Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences releases a roster of the pictures and performances they think are most deserving of accolades.
And every year, I put together this list to tell them what they got wrong.
This year, I’m far from the only guy griping about the Academy’s picks, however. The Oscars have justifiably taken a whole lot of flack for being white. Lily white. So, sooooo white. It’s important to remember that the Academy is made up of a lot of people, and no one gets to look at the full list of nominees before it’s set in stone to double-check that it isn’t just a bunch of Caucasians.
This year, sadly, it was just a bunch of Caucasians, in every single acting category. Part of the problem is that there aren’t enough roles for non-white actors, and many roles that do end up going to a more diverse set of actors are in smaller movies that have a hard time landing on the Academy’s radar. There are reasons Straight Outta Compton and Beasts Of No Nation didn’t get more (or any) Oscar love, and they don’t necessarily mean that the Academy’s voting body is a big bunch of racists. On the whole, they’re not, and Hollywood’s diversity problem spans a lot wider than the Oscar race. It’s getting more attention now than ever before, and perhaps slowly but surely, that will inspire some change.
But the Oscars aren’t the last word in cinema.
I mean, yes… they kind of are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate the great stuff from 2015 that is, maybe, more deserving than what the Academy picked. As in any year, some of my favorites got Oscar nods, while others never had a chance. Here they are.
(As usual, the winner is at the top in bold, and the rest are in descending order of how much I liked them.)
Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Tom Courtenay, 45 Years
Jason Segel, The End Of The Tour
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Honorable Mentions: Matt Damon, The Martian; Michael Caine, Youth
The Best Actor category at the Academy Awards this year is a mixed bag. Bryan Cranston is a terrific actor, but Trumbo isn’t a particularly memorable movie; Eddie Redmayne’s work as a transgender painter in The Danish Girl is solid, I suppose, but the film isn’t so good; we all know Leo’s going to win, anyway.
Then there’s Michael B. Jordan’s central performance in Creed, which gives us action, drama, comedy, and romance. He commands the screen at every moment, and the physical work he did to come off as a skilled boxer shouldn’t be ignored. Short-tempered, occasionally cocky, and coming from a wealthy family, his Apollo Creed could have been a difficult guy to root for in the hands of a lesser performer. Jordan has turned in a handful of solid performances over the past few years; this should have been the year he got noticed by the Academy, and the most incriminating omission in this controversial “So White” year. Let’s hope this mistake isn’t made again.
Trailing not too far behind… Charlotte Rampling rightly got her Best Actress nomination for 45 Years, but Tom Courtenay’s performance is equally essential to the film. The marriage they create together is utterly believable, and though his character could have been the villain of the piece, Courtenay makes us feel as much sympathy for him as we do for his wife. Meanwhile, Jason Segel made the all-important “comedy actor transition to serious drama,” following the footsteps of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill. As David Foster Wallace, he was tremendously vulnerable but utterly captivating, perfectly inhabiting this mournful mythic figure. My favorite actor who was nominated is Michael Fassbender, who has made my list of favorite actors for four of the last five years (for Shame, Prometheus, and 12 Years A Slave, though I also admired last year’s performance behind a papier-mâché head in Frank.) As the titular genius in Steve Jobs, he’s mostly a pompous jerk, but there’s enough of a spark behind that that allows us to understand what made the man one of the most compelling public figures of recent times. (He also starred in one of my Top Ten films, Slow West.)
And yes, okay, last but not least there’s Leo. There’s almost zero character built into Hugh Glass, thanks to The Revenant‘s screenplay and direction, but the man did eat lots of gross raw animal parts, so I guess it’s okay that we give him an Oscar. Like so many actors, he’s being rewarded for one of his least interesting performances, but let’s pretend it’s just a delayed award for The Departed, Revolutionary Road, and The Wolf Of Wall Street.
As noted in my wrap up of the year’s best films, it’s been an amazing year for women in cinema. I guess the consequence is that we get fewer standout performances from the men. That’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.
Laia Costa, Victoria
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Elisabeth Moss, Queen Of Earth
Greta Gerwig, Mistress America
Honorable Mentions: Juliette Binoche, Clouds Of Sils Maria; Emily Blunt, Sicario
Last year Birdman wowed the Academy with its all-in-one-take illusion. This year, the thriller Victoria actually unfolded in a single, unbroken take that follows a young waitress (named Victoria, natch) across a two-and-a-half hour misadventure. This is a herculean task for an actress, asked to run the gamut of emotions over the course of the film without having any time to “prepare” off camera. Her gut-wrenching emotive work in the final act of this film should get attention in its own right, but is all the more impressive as we’ve literally seen her transform from a guileless girl looking for a good time to an unwitting participant in some very dangerous activities. Leo may have had to wade in ice-cold water, but Laia had to duck off screen and hurriedly urinate while the cameras were rolling. I’d say she deserves equal consideration.
Fortunately, the Academy did go for Rampling’s stunning work in 45 Years. Rampling says more with a look in the film than some actresses say in their entire careers. It’s a performance that’s all about what isn’t said, and isn’t done. But Rampling conveys just enough of her character’s emotional state, while also suggesting layers upon layers we aren’t privy to. Rampling’s fine work shouldn’t be undermined by her oafish comments about race, but it’s hard to believe that didn’t hurt what little chance she had with Academy voters.
The Academy also recognized Cate Blanchett, who is really a co-lead in Carol with Rooney Mara; Blanchett is almost always formidable on screen, but her Carol feels simultaneously forceful and fragile as she confronts what might be her last chance at love. Elisabeth Moss is also a force to be reckoned with in Queen Of Earth, a character who is not like Peggy from Mad Men at all. (Sorry, but I will probably always compare Mad Men actors to their characters from that fantastic show.) As a grieving daughter recently dumped by her boyfriend and facing a rough patch with her best girlfriend, her character completely unravels over the course of a few days; it all gives way to a killer monologue that’s one of the year’s best. As for Greta Gerwig, Mistress America gives her character in Frances Ha a little twist, delivering the year’s awkwardest, funniest performance as an aspiring entrepreneur who’s 30 going on 13.
In a year that was so good to women, this was a hard list to narrow down. I had several actresses I had to leave out of the running, both here and in supporting roles. That’s a good problem to have, though, I suppose.
Mark Rylance, Bridge Of Spies
Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Honorable Mentions: Emory Cohen, Brooklyn; John Cusack, Chi-Raq
I may be betting on Mark Rylance as the dark horse to win the Oscar this year for his wry, understated spy in Bridge Of Spies. If it happens, it’ll be richly deserved. Rylance has a relatively small amount of screen time, but he’s quietly electric every time he’s on screen. Rylance was previously unknown to most filmgoers, but well known for his stage work. But his Bridge Of Spies performance is perfectly pitched for the big screen. Like Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, Rylance says more with what he doesn’t do than what he actually does. It feels like he’s effortlessly shrugging off his performance, but that’s only because he’s so good.
Oscar Isaac is one of the year’s major players thanks to Star Wars and his HBO series Show Me A Hero. His tech prodigy Nathan Bateman in Ex Machina is basically the dark side of Steve Jobs — same ego, scarier results. He’s a lonely mad scientist, experimenting on humans as well as his artificially intelligent creations, but he’s also a relatable dudebro who’s into MMA and getting wasted. Isaac creates a fascinating dichotomy in a film where we’re never sure which character is meant to be our villain. (Though Nathan is certainly a prime candidate.)
