Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: If you take the time to watch all eight of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, you’re going to see eight stories about straight white folks. This year’s list of nominees does offer at least a small improvement over last year in terms of gender representation, with two (or three, if you count Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road) films featuring female protagonists as opposed to last year’s entirely male-centric selections. As is so often the case, though, the films receiving the most buzz this year portray only a minute slice of the human experience. (Lest we point the finger too cynically at the Academy, unfortunately we don’t find much more diversity on the list of top-grossing films from 2015.)
Nevertheless, the reality that the Academy’s selection of films is so homogenous is no criticism against the films themselves, and this year’s Best Pic nominees lend themselves exceedingly well to the kinds of conversations we try to host here at Off the Page. From the post-apocalyptic war machine Mad Max: Fury Road to the mythic archetypes locked in conflict in The Revenant to Spotlight’s candid procedural approach to investigating clergy sex abuse, this year’s Best Pic nominees grasp at crucial, universal questions about what it means to be human.
The Big Short
“We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball…For fifteen thousand years, fraud and shortsighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.” So condemns Steve Carrell’s Mark Baum in this electric, sometimes brash story of the real-life financers who predicted and capitalized on the financial crisis of the mid-2000s. Though Wall Street bankers are clearly the Big Baddies of the story, the film’s loosely-related multiple storylines at least gesture at the ways in which we’re all at fault when we willingly participate in a fundamentally broken system. (One could imagine a similar story being told about the other forms of fraud Baum condemns, like food—see 2008’s infamous Food, Inc.—or religion—see Spotlight, below.) It’s almost hard to believe the events of the film occurred ten years ago—with the hairstyles and suits on display, it plays almost like a period piece—but the most distressing criticism the film offers is how little we all seem to have learned from what went so wrong.
Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies is a great example of what you hope will happen when a team of excellent artists collaborates: You produce an excellent film. Nearly everyone involved here earns the “always-reliable” descriptor: Spielberg in the director’s chair, the Coen brothers contributing to the screenplay, and Hanks front-and-center for most of the film’s runtime. Helping to fill this year’s Oscars historical drama quota with a story set during the Cold War, Bridge of Spies follows the efforts of lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) to give a captured Soviet spy a fair defense in court, and then to negotiate for the release of a U.S. pilot downed in the Soviet Union. The film’s most interesting dialogue occurs between Donovan and the spy he’s defending, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, earning his Supporting Actor nom by inflecting Abel’s impassive persona with subtle empathy and dry humor), as nationalistic identities come to mean less to each patriot than questions of virtue and loyalty. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” writes Paul to the Philippians, and at a time when topics of political debate include immigration and refugees and foreign policy, discussions of Christian identity and national allegiance start to feel much less hypothetical: To which kingdom do we belong?
Full disclosure: I went into my screening of Brooklyn fully expecting to project much of my own journey onto the dilemma faced by the film’s protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, cementing herself as one of Hollywood’s most promising young performers). To refer to the film’s “love triangle” would be to diminish the unbearable decision Eilis faces (and which is largely spoiled by the film’s marketing, though read ahead at your own risk): Whether she belongs in Brooklyn, the thrilling adventure of a city to which she immigrates in pursuit of work, or back at home in Enniscorthy, Ireland, the small town that raised her and where her sister and widowed mother still reside. In addition to the enchanting love interests she fancies in each city (played by Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson, who has earned the extraordinary year of work he had in 2015), Eilis feels torn between countless other competing forces: Challenge and comfort, autonomy and familiarity, risk and rootedness, progress and stability, and (the film’s real heart) doesn’t-feel-like-home-yet and doesn’t-feel-like-home-anymore. Though the film is decidedly old-fashioned in its storytelling, using tried-and-true methods, my guess is that any viewer wrestling to reconcile the places they came from with the places they’re going will identify with the ways Ellis’s heart is torn.
Mad Max: Fury Road
There was a moment near the end of this film, when all hell had broken loose in an extended, action-heavy “How-did-they-film-that?!” climax, that I experienced something that only rarely happens to me in the theater now that I’m an adult: I was transported to another world, one that felt entirely realized and, in its own hyper-steampunk-post-apocalyptic aesthetic, believable. Like The Revenant, this movie is situated in a thoroughly detailed time and place but feels timeless and mythic. Emily Van Houten wrote a thoughtful essay defending the film’s redemptive elements, particularly in terms of its gender dynamics: “We don’t fight to colonize, to gain new land. We work to take back the world that was created to be beautiful, luscious, and plentiful. We restore the people, the land, the institutions.” In Mad Max, that redemption takes many forms (more specifically, many faces: See Max Rockatansky, Imperator Furiosa, Nux). Mad Max is endlessly subversive: Buckle in for a diesel-fueled demolition derby, and you may not realize until the credits roll that you’ve absorbed a reflection on the value of human life, the reconciliation of woman and man, and the hope and promise of regeneration.
