In the era of pre-sold ideas, rise of streaming services, and the new golden age of television why does it matter who wins at the award shows? You may scoff at the idea of a trophy deciding what is good or what could have been touted with the title of the best. I understand how subjective it is, however, I believe it matters. Especially in ways we love to complain about. Producers are admitting to Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, or Variety how hard it is to get financial backing for original content. Leonardo DiCaprio confesses that he could not get The Aviator made now, and is shocked that The Revenant came to fruition. Thus, if the Academy and other award circuits take notice of films like Mad Max Fury Road, that recognition does helps break the cycle of what studios will put their money behind. A conversation is created around why these films don't fit in the mold the Academy holds steadfast to. After all an Academy nominated stamp means an awful for foreign and domestic sales.
It is a great sign that the Academy is taking steps to change how they operate; ten nomination slots now for best picture, for example. Yes, they could use more diversity in their nominations, and I think we will see it. I mean, if we have witnessed a black president, gay marriage legal, and American grown and sold weed in a state near you, we will get the diversity back into the movie industry. Call me an optimist? Because I am.
In 2015 I was chosen to be on the SAG Award Nominating Committee. This opportunity is randomly bestowed, and I took it seriously. What an immense privilege! And what an immense amount of movies to consume. Of the thirty or so screeners and digital downloads I was sent, I watched about 90% of them. (Still need to watch Lady in the Van and Mr. Holmes).
What a spectacular year of movies. In fact, the box office had one of it's best years on record. My list below is of nominated films for SAG and just films I loved from 2015. Will you be watching the Oscars this weekend? I will.
The 2015 honorable mentions: Inside Out, It Follows, and Spotlight.
1. Mad Max Fury Road
There is nothing like this film, and that's how it's designed. This film is literally breathtaking. It makes you think about taking a breath in admits the action. A formidable task to do considering George Miller has taken out the space between moments. It's a series of fuses going off at orchestrated times and you are apart of the most brilliant fireworks show you have ever seen. One of my favorite aspects of this film is that no character is wasted. Everyone is necessary. Especially the females. Really this should be called Furiosa's Fury Road; Charlize's character forwards almost all of the action. For that matter, all of the other female characters are nothing like the traditional archetype of the damsel would suggest in most action oriented tales. Every time you watch it you will never tire of the character's insatiable will to survive, how the practical stunts were executed, because it is imeless.
2. The Revenant
I thought I had never had a cinematic experience like Mad Max, until I saw The Revenant. My thirst for wilderness and abstract magical realism are impeccably met with this film. For a film that's primarily understood in it's visual relationship to mother nature, the dialogue is succulent. Tom Hardy has more words on screen than Leonardo DiCaprio, and you find yourself wanting to gnaw on these trappers thoughts of mortality and God. You learn the language of DiCaprio's eyes and you feel his heart break at the turns of fate. Alejandro Iñárritu choreographs shots that get the maximum amount of action before they cut to a new angle. You feel exposed and exhilarated. You are hanging on as long as the characters must hang on. The film's beauty shots are supported in full by the narrative. It's more typical you must sacrifice one of those over the other. Not here. This is an epic journey you will remember. Watch it with a blanket; I am cold every time I watchthis story.
Youth would never had been a movie I'd see in the theatre. It was mailed to me as a possible SAG Award contender. Unaware of director Paolo Sorrentino's work, I watched this film with little understanding what it was about. Some may still feel that way after watching it. However, I felt transcendence. Not a connoisseur of art house films, I am not even sure if this is one of those, I felt this film. Maybe that's what art house films do in a slow burn kind of way. You feel close to characters because you are alongside them in their most intimate manner through the small acquaintances and long time friendships. The piecing together of images on screen don't totally explain themselves in a linear fashion, but are understood as the layers of skin the story wears. Recapturing the love of life and what fuels creating art are constantly held up to the audience as a mirror.. This film was brave enough to discover itself. I can't remember the last time I've seen that.
This film works because of the female protagonist, played by Emily Blunt. Originally set to be cast as man, I cannot imagine it having the same punch and spitfire with a man. The film (like most Hollywood pictures) is mainly a cast of men, so we aren't in any shorted, but what we experience through Blunt is different. To be clear, it's something we don't know already like we are accustomed to with most thriller-action-dramas with a male lead. Nor does the film soften it's scope of perspective because Blunt is a woman. Director Denis Villeneuve's masterfully created this world where we see justice struggling to look humane no matter the gender. This violent and horrific border tale is irresistible and unparalleled in it's pace. The actors live moment to moment with ease and fluidity that you root for them, even when you question their hero status. Thank God a film made in New Mexico shined in the box office last year. They hired so many locals actors, too. Let's keep it up.
