Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 3 – The Big Short

The Big Short is a biographical comedy-drama directed by Adam McKay, with a screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph, which is adapted from Michael Lewis’s book of the same name. Set during the financial crisis in 2007–08, the film follows a group of brilliant men who discover that the global economy is on the brink of collapse. In order to push the market to its brink to bring attention to the downright fraudulent activity being conducted by Wall Street’s biggest banks, these men decide to do what no one else would ever dream of: bet against the housing market.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a movie about the housing-market collapse would be so amazing, but The Big Short is just that. Many films have been made about the infamous financial crisis of 2007–08, including one of the best films from 2011, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call. The problem with most of those movies, including Margin Call, is that most of the time, you really have zero clue what is going on. Why? Because financial jargon is ridiculously confusing and nonsensical at times. TBS5This is where The Big Short blows every film about the most recent financial crisis out of the water. Don’t get me wrong—The Big Short definitely still features some convoluted financial lingo, but it is writer/director Adam McKay’s method for making this complex subject understandable to the average layperson that makes the film so brilliant. He dumbs the subject matter down but never in a condescending manner—it is instead enjoyable and exciting. McKay perfectly utilizes the film technique known as “breaking the fourth wall.” In order to make this intricately dense subject comprehensible, his characters speak directly to the audience. Early on, Ryan Gosling’s character breaks the fourth wall to tell us, “I’m guessing most of you still don’t know what really happened? Yeah, you’ve got a sound bite you repeat so you don’t sound dumb but c’mon.” It’s true—most people watching don’t know what all really happened. Throughout the film, McKay uses famous celebrities in cameo roles to break the fourth wall and explain preposterously baffling financial terms to us. TBS4Margot Robbie is featured in a bubble bath sipping champagne as she breaks down “sub-prime loans,” and Selena Gomez is later shown at a poker table in Las Vegas to explain what a “synthetic collateralized debt obligation” is. These brief vignettes work—they dumb down the terminology for us so that throughout the rest of the film, we can completely understand what is going on when those financial words are referred to. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s strategy is incredible, and it makes this movie so much fun to watch.

TBS6Although this film is hilarious throughout, the third act puts everything into perspective: This story is, first and foremost, a heartbreaking tragedy. Adam McKay is the comedic genius behind iconic comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, so he obviously has a knack for humor. In The Big Short, he brings those deft comedic chops to the table dexterously. But I was most incredibly impressed with how he, as a proven comedic filmmaker, handled the brutally dramatic reality of the financial collapse. The movie made me laugh, but it also made me angry. I found myself bouncing between happiness and sadness throughout. During the film, you see the deceptive behavior conducted on Wall Street, and you want to see those guys suffer. When McKay’s characters come into the fold with the genius “big short” idea, you root for these guys. You want to see them succeed in their risky investments. TBS7But one scene towards the end with Brad Pitt summed up the true message of the film flawlessly. While Pitt’s character’s associates are celebrating the fact that their bet appears to be paying off (while the audience was internally cheering, too), Pitt reminds them what their success really means: “If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings. People lose pensions.” At one of the film’s highest points, this quote brings it all crashing down to the floor—this crisis ruined people’s lives. As mentioned above, this truly brings everything into perspective.

TBS3Another amazing aspect of The Big Short is the acting. Wow, McKay assembled an incredible cast. Christian Bale has garnered the most attention, as he has received a wealth of nominations at major award shows this season, including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He plays the real-life Dr. Michael Burry, an antisocial hedge fund manager who initially conceives the idea of “the big short.” Bale is obviously one of the best actors in the game, and I admit, he was spot-on in his portrayal; however, I thought he gave the third-best performance of the film. The top two acting performances in my mind were Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. TBS2Carell plays Mark Baum, a character based on the real-life Steve Eisman. The character is bitterly angry all of the time at the big banks, and he receives his calling in life to participate in “the big short” because he can once and for all stick it to the guys he sees as society’s real criminals. Carell was fantastic last year in his Oscar-nominated role in Foxcatcher, but for me, this was his greatest acting achievement. TBS1My favorite performance, though, was Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett, a character based on the real-life Greg Lippmann. Vennett is a talented bond salesman for Deutsche Bank who, like Dr. Burry, makes the decision to short collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). His character is a cynical greaseball, but all the while charming. Gosling brings his heartthrob persona to this character brilliantly, and he definitely gives a performance that should have resulted in an Oscar nomination. The Big Short is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.

The Big Short trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgqG3ITMv1Q

Academy Award nominations for The Big Short:

Best Picture (Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, and Brad Pitt)

Best Director (Adam McKay)

Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Adam McKay and Charles Randolph)

Best Film Editing (Hank Corwin)

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

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

Best Actor

Best Actor NomineesAlthough you will likely recognize each and every Oscar nominee in the Best Actor category this year, four of the five nominees are receiving their very first Academy Award nomination. The only veteran to the prestigious ceremony: Bradley Cooper (receiving his third consecutive Oscar nomination this year). Despite the fact that Cooper was stellar in American Sniper, there are two other actors that will be duking it out on Oscar night, meaning the winner will be taking home his first Academy Award. The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actor in a Leading Role:

WINNER: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

RedmayneEddie Redmayne proved in 2014 that he is a rising star in the film business and will be a force for years to come—his breakout performance in The Theory of Everything (portraying Stephen Hawking) was absolutely captivating. Although the other nominated acting performances this year were brilliant and deserved of critical acclaim, nothing compares to the physical demands required of Redmayne for his portrayal of Hawking. With every passing moment after the character is first diagnosed with ALS, Redmayne handles the physical deterioration with meticulousness. The best way to explain the complexities of this performance and Redmayne’s superb acting comes from my post earlier this week about The Theory of Everything: “He manages Hawking’s real-life mannerisms almost effortlessly, and with every bodily hunch and contortion, Redmayne evokes a visceral likeness to the British theorist in ways never thought possible.” Redmayne was incredible, and his performance in this movie will go down in film history as one of the most remarkable portrayals of a physically disabled character since Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (side note: Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for his aforementioned performance—here’s hoping that Redmayne will join him in that elite fraternity). Redmayne has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

  1. Michael Keaton (Birdman)

KeatonLeading up to the Oscar ceremony in two days, critics and experts have been torn in their Best Actor predictions between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton (it is considered the tightest race in all of the acting categories). Even though I am personally hoping for a Redmayne victory, there will be no disappointment from me if Keaton ends up taking home the coveted statue. Michael Keaton rediscovered his own personal acting career with a tour-de-force portrayal in Birdman of Riggan Thompson, a once-relevant film actor turned Broadway performer hoping to attain critical success again. If it were not for Redmayne’s incredible performance this past year, Keaton would blow the rest of the nominees out of the water—in most years, this performance wins an Oscar 99.9% of the time. Keaton depicted his character with outstanding dynamism, exuding a magnificent blend of serious drama and black comedy. He is miles away from his Batman days with this painstaking depiction, and I hope this newfound Keaton comes back in the near future with equally magnificent performances. Keaton has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

  1. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

AMERICAN SNIPERBradley Cooper has established himself as the most decorated actor in the business in recent years (this is his third consecutive trip to the Academy Awards for an acting nomination), and although his performances in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013) were unmistakably deserved, I would argue that his portrayal of the real-life Chris Kyle in American Sniper is the greatest of his career. In order to more accurately inhabit the late-Navy SEAL (the most lethal sniper in American military history), Cooper notably consumed 6,000 calories per day, while also lifting weights—his physique in the film is representatively colossal. Bradley Cooper’s physical transformation is only part of the noteworthiness of his role—he additionally delivers a rigorous, inspired performance as a brooding man with hidden vulnerabilities. Chris Kyle will forever live on as a legend in the hearts of America (except Michael Moore—but nobody cares about him anyways), and Cooper’s depiction of Kyle in American Sniper does the late-SEAL complete justice on the screen. Bradley Cooper has been previously nominated twice in acting categories at the Oscars: Best Actor (Silver Linings Playbook) and Best Supporting Actor (American Hustle). 

  1. Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) 

CarellIn Foxcatcher, Steve Carell plays the real-life multimillionaire John du Pont, the heir to the E.I. du Pont family fortune, who recruited US wrestling Olympic gold medalist brothers Mark and Dave Schultz to train at his family’s Foxcatcher Farm. As the ill-fated story goes, du Pont murdered Dave Schultz in cold blood in 1996. If you have not seen this film, you really need to—it will not be the most amazing movie you ever see, but it is well worth it for the acting performances alone. Channing Tatum is astonishingly good, as is Mark Ruffalo; however, Steve Carell is the showstopper. The character of John du Pont is inexplicable, menacing, and gripping, but not in ways that make anyone feel physically intimidated by him—instead, he is just flat out creepy! Carell, the career funny man of The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin fame, is completely unrecognizable in this role (in fact, according to Entertainment Weekly, Carell spent five months with an Oscar-winning makeup designer to develop du Pont’s look prior to shooting). Carell wholly submerges himself into this complex dramatic role, and the result is one of the better performances I have ever seen—I almost wish this year’s category were weaker because Carell would surely take home the Oscar. Carell has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award. 

  1. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

CumberbatchIn the Best Picture-nominated film The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the real-life British cryptanalyst—Alan Turing—who led a team during World War II that cracked the Nazis’ infamous Enigma code. In my opinion, The Imitation Game as a whole is vastly overrated. Although I do contend that it is a good film, it is far from great. Part of my feeling that the movie is merely average is due to Cumberbatch’s performance. In parts of the film (specifically when the war is over and Turing is being punished—by chemical castration—for being gay), Cumberbatch boasts riveting acting abilities—in these scenes, the unearthing of Turing’s cold vulnerabilities is done so in an emotionally fueled manner. However, in the bulk of the film, which deals with the actual cracking of the Enigma code, I was not overly blown away by his performance—it did not leave me in awe whatsoever (i.e., it simply was not memorable to me). I do admit that Cumberbatch is a great actor (I was immensely impressed with him in 2013’s August: Osage County), but for me, his spot amongst the others in this category is more deserving for Jake Gyllenhaal, who I believe was gravelly snubbed by the Academy this year for his role in Nightcrawler. Cumberbatch has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.

Actors snubbed in this category: Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Jack O’Connell (Starred Up), Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), Brendan Gleeson (Calvary), Miles Teller (Whiplash), Tom Hardy (Locke), Brad Pitt (Fury), Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner).