But when Hollywood’s first major awards ceremony gets to the two biggest prizes of the night Sunday — best motion picture in the drama and comedy/musical categories — you'd be hard-pressed to quibble with its choices.
Some are better than others, and a few will endure longer than the rest. But all 10 films make a compelling case for inclusion on the year's most esteemed (American) movies of the year. (Yes, including "Spy." Mostly.) More important, all of them offer something we hadn’t seen before, or at least in a very long time. They’re not landing on Mars, but they’re finding new ways to depict landing on Mars (or getting off it).
Here’s a highly subjective but totally inarguable breakdown of the elements that make each movie stand out from its forebears.
“Mad Max: Fury Road.” Forget the style, the mythology-extension, the sheer swagger of Imperator Furiosa. There’s a simple formal conceit at the heart of George Miller’s sequel that seems impossible to execute: Can an action movie be made containing veritably nothing but action? Sure can. The idea of reducing exposition and back story has been on Hollywood’s mind for a while. This is its natural end point — and, possibly, its future.
“Carol.” The very fact of migrating a story of midcentury gay suppression among women — where the story hadn’t previously been — from men, where it had (including in director Todd Haynes’ own “Far From Heaven”), was novel enough. But that romance and tension could bloom amid so much restraint and wordlessness is what truly distinguishes this film. Who else can mine so much emotion while so little is spoken — Kaurismaki? Ozu? Who’s done it recently? And in America?
“Spotlight.” This one’s easy. Sex abuse on screen is usually sensational; journalistic investigations inaccurate. In Tom McCarthy’s tale about the Boston Globe’s Catholic Church scandals of the early 2000s, both axioms prove untrue. The molestation is disturbing in a way that raises the stakes, but never in a way that feels like it’s trying to raise the stakes. And the journalism comes off as it does in real life — long slogs punctuated by thrilling breakthroughs.
“The Revenant.” Bears, military ambushes, horse beds — lots to choose from here. Let’s go macro. The idea of suffering for one’s art has been around since the beginning of art, and suffering. In recent years around Hollywood, the notion has been devalued. Badly. Every director who takes on dramatic subject matter is “brave;” every actor who loses weight for a role is devoted or Method. It’s moviemaking. These things are supposed to happen. That’s why it’s refreshing to see instances of people actually being brave (and OK, even suffering), to put their vision on screen. Sure, it might have made everyone around the production a little crazy. And not all crew members made it out. But the idea of enduring cold, hardship and months of uncertainty has rarely been put to such good effect. If you’re going to make people hurt a little on a movie set, it should be for a cause like this.
“Room.” Yes, of course, Brie Larson is good. But when have you ever seen a child given an arc of this complexity? When have you seen a child actor pull off an arc of this complexity? Jacob Tremblay’s work should make every stage parent shudder--your kid will never be as good as this.
“Spy.” The Melissa McCarthy-Paul Feig magic had seemed to run its course sometime after the first half hour of “The Heat.” And a spy spoof? Didn’t the last Austin Powers close the book on that years ago, as any spy spoof with Fred Savage will? You’d think. Turns out both propositions weren't true. “Spy” brought a freshness to what previously had been moribund. Not technically an innovation, but still a surprise. And coming a few weeks after “Hot Pursuit,” practically a “Citizen Kane.”
“The Martian.” So much of the talk has been about the science, rare for a movie of this big-budget kind. And of course the spectacle, which really did draw from, and look, like, Mars. All well and good. But that wasn’t the greatest innovation. The greatest innovation was to make a movie this grand out of stakes so low. One person — one botanist — is what’s on the line throughout this movie. At least “Gravity” had two people. Every Marvel movie seems to have a planet or two in peril. Yet the more lives at stake, the less we seem to care about what happens to them. And “The Martian,” about one guy we got to know really well, made us care a lot.
“Joy.” Bag all you want, but when else has a dysfunctional-family story felt this inspirational? Maybe you welled up a little at the end when Joy, having pulled off a coup and built an empire, pays it forward; maybe you didn’t. Then again, maybe you cry when looking into the eyes of lost puppies; maybe you have a heart of stone. Also, Jennifer Lawrence playing it heroically without the need of a bow and arrow? It isn't an innovation. But it is something the world could use a lot more of; it's been a while since “Winter’s Bone."
“Trainwreck.” I loved this movie less than most .The main character was fresh and interesting; the third act of contrived-breakup-followed-by-dramatic-conciliatory-gesture wasn’t. But the thing it did that hadn’t been done in a studio comedy before — more than just simple ribaldry, which had been done plenty, if by the other gender — was take someone genuinely flawed and have her struggle with how to deal with that. Yes, Bill Hader could have had more depth. But Amy Schumer had enough for both of them.
“The Big Short.” Volumes can be written about the tonal shift at the end of this movie, when director Adam McKay, having spent 90 minutes begging our identification with outcasts, shakes us awake and asks us to question just what we’ve been rooting for. It’s not easy to make a movie that’s both a stand-up-and-cheer crowd-pleaser and a stand-up-and-throw-shoes-at-elected-leaders cri de coeur; it’s even harder when it involves pulling the rug out from under the audience. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane recently noted that by taking this final turn, the move “bets on our indignation, and loses.” But how many movies would even make the gamble?