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

Joy (2015)

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fourstar

Has the David O. Russell hype train already crashed & burned? It wasn’t until 2012’s commercially-palatable mental health rom-com/drama Silver Linings Playbook that the director started to get his dues as a weirdo auteur, despite putting out quality work as far back as 1994’s uncomfortable black comedy Spanking the Monkey. Two Jennifer Lawrence collaborations later & critical consensus already feels like it’s turning on him, aiming to brush him off as a hack. It’s a total shame too. I understand, to a point, the complaints that Russell’s American Hustle resembled Scorsese’s Goodfellas a little too closely, but if you’re going to pay homage to something, why not make it one of the greatest films ever made? The complaints about his more-recent film, Joy, are a little more confounding to me. In some ways Russell is merely keeping the Goodfellas vibes rolling into the next picture & continuing his somewhat easy collaborations with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro in a film that might be a little too Hallmarkish for the hard-to-please, but if that’s all you see going on in Joy, you’re missing out on the much stranger big picture. It feels like Russell is really working out some half-formed new ideas here & watching him reach for that new, unexplored territory is fascinating stuff, making for the best film I think he’s made in years.

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”. Personally, I love Huckabees. It’s my favorite thing thing Russell’s ever done. Joy is certainly not as eccentric or as deliberately off-putting as Huckabees can be, but it does establish a delirious rhythm & nearly all-white visual palette that hits on the same anything-can-happen tone Huckabees delivered. By the time Joy delves into immersive soap opera & QVC imagery, the film has already established a dream-like sense of self-logic that makes the whole thing feel natural, despite television’s sterilized otherworldliness. Also like Huckabees, Joy plays its humor completely straight, with only the slightest hint of quirk prompting you to treat it like a comedy. The soap opera camp & Isabella Rossellini’s over-the-top performance in Joy were some of the funniest moments I had witnessed in the theater in all of 2015, but for some reason the audience I was with met them with more exasperated “That’s just ridiculous” comments instead of genuine laughter.

I, for one, welcome David O. Russell’s return to not-for-everyone cinema. The problem is that Joy might not have gone far enough in its Huckabees-esque absurdity. There is an admitted Hallmark/Lifetime-esque quality to the film that compels it to hammer every point home, to tie a bow on every resolved conflict. The dialogue indulges in some wholesome cheese in lines like “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary”, [from a young Joy playing happily-ever-after-type games] “I don’t need a prince”, and [from an adult Joy to her young daughter] “Don’t take any guff from anybody.” Worse yet is a completely unnecessary narrator who constantly reminds us that Joy is a “matriarch” or that she & her ex-husband are “the best married couple in America.” That aspect of Joy seems to be at war with the film’s strangest impulses, such as introducing a soap opera character who “came back as a ghost with even greater power”, including an extended cameo in which Melissa Rivers (all-too convincingly) portrays her recently-departed mother, and saddling its protagonist with a family so unbearably awful that you could easily forgive her for burning the house down with them all locked inside.

I would like to say with confidence that this contrast between the absurd & the maudlin was entirely intentional, that Russell was merely trying to reflect the mundane trashiness of his subject’s QVC/Miracle Mop subject. The truth is, though, that I have no idea. Joy is an odd compromise of things I loved & things I could’ve done without. The dream-like quality of the rhythm is fascinating, but the narration knocks its ambition down a peg. It’s Russell’s most experimental film in a decade, but it borrows heavily from not only Scorsese, but also from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in one particular scene, I could swear that Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” would play at any second). Isabella Rossellini’s monologue about “The 4 Questions of Financial Worthiness” was one of 2015’s funniest moments to me, but the humor is played so dryly it doesn’t seem to register with half its audience. If nothing else, what’s clear when you consider all of these self-contradicting qualities as a whole is that David O. Russell has made something oddly idiosyncratic here that can be a joy to watch if you can get on its dual arty & maudlin wavelengths. That’s good enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet