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Best Picture IMHO: PC or not PC, That is the Question

Oscars So White? The Best Picture nominees are all artistically accomplished productions. “Rocky 7,” aka Creed, may not deserve to be among them. But Michael B. Jordan’s performance in the lead role is a glaring omission from the Best Actor category, especially considering Sylvester Stallone’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor in that same movie.

Stallone deserves a nomination. So does Jordan. Writer/Director Ryan Coogler also merits a Best Director acknowledgement for reviving the moribund Rocky franchise with fresh energy. What about Spike Lee’s audacious and timely Chi-Raq? Or the dynamic Teyonah Parris?

Beasts of No Nation suffers from a double disadvantage in the eyes of the Academy, with a black cast in a foreign land. (Like Straight Outta Compton!). Idris Elba has been recognized by the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, but not the Oscars. This oversight recalls the Academy’s inexplicable failure to honor David Oyelowo’s riveting portrayal of Martin Luther King in last year’s Selma.

These omissions reflect much more poorly on the motion picture establishment than on the snubbed artists.  A boycott is a viable protest. But the Academy itself needs revision. Not affirmative action categories (Best Minority Actress in a Comedic Role) but a revolution in thinking that more accurately reflects the country in which we live and its rich, diverse artistic community.

Of the eight Best Picture nominees, I have a clear favorite. Running quickly through the field: The Big Short is a star-studded tutorial on the horrific mortgage loan bank scams of @ 2008. Expertly acted and deeply informative, the movie asks us to sympathize with the smart insiders who made a bundle predicting the inevitable financial collapse. But that sympathy is a hard sell.

Bridge of Spies is an earnest, Spielberg/Hanks rehearsal of a real-life Cold War spy exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Mark Rylance makes for a memorable Rudolf Abel. Watchable if unexceptional.

Brooklyn is a gorgeous, bittersweet coming-of-age story with Saoirse Ronan growing before our eyes from wretched waif to worldly woman, who falls in love with her native Ireland only after committing her life to the United States.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a wild ride through apocalyptic wastes, exhibiting director George Miller’s mastery at a whole new level of the genre he created. He richly deserves his nomination, as does the intense, astonishing Charlize Theron.

The Martian is a technically splendid post-modern Robinson Crusoe tale with Best Actor nominee Matt Damon as the sole inhabitant of a planet, reflecting the secret feelings of some Hollywood stars.

The Room is a harrowing, claustrophobic saga of a kidnap victim and her young son in prolonged captivity. To its credit, this film offers an unblinking look at the emotional complications the two face after their escape. Brie Larson dazzles here, as does Jacob Tremblay.

Spotlight is a terrific, old-fashioned journalistic procedural with a splendid cast. Against the odds, scrappy reporters get the goods on the entrenched political-religious powers of the Boston establishment. While I admired this movie, I was even more engaged by another journalism film, Truth, starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as his producer, Mary Mapes. A cautionary tale, this film was probably not nominated because it does not have Spotlight’s “happy ending.” And the probable perp, Karl Rove, is still at large.

Which brings us to The Revenant, a tale of revenge based loosely on historical events. But the direction and cinematography elevate this simple plot to an allegorical level. The elements of light and water are mesmerizing and seductive. The harsh retributive human world, where treachery is the norm, love is under constant threat and friends and generosity are rare, plays out in brutal, bloody inevitability before the cold, impassive natural world.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who hardly ever leaves the screen, is transcendent here as Hugh Glass, heartsick, dispossessed, wounded, abused and left for dead, driven to survive and keep moving by the only thing he has left: vengeance. He takes us with him on his painful, frightening journey. We feel every frigid plunge he takes into racing waters, every bite of raw meat he gobbles to stay alive.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s decisión to make the movie in a real wilderness was a gamble that pays off handsomely with its authenticity, beauty and menace. Emmanuel Lubezki exploits the natural elements to highlight the tragedy of violent human interactions. The battle action sequences convey the fear and confusión of these fierce encounters.

In a recent article, a university professor condemned The Revenant as “a film that glorifies settler colonialism.” This seems to me a misreading of the movie. Glass marries a Native American woman who bears his child. He grieves her death at the hands of white soldiers. Neither the French nor the Anglo trappers are romanticized as anything other than mercenary. Native American leaders in the film castigate all the Euro-settlers as trespassers and thieves.

Iñarritu does not sugar-coat the murderous habits and consequences of the intruders into the North American wilderness. Quite the contrary. Can a film be raw and bloody, yet beautiful and elegiac? The Revenant shows that it can. For its moral and aesthetic complexity, in a stark setting with a simple plot, this film deserves to take home all the Oscar gold it can carry.

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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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