Mark Kermode, Observer film critic
No animated feature has ever won the Academy Award for best picture, and that’s not going to change this year. Inside Out may be the very best film of 2015 (in my opinion), and with the recently expanded best picture field it has a shot at a nomination, but its greatest chances of statuette success are in the animated feature category. Room is devastating, and Carol is a note-perfect adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, but all eyes will probably be on the gripping Spotlight on the night. Oh, and fingers crossed for a Mad Max: Fury Road nomination.
Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood is one of the 305 features listed as eligible in the 88th Academy Awards, but I doubt whether many Oscar voters have seen or even heard of the movie. Which is a real shame because it’s one of the most remarkable films of recent years, and Sciamma’s work on it is outstanding. Of the more populist pictures, George Miller and Ridley Scott may well pick up nominations for Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian (although JJ Abrams has the edge for me with Star Wars: The Force Awakens), but the bookies currently have Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant) and Tom McCarthy fighting it out on the night.
It’s clearly Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn to win, and his beardy anguish in The Revenant looks set to finally earn him an Oscar. Personally, I’d go for Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, although hats off to Matt Damon for turning in one of the most entertaining performances of the year in The Martian. I loved Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, but if he gets a look in it’ll doubtless be in the supporting actor category (the distinctions really baffle me!). And hats off to Samuel L Jackson who somehow manages to hold Tarantino’s baggy The Hateful Eight together – a feat worthy of an award!
Once again, my vote would go to a complete outsider. Karidja Touré was nominated for a most promising actress César, but there’s zero chance of her being recognised at the Oscars for her brilliant central role in Girlhood. In her absence, I’d go for either Brie Larson in Room or Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, although competition in this category is extraordinarily strong. Others who deserve a place on the list include Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years and Cate Blanchett’s Carol co-star Rooney Mara who, for campaign reasons, may end up triumphing in the supporting actress category.
Best supporting actor
Idris Elba dominates Beasts of No Nation, but he’s up for supporting actor at the Globes and is a frontrunner, along with Mark Rylance, in the same category at the Oscars. He gets my vote, although Jacob Tremblay deserves recognition for his remarkable performance in Room. I’d also love to see Will Poulter nominated for The Revenant and John Boyega for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but sadly that isn’t going to happen…
Best supporting actress
■ Julia Garner – Grandma (winner)■ Rachel McAdams – Spotlight■ Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria■ Assa Sylla – Girlhood■ Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs
As with the best actress category, there’s a superfluity of great performances to choose from here. The bookies have Rooney Mara for Carol and Alicia Vikander (twice! – for Ex Machina as well as The Danish Girl) battling it out for the top spot in roles that could equally be considered lead performances. Personally, I was very impressed by Julia Garner, who proved a terrific foil for Lily Tomlin in Grandma, but who sadly seems to have slipped under the voters’ radars.
I’m passing on this category because, as the Observer’s weekly film critic, I haven’t seen such acclaimed front-runners as Son of Saul, which has yet to open here in the UK. But for what it’s worth, I’m a tad disappointed that neither Taiwan’s The Assassin, nor Sweden’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, nor indeed the UK’s own Under Milk Wood (submitted in its Welsh language version) made the Oscar longlist announced last month.
Catherine Shoard, Guardian film editor
I first saw Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop‑motion drama in perfect surroundings. Like its hero, I was alone, abroad, knackered, staying at a bland upmarket hotel, in a Stepford development, increasingly unable to distinguish between people. But even in London, Anomalisa – in which a customer sales guru falls in love and suffers a breakdown – is a masterpiece: technically extraordinary, emotionally annihilating and very, very funny. It’s probably miles too bleak to actually be up for the big prize; likewise far too upsetting – and full-frontal – to take even the best animation award. But this, like 45 Years, is life-altering art, to make you comprehend the world a little more, to leave it a little richer.
