With a little over a month to go until the 2016 Academy Awards, I haven’t seen a single Best Picture nominee. I’m not too worried about seeing all of the nominees, though, because four of them will be released on DVD before Oscar night. Still, I thought it would be fun to take inventory of what I think these movies are supposed to be about before I’ve seen them.
By now we know that all of the 2016 Best Picture nominees are about white people, but what kind of white people? What are the white people doing? What are the white people’s goals, dreams, and obstacles? I don’t know, maybe this stuff:
The Big Short
Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carrell star as white men who – in the grand tradition of white men – were put in charge of important things, causing the sub-prime housing crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. It was 2007, the economy was going down the crapper, and skinny jeans were just starting to become REALLY popular so we were all a bit under-confident about what sort of pants we should be wearing and how long our shirts had to be.
There are a lot of heated phone conversations using old cell phone models that you’ll recognize from when you were in college. Maybe one of these guys – money’s on Carrell, but just kidding, I don’t have money because the economy collapsed – tries to do the right thing and thwart the Great Bubble Bursting of ’08. All of the characters are the intelligent-yet-hopelessly-flawed wealthy types that Academy voters LOVE. Finally, a human face on the credit default swap market.
There’s also a Regular Working Man, maybe a non-white person who serves coffee near their workplace, or a down-on-his-luck cousin who is a mechanic in New Jersey, who symbolizes the real people who were affected. He loses his house and Ryan Gosling thinks LONG AND HARD, oh yes he does.
I can’t picture what Brad Pitt does, sorry.
Bridge Of Spies
It’s the Cold War, and it’s New York City, and everything is filmed in dark, almost sepia tones. A Russian spy gets arrested and it’s up to a down-to-business, gruff yet noble American lawyer to get him out of trouble. The lawyer is Tom Hanks, playing someone more or less Tom Hanks-y. But the whole country is in a Red Panic and doing nuclear bomb drills under their school desks and blacklisting Lucille Ball or whatever, like they are WORKED. THE HELL. UP. about it, so NO, gruff NYC lawyer, they do NOT want to free your Russian spy.
Anyway they want to straight-up Rosenberg him, but then something happens and Tom Hanks has to go to Russia, where more than 25% of the characters are wearing those big fur hats. People wearing shades of brown intercept coded messages on radios left and right. Finally, there’s a big standoff on a bridge in Russia with Tom Hanks, the Russian spy, an American official who doesn’t trust Tom Hanks, a scrappy young pilot, and some Russians or Germans. But who is the real spy? Is he on the bridge? The bridge … of spies? (Yes).
I’m 1/3 of the way through Colm Toibin’s book, but who cares, here goes. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a young Irish girl who goes to Brooklyn by herself to get a job and gets homesick. But her homesickness is abated as HELL because she meets the hot Italian. This was in 1950 or so when Irish people and Italian people were pretty much different races. Eilis has to learn how to do cool new cultural things like eat food with garlic in it and argue about feelings instead of swallow them under a glut of boiled potatoes.
When Eilis’s mother falls sick, she is called back home … but WHERE IS HOME? Suddenly the town Eilis grew up in feels foreign, sort of like when you get back home from your semester abroad. And just like when you get back from your semester abroad, nobody really gives a shit that Eilis’s whole worldview has changed, and they only have a kind of middling interest in her stories. Ultimately, Eilis must decide whether to return to America to continue building her new life or stay in Ireland. She gets a tender, sentimental letter from the hot Italian and it makes her realize where her heart really lies.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Okay. So. First of all, this is a stand-alone movie, not a sequel to something from 2010 like I keep thinking it is. Well, everyone is in the desert after a major war that wasn’t 100% apocalyptic or anything but was pretty bad. It’s the future, but not so far in the future that people are named things like Glorg. Besides, thanks to the really bad war there’s not a lot of awesome technology or anything. Everyone looks sort of District 12-ish, if you will. They all have dirt smudges and torn clothing, like the Tina Majorino character in Waterworld. There are no superheroes (another thing I keep thinking), but there are humans.
Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy have to escape from someone, so most of the time they’re driving really fast to get away and throwing things at other vehicles, too. Lots of explosions. They pick up some other escapees on the way (after arguing about whether they have enough resources or if the people are secretly bad guys), so it’s like a roadtrip film-meets-action film-meets-dystopian desert film. Think Chris Val Allsberg’s Just A Dream + Hunger Games + The Giver + The Fast And The Furious + Syriana.
In this movie, which is not a comedy but maybe you’ll chuckle a few times, it turns out Mars is way more habitable than we thought. You can’t hang out in street clothes or anything, but you could take a spaceship there for sure. Matt Damon is one of those spaceship guys, but he gets Kevin McAllister-ed for some reason and he’s on Mars by himself. He has to get to earth really fast but he’ll have to MacGuyver his spaceship in order to do it. Most of his interactions occur over radio to NASA HQ. Matt Damon has a sweet, teasing relationship with one of the scientists there (Kristen Wiig maybe, but probably someone younger because she’s only 3 years younger than him). During a harrowing moment they confess their love to each other.
In the meantime, Matt Damon has to turn Mars into a home. All of the other scientists must risk their careers and their lives to save him, but he’s Matt Damon, America’s Golden Child, so they do. There is a touching moment with an international (maybe Russian) astronaut and another touching moment viewing Earth from afar. It will make you feel small because the universe is so big; but it will also make you feel big because you matter to the universe. For this one, think Interstellar + My Side Of The Mountain + Castaway.
I heard one side of a phone conversation about this on the bus, so I’ve got this in the bag. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man from the 1800s who really existed. He gets left for dead in the wilderness but was ALIVE. Then he has to live through so many shitty things that you almost wish he had just died. He gets attacked by a bear but not raped by a bear; no, Drudge Report, no siree he does not.
There are a lot of men wearing animal furs. Lots of giant fuzzy hats, even more than Bridge of Spies. Everyone’s on mountains being rugged. There are gross things Leo has to do to survive, like eating things that aren’t food, probably. It’s got to be way too cold to undress so he probably just pees himself the whole time. They may not show that, but just realize that it’s happening when you’re watching.
Brie Larson, who is not Alison Brie, is locked in a room a la the Josef Fritzl victim or Elizabeth Smart or those girls in Cleveland. She has a son, for whom she creates a stable and comfortable life. When they escape, he has trouble integrating into society – but so does she. People are insensitive and do things like assume she’s turned all Stockholm Syndrome-y or ask why she didn’t get out sooner. At some point she sees an inaccurate tabloid report and that’s pretty upsetting. Her childhood bedroom is a shrine to her former self. One of her parents died, or her parents got divorced, but either way life is totally different. At some point she stares hollow-eyed as her former friends have a giddy, happy gathering. Will she ever make it out of ‘the room’? Yes, because of the triumph of the human spirit.
In Boston, a news reporter is an Irish Catholic guy who went through parochial school and is from Southie and always has a niece’s First Communion or whatever to go to. When he’s assigned to investigate priest abuse, he feels like he can’t do it – but also like he has to do it. After hitting numerous roadblocks, this guy – along with some other reporters – meets a victim who’s willing to talk. The story grows and grows, and the team realizes they’re not dealing with a few bad priests but an elaborate coverup. Eventually they get a sit-down with a high-ranking official who knew about it and he seems repentant but also has that annoying “what can you do” attitude. I’m going to cry though up to 80% of it.