The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2016

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Including short films, there are 57 movies nominated for the 2016 Oscars. We here at Swampflix have covered less than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right (last year’s Birdman Best Picture win comes to mind in that regard), but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2015 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 19 Oscar-Nominated films from 2015 that we reviewed for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*) based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

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1) Ex Machina, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Visual Effects

“There’s something about Ex Machina’s straight-forward, no nonsense approach to sci-fi storytelling that struck a real chord in me. It’s not likely to win over folks who are looking to be surprised by every single development in its plot, but for those willing to enjoy the movie on its own stripped-down terms there’s a lot of intense visual rewards & interesting thematic explorations of, among other things, masculine romantic possessiveness that can be deeply satisfying.”

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2) Mad Max: Fury Road, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (George Miller), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“In a time where a lot of movies, such as Zombeavers & WolfCop, intentionally aim for a cult film aesthetic, it’s refreshing when something as authentically bizarre as Fury Road comes along and earns its rabid, isolated fan base naturally. Although the movie is less than a month old, it’s already gathered a cult following so strong that I doubt that there’s any praise I can throw at it that hasn’t already been bested elsewhere. I loved the film. I thought it was fantastic, wonderfully distinct, up there with The Road Warrior, The Witches of Eastwick, and Pig in the City as one of the best things Miller has ever released onto the world. I still feel like that’s merely faint praise when compared to some of the more hyperbolic reactions out there.”

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3) Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.”

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4) Straight Outta Compton, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

Straight Outta Compton is not a particularly great example of a historical document, but damn if it didn’t achieve an incredible Cinematic Aesthetic in every scene, somehow managing to squeeze out a great biopic with exactly zero deviations from the format (unlike more experimental films like Love & Mercy). The cinematography, provided by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, confidently supported the film’s surface pleasures (including an onslaught of still-great songs & pandering nostalgia) to the point where any & all faults were essentially irrelevant.”

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5) Anomalisa, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.”

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6) Creed, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Sylvester Stallone)

“The pugilist protagonist (played by an all-grown-up The Wire vet Michael B. Jordan) of Creed‘s narrative may go through the motions of successes & failures the audience sees coming from miles away, but the movie is visceral enough in its brutal in-the-ring action & tender enough in its out-the-ring romance & familial strife that only the most jaded of audiences are likely to get through its runtime without once pumping a fist or shedding a tear before the end credits.”

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7) Carol, nominated for Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design

Carol is a handsome, but muted drama about homosexual desire in a harsh environment where it can’t be expressed openly. The subtle glances & body language that make the film work as an epic romance are very delicate, sometimes barely perceptible. In fact, if you had no idea what the film’s about going in, it’s possible it’d take you a good 20min or so to piece it together. That kind of quiet grace is in no way detrimental to the film’s quality as a work of art. It’s just that the critical hype surrounding the picture puts an unnecessary amount of pressure of what should be experienced as a collection of small, deeply intimate moments shared between two star-crossed lovers.”

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8) Inside Out, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Animated Feature

“The way Inside Out visualizes abstract thoughts like memories, angst, imagination, acceptance, and abstract thought itself is incredibly intricate & well considered. Its central message of the importance of sadness in well-rounded emotional growth is not only admirable, but downright necessary for kids to experience. Even if I downright hated the film’s visual aesthetic (I didn’t; it was just okay), I’d still have to concede that its intent & its world-building were top notch in the context of children’s media.”

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9) The Hateful Eight, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score

“At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, ‘Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.’ That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale.”

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10) Joy, nominated for Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)

“Expectation might be to blame for what turned a lot of audiences off from Joy. Based on the advertising, I know a lot of folks expected an organized crime flick about a mob wife, not the deranged biopic about the woman who invented the Miracle Mop that was delivered. Even more so, I believe that audiences expected a lighthearted drama from the guy who made Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, Joy finds Russell exploring the same weirdo impulses that lead him to making I ♥ Huckabees, an absurdist comedy that might be the very definition of “not for everyone”.”

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11) Sicario, nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing

“Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).”

12) Steve Jobs, nominated for Best Actor (Michael Fassbender), Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet)

“Between Sorkin & Fassbender’s work here, the myth of Steve Jobs is most certainly an arresting contrast between genius & emotional sadism. He’s a true to form Sorkin protagonist who’s better judged by his work than his persona. I’m not sure I left the film knowing any more about the real Steve Jobs than I did going in, but I’m also not sure that matters in terms of the film’s failure or success.”

