The 88th Academy Awards: If I Picked The Winners…

2015 was the year I lived the dream I had since as long as I can remember, or at least came as close as I’ve ever come, of watching all the films nominated for Oscars prior to the telecast. From February 13th, 2015’s screening of Fifty Shades Of Gray to 4:00AM this morning’s Youth, I’ve seen all but one of the fifty-seven movies in the hot seat this year for the 88th Academy Awards. Only Embrace Of The Serpent eluded me, which doesn’t open in my area until March 11th; the curse of living in a flyover state. But I’ll be checking that one off my list soon enough.

I used to do predictions, but not anymore. Oscar Pools and my unfortunate desire to always be right tended to throw me into a quandary whenever the envelopes were torn open. Plus, what could my predictions possibly have that a staff writer for Variety doesn’t already have in spades? No, the last few years I’ve been picking the winners for myself, who and what I believe should win out of the nominations. Without further ado, the envelope please…

This year eight films are up for the night’s most coveted prize.

The Big Short
Bridge Of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

But more on that later…

Traditionally the first award of the night, perhaps intended to suggest they are getting right into it, and that the night won’t be quite as long as the staple joke of every emcee since the dawn of time has indulged. This year finds Supporting Actor one of the most lackluster categories. None of the nominees are runaways. Mark Rylance is great as a Russian spy in Steven Spielberg’s return to form, Bridge Of Spies, but it’s a rather understated performance that gets a bit lost in the story after the initial half hour. I’ve been wanting Mark Ruffalo to be recognized since forever, and really thought he sealed the deal in last year’s Foxcatcher. For his powerful turn as journalist Mike Rezendes I’m almost inclined to give it to him, but this year it’s not the right role, and he really only has one blistering, Oscar-worthy scene. No, believe it or not Sylvester Stallone should, and probably will, walk away with this one as the sentimental favorite. I’m usually not one to award based on legacy, but it’s hard not to watch his latest performance as Rocky Balboa without the gravity of the character’s forty-year history on the silver screen. There are so many quiet moments of internalized pain and longing in Creed, and Stallone wears them very well on his timeworn countenance. He probably won’t ever have another shot at this; I say let this year be his.

Mad Max: Fury Road should take home its first award of the evening here, as its imaginative story and fully-built world owes more to its costume design than any of the other nominees. Plus it would be nice to see this category step away from its traditions of crowning period dramas and general flamboyance. Probably not gonna happen though.

The inclusion of Sweden’s 100 Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared in this category is a joke and borders on self parody, as this award has a history of going to films that take pride in making people look old, which as far as I’m concerned is the very baseline talent an artist interested in this field should possess. I’m more interested in ingenuity and creativity, which is why I would give this to Mad Max: Fury Road, which features hair and makeup crucial to fulfilling Miller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic society. Just look at Immortan Joe. Look at him! He’s worth 1000 old wrinkles.

As previously mentioned I have yet to see Columbia’s entry, Embrace Of The Serpent. Well, it would have to be quite a spectacle to top Son Of Saul, the favorite to win, and rightfully so. Edging out the subversive brilliance of Turkey’s Mustang, the Hungarian film is one of the finest Holocaust films ever made, and certainly the best since Life Is Beautiful. Shot in 35mm over just a few weeks, and with a near-square Academy ratio of 1.375:1, director László Nemes exhibits a mastery of film language, in a feature debut no less, showing two days in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who assisted the Nazis in disposing of the gas chamber victims. There is simply nothing like the experience of watching this film.

It will be hard to beat out all the topical international issues depicted in many of the nominees, from Middle Eastern conflicts to Serbian refugees, and the war on terror, but for my money the devastating German family drama Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be OK) is what this category is all about, packing the emotional punch and evolving narrative of a feature into a tight, economic short film that leaves you wanting more right about the time it socks you in the gut.

HBO’s The Girl On The River might be the most harrowing and eye-opening of the documentary shorts this year, showing the extent of gender inequality in the Middle East. But the experimental doc Last Day Of Freedom gets my vote for the way it uses animation to explore multiple layers of meaning and powerful emotional commentary that couldn’t be achieved with a normal talking head account of an African-American with PTSD put on death row for committing murder. As the tale is narrated by the man’s brother through rotoscoping, drawn re-enactments take us back in time to show the unfolding events, the narrator’s feelings coloring each scene. More than any other nominee, Last Day Of Freedom fully utilized the medium to tell its impassioned and very topical story of the cracks in our criminal justice system.

