2016 Oscar Hopefuls Are A Complete 180 From The Cynicism Of Yesteryear

Every year, we spend months doling out assessments of who will win Best Picture at the Oscars Picture to every movie with a lilting score, only to narrow the race down to two realistic contenders come Oscar night. Though only knee-deep into 2015’s awards season, we’ve thus far accrued from a swath of festival eminences, spirited pubic appealers, and optimistic end-of-year releases a list of nominee likelies. Diverse though the list may be, there is common ground in films like Spotlight, which wowed at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Martian, which has dazzled the American public and critical community, and the revered Brie Larson-starring drama Room. In short, this won’t be a Birdman year.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “one-shot” showbiz picture made for half of the traditional Best Picture race dichotomy at the kickoff of the 87th Academy Awards. Birdman played for the voting body’s despair over the state of modern cinema and its culture. The other half was Boyhood: spirited, uncynical, and the kind of movie that Birdman openly lamented not being. Instead of championing the kind of endeavor that they claimed to yearn for, the Academy put their votes behind the cinematic castigation of such a tenor’s virtual absence. In a funny way, the vote alone is enough to deem Birdman a more apt representation of our cultural psychology at the time — a self-fulfilling prophecy of cynicism over hope.

Only a few months later, and we find ourselves looking at a buffet of Best Picture hopefuls that lack a Birdman­ counterpart. Movies like Spotlight and The Danish Girl celebrate the necessary changes our society has striven to propagate. The old school flare of Carol and Brooklyn’s love affair stories inset into the race the sweet, bright charms of a more idealistic yore. Inside Out is as big-hearted as any movie produced since Frank Capra’s heyday. And every one of these films has been pinpointed as a near certainty for the nomination pool.

Populist delight The Martian doesn’t call the same unanimity from Oscar predictors, but rallies those on its bandwagon with an unparalleled passion. Though directed by the historically unsympathetic Ridley Scott, The Martian benefits from the scripting talents of Drew Goddard to deliver a tale so wide-eyed and wondrous that you’d think it was made in 1995. A champion of human spirit, the individual’s value, and the intrinsic majesty of exploration and adventure, The Martian is about as optimistic as any film likely to nab a Best Picture nod.

But giving The Martian and its fellow competitors a run for their money in pure heart and soul is Room, an illustration of love and devotion as the paramount tools for survival and liberation. In what will doubtlessly prove to be the role that changed her career forever, star Brie Larson rejects playing victim to the tragedy of her character’s story, fostering instead the notion that she’s foremost at the whims of her will to keep herself and her son safe from danger. This is, on the whole, Room’s great success. It doesn’t play “down.” It doesn’t favor loss as a more powerful dramatic tool than victory. It celebrates Larson’s character’s humanity, spirit, and hope. As dark a story the movie tells, cynicism never factors into Room. It’s a movie about the very opposite, in fact. About how, no matter how bad things are, there is room to believe they can get better.

It’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Birdman is about, in fact. And it’s kind of a relief that we’re back on this track.

Images: A24; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 20th Century Fox