Dearest readers, please forgive my lengthy absence from the blog. There are many causes for this: I’ve been freelancing more, I’ve been working on my next book project, and perhaps, most significantly, I have come to conclusion that blogging is not going to get me a raise at work or pay for my kids to go to college. In fact, as I recently argued in an essay for Film Criticism , I believe that the academic film blog as a concept is dead or dying.
But don’t start the dirge for Judgmental Observer just yet. I still have things to say that can only be said in the loose, informal, ad-free space of the blog, such as my mom’s annual Oscar Picks! If you’d like to catch up on my mother’s picks in previous years, you can see 2012, 2014 and 2015. As for the rest of you, let’s get started, shall we?
Me: Welcome back to the blog, Mom! It’s been a year since we heard from you, and your fans eagerly await your picks. Are you ready to discuss the 80th Annual Academy Awards?
Mom: Oh I can’t wait!
Me: As always, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d like for you to tell the readers which of the nominated films you were not able to see. Let me give you my list: Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, 45 Years, Trumbo, or Steve Jobs.
Mom: Unfortunately, I did not see: Brooklyn, Room, Carol, 45 Years, Joy, or Trumbo.
Me: Let’s start our discussion with the Best Actress in a leading role category. What were your favorite performances of the 2015 season?
Mom: I really don’t have an opinion one way or another because I wasn’t able to see any of these performances.
Me: That’s so unlike you! Well, I’ve seen three of the five nominees (Carol, Room and Joy) and I thought all of the women whose performances I saw were great. So Joy was one of my least favorite films of the year. Normally I’m a big fan of David O. Russell but I found her casting in this film–as a down-on-her-luck single, 34-year-old, working mother–to be completely absurd. Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress but no amount of acting will make that young, fresh-out-of-the-womb face look 34 and tired. I thought Brie Larson was excellent in Room but for me, the young actor who plays her son, Jacob Tremblay, stole the show. So my pick for Best Actress is Cate Blanchett in Carol. I didn’t enjoy her performance on an emotional level–I found it icy and severe–but it worked in the context of this film as a stylized melodrama. There are also so few great roles for women, it’s always hard to pick “best” performances.
Me: So let’s move on to the category I know you’ve really been looking forward to discussing: Best Actor in a leading role.
Mom: The actor who should win the Oscar…is without question… [takes dramatic pause] WITH…OUT…QUESTION…
Me: Who? Who are you gonna pick? I’m on the edge of my seat…
Mom: …Leonardo DiCaprio! For his role in The Revenant. Now I will tell you why. I was blown away. It was a phenomenal film, and his acting in the film, and what he went through…
Me: But what did he do, exactly?
Mom: To portray someone living in the beginning of our country, going through horrific weather and violence between his own people, hunting for skins and hiding from the Indians–his portrayal of this man was just amazing. But not only that, he also gave you the feeling of getting to know what someone in that situation would go through. It was much more than surviving the violence. It was also learning about a man who wanted to move on to a better place. And he truly loved his son…
Me: Okay but you’re not telling me about Leo’s performance. You’re just describing the plot of the film.
Mom: He just came through as someone who survived the worst conditions. I found it fascinating that Leonardo DiCaprio performed just about every scene himself. Evidently the temperature was 20 below zero. It was a horrific situation for everyone involved in the film and the director just pushed them through it, which was worth it. In my opinion, this was the best film of the year.
Me: Hold on, let me chime in here even though I am woefully underprepared for this category–the only performances I saw were Damon’s and DiCaprio’s. I thought Matt Damon was fine in The Martian but nothing special. Honestly I’m a little shocked that he was nominated at all for this role. As for DiCaprio, I agree with you, it was a great performance. I will say this though–and I’m not trying to be cynical–but a lot of the role felt to me like it was screaming “Nominate me for an Oscar!!!” And I feel like sometimes actors will take on these roles and then make a big fuss in interviews over all they had to go through to prepare, all the suffering, and I’m kind of over that. I don’t care what you had to do to play the role. I just care about what appears onscreen. Having said that, I do think Leo deserves to have an Oscar on his shelf and I do think he will win this year, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his past body of work.
Mom: I see what you’re saying, but his performance was incredible. No matter how much people might say that he took on a role to show how tough it was and how he can do all of this stuff, I just don’t think that’s true. DiCaprio, no matter what role he takes, he is so brilliant. Every film he’s been in, and every time he’s been nominated, I feel like he should have won.
Me: I think we need to establish for our readers, that you do in fact have a Leonardo DiCaprio bias. I think you heavily favor him anytime he’s in a film. Why do you think that is?
