Armchair Oscars – 2015

| March 1, 2016 | 0 Comments

Best Picture

Spotlight (Directed by Tom McCarthy)
The Nominees: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room

Inside Out (Directed by Peter Docter)
My Nominees: Carol (Todd Haynes),
Creed (Ryan Coogler), Ex Machina (Alex Garland), 45 Years (Andrew Haigh), The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu), Room (Lenny Abrahamson), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams), Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)


The tagline for the 88th Annual Academy Awards informed us that “We All Dream in Gold” but if you asked some members of the Hollywood community they might have been quick to tell you that Hollywood more aptly dreams in white.

No sooner was news of the Academy Award nominations drifting into the ether on the morning of January 14, 2016 then many members of the filmmaking community including Will Smith, Jada Pinket-Smith, Spike Lee and just about every media outlet were crying foul over the Academy’s lack of diversity.  For the second year in a row, no African-American actors were nominated despite fine work from Idris Elba from Beast of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan from Creed, Samuel L. Jackson from The Hateful Eight, Tamara Parrish from Chi-Raq, or from the entire cast of Straight Outta Compton, although the four writers of that film got a nomination for the script . . . all of whom are white.

Was the controversy justified?  Was it just a sign of the times?  Yes . . . kind of.  While it is true that the nominees for this particular year were a total white-wash, it is important to note that in recent years Academy voters had done an admirable job of making up for lost time.  Since 2001, there were more Academy Awards given to African-American actors then at any time in the previous 75 year history of the award.  Consider Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Forrest Whittaker, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Morgan Freeman, Lupita Nyong’o and Mo’Nique.  These were not apology awards; these were brilliant and diverse performances from some of the best actors of their generation, black or white.

Does that give justification to the white-wash of 2015?  No.  But I think these award winning performances are proof that things have improved.  I also think that the controversy proves that Americans, by and large, have a short attention span.  The problem comes from a lack of seeing the issue outside of recent historical context.  Yes, two years went by without a single acting nominee who was African-American, but that seems short-sighted without recognizing that progress has been made.  It was also short-sighted in that no one during the controversy at least gave the Academy credit for honoring 12 Years a Slave with a Best Picture award.

The Academy’s attempt to slap a band aid on the problem, I think, may have made things worse.  In a noble but rather empty gesture Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American woman to hold that position (and the third woman overall), instituted a statement that changes were ahead for the academy that would mean more diversity in the future. “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” she said, “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”

Personally, I think she and the Academy are promoting progress in the wrong direction.

Basically what all that means is that the academy would try and open its doors to more diverse inclusion of minorities and women among its membership. After The 88th Academy Awards, each new member’s voting status would last 10 years, and will only be renewed if that member has been active in the motion picture industry during the past decade. In addition, members will keep their lifetime membership if they have received an Academy Award or a nomination.

Also, the academy will allow current members to sponsor new members by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity. And as an effort to increase diversity among the Academy’s Board of Governors, there will be added three new seats that will be nominated by the Academy’s President that will stand for a three-year term which is confirmed by the board.

That’s nice, but I don’t think it’s going to change things.  It’s not the Academy that needs to change in the interest of diversity, it’s the industry.  Hollywood is run by men, and men are run by money and that’s why we get the movies that we get.  THAT is what needs to change.

Change or not, very few people on the morning of February 29th were concerned about the winner – and even less on the morning of March 1st.  The winner was something of a surprise.  Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, a hard-hitting biopic about the Spotlight Scandal which broke on the morning of January 6, 2002 when The Boston Globe began running a series of a stories about the permissiveness of The Catholic Church regarding several priests who were systematically molesting young boys. The Globe revealed that such a thing was hidden by The Church whose response was to quietly transfer the guilty to other parishes. There were deals with victims, legal statutes, and worst of all, local Catholics so fearful of taking on the church that they were willing to keep quiet about it.

What makes the movie work is its approach.  It stays mainly with the Spotlight Team and their investigation as they work their way through the walls of a seemingly impenetrable 2000 year old system which is bound by ancient tradition and keeps its victims quiet by means of spiritual blackmail.  The priests stay largely off-screen and their terrible acts are mercifully not seen in flashback. We hear about their actions through the words of the victims, about how such abuse breaks not only self-esteem but also breaks one down spiritually. We hear very clearly that some of those who were abused found solace with the needle, or the bottle. They were lucky because the rest resorted to suicide. These stories bring urgency to the investigation.

