I’m currently embarking on a journey to see all of the 2016 Oscar nominees before the awards are broadcast in February. As I wrote last week, I’m going to try my best to be objective while watching these films and critically evaluate each on their own merits, however, i”m not so idealistic as to think that current events or comparisons to other films won’t inevitably come to mind, when that happens I’ll try to acknowledge that bias (unlike the actual Academy). This week I watched three Best Picture nominees: The Martian, Room and The Big Short. The Martian has just been released on DVD and I watched it from the comfort of my living room while I saw the other films in theaters. I don’t inherently think that not seeing a film in theaters for the first time is a negative, but there is no denying that it has an impact on the viewing experience. Unfortunately, it also has quite the impact on the pocketbook, which is a bigger consideration for me at this point. So let’s get into it shall we?
The Martian is based off a 2014 science fiction novel by Andy Weir. The story of how the book got published could deserve its own movie, after being rebuffed by publishers, Andy self-published the book at first putting it up for free chapter by chapter on his website and eventually selling it as an e-book, that became a best seller and caught the eye of publishers who had previously rejected the story. Leaning heavily on current science, The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is presumed dead by the rest of his crew after a storm hits the first manned mission to Mars. Watney is not dead, however, he is stranded, since the crew has left and must find a way to survive on Mars for four years, he calculates that as the amount of time it would take NASA to send another mission. The rest of the movie is really just how Watney tries to keep himself alive while others figure out how they can mount a rescue. It was very interesting to see the way in which Matt Damon tackles the character of Mark Watney. However, in my opinion, there wasn’t much delineation between Watney’s character and the persona of Matt Damon, besides an expert level of botany.
Additionally, while the supporting cast was full of heavy hitters (Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Bridges, etc. etc.) I feel as though they were underused. I spent most of my time being excited to see Sebastian Stan show up on the screen or Donald Glover, but for all that talent, they did not have too much to do. I think the film is worthy of a nomination for Best Picture nomination, however, I do not think Matt Damon’s performance is worthy of a Best Actor nomination. The production design is also Oscar worthy in my opinion, the designer. Arthur Max (production designer) and Celia Bobak (set designer) really did a convincing job of showing not just the vastness of space and the surface of Mars but also government buildings, offices of the overworked geniuses of NASA and media briefing rooms. Not often did I find myself distracted by the set or production, except for the space shuttle which seemed a bit too slick and nice for a NASA shuttle and not the streamlined and economical design you would expect from a large, cash-strapped organization like NASA.As always with any space movie, technical awards abound, pitting The Martian against favorite Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, (Writing) Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
The Big Short
Adapted from the 2007 non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short, follows a few key people in the early 2000s who predicted the trouble of the US financial market and decided to bet against what was thought to be the most stable sector of the economy: housing. Adam McKay is traditionally a comedy director and brings his trademark humor and wit even though the subject matter is very serious and recent. Americans are still very much feeling the effects of the housing crisis and the great recession, however, while viewing the movie you can’t help but laugh at the criminality and excesses of Wall Street and real estate agents who were getting rich on the backs of vulnerable and unsuspecting homeowners.
Christian Bale is nominated for his role as Dr. Michael Burry, the person who is credited for finding the vulnerabilities in the housing market and the creation of the credit default swap, that sought to bet against the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) bubble and thus ended up profiting from the financial crisis of 2007–10. (Wikipedia). Dr. Burry is an ex-neurologist who suffered from Aspergers and had a false eye, he is portrayed as a very peculiar but brilliant man who is so sure in his calculations that the CDO market was in a bubble and built on faulty loans that he invests millions in these credit default swaps, despite the anger of his investors as everyone believes the housing market is secure. The film also focuses on the people who heard of the actions of Dr. Burry and decide to follow his lead; specifically trader Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling) who also serves as the film’s narrator, hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), young upstart hedge fund managers Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and their mentor and veteran trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Besides Christian Bale’s character Dr. Burry the rest of the cast is made up of fictional characters though they are directly based on real people profiled in the Michael Lewis book. The film injects humor and explains complex financial products, such as the credit default swap or collateralized debt obligations, by having Ryan Gosling’s character–and other celebrity cameos–break the fourth wall.
