And we’re back! 2016’s Academy Awards brought forth eight worthy films to compete for Best Picture, and while I’m not necessarily worthy of judging these movies on the cinematic level that the Academy does (Spoiler: I’m going to do that anyway), I am definitely worthy of judging them on how they fare as a crime film. This will be my third year in a row writing this article, and it’s always a blast. (See 2015 here. And 2014 here.)
For those not familiar with how this works, let me break it down for you. Here at Criminal Element, we put three things above all: murder, mystery, and mayhem. So in keeping with the site’s themes, I’m ranking all Best Picture nominees on these three categories.
Each movie will be judged on its three categories on a scale from 1 to 10, which will then be added together to give a final ranking. I’ll also be squeezing in some general predictions and opinions throughout the post, so when you inevitably disagree with me, take your pitchforks to the comments and tell me why you’re coming for me.
There will be some minor/obvious spoilers. You’ve been warned. Let’s get to the carnage!
Director: John Crowley; Main Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson
An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a romance with a local. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.
Murder – 1/10: Brooklyn is a love story through and through. Never once does it seem like there’s any chance of a murder transpiring, unless we’re talking about spaghetti, because Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis straight-up murdered that plate of pasta.
Mystery – 5/10: While the “Who will she choose?” trope is nothing new to storytelling, when done correctly like Brooklyn manages, it still creates a natural tension in the air. Viewers are left to watch as Eilis teeters between the charismatic, baseball-loving Tony (Emory Cohen) and the old-fashioned, familial Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). It’s not until the very end that we learn who she chooses. That sounds like a mystery to me.
Mayhem – 0/10: I tried. I dug back through this film looking for any instance of mayhem, but at the end of the day, a green one-piece bathing suit just doesn’t do it for me. On the other hand, it seems to do quite a bit for both Tony and Jim. You dogs.
Quick Thoughts: There were many things about Brooklyn that made me love it. I’m a sucker for a well-done period piece (especially if it’s set in New York City). Julie Walters’s crisp and hilarious role as Mrs. Keogh, the mother hen of an Irish boardinghouse, played perfectly on the tone of the film, as did the assortment of the other Irish girls. But the highlight of the movie, for me, was Emory Cohen’s Tony. In what I can only describe as equal parts Marlon Brando and a walking smiley-face emoticon, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Cohen—and seeing that IMDB has him slated for six movies in 2016, I’m likely to get my wish.
Final Score: 6/30
Director: Tom McCarthy; Main Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams
The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.
Murder – 1/10: Spotlight is a movie undoubtedly interwoven with crime; it just happens that the crimes in question have nothing to do with murder. Is this a technicality? Probably. The film’s subject matter – systemic child molestation rooted deep within the Catholic Church – is not an easy subject to portray, and yet McCarthy is unwavering in his commitment to keeping the focus on the slow-building investigation and the lives destroyed by the incidents. This wasn’t a film that needed an over-the-top murder to heighten the suspense.
Mystery – 3/10: After the credits rolled and I shuffled out of my sullen and quiet theater, I found myself likening Spotlight to another staple of modern storytelling: The Wire. While the subject matters vary greatly, there are an abundance of similarities in the way the main characters of both entities go about investigating the crimes. Simply knowing the truth isn’t enough. You need to prove it. In The Wire, justice (if you can call it that) is achieved by meticulous monitoring of the drug dealers’ wiretaps. And in Spotlight, we’re forced to watch our reporters grind away, scavenging evidential twigs from every park in town, knowing it will be a long time before there’s enough material to build their nest. This is what makes Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes’s frustration so easy to relate to. All this is to say, despite the tension of the film, there isn’t an overabundance of mystery. We already know the church is guilty, we just don’t know how our group is going to catch them.
Mayhem – 4/10: Mayhem is where I judge these films on the range of emotions the audience is subjected to, and even though Spotlight is devoid of laugh-out-loud moments, the pure and unfiltered hatred and disgust you’re exposed to during this film is enough to garner a few points here.
Quick Thoughts: One of the most interesting parts of the film to me was the way 9/11 impacted the story. By now, we’ve seen many stories set amidst the backdrop of 9/11, but the way the tragedy puts the group’s investigation on hold just goes to further prove how deep-reaching the tremors of September 11th were.
Final Score: 8/30
6) The Big Short
Director: Adam McKay; Main Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling
Four denizens in the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight.
Murder – 1/10: Figuratively, the banks murdered the global economy, but literally, murder is far removed from this film. That’s not a bad thing from an artistic point-of-view, but from my carnage-filled ivory tower, that’s a problem.