Spotlight won the top award over extra-heavy contenders like Room and the year’s persistent front-runner The Revenant.  The nominees were a serious lot all of which dealt with hard-hitting subject matter with nary a chuckle in the bunch.  For that reason, Spotlight is not a movie that I am ready to revisit right away.  Meanwhile, my Armchair Oscar goes to something that I could watch any night of the week; a film that is not only one the best picture of the year but also the most imaginative examples of creative thinking that I’ve seen in this millennium, one that I think will last for generations to come.

Pixar’s Inside Out is not only the best film of this year, but one of my favorite films period.  It is a glorious return-to-form for a studio that seemed to have lost its way.  After a decade of great creative projects like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, the writers couldn’t come up with anything better than sequels – bad ones – and otherwise original projects that just didn’t seem to have any magic.  I say that while admitting that I’ve been an apologist for Pixar.  While they’ve dropped the ball many times I’ve still given them points for trying.  At a time when the American film industry operates on a deadening lack of vision and creativity, here is a studio that you feel is trying.  Even when Pixar gets it wrong, you never feel a sense that the writers are just coasting.

Inside Out is Pixar at the top of its game, a novel and delightfully formed concept that could have gone wrong in at least a hundred different ways.  It imagines a world inside the head of a young girl teetering just on the edge of the undiscovered country known as Puberty.  Her name is Reilly and inside her ever-changing mind is a complex that makes up the core of her being driven by a series of sprites that symbolize her various moods: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler); Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) who looks like a question mark; Anger (voiced by Lewis Black) who dresses like middle-management; And Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kailing), a green shimmering symbol of teenage dismissiveness.

This colorful quintet man the station that controls the core of Reilly’s present mood.  Joy is mostly in control but never seems to dominate the proceedings, everyone has their moment.  The key struggle comes between Joy and Sadness who are, of course, at opposite ends from one another.  Joy looks upon Sadness as an unhealthy and unnecessary element to Reilly’s emotional well-being.  Sadness, on the other hand, knows her role perfectly well.  She’s clued in to the fact that harmony is only achieved through sadness.

Reilly’s memories are represented by a tiny marble colored to represent whatever emotional state the memory comes from.  They are stored either in Long Term or in Core Memories or disposed of all together depending on the nature of that memory.  What comes of Reilly’s immediate experience is in juxtaposition to what has come before.  New memories, thoughts and ideas come in and old ones go out.  Some are buried in her subconscious and old forgotten memories are tossed into a dark chasm where they evaporate from existence like a deleted computer file.

The states of Reilly’s being, her interests and her special qualities, are represented by various colorful theme parks.  Currently, they are Family, Honesty, Friendship, Hockey (her favorite past time) and a particular circus-like factory called Goofball Island, but over time they all will change.  Old theme parks will shut down and crumble away and new ideas and core interests will form a theme park of their own.

All of these colorful elements are seen outside the window of the control center where her moods oversee them.  The essential element here is that neither Joy nor Sadness nor the others really understand any more than Reilly.  They only know what she knows, so the budding of her physical and mental self into puberty is as much a mystery to her as it is to them.  Her confusion and stress are their confusion and stress and we see how the changing moods affect her.  The great attribute to the moods is that they aren’t all black and white.  Disgust turns to Fear and Fear turns to Anger.  Joy turns to Sadness.  It’s a mixture that makes up Reilly’s complexities.

Each Sprite has a role.  Joy, of course, is at the center of Reilly’s harmonious well-being.
Disgust keeps her from poisoning herself to death.  Fear keeps her safe.  Anger gives her an explosive sense of fairness.  And Sadness . . . well, Sadness’ role is kind of at the center of the story.  Joy admits early on that “I’m not actually sure what she does. “  With dowdy hair, oversized glasses and a depressingly colorless sweater, Sadness is a rainy day all to herself.  Yet, as the movie went on it occurred to me that her look reminds me very much of an understanding therapist.

The key to the journey of Joy and Sadness is a mutual understanding.  Joy would prefer to have Sadness just stand in a corner because whenever she gets curious and starts touching memories, they turn blue and are forever tinged with melancholy whenever they are recalled (when she touches the marble, it turns blue).

