The Oscars have been known for their political influence, their ability to recognize emotional zeitgeists—and, in recent controversy, their lack of diversity in nominees.
As I ponder this year’s list of Oscar contenders, though, I am rewarded by the thought that the power of independent film has become dominant in film preferences. Certainly there are worthy Hollywood entries. Bridge of Spies would have been a hands-down winner twenty years ago, but this year it seems to have little chance.
Just look at the list of true contenders:
Spotlight comes to us from Tom McCarthy, known in the indie world for bringing us such classics as The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. His is the world of the character-driven drama, red meat for the indie world and anathema to Hollywood. Sure, Spotlight is more ambitious than his previous little gems, but the indie spirit shines at its heart.
And then there is The Revenant. Though there will be resistance to claiming this $135M film as an indie, it was financed by one man, outside of the studio system, and clearly it honored its art above all else.
The Revenant, 20th Century Fox
I have always struggled with what makes a film “indie.” The classic definition is any film “financed outside the studio system.” More to the point though, I believe that a definition with more validity is “any film that is true to the passion that birthed its art.”
And then there is something else—a certain something that is essential to the best of indies. This essence is impossible to quantify and for that reason seldom mentioned. I refer to a tempered quality within the best of indies that seems to have roots in the passion that brings them through the struggle of creation.
In the lower- (or no-) budget films, a lack of funds itself fuels this special temper. But it also exists in The Revenant, which had seemingly unlimited funds at its disposal. Whether it's a conscious decision or simply an inherent part of his drive to direct the story he wants to tell, Iñárritu sets extraordinary goals for his art. Some would say that they are impossible goals. And yet, he continues to set out to accomplish them, accepting no compromise. It is for this reason above all that The Revenant is indie in spirit, if not in budget.
And the same can be said for Mad Max. George Miller created an entire post-apocalyptic reality within which his characters explored their dark fate. Dedicated to his vision, he refused the easy solutions computer generated imagery can offer, and instead called on stunt artists to work their magic. Atop twenty-foot poles mounted to monstrous vehicles, they charged into battle behind a pyro guitarist. That’s indie spirit.
And of course, then, there is Room, the tiny little film that touched the hearts of so many. All heart, acting grit, and magic. No argument here—indie to the core.
Room, A24 Films
It is the essence of the indie spirit that film lovers instinctively react to when they take their cinema seriously. And that is why in Oscar season, indie spirit, more and more, is winning over Hollywood polish.
Prediction? Best Picture winner? The Revenant.
But what a year. Spotlight is just as worthy and Room is just so special. Brooklyn stirred nostalgia and Mad Max was so true to itself that it brought in incredible audiences to experience the purity of its rush.
The Big Short made important complexity entertaining, educational, and funny; Bridge of Spies, while lacking that indie essence, was positively “Spielbergian,” a representative example of picture-perfect perfection.
And then there was The Martian. The box office juggernaut that deserved its nomination simply because of its entertainment value and likability. A great night of film. Enough said.
Some more predictions? Ok, with a little commentary along the way:
Best Director? Though not unheard of, it’s noticeable when there is a split between Best Picture and Best Director. In this case, Iñárritu got the double-win last year, and there are two worthy contenders without wins on their resume.
Mad Max: Fury Road, Warner Bros. Pictures
George Miller is at the end of a long career and sentiment could add to an already worthy campaign. Mad Max is great due to George’s vision and will, and everyone would celebrate his win.
And then there is Tom McCarthy. Tom is very well liked and respected for his body of work. And Spotlight is a great film, perhaps even more perfect than The Revenant in its film experience, and thus worthy itself of a Best Picture win. This would be how they both could be honored in a season when there are too few statues and too many great films. But Tom is still young.
So here goes. I’m going with the dark horse. Iñárritu and McCarthy split the unsentimental vote and George Miller, Mad Max, wins.
Best Actor? DiCaprio, The Revenant. Its Leo’s year and he deserves it. Eat raw Bison liver. Puke. Win.
Best Actress? Brie Larson, Room. Tremendous choices all, but Brie is at that special time, at the emergence of a great career. People feel it and want to share in the glow.
Best Supporting Actor? Tough one. Tom Hardy deserves the win, as his deeply rendered performance in The Revenant as Leo’s despicable foe was the key element that sold the film’s journey. But Mark Ruffalo has turned in many a great performance without due recognition and Sly is at the end of an admirable career. Does heart win out? Prediction . . . Stallone, Creed.
Creed, MGM/Warner Bros. Pictures
Best Supporting Actress?
This one is now a close race between Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs and Alicia Vikander, nominated for The Danish Girl.
Kate’s performance shined brightly enough that even though few saw the film in a theater, many feel that she is the front-runner. But she may be penalized for the film’s poor box office showing, and she already has many nominations and even a statue on the shelf. So:
Alicia Vikander was great in The Danish Girl, and, like Brie Larson, she is at that special time in her career when the world has just discovered her great talent. Sure, the award is for a performance in a specific film, but voters are human and I’m predicting that they will be consciously or unconsciously considering her entire recent body of work (which includes the stunning Ex Machina), along with the excitement that accompanies the emergence of a new star.
The Best Supporting Actress win goes to Alicia Vikander.
The Danish Girl, Focus Features
A little side controversy is worth a mention here. Though nominee Rooney Mara was stunning in Carol, she’ll likely not win, as category cheating has become passé. Though “category strategy” has not been unknown in the past, this one stands out. Rooney had more screen time in Carol than even Cate Blanchet, who was nominated in the Lead Actress category. A bit over the line.
Best Original Screenplay. Hands down Tom McCarthy, Spotlight. It’s deserving of Best Picture and Best Director, and this is his (deserved) consolation prize.
Best Adapted Screenplay. The Big Short. Incredibly dense subject made extraordinarily entertaining. Deserves it big time.
Best Animated Film. My choice is Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s exploration of one man’s ugliness, a film created for adults (only!). But historically the win has gone to animated films for kids . . . Inside Out will win.
Inside Out, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Best Foreign Language Film? Son of Saul. No one else has a chance against this devastating, close-up, Holocaust testament.
These are the Marquee categories, but let me take a moment for two that will not get the attention that they deserve.
Jack Fisk will win Best Achievement in Production Design for creating the world of The Revenant. This film simply would not be what it became without Jack’s extraordinary artistry. A close look at his films is an education in the importance of production design. This man is the reigning master of this essential filmmaking art.
And it is very likely that Emmanuel Lubezki will win for the third year in a row (he received wins for Gravity and Birdman following five previous nominations) for his extraordinary cinematography in The Revenant. Extraordinary career. Extraordinary artistry. Duly recognized.
And so there they are. Picks, predictions, thoughts, and hopes. In recent years, I went into Oscar night confident in my picks. What a luxury that this year, in the end, my main prediction is that I will likely be wrong as much as I am right. And I don’t care. So many are deserving.
2015, a very good year in film.