Over the last several years, particularly after having started our podcast, I've become more and more interested in film. Not just movies, summer blockbusters and tentpole franchises, but the art of film and filmmaking. Im not sure when or how it started but I began to appreciate great performances, amazing cinematography and the expert craftsmanship of great directors more than I ever had in the past. Thats not to say I lost my eye for spectacle. The Avengers and Star Wars of the world still excite me, and I don't think that will ever change, but my palate had grown. Sure I still love to drink a cold Corona on a hot day, but now I can also appreciate the complexities of a glass of full bodied red wine as well. Which is not to say I've developed an expert eye for these things, and if I can continue the alcohol metaphor, I'm by no means a film sommelier. Only that at one time I would have been bored to tears by many of the movies that are nominated every year for Best Picture, and now I can sit down and appreciate the more subtle aspects of filmmaking and understand why they deserve that nomination.
I also used to argue that the The Academy should be more representative of what the public was actually seeing at the theatre. And yes, they obviously aren't the most progressive, as we've seen with their inability to acknowledge the many different people making movies. That being said, I no longer fully believe that they need accommodate the "popular" movies. Without the Oscars, films like The King's Speech, Grand Budapest Hotel and No Country for Old Men would have passed me unnoticed. Which is all just a long-winded way for me to say that I owe a lot to the Oscars for helping me mature as a consumer of film. It's more than just being exposed to great movies it's also about the great conversations that take place between friends or on podcasts like ours that are generated out of the selections, snubs, winners or losers that helped me refine my tastes.
Which is why I'm so excited about this year's Oscars. For the first time I was able to actually see every Best Picture nominated film before the show. I've made attempts in the past and always came up short. I gave it my best shot last year only to hit a wall when it came to seeing some of the movies like Boyhood and The Theory of Everything. Luckily this year is different. When The Academy released their nominations I was delighted to see that I had already seen almost half of the movies on the list. A rare crossover where the movies I had been excited to see in the theater had also turned out to be amazing films. Though I didn't agree with all the picks (ahem, Bridge of Spies) I was also pleasantly surprised to see Mad Max make the cut. In most years the Best Picture category would be full of movies I'd barely heard of, let alone seen in theatre. Ironically, and something that shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, it was the movies that I hadn't already seen that turned out to be some of best films on the list. Once again the Oscars exposed me to something new, even in a year where I thought I was ahead of the game.
Over the last few weeks, while I caught up on the movies I had yet to see out of the Best Picture noms, I posted short impressions of each film to our Facebook page immediately after watching them. I've collected them all below, updating some as well as adding impressions for each of the movies I'd seen before I started posting my thoughts to the Facebook page. The list is in reverse-chronological order from Brooklyn, the last movie I scratched off my list, to Mad Max: Fury Road, the first movie I actually liked in 2015.
You can look forward to more of our Oscar coverage soon. We will be recording our Tower of Babble Oscars Preview show for the podcast shortly. Which we'll make available when we get a bit closer to the big day.
I finished off the Best Picture noms with a film I knew very little about, Brooklyn. I enjoyed this movie in a lot of different ways but I think what I enjoyed most was how relatable it was for me. Before I go on let me preface my thoughts by saying I've never found any value in "objective reviewing"; people's experiences and values colour everything we do in life, so to pretend like those things don't exist when offering our opinion on something seems silly to me. Someone's perspective only adds to the value of the review in my opinion. That being said, Brooklyn is an immigrant story at its core and by no means do I pretend to have some sort of deep understanding of what our parents, grandparents and great grandparents had to go through when starting a new life in a new land. What I can relate with however is feeling out of place and the overwhelming homesickness one feels when first arriving somewhere new. A lot of the things Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) went through felt in many ways like my experience when I first moved to the Caribbean. I was moved by this movie in a way that I hadn't expected to be. To some degree I thought I'd be getting a by-the-numbers love story, and though it has some of those elements to be sure, it offers a lot more. Eilis was able to see her home from a new perspective after having been away and that was something that really jumped out at me. That new found perspective often leads to some major decisions in our lives, as it does in this film. Whether it's gaining a new respect for where you're from, or understanding that you belong somewhere else, only being away can help someone understand that. Though I haven't spoken much about the film itself, not much more needs to be said. It's a well directed, well acted period piece that rightfully earned its spot among some of the best films of the year. If nothing else it offers another look at the immigrant experience inside a warm package and is definitely worth your time.
