Oscar Preview Week – Best Picture Reviews

It’s that time of year again – Oscar Preview Week!  I realize it’s already Thursday, but to make up for it I’m putting three posts in one today.

I’ve already reviewed five of the Best Picture Nominees, but I’ve seen all eight.  Here are the links to my previous reviews:

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

All set?  Good.  Here are the other three in alphabetical order:

The Big Short

Directed by Adam McKay, US, 2015

Up in the Air (2009) may be a more visceral “this is how it feels right now” reaction to the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown, but The Big Short is far more cerebral.  It is less of a narrative film and more of a docudrama.  It is complete with humorous asides to help the audience grasp some of the meatier financial concepts required to understand what is in essence a disaster movie.

The crisis is established as an unstoppable force, foreseen by only a handful of investors.  Its worst excesses are made clear to the viewer, from the smug mortgage bros (one of which is New Girl’s Max Greenfield at his most bro-ish), to regulators asleep at the switch, to greedy bankers laughing behind a wall of money and lies.  And like the forces of nature in films like the Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974), the perpetrators of the disaster are left unpunished.

Who does Director Adam McKay get to help him tell this story?  A parade of Hollywood’s finest actors giving fantastic performances.  Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei lead a fine cast.  McKay remains the real creative star here, however, using the same tools that he used to make comedy classics like Anchorman (2004) to tell one of the most important stories of our time.

You might like The Big Short if: You have an interest in what the hell happened in 2008.

You might not like The Big Short if: You are one of the perpetrators of what the hell happened in 2008.

The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott, US, 2015

Two of this year’s Best Picture nominees are man versus nature tales.  With all due respect to getting partially eaten by a bear, The Martian is the more impressive victory over the elements.  Say what you want about a frozen forest in North America, the Earth is teeming with life, water, and air.  Mars is hostile to all three.

Mars is named after the Roman god of war.  The ancients named her that due to her red hue, but for astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon at his most Matt Damon-y), it is a fitting name for more personal reasons.  Left for dead by his crew members, every day is a fight for survival against a world that has no use for organisms of any kind, much less human beings.

Fortunately for Watney, he is blessed with some resources, the gift of a brilliant mind, and a great sense of humor.  While he could despair, he instead takes the opposite attitude and finds the whole situation a bit of a joke.  Those who are trying to rescue him, from mission control to his shipmates (led by Jessica Chastain’s Captain Lewis), are less amused, but no less competent.

Overall, The Martian is probably the most uplifting of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture (Brooklyn is a close second).  It’s a triumph of scientific competence and good humor.

You might like The Martian if: You want to see a movie that will restore your faith in science and humanity.

You might not like The Martian if: You saw Gravity (2013) and you never want to see another “marooned in space” movie ever again.

Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Canada/Ireland, 2015

Room presents to us a situation of monstrous horror, humanity at its very worst.  A young girl is kidnapped, raped, and locked in a shed for seven years.  Her tormentor leaves her with a child to care for, and neither is allowed to leave the shed.  The horror and evil isn’t the focal point of our story, however, instead it is the perspective of the little boy, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).

Jack isn’t traumatized by “Room.”  He was born there, and that’s all he’s ever known.  His mother, Joy (Brie Larson) creates a fiction for him that allows him to process his situation in a manner that keeps him not only sane, but happy.  His mother is tormented night and day, but she makes sure that her son is not.

The trailers and promotional materials make it clear that they get away from their tormentor, so I’m not spoiling anything by saying that, I hope.  Indeed, they are only in “Room” for the first twenty minutes or so of the movie.  Once they escape, we continue the story through Jack’s perspective.  We see a well-adjusted, happy child, but we also see that seven years of captivity and torture have driven his mother into insanity.

Brie Larson deserves the awards she’s been getting for her role here.  The perspective of the film is from her happy and creative child, and she does her best to keep him well-adjusted by hiding her growing anxiety, anger, and depression.  We only see glimpses of it through most of the film, so Larson has to be subtle.  It’s a difficult task, but one that’s well executed.

If Room were told from Joy’s perspective, it would be a horror movie.  From Jack’s perspective it’s a coming of age film, albeit a traumatic and difficult one for the audience to process.  As strong as Larson and Tremblay’s performances are, this is the most interesting aspect of the film.

You might like Room if: You are interested in how shifting perspectives can change the nature of a story.

You might not like Room if: You are expecting a more conventional horror movie.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe