Bigger vs. smarter: This year’s Oscar race

While no Israeli film is nominated this year, "Son of Saul" is expected to win the Best Foreign Language film.

 An Oscar statue is seen in Beverly Hills (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Oscar statue is seen in Beverly Hills
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Oscars, which will be awarded in a ceremony in Los Angeles on February 28 (which will be broadcast live on February 29 on both HOT Gold and YES, starting at 2 a.m. with red- carpet coverage, and then the actual ceremony at 3:30 a.m.) always generate a great deal of excitement, although it is often obvious which movies are the frontrunners.
This year, though, the race is wide open. Although there are eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture, the buzz is that the real contest is between Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant on the one hand, and Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Adam McKay’s The Big Short on the other. These very different movies exemplify two recent trends in the movie industry: Movies that are big vs. movies that are smart.
The Revenant is a huge-budget Western, with a traditional tale of revenge told through an almost indescribably graphic and violent series of tortures and trials. For his suffering, Leonardo DiCaprio is a sure bet to win his first Best Actor Oscar — he also looks terrible and speaks some of his dialogue in a Native American language, which certainly helps his chances. It’s a larger-than-life story in every way, from the breathtaking nature photography to the realism of each blow DiCaprio’s character must endure: He watches his son being murdered, gets mauled by a bear, cauterizes his own throat wound with a bunch of flaming twigs, and, in the movie’s most famous scene, hollows out the carcass of a horse and sleeps in it naked to keep from freezing to death in the snow.
Westerns in which a bad guy takes a bullet in a long shot and falls from his horse, never to be seen again, have gone the way of the rotary dial phone. Every wound, every blow, every moment of physical and emotional agony is amplified a thousand times in The Revenant, The movie is elevated from mere torture porn to epic by the sheer gorgeousness of the photography, and the fact that the hero’s son is half Native American, which gives it a veneer of political correctness. In all, the movie received 12 Oscar nods. If Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wins, following his win last year for Birdman, it will be only the third time that a director has won back-to-back Oscars.
The others were John Ford, who won for The Grapes Of Wrath in 1940 and How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who won for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).
There was a huge controversy about the lack of African Americans and other minorities among the acting nominees this year and last year. If Inarritu, who is Mexican, wins, it might help the Academy defend itself against charges of the nominees not being diverse enough.
Also in the epic, ultra-violent, thrill-a-minute category is George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which is nominated for 10 Oscars, among them Best Picture and Best Director. A reworking of the Mad Max franchise that made Mel Gibson a star, this post-apocalyptic thriller has a feminist theme, with a woman who suffered abuse trying to get revenge by freeing a group of young women used by the villain for breeding.
Like the Native-American theme in The Revenant, this feminist trope gave the movie the gravitas it needed to get into the Oscar race. The in-your-face violence, action and epic scale of these movies has enticed audiences — who had been going to the movies less often in recent years — back into the theaters.
Another epic, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, dominated the box office this year, grossing a billion dollars worldwide less than two weeks after its release. Director J. J. Abrams created a phenomenon so spectacular that young viewers actually left the house to see it, rather than watching pirated versions on their laptops or cellphones. But Star Wars lacks the pretensions that win Oscars, and it was not nominated in the major categories.
While these movies appeal to thrill seekers, fact-based, intelligent dramas such as Spotlight and The Big Short still have a chance to win Oscars. These movies target older audiences who usually find more interesting fare on television than at the multiplex, with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Wolf Hall, The Good Wife, Homeland, etc. In order to lure back the more discerning viewer, moviemakers have turned to news-driven stories, with skillful scripts and brilliant ensemble acting, just what viewers have come to expect from television.
Spotlight, which is nominated six Oscars, tells the true story of a team of newspaper reporters from the Spotlight investigative section of The Boston Globe in the early 2000s, who broke the story not only of pedophile priests but also of how the Catholic Church hierarchy routinely protected these priests and silenced their victims. As gripping as Spotlight is on the big screen, it could also have been an excellent television series.
The Big Short
, directed by Adam McKay, is a similarly brainy look at the convoluted financial mismanagement on the part of the American banking system that led to the crisis in the US economy in 2008. Michael Lewis, the author of the book on which it was based (and who also wrote the books that were adapted into the movies Moneyball and The Blind Side), wrote recently in Vanity Fair, “One problem I distinctly did NOT worry about when I wrote The Big Short was how to write it so that it would become a movie. Who’d make a movie about credit- default swaps?”
Interestingly, both The Revenant and The Big Short were produced by Israeli Arnon Milchan. Milchan is one of the most successful Hollywood producers, both critically and commercially, and has produced the Best Picture winners Birdman and 12 Years a Slave, as well as such box-office hits as the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise, Pretty Woman, Free Willy and about 130 other movies. He has not produced an Israeli film in over 35 years, but he still considers himself very much an Israeli, and it is quite likely that we will see him accepting a Best Picture Oscar for one of his nominees this year.
While no Israeli film is nominated this year, Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul, which is expected to win the Best Foreign Language film, was produced at the Jerusalem International Film Lab at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television. This lab selects promising writer/directors from around the world, then brings them to Jerusalem at several intervals over a period of about a year to work intensively on their first or second screenplay with international filmmakers and script editors.
The Lab also advises them on developing their projects. Several films developed in the lab have been shown at festivals around the world. Son of Saul already won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, an unusual achievement for a debut film. The movie is an extraordinarily realistic and difficult story of a day in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, the unit tasked with leading the Jews to the gas chambers and disposing of their bodies. In some ways, it fits in with the trend of epic, ultra- violent movies, but the violence documented here was real, not some formula devised to thrill audiences, and it is infinitely more moving and disturbing than The Revenant.
Just as audiences can reasonably expect to see an Israeli producer take the stage, it is likely that an Israeli film school will receive the thanks it deserves for setting up a world-class script lab, along the lines of Sundance or Torino. Will the enduring image of this year’s Oscar race be Leo shivering inside a dead horse, the newspaper presses running and bringing predatory priests to justice, or stunned traders watching the market drop? We will know as soon as the envelopes are opened.