Will win: Spotlight. Should win: Mad Max or Room.
The Big Short and Spotlight don’t redefine cinema, but they get the job done. Spotlight, if nothing else, might make you believe in journalism again, especially if you’re one of those journos daily bending under the weight of analytics, search engine optimization, and so-called churnalism.
Bridge of Spies and The Martian are entertaining enough, but do little more than confirm the enduring skill of two veteran filmmakers, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott. The former is pro-American in the vein of Frank Capra, reaffirming traditional values while lambasting the current version of the United States. Meanwhile, The Martian is an efficient survival story with bundles of charm – and a complete lack of dramatic tension. Its protagonist is stranded on Mars, but acts like his car broke down on I-15.
The Revenant is the frontrunner, after its victories at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the DGA awards. A brutal period piece about the rotten past of the United States, it’s long, unrelenting, and repetitive. You either tag along or sign off after the first scene. Personally, I tagged along, albeit with reservations. But not everyone did. It remains to be seen where the Academy stands.
The remaining nominees, though the best of the lot, don’t strike me as prototypical Best Picture material. Mad Max is steeped in genre and the Academy doesn’t usually honor such a breed. Yes, there was The Return of the King, but its medieval fantasy setting evoked traditional historical epics, to which the Oscars are not so allergic. George Miller’s chase movie, instead, is an unapologetic stream of adrenaline, grotesquery, and bombast.
Brooklyn cleverly uses the romantic triangle trope to dramatize the doubts that torment all immigrants, the tug-of-war between origin and destination, the homeland and the new world. Yet it’s a tender, small film, not an Ellis Island saga. As for the Room, its focus is as narrow as its title suggest: the subjectivity of a child and the love – sometimes selfish, sometimes selfless – of his mother. Within that narrow focus is a universe of nuance and layered psychology. Yet the Academy prefers broader strokes.
Ultimately, these gems are too pulp, too small, or too intimate to compete against the self-important scope of other contenders, which might not be as artistically significant but tackle Big Topics and diagnose the State of the Nation. Spotlight has had the most successful run during awards season, but The Revenant scored big at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, so we’ll likely see a head-to-head race between them.
Will win: González Iñárritu. Should win: George Miller or Lenny Abrahamson.
Adam McKay and Tom McCarthy do wonderful jobs with ensemble casts, making sure their various stars all work towards the same narrative goal. Every player sticks to his part and contributes to a coherent whole. That takes skill, absolutely, although neither helmer reaches nor strives for transcendence.
González Iñárritu certainly attempts to do so with The Revenant, but his Olympic endurance test probably owes more to Leonardo DiCaprio’s gonzo performance and Emmanuel Lubezki’s mastery with the camera. Not that this has kept Iñárritu from sweeping up at the DGA awards, which have spurred his Oscar chances…
Finally, there’s George Miller for his spectacularly choreographed Mad Max and Lenny Abrahamson for his tenderly observed Room. The former stages an action spectacular so impressive the Academy couldn’t ignore it, while Abrahamson accomplishes the unimaginable and perceives the world as might someone who has never seen it before.
Actor in a Leading Role
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio. Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio.
This could be Leonardo DiCaprio’s year. He’s been golden all awards season, and his competition isn’t actually as fierce as it seems. Bryan Cranston and Michael Fassbender are the celebrated centerpieces of otherwise neglected movies. And it’s unlikely that Eddie Redmayne will nab the prize again, after his win last year, given how divisive his turn has been this time around. That leaves Matt Damon as a lonely astronaut in Mars, being charming and amusing and occasionally sad, and Leonardo DiCaprio as a man determined to win an Oscar, crawling and screaming and swimming and weeping and growling his way through the American frontier. Of course, DiCaprio’s so good that you can forgive his awards-baiting, which is why he’ll win. Damon’s seriocomic temper tantrums and scientific derring-do look lightweight by comparison.
Actress in a Leading Role
Will win: Brie Larson. Should win: Brie Larson
As impressive as the work of Cate Blanchett and Charlotte Rampling might be, the Academy loves a breakout role and will probably ignore both in favor of the (comparatively) new girls on the block, either Saoirse Ronan or Brie Larson. The latter, in particular, has already won at the Globes, the SAG, and the BAFTA, and is the clear favorite. It’d be a deserved victory, too. As a kidnapped, sexually-abused woman forced to raise her child in a shed, her role requires her to constantly shift moods, from resignation to hope, from frustration to despair, from affection towards her child to weariness towards his inevitably eccentric, antisocial behavior.
Ronan’s work has less range, perhaps, but her face is a battleground for all the doubts and disappointments of the immigrant experience. In an early scene, at an Irish dance hall before her first trip across the Atlantic, she realizes, as we see by her suddenly unfocused gaze, that the town she’ll leave behind will go on without her, that her friends will keep meeting boys and marrying, and that – her body in Europe but her mind already in America – she will continue her narrative elsewhere.
Actor in a Supporting Role
Will win: Sylvester Stallone. Should win: Sylvester Stallone.
Of all the nominees, the standout here is Sylvester Stallone for his triumphant return as Rocky Balboa. There’s wisdom and depth to his performance, as he fuses his real-life status as a legendary actor with his fictional legacy as an historic boxer. It might be the best he’s ever acted. His toughest competition comes from Mark Rylance as a self-confident, steel-tempered, sometimes inscrutable Communist spy in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War fable. He’s netted several awards already, including the BAFTA, though Stallone’s Golden Globe victory marks him as the likeliest victor on Oscar night.
Actress in a Supporting Role
Will win: Kate Winslet. Should win: Alicia Vikander.
Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander play the main characters in their respective movies. Why theirs are have been labeled as supporting roles is beyond me. Vikander, in particular, is the heart and soul of The Danish Girl – which is precisely the problem with the film. Instead of identifying with the trans woman whose story this is supposed to be about, we side rather with her cisgendered companion. Eddie Redmayne, as Lili Elbe, is so mannered and artificial that we cannot help but be drawn instead to his co-star’s raw emotion. The problem for Vikander, in terms of her Oscar chances, is that her most lauded role in 2015 was not actually this one, but rather her android in Ex-Machina, for which her subtle facial movements smudged the distinctions between genuine feeling and programmed self-preservation. This means Kate Winslet, fresh-off her Globe win, has a real shot. And, indeed, her Joanna Hoffman is so believable, I didn’t even recognize Winslet when she first walked on-screen. She’s a vessel of determination and steadfastness, reigning in Steve Jobs’ mercurial antics.
Should win: Mad Max. Will win: Mad Max.
Great action is as much about editing as it is about anything else, and Mad Max is basically one long action set piece. More than that, it’s one of the most coherent, geographically mappable action set pieces in recent memory.
Will win: The Revenant. Should win: The Revenant.
Read any negative review of The Revenant and you’ll still find, somewhere, a begrudging admission that, if nothing else, what Emmanuel Lubezki accomplishes with his camera is unparalleled. He might be his generation’s most respected cinematographer.
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Will win: Room. Should win: Room.
Emma Donoghue turned her own novel into a script, and what she accomplished is beautiful. Room seems absolutely dependent on imagery and acting, because it was written to allow space for these aspects to flower. Which is what a great screenplay does.
Writing (Original Screenplay)
Will win: Spotlight. Should win: Spotlight.
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy meticulously researched the actual investigation, leading Martin Baron, the newspaper editor featured in the film, to confess that Singer and McCarthy “knew more about what happened at the Globe than I did.” It has serious competition from Ex-Machina, Inside Out, and Straight Outta Compton, but with a WGA nod under its belt, Spotlight has the right momentum.