Around Town: 88th Academy Awards, 2/28/16

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The Martian and star Matt Damon were better than the author anticipated. (Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

Big movie stars will gather for the 88th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 28, in Los Angeles. In DC, we have a number of Oscar parties to choose from if we want to get in on the glitz.

Last year, I attended the shindig thrown by the Washington Film Institute at Malmaison (3401 Water St. NW, DC) in Georgetown. It’s a fine option if you care more about being seen than seeing what happens at the Oscars. (You cannot. Although the show is running, the room is way too loud and busy for you to actually watch.) This year, I may opt for something far more laidback like the Movie Trivia & Oscars Watch Party at Ventnor Sports Cafe (2411 18th St. NW, DC).

Whatever your speed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has offered up eight contenders for Best Picture this year, and I’m here to give you my analysis of how those nominations stack up!

The Big Short: The Big Short was big on originality for sure. It’s a caper where the confidence crew are Wall Street insiders, and it makes for a lot of fun, particularly with its off-beat approach to its subject matter. Ultimately, the movie is little more than dumb fun, however. Even the moralizing you suspected you might receive from Steve Carell’s character, judging from the trailers, failed to materialize because at the end of the day he’s a moneyman trying to game the system like every other character in the movie. Still, it’s worth seeing even if it’s not worth a Best Picture Award.

Bridge of Spies: Bridge of Spies was an all-around classic movie, and it’s little wonder it has a best picture nomination. Tom Hanks carries the movie as his character is the common thread linking two very distinct parts of the film and he’s in just about every scene. However, this nomination isn’t fully convincing as Bridge of Spies did not pick up a best actor or best director nomination despite garnering five other nominations. That backs up my opinion that while at the end of the day it’s a solid picture, there aren’t enough elements to truly distinguish it from the pack when it comes time to vote.

Brooklyn: Brooklyn was another classic that receives some well-deserved recognition with this nomination. It’s a deceptively simple tale that explores complex notions of identity and finding yourself, and it’s also well-acted with a cast led by Saoirse Ronan, who also snagged a worthy Best Actress nomination. But as far as this group of movies go, Brooklyn is about middle of the pack insofar as its capacity for leaving an impression.

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I like celebrating pop culture, but I find Mad Max: Fury Road to be a flat contender for Best Picture. (Photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

Mad Max: Fury Road: I like it when the Oscars pay attention to pop culture. Simply because a lot of Americans went to see a movie and it made hundreds of millions of dollars should not, of course, preclude it from being a good movie worthy of winning awards for acting, directing, or production. And yet this can generate a dilemma. Was Mad Max well made? It was in part for its simplicity and sparing direction. Is it worth being nominated as Best Picture at the Academy Awards? No. Again, while there is a lot of good in it — the theme of redemption and coming to grips with yourself and your surroundings — there is nothing truly remarkable in its performances or staging.

The Martian: The Martian was likely the movie here that surprised me the most. I actually went in with a bit of dread, believing that the movie might reach too far while trying to be too smart for itself. I also feared suffering through an overly long Castaway-style situation where the movie follows a lone character through long, boring stretches. Thankfully, the film exceeded my expectations. The ensemble cast worked well, dispersing my fears that this would be the Matt Damon Show, and it was funny and intelligent while keeping the pace brisk. But as pleased as I was with the final product, and while I might support the nomination appearance here, this movie faces tough competition that it cannot overcome.

The Revenant: Favored by everyone and their inner survivalist to win Best Picture, The Revenant is in fact a disappointment. I like the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, even when he’s being pretentious, and I thought last year’s Birdman was truly a great movie affording lots of opportunities to reflect on male vanities and personal evolution. Birdman deserved to win Best Picture last year. By contrast, The Revenant is the overly long movie I feared The Martian would be, and its pretenses only add to the excess without doing anything at all to move the movie or add dimension to it. What the hell is up with the extended dream sequences of Hugh Glass’ wife? We get it — the guy suffered, is suffering, will suffer. Can you please spare the audience from some suffering? Certainly, this is Leo’s year to finally win Best Actor, if nothing else than for his nonverbal communication skills.

Room: What a trifle! I went into Room blind, not knowing what to expect. I spent the first 10 minutes of the film wondering if I were watching a low-budget Irish environmental disaster movie set in the not-so-distant future. Well, that notion was dispelled quickly when our protagonist’s captor shows up. And we experience the situation through the eyes of her five-year-old son, who knows little of the world. So it gets a point for originality. However, the movie then proceeds in kicks and starts to wheeze into nothingness, incapable of actually fully committing even to its five-year-old part-time narrator. While the movie evokes deep feelings of injustice and horrid criminality, it does nothing with them and instead meanders off into the distance. I know this little movie has big ambitions, but it seems laughable that it should win.

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A fantastic ensemble cast and a compelling modern story distinguish Spotlight. (Photo courtesy Open Road Films)

Spotlight: My fellow movie buffs sometime asks me what separates Best Picture from Best Director. “How are the two separable?” I am often asked. Part of my response is usually to point to the Screen Actor Guild Awards. There, a group of actors receive recognition annually for “best ensemble.” This to me is a prime ingredient of a Best Picture Oscar Winner. Did everyone and everything work well together? Did the actors make each other better? Were they a collective whole without one single person dropping the ball, or worse trying to carrying it alone? Spotlight hits the marks by all of these measures, and that is why it’s my personal choice for best film. It may well lose to The Revenant, but I believe it has a lot to us about who we are and our society, and it does so in a thoroughly well-executed manner. Go for the gold, Spotlight!

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