Review: My Ballot and Countdown (2015)

And just like that, my fourth annual Oscars Ballot and Countdown blogging has come to an end. And in bigger news: The Academy Awards are finally here! Per usual, in preparation for tonight’s ceremony, I am providing a review of my blog from these past few weeks. This review includes all of the winners of the 16 categories in which I have seen each nominated film/performance and have subsequently blogged about (my personal ballot), and it also includes my list of the “Top 15 Films of the Year.”

Get caught up on my picks, and feel free to look back over any of my previous posts this season, which feature much more in-depth commentary on each of these films and performances. Lastly, make sure to tune into the 88th Academy Awards tonight at 7:30pm (CST) on ABC, live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA. Enjoy, everyone!

My Oscar Winners:

Best Picture: Mad Max: Fury Road

Actor in a Leading Role: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Actor in a Supporting Role: Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

Actress in a Leading Role: Brie Larson (Room)

Actress in a Supporting Role: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

Best Director: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Cinematography: John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Film Editing: Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight)

Best Production Design: Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Sound Editing: Mark A. Mangini and David White (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Sound Mixing: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, and Ben Osmo (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Best Visual Effects: Mark Williams Ardington, Sara Bennett, Paul Norris, and Andrew Whitehurst (Ex Machina)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (The Big Short)

Best Original Screenplay: Alex Garland (Ex Machina)

Top 15 Films of the Year:

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. The Revenant
  3. The Big Short
  4. Sicario
  5. Ex Machina
  6. Spotlight
  7. Straight Outta Compton
  8. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  9. Steve Jobs
  10. Creed
  11. ’71
  12. Room
  13. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  14. Beasts of No Nation
  15. The Martian

 

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 5 – Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a science-fiction thriller written and directed by Alex Garland. The film tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer coder for a powerful technology giant, who wins a competition to spend a week at the private compound of his company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Once the two make acquaintances, Nathan tells Caleb that he was chosen to spend the week with him to witness one of the greatest scientific events in the history of man—Nathan’s creation of “Ava,” an A.I. (artificial intelligence). Caleb must perform a “Turing Test” on the A.I. to determine if Ava has the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior that is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. As it becomes evident that Ava possesses incredible intelligence, the lines quickly become blurred between human and machine, and Nathan’s creation proves to be far more sophisticated than anyone could have ever imagined.

Ex7This movie is not your run-of-the-mill sci-fi. This movie is an experience unlike many others I’ve ever had—it’s a psychological thriller that is more of a character study than anything else. I have enjoyed a range of other “artificial intelligence” films in the past, such as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001) and I, Robot (2004), but those movies never quite accomplished what Ex Machina has—in my opinion, the depth and genius of Ex Machina starts with writer/director Alex Garland. Garland cemented himself in the industry with his striking screenplay for the horror film 28 Days Later (2002), and in that script, he created one of the finest films in the horror genre; however, his story never became too “tropey,” meaning it never seemed cliché. In Ex Machina, he has done the same thing—only better! The plot of the film leaves the door wide open for a filmmaker to shell out the same boring motifs that already saturate this genre. Thankfully, Garland avoided this temptation and delivered a film that this genre should look to as the modern standard.

Ex3I do not want to sugarcoat anything—the film definitely gets incredibly philosophical, pondering what really makes us human. It is a lofty idea to conceptualize, but Garland does so in stunning fashion. His visuals are remarkable (Ava was part live-action and part-CGI), and his characters are even more spectacular. For starters, Ava’s entire existence and ability to learn how to interact like a human sets the tone for the twists, turns, and overall message of Garland’s film. She constantly poses thought-provoking questions to Caleb during his “Turing Test” research. Little by little, these questions create struggles for Caleb that manifest in him questioning his true role in Nathan’s experiment—he especially wonders about his very own existence. Ex5Speaking of Nathan, he is the most captivating character for me. He is a billionaire tech-genius with seemingly enough resources to live a lavish life. But the lavishness is not what one would imagine—he lives in a beautiful home (which doubles as a research facility), but he is completely secluded from the real world. In this home he is imprisoned, both mentally and physically, and he appears to be nothing more than a reclusive savant/madman. He claims to create Ava for purely scientific purposes, but it is apparent that his motivations are to create the perfect woman—this is his downfall.

