and recent frequency of output.
Allen’s movies aren’t often that ambitious, either, and they come out so often, it’s easy to give the less inspired ones a pass — if one doesn’t quite ring our bell, there will soon be another. The same is true of Noah Baumbach. I know this sounds like a back-handed compliment, which is really not how I mean it at all. I don’t mean to say he’s not trying that hard, because making a movie of any kind or quality requires herculean effort, especially ones that are as enjoyable as While We’re Young and Frances Ha. It’s just that the effort doesn’t show. I hate to say that they feel “tossed off,” but they do, in a way. It’s just that they’re tossed off incredibly well that makes them feel so unique.
For anyone going through Looking withdrawals since HBO cancelled their low-rated gay series, the internet now has your methadone. Season Two of EastSiders just made its Vimeo debut.
Seeing as it takes place in Silver Lake (the Brooklyn of Los Angeles, for you outsiders), EastSiders is not quite but almost as hairy as the San Francisco-set Looking, which is quite possibly the single most important factor in depicting any hipster ‘hood. Unlike other hipster habitats like Brooklyn and Portland, Silver Lake has managed to maintain a relatively low profile without being savagely mocked by the media — possibly because Los Angeles is already so viciously ridiculed, what’s the point? Silver Lake is a great neighborhood, one I would visit more often if it wasn’t so terribly far. (It’s 7.6 miles from my apartment in West Hollywood, which in Los Angeles traffic takes about a day and a half.) I would wager that Silver Lake has managed to retain what is good about cool, hipsterish neighborhoods without quite succumbing to what makes them ripe for parody — but don’t take my word for it. Take a look for yourself in EastSiders.