Thoughts on… 2015 Best Picture Films

With the Oscars are right around the corner, here are our rankings of the eight films up for the best picture Oscar. For more in depth analysis on all of these films, you can read the full in depth reviews on this website for each one. Now on with the list…

Number 8

I’ve already said it: Bridge of Spies was probably the film that disappointed me the most this year, which is hard to do with Tom Hanks starring, Steven Spielberg directing, and the Coen Brothers writing. I mean, it was on my most anticipated films of 2015 list! How much more exciting does it get. Unfortunately for me, it failed to live up to the hype. There was some solid acting and the production quality was great, but other than that it just fell flat. The film’s two acts were very disjointed and felt like two TV episodes poorly weaved together. There were no stakes and no tension, which resulted in a very mundane climax. I guess it could have been worse.
Now, let me be clear: the eight best film in this category is not necessarily a bad movie. This cold war thriller starring Tom Hanks is a really well directed movie by the one and only Steve Spielberg with an incredible performance by Mark Rylance. But I did feel that the film is clumsily split into two parts, where I found the first to be much more captivating than the second. It also has a very schmaltzy ending that Spielberg is infamous for. With a disappointing script by the Coen Brothers, the film didn’t grab me as much as I wanted it to, and so is the lowest on the list.
 

Number 7

Brooklyn

This was the nominated film this year that I really expected not to like, but ultimately did. Saoirse Ronan is great, and Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are both rock solid in support of her. That being said, it’s a cutesie romantic drama and nothing more, paling in comparison to the heavy hitters (Spotlight, Revenant). The film had the same fatal flaw as Bridge of Spies did; a lack of an interesting, high pressure climax. An entire hour and a half worth of build up led to absolutely nothing, and poor writing led to a very anticlimactic ending. Other than that, it is a cute film that will be remembered as Ronan’s coming out party.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn has been highly regarded for its central lead performance by Saoirse Ronan as an Irish Immigrant coming to New York in the 1950s as well as its script by Nick Hornby. And both are deserving of this praise, giving this character a subtle yet powerful arc that you do not realize how strong she has become until the end. With that being said, the direction is very standard and a bit cliched at points (despite selling the 1950s look thoroughly) as well as its central female characters over dependence on men. But despite these flaws, including a performance by Emory Cohen that set me off at points, Brooklyn is a sweet and charming period piece.

 

Number 6

I was not nearly as high on this film as many others, including my counterpart Seth. I thought Larson and Tremblay were both fantastic, providing two of the year’s finest performances and probably giving Larson the Best Actress award. The reason I have it at 6th is because of my issues with the film’s second half. It began dragging as soon as they left the ‘Room’, as I felt that the urgency and tension dropped immediately. That being said, Room is a great look at what it takes to move on from tragedy and how people do it. It isn’t cute and flowery, but it’s emotional density and poignancy makes this one of the better films of the year.
The Revenant, the story of a man in 1800s west going on a revenge plot, has been gaining much momentum from others awards and is now the favorite to take home the best picture Oscar with its dramatic and much talked about central performance by Leonardo Dicaprio, who should finally be getting that Oscar, and its use of natural light. Seeing the film and hearing about the horrors of production, I must praise the work of director Alejandro G. Inarritu and cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski, both who took home Oscars for last years Birdman, for making it as engrossing as it is with long takes and wide shots. The film does have issues in its existential message with flashbacks and there simply being too much of its brutal nature , but is a truly ambitious project with fantastic acting, both by Dicaprio and Tom Hardy, and sensational cinematography
 

Number 5

The Martian is probably one of the more unexpected movies on this list. Basically a comedic, quippy version of Gravity with more than just Sandra Bullock floating through space, what I like about The Martian is that it does not take itself too seriously. Sure it’s unrealistic how chipper Damon’s character is, and I do think one of the major flaws is the one-sided nature of his character, but the lightheartedness of the movie is what gives it the distinction of being a breath of fresh air. Damon getting a Best Actor nomination for this may seem a little bit extreme for such a silly role, but I think he’s a huge part in making this movie such a commercial and critical success. I don’t think The Martian has much of a shot at Best Picture or any of the other major awards, but I think it’ll be one of the more memorable films in the long term.
Walking into The Big Short, I had very low expectations. I was prepared to get considerably bored watching a film that deals with the housing crisis in 2008 and the people that saw it coming, based off the book by Michael Lewis. So I was shocked when I felt myself engaged and enjoying a lot of The Big Short. And that is a credit to the script and the direction by Adam McKay, who has done comedies such as Anchorman and The Other Guys. McKay is able to make the whole situation digestible, with fun descriptions of economic theories with popular stars like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez. The film is also very funny in how screwed up the system was until you realize that people actually suffered from it, anchored by excellent performances by Christian Bale and Steve Carell amongst a great ensemble cast. McKay does make some choices that get on my nerves and point and get in the way of telling the story, but his bold direction and ability to make it investing is what makes The Big Short really work.
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Number 4

As I re-watched this film the other day, the only thing I was thinking was “How the hell was this movie nominated for Best Picture?”. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love that it was, but it just defies logic. Is it one of the ten best films this year? Absolutely. But does it fit the bill of a typical Best Picture film? Absolutely not. That being said, the production value is incredible, the costume & makeup design is stellar, the motifs regarding feminism and isolation are very well executed, and to wrap it all up into a giant car chase results in a movie like no other. Mad Max: Fury Road, while very confusing and at times mind boggling, is a ton of fun and easily one of the best films of the year.
I walked out of The Martian the first time a little bit disappointed because I had expected a tension filled, dour survival tale of Matt Damon stuck on Mars. But I actually loved it the second time, realizing that it was more of a lighthearted adventure with just enough moments of pressure to keep you on invested in the story, especially after I read the novel it was based off of. The film switches back between Damon in Mars figuring out how to survive and at NASA trying to figure out how to get him home, and each is surprisingly just as interesting. The film is incredibly smart with each piece fitting to another in its mission as well as its great look of Mars due to the excellent direction of Sci­Fi veteran Ridley Scott. It is an incredibly fun ride with fantastic visuals.
 