Undoubtedly the most crowd-pleasing film on the list, you’d be hard-pressed to find any film in which Matt Damon is funnier, the rust-colored landscapes of Mars are more awe-inspiring, or chemistry and physics problems are more gripping. (On the last count, the film recalls other hard-science-heavy space thrillers like Gravity or Apollo 13.) You’d also be hard-pressed to find a film with a more optimistic view of humanity, both in terms of our individual capacity for endurance and problem-solving and our collective capacity for cooperation and courage. (To be fair, the film acknowledges that bureaucrats gonna bureaucrat, but it had to find its human drama somewhere.) Like the recent self-published-novel-becomes-bestseller sensation on which it’s based, the near-future sci-fi film frustratingly avoids some of the most interesting philosophical quandaries it could have approached—In particular, in a world of limited resources, is one human life worth the incalculable risk and cost spent on the efforts to rescue Mark Watney (Damon), the astronaut who finds himself accidentally stranded on the Red Planet?—and any sense of supernatural hope is rendered irrelevant in the fact of human ingenuity. In any case, it’s tough to fault a film that’s so jubilantly, straightforwardly sanguine. You needn’t look far for films that will show us at our worst, so I don’t mind the occasional reminder of what we might accomplish at our best.
I promise it isn’t just the beards: There’s a sort of Genesis prehistoric feel to the powerfully realized personalities and conflicts on screen in The Revenant, primarily in terms of the desperate efforts of fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) to survive and avenge the murder of his beloved son in the early 1800s. That “survive” piece is a major part of the story, as a grizzly brutally mauls Glass (in a harrowingly graphic, extended sequence), and the trapper who kills Glass’s son leaves the moribund Glass half-buried in a shallow grave. The breathtaking way cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frames Glass’s trek through the wilderness looks unlike any other nature film I’ve ever seen (which is unsurprising, considering his resume includes the unforgettable images of films like Children of Men, The Tree of Life, and Gravity). What endures most in my memory, though, is Glass’s emotional journey, including small glimpses into his backstory. What instinct is it, exactly, that compels this man to endure so much trauma and tragedy, to climb out of his grave and keep climbing for so many miles? What will happen if he manages to find the man whose fate is tied to his, the man who contributed so much to his torment? Like Room below, The Revenant invites us to examine the complicated relationships we maintain with our wounds, which may propel us as much as they hinder us.
“You’re gonna love it,” Joy Newsome promises her five-year-old son Jack. “What?” he asks, trembling at his role in the risky scheme she has concocted. “The world,” Joy responds. What might sound like a sentimental Oh-the-Places-You’ll-Go exchange in any other parent-child relationship has literal significance for the two main characters in Room: Joy was taken into captivity seven years earlier and comes to realize that her five-year-old son, who knows nothing outside of the small shed where they’re held (which she refers to as the proper noun “Room”), holds their best chance for escape. Room essentially consists of two acts: The first is a slow, ruminative meditation on the way humans (and particularly children) can create meaning and even beauty in the midst of desperate, hopeless circumstances. The second is a more melodramatic but still pensive study on how we react when we’re finally freed from the trials that have defined us. (For Joy, escaping from captivity means returning to a former life, while for Jack it means leaving the only place that feels familiar.) Featuring unforgettable performances from Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay, Room is a moving tale whose bleak realism (watch Joy pull a rotting tooth from her mouth, her armpits pragmatically unshaven) is only slightly outshone by the wide-eyed wonder with which Jacob takes in the blinding-bright world outside of Room.
I wrote at length about Spotlight when it came out last year, so I’ll merely direct you to that review of this exceptionally honest, nuanced examination of the Catholic Church’s clergy child sex abuse scandal from the early 2000s through the lens of a team of journalists who investigated the crisis: “What Spotlight accomplishes, then, is to show us how achieving justice is most often a hard slog, a journey of tedious work and small breakthroughs that, maybe, eventually result in substantial victory. This seems to be the case with the most significant wins in the struggles for justice and rights throughout history: that the moments that make headlines and represent cultural tipping points are often the result of largely invisible, thankless work carried out by dedicated servants motivated by a vision of what could be. In Spotlight, the reporters don’t get to make their most significant discoveries without enduring the monotony of their work (e.g., the internal politics, the minutiae), and the emotional impact of the film emerges from the payoff of their endurance.”