5. Straight Outta Compton
Growing up with a brother who listened to all the rap availanble in the 90s gave this film nostalgic quality for me. It was thrilling to hear the early beats and rhymes of the forging path of gangsta rap and west coast hip hop. A style of music that would become an anthem for the voice of youth rising up from police brutality that led to the LA race riots. There are so many moments on screen that feel completely real and authentic. The opening scene is about a drug dealer check-in made me so anxious and uncomfortable; something was going to go down and there was no upper hand. The film sets up how these young men could live out their lives: on the street or in jail. Considering, they were already living the alternative, why not dive into their music? I thought this film would be better recognized for it's direction and acting by the award circuits. It's a beautiful testament to the rise of the new generation of musicians and pop culture. Even if you don't dig Tupac and Easy-E, you should watch this and educate yourself how this mainstream phenomenon we call rap music came to be.
The colors and cinematography in this film are reminiscent of the dazzle and allure of Amelie. The period is dreamy and gritty but held together with our heroine's determined spirit. Saoirse Ronan was my favorite female lead performance this season. She holds the weight of this epic cross-atlantic journey on her shoulder with fortitude. At times it is everything the girl meets boy and girl meets another boy saga can afford. However, Nick Hornby adapts the novel so that the words live past the cliche of a girl in love with two worlds and two men. You reside to be ally in all of her adventures, secretly hoping she chooses you to keep her secrets. In the end you just desire her heart to be free in it's love. This is a film I could just pop in at any time, it just feels good.
The marvel of this stop-motion film is how deceivingly simple it is. There isn't flashy camera angles, superior special affects or really anything enthralling about the first twenty minutes. You are watching the character Michael Stone and don't realize how deep your perspective is vested in how he sees and feels his world. The blantant disconnection with his reality and passionless existence for living make you wonder why you are watching him. There are only three voice actors used in the film. It's a brilliant choice because all of the world sounds the same to Michael. Until he meets Lisa Hesselman. Her voice sounds different than the rest and she becomes his angel of passion, renewed virtue and pleasure. In the end his paranoia is really his only true companion he choses to keep close. Director Charlie Kaufman rips the bandaid off Michael's reality and makes for a trippy experience. This film strangely makes you wonder if you understand your life choices and and will ever be understood for them.
8. The Danish Girl
The magnitude of chemistry between Alicia Vikander and Eddy Redmayne eclipses any pre-conceived images that Hollywood has given them. They produce a love in each other that is so radical. It's breathtaking and horrific how their partnership is repeatedly tested. What lengths will they go to stay true? They lay so much bare on screen; their bodies, hearts, and their will. The costume and production design enhance the captivating glances at Lili and Einar. Their commitment to love each other and honor themselves was a revolutionary act, especially in the 1920s.
I put off seeing this film because I knew it would be difficult to watch the betrayal between Gerda Wegener and Einar Wegener with his transformation into Lili Elbe. However, it is this bond of theirs that makes it worth the struggle. Director Tom Hooper gives us equal parts sympathy and terror of the unknown.
9. Beasts of No Nation
I watch a film like this and I am blown away how it is made. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga represents the victims and militia of the African civil wars without holding back. This film feels almost like a documentary in how authentic the villages, roads and people interact. Carl Jung says that children are survivors. These children are surviving with what they have been dealt, it's frustrating that they are reduced to thinking like a beast. Kill or be killed. This story is reminiscent of Kite Runner, in that, these orphaned children are taken under the wing of dark individuals who abuse them to keep them powerless. This too, was another film I thought would receive a more recognition from the Oscars, but it did make the ballot for SAG Awards and Golden Globes. Way to go for Netflix making this it's first original movie, keep them coming.
10. Bone Tomahawk
I love an well done film set in the old west. The word western is usually a right off for a genre, shoot 'em up, twangy movie. Bone Tomahawk will offer none of that. It is a horror story set in the west. It lends itself to lengthy dialogue that creates that slow burn effect that leads to explosive and distinct violence. There are moments when I had to look away, peek around the fingers over my eyes and watch the savagery destruct. You can't undo the the barbaric violence you witness, consider yourself warned. This lesser know film compared to the others on my top ten list may not be on your queue for Amazon but it deserves to be.
Bringing a little more Xanadu into the world.