The Revenant may have been a brutal shoot, but The Big Short is the year’s most ambitious film. It has been accused (by Stephen) of being nothing more than a supped-up Power Point, and that assessment is not wrong. It doesn’t care much about its characters, we don’t get to know them (and when we do, in glimpses, it hardly matters). But that’s the point: it’s not about people, it’s about systems – systems invented by, but indifferent to, people. What’s ambitious here is the storytelling – Steve Carrell is good, Christian Bale is great – but the stars are Margo Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez. The film knows we still don’t understand what happened in 2008, but it insists we look closer. It seduces us with gimmicks, makes sure we’re enjoying the ride, and then implicates us in the fallout. So smart, so fun, so devastating.
Spotlight is both very similar to The Big Short, and very different. Stylistically, it is the polar opposite: straightforward, unadorned, humble. But like The Big Short, it shrugs off the personal stories of its characters – they, and it, are on a mission. Spotlight is a better ensemble piece and the unsung hero is Liev Schreiber, whose quiet determination embodies the film as a whole. In a year when the media is portrayed as Public Enemy No. 1, Spotlight reminds us that it serves an invaluable role in our society. That doesn’t make it a good film. It’s good because it’s bravely wonky, illustrating and celebrating hard work. It cares about documenting facts, and manages to do so without the Aaron Sorkin self-righteousness. That’s refreshing, and rewarding.
Brooklyn is the closest experience this year to Boyhood in its tricky combination of modesty and scope. That dichotomy informs the entire film: It is beautiful but not flashy, sentimental but not sappy. Soairse Ronen is mesmerizing – angelic and utterly human, vulnerable and a kind of superhero. The immigrant experience is vast and complicated, and Brooklyn makes us feel all the mixed emotions of possibility and regret without resorting to contrived external conflicts. It walks a tricky tightrope and never loses its balance.
Mad Max – Fury Road
Perhaps the most un-categorizable film of the year, Mad Max – Fury Road is an apocalyptic adventure, a feminist fantasia, a post-modern western and a Wagnerian opera. It is gorgeous and grotesque, meditative and murderous, demonic and dreamlike. George Miller has created a stunning and frightening world that mirrors the desperation and corruption of our own but here’s the unexpected twist: He still believes salvation is possible. This is a tale of redemption.
Without doubt, the most beautiful film of the year. And though I’m not generally a fan, it’s Leo’s turn. But the breathtaking landscapes and fine performances (I’d give Best Supporting Actor to Tom Hardy) are weighed down by a clichéd and unconvincing narrative that even the director doesn’t seem invested in. Father and son? Sure, whatever. And let’s please put a moratorium on gauzy flashbacks of beautiful young murdered women and whispered ethnic languages as shortcuts to character development and emotional depth (we got the point in Gladiator).
The two halves of this film are jarring, and the juxtaposition is striking: The captivity half is strangely enjoyable – creative and fun. When they escape, that’s when the claustrophobia sets in. The subtle cinematography is a powerful tool, and the lead performances are stellar. Brie Larson deserves the Oscar for her skilled 180 flip: while in survival mode in “room,” she’s tough and resourceful; back at home she withers into a frightened teenager. She pulls off this emotional roller coaster with honesty and grace. The film is moving and impressive but it uses up its energy in the beginning and seems unsure how to end, so its imprint is muted.
Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg is so good at what he does, but sometimes too good. Bridge of Spies is an interesting story, impeccably acted, satisfyingly shot, and sorta boring. Unlike Munich, which, thanks to Tony Kushner’s script, was tense and raw and frayed at the edges, Bridge of Spies is clean and polished and perfectly staged. With a newly emboldened Russia, this Cold War story should have much to say but it lacks the force and urgency to feel part of a contemporary conversation. Spielberg excels at period pieces, but this one felt dusty.
Matt Damon expertly holds down his screen time; the landscape of Mars is wonderfully rendered. All is perfectly paced. But do we ever doubt he’ll be rescued? Does the film horrify us or leave us with an existential nagging or transcend its genre the way Gravity did? Nope. The Martian is a good film and totally unsurprising.
AND THE AWARD GOES TO:
The narrative isn’t as strong as Ratatouille, and it doesn’t quite approach the poetry of Wall-E. But Inside Out is outrageously original, insightful, silly and sad – as poignant a portrait of growing up as has ever been seen on screen (on par with Boyhood). None of the aforementioned nominees hit the same sweet spot of delightful yet substantive emotional adventure, and none will endure as a classic as this film surely will. The animation is merely a format; Inside Out is the year’s best picture.