I hated Birdman. I found it irritating and unengaging, its splashy stylings not the product of narrative but ego and self-satisfaction. But I think Alejandro González Iñárritu ought to take the prize again this year. The Revenant is an extraordinary piece of film-making. Don’t be distracted by the hype and myths of bear-rape and bison-guzzling. This is just gripping, immense storytelling, with an epic visual fluency unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Lobster is being sorely ignored this season, by the way, but Yorgos Lanthimos’s wit and innovation can’t compare with this level of ingenuity.
A tough category, this: a roll-call of great performances with no knockout victor. Ben Foster’s sociopathic portrayal of Lance Armstrong is being overlooked; likewise Tom Hanks’s sturdy, seamless Jimmy Stewart impression. But the one who pushed the boat furthest for me this year was Ralph Fiennes for his fantastically slappable turn in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, which opens in the UK next month. Fiennes , once so po-faced and brooding, follows his shock comedy turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel with his most memorable outing yet. Harry, his ageing record producer here, is an irresistible riot: rude, charming – and usually nude.
Andrew Haigh’s devastating drama sort of ought to win everything. I’d hoped the Baftas would oblige with a landslide; instead they snubbed it in every category save best British film. They even failed to nominate Rampling for her most bracing role in years, as the housewife who finds her long-standing marriage – plus everything she’s ever really believed in – under threat from the spectre of her husband’s former girlfriend. Rampling’s face at a couple of key moments will haunt me for ever. And I just loved the scenes in which her character goes shopping in Norwich, crowds around her utterly unaware of Rampling’s celebrity; as much an alien-in-disguise as Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin.
Best supporting actor
This time last year, people were still speaking about Steve Carell’s false-nose reinvention in Foxcatcher. But he’s a hundred times better as a hedge-fund manager bubbling over with outrage in The Big Short, Adam McKay’s oddly successful adaptation of the Michael Lewis book about the 2007 housing crash. Indignation is a natural metier for Carell; this is a terrific turn in a surprisingly fine comedy. Nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay gives what’s strictly the best performance of these five as the kidnapped boy in Room – but he’s either the finest actor ever or simply not capable of knowing quite what he was up to. Let’s reserve the prize for a time if and when the first is proved correct.
Best supporting actress
The best female supporting turns of the year were in comedies, and both were vile. Rose Byrne’s witheringly bitchy oligarch stole Spy from Melissa McCarthy, but it was Tilda Swinton who gave maybe the year’s most all-round amazing performance, as Amy Schumer’s brittle men’s mag editor in Trainwreck. With her tandoori tan, her horrific commissions (“Research whether garlic makes semen taste any different”) and her rigorous lack of taste or compassion, this was a creation both grotesquely funny and completely plausible. An inspiration, really.
Best foreign language film
Last year was an exceptional one for this category: Leviathan and Ida are contenders for the best film of all time, let alone just not in English and released in 2015. But anyhow, luckily, my top foreign language film for the 12 months is the one pretty much guaranteed to win: Son of Saul, an extraordinary look at the life of one Sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner forced to work in the gas chambers) at Auschwitz in 1944. It’s ethically as well as logistically ambitious, truly important and – obviously – deeply moving. Plus it’s by a 38-year-old first-time director, starring a man who’s never acted on screen before.
Guy Lodge, film critic and Observer TV columnist
Andrew Haigh’s gentle flesh wound of a marital drama, 45 Years, is also pick of the week in my DVD column, but it’s worth getting repeatedly evangelical over. While Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay have deservedly been rewarded for their exquisitely pitched performances as a retired couple at a gaping romantic impasse, the film is so much more than a thespian showcase. Every shot and cut counts in the scheme of Haigh’s refined-yet-acute visual storytelling, while his script — adapting and enriching the short story from which it stems — is a masterclass in literary distillation and cinematic repurposing.
■ Todd Haynes — Carol (winner)■ Andrew Haigh — 45 Years■ George Miller — Mad Max: Fury Road■ Céline Sciamma — Girlhood■ Miroslav Slaboshpitsky — The Tribe
Carol might be a narrow runner-up for me as best picture, but I’m not denying Todd Haynes this one. It’s the year’s most immaculate feat of direction, marshalling the film’s every ravishing craft element — Ed Lachman’s icicled 16mm cinematography, Carter Burwell’s swooning score, Sandy Powell’s droolworthy ensembles of mink and plaid — not just into a rigorously disciplined throwback aesthetic, but a porcelain surface to be cracked by the film’s own subtle emotional violence, just as its lovers grow to see each other after so much enraptured looking. Few working film-makers have quite such a nuanced, nimble-fingered command of mise-en-scène.