Number 3

The Big Short

This film kind of came out of nowhere for me, or so it seemed. I did not anticipate that The Big Short, a film that is kind of the middle ground between Inside Job and Wolf of Wall Street, would be as exciting and riveting as it was, mainly because of its subject matter. That being said, the stellar trio of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling give the film a really strong ensemble, each of whom deliver great performances as men discovering the financial crisis in separate situations. What makes the film so good, however, is not just the performances, but Adam McKay’s stellar direction. He recognizes the fact that the terminology of the financial world is almost impossible for an everyday audience to understand, and uses this to make the film interesting. He interrupts the flow of the story by breaking the fourth wall to actually explain these terms, even using celebrities to do so. The overarching message of the film is that the reason this crisis occurred in the first place is because of the ignorance of the general public no one understood what was going on. That message is mirrored in the film as the audience has no idea what is going on due to the complex nature of finance. It is easily one of the best films of the year, even if it is one of the more confusing.

Spotlight

Spotlight is one of the most subtle and restrained Oscar contender movies I have seen in years, and it is successful because of it. It tells the true story of a number of journalists at the Boston Globe uncovering multiple cases of sexual assault of minors by catholic priests. I say it’s restrained because it doesn’t hit you with a bunch of Oscar­bait, dramatic moments but solely relies on its story, giving every piece of the journalists encounters and not dumbing it down to the audience. This is the power of its screenplay by director Tim McCarthy and Josh Singer, which is a shoe in for the best original screenplay Oscar. It’s direction by McCarthy is also held back until a poignant montage at the end that is so earned that is incredibly effective. And finally, the cast of journalists is what keeps you so invested in the story. Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Liev Schreiber amongst others are all great, but it is Mark Ruffalo’s performance that I was most struck by, playing the savvy journalist that does everything to find all of the parts of this story, seeing the passion behind his eyes. So go check out Spotlight already; it is an important film that will most likely leave you affected afterward. It is also the only film besides The Revenant that I would say has a chance at the best picture Oscar.

 

Number 2

When it comes to these last two spots, they are kind of interchangeable. The Revenant is Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s second straight masterpiece, taking the real life story of frontiersman Hugh Glass and making it into one of the most intriguing, exciting stories of the entire year. Leonardo DiCaprio is incredible, and it looks like he’ll finally get that first Best Actor award. He ate freaking bison liver as part of the role. Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson are fantastic in supporting roles as well, Hardy getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his effort. The opening scene is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, setting the tone for a gritty, violent, and enthralling adventure through 1820s Midwest territory. Iñárritu is at the top of his game and could very easily pick up his second straight Best Director award, using his signature style to prolong the brutality of the film, seen specifically in scenes like the bear mauling. Leo will win Best Actor without contention and I would not be surprised if The Revenant won Best Picture, though I’m hesitant because of Alejandro G.’s outstanding success last year with Birdman.
I walked into Room with very little knowledge of the movie, and walked out of it absolutely floored. All that I will tell you is that it’s about a mother and her son and their involvement with this room. Early on, the film grabbed me with its tension in the first half, and then grabbed me emotionally in the second half. Making both settings of the film equally engaging is a credit to director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donahue, who also wrote the novel it’s based off of. And the chemistry that the mother and son have is what makes you so emotionally invested in the characters, due to the performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Larson, who is the favorite for the best actress Oscar, is truly great, trying to remain calm to her son while at the same time being bold enough to deal with both situations. But for Larsons greatness, 9 year old Tremblay is what really struck me. He appears to be delivering a real performance instead of just following the directors orders, like most child actors. His voiceovers really add to the film as well. Room is not always an easy watch, but is a truly moving performance for almost all viewers.
 

Number 1

Like I said Spotlight and The Revenant are basically interchangeable in the 1 and 2 spots, as I loved them both, but what put Spotlight in the number one spot was how it resonated with me and is undoubtedly the film made this year that will stick with me the longest. None of the actors– Ruffalo and McAdams were both nominated– will be winning any of the major acting awards and I don’t think McCarthy has much of a chance at Best Director either. But the script is so well written, building up tension with each scene as a group of reporters work to reveal the true nature of the Catholic church in Boston as they unveil covered up allegations of pedofilia to the public’s eye. Spotlight makes you question faith, religion, and most of all the institutions. Without trying to make this a regurgitation of my review, the journalistic aspect of this helped to continually build the stakes and keep the audience on edge. In the end, Spotlight is a film that forces you to reflect on everything you believe in, and that’s why it was my favorite Best Actor nominee of the year. We’ll see how it fares at the Oscars, but for now it’s one of the year’s top films and has a great shot at Best Picture.
~Vig
Mad Max: Fury Road was my favorite movie of 2015. I knew it when I walked out of the theatre in mid May and I knew it at the end of the year. Being the fourth film in a franchise that hasn’t been alive in thirty years, Fury Road appeared to be another cash grab for a dead franchise. But it ended up to be the most exhilarating film of the year in my opinion, all dealing in the simplicity of its plot. It is about a truck that has Tom Hardy’s Max, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, and a bunch of stolen wives that try to escape the rule of tyrannical Immortan Joe. That’s it. But in its simplicity, it has complexity in amazing car action sequences. Director George Miller did an incredible job in his ingenuity of these set pieces, which include spot on editing and a great mix of cgi AND practical effects, a rarity in today’s film. But it isn’t just soulless action, the film has incredible characters that have just enough backstory that you care about. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is simply incredible and her as well as the wives’ toughness proves to be some of the best female action stars in recent memory, a great empowerment of women in a genre where they are so commonly neglected. I cared about the characters in Fury Road more than other films that just dealt with character motivation, which is incredible considering how fast the film goes. The film is so well executed that even the drama heavy academy had to reward it with ten nominations. I usually go to the movies for art or entertainment; in Mad Max: Fury Road, I get both
~Seth
 
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Spotlight

For our 100th (!!) post, we will be concluding our look at the Best Picture winners with Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, it is rated R for some language including sexual references.

From IMDB: When the Boston Globe’s tenacious “Spotlight” team of reporters delves into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, their year-long investigation uncovers a decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal, and government establishment, touching off a wave of revelations around the world.

9.5 out of 10

Before we start, I just wanted to say a quick thank you to all… six of you who read this blog. It’s been a lot of fun for me and Zach, so thanks to everyone who has read and written.

spotlight 4Now to main course: Spotlight. By coincidence, we happened to leave, in my opinion, the best for last. This is my best film of the year, hands down. With an incredible cast and an outstanding script, Spotlight, emulating All The President’s Men 35 years later, is an eye-opening, life changing look into the impurity of religious institutions.

Michael Keaton, who might be in his second straight Best Picture winner, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams are all fantastic, playing journalists who begin to question everything they believe in after working on uncovering molestation of allegations in the Catholic church. Ruffalo is the best, transitioning from relentless investigator to manic journalist running after cabs and through courthouses. His desperation to expose the church’s wrong doings is especially evident, providing the most memorable moment of the film by delivering a scathing speech against the church about their wrongdoings. With solid performances all around, the most impressive part of the cast is that they perfectly blend together to create a skilled and interesting group of journalists that we are rooting for all the way.

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The journalistic aspect of the film provided the drama with its energy. The constant researching, interviewing, and digging is an exhaustive process, and when 9/11 comes along and hits the group like a train, that exhaustion is evident. The reality of the situation is clear. These are real people being destroyed by a real life scandal that the church is responsible for. Spotlight does an incredible job of sticking to the story and having the intensity increase with every scene. The events of the film keep managing to topple themselves.

This doesn’t have the shock value of The Revenant or the flair of The Big Short, but what makes Spotlight so special is its profundity. We see the psychological trauma of thousands of victims who suffered at the hands of one of the world’s most powerful institutions. Spotlight takes the discomfort of the situation and tackles it head on, sparing no detail and creating a story that forces you to question the everything you believe in, including the church– an institution with the implication of purity.

After the conclusion of the movie while the credits role, one can’t help but feeling despondent. The truth comes out, the church exposed, and victims finally come forward. But it’s almost impossible to keep faith– in God, in our judicial system, and in human beings– after taking it all in. If Spotlight does not make you feel uncomfortable, then it has not succeeded. Tom McCarthy takes the sensitivity of the subject of molestation and pedophilia and uses it to make the tone one of intense discomfort.

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Of all the films this year, Spotlight was the one that resonated with me the most. It had the most electric performances, best written screenplay, and ultimately is the movie that will have the most significant impact on society by bringing these issues to the public’s eye on a much larger scale than the original Boston Globe article in 2002. If that isn’t a Best Picture winner, then I don’t know what is.
~Vig

9.5 out of 10

In my opinion, the only thing better than grand fiction played right is a true story that need be told being done absolute justice. Sure, crafting a movie with intricacies and moving cogs all motioning in one direction is great but, to me, nothing can quite match a film that embraces uncertainty and reality, shuns pizzaz, resists the temptation to taint its real life subject with any fabrication and chugs forward. Sometimes that means sacrificing conventional pacing. Sometimes that means banishing big, cinematic, Oscar-baiting moments. Sometimes it means earning more admiration from a viewer than sheer enjoyment.

spotlight 6

Spotlight is one of the rawest movies I’ve seen in years and stands among the best because of it. It may not offer the most riveting pacing (The first fifteen minutes are actually mostly office reorganization and story shuffling) and it’s very, very rarely loud or big yet it derives so much strength from how untreated it is. It’s difficult to explain but there’s just this accumulation of tension and intrigue that comes from watching an infantry of hard-boiled reporters slowly and carefully unearth a still-searing story. As with any fantastically daunting investigation, each answer opens up more questions.

spotlight 2

And who to carry this slow dive into an article better than this star-studded cast? Ruffalo and Keaton (among several others whom I can’t do any justice in these 500 words) deliver some whopping performances as their characters reconcile with the fact that their 9 to 5s have become an all-out ethical quest. The actors aren’t given that many monologues but any thrilling material tossed to them is handled incredibly well (Without giving away too much, Ruffalo in particular tears into a heckuva tirade on the whole thing that leaves your blood boiling).

Director Tom McCarthy’s masterwork is also an unabashed celebration of the power of the press as the Globe picks up moral slack in a city where local lawyers, politicians and, yes, the Church itself fail to do so. Not since All the President’s Men (which I will shamelessly say this one’s surpassed) has the might of the pen (as well as the perils of pushing it) been so well flexed. After seeing a whole onslaught of people who’ve looked the other way throughout the film, you’ll be more thankful than ever for journalists – who act more as crusaders than mere reporters.

spotlight 1

Rage-inducing? Yes, a little, this is some good ol’ fashioned muckraking after all. That tension we talked about earlier builds up but never really lets up. The film itself (again, without giving away too much) seems to communicate the problem it deals with is ongoing and you’d be hard-pressed to step out of this one without at least questioning the hypocrisy of religious institution. Overall, this contributes well to helping the whole thing pack a bigger punch.

