My 2016 personal Oscar screening (part 2)

2016/03/09

 

So the 2016 Oscars ceremony has come and gone. And I’ve finally made up my mind how to rank them in my personal hierarchy. In each case, I’m also commenting on the controversy of the year’s awards: that no black actors got any nods. I’ll say this up front: It’s not racism on the part of the Academy. It runs more deeply than that.

All right. Let’s get on with it.

8. Brooklyn

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This is a nice little period love story and a fine film.

It has no business being a Best Picture nominee.

Seriously, why is this film here? It’s far overshadowed by its nearest neighbor on my list. Sadly, in the old five-picture nods that this category used to be limited to, this may have likely still made the cut over more deserving material.

#OscarsSoWhite, Brooklyn edition: This film illustrates the real problem of why the OSW tag exists. With a cast and storyline centered around Irish natives and immigrants during the early 1950s, this is a completely white story. There is zero room for black people in the narrative. For one shiny moment, I hoped that the reappearance of a black extra in a crowd shot would bear some fruit, but no.

 

7. Bridge of Spies

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It’s a fine film and important for our times, when the meaning of what it is to be America is central to this election year. “Bridge of Spies” makes it clear, in a great, first-act speech by star Tom Hanks, that America’s exceptionalism is due to her laws, not her military might or pragmatism. What makes an American? Laws that make him or her so, not ethnicity, language or a tribe.

For all that, though, “BoS” was just a fine film, not an exceptional one, save for the Oscar-winning performance of Mark Rylance as the accused Soviet spy defended by Hanks’ character. And so it occupies slot No. 7.

Bridge of White Spies: Another period film, and one centered around spy craft between two Caucasian-dominated superpowers in a cold war, again leaves no roles for black actors in an Oscar-caliber film.

 

6. The Revenant

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Leonardo DiCaprio earns his Best Actor Oscar in his mighty performance in this revenge-themed Western. As good as it is, though, “The Revenant” suffers a bit with a too-long running time — honestly, I think it may have been far stronger with as much as 20 minutes cut — and less showiness. Director Alejandro Inarritu just can’t stop the long tracking shots and it got to be bothersome.

Don’t get me wrong, here. This is top-flight film work. If you can take the relentless story of a man having the worst week or so of his life, there’s a lot to like about The Revenant.

West So White and Red: Though the film does an very admirable job of casting actual Native Americans in their roles throughout the story, “The Revenant” continues the long tradition of Westerns excluding black actors.

 

The remaining five Best Pic noms — “The Big Short,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “Room,” and “Spotlight” — all held a five-way tie for my top slot until this week.

5. Room

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This little film about a boy who’s spent his whole 5-year life with his mom in a 10 x 10 x 10 room was just about the best film of the year for its first half. The climax of that story is the most intense and affecting scenes in all of 2015 cinema.

Then the second half happens. It’s so much less interesting and yet it’s the part of the film that matters the most. The tack of telling the story from the boy’s POV hurts the narrative somewhat in this part of the movie and drags it to the bottom of the five-way-tie list. Still amazing.

White Room: With a cast of only about a dozen, there wasn’t much room [heh] for black actors here outside of one small part. And given the subject matter, this is one case where I’m very GLAD the principals weren’t black people.

 

4. The Big Short

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I expected this docudrama about the housing market crash to hover near the bottom of the list. But with its judicious trick of 4th-wall busting, “The Big Short” takes this subject and makes it a bracingly fun watch.

Wall Street? White Street: Thanks to centuries of institutionalized racism locking blacks out of opportunities in high finance, there just aren’t enough to have been in on this true story.

 

3. Mad Max Fury Road

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Sometimes rightly called an extended car chase, this sci-fi flick is still brilliant to watch and builds an entire world with virtually no time or energy wasted on exposition. There’s so much going on in the margins of this story about a sick society in service to the film’s deeper theme of finding a better way to live than spending lives propping up a sick, selfish system.

Warboy White: The film’s source and setting both being Australia, a nation with its own messy, unresolved history of racism against black people, leads to its contribution to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. In truth, it’s hard to imagine Immortan Joe’s society NOT being virulently racist on top of its other sins.

 

2. Spotlight

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Longtime readers may recall when this blog was called “Mild-Mannered Ex-Newspaperman,” so named when I thought my journalism days were done. But a newspaperman I remain and so this true story about how the Boston Globe newspaper broke the story of widespread sex abuse in the Catholic Church appeals greatly to my professional pride. It was gratifying to see it win the Best Picture award, even if, in my opinion, it wasn’t QUITE the best picture among these eight.

JournalismSoWhite: Institutional racism seeps into all corners of society. So while there were a Latino man and white woman on the real-life Spotlight team, there was no role for a black actor, alas. Even today, it’s a rare pleasure for blacks in this profession to walk into a room of our peers in our field and not be the only one or two of our ethnicity.

 

1. The Martian

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As mentioned earlier, there was a five-way tie for this slot. In the end, I wound up arranging them according to genre and professional preference. But this film outshines them all in one tiny little way: It made me smile without trying to make me smile.

Let me explain.

Once in a while, a film will execute its thing so expertly that I find myself grinning with pleasure during a scene that’s not the least bit funny or jokey. That, for me, is the mark of superior filmmaking and is one reason why, upon my screening, I said that “The Martian” might be director Ridley Scott’s finest work.

Since then, I’ve given “Blade Runner” another viewing, so I may back off from that pronouncement. But from its excellent script to its social commentary to its perfect visuals and pacing and upbeat themes, “The Martian” stands a hair taller than the others to claim my vote for Best Picture because it alone of the eight had me grinning that grin.

#OscarsSoWhite, Mars edition: Ironically, this film, with the greatest representation of black actors of the entire Best Pics lot, is also emblematic of the Oscars’ greatest failing in this area. Because while Matt Damon’s performance is indeed excellent, I have trouble seeing how it’s more worthy of nomination than Will Smith’s role in Concussion or Michael B. Jordan’s in Creed or (reportedly, because I have not seen it) Idris Elba’s in Beasts of No Nation.

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