I'm finding it difficult to pin down my thoughts on Room. The film has a really strong emotional core and it's easily one of the most emotionally affecting film out of the Best Picture nominations. In much the same way I felt after Mad Max, I can't seem to decide how much I really like or disliked the movie. Of course you would have to be a robot to not feel something for the characters in this movie but at the same time the story seems to drag somewhat, even though the runtime comes in at only about two hours. The characters and performances are absolutely amazing and Brie Larson does a great job. The child actor, Jacob Tremblay, however steals the show. The story, though initially interesting takes a turn towards melodrama at some moments that feel out of place in what is, at its core, a story about childhood. And as I write this I'm coming to the conclusion that the reason I'm having a hard time deciding how much I liked this film is because it's nothing more than that. I just "like" it. Unlike some of the other Best Picture noms this year I dont think I can say I loved this movie. It has great emotional beats but those strong moments might be what saved this movie from being anything less than just good for me.
Several hours later...
Having now slept on the movie I feel as though I came off a bit harsh. Its better than just "good". Its a film that takes you through some pretty tough situations and puts you in the mind of a 5 year old while doing it. It's possible that I was still a little flustered when writing my initial impressions last night. So with a little reflection I can absolutely understand and appreciate why it was nominated for Best Picture and wouldn't at all be upset if it took home the trophy. At this point I would say that if you plan on watching this film to try and go into the movie knowing as little as possible AND make sure you're in the right mood/state of mind for it because it's not an easy watch.
I was fortunate enough to catch The Revenant on the big screen last night, which left me time today to sit down and watch Spotlight, and though it might feature slightly less spectaclular than The Revenant, I feel it definitely earned its spot among some of the top films of 2015. Every actor delivers a believable and nuanced performance. The story, even knowing the outcome, was gripping and took some great turns. What I really appreciated was that even though the "villain" is pretty clear cut, its not all black and white. The film asks the question of why the media/everyone who knew, were so negligent in dealing with this massive story years/decades before the films timeframe of 2001? In a really powerful scene Liev Schreiber's character tackles that question head on in a way that really stood out to me; "Sometimes it's easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Then suddenly a light gets turned and there's a fair share of blame to go around". (That story element itself actually has a really interesting story behind it as well) Overall it does a really great job of juggling the sensitive subjects. It's not my favourite of the Best Picture noms but at the end of the day I spent two hours being entertained by great actors while being educated about the tragic events that happened/are happening within the Catholic Church. There's not much more you can ask for from a movie like this.
The Big Short
I'm writing this as the credits are rolling and even though I still feel somewhat confused, despite the films best efforts to educate me, I really enjoyed The Big Short. I really dug the cut away scenes designed to breakdown and explain complex concepts, even when they weren't always effective. Of course now I'm having a really hard time staying positive about the future, but that's probably the point. The movie itself however is a lot of fun. The performances all around are excellent. I really liked Steve Carell, it's nice seeing him play the intelligent one for a change. What I loved most about the movie though is how the "good guys" aren't really the good guys at all. Its not that simple. The people we root for in this film succeed when the whole economy collapses and regular people lose their homes (Thank you Brad Pitt for really driving that home). There really is no "hero" of this movie. What it does best is show how broken the system really is.
Interestingly enough The Big Shorts prospects to take home the golden trophy just went up. The movie won big at the PGA's (Producers Guild Awards) this year. What makes this so important is that the PGA's are typically a strong indicator for Oscar success. How strong of an indicator? Well for the last eight years, the winner of Best Picture at the PGA's has also gone on to also win Best Picture at the Oscars. So... really strong. Normally I try to steer clear of the Oscar race discussion, preferring to discuss the movies themselves. But allow me to wade into the deep end here for a moment. If I can be honest, I'm slightly confused by the PGA's decision. The Big Short is a great film in its own right but how can it compare when standing shoulder to shoulder with The Revenant and Room. There were films on the Best picture noms this year that captivated me and left in awe and I can't say The Big Short was one of them.
Every time someone asks me what I think of The Revenant the first thing I say is that's it's the most beautiful movie I've ever seen. Bar none. Hands down. Then I tell them that despite the three hour run time they should do whatever they can to see it on the biggest movie screen possible. This movie was nominated for seven academy awards this year. More than any other movie in 2015 and I completely understand why. It's an experience. It's not an easy one. The things this movie depicts can be... Uncomfortable, to say the least. This movie takes our characters on a harrowing journey through gorgeous landscapes and it does an amazing job of bringing the audience along for the ride. Like many of the movies in the Best Picture race this year it's one that rewards going in knowing the least amount about the story as possible. It also a movie that arguably has one of the most interesting behind the scenes stories that I've heard in years. For instance did you know that the film was shot with all natural lighting. They had to intricately track the position of the sun to maintain consistency from scene to scene. Thats without even mentioning the things the actors had to put themselves through to film some of the scenes. It makes your head spin. I can't speak highly enough about this movie. It's my pick to win Best Picture this year and if Leo doesn't finally take home Best Actor I might start to believe the Academy is playing some kind of sick joke on the poor man.