Ex6Aside from Garland’s filmmaking vision, Ex Machina impresses from an acting standpoint. I am a huge fan of Domhnall Gleeson—he is incredibly charismatic in every role he takes on, but in Ex Machina, he ends up being more of a placeholder than anything else. It is worth noting that although Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac outperform Gleeson, this is not due to the latter’s own acting abilities, but instead the fact that Garland left the real story arcs to Ava and Nathan. Vikander nails her portrayal of Ava with grace, yet mystery. Playing a robot-like character is a tall task for any actor, but Vikander succeeds by delivering a perfect character equilibrium—Ava is not too robotic, but not too human, either. Vikander broke out as an actress in 2015, but despite the Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl, this, in my opinion, was her best performance from the past year. As alluded to earlier, I was exceptionally fascinated by Oscar Isaac’s performance as Nathan. He makes hilariously dry jokes and drinks copious amounts of alcohol—Isaac thrives off his character’s apparent charm. But at the same time, Nathan is demented and scary. This two-faced personality profile makes Nathan a character that cannot be trusted, even by the viewer—you never know if Nathan is showing his true colors. Ex4Oscar Isaac also helmed my favorite scene from the film. At a critical point in the movie where Caleb’s trust in Nathan is rapidly waning, Nathan’s assistant (Sonoya Mizuno) starts to dance on Nathan’s command. Nathan tells Caleb to dance with her, but Caleb has no interest—he wants to speak one-on-one with Nathan and question him about Ava. While asking Nathan what he was doing with Ava, Caleb says, “You tore up her picture.” Without missing a beat, Nathan pompously boasts, “I’m gonna tear up the fucking dance floor, dude, check it out.” Not taking Caleb seriously, Nathan and his assistant then proceed to engage in one of the greatest dance scenes in film history—far and away my favorite moment! Ex Machina is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references, and some violence.

Ex Machina trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYGzRB4Pnq8

Academy Award nominations for Ex Machina:

Best Original Screenplay (Alex Garland)

Best Visual Effects (Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Spotlight
  2. Straight Outta Compton
  3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  4. Steve Jobs
  5. Creed
  6. ’71
  7. Room
  8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  9. Beasts of No Nation
  10. The Martian

Best Supporting Actress (2015)

 

This year’s Best Supporting Actress category features a “Who’s Who” of Oscar novices. Only Kate Winslet and Rooney Mara are veterans to the ceremony. Most view this category as a two-horse race: Winslet for Steve Jobs and Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. Four weeks out from the show, the competition appears to be neck-and-neck between two distinctly different actresses—Winslet a long-time Hollywood heavyweight and Vikander a radiant starlet. The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

WINNER: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) 

Vikander 12015 was the year that Alicia Vikander broke out onto American movie screens with a vengeance. 2016 will be the year she cements herself as a perennial contender among Hollywood’s elite. How so, you might ask? By taking home that coveted gold statue on Oscar night for her brilliant role as the real-life Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl. Right up until I started writing this post, my vote was for Winslet’s performance in Steve Jobs—she really was stellar. But with wins at the SAG and Critics’ Choice Awards ceremonies, Vikander is deserved in leaping past one of film’s greatest actresses for this award. The Danish Girl tells the true-life account of Einar Wegener (who later became Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery) and his wife Gerda. Honestly, I did not enjoy the film much. It looked great (all Tom Hooper films do; e.g., 2010’s The King Speech), but Redmayne did not sell it for me as a viewer. Vikander 2Despite this critique, Vikander stood out brilliantly as the lone bright spot in an otherwise boring movie. As her husband began to struggle with his identity, Gerda, the love of his life, struggled through denial and rage; through sadness and acceptance. Those emotions told the true story, and Vikander delivered each line, each look, and each tear with stunning delicacy—the grandeur of the 27-year-old Swede’s acting was nothing short of moving. Vikander has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

  1. Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) 

Winslet 1Kate Winslet did almost everything she could in Steve Jobs to earn my vote for Best Supporting Actress. The only thing standing in her way was the up-and-coming Alicia Vikander’s performance in The Danish Girl. As has been mentioned, this category will come down to these two actresses. Whether she wins or not, Winslet will forever be ingrained in Silicon Valley history with her daring portrayal of Apple’s head of marketing, Joanna Hoffman. Steve Jobs was a tremendous film, but it felt more like a stage play, something I was not expecting. There are only three scenes in the entire film, set behind the scenes at three separate Apple-product launches, and Winslet makes a stunning mark on the entire movie. While Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) struggles throughout with the debacle that is the crossroads of his personal and professional life, Hoffman is always the one by his side to reconcile his troubles. I rarely say this—because it is one of the most pretentious-sounding comments regarding film—but I truly forgot Winslet was playing Hoffman. She was that entrenched into this character. Winslet GifShe mastered the accent (a product of English mixed with Hoffman’s Polish and Armenian origin), delineated the requisite emotions of a strong, independent woman, and even stole the show from Fassbender at times. Never have I watched Winslet shine like this; not since Titanic and The Reader. She won the Golden Globe for this performance, so I would not be surprised if somehow she pulls off the Oscar victory—she would deserve it. Winslet has previously been nominated for six Academy Awards (four for Best Actress and two for Best Supporting Actress), winning only for her leading role in 2008’s The Reader.

  1. Rachel McAdams (Spotlight)

McAdams 1Rachel McAdams has always been one of my favorite actresses, but I never have thought of her as someone deserving of an Oscar nomination for anything in her career; that all came to an end when I saw Spotlight. In Spotlight, McAdams portrays the real-life Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the investigative journalists on The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, which worked to uncover a vile child-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church in the early 2000s. Entertainment Weekly perfectly described McAdams’s difficult role: “[She] plays a woman who is equal parts determined journalist and loyal granddaughter of a devout Catholic.” That personality dichotomy created an oasis of potential for McAdams to explore—she nailed it! One minute, her character is wrought with emotion, as she is on the receiving end of some horrifying details of a rape victim’s story; the next minute, she is shown at mass with her grandmother. The Pfeiffer character is torn with the turbulent circumstances she finds herself in, wrestling to make sense of it all. McAdams hits the nail on the head in what can only be described as a performance built upon subtle nuances. McAdams has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

  1. Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

JJL 1In Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, seven of those eight main characters are men—Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the lone woman. She is an outlaw that is being brought in by a bounty hunter to face justice for murder. Daisy Domergue is a truly unique character—the preeminent result of Tarantino’s wild and twisted mind games. She curses frequently, tosses racial slurs around willingly, and yet evokes a faint sense of sympathy for her character as John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) batters her throughout the film. The character is as diverse as she is crude; as complex as she is filthy. And Leigh delivers a memorable performance. I had high hopes for The Hateful Eight, but in most ways the film left something to be desired. However, of the few bright spots is Leigh’s grim, gory, and gnashing portrayal of Daisy. Whether it was her oddly interesting guitar ballad or her bloody façade towards the end of the film, Leigh brought Daisy Domergue to life in all the right ways. Leigh has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

  1. Rooney Mara (Carol)

Mara 1In Carol, Rooney Mara portrays Therese Belivet, a department-store clerk in 1950s New York City. Belivet falls under the charm of the much-older Carol (Cate Blanchett), and before long, a deep and affectionate love affair strikes. Carol has garnered much attention worldwide for its ardent and amorous take on a taboo subject (given the time period the film is set in). Not only is the film receiving rave reviews (full disclosure: I am NOT one of them; the movie was bland, plodding, and you will not find it on my list of top films), but Blanchett and Mara are also being heralded for their adept performances. While I agree that the Blanchett did wonderful job in her leading role, Mara always seemed the subordinate performer. That is not necessarily an inherent knock on Mara, considering Blanchett is one of the all time greatest in this field; however, I really think Mara delivered the inferior performance in this category as a whole. While she is a tremendous talent in Hollywood, I truly think her uninteresting, unaffecting portrayal is due to a slow year in supporting female performances. If you watch Carol, hopefully you get something out of her performance. I know I sure didn’t. Mara was previously nominated for Best Actress for her role in the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).