I’ve long thought Bateman an undervalued (and, more crucially, undertested performer, so “revelation” probably isn’t the word for his increasingly terrifying performance in Joel Edgerton’s far-sharper-than-expected directorial debut. But he surprised me nonetheless, putting a daring, devastating twist on a screen persona — the amiably glib American suburbanite — that he has hitherto so comfortably established, dredging up reserves of coiled rage and self-loathing spite beneath the bland jocularity. He doesn’t have a prayer of Oscar recognition, but it’s far gutsier work than much of the ostentatious method acting and mannered biopic impersonations that will fill the category next week.
Best actress proffers a much richer and more varied field of possibilities this year than its male counterpart; this was by far the hardest category to boil down to five. I can choose a winner, however, without a moment’s hesitation. One could have been forgiven for thinking François Ozon’s Under the Sand would remain Rampling’s late-career peak, yet this differently textured study in mourning — if not for a lover, then for a more certain past — might just have topped it. A wordless revelation scene in a dusty attic, as crushed realisation, sorrow and anger spread simultaneously across that mesmerising face, should clinch her every prize going.
Best supporting actor
Alex Garland’s scalpel-carved sci-fi investigation into feminine construction has pleasingly proven an against-the-odds sleeper in the US awards race, netting a Producers Guild nod and multiple critics’ gongs for Alicia Vikander. Yet its single most special effect has gone frustratingly unrewarded: Isaac’s brilliant, swaggering send-up of the tech-bro fraternity, which coolly pierces his character’s smug social regressiveness without neglecting or denying his cold, crackling intelligence. Isaac’s on an extraordinary hot streak: he was Oscar-worthy last year in A Most Violent Year, and the year before that in Inside Llewyn Davis, yet a nomination continues to elude him.
Best supporting actress
As hype man for Channing Tatum’s chiselled collective of male strippers, Matthew McConaughey made such in 2012’s Magic Mike that it seemed fair to assume this hard-partying sequel would suffer for his absence. Instead, like much else about the enterprise, the film took a female-targeted slant that paid off. As sleekly controlling club owner Rome, a role originally conceived for a man, Pinkett Smith refashioned it as a tangy celebration of black female empowerment, wholly on top even in her bristling sexual chemistry with Tatum. Too often brushed aside as Mrs Will Smith, she’s never been this electric on screen.
Best foreign language film
The Academy’s arcane voting procedures in this category — allowing one film per country, as selected by national committees — means many of the year’s best foreign-language films (The Tribe or Girlhood, for example) aren’t even in the hunt. I’ve picked from the official submissions, though most of my choices have already been knocked out in a preliminary vote: among them, the second chapter of Arabian Nights, Miguel Gomes’s astonishing six-hour triptych in which mythical lore and political rhetoric combine for an alternately elegiac, furious and wildly funny meditation on storytelling, ghost dogs and contemporary economic blight. It’s not yet out in the UK, but it’s worth the wait.
Carmen Gray, film critic
Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s feature debut blew audiences’ minds with its radically original, audacious take on the societal exploitation that flourishes from neglect. Filmed entirely in unsubtitled sign language but direct as a hammer-blow, The Tribe is set in a boarding school for the deaf that’s a front for organised crime, where a shy new student must adapt. Its absorbing, brutal dance couldn’t be further from the sentimental lens guaranteed to make Oscar voters well up. But while its form of daring confrontation might not speak their language – or that of Ukraine’s Oscar committee, which provoked a scandal when it wasn’t put forward as the country’s foreign film entry – The Tribe deserves an accolade as the year’s cinematic event.