Mystery – 3/10: Again, like Spotlight, this film is hurt in this category since we’re all well aware of what is about to transpire, being that the subject matter occurred recently. All three points are the sole result of Adam McKay’s genius writing where he solved the mystery of how to turn the subject of the banking crisis an interesting and fun movie.
Mayhem – 5/10: The Big Short is like the soft-spoken, intelligent younger sibling of The Wolf of Wall Street. Instead of Quaaludes, midget tossing, and Jonah Hill’s penis, we get a heavy metal listening and fuck-you flip-flop wearing Christian Bale, an anti-establishment Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie in a bathtub, and frankly, a much better film.
Fun Fact #1: According to the book’s author Michael Lewis, the only way Paramount would allow Adam McKay to make this film would be if he first directed a sequel to his hit debut film from 2004. That film? Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
Final Score: 9/30
Director: Lenny Abrahamson; Main Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay
After five-year-old Jack and his mother escape from the enclosed surroundings that Jack has known his entire life, the boy makes a thrilling discovery.
Murder – 5/10: I was torn here. As dark as the subject matter of Room is – there’s an entire portion dedicated to a mother showing her five-year-old son how to properly play dead – there isn’t an overt threat of death at any point. The reason for this is that the film is told through a child’s point-of-view, and while we as an audience understand the full implications of what occurs in the story, Jack doesn’t. It’s why we don’t get closure on what happens to Old Nick – why Ma’s attempted suicide is jarring, but only temporarily so. He’s a kid, and at the end of the day, playing with a neighborhood kid in the backyard will heal a lot of wounds.
Mystery – 5/10: It’s not a question of if Jack and Ma will get out of the room; it’s a question of when. And how. If I ever want to know how long I can hold my breath for, all I have to do is time the scene where Jack is in the back of the pickup truck.
Mayhem – 5/10: Jacob Tremblay did such an amazing job in this film. Between his tantrums, pointed questions, and blissful ignorance, I find it an absolute crime that he was not nominated for Best Actor. Had he been, I think he would have been Leo’s biggest challenger. Though, now that I think about it, it’s probably for the best, because Leo’s definitely going to win, and I couldn’t have bared the thought of another year of all the “Poor Leo” memes. You’ll be around for a while, Jacob.
Quick Thoughts: I absolutely loved how in the beginning of the film, while it was obvious that the room was small, it still seemed livable, but when Jack and Ma return later to put their demons to rest, the room is suffocatingly small and cramped. Subtle, fantastic work by Lenny Abrahamson.
Final Score: 15/30
4) Bridge of Spies
Director: Steven Spielberg; Main Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
During the Cold War, an American lawyer is recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
Murder – 4/10: The Cold War is famously remembered for being a war fought without guns. Infantry were swapped out for spies, neuroticism replaced patriotism, and in the case of Bridge of Spies, insurance lawyers become peace-seeking diplomats. Murder is never explicitly threatened, but with a healthy chunk of the film taking place in East Berlin, there is a constant feeling of dread.
Mystery – 6/10: Credit belongs to Mark Rylance for a superb portrayal of a Soviet spy who’s caught red-handed and forced to endure a trial that is supposed to be a mere formality. With the combination of a determined Tom Hanks and a bit of luck when the Soviets capture both a U.S. pilot and student, Rylance’s Rudolf Abel suddenly learns that he might be traded rather than forced to spend life behind bars. We know that Rylance stayed loyal to his homeland after falling into American hands, but will his countrymen know that? Will the Soviets really believe that their spy stayed faithful? Or will he be tortured or discarded? Talk about a grim mystery.
Mayhem – 6/10: As Hanks’s James B. Donovan navigates the frostbitten streets of East Berlin, it’s hard not to feel a sense of uneasiness. Somewhere among the ominous presence of jacket-lacking street youths, the mischievous Soviet delegates, and the lead-footed driving of a dastardly lawyer, there’s more than enough mayhem to justify this score.
Quick Thoughts: Bridge of Spies felt like a movie from a different era. Written by the Coen Brothers, directed by Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks, and not directly adapted from a book, this is exactly the type of film that studios have begun to shy away from. Good to see it persevere.
Final Score: 16/30
3) The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott; Main Cast: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels
During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit, and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.
Murder – 3/10: Of course Mark Watney’s crew didn’t deliberately mean to leave him behind. They thought he was dead. So I can’t give The Martian points for murder there. But I can hand out some points to reflect the way Watney’s situation was initially handled by the people at NASA. If it weren’t for the third act heroics of Donald Glover, Mark Watney would have been swimming with the potatoes long before Jessica Chastain and her crew arrived back on Mars.