Perpetually the two most confusing categories of the Oscars, as their meanings aren’t automatically explained by their titles, not even a distinction between the two becoming clear. In fact even learning the differences won’t save you from the task of remembering which is which every year. Sound editing refers to the actual creation of a film’s sound effects. Sound mixing is putting it all together to get the proper balance of all the audio elements of a film. Usually at least three of the five nominees each year are the same in both categories, which makes it amusing to consider both, if the Academy voters don’t understand the differences, and what it is about the other two nominees that makes their sounds so great while not being well mixed, or vice versa. This year I happily award both to Fury Road, not only because of its non-stop action spectacle, but because it’s the only film of the six different nominees that comes to telling its story through its sound design. Pretty much a two hour car chase film, the cacophony of sounds from revving engines, wind, dust kicking up, clanging heavy metal, frenetic dialogue, Junkie XL’s rambunctious score, guitar chords from hell played by the Coma-Doof Warrior, and the hundreds of other sounds I’m leaving out work in perfect concert to ensure George Miller’s vision is as much a treat for the ears as it is a sight for the eyes.

Rooney Mara is stunning in Carol, but her young career ensures she’ll do even better in a future performance. Instead, this award has got to go to Kate Winslet, who utterly transforms herself into Apple marketing executive, and only person who can put Steve Jobs in his place, Joanna Hoffman. Given roughy half of the best dialogue of the year’s best screenplay, Winslet becomes the emotional anchor of a film that meets at the intersection of technology and humanity.

Considering The Force Awakens‘ strive to completely copy the original Star Wars down to nearly every plot detail, it’s perhaps only fitting that it bring home the award for Best Visual Effects, just like its predecessor. I would much sooner hand it to the only nominee that used visual effects to heighten and enrich its sense of realism, The Revenant. I know, I know, but what about Mad Max? It pains me to take this away from what seems like a shoe-in, but that bear-mauling scene in The Revenant is the only sequence out of the five nominees that had me definitively sustaining my disbelief.

An exceptionally strong category this year, with nominees like Bear Story and Prologue, which are better than many of the nominated animated features. But only one is a revelation, an existential masterpiece for our technologically progressive times, that unexpectedly captures so much of the essence of life itself within its crudely animated cels. A film of endless paradox, Don Hertzfeldt’s World Of Tomorrow packs more into fifteen minutes than most films do in 120. Not only the best animated film of the year, but one of the best films period.

It really is no contest. Though Charlie Kauffman’s existential puppet show Anomalisa come close, exploring new possibilities in adult animated features, 2015 belongs to Pixar, returning to supreme form after a few lackluster productions with one of their very best efforts of all time, Inside Out. There’s a better chance of the sun not coming up tomorrow than this film losing this award.

Again, for a film that relies so heavily on world-building, set design is a key element, and there is no other choice here than Fury Road.

Roger Deakins is up for his thirteenth Oscar nomination for Denis Villeneuve’s drug cartel thriller Sicario, and he’s probably going to lose again, to Emmanuel Lubezki for The Revenant, which will ironically make his third win in a row for this category, an Oscar hat trick. A powerhouse category this year, with all five nominees worthy in their own way, from Robert Richardson’s exquisitely detailed 70mm camera work in The Hateful Eight, and Ed Lachman’s nostalgic flair with Carol, filmed in Super 16mm, to of course John Seale’s infernal apocalyptic days and blue-tinged nights in Mad Max. While I would not have awarded Lubezki last year’s trophy for Birdman, he absolutely deserves it for The Revenant. With some of the best long takes the medium has to offer, and photography that works in concert with the effects department to create a seamless sense of realism, Lubezki continues to push the boundaries of his profession. Maybe next year Deakins.

The Big Short is wannabe Oliver Stone, right down to director Adam McKay’s hiring of Hand Corwin. The Force Awakens is a joke nomination. The Revenant‘s long takes preclude it from consideration just like in Birdman, as does Spotlight‘s transparent editing. No, the far and away winner of this category is and should be Fury Road. Margaret Sixel’s editing is a large part of what makes George Miller’s film so pulse-pounding and eminently watchable. But more than that her cuts establish rhythms that turn each action sequence into a purely emotional, cathartic experience.

