I do a lot of complaining about what does and does not get nominated at the Oscars, so I always make some time each year to put my money where my mouth is and answer the age old question of “well, if you’re going to complain so much, what would you nominate, huh?”. I also love making lists and writing about my opinions in definitive terms. So, here they are, the movies I would vote for if I had an Oscar ballot:
This is supposed to be a mock Oscar Ballot, and so, I’ve decided to abide by the Academy’s eligibility rules. By now, you must know that my favorite movie of the year is Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, which by nature of being a 15-minute animated short wouldn’t be allowed a nomination in any category outside Animated Short. Ridiculous, I know, but the rules are the rules. Not that I mind giving the Best Picture prize to the magnificent Carol, one of the most amazing love stories ever put on film.
Curious to know what my favorite movies of the year are? Why, I have a Top Ten of the year just waiting to be read!
Todd Haynes (Carol)
Michael Mann said that the role of the director is tone management. I am not the biggest fans of Mann’s films, but when he’s right he’s right. When he’s at his best, Todd Haynes is one of the few contemporary directors that not only manages tone, but commands it. An image, a color, a cut, a sound cue, it is all in service of a vision. Everything is deliberate. Everything serves the movie. Carol is Todd Haynes at his best.
- Roy Andersson (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch): For closing his existential trilogy with rigorous discipline and exploding comedy.
- Noah Baumbach (Mistress America): For being open and determined to work with Gerwig’s vision, and for the technical brilliance of that Connecticut sequence.
- George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road): For finding what commercial cinema needed the most, and delivering it with a shot to the heart.
- Christian Petzold (Phoenix): For an extraordinary tone that balances the pulp of melodrama and the darkness of a post-Holocaust world.
Best Lead Actress
Cate Blanchett in Carol
I’ve never been able to love a Cate Blanchett performance. I admire the technical proficiency of her Bob Dylan, and really enjoy the wit of her Katharine Hepburn, but she’s always a little too distant. A little too immersed in playing the part, and not so much in being the part. Her Carol Aird is the best performance of her career. The actor’s trademark theatricality is essential to Carol’s life as the most glamorous lesbian woman of the fifties. What makes it even more special is that Blanchett is willing to break through the theatricality and get into something totally raw.
- Greta Gerwig (Mistress America): For an impeccable comedic performance, and for digging beyond parody into the very essence of her screen persona.
- Nina Hoss (Phoenix): For anchoring the balance of the movie’s melodrama in a weary and expressive face.
- Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey): For elevating the movie she’s in with one of the smartest performances of the year.
- Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road): For crafting the best action hero of the year, and a uniquely feminine hero at that.
- Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina): For playing man as she plays machine, and for not disappointing a movie that builds its mysteries around her.
Best Lead Actor
Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina
Is there any question, two years after his soulful breakthrough performance as the eternally miserable Llewyn Davis, that Oscar Isaac is the best actor of his generation? His biggest asset might be the oozing charm that allows him to play so many different and unexpected beats without losing our attention. In Ex Machina, he plays a megalomaniac tech guru as the coolest of relaxed bros. He is a genius casually bathing in his greatness, a recluse who knows how to interact with people. Isaac does wonders playing the darker intensions that hide underneath the character’s skin, but it’s his portrayal of this man as the ultimate “cool guy” that’s most extraordinary.
- Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies): For not resting in his search for the essence of star performance. ’tis the age of peak Hanks.
- Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road): For the best silent action performance since Buster Keaton, a grunt is worth a thousand words.
- Michael B. Jordan (Creed): For being the charismatic essence of superstardom, for rising up to a cinematic legacy.
- Channing Tatum (Magic Mike XXL): For not worrying about naysayers and letting the dancing and charisma speak for themselves.
Best Supporting Actress
Andie MacDowell and Jada Pinkett-Smith in Magic Mike XXL
I hate ties, but there certain moments in which one simply can’t choose. Even though they don’t share a single scene, my mind can’t separate these ladies, and the fact that their presence represents what is so magical about this mike. MacDowell’s southern wife would be a mockery in any other movie, here she is the recipient of joy. And Jada, well, she’s just the emcee that streamlines and embodies the movie’s core of female satisfaction. Just that.
- Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation): For coming out of nowhere and stealing the show with a flawless action performance.
- Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars): For getting down and dirty, and for committing to the grossness that this movie so badly needed.
- Sarah Paulson (Carol): For navigating the details of the relationships of a character we rarely see on screen.
- Tessa Thompson (Creed): For taking the “girlfriend” role and bringing the casual pathos of real emotion.
Best Supporting Actor
Richard Jenkins in Bone Tomahawk
Jenkins is so good at bringing unexpected depth to the pathetic, as in his masterful performance in Olive Kitteridge. He goes even further in Bone Tomahawk, perfectly walking over one of the hardest tightropes imaginable: His elderly deputy is righteous, but somewhat misguided. He is incredibly naive, and a little dumb, but also righteous and valuable under the right circumstances. Jenkins understood that his character might seem like a dumb old man, but is actually so much more.
- Kyle Chandler (Carol): For finding the heart and the logic of what could be a villainous character, and being the antagonist nonetheless.
- Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams): For putting the charms of the bittersweet to work, making my panties drop with sincerity.
- Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike XXL): For commitment and hilarity, but above all, for that glorious convenience store dance.
- Stanley Tucci (Spotlight): For being the movie’s unlikely center of poignant emotion. For that last beat that kills.
Best Ensemble Cast
Critics have had a hard time singling out their favorite performance in Spotlight precisely because the power of its acting come in the ensemble’s work as a unit. It’s impossible to think about one of the performances without thinking of how they relate to each other, and outside a few key moments, I remember the reaction to every acting beat as much as the beat itself. Beyond the all-star team that carries the movie (which includes Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo), the movie finds trust in character actors and relative unknown to carry the most essential moments. I truly can’t remember the last time I saw film acting be this collaborative and harmonious.
- About Elly: For a massive troupe of actors that stays sharp, runs around the house, and plays off each other beautifully.
- Carol: For a cast of bit players who come in with a specific purpose and still find nuances in personality.
- Magic Mike XXL: For a group of males that’s ready to commit, and the powerful ladies that finish the equation.
- Mistress America: For two poignant performances at the center, and the troupe of comedic weirdos that orbit around them.
Best Original Screenplay
Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig for Mistress America
Courage can be found in structure. Baumbach and Gerwig are known for independent dramedies that find poignancy between chuckles. Baumbach has been experimenting with broader styles lately, so I was delighted when Mistress America‘s second act detoured into Connecticut, and I found myself in the middle of a hilarious farce of crushed dreams and uncomfortable illusions. There are lots of people who don’t understand this movie’s manic personality. Don’t let them deceit you, Mistress America is a comedic masterpiece.
- S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk): For navigating through a strange mix of genres, and for some wonderfully colorful western dialogue.
- Alex Garland (Ex Machina): For crafting an exciting thriller with big ideas and not a trace of cheap twists.
- Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer (Spotlight): For not missing a beat, for marching forward through complications never forgetting the focus and human toll of their story.
- Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall (Timbuktu): For assembling a number of extraordinary vignettes into a whole much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Phyllis Nagy for Carol
I was just going on about Todd Haynes’s flawless command of tone, so it’s time to admit that he had a considerable advantage in Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay. As we all know, filmmaking is collaborative. Well, what better collaboration than getting a master of tone to direct a script whose meaning is loaded in silence and in what is unsaid and undone. Literary adaptations tend to be needlessly wordy. Nagy’s biggest accomplishment is finding the story she is telling. A story of women with a voice that can’t be heard, a love story that can’t be put into words.
- Nick Hornby (Brooklyn): For a story that is dramatic without being Dramatic!, for finding the nuances of making a home out of a strange place.
- Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl): For commitment to the character’s point of view, and the sincerity that avoids any kind of exploitation.
- Paul King (Paddington): For delighting with a sweet and clever story where a run-of-the-mill script would’ve been expected.
- Christian Petzold, Harum Farocki (Phoenix): For a film of spare and lean construction, where every moment carries the weight of a whole history.
Best Foreign Language Film
A German film about Holocaust? I know, it sounds boring. Been there, done that. Not this one. This is something I never thought I’d see again: a worthy, new, fresh, and truly haunting take on the subject. Christian Petzold’s movie is not about historical facts, but about how we relate to a history of horror. It its unsettling (and brilliant!) final moments, Phoenix presents us with the most heartbreaking realization about this darkest hours: the deed can never be undone.