Endlessly inventive director Todd Haynes has consistently sidestepped convention to find novel ways to connect us with richly complex outsider characters, from his early Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which used Barbie dolls to enact its take on troubled celebrity to I’m Not There, in which Bob Dylan was played by six actors (including Cate Blanchett). His sense of genuine daring is fully matured in the gorgeously sensuous and melancholy Carol, his adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, about the love affair between a society wife (Blanchett again) and a shop assistant (Rooney Mara) in 50s New York. Haynes’s nuanced feel for the pervasive dangers in a reputation-obsessed society blends with a transporting sense of period detail and atmosphere.
Oscar contention is not just about career-high performances, but also playing the awards game relentlessly. In the brutal The Revenant Leonardo DiCaprio plays a 19th-century fur trapper who goes on a gruelling epic revenge journey after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by his fellow hunters. With grisly tales of the star having to eat raw bison, sleep in an animal carcass and risk hypothermia in frozen lakes, this is the perfect role for award-season hustle, The only thing more punishing would be not even an Oscar nom, since he’s considered a shoo-in to win. We can be cynical about the campaigning side of the race – but for a consistently great actor who’s never won an Oscar despite his four acting nominations, it’s high time “poor Leo” bagged one.
The Room ramps up mortified suspense, but the emotional core of this astonishingly life-affirming film is its soul-wrenching depiction of hope’s survival in the most arid of circumstances. An 11ft-square cramped garden shed is the space in which a captive mother (Brie Larson) must use her imagination as her greatest resource to create the means of inner survival for her and her five-year-old son. That’s no easy call for an actress – especially as physical escape is only the beginning of the kind of isolation the trauma-racked pair are plunged into when grappling to regain normality. Larson’s emotionally articulate, searingly real grasp of the outer reaches of human despair and transformation makes for the performance of her career, and is everything in carrying this remarkable film.
Best supporting actor
Brooklyn is a sentimental, humour-tinged romantic drama about immigrants coming to America that caters to audiences looking for big-hearted, old-fashioned idealism even as it intelligently updates its tale for progressive sensibilities, making its Irish heroine a career-minded, practical young woman who is hesitant to bend her life for her lovestruck boyfriend. As the Italian lad in question, Emory Cohen (alongside a vibrant Saoirse Ronan) is just the right blend of jolty inexperience, candid decency and tousled charm to breathe bracing life into what is a likable but safe film, making us root for him as other options crowd in to complicate love’s path. Cohen is used to showing his acting talents in more under-the-radar indie fare such as Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, and this movie should see him deservedly noticed.
Best supporting actress
The blistering energy, raw candour and attitude of low-budget indie breakout hit Tangerine are its heart, and for this we have its actresses to thank. Mya Taylor plays Alex, a trans street worker who careers through the streets with her friend Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) as a cheating pimp boyfriend and Armenian taxi driver with a crush cause them complications. She was street-cast by director Sean Baker, who lives near the LA doughnut shop that serves as the hub of the film’s drama. Taylor would be the first trans actor to be Oscar-nominated, a strong sign of change afoot in a Hollywood casting bubble which sees trans roles monopolised by cisgender celebs when trans actors are struggling to work(Jared Leto’s Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club in 2014 prompted outcry in the trans community). A win might just see the big studios catch onto what they’ve been missing.
Best foreign language film
In his innovative feature debut, Hungarian director László Nemes attempts a whole new way of depicting the Holocaust. Roberto Benigni garnered controversy for mixing comedy with tragedy in portraying this modern-era cataclysm with Life Is Beautiful in 1998 but still won the Best Foreign Film category. Son of Saul stays unremittingly grim. Instead of consoling us with idealistic heroes, it immerses us in a hellish assault of sensory impressions as we follow close-in with a Sonderkommando prisoner (Geza Rohrig) working the crematoriums at Auschwitz, going about his daily tasks with traumatised disconnect. A more ambiguous spiritual hope glimmers. The film honours the sonorities of speech as historical memory, with Yiddish (a language that almost disappeared in the Holocaust) among the eight heard. A win for this film, deemed too risky to finance by numerous funders, would be a call for the revitalising powers of cinematic daring.
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