This year, I saw every one of the 31 nominated feature films and 15 nominated shorts. Here are my random comments on most of the categories.
• The Big Short
• Bridge of Spies
• Mad Max: Fury Road
• The Martian
• The Revenant
My favorite film of the year was The Big Short. In my desperate attempt to understand the financial collapse of 2007-2008, I read the 600+ pages of the Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States, going over the chapters carefully until I understood collateralized debt obligations, synthetic collateralized debt obligations, derivatives, tranches and other terms I had not heard of until the economy fell apart. But when I tried to explain to others what I had learned, I witnessed a lot of eyes glazing over and minds tuning out. The beauty of The Big Short is that it takes the same subject and makes it not just understandable, but entertaining. As a companion piece, I recommend also watching 99 Homes, which deals with the same crisis from the point of view of families losing their homes and the unscrupulous people who exploit them.
As for the other nominees, I actually liked -- or at least was entertained by -- all of them. I found Spotlight, The Martian, Bridge of Spies and even Mad Max: Fury Road, to be standard, template Hollywood-type films: well-made and engaging, but nothing special.
I particularly liked Brooklyn because the characters were, for the most part, likable despite their flaws, which is the way I perceive most people in the real world.
The favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar is The Revenant. It has some knockout cinematography and it was certainly gripping. But there is one aspect of the film that I find disappointing. This is a revenge movie based on a revenge novel that is a fictionalized retelling of the life of Hugh Glass. The real Hugh Glass died more than 180 years ago and, even by that time, his tale of survival had been enhanced and mythologized. However, it would appear that when Glass caught up with Jim Bridger, the younger of the two trappers who abandoned him, he forgave the teenager. When Glass finally tracked down the older trapper, John Fitzgerald, who had become a soldier, at Fort Atkinson, the officers in charge of the fort would not allow Glass to confront Fitzgerald. But they did retrieve for him the rifle that Fitzgerald had taken. I can't help but feel that if the filmmakers had at least shown Glass forgiving Bridger, it would have been more powerful. And, just for the record, the bear attack happened in the summer, not the winter, and Glass did not have a son by an Indian woman or any other children that we know of for that matter.
I have already written about The Martian as the winner of my award for The Most Disgusting Product Placement, but I would like to add one more negative reaction to this film. In order to save Matt Damon, NASA has to seek the help of a foreign nation that has a space program. You know, like France, Japan, Germany, India and other democracies. But no, the author of the novel, Andy Weir, and the producers of The Martian chose a dictatorship: China. The reason is pretty obvious: China is potentially the biggest market in the world. Considering that the Communist Party government limits the number of foreign films that can be shown in China to 34 a year, companies like Twentieth Century Fox are more than willing to grovel and pander to the Chinese dictatorship. Not that it matters from a fictional point of view, but since 2011, U.S. law has specifically prohibited NASA from cooperating with the Chinese on any space-related project.
I was disappointed to see two other films overlooked: Beasts of No Nation and Stars Wars: The Force Awakens.
• Bryan Cranston - Trumbo
• Matt Damon - The Martian
• Leonardo DiCaprio - The Revenant
• Michael Fassbender - Steve Jobs
• Eddie Redmayne - The Danish Girl
Leonardo DiCaprio is the overwhelming favorite in this category, but I would like to call attention to two non-nominees. I don't normally approve of giving nominations to child actors because it is something of an insult to adult actors who have sweated blood for years to perfect their craft. However, this year two child actors gave outstanding performances: 14-year-old Abraham Attah as a child soldier in Beasts of No Nation and 9-year-old Jacob Trembley as a boy held hostage in Room. I know that Eddie Redmayne has received wide acclaim for his portrayal of a man who undergoes surgery to become a woman in The Danish Girl, but the wan smile that he displays over and over again reminded me of Derek Zoolander.