Mom: The first role I ever saw him in was The Aviator, then Catch Me if You Can, then Blood Diamonds…
Me: You really liked him in J Edgar.
Mom: That’s another one! I cannot believe he did not win for that role…I mean, talk about a difficult role.
Me: Here is something you have said to me in the past: “Leonardo DiCaprio is penalized by the Academy for being a good-looking man.” Can you say more about that?
Mom: Absolutely. I still believe that and it’s been part of the Academy’s nomination process for a long time.
Me: Why do you say that?
Mom: Two absolutely gorgeous men–Paul Newman and Robert Redford–have been nominated many times. And Newman won once [editors note: Newman received an honorary Oscar for his body of work in 1986]. Redford, another incredible actor, has never won [editor’s note: Redford won an Oscar for Best Director in 1980 for Ordinary People]. I think the Academy is absolutely biased against handsome men.
Me: That theory is insane, Mom. Plenty of handsome men have won Oscars!
Mom: I’m talking model-looking, gorgeous men. There have been very many nice-looking men who have won. I just feel it’s a bias. When you’re that good-looking, they just look at you as a pretty boy actor. But that’s not done with women. Just with men.
Me: Last year you threatened to quit my blog if JK Simmons didn’t win Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash:
Mom: [laughing] Yes I said that.
Me: And luckily for my readers, Simmons did, in fact, win the Oscar.
Mom: Of course he did.
Me: Are you prepared to never appear on this blog again if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win Best Actor for The Revenant?
Mom: AB. SO. LUTELY.
Me: Really? You’re willing to give up all this?
Mom: Yes. I’m sorry. I must. If he does not win this year for Revenant, I’m done.
Me: Okay. Before we leave this very contentious category, I would like to talk about a performance I thought was snubbed by the Academy this year: Steve Carrell’s performance in The Big Short. I thought he was absolutely fantastic in that movie. There were a lot of characters in that film and a lot of visual tricks–it was a very “busy” movie–and he was the emotional heart of that film. He took what was a very reflexive and theoretical film and he expressed the human toll of the short selling phenomenon. And by the same turn, I was frustrated that out of that entire cast it was Christian Bale who got the Oscar nomination. This brings me back to my earlier complaint regarding Leo: I just hate how performance gets wrapped up in process. We all know that Christian Bale learned how to play the drums for his role as Michael Burry. And he didn’t even need to learn how to drum! There was no point to that stupid scene where he drums–the movie would have been the same with or without it. He just wanted to make a big fuss about his process. Then he gets a nomination and Steve Carrell doesn’t.
Me: Let’s talk about our picks for Best Supporting Actor. Out of all of these performances–and of course I can’t speak about the Bridge of Spies actor–I’m gonna have to go with Tom Hardy. I thought he was great in that movie. He’s a gorgeous man who you want to stare out but he made himself into such an ugly person in this film–not just physically, but his overall character. He was just so despicable you almost had to look away from him, which is hard because, holy cow, it’s Tom Hardy! I did like Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight but that was a more understated role.
Mom: I agree with about Christian Bale. He should not have been the nominee from The Big Short. As for Tom Hardy, I just thought he was so overshadowed by Leo in that film. I can’t even remember a lot that he did…
Me: He was the antagonist! He had the second biggest role in the film!
Mom: I just didn’t think it was that impressive…
Me: Wow you ride hard for Leo.
Mom: Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight was phenomenal. I’m glad he was nominated. And Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies was so low key and brilliant. I’ve never seen him before, I don’t know who he is. But throughout the film I just kept thinking “This guy! He’s got it down.” But then I did see Creed and the way Sylvester Stallone portrayed the old boxer trying to help the young boxer, the way he moved his body, his whole persona, I just thought he was terrific.
Me: Was he really terrific, Mom?
Me: Wasn’t he just a big dumb guy?
Mom: When you see Stallone you expect to see him in the role of a warrior, of a fighter who wins. But in this film he’s a down and out ex-hero and I thought he added a lot of passion to that film.
Me: Let me bring up another role I felt was snubbed this year and that is Oscar Issac’s performance in Ex Machina. It was an amazing movie and his performance as this sleazy tech bro–young, thinks he’s hot shit–was great. He was the puppet master for most of the movie, until he isn’t, and he plays the role very cool and hard to read, yet there’s this vulnerability there too. That was my favorite supporting actor performance of the year. Also, that jumpsuit!
Me: Let’s talk about our pics for Best Picture. What was your favorite film of 2015?
Mom: The Revenant.
Mom: There was so much involved in that film. The one thing I remember while watching it was the beauty of the photography. It was a joy to watch. The realism of the violence, and what the characters endured, their lives were so tough… I just thought it was a beautiful film. No other film from 2015 had such a dramatic effect on me.