Will this take home the Oscar? It sure is my pick at the moment and, for now, let’s just say it’s certainly hard to handwave. If it doesn’t get it, however, at least you can be sure it will earn a place as the film some lazy Journalism teachers show to their students during the Ethics unit. To me, well, that’s one of the bigger honors there is.
~Zach

Room

This week, we will be taking a look at this year’s sleeper hit, Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, and Sean Bridgers. It is rated R for language.

Kidnapped and kept captive for many years, Ma (Larson) and her spirited son Jack make do in a 10×10 shed that Ma calls ‘Room’. She attempts to provide her son with a normal, pleasant life for as long as possible, but when Jack’s curiosity for the situation grows, they plan to escape. Once they make it to the real world, everything has changed, and Jack makes a thrilling discovery.

7.5 out of 10

Abduction stories are the absolute worst. I couldn’t help think of Josef Fritzl or Ariel Castro while watching Room, something that simply added to the horror of the situation. Just the idea that there are people evil enough to keep others locked away for years disgusts me. Of course, like Hollywood is always able to do, they take this horrifying story and make it into something inspirational, which can be attributed to incredible performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who play a mother-son duo that has been to hell and back.

In case you haven’t heard, Larson is the hands on favorite to win Best Actress. She delivers the performance of a lifetime as Ma, who attempts to raise her son under the awful conditions of being trapped in a square shed coined ‘Room’. The most impressive part of the performance is the psychology behind it– the transformation from nurturing mother to struggling victim is remarkable, and something that Larson does flawlessly.

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While Larson does a great job and is indefinitely the backbone of the film, I think Jacob Tremblay gave the most impressive performance. The young actor (8 years old at the time of the film’s release!!!) does a fantastic job of playing Jack with the naivety and innocence that this boy needed to have. He was a child wanted to eat cake before bed and would yell at his mother if he didn’t get something that he wanted… Typical things that kids do. But what is impressive about this is he is able to translate that to confusion and denial when Ma opens up about the situation to him. It is rare to see such a multi-dimensional performance from an actor so young and inexperienced.

My one qualm with the movie is that the second act really dragged. Once Ma and Jack finally escape from the room, the movie did not feel worth watching, which is unfortunate because of how interesting the psychology of being a victim is. The transition in between the transition from the room to outside of it was very abrupt and did not feel gradual, resulting in some pacing issues that present Room with its only major flaw. The majority of the struggles for Ma and Jack come outside the room, which is why it is disappointing that the film dragged towards the second half.

room 4

With that said, pacing issues are usually a fatal flaw for most dramas. Luckily for Room, it was not significant enough to take away from the rest of it. Ultimately, the message of hope is what stands out when you finish the movie and absorb it all. The sad reality of the film is that is an event that occurs in real life– the book was based on one of the Fritzl victims– and this movie provides some sort of closure on those victims, good or bad. Room is a really good film, not the best of the year but far from being the worst of the year. Watch for Brie Larson’s name the next few years– she will be everywhere.
~Vig

9.5 out of 10

I walked into Room knowing only two things: 1. that it was about a mother and son and 2. that it had gotten really good reviews. And from this blankness came a film that grabbed me emotionally and didn’t let go for its entire 118 minute run time, turning into one of my favorite films of 2015 (after Mad Max, Sicario, and Inside Out of course).

'Room' is a journey out of darkness, director says

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in “Room.” (Ruth Hurl/Element Pictures)

I don’t want to give the entire plot because its first act revelation mostly why it completely worked for me, but I will say that Room is about a mother and son living in what they call Room, a small area that is the only place that the five year old boy knows of in the whole world, and grappling with leaving the room. The film has been nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture. Brie Larson is also the favorite to take home the best actress category for her performance as ma. And she definitely deserves it, both being comforting and sweet to her child whom she loves very much as well as bold enough to deal with her situation in both settings, in the room and out of it.

But the performance that I walked out of the theatre struck by is nine year old Jacob Tremblay as Jack, who was snubbed for a nomination in my opinion. Usually child actors can come off as annoying and “acting” instead of feeling natural, but Tremblay appears to have inhabited the character and makes choices based on it, which is extremely impressive coming from such a young kid. His voiceovers, which explain how he sees this world, are performed with an awe and wonder that contrast nicely with the intense situations that the characters find themselves in.

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Both the directing by Lenny Abrahamson and the script written by Emma Donahue, who wrote the novel it was based off as well, are able to balance the tension of the first half and the sheer emotional evolution of the second to make both just as engaging and balance each other well. The best thing I can say about Abrahamson’s direction (who was also nominated along with Donahue’s script, is that he is able to make us feel this story from the child’s perspective in the low angle camera shots as well as making the Room as expansive as it is in the child’s head, especially when you see it later from farther away and realize that it is a tiny room.

As for any complaints, the film does drag to an amount towards the end with scenes that feel very similar, until a really strong emotional punch with a new character at the end. Other than that, I found Room to be an emotionally captivating film that stuck with me long after it was over from its combination of excellent acting, writing, and directing.
~Seth

 

Brooklyn

Today we are going to take a look at John Crowley’s historical drama Brooklyn. Directed by Crowley and starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, and Emory Cohen, it is rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.

From IMDB: Eilis Lacey leaves small town Ireland for a better life in New York, arranged by an Irish priest in Brooklyn. Working in a shop she takes a bookeeping course and participates in the Irish community. There she meets an Italian, and falls in love. They marry but she wants to see her mother after the death of her sister in Ireland. Returning home she falls into the life of the small town, meets a local guy, but also a nasty neighbour who knows she was married in the US.

8.5 out of 10

This movie gave me all the feels. I think I cried three or four times while watching it. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a love story.