• Cate Blanchett - Carol
• Brie Larson - Room
• Jennifer Lawrence - Joy
• Charlotte Rampling - 45 Years
• Saoirse Ronan - Brooklyn
The favorite here is Brie Larson, but the performance that stayed with me was that of a non-nominee: Helen Mirren, for her portrayal in Woman in Gold of a Jewish woman from West Los Angeles who tries to regain a famous painting that was stolen from her family by the Nazis and is now an Austrian national treasure. You see, Mirren reminded me of my late mother and nearly all of her West Los Angeles Jewish friends. Helen Mirren, of course, is most definitely not a West Los Angeles Jewish woman, so I was impressed that she did such a realistic job of pretending to be one.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
• Christian Bale - The Big Short
• Tom Hardy - The Revenant
• Mark Ruffalo - Spotlight
• Mark Rylance - Bridge of Spies
• Sylvester Stallone - Creed
I am not a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but I am a voting member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and in this category I voted for Idris Elba of Beasts of No Nation. So did a lot of other members, so many in fact that Elba won the SAG-AFTRA award. However, he didn't even get a nomination from the Academy. Among the Oscar nominees, I was most impressed by Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, but if I was a betting man I'd go with Sylvester Stallone.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
• Jennifer Jason Leigh - The Hateful Eight
• Rooney Mara - Carol
• Rachel McAdams - Spotlight
• Alicia Vikander - The Danish Girl
• Kate Winslet - Steve Jobs
Although she is a longshot to win, I go with Rooney Mara's controlled performance as a young woman coming to terms with her love for an older, wealthier lesbian. If you're putting money on this one, your best bet is Alicia Vikander.
• Adam McKay - The Big Short
• George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
• Alejandro G. Iñárritu - The Revenant
• Lenny Abrahamson - Room
• Tom McCarthy - Spotlight
Alejandro Iñárritu is the favorite to become the first person in 65 years to win this category two years in a row. (The last back-to-back winner was Joseph Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve.) If he does win, it would mark the sixth consecutive year in which the Best Director award has been won by a foreign-born director.
• Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Cohn - Bridge of Spies
• Alex Garland - Ex Machina
• Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley and Ronnie del Carmen - Inside Out
• Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy - Spotlight
• Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Menkus - Straight Outta Compton
I suppose the favorite here is Spotlight, with Bridge of Spies a distant second, but I found Ex Machina to be the most original, and I greatly enjoyed some of the educational dialogue in Inside Out.
• Charles Randolph and Adam McKay - The Big Short
• Nick Hornby - Brooklyn
• Phyllis Nagy - Carol
• Drew Goddard - The Martian
• Emma Donoghue - Room
I can't predict how the Academy will vote, but for me, The Big Short is the runaway winner.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
• Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia)
• Mustang (France)
• Son of Saul (Hungary)
• Theeb (Jordan)
• A War (Denmark)
I saw 75 of the 80 entries in this category. You can see my expanded comments here. The Winner? Son of Saul.
• Ed Lachman - Carol
• Robert Richardson - The Hateful Eight
• John Seale - Mad Max: Fury Road
• Emmanuel Lubezki - The Revenant
• Roger Deakins - Sicario
This award will probably go to The Revenant, but Sicario was awfully impressive. And how about giving some credit to cinematographer Maryse Alberti and director Ryan Coogler for the amazing no-cut opening fight scene in Creed?
ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
• Boy and the World
• Inside Out
• Shaun the Sheep Movie
• When Marnie Was There
I look for comedy in animated films, so my favorites were Inside Out and Shaun the Sheep Movie. I know we're supposed to be impressed by the creative technique of Anomalisa, but a film about an unpleasant motivational speaker who's having a nervous breakdown? No thanks. Only watch this film if you don't mind becoming depressed.
MAKEUP AND HAIR STYLING
• Mad Max: Fury Road
• The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
• The Revenant
The Swedish film The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is certainly an eccentric and oddball story, but I'd appreciate it if someone could explain to me how it came about that it earned one of only three nominations in the Makeup and Hair Styling category.