Bridge of Spies
On paper Bridge of Spies is everything I should want out of a movie. A Steven Spielberg directed espionage thriller starring Tom Hanks. Sold. Saving Private Ryan is one of my favourite movies of all time so to have these two juggernauts reunited had me eagerly anticipating their latest project. Unfortunately, for me it doesn't completely come together. I can see its virtues and why it got the nod for Best Picture but I was honestly bored for a lot of this movie. The story is interesting enough but the stakes are relatively low and it's hard to stay engaged. It's can be plotting at times and even for a fairly short film it felt long. The biggest crime this movie commits though is that this isn't even an amazing performance from Hanks. Much like everything else in this movie, it's competent. Nothing is actually bad but it's a movie that comes and goes and doesn't stay with you once you've left the theatre. That's not something you can say very often for Spielberg films. Expectations can make or break a movie and for me this was a huge let down.
The Martian is exactly the movie I needed when it came out. Something hopeful with a likeable character I could root for. It might be a movie set in space but it's not complicated. Its a story that's been told many times before, only it's been awhile since we've had a new version. The Martian appeared at the right time and it retold a familiar story in an interesting and uplifting way. It took Robinson Crusoe, took it to Mars, had one of the best science fiction directors take the helm and cast one of the best actors in Hollywood today for the lead role. Plus its based off a best-selling novel. What could go wrong? The answer. Very little. Of course this movie has flaws but they are completely outshined by its positives. The most important of which was Matt Damon's performance. He does an absolutely amazing job. We spend most of our time with him alone on an empty planet and he completely carries the movie. He's completely likeable and most importantly you actually care about him. You're as excited as he is when a plan works and just as devastated when something goes wrong. There are moments in this film that literally had me on the edge of my seat and it's all because I was invested in Matt Damon's character. Which is where I think some people might have had a hard time taking it seriously. Unless you're sold on Matt Damon in the first 15 minutes you might have difficulty staying with the rest of the movie. You need to completely buy into what Ridley Scott is selling or unfortunately you'll probably leave disappointed. (Like one of our co-hosts Daniel did. You can listen to him wholeheartedly disagree with me on this movie during our review) Of course there's other aspects worth your time. Visually its stunning. Ridley Scott does a great job of showing off the desolation of the red planet and helping you understand just how alone Damon is. The supporting cast is chalk full of great actors and, with a few exceptions, all do a great job of filling out the movie. Of course I also have to mention the science. Yes its still a science FICTION movie and some things are exaggerated, but a lot of the science displayed on screen is based on real world applications. It's a movie where real science plays a key role and makes scientists cool again. Particularly botany.
Mad Max: Fury Road
When I first saw Mad Max: Fury Road I didn't love it. I spent a couple days mulling it over and watching the rave reviews pour in. Literally every film critic I followed turned in reviews that weren't anything less that fantastic. Calling it a movie that will influence action filmmaking for years to come. To some degree I understood why everyone loved it but I still couldn't get myself to their level. I thought something was wrong with me. Was I in some kind of funk and not even know it? I was still questioning my thoughts on the movie when I started hearing about how it was actually made. The months spent in the dessert. The countless practical effects. The fact that this director, at his age, was able to even get a movie like this made was in and of itself some kind a miracle. The more I learned about the movie the more respect I gained for it. I still don't love it as a film. I like a little more substance, a bit more character development and maybe a bit more from a story than "lets go from A to B then back to A". But with all that said, I still really like it. It's nothing but unadulterated fun and has some of the best action scenes I've ever seen on screen. The thing I appreciate most about the movie is that even though you have so much going on, all the action is easy to follow. He doesn't use quick cuts and shaky cam to make things more kinetic. He trusts his stunts and effects and is confident in how they will come across on screen. Many of the action sequences position the characters in the centre of the screen so that even when there are multiple cuts your eyes don't have to move much to keep up with the action. It's the story behind the scenes, in much the same way of The Revenant, that intrigue me most about this one.