That gives the story its meat.  Reilly’s current situation causes the complex of emotions to stir.  She and her family are uprooted from Minnesota to California so change is in the air, causing her to have to give up friends and the better memories of her childhood.  The churning of her emotional states breed confusion, anger and resentment setting off a struggle between Joy and Sadness the leaves Joy and Sadness outside the command center with no way back leaving Reilly’s supplementary emotions, Fear, Disgust and Anger in control.  What lies outside the command base is probably the strangest journey since Alice fell down the rabbit hole as Joy and Sadness find themselves journeying into the recesses of Reilly’s ever-evolving mind, particularly an emotional journey through her long-term memory, which is routinely cleared of memories that Reilly no longer needs.

Thanks to some clever writing by Peter Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, the script draws a very clean line between what is happening in Reilly’s head and how it is affecting her in the real world.   The confusion that she experiences means that her mind is always changing, evolving and rebuilding – in other words, she’s growing up.  The emotional states left in the command center can only do what they can without the comforts of joy and sadness so Reilly’s mind is often confused, angry and cynical.

The tragedy of what happens to the comforts of childhood once Reilly has moved past them is the key theme here expressed most achingly in the form of a circus elephant named Bing-Bong (beautifully voiced by Richard Kind) who once served the important role of Reilly’s imaginary friend but now lingers in the shadows in the hidden realms of her long-term memory always aware that he is many years late for the memory dump.

Bing-Bong is the guide who helps Sadness and Joy on their journey to get back to the command center.  That journey is a virtual psychology textbook including a trip through Reilly’s subconscious where lurks an enormous oversized clown that once terrified Reilly at a birthday party years ago.  He’s not evil, he’s just terrifying in the way that a small child might see him.

But the most bizarre sequence takes place when the trio take a shortcut through the forbidden realms of the four sections of a place called Abstract Thought where the trio find themselves losing their current shape.  First is Non-Objective Fragmentation, where they are seen as crude 3D shapes.  Second is Deconstruction where they simply fall apart.  Third is Two-Dimensionalization where they become two-dimensional figures.  And finally Non-Figurativity, where the trio become simple geometric shapes.  That kind of creative thinking is always in play here and it plays against the psychological manifestations happening in Reilly’s subconscious which is currently in a crisis state.  It is clear that the writers have a handle on psychology, real psychology, not Hollywood’s stale version of how the human mind operates.

The journey getting back is the crux here as the trio stays one step ahead of Reilly’s evolving mental states.  Plucked from the comfortable environment that she has always known, Reilly finds herself in a state of confusion.  Her old friends have moved on, and there is the reasonable feeling of isolation and loneliness.  Of course, without Sadness or Joy to balance them out, Reilly become cynical and angry and entertains thoughts of simply running away from home.  That gives urgency to Joy, who becomes more determined than ever to get back to the command center.  But is also means leaving certain things behind and the most achingly sad is the moment in which she discovers that Bing-Bong has come to grips with his fate.  At the moment when he disappears into the memory dump, I defy anyone with a heartbeat to keep a dry eye.

Of course, it all works out but the most valuable lesson here is that Joy and Sadness need one another.  They are not exclusive.  Joy seems to initially be in charge, and seems to be correct in her assertion that she is the most valuable of Reilly’s emotions and the Sadness seems to be the most destructive.  But the overturning of that notion is where the movie finds its center.  One cannot exist without the other and one cannot be sidelined in order to beef up the importance of the other – there’s a well-meaning, but kind of mean-spirited moment when Joy draws a small circle in the corner and politely instructs Sadness to stand in it.  But the lesson learned is that all of the emotions are of value to the narrative of Reilly’s story.  We glean from this that all of our memories are a complex of emotional states.  A happy memory from childhood is tinged with the sadness that this moment in time is long gone as are the people we loved, and then tinged with the fear of aging and never having that kind of experience again.

Of course, this is not the most original plot in the world.  I think immediately of the early 90s sitcom “Herman’s Head” which had the same plot only the protagonist was a grown man.  There was the Eddie Murphy comedy Meet Dave, and horror adventures like The Cell and Identity.  I can also think of a bit once written by Woody Allen that takes place inside the body of a man during his mating ritual.  But the key here is the film’s willingness to go for broke, to explore every possibility and to cleanly tie what is happening inside the mind with what is happening outside.  The movie is variable textbook of human emotion and the causes for everything we are feeling.  We see the interiors of the mind as a complex of ideas, some of which stick around and some of which that do not.  The key here is that we never stand apart from Reilly, we are never led to the idea that she is being rash or childish or impulsive.  The complexities of her mental states are such that we understand what she is going through even if we are decades past her own age and experience.  She’s a complex person with a complex mind, one that is deep, thoughtful and ever-changing.

