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In the lead-up to the Oscars, I watched or re-watched a bunch of lesser films that will go down in history as the ones that weren’t Mad Max: Fury Road. Here are my thoughts on those nominated for Best Picture. Spoilers everywhere.

1. The Big Short

This is the one where nice-guys-but-ultimately-scumbags foresee the 2007 housing crash and seek to profit from the system’s financial collapse. It’s a well-executed version of the classic Argo-style Oscar formula: strong ensemble cast, current or relevant subject matter, pacy editing, serious tone but with a bunch of funnies to balance it out. I liked that there are no heroes here. The characters are mostly sympathetic and we’re probably meant to root for them, but when they manage to short the market (spoiler) we’re reminded these guys aren’t the goodies. They’re not helping anyone, they’re just trying to make a quick buck.

What I didn’t like is how self-satisfied the film is about its little asides, in which celebs (playing themselves) explain the ins and outs of the financial crisis. Cute trick, The Big Short, but you’ve got this smug look on your face like you think you just blew everyone’s mind. Pipe down.

Anyway, The Big Short is a fun film and the Academy loves a good dramedy, so it could win this. Score: Decent / 10.

2. Bridge of Spies

Spielberg’s Cold War spy drama about an insurance lawyer who negotiates a prisoner exchange  between the US and the Commies is… just pretty good. It delivers exactly what you expect: Tom Hanks is earnest and likeable, the Coens Brothers deliver a Coens-lite script, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński continues to think he needs to light every scene like it’s Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour and, at the end, you’ll be left thinking yay America. It’s a decent semi-procedural with quirky touches and (for anyone unfamiliar with The Americans) some interesting insights on Soviet paranoid shoulder-chippery.

Bridge of Spies is a good movie. It doesn’t stand a chance of winning though. Spielberg Movie Feels Like Spielberg Movie / 10.

3. Brooklyn

The best thing I can say about this one is that if it takes the prize, it’ll be a travesty that I can stomach. I genuinely enjoyed this 1950s immigrant’s tale about some Irish girl who moves to America and learns stuff along the way. I’m selling it short, but this is the kind of movie that’s usually described with terms such as a powerful meditation on whatever. In this case the meaning of home, the pain of leaving it all behind and the hope of creating a new life. It features a spectacular performance by actress and woman Saoirse Ronan (it’s already been 9 years since Atonement?), a criminally underrated soundtrack and a tear-jerky vibe that feels organic rather than manipulative.

Brooklyn is very pretty. Stories About Girls Aren’t Always Boring /10.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

So here it is. The Greatest film of the year. I get it – some of you aren’t movie geeks or you might prefer more mellow genres. But this award shouldn’t really be about tastes, it should be about rewarding films that achieve the pinnacle of possibility. And Fury Road is the only movie this year that managed to totally demolish the boundaries of what’s possible within its genre, while also setting a new bar so high, it’ll take someone like Gareth Evans top it. Or George Miller himself – our Greatest living action director.

Fury Road is set in a spectacularly imaginative world, exploding (literally) with cool details in every frame. It features some of the most dizzying action you’ll ever see, with every set piece upping the ante in terms of stakes, excitement and sheer holy-shitness. It’s a rush of pure adrenaline, and it delivers the most insane and operatic stunt choreography ever put to film. This is action ballet.

The Greatest thing about George Miller is that even in the midst of all the mayhem, you always have a clear sense of geography, i.e. where individual pieces are positioned and how they affect each other. Too many action directors (like Paul Greengrass, in the Bourne films) apply that disorienting, shaky camera technique and quick editing in a misguided attempt to put you in the action. But that usually just makes it hard to even see who’s punching who.

And Fury Road isn’t all empty calories either – its feminist undercurrent and exploration of the themes of loyalty and cult-worship are handled deftly and help add weight to the action rather than detracting from it. Ultimately, it’s a testament to how brain-meltingly awesome this film is that it even got a Best Picture nod, given it’s a 2 hour car chase. Faced with such amazing badassery, even those old farts at the Academy had no choice but to accept it.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a goddamn masterpiece. Fury Road / 10.

5. The Martian

Hey guys, did you hear about this movie The Martian? It’s about this guy who gets stranded on some fictional alien planet and has whacky adventures growing a beard and beans and other stuff. Contrary to all expectations, he sciences the shit out of his situation and makes it back home to Earth nice and safe (spoiler).

Despite the false advertising in the title, I liked it. It was ok.

The Martian happened. Should Have Had An Actual Martian In It /10

6. The Revenant

This was the lesser of this year’s two movies about a man who gets left for dead in the middle of nowhere and has to struggle to survive and make it home to get revenge, or just oxygen. But you know what, it’s still a pretty good movie. It’s got gorgeous Oscar-worthy cinematography and it looks just like a western. I liked that. And Di Caprio should walk away with a personal Oscar for his performance.

But looking at it from a Best Picture perspective, I can’t help but think that this director, Iñárritu, is having a laugh. This film is technically brilliant, but at the end of it all I was left thinking: ok, revenge etc… but so what? Because throughout the film it feels like the director keeps looking over at me like he’s expecting me to fall out of my chair, struck by all this shocking significance.

But the thing is, I just don’t feel this movie is very deep at all. I don’t need everything to be Apocalypse Now, but it feels like he thinks he produced some work of transcendent beauty and somehow I’m the loser for not seeing that. Nah The Revenant– you’re just a solid revenge story with good acting and nice lighting. Accept it. Nothing wrong with being a Donut.

Do watch The Revenant, just don’t expect a masterpiece. Featuring The Angriest Bear Since Ted / 10.

7. Room

Man, I really wanted to love this. The hype was so good, the cast was stellar and the concept simple yet intriguing. It starts off amazingly too, as we learn about the day-to-day of a mother who’s spent the past seven years as a prisoner, locked in a windowless room by a maniac. The story is told from the point of view of her five year old son (an outstanding Jacob Tremblay), born in captivity and who doesn’t comprehend the notion of a world outside the four walls of this minuscule space. It’s powerful stuff and expertly crafted up until a certain point.

Then the movie took a tonal swerve around the halfway point and I was left struggling to understand where the narrative is trying to take me. By the end of it, it became clearer that this is the story of how these two adjust to their new freedom (spoiler), but that turn just felt poorly handled and made for a jarring experience. Still, phenomenal kid actor.

Room is half an indie classic, half an over-ambitious mess. Two Half Films Don’t Make One Film / 10.

8. Spotlight

The one where the journalists uncover the scandal involving the Catholic Church around Boston. If you somehow haven’t heard about it, the short version is this: apparently when the Church finds out about a priest who’s been caught fiddling kids, it usually transfers him to a different parish, instead of firing him, or exorcising him, or whatever it is you do to a priest. This movie’s about the reporters who uncover the whole thing and uh…report about it I guess.

I liked this one but it has its problems. It’s a procedural, which I always enjoy. And the writing is pretty good – its script has a good chance of walking away with the Oscar. But despite how interesting the case and how good the ensemble cast are, I walked away thinking that the stakes were pretty low in all this. At the end of the day, had our intrepid reporters failed to report the scandal, all that would have happened was another paper would have broken the story. Hold on to your hats everyone.

Spotlight is good. But not that good. Nice Try / 10.

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