Though I found the editing of the film to be distracting but the choices made by Adam McKay and the crew for a more stylized film felt deliberate and thoughtful. It’s still early in my journey but this does seem to be a pointed nomination for Adam McKay’s full body of work instead of this specific film. I don’t think the storyline and performances rise to the level of a Best Picture nomination but that is not to discount the quality of the film. I enjoyed it and was engrossed in the film throughout but the film seemed to be very aware of itself and the performances (especially Bale) seemed to tick off all the boxes of “Oscar” bait, without having the feeling or substance behind it that leads for truly transformative acting.
Best Picture, Best Director, Actor in a Supporting Role, (Writing) Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing
Room may be the smallest film nominated for Best Picture this year. Acquired after its premiere at the Telluride film festival, Room opened to a limited release. It’s also one of the sparsest films I’ve seen in a long time, centering around a young mother and her son who live in a small room, it is soon revealed that they’re being held there against their will. The young boy, Jack, was born in the room never knowing the outside world. When Jack turns 5 his mother Joy Newsome explains that she was kidnapped by “Old Nick” when she was 17 and has been in “Room” for seven years. Joy tries to give Jack normalcy and a happy childhood despite their bleak circumstance and eventually decides that Jack is old enough to help them escape. She comes up with a plan to fake Jack’s death and have Old Nick transport Jack’s body to be buried. Once he escapes and leads police to Joy and freedom, the audience is shown how the aftermath of such trauma affects both mother and son.
Room is an extremely intense and emotional movie, however, despite the subject matter, not all of the emotions you feel are heartbreak. I was in awe of the acknowledgment of how resourceful and hopeful people can be in the face of such never ending terror and how resilient children are. In one scene a doctor explains to Joy that Jack is still “plastic” and though Jack objects to this description of himself it is true, he adapts quickly to his new circumstances and realities, in some ways, he adapts faster than his mother. I have seen Brie Lawson in a few other performances, notably Trainwreck, as well as appearances on late night TV and she gives a fantastic performance. Easily slipping between hopeful, despair, mature parent and scared child while being convincing in all of these emotions. However, the real star of this film is Jacob Tremblay as the young boy Jack. I’ve vowed not to focus too much on the snubs of the Oscars though they are innumerable, however, the snub of Jacob for Best Actor may be one of the biggest failures in an Oscar season full of failures. Jack is the real lead of the movie, we go through the action through his eyes and he is in every scene. This performance is so truthful and though he’s older than the character he plays, he is still only 9 years old.
Room has the feel of a typical Oscar nominee; a drama with powerful performances and emotional subject matter. While half of the film takes place in a cramped shed or “Room” as Jack calls his world, I think a case could be made for a production design nomination as well. The cinematography, editing, and visuals were understated, almost the opposite of The Big Short but I think there is a case to be made that those choices were deliberate and helped to enhance the tone of the film.
Best Picture, Best Director, Actress in a Leading Role, (Writing) Adapted Screenplay
Though my Oscar journey is far from over, Room, is one of the best films I have seen so far and is a perfect example of why the Academy Awards are incredibly important. This is not to excuse the Academy for their short-sighted and exclusionary nominations, but it’s ability to bring awareness to a film of Room’s caliber only furthers the reasons of why this award show matters. Small films such as Room or Tangerine rely on these nominations to introduce films with difficult subject matter to larger audiences. The recognition of the Academy also helps to ensure that smaller projects are able to cast the right talent and crew, since what they cannot make in revenue they make in acclaim.
Next week the journey continues – I’m not feeling too confident that I will see all of the secondary nominees but I feel very confident that I will see all Best Picture nominees before the ceremony.