If Rylance doesn’t pull a win on Oscar night, then the statue may very well be going to Sylvester Stallone in Creed. It’s a surprisingly tender and touching performance from an actor who hasn’t given us much to chew on lately in terms of quality, thanks in large part to the continuity of the Rocky Balboa character across four decades (which Stallone was instrumental in, both on screen and off). It’s just a shame that this was Creed‘s only nomination. In other non-Caucasian should-be contenders, Benicio Del Toro in Sicario, taking on drug kingpin baddies in a very different way than he did in his Oscar-winning role in Traffic. His character is increasingly menacing, but we’re drawn to him in a strange way. He’s capable of horrible things, but Del Toro lets us see the gears working. He makes choices about when he’s going to be a heinous, cold-blooded killer.
It was Mark Ruffalo who got the Spotlight nod in the Best Supporting Actor race. I have no beef with that, but in my book, Michael Keaton played the more compelling character, a man caught between his upstanding position in the Boston community and his call to duty to expose an epidemic of Catholic priests harming children. More Michael Keaton in movies like this, please.
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kristen Stewart, Clouds Of Sila Maria
Mya Taylor, Tangerine
Cynthia Nixon, James White
Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL
Honorable Mentions: Tessa Thompson, Creed; Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
My very favorite performance of the year in any category belongs to Alicia Vikander, which is only fitting since she appeared in so many films this year. There was an outside chance she’d get her Oscar nomination for Ex Machina instead of The Danish Girl, but alas, it went to the less interesting performance. (Vikander is plenty good in Danish Girl, but it’s unworthy of her considerable talents.)
Ex Machina is very worthy, however. Vikander is ethereal and eerie as Ava, a machine designed by Oscar Isaac’s devious billionaire Nathan. She’s part of a Turing test, probing to see whether Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb will put aside his knowledge of her artificial intelligence and sympathize with her as he would a human being. Thanks to Vikander’s perfectly calibrated performance, we share Caleb’s confusion about whether we should feel sorry for Ava or be terrified of her. It’s utterly believable that Caleb would develop feelings for her. (It doesn’t hurt that Ava looks like Alicia Vikander.) Though there’s plenty that’s good in Ex Machina, Alicia Vikander should get the burden of the credit for making the film so rewatchable. From moment to moment, we’re never sure just how aware and manipulative she is. It’s possible to see this film from so many different angles. Vikander’s likely to win the Oscar this year. (We’ll all just pretend it’s for Ex Machina.)
As key as Vikander is to Ex Machina, Kristen Stewart might be just as essential to the meta-ness of Clouds Of Sils Maria, which stars her as the assistant to Maria, a Juliette Binoche-esque star (played, appropriately, by Juliette Binoche). Much of the film is comprised of debates between actress and assistant. Stewart’s Valentine defends Jo-Ann, the bratty starlet (Chloe Grace-Moretz) who has been cast opposite Maria in a revival of the play that made her famous. Jo-Ann is known primarily as tabloid fodder and bringing her A-game to bad franchise movies — sound familiar? Stewart cast as Jo-Ann would have been a predictable stunt, but having her play the subdued assistant who passionately defends silly “fun” movies is a stroke of genius that lends the movie an added layer of interest.
Notice, if you will, that there are four black women amongst my picks (if you include my Honorable Mentions). This is the category that is most egregiously “So White,” given that so many women of color turned in fabulous work this year.
The diversity factor would have been upped considerably if only the Academy had considered Tangerine‘s Mya Taylor, who is black and also trans. (That would be a first.) Tangerine is too scrappy a film for the Oscars, but Taylor’s soulful turn as a prostitute saving up to pay for a singing gig on Christmas Eve is both the anchor and the beating heart of an otherwise madcap adventure through the seedier side of Hollywood.
Cynthia Nixon comes a long way from strutting down 5th Avenue in Manolo Blahniks in James White, in which she plays a woman dying of cancer, hoping beyond hope that her spoiled, wayward son will find his way after she’s gone.