- About Elly (Iran): Asghar Farhadi’s complicated social parable about an innocent vacation gone wrong.
- Girlhood (France): Celine Sciamma’s most moving portrayal of a young woman becoming one with herself.
- A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Sweden): Roy Andersson’s brutally hilarious treaty on ridiculous existentialism.
- Timbuktu (Mauritania/Mali): Abderrahmane Sissako’s tale of a town overrun by jihadists is somehow both heartbreaking and full of life.
Best Animated Feature
World of Tomorrow (directed by Don Hertzfeldt)
Sure, at seventeen minutes this is not really a “feature”, and it makes little sense for me to play by the rules of eligibility in Best Picture and not here, but while the year had many great movies, when it comes to Animation, 2015 will forever be defined by Don Hertzfeldt’s digital masterpiece. It towers above all of this year’s animated ventures. Only two other movies provided similarly admirable pleasures, and they are my two finalists.
- Inside Out (directed by Pete Docter): For a hilarious and ambitious film that boldly advocates for a girl’s right to feel.
- Shaun the Sheep Movie (directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak): For the best Aardman feature, the one that has finally captured the simplicity and cleverness of their shorts.
Ed Lachman for Carol
Lachman had already photographed a fifties romance for director Todd Haynes. Far From Heaven, with its saturated colors, was essentially a riff on the visual stylings of the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk. A brilliant riff, but a riff nonetheless. One of the most amazing things about Carol is that it creates a visual style of its own. Shot in 16mm film, the movie suggests the familiarity of the fifties, but looks different than any movie shot at that time. Its visuals are as hazy as a memory, halfway between an old photograph and a melancholic painting.
- Mark Lee Ping Bin (The Assassin): For a luscious movie where every frame’s a painting, and what’s outside the frame is as important as what’s in it.
- John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road): For turning the blockbuster dial up to eleven and saturating with the flow of flawless action cinematography.
- Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike XXL): For using framing and color to create an inclusive movie, as when blue and red beautifully touch black skins.
- Roger Deakins (Sicario): For continuously impressing with his command of framing and the knack to find the perfect shot at the perfect moment.
Best Production Design
Colin Gibson for Mad Max: Fury Road
Whoever came up with the flaming guitar player is the person most deserving of this award. I have to assume that was Colin Gibson. And if he didn’t come up with the idea, he at least had the decency to recognize how absolutely genius a choice it was. This all might sound like I’m joking, but I do think that guitar player perfectly encapsulates the thirteen year-old boy mentality that makes Fury Road‘s world a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
- Wen-Ying Huang (The Assassin): For detailed richness, and who are we kidding, for the use of curtains!
- Judy Becker (Carol): For the specificity of a lived-in world that suggests the fifties as both a tangible and mythical place.
- Peter Sparrow (The Duke of Burgundy): For imagining this mansion as a coterie of all kinds of suggestive leathery erotica.
- Mark Digby (Ex Machina): For capturing a contemporary slickness, and for alerting me of the existence of such gorgeous places.
Best Costume Design
Sandy Powell for Carol
It’s always hard for me, when judging Costume Design, to separate costumes that I like aesthetically, or that I find impressive, from costumes that are appropriate for the characters. Thank God for Sandy Powell, then, who makes my life much easier by using costumes to craft the characters’ personalities. Another thing I look for is iconic, memorable looks. All I’m saying is I will forever remember Carol’s fur coat, Therese’s checkered hat, and that pair of green-gray gloves.
- Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Brooklyn): For the lovely fantasy, and for -who are we kidding?- that emerald bathing suit.
- Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road): For bringing the specificity and wit to the most idiosyncratic post-apocalyptic wasteland.
- Joanna Johnston (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.): For sometimes “more is more”, especially when designing the most stylish movie of the year.
- Amy Sow (Timbuktu): For coding the costumes as symbolic windows into the character’s minds and hearts.
Margaret Sixel for Mad Max: Fury Road
I know it’s getting kind of boring that I’m giving all awards to either Carol or Mad Max: Fury Road, but hey, they’re both masterpieces. And nowhere is it more apparent than in Fury Road‘s editing. Action editing, especially that which uses a shaking hand-held camera has been scrutinized for about fifteen years now. Some think it adds stylish momentum, others that it’s a way of compensating for lackluster action with chaotic impressionism. Sixel is one of the few editors who manages to get the momentum right while never sacrificing geographic clarity. That’s one of the many things that makes Fury Road one of the best action movies ever made.
- Affonso Gonçalves (Carol): For consistently moving forward while remaining in a dreamy headspace, and for the timing of those flawless final moments.
- Jennifer Lame (Mistress America): For a movie that moves at the swiftest of paces, especially in that glorious Connecticut detour.
- Tom McArdle (Spotlight): For never stopping, from cutting to the right faces at the right time, for best serving a story.
- Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens): For understanding the flow of blockbuster filmmaking, and allowing the moments that turn it into myth.
Best Original Score
Carter Burwell for Carol
Some say this is a Phillip Glass rip-off, and yeah, sure, the similarities are apparent. But then again, Carter Burwell wrote the most beautiful piece of music committed to any film this year, and there is no way to argue with that. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. And the pudding are the last five minutes of Carol, when my heart started racing and I was taken to cinematic heaven.
- Giong Lim (The Assassin): For using traditional Chinese sounds in unexpected ways, with a score that suggests underlying playfulness and passions.
- Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (Girlhood): For a score that shines like a beacon of light, making a sweeping epic out of a girl’s coming of age.
- Rick Vreeland (It Follows): For an eighties homage that goes beyond nods and becomes the movie’s one true brilliant element.
- Judd Greenstein, Michi Wiancko (The Mend): For the clashing strings that put us in the character’s unsettling mindset.
Sicario is a pretty good movie that is also dreadful to watch. It plays almost like a horror movie, and that’s definitely a plus. The movie’s aesthetic conceit is that being in the middle of the War on Drugs is horrifying, and no technical element is more crucial to achieve this conceit than the movie’s sound. Silence is used masterfully, equating sound with the presence of danger, and using Johann Johansen’s unsettling score to increase the tension even further.
- Creed: For letting sound dominate the fighting, and making every punch land with the weight it deserves
- Love & Mercy: For screwing around with clichés, and showing us the musical nuances that govern Brian Wilson’s head.
- Mad Max: Fury Road: For a road to hell that’s paved with roaring motors, clashing chains, screaming men, and thundering music.
- Son of Saul: For using sound as the most effective tool in suggesting one man’s journey through absolute horror.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens: For a beautiful remix of familiar sounds, crackling light-sabers, and beeping robots.
Best Makeup and Hair
Mad Max: Fury Road
I often complain that the Academy confuses “Best Makeup” with “Most Makeup”, but sometimes more is more. What is so effective about Fury Road‘s makeup is that because the movie is essentially a two hour chase sequence, it is hugely important for the audience to be able to identify the key players even when they’re moving at ninety miles an hour. A lot of this is achieved through costumes, but Furiosa’s shaved head and the black grease across her face, Immortan Joe’s luscious white mane, and Nux’s tribal skull look… These are all immediately memorable.
- Bone Tomahawk: For rather boldly going to the absolute extreme with some of the most gruesome imagery of any film this year.
- The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: For gorgeous excess, because movie stars haven’t look this good in a long while.
- Maps to the Stars: For Julianne’s lips, Cusack’s sweat, and similar touches that make everyone look extra icky.
- The Revenant: For gruesome commitment, say what you will about this lifeless movie, but you’ll believe the physical struggle.
Best Visual Effects
Computer-generated effects can do amazing things, but they are so rarely put to good use by contemporary filmmakers. I believe CGI works best when it doesn’t “create” a visual effect, but when it “enhances” it. Ex Machina is essentially a chamber-piece thriller about three people having conversations, except one of the three is a robot. The visual effects team’s transformation of Alicia Vikander into a robot is uncanny, and even more impressive when you consider the movie’s minuscule budget.
- Ant-Man: For going small and playing up the wonder and discovery of those first shrinking sequences.
- Chappie: For Chappie, he might be annoying, but he’s one of the most impressive creations in CG history.
- Mad Max: Fury Road: For using computers to serve a vision, and enhancing a the visceral reality of crashing in the desert.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens: For going back to practical magic, for the Falcon’s magical flight, and because how the hell does BB8 work?