Oscar Time is here! Which means it’s the hour in which we discuss how some of our favorite topics (climate change, the empowerment of women, trees, robots taking over the world, more trees) appear in some of the nominated features.
For anyone following American pop culture news in 2016, it’s obvious that The Oscars are as contentious as they are out-of-touch — which is really saying something. For one thing, they are so white! That’s really a shock in a year that saw talented, diverse actors carrying critically acclaimed, blockbusting movies like Creed, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, Chi-raq, and Star Wars (to name a few). This year’s ceremony has garnered boycotts from people of color and members of the transgender community for perpetuating harmful — and let’s be honest, tired — societal norms.
But we really do love our screen time, and we’re actually excited about some of these nominees. So if you find yourself without weekend plans and would like to squeeze in a few nominated films before the ceremony on Sunday, here are our recommendations:
The best movie to take you out of your comfort zone:
EA: We could talk all day long about Ex Machina’s cinematography — which flawlessly contrasts its ladybot heroine’s shiny, sterile living quarters with the lush wilderness all around it — but the screenplay is truly a work of art. It’s no small feat to make a sympathetic protagonist out of a colder-than-cold-blooded murderer, nor to highlight the very human loneliness of a captor. Of Ex Machina’s many themes, one of the more poignant is the question of who deserves access to the natural world — which may resonate with an audience that spends far more time in The Cloud than, say, looking at clouds.
… And the best one to redefine what that means:
EA: Is it a coincidcence that two candidates for Best Screenplay (Adaptation and Original, respectively) were both different explorations of being a trapped woman? And also that they were the best movies I saw in 2015? (With the obvious disqualification, because I’m a scrupulous journalist, of my brother’s.)
Watching Ex Machina is an experience beset with a constant and exhausting dread, but it frankly doesn’t compare to the heart-pounding tension of the climactic moments of Room. Amelia and I went to see it together, and I’m confident that everyone in the theater could feel our pulses vibrating the seats around us. (That’s right — we’re dead now.) Emma Donoghue, the author of 2010 novel Room and its screenplay, really makes you feel the alternating agony and malaise that comes with being imprisoned in a garden shed for a half dozen years, and then the incredible relief of whatever comes after that.
“I don’t want to feel that!” you might say. I said the exact same thing, because I’m as exhausted by the cinematic brutalization of women as the next girl raised on SVU. But Room is actually a story of a woman confronting the very worst the patriarchy could throw at her — and coming out of it, not as a martyr or superhero, but very much as a human.
The best film to make you admire the natural world, as well as its unmatched ability to kill you:
AU: The world is a beautiful, strange, terrifying, and did I mention beautiful, place. You will see this firsthand, if you can get make it through all the blood and guts spilled in The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu’s nearly-three-hours-long sufferfest of a film.
With (whale-lover, orangutan-saver) Leo grunting and grinding his teeth through one striking natural setting after another, it’s not exactly a travel ad for your next vacation — but it’s not not one, either. While The Revenant’s environment is violent, even inhospitable at times — just watch Leo ride a glacial river through a series of punishing rapids, or sleep out a blizzard in the gutted carcass of a horse — even the grimmest, darkest scenes are framed in punishing, austere beauty. I, for one, would love to tiptoe through a flooded forest as sunshine plays across the water and birds call invisibly in the trees — if you sidestep the cartoonishly gory battle that ensues, it’s really a lovely place.
Basically, the Revenant will remind you simultaneously a) what a crazy, gorgeous, unimaginable world this is and b) what bastards we humans (well, white humans specifically) are for not being able to see any of it through the greed.
The best film to make you drive your car less:
AU: Mad Max is what happens if you take the oil-guzzling Anthropocene to its logical extent: The world becomes a dried-up wasteland, ruled by a hideous, water-hoarding tyrant who serves as a literal embodiment of the patriarchy. War is the norm, carried out on the back of souped-up sports cars and big rigs. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw the color green in this movie: none.
But with such a fucked-up world view, Mad Max still managed to deliver some of my favorite female protagonists of the year. As we wrote when we reviewed the movie last summer:
The environmental backdrop of this movie may be a footnote to the plot, but the triumph of women certainly is not. The plot hinges on the emancipation of the Citadel’s tyrannical overlord’s wives, or “breeders,” who defy the patriarchal bonds of their society to make a radical, ladies-only break for “the Green Place.” … Together, the women fight their way home through a crazed horde of overgrown war boys who are used to seeing women as possessions and assets in a resource-scarce economy. Luckily, the women know they are much more than that.
In a year when pudgy, aging men seem determined to deny young women the basic right to equal opportunity and health, watching Furiosa give King Joe and his coked-up frat boy hordes the rout comes with an extra vicarious thrill.
The best movie to make you very, very glad to be on Earth:
AU: It’s a rare day that we get a science fiction movie where the science is both a) believable and 2) surprisingly fun! The Martian is that movie, so I wouldn’t hold your breath for the next one.
Matt Damon plays NASA engineer Mark Watney whose mission is to
find a new world for humanity to live on check out Mars and then come safely home again. It’s a surprisingly sane objective for a Movie Scientist™, but that doesn’t make it easy. When the second part gives him some trouble, Whatney has to learn how to grow food on Mars, send messages to Earth, and keep his cool in the face of diminishing odds of survival. And he does! He’s very upbeat! He plants potatoes in poo! It’s all very amusing and scientifically sound.
Meanwhile NASA expends considerable expertise and equipment trying to figure out how to get him a ride back. Making that humble goal — get from point A to point B — the central dilemma of the film was a bold move for filmmakers, who are undoubtedly under pressure to deliver higher- and higher-stakes hijinks to an adrenaline-numbed viewership. But it paid off: NASA’s improvised attempts at an emergency Mars drive-by are both a testament to human achievements in the last fifty years of space exploration and an illustration of how difficult everything is everywhere else in the solar system. This movie made me want to kiss the ground by the end, but it also made me glad we’re still looking at the stars.
… And the best documentary to make you want to save it:
EA: What a time to be alive. When two of the contenders for the Best Original Song Oscar are a Top 40 ode to kinky sex by the world’s gloomiest hip-hop star (“Earned It”) and the most baffling requiem for lost species I’ve ever heard (”Manta Ray”), something must be going very right in the world of film.
The latter is the pièce de résistance of the score of Racing Extinction, which we saw at Sundance, and the song is … well. It feels like the Academy had to shoehorn in some nod to climate change in its roundup, and fuck it, why not with this track of atonal mumbling over a sensitive piano line.
But all that said, Racing Extinction is a poignant clarion call for rapidly disappearing species — and if that’s your thing, it’s worth a watch. And if you don’t think it’s your thing, it’s probably even more important to watch.
… And the best feature to take you to a galaxy far, far away:
EA: Should you see Star Wars: The Force Awakens? You know, yes, you should — and if you haven’t already, I’m pretty sure you’re in some kind of national minority. I felt ambivalent enough about it — even after being raised on the franchise — to wait until it had been in theaters for about a month. And when I saw it, I walked out of the theater feeling really good; like, just warm and satisfied and positive about things in a fairly Dark Side-y world.
If you, for whatever reason, need more than that out of a movie-going experience, take this endorsement from Grist senior editor Katharine Wroth:
Like its predecessors, the new Star Wars uses landscape in bold, breathtaking ways — a respect for nature that’s worth appreciating. But this episode adds human nature into the mix, creating an even more complicated and truer map of the universe. As artistic evolution goes, that’s freakin’ huge.
So you’re spending the rest of the weekend on the couch, right? Meet you there! I’ll bring these.