Me: I agree with you. The cinematography was unreal. Iñárritu is famous for those amazing long takes he uses that last for minutes. The film is filled with those gorgeous landscapes. But for me my Best Picture selection is The Big Short. First, it’s incredibly timely–it’s talking about the subprime mortgage crisis, which America is still reeling from right now, and which literally impacted everyone in the world. To make a movie where your topic is sort of dry and dull and you make it compelling to a mainstream audience, to non-experts, is so important. I mean, that’s how we got into this crisis in the first place–people being uninformed. As a society, Americans (I include myself here) don’t know much about how Wall Street or the stock market works. The economic recession was the direct result of a few people who had specialized knowledge and who took advantage of loopholes that no one else knew about. I appreciate a movie that illuminates that to the audience. In addition to that, it was a really innovative film. I love how they illustrated difficult concepts like “synthetic CDO” with Selena Gomez and an economist playing craps. And of course the performances were great, as was the script. For me, The Big Short hits all my Best Picture marks.
Mom: Well my second choice is Spotlight. This was a film highlighting one of the greatest tragedies in this country.
Me: I just watched Spotlight and I did find the story to be equally compelling and horrifying. This crazy conspiracy! It highlights how important good journalism is to justice and truth in this country. In many ways it reminded me of All the President’s Men. But overall I wanted a little more from that movie.
Mom: You kept hearing it was wonderful and then you watched it and it let you down.
Me: Yes that’s true.
Mom: That’s the problem. It’s best to see movies cold, before you hear the reviews. Now one film I am very sad to see with a nomination for Best Picture is Mad Max: Fury Road. It was absolutely horrible…
Me: Whoah, whoah. I am delighted that film was nominated. In fact, that film is my second choice for Best Picture…
Mom: [horrified noises] If you like a film that is nothing more than looking at filthy, dirty men with blood coming out of their mouths, and their bodies torn apart…
Me: It sounds like you’re describing Revenant, you realize that?
Mom: …and there’s this stupid guy, playing the guitar…
Me: Yes, see that’s what was missing from The Revenant! We needed a bear playing a flaming guitar!
Mom: Now that’s not fair. Mad Max was absolutely disgusting.
Me: How can you praise The Revenant and the Hateful 8 for their violence but critique Mad Max for its violence?
Mom: Mad Max made The Revenant and The Hateful 8 look like a fairytale.
Me: WHAT?! What is the difference?
Mom: There’s a huge difference! The violence in Mad Max is pretend and it’s over-the-top. I mean one character in Mad Max captures this guy and straps him to the front of his car so he can drain the blood out of him. [shakes her head in disgust]
Me: Well I loved Mad Max…
Mom: LOVED IT???
Me: They took this character who is the star of this franchise, this hero, Mad Max and they put him in the film with the words “Mad Max” in the title. So you’re going into this movie assuming Mad Max is the center of the story, the hero of the narrative. The movie starts with him…
Mom: …eating a live lizard…
Me: …and then he is literally pushed aside so that we have these female heroes instead. And it’s one-armed Charlize Theron? Come on, that was awesome. It was a feminist action film. I mean, if you’re going to praise a movie like Revenant for its intense and realistic depiction of violence, why critique Mad Max for that?
Mom: First of all, The Revenant was about American history. Mad Max is nothing but horrific people rolling through a desert
Me: I see no difference there. Revenant was nothing but horrific people rolling through the woods.
Mom: You’re insane.
Me: Okay, let’s discuss The Martian.
Mom: I really enjoyed it.
Me: Me too.
Maisy [my 9yo daughter]: Can I say something about The Martian? I thought it was awesome! It was so cool.
Me: Yes, that’s why I liked it. It was such a great family movie. I wish there were more movies like that for the whole family to go to.
Mom: It was a very pleasurable movie. I learned about how an astronaut could grow plants in space!
Me: Okay, any final thoughts, Mom?
Mom: Yes, one person who I felt really deserved an Oscar nomination was Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful 8. He was just great in that film. I can’t believe he wasn’t nominated.
Me: Well, Mom, as always, it was a real pleasure talking to you about the Oscars.
Mom: Thanks for having me!
Editor’s note: I received this email from my mom today:
There you have it, folks. We’ll be back again in a year to discuss the 2016 nominees, that is unless Leonardo DiCaprio loses the Oscar. Then I’ll be on the search for another mom who wants to talk movies with me. Keep an eye out just in case, won’t you?
My Mom takes her yearly Oscar picks seriously (you can read her previous picks here and here). She tries to see all of the critically acclaimed films. She even attended a screening of the Live Action Short Films. Her pick? Boogaloo and Graham (Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney). I’ll have to take her word for it. You can watch that short here:
Amanda: We need to start by putting our cards on the table by telling the readers what we haven’t yet seen. I’ll admit, 2014 was a very busy year for me, and many of the nominated films never even played in my city, so while I tried to cram in as many of these as I could before our annual interview, there are still a lot I never saw. The critical darlings I have yet to see include: The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum), Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller), Still Alice (Wash Westmoreland), The Judge (David Dobkin), Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée), and Inherent Vice (PT Anderson).
Mom: Of the big movies, I haven’t seen Selma (Ava DuVernay) or Still Alice. Everything else, I have seen.
Impressive! So what is your pick for Best Picture?
It’s very difficult this year; I loved all of them. One of my favorite films through the entire process was Theory of Everything (James Marsh). I thought it was phenomenal the way Hawking’s life was portrayed. But, recently I’ve changed my mind a little, maybe because I’ve been reading the reviews and editorials and American Sniper…
…was one that they truly loved because it managed to bring people back into the movie theaters.
It did, but is that what a Best Picture is? A film that a lot of people go to see? Because if that’s the case, then 50 Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson) will win the Oscar for Best Picture next year.
Good point. But I loved American Sniper because it’s portrayal of an American soldier going to war and what he had to deal with and the effect on him as well as his family, was so powerful.
I agree with you there. It was powerful. But for me, the big problem with American Sniper is that I thought it’s message was very confused. I don’t know what Clint Eastwood thought he was doing with that movie because it seems to be telling two very contradictory stories about contemporary war. I thought the film glamorized Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who was a devoted soldier and an excellent marksman, but what was problematic for me was that it also glamorized what he was doing: shooting people. I think it’s possible to honor the soldier and tell his story without glamorizing killing. Having said that, it was a well-made film because Eastwood is a good filmmaker.
But Eastwood is giving us the perception of the soldier. If my son, or grandson, or granddaughter, were in the army and going in and out of those homes, I would like a sniper there to protect them!
I’m not disputing the need for a soldier like Chris Kyle. I’m disputing the way Eastwood depicted the act of killing, the way he glamorized it. I think that was irresponsible and I also think that’s precisely why the film is so popular right now.
Well, look, Eastwood was just following the book written by Chris Kyle, that’s all he did…
Look, we’re not going to agree on this one. But still, I keep coming back to Theory of Everything. That’s my pick for Best Picture. I know you didn’t care for it.
Can you tell me something that was good about Theory of Everything that *doesn’t* include Eddie Redmayne’s performance?
Well, it’s the story of this genius and what he endured and what he’s accomplished and the fact that he’s still alive. I thought it was a beautiful film.
Let me pause you right there. I agree that Stephen Hawking’s story is amazing. The fact that he was struck with this debilitating disease and the fact that he was also a genius who profoundly shaped the way we understand the universe, those are two remarkable stories happening to the same man at once. But that’s my point — Hawking’s is a great story on its own, regardless of how the filmmaker tells it. I don’t feel like the movie did anything interesting with this truly remarkable story. I think Hawking deserves a better film than this. Eddie Redmayne’s performance is the only redeemable part of the film for me.
I should also say that one of the other best films I saw this year was Whiplash (Damien Chazelle).
I was very “meh” on Whiplash.
I thought the portrayal of Fletcher, by J.K. Simmons, and this young vulnerable boy (Miles Teller) at a music conservatory — and this was obviously supposed to be Juilliard — was so amazing. We get to watch this professor, who knew he found a great talent who was not responding, and the way he chose to address that. Definitely one of the most memorable films that I’ve seen.
I’ll give it that. And frankly, I thought Miles Teller, who plays Andrew, should have been given a Best Actor nomination…
I don’t know about that — he was so overshadowed by Simmons.
And you know, the problem for me this year is that there were a lot of really wonderful films. It’s hard to pick.
I disagree! I was disappointed with pretty much everything I saw.
So let’s talk about Boyhood (Richard Linklater). I thought it was very cute, very nice, how they filmed this boy from when he was a child up through his young adulthood but…
[ she trails off, shrugs her shoulders]
I agree. I love Linklater — Dazed and Confused (1993) is one of my favorite films — and the performances in Boyhood were just fine. But had this been a film with different actors playing the role of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), I don’t think I would have given it a second thought.
Exactly. It was very sweet, but that’s all it was.
Boyhood was very satisfying. I really enjoyed the cinematic experience of watching a character age over time. Just lovely. But now that the film is over? I just don’t care. I mean, whatever, he grew up, so what?
