With most of the major Awards ceremonies out of the way, it would be fair to say that the Best Picture Oscar race has been boiled down to three films; The Revenant, The Big Short and Spotlight. As they stand, The Revenant is the favourite for glory on Oscar night, what with numerous Best Director awards and the Globe and BAFTA for Best Picture under its fur coat. Yet, one cannot over-rule the possibility of either Spotlight or The Big Short coming out on top, what with the films sharing screenplay awards on both sides of the pond (Spotlight for Original, Big Short for Adapted), and Spotlight winning the SAG Award and The Big Short claiming that all important Producer’s Guild of America Award for Best Picture along the way. With the competition at boiling point, now is as good as any to share with you my thoughts on the three films as I once again attempt to catch up with my frivolous viewing.
The Revenant (Dir: Alejandro G. Inarritu)
Say what you want about the films of Alejandro G. Inarritu, you cannot deny his immeasurable work ethic. The Revenant arrives exactly a year after his previous Best Picture winner Birdman, and it is nothing short of amazing to see what he has managed to produce within that short turn around. Shooting entirely on location, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again only using natural lighting, The Revenant is a beautiful film in a very pure and primal manner, a film which drags you through the mud, makes you feel the cold, as well as sends you reeling in the face of an attack from one pissed off Grizzly Bear.
Frontiersman Hugo Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is leading a group of hunters through uncharted and dangerous territory in 1823, when he is attacked by a Grizzly Bear and left with terrible injuries. When placed in the care of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Glass witnesses the murder of his son at the hands of unhinged Fitzgerald, who proceeds to bury Glass alive, leaving him for dead. However, there is still life in the resourceful frontiersman, as he claws his way out of his untimely grave and sets on a path of survival and revenge.
The Revenant is very much a Western, despite begin shrouded in ice and snow, as well as taking place mainly on what is the East coast of the United States. Its placement within Anerican history and the conflict with the Natives very much colours it as a Western, but it is very much concerned with operating on a different, more mythical level for the frontiersman of American history. Hugo Glass is a figure who has slipped into folklore and legend, with Inarittu establishing and maintaining a very ethereal atmosphere as we witness Glass’ mission of revenge. The vistas look stunning, and Inarittu is constantly capable of producing startling imagery, giving an account that feels both very real and fantastical.
While nothing occurs in a great hurry, emphasising the perseverance of Glass’ struggle, much of what captivates ones gaze is the commitment of not only DiCaprio , but of all involved both in front of and behind the camera. The elements are as much a character,
offering Glass safety and challenges, in much the same dynamic as one can imagine the crew faced on set. It is the commitment by all that truly leaves a mark, rather than the admittedly thematically thin plot.
The Revenant‘s languishing pace and lack of speechifying classes it as perhaps the strangest Best Picture front-runner for quite some time. It is a primal film determined to brace the wind and lay down an American myth in a manner as uncompromising as the elements faced by those that made it. It may prove difficult for some to embrace, but what has been delivered is a unique sensory experience, if nothing much more. 4/5
The Big Short (Dir: Adam McKay)
Adam McKay has always been a director that has shown the potential to be more than just an individual who pumps out Will Ferrell comedy vehicles. Each of his films has always been shot with a clear and crisp eye, while he has also demonstrated a brilliant hand with actors and multiple big name stars. The film which demonstrated most of this potential is arguably The Other Guys, a film which operates as both a very funny Ferrell comedy and an energetic action movie. What makes it more interesting though is how it operates as a pre-cursor to The Big Short, McKay’s first ‘serious’ picture, as one may remember, The Other Guys delivered well explained material concerning embezzlement and the banking crisis only two years after the 2008 Crash. With The Big Short, McKay has a bigger canvas in which to express his concerns and anger with the banking system, adapting Michael Lewis’ text of the same name, and he delivers an accessible, riotous depiction of the events leading to the Crash in an attempt to unravel what the fuck happened.
McKay and Charles Randolph’s script focuses on three different individuals/groups of men who first discovered that something was amiss within the U.S. housing market. The first to discover a fishy smell; Michael Burry (Christian Bale) an eccentric hedge fund manger who chose to bet against the housing market as early as 2005, despite protestations from his fellow shareholders. His discovery soon worked its way down the line, with Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) validating Burry’s predictions concerning a collapse in the U.S. Housing Market. Once Vennett lets Hedge Fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team in on the secret, it soon becomes clear that it is not just the U.S. housing market that is extremely unstable, but the entire world economy.
