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The Oscars 2016: What Do They Tell Us?

February 27, 2016

The Oscars are happening! Hooray for the Oscars, even if the theme chosen by the Academy this year is institutional racism.

The Oscars are happening! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, as the Academy still seems to think two hours is the minimum amount of time it takes for a movie to be important. But for once maybe you should have – the 2016 line-up is remarkably full of socially engaged, politically conscientious filmmaking. Here’s a short guide to the contenders, and what we might learn from their nominations.

Bridge Of Spies

In Which We Learn: That Tom Hanks is still the onscreen embodiment of American values, and that Hollywood is far more comfortable endorsing those values through the prism of the past than trying to impose them on whatever the fuck mess we’ve made of the present.  

Bridge-of-spiesBridge Of Spies is an obdurate moralist – a film about stubborness and standards, with Mark Rylance’s standout performance as a cold war spy an exercise in dowdy minimalism. It’s also, quietly, one of Steven Spielberg’s most relevant political pictures – with actual fascists marching the presidential campaign trail, and with swathes of the American public lit up by promises of state-sanctioned religious intolerance, Bridge Of Spies calmly and with Tom Hanks’ face insists that justice isn’t relative, and that a true test of our values is how far we extend them to our enemies. It is, in other words, the kind of sense the world urgently needs, which is why it’s a slight shame that it ducks the complexities of current conflicts and lives instead in a cosy, detached pocket of cold war simplicity, and a time of unquestionable American virtue.

The Martian

In which we learn: That Ridley Scott now makes better sci-fi movies without aliens than with them.

martian-4.0The Martian is like Don’t Starve On Mars, which is a joke only people who’ve played Don’t Starve will get but is still worth making because it really is like that except with fewer pig men. It’s also a movie that’s good mostly because it stars Matt Damon, one of the few performers engaging enough to make his co-stars shine even when they are potatoes and red sand.

None of this is why The Martian has been nominated for best picture, which has more to do with the fact it plays like a speculative Apollo 13 sequel. It is a film about NASA and the American capacity for greatness which, Like Bridge Of Spies, flees the present in order to stage a state-of-the-nation discussion on neutral ground. It’s also a well-paced disaster film directed by Ridley Scott, who’s made several films long enough to qualify as Academy-standard Important, although not one set on Mars that’s as good as Total Recall, which is still unironically the most culturally and politically relevant film ever set on the red planet.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In which we learn: That George Miller still makes blisteringly weird films about Australia and mankind.

mad-max-fury-road-charlize-theron-furiosa-tom-hardy-action-movie-reviewMad Max is a really good action film, that’s basically made of fire. It’s also a kind of miracle. George Miller, who sandwiched Babe and Happy Feet into a career bookended by apocalyptic revery, has returned to Mad Max and somehow invested it with the same angry sense of the fallen and the grotesque as he did 40 years ago. This is the kind of comeback that the failures of people like George Lucas and John Carpenter have taught us through brutal disappointment to be unthinkable, and it raises the possibility that maybe Miller’s just really fucking good at making films.

Supporting this theory is how Miller seems to appreciate that the very idea of Max – the violent traumatised loner, for so long Hollywood’s dysfunctional masculine default – is exhausted. In Fury Road Miller slots Max into a support role to the actual protagonist, Furiosa, on a mission to free a group of women from sexual slavery and search for a matriarchal utopia. In other words, while most action films struggle to find a space for women’s tits on the poster, Mad Max is, somehow, an impossible spectacle of neverending speed and violence and a critique of reproductive exploitation and the inherent destructiveness of patriarchal political discourse. Bring Happy Feet 3 the fuck on.

Spotlight

In which we learn: That nominees can still be unremarkable if they are about Important True Things.

spotlight-movie_FotorSpotlight is the kind of good that makes it hard to get worked up about in any particular direction, a take on widespread child abuse in the Catholic Church that contributes another perspective to this year’s general theme of “Ways groups of men really fuck things up”.