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13) Room, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Lenny Abrahamson), Best Actress (Brie Larson), Best Adapted Screenplay

Room is not all broken spirits & grim yearnings. The film can at times be quite imaginative & uplifting, thanks to young Jack’s warped sense of reality & Jacob Tremblay’s wonderful performance. Room‘s strongest asset is how it adopts a child POV the way films like The Adventures of Baron Mucnchausen, The Fall, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. Because Jack has only known life inside Room (which he refers to as a proper noun, like a god or a planet), he has a fascinatingly unique/warped perception of how life works & how the universe is structured.”

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14) Amy, nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

“By giving so much attention to a person who obviously did not want it, Winehouse’s unwitting fans made a market out of her gradual death. Again, it’s very similar to what slowly killed Kurt Cobain as well & I’m sure there are to be more examples in the future. A lot of what makes Amy interesting as a documentary is not necessarily the details of Winehouse’s personal life that it turns into a fairly straight-forward narrative, but rather the way it subtly makes you feel like a murderer for wanting those details in the first place.”

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15) The Revenant, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“At times the film itself feels like DiCaprio’s broken protagonist, crawling & gurgling blood for days on end under the weight of an over-achieving runtime. Shave a good 40 minutes of The Revenant by tightening a few scenes & losing a shot here or there (as precious as Lubezki makes each image) & you might have a masterful man vs. nature (both human & otherwise) revenge pic. As is, there’s an overbearing sense of self-importance that sours the whole ordeal.”

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16) The Martian, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“Despite facing almost certain death in The Martian’s first act, Watney logically explains the details of exactly how/why he’s fucked as well as the practical day-to-day details other films would usually skip over, such as the bathroom situation in a Martian space lab. Speaking of the scatological, there’s a surprising amount of poop in this film. You could even say that poop saves the day, which is certainly more interesting than whatever control room shenanigans solve the conflict in Apollo 13 or other similar fare.”

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17) Shaun the Sheep, nominated for Best Animated Feature

“As always, Aardman delivers fantastic stop-motion work here, but although their films are consistently entertaining, there’s something particularly special about Shaun the Sheep that makes it feel like their best feature at least since 2005’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Because the movie is largely a non-verbal affair, its success relies entirely on visual comedy that feels like a callback to the silent film era & it’s incredible just how much mileage it squeezes out of each individual gag.”

18) Brooklyn, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Adapted Screenplay

“Outside Saoirse Ronan’s effective lead performance, I mostly found Brooklyn entertaining as a visual treat. Its costume & set design are wonderful, particularly in the detail of Eilis’ wardrobe – beach wear, summer dresses, cocktail attire, etc. That’s probably far from the kind of distinction the Brooklyn‘s looking for in terms of accolades, but there’s far worse things a film can be than a traditional, well-dressed romance.”

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19) Fifty Shades of Grey, nominated for Best Original Song (“Earned It,” performed by The Weeknd)

“The best-selling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey recently made its long-awaited debut on the silver screen and, as a fan of the book series, I was very curious to see how this film could possibly be tame enough for movie theaters. What could have been one of the most iconic movies of the year turned out to be a total snoozefest. Literally. People in my theater were sleeping so hard they were snoring.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Britnee’s Top Films of 2015

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1. Krampus – A new cult classic has been born!

2. Carol – This one is hands down the greatest romance film of the year. It’s also more proof that Cate Blanchett is complete and utter perfection.

3. Crimson Peak – The prettiest ghost story that I ever did see.

4. Magic Mike XXL – There aren’t many situations in which the sequel is better than the original. That’s definitely not the case with this one. It’s pure genius!

5. It Follows – A throwback to horror films of the late 70s/early 80s that delivers on all levels.

6. Inside Out – An adorable but informative emotional roller coaster.

7. Trainwreck – Even though it has a predictable story line, it’s insanely hilarious (at least if you enjoy Amy Schumer’s style of humor).

8. The Lazarus Effect – Just another film reminding us all that bringing anyone or anything back from the dead is never a good idea.