Right. Another film we haven’t talked about is The Imitation Game, which was superb because of Benedict Cumberbatch. Other than that? It wasn’t that great.
And we can’t base a Best Picture pick solely on the strong performance of the lead actor. Let’s chat briefly about Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). I am huge Wes Anderson fan. But I fell asleep during this movie and I had no interest in waking up.
I thought it was stupid!
I also thought it was stupid. I guess we can move on then?
I’d like to talk about Selma even though you haven’t had a chance to see it yet. I thought the film was well-directed, but there was nothing remarkable about it. The best thing about it — beyond the story — was the performance by David Oyelowo. I thought he was really great in this role and that he absolutely should have been given a Best Actor nomination. Eddie Redmayne remains my Best Actor pick but Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. was subtle and powerful at the same time. It would have been very easy to get it wrong — after all, we’ve all seen footage of King giving speeches on television, but Oyelowo did a lovely job. But as for the film itself? Like Theory of Everything, Selma tells a remarkable story in a rather bland film. A Best Picture has to do something other than pick a good story. It’s also about how the story is told.
Let’s move on to the only movie that I think should never win Best Picture and that is Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro González Iñárritu).
And that is actually my pick for Best Picture.
And let me tell you why. It was the only movie from the Best Picture list that really stuck with me after it was over. The movie is essentially, except for the very end, a single take (or what appears to be a single take). The movie never pauses. To achieve this — beyond the use of CGI to mask the moments where the cuts actually took place — Iñárritu and his crew had to plot out where every actor had to be at every moment. Everyone had to hit their marks at the exact right time. To do all that, to coordinate all that with everyone on set, is amazing. And then on top of the technical feats, I thought the story of an aging action hero trying to do an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story for the stage, was really smart and timely. It stuck with me.
So you want Birdman?
As Best Picture of the year?
So let’s talk quickly about the acting categories. We’ll start with Best Actor in a leading role.
This one is tough for me. Through the entire season, Eddie Redmayne has been my choice. But, there was another actor whose performance has haunted me, and that’s Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. He is very disturbing — you hate him. He attracts these young men who are wrestlers and he wants to be their coach, their father, everything. I went home and Googled this guy, duPont, and Steve Carell looked, talked, and acted just like this man. One of the most disturbing films I’ve ever watched. But his performance of this mentally deranged man was really impressive. Still, Redmayne is my pick.
Me too. He truly gave the best performance. And granted, the role provided a lot of opportunities for Redmayne to demonstrate his acting skill. He had to both impersonate a living person whose demeanor and expressions are well known and it was also a very physical role, mimicking the impact of ALS on his character’s body. It was pretty amazing…
So we agree on that. Let’s move on to Best Supporting Actor. I haven’t seen two of these movies, so…
Well, I’ve seen all of these films and if JK Simmons doesn’t win for Whiplash then I am done with these interviews.
Really? You’re willing to give up ever appearing on this blog again…
You’ve seen Whiplash?
Well then. I would accept no pay to keep me back in [your blog]…
So I’m going to have to call the Academy is what you’re saying?
Wow, that’s a shame, because I think Ed Norton should win for Birdman.
[ noises of disgust, growls?, other indistinguishable noises]
Why can’t I have my pick?! On top of all the crazy stuff that was going on in that movie, all I could think about was Ed Norton. He was electric in that film: funny, twitchy, narcissistic. So dynamic…
I can’t even remember him from that film…
WHAT? We clearly didn’t see the same movie. He’s my pick, he’s not going to win…
He better not…
But he’s my pick all the same. Let it be noted.
[blows a raspberry]
Best Actress. Now I’ve only seen two of these so I don’t feel qualified to make a pick.
I’ve not seen Still Alice but I hear Julianne Moore is great.
She is great in everything she does. Let’s just both award this to Julianne Moore.
Yes, let’s do it! I’ll you why: I wasn’t impressed with any of the female roles this year.*
Know why? Because all the female roles were shit.
Well, you might be right.
Best Supporting Actress. Once again, I haven’t seen two of the nominees but I think Patricia Arquette deserves this one. I was so fascinated by her character. We meet her as this struggling single mother who gradually collects these degrees and then becomes an intellectual in her own right. But she keeps marrying the worst men.
I’ve seen all of them and none of them impressed me. They were all just there. Sure, we’ll give it to Patricia.
I just really hated Birdman.
*The day after this interview, Nana admitted to being a little hasty with her Best Actress pick. Over breakfast she told me she wanted to change her pick to Reese Witherspoon in Wild. She also called me from the road today to be sure that change was noted. Please note it.