• Thomas Newman - Bridge of Spies
• Carter Burwell - Carol
• Ennio Morricone - The Hateful Eight
• Jóhann Jóhannsson - Sicario
• John Williams - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
If 87-year-old Ennio Morricone wins this one, as is widely expected, it will mark his first Oscar victory after five unsuccessful nominations stretching back to 1979, and it will be nine years after he was awarded an Honorary Academy Award, which is usually saved for someone whose career is over. But it will also mean that Thomas Newman will have chalked up 13 nominations without a victory. And it will also mean that John Williams will have earned 19 straight nominations without a victory, but at least the 84-year-old Williams won five Oscars before his streak began.
• Cartel Land
• The Look of Silence
• What Happened, Miss Simone?
• Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom
This year we have three powerful films about international politics and two about brilliant, but dysfunctional, female jazz singers. I'm guessing that the award goes to Amy, about Amy Winehouse, but what most impressed me was the shocking immediacy of Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom. You don't often get so close to the violence of political street confrontations, but director Evgeny Afineevsky was able to bring together footage from 28 different videographers, including people who recorded the events on their phones.
• Body Team 12
• Chau, Beyond the Lines
• Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
• A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
• Last Day of Freedom
This usually overlooked category has an unusually strong set of nominees this time around. Hats off to the Academy members who chose them. Body Team 12 follows the only female member of a team in Liberia whose job it was to collect the bodies of people who died of the Ebola virus. Last Day of Freedom, a rare animated documentary, is a haunting portrayal of a man who realized that his PTSD-damaged brother committed a murder and turned him in to the police, only to discover later that his brother will be sentenced to death. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah tells the story of the French director's 12-year mission to complete an epic documentary about the Holocaust. I don't want to overshare, but it made me examine what I would like to accomplish with the rest of my life, which is quite an accomplishment for a 40-minute film.
And then there's the Pakistani film A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness about a 19-year-old named Saba who marries the man she loves. Because he comes from a poorer family, her father and uncle try to murder her to save the honor of their family. But she survives being shot in the face and thrown in a river. If the title leads you to assume that Saba graciously forgives her relatives...not so fast. The story is more complex and more disturbing than that. I give credit to HBO for funding both A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah.
• Bear Story
• Sanjay's Super Team
• We Can't Live Without Cosmos
• World of Tomorrow
This is an awfully downbeat bunch for a group of cartoons, so the favorite has to be the only one that isn't sad or depressing: Pixar's Sanjay's Super Team. At the showing I attended, a lot of people liked World of Tomorrow. I was not one of them. My favorite is We Can't Live without Cosmos, a sometimes amusing and sometimes touching Russian short about two childhood friends who go through cosmonaut training and get chosen to be part of a space mission, one on the spaceship and one as his backup. Frankly, my favorite in this category was a non-nominee which was shown in the theaters along with the nominees. Catch It from France is about a group of meerkats whose favorite fruit is stolen by a vulture. Considering the ending of this 5-minute gem, its release appears to have been timed to coincide with the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
• Ave Maria - Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont
• Day One - Henry Hughes
• Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut) - Patrick Vollrath
• Shok - Jamie Donoughue
• Stutterer - Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage
Ave Maria is an amusing story about three orthodox Jews, a bickering couple and the husband's mother, who inadvertently smash their car into a statue of the Virgin Mary at a convent for nuns who have taken a vow of silence. Shok, set in Kosovo, but written and directed by a British filmmaker, Jamie Donoughue, is a riveting portrayal of two Albanian boys in 1998 who start doing business with the Serbian soldiers who are oppressing the Albanians. Although Ave Maria is the betting favorite, keep an eye on Day One, directed by U.S. combat veteran Henry Hughes. It's about the first day on the job of a divorced woman who is hired to serve as an interpreter in a combat zone in Afghanistan and finds herself helping the wife of an enemy bomb-maker give birth.
Look for Mad Max: Fury Road to gobble up lots of Oscars in the down-ballot categories like Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Film Editing, Production Design, and Makeup and Hair Styling. It could also win Costume Design, although the costumes in Cinderella were impressive, and old-school purists might go for Carol. Mad Max could even win Visual Effects if the Academy voters prefer Mad Max's non-CGI approach to the more spectacular Star Wars: The Force Awakens.