And the Oscar Goes To…
In 2008 author and film critic Mark Harris published Pictures at a Revolution a book which tracked changes in American society, politics and pop-culture through the window of the 1968 Oscar nominees for Best Picture: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, Doctor Dolittle. Harris saw in the collapse of the Hollywood studio system a metaphor for the clash of values then roiling the country at large.
Movies aren’t as central to our culture as they were in 1968, but the Oscar nominees still provide a pretty good look at where our values are headed and what is important to us as we settle into the 21st century. Judging from this year’s Best Picture nominees, technology, corruption, money, race are on the front burner in 2016. Here, then, a look at the films now showing on iPads and smart phones everywhere. Some of these movies are even still in theatres.
Bridge of Spies
Think of this as a Barack Obama movie . There were grumblings in the entertainment press last year (as there are every year) that American movie habits are changing and the market for mainstream, adult-themed pictures may be going away for good. Hollywood doesn’t get more mainstream than Stephen Spielberg directing a script by Joel and Ethan Coen starring Tom Hanks about an American lawyer negotiating a spy swap with the Soviet Union in 1960. What makes this movie hugely satisfying is that all these establishment talents retain a strong streak of the subversive spirit that made their careers—that includes the Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance who turns in a droll performance as the Soviet spy. The movie is therefore an example of its theme—that American know-how, tempered by realism and energized by a spark of irreverence gets the job done—ie. an Obama movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road
If Bridge of Spies speaks to our faith in strong values, competence, talent—Mad Max awakens the secret glee of thinking that everything is going to hell. Which makes it—what? A Donald Trump movie? Director George Miller’s fourth installment of the Mad Max series is a nihilist’s ballet staged across a Namibian desert and pitched to the “Burn, baby, burn” in all of us. That a film this bleak in its apocalyptic vision would get the nod for Best Picture is an indication of how thoroughly we have absorbed climate catastrophe and barbaric tribalism as possible directions for the upcoming decades. A hopeful ending can’t disguise the pleasure we take in seeing all our revered notions smashed by forces of disorder. The paradox here is that this is a supremely orderly movie. Because CGI special effects were kept to a minimum and most of the wow moments involved real acrobats performing real stunts on fast-moving vehicles, the chaos of Mad Max is exquisitely designed.
Speaking of bleak, how about two hours—or is it three? (or is it five?)—of Leonardo DiCaprio crawling, grievously wounded, across beautiful wilderness landscapes? It’s my contention that The Revenant is a movie about movie-making and at that level it probably is unsurpassed. You will never see an ambush by Native American archers or a man mauled by a grizzly bear more artfully staged. The first arrow that popped into a fur trapper’s neck made me jump and I jumped on cue pretty much throughout the picture. But unlike Mad Max, which works dark humor into its pageant of cruelties, The Revenant is a solemn roller coaster, which means we have to take the torments straight. Until we don’t. About the time Leo was swept away by rapids and shot over a waterfall his misfortunes began to strike me as Wile E. Coyote in nature, and I awaited the scene where he is caught holding an anvil one step beyond the cliff. And the scene arrived—only it wasn’t an anvil, it was an Appaloosa mare. Crash!
This film about reporters at The Boston Globe uncovering the child molestation scandals that rocked the Catholic Church at the beginning of the century was, for a while, the favorite to win the Oscar among people who follow such things. Then it tapped out at The Golden Globes. Like all the films nominated, it is well-made and well-acted, and it evokes its time and place flawlessly. But unlike Bridge of Spies, which is also about the heroism of ordinary people, Spotlight lacks the snap of fun that animates Spielberg’s movie. It is therefore probably a more honest film and certainly a more accurate reflection of our sagging faith in heroes and in the institutions where they used to be minted: the government, the press, the church, law enforcement. But can an award as frivolous as Oscar go to a film without a glimmer of frivolity?
Okay, here is heroism the Hollywood way. A colleague of mine said she didn’t like The Martian because Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars didn’t suffer enough. Thinking back on the picture, I see what she means. When he wakes up in the Martian desert to discover his crewmates have left the planet without him, is he terrified? Does he wail in despair? Matt Damon? This big-budget, A-list package—Damon, director Ridley Scott, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor—is imbued with the confidence of the tech generation. Lost in space? Better hack a solution, dude! In the 1995 movie Apollo 13 there’s a scene where a nerdy engineer rigs up an improvised gadget that is going to allow Tom Hanks and the crew of his stricken spacecraft to go on breathing. Ed Harris as the Flight Director delivers the ultimate benediction to the geek: “And you, sir, are a steely-eyed missile man.” The line is reprised in The Martian, only here it’s the theme of the movie.
The Big Short
In modern America, if you can’t manage a hero, a jerk will do. The Big Short plays the trick of casting a gallery of charismatic actors—Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt—as the bastards who made a fortune from the collapse of the housing market. Movies have always celebrated attractive villainy, but the twist in this movie is that these rapacious hedge-fund opportunists are portrayed not as villains but as visionaries. They’re the only “decent” people in the movie—decent because they see what the other saps can’t: that the financial markets are poised for meltdown. As an explanation of why the American economy tanked eight years ago The Big Short is the sexiest finance class ever. Director Adam McKay brings in Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain arcane business terms. Only after it’s over do we realize we’ve been rooting—ha, ha!—for guys who cashed in—ha, ha!—on other people’s ruin.
For years the big Hollywood studios watched in dismay as their showcase awards were hijacked by independent films. Since The Hurt Locker upset Avatar in 2009 the Best Picture winners have been offbeat sleepers: The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman. The inclusion this year of Room, about a woman and her son confined in a small space, gives the trend a metaphor. If movies and the impact of movies are getting smaller, the opportunities for making them seem to be expanding. For indie filmmakers Room’s nomination is the most encouraging since Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012. That this movie triumphed while prestige pictures like The Walk and Steve Jobs were bypassed demonstrates how changes in technology, financing and distribution have opened up filmmaking to pretty much anyone who wants to play.
A film can’t be faulted for not being what it never intended to be, but the gentle love story Brooklyn obliquely underscores this year’s controversy about the exclusion of African Americans from the nominees by focusing on the borough in the 1950s when the ethnic character of the place was largely Irish and Italian. It’s not that this chapter of America’s story is less valid a subject for art than the one represented by Straight Outta Compton, the year’s other movie about life in an urban ethnic enclave. It’s just that the Irish/Italian context seems somehow less connected to the lives we live now (in Brooklyn and elsewhere) than the hip-hop milieu of Compton. By all reports a charming, sweet-natured film, Brooklyn sits like a small-town girl in vintage attire among the other nominees for what most would agree was an angry, far from charming year.