Thoughts about the Oscars

BEST PICTURE: Me and my wife are both film school grads, and this is the first year we were able to actually see all the Best Picture nominees before the awards. (We live in an out-of-the-way part of Florida, so not all the movies get shown around here. And we’re not members of the Academy, so we don’t get those famous screeners in the mail.)

I was a little surprised that “Spotlight” won. Not that it didn’t deserve the award — it was hands-down the best movie I’ve ever seen about what journalism is like in the real world. (Most TV and movie depictions of journalism are laughably bad.) But I didn’t think it the strongest of the films nominated.

For me, “The Martian” was the movie of the year. Although it wasn’t the best in any one area, it was the best all around. It was a true rarity: A big-budget science fiction spectacular where all of the elements came together perfectly, like a finely-crafted Swiss watch. That’s extraordinarily hard to pull off. I was disappointed it didn’t get more recognition.

While not quite as good as “The Martian,” I thought “The Revenant” was also a plausible choice for Best Picture.

BEST DIRECTOR: Yeah, Alejandro Iñárritu deserved this one, unlike his win last year for “Birdman.” Making “The Revenant” was, by all accounts, a punishing experience. The entire thing was done on location, in the middle of the boonies, using natural light. If you’ve never worked on a film shoot, it’s hard to appreciate just how monumental of a task this must have been.

BEST ACTOR: Yup, DiCaprio earned this one, for the same reason that  Iñárritu earned best director. I felt cold and exhausted just watching the guy. He makes you feel everything he’s feeling.

I read an account by one anonymous studio executive who kind of bad-mouthed Leo’s performance, noting that despite the extremely harsh conditions he had to endure, he was getting paid millions of dollars. Well, yeah, but think of all the movie stars who get paid millions of dollars to work in conditions of sybaritic comfort and still manage to turn in crappy performances. Trust me, Leo did an outstanding job, for which he richly deserved that little statue.

BEST ACTRESS: I guess I can’t fault Brie Larson for “Room,” because she did do a great job. But I really couldn’t understand the fuss over this movie. To me, it felt like watching a student film with a $10 million budget. I saw a lot of projects like this in film school: Films where everybody obviously worked very hard and did a wonderful job, but the final product was somehow less than the sum of its parts. It’s the kind of thing you’d use to scoop up awards at small film festivals and put on your demo reel, something you’d use as a stepping stone to greater things, but it wasn’t really Oscar-caliber.

But hey, like I said, Larson had a difficult role and did a great job, so more power to her. If it had been my choice, though, I would have picked Saoirse Ronan for “Brooklyn.” It was a deceptively hard role in a sweet little romance — the kind of movie Hollywood used to churn out by the truckload back in the 1950s, but rarely bothers with today.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: I was surprised Mark Rylance won for “Bridge of Spies.” He was good, but I though he was the weakest of all the ones nominated. I suspect this was just the Academy showing love to Spielberg. “Bridge of Spies” wasn’t bad, though I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the fact that the Soviet Union was actually a monstrous evil empire, and that America was, in fact, the good guy here. Instead, we got Hollywood’s classic “the commies — why, they’re people just like us!” treatment.

Yes, they were “people just like us.” So were the Nazis, for the most part. But I doubt Spielberg would make a film that would gloss over their crimes quite as lightly.

I didn’t see “The Danish Girl,” so I have no opinion on whether Alicia Vikander deserved her Oscar. It would have been nice to see Rachel McAdams win, though, just to see the Oscar go to someone who got their first big break by appearing in a Rob Schneider film.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Once again, “The Revenant” was an easy choice. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work is stunning, and the fact that he pulled it off under such extreme conditions is a testament to his commitment and professionalism.

WRITING (both adapted and original): I guess “The Big Short” probably deserved its win, only because I read the original book and I know it can’t have been easy to turn it into a compelling screenplay. The writers did a good job of distilling a lot of complicated concepts into something audiences could follow.

“Spotlight” probably deserved its Oscar in this category, though I would have gone with “Ex Machina,” since I’m a science-fiction geek.

ALL THE OTHER CATEGORIES: “Mad Max: Fury Road” won five Oscars, all in technical categories — and it richly deserved all of them. Seriously, in all of the categories where it won, there was no other serious contender. I was actually surprised it snagged a nomination for Best Picture. Not that it’s a bad film — it’s a great film, but it’s a very weird choice for the Oscars, because it’s basically a violent, R-Rated kid’s movie. I told my wife I would have thought “Fury Road” was the greatest movie ever made if I were a 10-year-old boy who hadn’t yet discovered girls. It’s all loud, fast cars and shooting and big explosions, and all the costumes and designs look like they were taken straight out of the doodlings in a middle school boy’s notebook. Director George Miller played an epic prank on the media by claiming this was some kind of “feminist” movie — “Fury Road” is brimming with enough testosterone to fuel a dozen regular action movies.

I don’t even bother paying attention to the documentary categories, since these awards are jokes and always have been. It’s so bad that the Academy actually tried several years ago to reform the voting process for documentaries because of all the protests from film lovers, but the whole thing has actually gotten worse with the rise of these awful  “docuganda” films. Essentially, what happens in these categories is that everybody just votes for somebody they know — the winners are nearly always people who have ties to industry insiders.

Sadly, the animation categories face a similar problem, though it’s not quite as egregious. Usually there are one or two nominees that are big budget blockbusters, and the rest are obscure foreign films. Everybody just votes for the blockbusters.

The visual effects category is kind of interesting. Now that CGI allows filmmakers to easily create essentially anything they want, given a large enough budget, the Academy tends to go for less-flashy films with effects that are clever, and do more with less. “Ex Machina” was the natural choice here.

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