I watched the Oscar nominees for Best Picture a bit differently this year. Rather than emerge from the cinema with conclusions regarding performances, plots, music, and motifs, I instead tried to swallow each film as a whole—and then analyze what I had ingested.
How did it taste? Did it fill me? Was it supposed to? What was it telling me?
A student—and, I suspect, a lifelong one—of the Umberto Eco school of media consumption (where lessons in metanarrative and intertextuality abound), I was essentially relegating the accustomed elements of filmmaking, and their analyses, to a secondary scrutiny behind the archetypal Eco inquiry: “We mustn’t ask ourselves what it says, but what it means.”
The rigours of such imbibing, I believe, help separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff—the universal from the confined, the everlasting from the temporal. Because, whether we know it or not, it is only those texts, those compositions, those images, and those films laced with living meaning that not only endure through multiple generations, but also speak to them anew.
Some of the films listed below are seeded with this richness. Others are not. And given the focus of this exercise, this is reflected in the following ranking of the 2016 Oscar nominees for Best Picture.
We begin with number eight.
- The Martian
Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, and Mark Huffam, Producers
The Martian is a drama with comedic episodes. It is not, itself, a comedy. (Think Little Big Man.) Making use of Jordan’s Wadi Rum, or Valley of the Moon, it looks terrific on the big screen—which is a good thing, because beyond the triumph of humour it is utterly devoid of meaning. Stranded astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, doesn’t seem at all weighed down by the magnitude of his situation (a shortcoming we see repeated in The Room), and as a result his predicament is as absurd as the film is disappointing.
- The Big Short
Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers
We have the tendency to be intentionally ignorant creatures. This is especially true when troubles arise that challenge those things in which we place our trust—things we elevate to a belief system; things we believe define us. And, as so often happens, we resort to denial, or simply choose to be oblivious, when introspection with a healthily critical eye would be the far better course. Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale in The Big Short, foresaw the financial crisis of the last decade—a cataclysm precipitated by noxious bonds in the housing market—and was jeered for his foresight until bank failures and economic meltdowns proved him right. It wasn’t, and won’t be, a one-off.
Fiona Dwyer and Amanda Posey, Producers
There is something of the classic in Brooklyn, something of the playful love story that lasts. It’s not a gripping tale; it won’t wrench you. But good luck to you if you don’t fall for it, if you don’t smile along with it. And that, as much as anything else, is its victory. Saoirse Ronan, as the immigrant Eilis Lacey who trades Ireland for the United States, is delightful; the performances, generally, are charming. And that we see a story told without a profusion of special effects (Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian were the only Best Picture nominees presented in 3D, for example) is a commonality that unites many of these films. The relative recency of the story (the 1950s) is also notable, as are the struggles with convention, expectations, and women’s issues that mingle throughout, albeit with a grace and appeal that make seeing this film a timeless, quintessential, cinema-going experience.
Ed Guiney, Producer
Like Matt Damon in The Martian, Brie Larson, who plays Joy Newsome in Room, is let down by a script that fails to express the despair of her ordeal: in this instance being locked in a garden shed with her son, who was fathered by her captor. The cramped space, quite obviously, means rather different things to her and her son, and the notion of normality is something cast into flux the moment they escape. Newsome’s father abandons the pair after an initial embrace, and in doing so recalls Comtesse Ferraud in Honore de Balzac’s Colonel Chabert—a figure who realizes the inconvenience of a return from the dead, something Newsome also experiences in herself.
Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, and Blye Pagon Faust, Producers
Spotlight gives us a story that tells a story, and given that investigative journalism is the focus it’s an entirely appropriate form of narrative. As the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team of reporters looks into allegations of sexual and psychological abuse, and eventually top-to-bottom corruption, within the Catholic Church in and around the city, we are reminded of the societal importance of the fourth estate. Good, earnest journalism, which so quickly seems to be disappearing, is a vital agent of the public interest, and it’s around some captivating performances that this message is expressed.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
Doug Mitchell and George Miller, Producers.
It’s worth pointing out off the top that Mad Max: Fury Road is not only matchless in its post-apocalyptic representation, but also one of the greatest action films in cinematic history. (That there’s also something of the western in it increases its cross-genre appeal.) It also features the best soundtrack of the 2016 Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. But what this film delivers throughout is an exhortation that humanity can quite quickly resort to the tribal. We’re reminded that the components comprising our modern lives—electricity, water, oil, etc.—are, through protectionism and distribution, the true sources of power. And there is something disconcerting in that.
- Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, and Kristie Macosko Krieger, Producers
Sometimes the other media we’ve consumed shortly before seeing a particular film speaks especially loudly into the experience. Not long before I watched Bridge of Spies I enjoyed a documentary on Thomas Jefferson—that most cerebral of Founding Fathers who contrived the statutes that, by signing onto, essentially made one an American. The lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, embodies the Jeffersonian ideal in his character, although in defending an accused Russian spy before an American court his actions recall those of long-time Jefferson rival John Adams, who, like Donovan, endeavoured to provide the full breadth of the law to his own, unpopular clients: British soldiers accused of firing on Boston civilians. What we’re given by this film is an important, multi-layered metanarrative. Donovan’s desire to show his country’s Cold War enemy that the United States is what it is because of its adherence to the rule of law, to those statutes, is an enduring lesson. As is the reminder that a tendency to get caught up in a single moment of history robs us of the chance to step back and see a longer, temporal line that stretches behind, alongside, and in front of us.
- The Revenant
Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Mary Parent, and Keith Redmon, Producers
A river runs through this film—a cold, uncomfortable damp that helps lend it a sombre, squeamish disquiet. In The Revenant we have a picture where running water, aching ice, crunching snow, and crackling fires not only accompany the soundtrack’s firm, leading chords, but also, and quite magnificently, convey the film’s message with the performances being enacted, and themes being delineated, alongside. Here we have revenge, the justice of the land, and the retrogression to the animal presented as accompaniments to the medium, to the method of the telling. The very first Academy Awards bestowed prizes for both Outstanding Picture and Unique and Artistic Production—a sort of two-headed Oscar for what is now the Best Picture honour. The Revenant would certainly have claimed the latter accolade, were it presented in 2016. As it is, this year’s leading nominee should win the most prestigious distinction available to it.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg writer and Creative Content Specialist at Providence University College and Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter: @jerradpeters