From the Trauma of ‘Room’ to the Sweetness of ‘Brooklyn,’ A Look at Oscar’s Best Picture Nominees (Part 1)

As Hollywood’s big night approaches, I’m feeling oddly drained.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t worked as a (paid) entertainment journalist for more than two years now.

Maybe it’s because the more I write about the Oscars, the more I realize what a shallow, absurd exercise in vanity they can be. (They can also be exciting, emotional, cathartic, and weirdly amusing, I’ll admit.)

Perhaps it’s because I’m still unpacking the few boxes remaining from a big move and I’ve just been too distracted to care too much.

Don’t get me wrong though. I will never quit the Academy Awards. Like a pair of star-crossed lovers, our tortured romance will continue and our hearts will go on.

So while I won’t be writing a traditional Oscar prediction story this year, I still wanna talk about that strangely alluring, little, naked, sword-wielding gold guy.

Below are my thoughts on four of the contenders for the coveted best picture prize at the 88th Academy Awards. (They’re set to air at 4 p.m. Sunday on ABC.)

I’ll ruminate on the remaining four best picture nominees in another post to come this week.

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Brooklyn

Adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” is as sweet as a yummy, yummy birthday cake and it makes you feel just as fine and full and syrupy as if you’d stuffed your face with a thick slice of said frosted confection.

I knew the minute I laid eyes on it that the mostly elderly, white members of the Academy wouldn’t be able to resist its charms, perhaps because they still remember the days when they were fresh off the boat. (I’m kidding.)

If it sounds as if I’m looking down my nose at this perfectly delightful tale of a young Irish immigrant’s introduction to life and love in an idyllic version of 1950s New York, it’s only because the film doesn’t contain a single surprise, unless you count leading lady Saoirse Ronan’s deeply affecting performance.

It took just one scene to clinch Ronan’s nomination for best actress, along with nods for best picture and best adapted screenplay (the spry, sprightly script was penned by none other than Nick Hornby).

As the dutiful, introspective Eilis looks around the hall at her last dance in the sleepy Irish village she is about to escape for a more adventurous future in America, Ronan’s wistful gaze tells us everything we need to know about our heroine’s longing and trepidation. It’s a beautiful moment of acting.

“Brooklyn” has been praised for its positive depiction of immigration in a time when the very word tends to trigger quarrelsome division, but it has a lot more to offer, including period costumes that look good enough to eat, a swoony romance with an irresistible Italian plumber (Emory Cohen), a tumultuous love triangle, a clear-eyed examination of homesickness, and hilarious comic relief, courtesy of Julie Walters’ feisty landlady.

The movie may lack the edge it needs to win best picture, but it’s already won plenty of hearts.

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Bridge of Spies

For a film by Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies” was strangely overlooked in 2015. Some critics have dismissed it as too old-fashioned to be worthy of Oscar gold.

Reactions to the Cold War thriller have been so underwhelming that Spielberg — a seven-time nominee for best director — wasn’t even recognized and “Spies” seems to have little chance of clinching a best picture win, despite six nominations, including best screenplay, music, and production design.

The lack of enthusiasm surrounding “Spies” is shocking to me. I admire it so much, in fact, it made my list of the top films of 2015. Here’s what I had to say about it then:

“‘Bridge of Spies’ is the kind of classic, classy, elegant cinema the director of ‘E.T.’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ is celebrated for. You won’t find any flash or gimmicks in this Cold War saga centered on true events surrounding the capture of a Soviet spy.

“What you will find is graceful, gripping storytelling; a superb script, by Matt Charman and, of all people, Joel and Ethan Coen; and some of the best acting of the year.

“Tom Hanks is at his finest, all Atticus Finchy in his moral decency. The film’s most startling performance, however, belongs to British actor Mark Rylance in a beautifully understated turn as the enigmatic secret agent at the heart of all the drama.

“This is one of those rare movies that makes you think about what it means to be an American, no small feat considering the current state of our murky national identity.”

Rylance is nominated in the best supporting actor category, and it seems certain he’ll lose to aging favorite Sylvester Stallone. If I could have just one wish on Oscar night, it would be that Rylance would wrest the gold from the former “Rocky” for his exquisitely restrained portrayal of a traitor with unexpected integrity.

Room

I’m not exaggerating when I say that “Room” was one of the most haunting, beautiful, earth-shattering movies I experienced with every aching, visceral fiber of my body in 2015.

Still, I haven’t talked about the movie much and that’s because it’s difficult to know what to say when people ask what you thought about it. I’d like to recommend “Room” to everyone without reservation but “Room” is not a film for everyone. Unless you enjoy being shaken to your very core, you may not be up to the emotional ordeal that awaits you. The drama is its own special brand of trauma.

“Room” presents us with a scenario so horrifying it would be surreal if it wasn’t for the fact that this sort of situation pops up with alarming frequency on the evening news.

A mother (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay) live out their daily lives in a space no bigger than a shipping container. The boy’s only impression of the outside world comes from an old television set. His “Ma” is sometimes so depressed, she can’t get out of bed. An unseen man pays regular visits, during which the boy is cloistered inside a wardrobe.

We can gather what is going on here, but the full implications of the story take awhile to dawn on us. Though this is the potentially sensational stuff of Lifetime television specials, this is no movie of the week. Director Larry Abrahamson crafts a gut-wrenching tale of the power of maternal love from subject matter that should be impossible to handle with this much brutal honesty and keen sensitivity.

The tiny, confined dwelling place that gives the film its name becomes a brilliant showcase for the stunning talents of best actress nominee Brie Larson, who conveys with awesome clarity everything Ma is thinking in moments of silence that seem to stretch on for days. Larson shares a fierce bond with 9-year-old Tremblay, who is such a natural, charming presence, he should have been nominated as well.

Abrahamson’s nod for best director and Emma Donoghue’s nomination for best adapted screenplay bring the movie’s potential Oscar tally to four trophies.

“Room” is probably too raw and painful to win big — although Larson is a lock, or at least she should be — but this challenging drama deserves a wider audience.

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The Big Short

I was so preoccupied with the recent move that I somehow let “The Big Short” get away from me. Now I’m kicking myself because it’s not playing in a single theater in my vicinity and won’t be released for home viewing until March 15.

It’s a shame because the sharp-witted political comedy has gained unexpected momentum over the last few weeks as buzz builds regarding its prospects as a potential best picture winner. The film has demonstrated box office strength as the Oscars approach, after nabbing major trophies from the producers and writers guilds.

Despite my failure to see the film, I didn’t want to leave it out of this discussion, so I asked my friend and fellow Oscar buff, Kristy Rivas, to tell me why she thinks it’s a formidable contender for best picture gold.

Nominated for five Oscars, including adapted screenplay, best director for Adam McKay, and best supporting actor for Christian Bale, “The Big Short” follows a quartet of high-finance players as they foresee the credit and housing bubble of the mid-2000s. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt star alongside Bale, and all of them are made up to look exceptionally nerdy.

Kristy says the film boasts an innovative structure that reminds her of last year’s best picture winner, “Birdman,” in its irreverence and experimentation. She praises the movie’s balance of drama and comedy and McKay’s clever use of voiceover, which, as we all know, can be “hard to do.”

“I loved how they would stop to explain terms (having to do with the housing crash) with random celebrities explaining them in layman’s terms,” she said.

“It takes something that was a very serious, very scary situation in recent history (and) Adam McKay was able to use comedy to balance out the story to where you didn’t feel completely downtrodden … but you understand we’re headed in that direction again.

“The story was told well. It wasn’t like other dramas that completely drain you … like ‘The Revanant’ where you just feel gross after.”

So there you have it, folks.

“The Big Short” does not leave you feeling as if you just crawled out of an eviscerated horse carcass.

High praise, indeed.

Photos: brooklyn-themovie.com, teaser-trailer.com, http://www.dvdtalk.com, youtube.com.

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