Last but not least is Jada Pinkett Smith, who picks up the slack for Matthew McConaughey in the surprisingly fantastic Magic Mike sequel. McConaughey’s Dallas was my favorite Supporting Actor in 2012; Pinkett Smith has a little less screen time as Rome, an entrepreneur who creates a paradise populated by kind-hearted Adonises for wealthy black women, but she dominates every scene she’s in. (She also has sizzling chemistry with Channing Tatum.)
Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig, Mistress America
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
Josh Cooley, Pete Doctor and Meg LeFauve, Inside Out
Olivier Assayas, Clouds Of Sils Maria
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Andrew Haigh, 45 Years
Phyllis Nagy, Carol
Drew Goddard, The Martian
Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs
Donald Marguiles, The End Of The Tour
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
Denis Villenueve, Sicario
Ryan Coogler, Creed
Sean Baker, Tangerine
Sebastian Schipper, Victoria
Honorable Mentions: Olivier Assayas, Clouds Of Sils Maria; Deniz Gamze Erguven, Mustang
Johann Johannsson, Sicario
Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow, Ex Machina
Carter Burwell, Carol
The Octopus Project, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Ennio Moricone, The Hateful Eight
The Big Short & 99 Homes
Steve Jobs & Ex Machina
It Follows & Spotlight
The Stanford Prison Experiment & Experimenter
The Final Girls & Final Girl
Channing Tatum, Magic Mike XXL
Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno, Ex Machina
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, 45 Years
Angela Trimbur, The Final Girls
Amy Schumer, Trainwreck
The climactic showdown in Slow West
Emily Blunt, Jon Bernthal, and Benicio Del Toro in Sicario
Leonardo DiCaprio & bear in The Revenant
Tyrannosaurus Rex and Indominus Rex in Jurassic World
Sin-Dee and Dinah in Tangerine
Matt Damon, The Martian
Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
Peter Skarsgaard, Experimenter
Billy Crudup, The Stanford Prison Experiment
B.D. Wong, Jurassic World
Hugh Keays-Byrne, Mad Max: Fury Road
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Kyle Chandler, Carol
Colin Quinn, Trainwreck
Géza Röhrig, Son Of Saul
Phylicia Rashad, Creed
Cynthia Nixon, James White
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Blake Lively, The Age Of Adaline
Malin Akerman, The Final Girls
Kristen Wiig, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
Marcia Gay Harden, Grandma
Lily Tomlin, Grandma
Virginia Madsen, Joy
Katherine Waterson, Steve Jobs
THE “JUDE LAW IN 2004” AWARD FOR MOST UBIQUITOUS ACTOR
Domnhall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, The Revenant)
THE “JESSICA CHASTAIN IN 2011” AWARD FOR MOST UBIQUITOUS ACTRESS
Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Danish Girl, Burnt, Testament Of Youth, Seventh Son)
THE 2015 ROSTER
Here’s every movie I saw from 2015, ranked by how much I liked them.
- Mistress America
- Ex Machina
- Inside Out
- Magic Mike XXL
- 45 Years
- Slow West
- Clouds Of Sils Maria
- It Follows
- Steve Jobs
- The Big Short
- The Martian
- The End Of The Tour
- While We’re Young
- White God
- Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
- Tom At The Farm
- Queen Of Earth
- Wild Tales
- 99 Homes
- Love & Mercy
- Bridge Of Spies
- Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- We Are Your Friends
- James White
- The Overnight
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- The Age Of Adaline
- The Duke Of Burgundy
- The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
- The Final Girls
- Jurassic World
- The Revenant
- The Stanford Prison Experiment
- Infinitely Polar Bear
- The Mend
- Far From The Madding Crowd
- Straight Outta Compton
- Me And Earl And The Dying Girl
- The Avengers: Age Of Ultron
- Son Of Saul
- The Hateful Eight
- Mississippi Grind
- Black Mass
- A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence
- Pitch Perfect 2
- Heaven Knows What
- Irrational Man
- The Walk
- John Wick
- The Danish Girl
- Kingsman: The Secret Service
- The Gift
- Final Girl