Oscars 2016: Donald Clarke ranks the best picture nominations

Mainstream entertainments such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant jostle with independents including Brooklyn and Room

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson talks to donald Clarke about his Oscar-nominated film 'Room'.

 

This year, the Academy has gone for eight best picture nominees. They have finally achieved their aim of allowing a few mainstream, marquee pictures into the loop. Smash-bang entertainments such as Mad Max: Fury Road jostle with independents such as our domestic contenders Brooklyn and Room. Here’s my unhateful eight.

8. THE MARTIAN (RIDLEY SCOTT)

Scott’s translation of Andy Weir’s book concerning (the comparison is unavoidable) a Robinson Crusoe in Space swells with decent action sequences and entertaining logistics, but it totally lacks psychological insight. We get no sense of how the isolation traumatised its central character. The film also fails to sell the notion that the entire world would come together in “perfect harmony” to rescue one man at enormous expense. Fun for all that. Won’t win.

7. THE BIG SHORT (ADAM MCKAY)

A fascinating, witty, lucid investigation of the 2008 financial collapse, McKay’s film has proved a surprisingly energetic player in awards season. Having served his time on broad comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, the director knows how to time the beats to perfection. He gets across a guilty delight in the decadence and cynicism. But this still feels like slightly thin fare for an Oscar nominee. Could win for all that.

6. BRIDGE OF SPIES (STEVEN SPIELBERG)

Steven Spielberg’s middlebrow films often seem a bit stodgy and sentimental. There is certainly some tweaking of the tear-ducts in his story of the attempts to swap a Russian spy for a downed American pilot in Cold War Berlin. The film yet again propagandises for Spielberg’s Good America, but it does so with such elegance that only a heel could object. Tom Hanks is delightful as the negotiator. Mark Rylance is better still as the compromised Russian agent. The seedy ambiance is rigorously realised. Won’t win.

5. SPOTLIGHT (TOM MCCARTHY)

Impossible to watch without thinking of All The President’s Men, McCarthy’s film studies the investigations into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Boston. The film is very good on the machinations of the hierarchy and the wider community’s willingness to turn a blind eye. But this is really a film about the virtues and mechanics of old-school investigative journalism. It reminds us that such research hangs around diligence and determination. It looks forward ominously to the coming internet age. The ensemble cast - featuring nominees Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams - could hardly be bettered. May well win.

4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (GEORGE MILLER)

When Miller announced he was returning to the franchise that made his name few imagined he would deliver the best film yet in the apocalyptic series. Fewer still thought that it would become a serious awards contender. This epic journey to and from a remote hell proved to be a masterpiece of organised mayhem. Tom Hardy’s Max does get slightly lost in the mix, but we have the compensation of a dominating turn from the overpoweringly charismatic Charlize Theron. How gratifying it is to see such a hunk of gorgeous action making it to the final eight. Won’t win though.

3. BROOKLYN (JOHN CROWLEY)

Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s fine novel posed itself a perplexing question: can you stage an effective drama when you have no obvious antagonist? After all, virtually everyone bar the town gossip is a decent person here. The film succeeds by investing so much energy in characterisation. Saoirse Ronan is endlessly impressive as the emigrant, who, initially fragile, gains assurance when confronted with a romantic dilemma. Emory Cohen (the busy American) and Domhnall Gleeson (the reliable Wexford gent) offer very different temptations. The world has been swept up by its charms. Rank outsider.

2. THE REVENANT (ALEJANDRO G IÑÁRRITU)

Here’s a fact you’ll hear again and again. No two films by the same director have ever won back-to-back at the Oscars. Mind you, how often does a director deliver films as complex as Birdman and The Revenant in successive years? Iñárritu’s tale of frontier vengeance is a miracle of endurance. The cast and crew really did immerse themselves in icy rivers and brave looming walls of dangerous ice. The result is not always easy to watch, but The Revenant makes a virtue of sensory overload. A film to be gleefully endured. Currently marginal favourite to win.

1. ROOM (LENNY ABRAHAMSON)

The film has been around long enough for us to mention that is consists of two contrasting halves. The opening follows Joy, a young woman, and Jack, her clever son, as they endure imprisonment in a soundproofed shed. The second part examines their attempted reintroduction to the wider world. Surprising undercurrents bubble up in both parts. That first section demonstrates it is possible to engineer wonder and hope in the most unlikely circumstances. The latter features the most gruelling scenes in the picture as Joy faces up to the universal guilt that attends parenthood. A terribly sad film that still allows the possibility of escape. Rank outsider, alas.

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