The Big Short is at its best when it operates as almost a docu-drama, as we follow different strands of individuals involved in unravelling the shit-storm that sent the world economy reeling in 2008. We are led through the film predominantly by Gosling’s Vennett (Gosling essentially playing Jordan Belfort) in a somewhat inconsistent voice-over. None the less, the presence of Gosling’s voice-over and breaks in the fourth wall (stylised with numerous cut-aways populated with celebrity cameos to explain terms such as Collaterized Debt Obligations) firmly position the viewer as the most important character in the proceedings, as the film aims to achieve an understanding for all of us that have been affected by the crash yet may not fully understand exactly what happened. It makes the film a kinetic affair, one that delivers exposition in more refreshing ways than most films, while still maintaining a strong sense of momentum.
What The Big Short struggles to shake off is a sense of smugness. McKay’s stylings do certainly provide the film with numerous moments of hilarity, but the cut-away’s do, at times, grate, particularly when certain concepts have been explained coherently enough without the use of a celebrity cameo and/or extended metaphor. The elements which both provide the film with great moments of humour and show a certain measured level of design also threaten to feel condescending rather than informative.
The film also asks a lot from its audience in terms of empathy, as we are expected to engage with individuals who figured out what was happening to the Global Economy yet set out to save their own backs, rather than sound the alarm bells. McKay seems aware of this, and particularly addresses his concern through Carell as Mark Baum. Carell is on particularly fine form here, standing as the man who is most at odds with the weight of the information he holds. Yet, divergences in to his personal life and unresolved family traumas feel far too at odds with the self-aware stylings that mostly colour the picture , meaning many of Carell’s scenes simply do not feel cohesive with the rest of the film.
Ultimately, what The Big Short is more successful at is in delivering the facts of the economic situation which led to the crash of 2008 in a fashion that will make it clearer for many of those in the dark. Its satirical approach makes that bitter pill a little easier to swallow, yet keeps the severity and destructive nature of the greed of bankers very much at its forefront, leaving a very cold yet important message with its audience once the credits begin to roll; Bankers are Dicks. 3/5
Spotlight (Dir: Tom McCarthy)
One of the more mature pictures amongst this year’s nominees has come from an unlikely individual, namely the director of Adam Sandler’s The Cobbler. Taking a focus on the team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who exposed numerous cases of child molestation committed by a number of Priests, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer throw us into the world of investigative journalism like no other film before it. Yes, even All the President’s Men.
Spotlight is a film of incredible restraint as it aims to depict the unravelling of the controversy at its centre in a very realistic and by-the-facts fashion. It colours the proceedings as very procedural, and for the first half hour or so, this is a little grating. But it is all for a purpose. Once the weight of the situation begins to bare upon the characters involved, we ourselves realise how implicit we have become in the investigation and how much we ourselves also feel a sense of responsibility for the events that have unfolded.
The players of Spotlight are demonstrated as folks eager to see important news delivered in the most detailed and astute way possible, but once more and more details become unveiled to us, it soon becomes clear that no one here is entirely without blame. Moments of the past have passed these reporters by, moments which provided opportunities in which they could have uncovered such a scandal earlier. This feels like the real world, one where everyone is guilty of something, despite their best intentions.
Spotlight arguably lauds the best cast of this awards season (hence why it will more than likely be getting a lot of the Academy Actor’s votes) and McCarthy has made sure he has populated his film with character actors who are incredibly dependable and believable in such a real world dramatisation. Michael Keaton follows his incendiary performance in Birdman with a tun that is poised and driven, as well as sporting a well tuned Boston accent. Rachel McAdams is given a strong and layered character, one who is often under-served in a film lacking in much focus on female roles.
Much of the weight of the material falls with Mark Ruffalo, who provides the most ‘Oscar-baiting’ performance of the cast. He is at turns naturalistic, showcasing a range of character ticks that help form a truce account of his character, yet he is also given the more dramatic monologues, which often feel at odds with the more sombre and reserved tone that it mostly exudes.
Spotlight stands as the film that I perceive has the most chance of snapping up Best Picture in the face of The Revenant‘s momentum. It is simply the sort of film the Academy seems to enjoy; a sort-of but not too timely topic, a respected cast, mature sensibilities, and little in the way of fast edited action. It is a fine drama and an excellent demonstration of a script and a director working with an amazing amount of patience and restraint. 4/5