Warning: long post to follow! So I've been making my way through all the Best Picture nominees this year, and as excited as I am to see both The Martian and Mad Max on the list - two sci-fi movies filled with science and explosions respectively - I still have to concede that The Big Short may deserve the best picture award.
Bridge of Spies is a bit too understated and too comfortable of a movie - it tells a good story, but it doesn't tell it in a particularly interesting way, and the performances are really not the best compared to previous performances by the cast. I found myself discretely checking the time during the film, and the typical Spielberg pay-off at the end felt forced if you consider that the Cold War went off for decades still and nothing really changed significantly. It was one of the weakest Spielberg movies in my opinion and there were many other films in 2015 that were much more deserving of a nomination.
Mad Max is a marvel and maybe my favourite film of the year, filled with great spectacle and performances but it is uneven in its pacing and story. Its symbolism is rather heavy-handed and gradually grows tiresome as the film winds down. I won't go into how it should've been titled "Imperator Furiosa" as many people claim, it is a Mad Max movie through and through. It is a surprisingly feminist film so that could be another important consideration in nominating it (and I feel that's a good thing by the way). I'm very happy to see it get the nomination, but its story, basic and sometimes nonsensical as it is, don't make it a serious contender in my opinion.
The Revenant is an extremely raw and demanding film, but it is trying too hard to be a Terrence Malick film while it should be its own film. The actors and crew do an amazing and incredibly demanding job but Revenant feels too much: too much machismo, too much faux-New Age, too much post-colonial critique, too much forced symbolism (how many times does Leo get symbolically reborn in Revenant? I lost count). Does Leo deserve best actor award or Tom Hardy best supporting actor? Absolutely. But whereas Inarritu's Birdman was sly, witty, subversive, with an engaging meta-critique of the genre -a real high-wire act - The Revenant is at times too bombastic, too serious, too ponderous.
Spotlight I enjoyed a lot, it tells a very important story and it tells it well and it joins films such as All the President's Men or Zodiac as a great journalistic film. But although it has a great script and performances, visually it is boring to watch - it is very conventional and mostly feels like a TV show. It is filled with medium cut-and-reverse shots of people talking with each other and doesn't do much effort to stage and shoot the scenes in ways that could be far more interesting (I admit that I have been binge-watching Every Frame a Painting lately so that might skew my opinions). It could work very well as an HBO miniseries allowing some characters and subplots to develop further. TV is not a bad thing, TV has been consistently great in the last decade, but I would like to see the camera and editing work hand in hand with the great performances and the script and Spotlight just doesn't do that.
The Martian is excellent. It's a great adaptation and it's a very fun film. But it is uneven, which becoming apparent through multiple viewings. There is no doubt that Matt Damon pulls off a great performance, but I can't pinpoint any particularly noteworthy moments from the rest of the cast. One half of the movie is Matt Damon's character's YouTube diary (which he totally carries off because everyone loves Matt Damon), the other half is a rather cliche "bring 'em home alive" astronaut movie. It is all great fun, the humour is excellent, and there are some nail-biting action scenes, but it's just too uneven to be the best picture in my opinion. Great sci-fi adventure film and a big huzzah for portrayal of scientists and engineers and astronauts though.
Room. This movie is more painful to watch in many ways than Revenant's 2+ hours of raw physical agony, because its pain and tragedy is of a whole different order. It wrings unforgettable performances from its actors and demands so much from the audience. On raw actor performance power it should win. But, and this is my totally subjective and personal opinion, I always wish and hope that best picture awards (Oscars or otherwise) should go to films that have something important to say or something new to say using the unique strengths of the media of film. Sometimes we get that, and sometimes we don't (*cough* Titanic *cough*). Room is a film about surviving the unthinkable and love, but its story and message is not unique - its performances are.
Brooklyn. I thought Brooklyn was OK. I could watch Saoirse Ronan any time, and I'm a big fan of Nick Hornby (sue me, High Fidelity is one of my personal favourites), but I cannot for the life of me understand what Brooklyn is doing on the Best Picture nominations. It has some very lovely and charming performances, but it's not a particularly interesting film and it doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say. Maybe I'm the wrong audience for it, but for me it was mostly forgettable.
OK, so Big Short. What Big Short does is essentially take the 2010 documentary "Inside Job" (which was already excellent and won an Oscar) and dials it to 11. Both it and Spotlight tell very important stories, but where Spotlight falters on using its camera wisely to help tell the story, The Big Short uses camera and editing confidently, doing with it things that most TV shows would not even attempt to do. Unlike "The Wolf of Wall Street" which I absolutely despise (a great performance by Leo notwithstanding) as basically glorifying the Wall Street life style (yes, it's trying to show us how evil and greedy those people are but the lesson seem to be that if you commit financial fraud you'll be super rich and basically get away with it in the end), "The Big Short" is raw in its anger and cynicism that the 2007/2008 economic meltdown happened, that it was basically designed to happen, and that basically no one who was responsible for it was punished. It has some great performances and even if it does falter once or twice towards the end in its pacing, it never loses its focus. And the way it uses music is just great! It's very insidious in how it uses music and interpolated cuts to both prime the audience for each scene's payoff and to keep the audience uneasy (watch carefully the scene where Steve Carrell's character talks to a couple of mortgage brokers in Florida - it's honestly a masterpiece of a scene for so many reasons I could go on abot). It is a Film with a capital F, it does something that only the medium of film can do successfully. It tells an important story and it does it incredibly well through performances, cinematography, sound and editing. In my opinion it best fulfills all the criteria of a Best Picture.