The Look Of Silence is the companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s revolutionary 2013 documentary The Act Of Killing, which displayed in terrifying detail the genocide of over a million communists during the cleanse in Indonesia in the 1960’s, through chilling re-enactments performed by the still-alive murderers who carried out the vicious state sanctions. The Look Of Silence is a sobering account of one man confronting these killers, who still live in his community, over the execution of his older brother. Trying to get these people to own up to their mistakes and show some ounce of regret, Oppenheimer peels off even more layers in his quest to expose the human face of pure evil.

I would have preferred to see Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” (my favorite pop song from 2015) nominated from the under appreciated Fifty Shades Of Gray. Radio AirPlay alone should have guaranteed its inclusion. Regardless, I’m happy to stick with The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” the second best song from a film which surprisingly actually plays the songs from its soundtrack during the film itself. Let’s hope The Weeknd can add an Oscar to his shelf right next to his recent Grammy win.

Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Jóhann Jóhannsson is currently one of my favorite composers, turning in exceptionally chilling work in Prisoners a few years ago, and the exquisite Oscar-winning Theory Of Everything in 2014. With Sicario he outdoes himself, creating the only score out of the five nominees that really echoes the trajectory of the narrative, in this case Denis Villeneuve’s powder keg story of an FBI agent awakened to the morally ambiguous actions of her government in fighting the Mexican drug cartels. Beginning with a simple rumbling bass line, Jóhannsson builds to a collage of noise that underlines the chaos that is becoming more and more our reality.

A strange category this year, as only two of the nominees can also be found among the eight selections for Best Picture. Spotlight is the shoe-in, but there is just too much imagination, heart, and storytelling brilliance at play in Inside Out to deny it the victory it deserves.

Steve Jobs should win this award but it’s not even nominated. So it’s between Brooklyn and Carol. As much as I love what Nick Hornby does in the former, I have to go with Phyllis Nagy’s subtle transformation of Patricia Highsmith’s landmark 1952 lesbian romance novel The Price Of Salt into not only one of the year’s best films, but one of the best love stories of all time, never once defining its characters by their gender or resorting to self-congratulatory liberalism.

Without hesitation George Miller deserves this award for his visceral, breakneck Fury Road, both the greatest chapter of his thirty-year-old character and his greatest moment behind the camera ever. No action film this century is anywhere near the same league as Fury Road, featuring unparalleled world-building, progressive gender roles, and a non-stop cavalcade of chaos that borders on the operatic. That this is all conceived and executed by a seventy-year-old filmmaker whose last films were titled Happy Feet, putting to shame the output of his half-century younger contemporaries, Fury Roadproves that true passion knows no boundaries.

DiCaprio should have won two years ago for The Wolf Of Wall Street, Eddie Redmayne’s turn in The Danish Girl is too mannered, Matt Damon’s vLOG performance in The Martian speaks for itself, and Bryan Cranston is unfortunately stranded by an aimless and pandering screenplay in Trumbo. Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, is a revelation as Apple CEO Steve Jobs, bringing Aaron Sorkin’s highly literate, rapid-fire dialogue to life as if they are words he was born to speak, unearthing layers of pathos I never though possible in a biopic.

If only Brie Larson wasn’t handicapped by Emma Donogue’s rushed adaptation of her own source novel and director Lenny Abrahamson’s awkward timing and sequencing of scenes in the film Room she would deserve this award. As it stands, it’s a veritable tie for me between Cate Blanchett for Carol and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn. Both are spectacular, but since Blanchett’s performance relies to a certain extent on Rooney Mara’s, to play off of and gain energy from, I’m going to say something I never in a million years thought would come out of my mouth: the Oscar goes to Saoirse. Brooklyn is a miraculous film of exceptional focus and clarity, and it is all held together in front of the scene, single-handedly, by the young actress. It is her best role to date, and she makes it her own from start to finish, leaving me unable to imagine any other person filling her shoes. That is the mark of a great performance.

So…how do things tally up for me so far?

The Big Short 0
Bridge Of Spies 0
Brooklyn 1
Fury Road 7
The Martian 0
The Revenant 2
Room 0
Spotlight 0

It’s simple math, really. Mad Max: Fury Road.