Kathy’s Oscar Picks: February 2016

Different Drummer has never been one to follow the herd, so my Oscar picks, as I noted last year, are not predictions. I will not, like the malleable Academy members, be influenced by the likeability of the actors, the politically correct social causes their films espouse, nor the predictable pack of gushing or scornful critics who seem to care more about what others think of them than making sound and independent judgments.  My picks are based on the excellence of the films and actors in themselves.

This year, we again have a discrepancy between what the critics like and what the public – as well as Different Drummer herself  – likes. Therefore, I will not limit myself to the official Oscar nominees, but will choose from the entire 2015 field.

I have also created another category: The People’s Choice Award, based, of course, on the picture the movie-going public has voted for with their admission tickets.

People’s Choice Award for Best Picture

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Luke Skywalker Blue Milk Cocktail Recipe) was an early Christmas gift for the movie going public, earning nearly a billion dollars at the box office.

And this package delivers all the wonder and joy we used to expect under our childhood tree. J.J. Abrams, who reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise, resuscitates Star Wars from all those lame prequels that so badly damaged the brand. Back is the sense of adventure, the fast paced action, and the light banter that first took our collective breath away in 1977.

Director Abrams pays homage to our favorite characters but is not in awe of them as George Lucas seemed to be in the infamous prequels. And Abrams still can surprise us, too. As much as we anticipate Han Solo’s arrival, for instance, it still comes when we are not expecting it, and Harrison Ford’s role here is more than a cameo.

Best Picture

First, two near misses.  The Martian (Roasted Rosemary Red Potato Recipe) reminds us of the times when we used to sneak away to the cinema to escape the endless gloom and doom that bled from the headlines.  Left for dead and stranded on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a blend of 3 of favorite Star Trek characters.  He has Captain Kirk’s swaggering boldness, Spock’s relentless precision and logic, and Dr. McCoy’s dry humor, and he uses all 3 to survive, rekindling that “can do” spirit that built America.

Brooklyn (Irish Pasta Recipe) tells the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who leaves her small Irish town and everyone she knows and loves for America, to make her way in 1950s Brooklyn. It’s is a sweet little gem of a film and a lovely reminder of old fashioned film making that probes our better selves instead of laying bare our baser instincts.  Like the best of stories, this one is simple.  It’s the characters and not the plot that counts. The romance between the two leads takes its time and charms us along the way.

But I am going to have to give the prize to The Revenant (Brandied Foie de Gras Pie Recipe) , a fierce tale of survival and revenge. The key here is authenticity, and the cast and crew suffer for it almost as much as the legendary real life fur trapper who inspired the film.

No wonder so many of the minor cast and crewmembers actually abandoned the nine-month filming that took place in Canada and Argentina.

Complicating things was the insistence of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that everything be filmed in natural light.  Given the remote locations, often 40 percent of the day was taken just getting to the scene, putting extra pressure on the actors to get everything just about perfect on the first take.  This film grinds everything down to its essence.  It is a brutal landscape that pits man against his fellow man, beasts, and the elements.  The Revenant is stark, cold, unrelenting and yet as full of life as the frozen landscape it explores.

Best Actor

The mesmerizing performance of Leonardo DiCpario (The Revenant (Brandied Foie de Gras Pie Recipe), who abandons his charm and banter for a role that is almost mute, wins hands down. 

He must put all his emotions into his eyes, make every gasping, painful word he utters count. The comfort of a studio green room probably would not have created such a compelling feat. DiCaprio’s fur trapper Hugh Glass plunges into near freezing water, sleeps in a horse carcass he has just disemboweled, and eats raw bison liver.  The actor did not have to feign near hypothermia.  He felt it.  And by turning down a fake jello filling for the real raw bison liver, we get a real gag and his triumph over it committed to film as well.

Best Actress

It’s a tie between Carey Mulligan (Far from the Madding Crowd: English Lemon Curd Tart Recipe)  and Charlotte Rampling (45 Years: Maids of Honor Tart Recipe) 

Unfortunately, the former has not even been nominated and the latter is an indie film with a very limited release.  But Different Drummer calls ‘em as she sees ‘em.