Though Brooklyn may not have the celebrity-studded star power that some other Oscar contenders have, Saoirse Ronan did a terrific job playing Eilis Lacey. Her counterparts, Emory Cohen (what a cutie) and Domhnall Gleeson, also created lovable characters as her two romantic interests.

brooklyn 3

Brooklyn takes you through Eilis Lacey’s journey from Ireland to — you guessed it — Brooklyn. At the beginning, Eilis is shy, soft-spoken, and visibly unhappy in her hometown. The frequent use of close-up shots of her facial expressions manage to say everything without words. Along with these close-up shots, cringe-worthy scenes (for lack of better film terminology) are used to further develop Eilis’s character. From the scene where she gets seasick on the boat to America, to when she attempts to make awkward small-talk with customers at Bartocci’s, viewers feel for Eilis during her struggle to adjust to her new setting.

While the storyline was very formulaic, the unique characters made it enjoyable. There is something to be said for a movie that takes you back to simpler times. With the detailed costumes and sets, along with ancillary characters like the God-fearing Irish boarding house keeper, Mrs. Keough, the ambiance of 1950s Brooklyn is captured perfectly.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the pacing of this movie. At the beginning, I immediately thought this would be a slow film, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Everything transitions very nicely, from Eilis’s homesickness in America, to her falling in love with Tony (Emory Cohen), to her going back to Ireland. Which brings me to my favorite part of the movie: the romance.

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The love story of Eilis and Tony is what makes this movie exciting, unlike the boring immigrant story I thought it would be. It was refreshing seeing a film set in simpler times, especially with this romance. It was also interesting to see two different cultures collide (how much more cliche can I get). Tony, the poor Italian boy who comes from a big family, and Eilis, the prim Irish girl, unaccustomed to American traditions, make for a unique yet adorable couple. One of the best scenes in the entire movie is when the other girls in the boarding house teach Eilis how to eat spaghetti in preparation for her dinner with Tony’s parents.

I was so invested in Tony and Eilis’s romance that I was screaming at my laptop screen when Eilis had to go back to Ireland. Eilis is soon torn between two lovers, as she becomes closer with Jim Farrell (Gleeson), a boy from her hometown. She is soon confronted with the decision to stay in Ireland or go back to Brooklyn.

2015, BROOKLYN

As I mentioned before, the plot is rather formulaic, but nevertheless, very enjoyable. At the heart of it, it is a beautiful love story, and by the end of the film, I was so attached to the main characters, Tony and Eilis. Amidst all the other Oscar contenders that everyone is buzzing about, Brooklyn may be a simpler story, but it is just as entertaining.
~Jen

8.0 out of 10

Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, and Domnhall Glesson among others, telling the story of a young Irish girl (played by Ronan) in the 1950s who comes to New York looking for work in the new land, and then once acclimated, has to choose between her two homes.

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The film has been nominated for three oscars including best picture, best actress for Saoirse Ronan, and best screenplay for Nick Hornby, the same screenwriter from About a Boy, and the last two are definitely well­ deserved. Ronan has a sweetness and charm in her performance that matches the film perfectly, slowly maturing from the innocent girl to a brave woman that is so natural and understated you don’t fully realize until the ending when she is confronts another character how strong she has become until the end. This subtlety in its protagonist arc is also due to its excellent script by Hornby, which is able to make the
character’s journey and conversations with other people seem real, almost like it was taken right out of a history book. The look of the film also sells the 1950s feel of Brooklyn and creates the
borough as a character itself.

brooklyn 1

With that being said, the subtlety in the script is not met in its direction, done by John Crowley. It is directed in a very standard fashion, but makes the big moment painfully obvious
with a shot put in super slow motion or an extreme close up during an emotionally important scene. I would have liked to see a few more directorial interesting yet understated moments that are up to the standard of the writing.

Aside from Ronan, everybody in the cast does a very solid job, except for, in my opinion, her Brooklyn boyfriend, played by Emory Cohen. From the beginning, he tries to be cute and
mumbles his words together in a Brooklyn accent, but ends up looking more like an actor going for a type than a natural performance, especially when he’s compared to Ronan. But Cohen did grow on me as the film progressed, putting enough charm into his awkwardness to not fully offer
it as a real complaint.

But another point that I do feel has merit against the film is what the main character’s main focus is. When Ronan’s character moves to New York, she is faces many problems, most
of which appear to be fitting in, and seems really accurate to the time period. But it seems like all of her problems go away when a man comes into the picture for a brief time. It is this over reliance on men in a female driven film that brings down her character a bit for me. Yes, that is
somewhat true to the time period, but is doesn’t need to be the focus of this character when made in 2016.

brooklyn 5

Yet overall, the film is delightful yet has a maturity to it with an outstanding performance by Saoirse Ronan, and a great date movie as well.
~Seth

The Revenant

Up next on our look at the Best Picture films is The Revenant. Directed by reigning Best Director winner Alejandro G Iñarittu, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson, it is rated R for violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.

From IMDB: After an attack that occurred in a fur trappers bivouac, across a river, in American wilderness, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), his son, and his remaining companions, are going back to the nearest outpost. Glass is left in weak condition after being mauled by a bear forcing some men from the team to be his caretakers. One of the caretakers, John Fitzgerald (Hardy), chooses to betray Glass, and leave him to die. Relying on his insurmountable anger and powerful motivation for his family, Hugh survives and attempts to find John Fitzgerald, and make him pay for his terrible decision.

9 out of 10

If Leo does not finally seize that oh-so-elusive Best Actor trophy, I will protest. I will write several strongly worded letters to the Academy. I will make a thousand picket signs and with Leo’s thousand biggest fans, march through Los Angeles, pitchforks in hand. If it wasn’t clear before, If Leonardo DiCaprio does not win Best Actor for his turn as legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass, I will have lost all hope in humanity.