Mystery – 7/10: My favorite thing about The Martian – and this is wholly attributed to the book’s author Andy Weir – is that unlike the majority of other space and isolation stories, Mark Watney isn’t saved by some miraculous event of aligning stars. Instead, ingenuity takes the wheel as us laypersons sit back and watch a botanist stuck in space “science the shit” out of everything.
Mayhem – 7/10: The Martian is simply a great movie. No, it won’t win Best Picture, but it features a hall of fame director and an all-star cast. It has moments both touching and hilarious. (Insert Golden Globes joke here.) When you add it all together, it’s a captivating film stuffed with crazy moments. And unlike the other films that follow this formula, you don’t need a gang of superheroes to achieve it (Iron Man excluded, obviously).
Publishing Nerd Alert: Andy Weir’s book wasn’t an overnight success. Weir is the son of a particle physicist and studied computer science himself. He conducted so much research for the book that he claims he knows the exact date of every day that occurs. After literary agents continued to pass on the book, Weir opted to serialize the story online for free on his website. Fans clamored for a complete Kindle version, and Weir obliged, selling the book on Amazon for the minimum required price of 99 cents. The eBook quickly rose to the top of Amazon’s bestselling science-fiction list, and publishers started to notice. In January 2013, Weir finally sold the rights to Crown for over $100,000.
Final Score: 17/30
2) Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller; Main Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
A woman rebels against a tyrannical ruler in post-apocalyptic Australia in search for her home-land with the help of a group of female prisoners, a psychotic worshipper, and a drifter named Max.
Murder – 9/10: Holy carnage, Batman! At 120 minutes long, Mad Max: Fury Road averages nearly one death per minute. That’s for real. Thanks to the scrupulous work of a redditor named elsiniestro, the estimated total body count in the film is 102. That’s more bodies than lines spoken by the titular character!
Mystery – 4/10: That being said, was there anyone doubting that this wasn’t the respawning of a fresh Mad Max film franchise? So there really wasn’t any doubt that Max would make it out alive. Which isn’t typically a bad thing, unless we’re judging the film solely on mystery.
Mayhem – 10/10: Holy shit was this movie crazy. It was as if the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was crossed with The Fast and the Furious, Death Race, and Transformers all at once, set amidst a badass soundtrack (Who wouldn’t pay to see that guitar rig leading the actual Thanksgiving Parade?), all while disregarding an entire genre’s unfortunate gender stereotypes.
Confession Time: I’m still skeptical about Mad Max’s inclusion in this year’s Best Picture race. There were a few other films I liked more (Straight Outta Compton, Ex Machina, Inside Out, Carol),. That being said, from a technical standpoint, I’m not sure if there was a more important film than Mad Max this year. Foregoing digital effects for practical ones was a genius decision – one that will make sure this film stands the test of time much longer than those that rely too heavily on CGI. Hey, Hollywood, take notes: we want more movies made like this!
Final Score: 23/30
1) The Revenant
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu; Main Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.
Murder – 10/10: Even though the body count in Mad Max was most likely higher, where The Revenant earns that extra point is that its murders were up close and personal. Shot with Iñárritu’s unwavering hand, this was a film that was every part disturbing as it was beautiful.
Mystery – 5/10: We all knew that Hugh Glass was going to get his much-anticipated final battle with John Fitzgerald. What we didn’t know is how we’d get there. The biggest mystery is how the scene with Hugh Glass and his Native American pal where they catch snowflakes on their tongue avoided the chopping room floor.
Mayhem – 9/10: Want to know how I know this film is full of mayhem? Leonardo DiCaprio slept naked inside of a dead and gutted horse that he rode off a cliff while fleeing from rape-loving French trappers, and that scene wasn’t even close to as crazy as the bear mauling.
The Book is Always Better: Out of all of this year’s nominees, The Revenant was the only film whose book I read prior to viewing. And I’m still not sure whether or not that was a good idea. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Punke’s book was absolutely enthralling and every bit as gruesome as the film, but it was also much better. Punke was able to dive deeper into the past of the lives of all of the characters and give the reader a better understanding of why everyone behaves the way they do. This isn’t to say the characterization of the film was bad, because it wasn’t, but I felt myself wishing we could have gone back and seen the days when Hugh Glass was a pirate. Sequel, anyone?
Final Score: 24/30
So that’s it, folks. The Revenant joins 2015 winner American Sniper and 2014 winner 12 Years a Slave at the top of the carnage podium. It just had too much murder, mystery, and mayhem for any other film to keep up with it.
Do you think I’ve missed anything? Did I forget a particular murderous or mysterious scene? Would you have ranked them any differently? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!
Joe Brosnan works in book publishing for St. Martin's Press and manages Criminal Element. He’s a New York Giants fan, a Petyr Baelish supporter, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.
Read all of Joe Brosnan’s posts for Criminal Element.