9. People, Places, Things – The great Jemaine Clement stars in one of the most easy-going films to come out this year. It’s very simple, yet very entertaining.

10. Tangerine – This flick, which was filmed with an iPhone 5S, has been the talk of the town for months, and for a very good reason.

H.M. Ricki and the Flash –Meryl Streep’s campiest performance since Death Becomes Her!

-Britnee Lombas

Inside Out (2015)

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fourstar

I’m not usually one to give in to the charms of computer animation, which usually makes me feel like an outsider on a lot of Pixar’s output. The almost-universally loved animation studio has been running strong since the release of the first Toy Story movie in 1995. That means that after 20 years of animated feature dominance, Pixar now has two generations of children & young adults that have only known a life where the studio is on top, churning out the most well-received children’s media on the market. As a devotee to traditional, hand-drawn animation I sometimes miss out on the studio’s milestones, harboring lukewarm-at-best feelings about beloved titles like The Incredibles & WALL-E, having no patience at all for more dire properties like Brave & Finding Nemo (sorry, y’all), and having to shamefully admit that I haven’t even yet bothered with a few titles that I might actually like once I give them a chance, such as Up & Ratatouille. When the studio is on point it establishes a really vital connection with an enormous, diverse audience, which is a super cool thing for an animation studio to be able to accomplish these days, but I often feel like I miss out on that connection due to personal (and honestly, superficial) tastes regarding the movies’ visual format.

I don’t mean to point out this personal preference to distance myself from the Pixar Is Always Incredible, No Exceptions crowd, but just to provide context for my experience with their fifteenth feature film to date, Inside Out. I approached Inside Out with extreme caution due to reservations I had regarding the film’s ads. The general look of the movie had very little appeal for me (still does) and there were enough eyeroll-worthy moments regarding the difference between the sexes (yawn) that I had very little interest in the film. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite those reservations, I still found Inside Out remarkably touching & well-considered. Very similar in intent & execution to the 2007 short Anna & The Moods, Inside Out is a sincerely heartwarming look at the way a child’s psyche is remapped as they transition into young adulthood. While it did lose me on some of the traditional adventure plot trappings Pixar films tend to fall into, its idiosyncratic world-building that depicts exactly how a brain works & develops is more or less unmatched in media of its caliber.

The story Inside Out tells is bifurcated between the internal & the external (or the inside & the outside if you want to stick to the terminology of the title). As the protagonist Riley, an eleven year old hockey enthusiast anxious about her recent move to San Francisco, struggles to communicate about her newfound anxiety with her parents, her inner emotions scramble to take charge of the unexpected changes in her life in a productive way. The five emotions depicted in Inside Out (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger) are expertly personified by a perfect cast of voice actors (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black, respectively) who bring abstract concepts to life in a vivid, affecting way that everyone from young children to cynical adults can likely connect with. Making the abstract concrete & visible is exactly what Inside Out excels at as it methodically explains why sadness is a necessary emotion that should not be ignored in favor of unbridled joy. Until the still-developing Riley learns to accept sadness as an essential part of her emotional processing, she finds it extremely difficult to adjust to her new surroundings. It’s an incredibly important concept for young children to learn & Inside Out does a great job of framing the revelation in a traditional adventure story that is likely to be able to hold onto young attention spans for its entire 94min running time.

As stated, I didn’t completely buy everything Inside Out was selling. There’s no doubt in my mind that the film would’ve been more visually engaging if it were animated by hand, the adventure plot didn’t always metaphorically make sense, and there were uncomfortably gendered glimpses into minds outside of Riley’s (for instance her father’s psyche is controlled by anger while her mother’s is ruled by sadness), etc. However, these all feel like minor quibbles in view of what the film does right. The way Inside Out visualizes abstract thoughts like memories, angst, imagination, acceptance, and abstract thought itself is incredibly intricate & well considered. Its central message of the importance of sadness in well-rounded emotional growth is not only admirable, but downright necessary for kids to experience. Even if I downright hated the film’s visual aesthetic (I didn’t; it was just okay), I’d still have to concede that its intent & its world-building were top notch in the context of children’s media. As I’ve (hopefully) made abundantly clear, I’m far from a Pixar expert, but I’m confident it’s safe to say it’s the best film the studio has produced in the last five years, making it their best of the decade so far.

-Brandon Ledet