As it stands, I would probably put The Revenant as my third favorite film from the past year (after Star Wars and Spotlight), though there’s no doubt that it was the most intriguing. The premise is perfectly concocted, showing off the perfect mix of revenge, love, and spiritualism. The ensemble cast is spectacular, from the experienced DiCaprio to the younger Will Poulter, previously of We’re the Millers fame. The production design and costumes are spot on, providing this world with realism… albeit a grotesque one.

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The Revenant starts out with an emphatic bang, a battle scene with thrashing, nauseating violence— think Saving Private Ryan, only 150 years prior and with Native Americans and pioneers rather than soldiers and Nazis. The opening scene of the 1998 classic is known for its shockingly violent nature, highlighted by stray body parts and gushing intestines; The opening battle of The Revenant is almost on par. However that violence does not hinder; rather it helps in establishing the setting of the film in a place of conflict and disarray.

 

One of the stars of that battle is of course, Hugh Glass, who is, in the only way I can appropriately put it, an absolutely savage. Obviously this intensity has to be attributed to DiCaprio, who plays Glass with a determination and motivation that makes him a force of nature. From gutting a horse to use its carcass for warmth to eating raw buffalo liver (Leo actually did this! And he’s a vegetarian!), Glass goes to the most extreme lengths to stay alive— something that is evident through DiCaprio’s commitment to the character. He is the shining star of the movie, absolutely controlling the big screen for the entirety of the two and a half hours.

He is of course supported by Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson, the former snagging a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his extraordinary efforts as the selfish, ruthless Fitzgerald. Gleeson is spectacular in the role of Andrew Henry, captain of the party, following up his solid performance in Star Wars with this great effort. Side note: Gleeson has had just a spectacular year, with starring roles in Brooklyn, Ex Machina, Star Wars, and now The Revenant. Bravo!

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If you saw Birdman, it might be clear to you that Iñarittu carried over his affinity for stretched out camera shots, the most memorable being the bear attack scene, shot in one continuous take. The extended shot puts emphasis on the brutality of the assault: the audience does not get a break from it because the camera does not cut away. This effect is prominent throughout the movie, underscoring the barbarity that Glass faces, which only strengthens his character every time he is able to overcome it.

My only criticism was the importance given to the storyline regarding the Indians and the French— all I really wanted to see was Leo, so each scene that was solely about this conflict felt like an interruption. Though this B plot ultimately served a purpose, I think it was given too much screen time, ruining the pacing of an otherwise great film.

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There are a lot of fantastic things in this movie. This movie is nearly flawless, impressing me in almost all aspects of film making (acting, cinematography, screenwriting, production design), with my only grievance being minor pacing issues. It is an emotional journey, with visceral effects that make it as realistic as possible. The Revenant can be considered nothing less than a successful follow up to Birdman for Alejandro G Iñarittu, one that could thrust him into Oscar glory for the second consecutive year, and finally give Leo that Oscar he deserves.
~Vig

8.5 out of 10

Much has been made of the great feat of endurance that was making Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant. And despite a comfy chair and a snack of Swedish, and firmly dead, fish coming out I felt that I could empathize somewhat with Leo and co.’s struggle. This sounds harsh but is not necessarily a criticism. Much like a long camping trip into the woods, The Revenant will be divine for some. But for others, The Revenant will be gorgeous, occasionally profound but at the end of the day all a bit much.

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Even the first scene, an attack on the fur trappers’ camp by natives, goes on ever so slightly too long. It is a minor sin but portentous nevertheless. From that scene onwards, the movie is a breathless assault on the senses. DiCaprio’s character, the abandoned fur trapper Hugh Glass, suffers trial after trial at the hands of the brutal land and its inhabitants, emerging bloodied and panting from each. Watching DiCaprio endure the first few is entertaining but as the film enters its third hour, they become tiresome and, as the watcher becomes ever more desensitized to the violence, Inarittu seems determined to keep the crowd gasping through escalating gore.

One possible solution to the problem of length might have been to shorten the film to a more digestible 90 minutes. This is an interesting suggestion but fundamentally flawed. A film titled The Revenant, as infantile as this may sound, has to be an epic. Although its raging 156 minutes may turn some off, in so many other ways the pure mass of the film is the film’s greatest strength. One cannot please everyone when making a film as grand as Glass’ story necessitates, and Inarritu deserves kudos for the pure conviction he displayed in making this beast of a film.

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And to be fair, there are some moments of repose. We are treated to occasional expository glimpses of burning camps and ethereal women on the wind. DiCaprio does well to imbue these scenes with emotion, even if at points one can almost hear the yearning for an Oscar in his breath.

On the more general topic of the acting in the film, it is all about the two men: Tom Hardy and DiCaprio. Both are such well-respected actors and in this film they earn their reputation with two great examples of physical acting. There is a strong stress on the physical there as both talk little and a decent portion of it is largely incomprehensible. In fact, DiCaprio’s most powerful line of the film, a laconic mutter about his son, is in the trailer. In the end, however, it hardly matters. DiCaprio and Hardy are both such immense presences on the screen, not only physically but emotionally too, that the dearth of dialogue becomes irrelevant.

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But as much as the film is really all about DiCaprio’s relentless hunt for those who forsook him, many will find that the most intriguing narrative to The Revenant is that of the Indians who weave in and out of the film’s forests and storyline. The film will certainly not be remembered for its portrayal of Indians and DiCaprio’s brief meeting with a wise healer/mentor at the darkest point of his journey is almost painfully cliché but the film’s portrayal of the plight of the displaced and disillusioned natives is nevertheless a thoroughly interesting piece of The Revenant’s epic puzzle.