It’s also a better conspiracy thriller than it is an enlightening treatment of abuse – the response the film provokes most effectively isn’t horror or sympathy, but excitement. And Spotlight made me feel significantly less excited than, say, Creed, which is a masterclass in emotionally involving its audience in the specific ways men should punch each other. Of course men punching each other is less important than uncovering decades of abuse – and that’s the point. Spotlight is here not because it’s a great film – it’s a good one – but because it wears its subject matter like a big badge of mattering (and also, if we’re being +1 skeptical, because the Academy has extra sympathy for a story about print newspapers and – specifically – the importance of paying for quality content in a digital marketplace.)

The Big Short

In which we learn: That at this point laughter is the only sane way Hollywood has of responding to the decadent sophistication of the financial crisis.

1401x788-BGS-02959R__The Big Short is a swaggering look at the 2008 global crash which – appropriately enough – borrows both the grammar and charismatic attraction-repulsion of Goodfellas, sweeping through institution-thick greed and systemic swindling with a wink and a flashy smile. If this year’s nominees add up to a collective anxiety dream about the contemporary crisis of American-ness, then The Big Short’s woozy “What the fuck?” is the part where you’re chased by dollars signs with teeth and your house is made from weevils.

As with Spotlight there’s an element of looking around the disaster rather than directly at it – this is, after all, perhaps the most American way of examining the crash, through the eyes of WINNERS, dreams coming true in the midst of capitalist nightmare. Other problems include wretched fourth-wall chicanery which operates under the delusion that acknowledging your break with convention makes it not shit, and everything Christian Bale does as a somewhere-on-the-spectrum investor with shoeless social skills but – wow! – a visionary bent for numbers. It’s affliction acting at its most mindlessly transparent, which probably why it’s earned him another acting nomination.

Room

In which we learn: A sustained look at various forms of male violence is probably the unconscious theme of this year’s awards.

room-movie-fiveExcept of course the male violence here is direct and obvious, at least eventually. Initially the film could be almost anything – science fiction, post-apocalyptic mystery, a single space drama lit up by the tender naivety of a small child (Jacob Tremblay, who could almost fit inside the Oscar he should definitely win but somehow hasn’t even been nominated for). Yes, this is the Hollywood version of being kept in a shed for years and raped every day – there is humanity here reality might not permit – but at least we have a Hollywood version.

I like Room for two main reasons: because its shrunk-universe opening manages to convey the galactic fragility of childhood through the non-use of definite articles, and because – Hollywood version or not – it plots itself out of a happy ending, giving half of itself over to the untidy and permanent consequences of trauma.

Brooklyn

In which we learn: It’s a real shame the Oscars is so racist this year, because in loads of other ways they’re doing great work.

ronan-4-xlargeBrooklyn is about the distance and draw of America at time when world was still an inhumanly big place, and about the tiny, immense things that anchor and rock our lives. It’s also a romantic film full of near-perfect people acting out a drama of unreal selfessness and dignity without being totally unfuckingbearable, which it pulls off largely thanks to Saoirse Ronan. Much of the film is spent watching her face barely move, the kind of face you’d believe no matter what kind of story it was telling.

Brooklyn is also a minute redress of Hollywood’s historical imbalance in the telling of immigration tales, and it’s probably revealing that rather than empire building and dream chasing the story here is about constructing a modest, happy life, all the space and potential of America barely able to pry open the trap of custom and expectation. These confines don’t hurt the film, though, which makes beautiful moments from the small and the quiet – a letter, a look, a word – all with more impact than a franchise of detonations and empty pryotechnics.

The Revenant

In which we learn: That suffering is, like, meaningful.

Screen-Shot-2015-09-29-at-6.44.47-AMWhile the other films in the best picture race this cross-reference conceptions of America with male power and violence, The Revenant is about headbutt-strength masculinity. The very kind, in fact that Mad Max left behind – raw and basic, trembling over the nobility of suffering like there’s no higher calling in existence than out-manning other men by enduring more pain, bears and outside than they can and then making a hole in them with a bullet or a stick.

The Revenant is probably brilliant, even if an age of digital augmentation had me doubting the truth of every grand landscape with which is pushed its profundity. But it’s also FUCKING BORING, unquestioningly celebrating an empty and destructive model of manhood that confuses pain with profundity.

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