Carey Mulligan resonates in a love story for grownups. It’s Downton Abbey without all the pomp and circumstance and a heroine who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. She uses her talent to make Bathsheba a fully realized woman – determined, proud, and willful, and at times vain and impetuous.  Brave, warm, and earthy, Bathsheba is always without pretense, a feminist whose eyes twinkle in humor rather than disdain. When it suits her, she can step down from her pride.  She has the temerity to admit her flaws and even laugh at them. But most of all, Bathsheba has the ability to learn from her mistakes, and by watching her, maybe we can as well.

Charlotte Rumpling captures us with her understated portrayal of a woman suddenly rethinking her 45-year-long marriage. She lets her emotions wash over her face.  There are no tears, not even eyes welling up with them, no real frowns or grimaces.  Just a slight insecure tilt of the head, a distant look in her eyes as she looks off into the distance. She expertly presents an unflinching portrait of the tenuous underpinnings of even the most apparently settled and long-lived relationships.

Best Supporting Actor

He’s no longer the writer, director, or the leading man, but Sylvester “Rocky” Stallone is very much the star of Creed (Authentic Philly Cheesesteak Recipe).  I suspect this supporting role may be the one that finally earns Stallone his Oscar.

Perhaps this is so because of the grace and charm that Rocky, the character as well as his iconic star, yields the spotlight to a younger boxer.  For the first time in the nearly 40-year-old franchise, “Rocky” is not ringside, unless you count his corner presence as a trainer.

We see Rocky battling the melancholia of old age and loneliness.  Adrian, Paulie, and his trainer Mickey are all dead and gone.

A final scene has a winded Rocky walking up those iconic steps once again.  He quips, “They must have added another flight,” but he makes it to the top. 

Let’s hope he does at the Academy as well.

Best Supporting Actress

There is pretty thin gruel here, in Different Drummer’s opinion, so I am going to choose someone not even nominated.  I choose Tessa Thompson (Creed: Authentic Philly Cheesesteak Recipe).  She plays Adonis “Donny” Creed’s neighbor, who always plays her music too loud.  She is an up and coming singer, as beautiful as she is ambitious.  But the loud music does not stem from vanity.  Bianca, the rising music star, has progressive hearing loss.   This aspect of her character is part of the film that washes itself in our humanity. 

Her smile lights up the screen, and Donnie heart as well.  Her scenes with Creed help display his more vulnerable side.  The hard hitter is sweet and even shy with her.  At the personal level, Bianca schools him almost as sternly as Rocky.

She takes Donnie on a tour of Philly, showing him the life-sized sculpture of Rocky in front of the Museum of Art, and then is astonished when the real guy appears below her window to pick up Donnie, who calls him “Unc.”  But she is less pleased when she finds out Donnie is not just the son of “a fighter,” but of Apollo Creed himself.  She will brook no secrets and tells Donnie so 

Best Director

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won an Oscar for Best Director in last year’s Birdman, which did not enamor many viewers or this film critic either, is spectacular in The Revenant

He is not just working to crank out another blockbuster sequel for the studio, hitting all the time tested right buttons.  Iñárritu is a genuine artist obsessed with his craft. The perfectionist, who did the entire shoot in sequence, an inefficient method mostly discarded by modern directors, also had problems with the weather.

As fate would have it, when the production was counting on snow, it was so warm near Calgary that even attempts to manufacture it or truck it in failed. Later, temperatures dipped to 25 degrees below zero, or minus 40 degrees with the windchill factor. But since the action at that point was set in the autumn, actors were asked to go without hats and gloves. "Everybody was frozen, the equipment was breaking; to get the camera from one place to another was a nightmare," says Iñárritu

But the film, which largely avoids computer-generated effects, is well worth the effort, unless perhaps you happen to be the 22-year-old extra who was dragged naked over the ice in an epic battle scene.