In short, The Revenant may be one of the most divisive Best Picture frontrunners in recent history, and there’s a very good chance anyone who will enjoy it has already seen it. But if you like a good vista, and don’t mind a touch of blood, it’s a glorious ride.
~Nic

The Big Short

Up first on our countdown to the Oscars is The Big Short, directed by Adam KcKay and starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling. It is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.

From IMDB: Four denizens of the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight.

8 out of 10

Full disclaimer: I had a lot of trouble following what was going on in the movie. The dense terminology plus the complicated nature of finance completely lost me. But somehow, I still managed to really enjoyed The Big Short, probably because Adam McKay does an excellent job of recognizing that many regular people lack the ability to keep up and plays on it.

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For instance, cutting to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining financial terms to simplify it is a genius move— it was a hilarious change of pace that allowed me to catch my breath (Though it probably would have been more helpful if Margot Robbie in a bubble bath hadn’t distracted me). McKay does this twice more, giving a movie that is essentially a documentary on finance some personality.

It also breaks the fourth wall a lot, furthering easing regular viewers into the new world of confusing finance terms. Gosling opens the movie by doing this, and it is continued throughout the movie by man different characters. I personally loved when one of the actors broke the fourth wall to recognize when something in the movie differed from the real life account. Recognizing and exposing the subtle lies of movies ‘based on true stories’… Brilliant.

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Of course, The Big Short would be nothing without its trio of male stars that play extremely unique men emerged in this crisis. Carrell continues to prove that he is more than capable in dramatic roles, following up last year’s Foxcatcher with a sparkling performance as the cynical, hardened Mark Baum. Gosling acts as the films narrator in a way, opening the film with narration that draws us in and keeps us there. But the best performance of the film is that of Christian Bale’s, playing socially awkward genius Michael Burry. Bale is known for his attention to detail and it is no different here, nailing every quirk that Burry has.

The most impressive part of the film had to be how te structure and style reflected its message. The main point is that none of the American public had any idea what was going on (ex. the strippers), but instead remained obsessed with pop culture, much like how a regular audience does not have the slightest idea of what is going on in the movie and only pay attentions to the glamorized scenes with celebrities. The problem with the financial crisis is that Americans had no idea what was going on, this theme reverberating throughout the film.

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That being said, I think there was a lot of fluff that contributed to the movie being rather slow towards the middle. I thought a lot of the scenes were repetitive in terms of structure; essentially, I felt a bit of deja vu while watching the film. This, paired with the density of the material, led to some pacing issues that lulled me to sleep at one point. 

For a film that is essentially Inside Job with a bit more flavor, it is extremely well crafted. With a unique style and compelling narration, The Big Short is successfully comedic but full of grim implications, making it one of the best movies of the year.
~Vig

 

9.5 out of 10

“Anyone can make something complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

(Have I used that epitaph in a review before? Of course I have! I can’t remember which but I’d imagine it was something that clunked around under its own weight like Interstellar.)

Here’s a shocker for you: economics is not exciting. It’s pencil pushing and number crunching. It’s some brokers shouting and squawking before some red and green arrows on Wall St. It’s those contracts you never read and those acronyms you never cared to understand. Finance. Ain’t. Fun.*

I’ve previously expressed though that the highest of movie magic is when a film transfigures something from enormously complex to accessible without losing any of the topic at hand’s weight (Think Moneyball’s treatment of the nitty-gritty of teambuilding or even how the recent spectacle Spotlight deliberately paces but one protracted piece of reporting). The jargon and prolonged process is all there to bolster the accuracy yet there’s enough style, talent and deft delivery to make it (What else?) digest-able.

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Damned if Big Short doesn’t fit that bill. Comedy champion Adam McKay’s latest feature is smart as it is succinct and humorous as it is horrifying. It’s a movie that fully embraces the confusing nature of its subject (The shady swaps that all but consumed the American economy in 2008) in the hopes that you will too (Trust me, with writing this sharp and scenes this self-aware, you’ll succumb to all the monetary mayhem). This masterwork is the better blend of Inside Job (2010) and Wolf of Wall Street.

We’ll start with the all-star cast, of course, which sits at the heart of this cinematic juggernaut: comedy veteran Steve Carell wows as the curiously capricious Mark Baum. Ryan Gosling kills it as swift salesman Jared Vennet who sees the crisis coming (and exploits the living hell out of it). Even seasoned dramatics Christian Bale and Brad Pitt command more than a few snickers as their characters (savant and cynic respectively) carve through the Wall St. B.S.. Are all these characters and their antics pulled from real life? Of course, mostly (The film will gladly tell you when it diverges from nonfiction though).

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The film also stylishly zips from proceeding to proceeding, taking full advantage of an early 2000’s-dominated soundtrack (I forgot how much I loved “Feel Good Inc.”) and making some (at first) pretty jarring pacing choices. Does it suffer from these timing decisions? It stumbles a little at first but either it found its groove or I just got more absorbed by it. I’m fine with either.

Yet despite all the laughs, I left this movie feeling utterly punched in the gut. Make no mistake, it’s a muckraker disguised as a comedy. God help you when you suddenly realize the sketchy skylarking playing out onscreen did happen and, even worse, the only victim at the end of the day is you (Or so the movie seems to conclude). And all the wisecracks and keenly crafted montages in the world can’t even seem to conceal the ugliness of Adam Smith’s system today.

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*What do you call a cross between a jet plane and an accountant? A Boring 747! (I desperately wanted to fit this in the review but I have to confine it to a footnote.
~Zac

Bridge of Spies

This week, we take a look at Stephen Spielberg’s latest piece, Bridge of Spies. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, and Amy Ryan, the film is rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.

