2015 was a decent year for film, with several less conventional movies winning both acclaim and some box office success. The blockbusters were less impressive this round.
The Oscars this year faced some controversy because, for the second year in a row, no black actors were nominated (after racking up multiple awards for the previous 15 years). Chris Rock's opening monologue was edgy and memorable as he chose to take this head-on:
Now the thing is, why we protesting? That's the big question. Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know? It's the 88th Academy Awards. It's the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times.
OK? You've got to figure that it happened in the '50s, in the '60s, you know? In the '60s, one of those years Sidney [Poitier] didn't put out a movie. I'm sure there wasn't no black nominees some of those years, say '62 or '63. And black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time.
We had real things to protest! Too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when your grandmother is swinging from the tree, it's really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.
Some of Rock's other bits fell flat, including a cameo by conservative black actress Stacey Dash as a "minority outreach" ambassador (too much of an inside joke for most of the audience) and Asian kids posing as accountants. Rock's decision to have his daughter and her Girl Scout Troop sell cookies to the audience was, well, an abuse of position, but kind of funny.
The best speechof the night was easily that from Inside Out's duo, producer Jonas Rivera and director Pete Docter, who endorsed the power of the arts:
Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering – there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.
It was somewhat refreshing that no one film dominated. Mad Max: Fury Road rightly picked up most of the technical awards, but Spotlight, The Big Short and The Revenant all won big awards as well. I would have been pleased with any of them winning Best Picture (Spotlight was a slight upset over The Revenant in that category). Spotlight and The Big Short deservedly won their best writing Oscars (original and adapted, respectively), although I also would have been happy if Inside Out had won for "original." The cinematography category was even richer than usual, and although I'd have been delighted to see badass 73-year-old John Seale win again, this time for Mad Max: Fury Road, or see Roger Deakins (Sicario) finally win after 13 nominations, I thought the award deservedly went to Emmanuel Lubezki for the third time in a row, this time for his alternately vertiginous and lyrical work on The Revenant.
The Revenant received a surprising amount of backlash, including the notion that it was unfortunate that Leonardo DiCaprio would likely finally win an acting Oscar for his work in it (as he did). I have my criticisms of the film (reviewed below), and a lengthy, occasionally gruesome revenge tale isn't to everyone's tastes, but it features some superb craftsmanship and was one of the best films of the year. In contrast, I'm flabbergasted that the worst Bond theme song ever, "The Writing's on the Wall," not only was nominated but somehow won, perhaps because of vote-splitting otherwise. At least Ennio Morricone winning for Best Original Score, and being lauded by John Williams and the entire audience, restored some karmic balance.
The Academy really should explain the sound categories better – I've seen Academy voters admit they don't understand the difference. I thought Mad Max: Fury Road deserved its win for Best Sound Editing (the effects and foley) but I'd have given The Revenant the award for Best Sound Mixing (the overall soundscape).
I didn't see all of the Oscar-nominated performances, but Brie Larson was excellent in Room. Mark Rylance delivered subtle, meticulous work in Bridge of Spies, and his win was a pleasant surprise. It was a banner year for Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, winning her the Oscar, but also Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and for Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, The Revenant, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Kid actors Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation) gave impressive performances. (It was fun to see them make the awards circuit.)
On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I've hidden spoilers with toggle buttons. (As always, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). The other sections are Part 2: The Top Four, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).