In the cold war, A lawyer, James B. Donovan recruited by the CIA and involved in an intense negotiation mission to release and exchange a CIA U-2 spy-plane pilot, Francis G. Powers that was arrested alive after his plane was shot down by the Soviet Union during a mission- with a KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel who was arrested for espionage in the US (from IMDB).

7 out of 10

If you can remember, I put this film on my ‘Top 5 Most Excited For’ list way back at the beginning of this year. With Steven Spielberg directing, Tom Hanks acting, and the Coen-Brothers writing, this film is guaranteed to be a success. Might as well give it Best Picture already. This were my thoughts a few months ago when first coming across Bridge of Spies. Maybe it’s because my expectations were too high, but I can’t lie; I was rather underwhelmed. Not to say it was a bad film, because it wasn’t, it just was, well, underwhelming.

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Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors of all time, and again he delivers as James B. Donovan. As the protagonist, Hanks drives the film, and thank god he does, because without him I can’t imagine how charmless this film would be. He has charisma, humor, but also a sternness that grounds his character in the film and makes him realistic. The turmoil that his character goes through and the way he deals with it is ultimately what makes this another outstanding Hanks performance. There are some other strong showings, including Mark Rylance as a persecuted Soviet spy that Donovan grows fond of, and Amy Ryan as Donovan’s fearful, but supportive wife.

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Per usual, Spielberg does an incredible job of creating the historic setting, the camera work serving to prolong the drama and keep the atmosphere of the Cold War tense, dark, and moody. This solemn tone was maintained throughout, largely due to the fantastic production design and cinematography that kept the film in the midst of the Cold War.

Yet the tension stops at the production design. For a spy thriller, I did not get much of a thrill at all. I felt the mistake was that the film was split into two parts, one being the trial of the Soviet spy, the other being Hanks’ attempt to trade the Soviet spy for the United States’ own spy. The first part felt like an interesting commentary on nationalism versus morality, whereas the second part felt like a cute middle school dance between the Americans and the Soviets, when you knew that the two would get together in the end to make a deal, but they spend the longest time skirting around it. That was my biggest problem: it was too predictable. Argo was predictable, but still thrilling. For a solid five minutes, I was convinced that Ben Affleck and co. would not get out of Iran alive. I just didn’t get that same feeling from Bridge of Spies.

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Perhaps the reasoning for that is a lot of the tension built up circulates two characters that no one really cares about. Frederic Pryor and Francis Gary Powers were characters that I did not empathize with, and I doubt many others did either. There was not much development for their characters, so when they were captured, I could have cared less if they were killed or not. In fact, I liked the Soviet spy more. I’m not sure whether this can be attributed to poor acting or poor writing, but those two characters lacked appeal that removed any tension the film could have had during its final act.

Overall though, it is impossible to discredit Spielberg and Hanks from what is overall a well made film that should get nominated for plenty of Oscars. Perhaps you can attribute my disdain for the second half of the film to it being nearly 11:00 PM by that point, while being on the tail end of a double-header in which I witnessed Michael Fassbender absolutely dominate as Steve Jobs (but that is a review for another day. Soon. I promise). Bridge of Spies lacked the tension and thrill that would have made it an all time great, instead forcing it to settle with being another solid film that will be forgotten in a few years.
~Vig

7.5 out of 10

Bridge of Spies brings together the powerhouse duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks once again, who have made successful films such as Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can, with a trun to the cold war, one of the few American history time periods Spielberg has not touched on in his filmography. Add this stellar pair with the Coen brothers (of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men fame) writing the screenplay, and you have talent that almost guarantees a slam-dunk. And Bridge of Spies does succeed, for the most part.

The film tells the true story of James B. Donovan, played by Hanks, who was put in charge to defend a Soviet spy caught in the U.S., then ultimately has to negotiate a trade between the spy and a captured American U-2 pilot in the Soviet Union.

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Above all, the craftsmanship is what makes this film shine. Spielberg and his customary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a world that feels so much like the time period without spoofing it. This is seen especially in the opening eight minutes, which is purely visual imagery with no dialogue, that hooks you into the story. Spielberg also uses an old style of filmmaking where he prolongs every shot for as long as possible; so when one a cut is made, it gives the audience a subconscious feeling that a beat has changed within a scene, even if it is just between two people talking. This style makes the film come alive and proves once again that Spielberg is a master of the screen.

As the case in pretty much every Spielberg film, the acting is top notch. Hanks succeeds once again in his usual charismatic role, also with some humor, making us root for him as he has to deal with both stubborn sides (with a cold as well!). But because we always see him in this every man role, it is a little safe for him, and does not necessarily stand out in his impressive filmography. But who does stand out is Mark Rylance, who plays the soviet spy. Rylance has a tranquility to him despite the character’s desperate conditions, and forces the audience to feel for him despite him being an accomplice on the other side. Other notable performances are Amy Ryan as Hanks’ wife and Austin Stowell as the captured U-2 pilot.

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But for a thriller, the film has very little suspense in it. The film runs right by the numbers, with no twist and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat as most Spielberg films do. The narrative is split into two parts with the trial then the negotiations for the swap and while I found the former to really say something strong about Americans and the complication of patriotism in yesterday and today’s society, the latter feels like the story is going through the motions, despite the really great shots of the split up Berlin, where the negotiations take place.

Also I was a bit disappointed in the Coen Brothers script; it did not contain their usual idiosyncrasies or dark humor, but rather is more paint by the numbers than you would expect from them.

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And if there is ever a complaint to be made about Spielberg’s films, it is his cheesy, feel-good endings, and that is no different in this one, with a very gooey conclusion from a film that was much more mature than that.

But the way the film presents its historical material is so well done that I have to recommend it on that basis alone. Even though it feels like there is something missing in it, possibly from the absence of Spielberg’s usual composer John Williams, not many films today are made with this amount of care, and so gets my support nonetheless.
~Seth