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
The Nominees:
Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), Matt Damon (The Martian), Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)

Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
My Nominees:
Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Oscar Isaacs (Ex Machina), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Al Pacino (Danny Collins), Ben Mendelsohn (Mississippi Grind), Jacob Tremblay (Room)


You sort of knew that at some point that Leonardo DiCaprio was destined to win an Oscar – he has all the earmarks of a movie star and the industry dearly loves him.  Yet there has been a great deal of criticism regarding his screen persona from critics who argue that, much like Tom Cruise, DiCaprio is such a big star that it is nearly impossible for him to disappear inside a role – you see DiCaprio first and the character second.  I think that’s unfair.  He can’t help who he is or how the public sees him and what is overlooked are the wise decisions that he has made with his career.  After the phenomenal success of Titanic, DiCaprio could have steered his career in a million different unwise directions, but he sustained himself by making smart choices and choosing directors who challenged him; directors like Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Edward Zwick, Woody Allen and Sam Mendes.  You could agree with the critics about his screen persona but you can’t deny that he is always challenging himself.

Three years ago I gave DiCaprio my Armchair Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street because I felt that in that role he showed a different side of himself, an outward comedic talent that we hadn’t seen before.  In that same vein, I much admired his work in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s adaptation of Michael Punke’s wilderness adventure novel The Revenant wherein he gives us a much more physical performance than we’ve ever seen before.  He plays Hugh Glass, a fur trapper in 1823 who is guiding a hunting party through unorganized territory when they are suddenly attacked by an Arikara war party.  In the immediate aftermath, Glass is badly wounded and left for dead by his own party.  That sets off a brutal expedition as the severely wounded Glass drags his beaten and broken body halfway across the northern wilderness to get back home.  In the meantime, he is attacked and mauled twice by the same Grizzly bear.

What Glass goes through in the film would have killed most men psychologically if not physically.  You admire his tenacity and his determination to pull himself back home, carried along by a body that isn’t fit for the journey, but I can’t say that I sensed much of a character there.  In place of character is some rather insignificant spiritual nonsense about Glass’ grief over the death of his wife and, truth be told, I never felt the emotional connection there.  The movie is so hell-bent on trying to set us into the vicious reality of the 1823 northern wilderness that I felt that the attempts at a spiritual connection kind of took me out of that realistic setting.

My choice for Best Actor was Michael Fassbender playing a man whose legacy was all about connections.  Steve Jobs became a legend in his own time as a man who forever connected us in ways we never thought we could, but ironically had much difficulty making connections in his own life.  There had been two previous films made about Jobs, first was a 1999 TNT movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley starring Noah Wylie and later 2013’s ill-conceived Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher.  Both films dealt with his work but only lightly dealt with his difficult personality.  Both of those films failed on the most fundamental aspect of Jobs life that any screenwriter is obliged to contemplate: On one hand the beautiful mind, a man who saw technology in his daily and nightly dreams and developed it into a passion for changing the world.  The other was a self-aggrandizing narcissistic human cactus who was a mean and uncompromising bully to those in his immediate bubble.

This is the area where director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin get his story absolutely right.  They have the knowledge that in order to get inside the man, you have to deal with both sides of him in equal measure.  In Steve Jobs that challenge falls on Fassbender.  We are fascinated by both sides of Steve Jobs and through Sorkin’s episodic script we are able to see him at the most crucial points in his career and in his life: first at the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, then at the launch of the ill-fated NeXTcube in 1988 and finally at the launch of the first iMac in 1998.  At all of these junction points we are treated to the evolution of the man who sees himself and his role in the world in ways that those around him (he assumes) simply cannot.

Fassbender finds the perfect note in allowing Jobs to look like a narcissistic jerk, yet while he gripes and fusses over details you can always sense that he’s onto something.  Perfection is what made his company a success, and anything less is likely to leave it in second place.  The challenge for Fassbender is in embodying a man who we struggle to like.  He stands distant from those around him and berates them fiercely when things don’t go according to his specifications – the film opens with Jobs verbally destroying engineer Andy Hertzfeld.  Later he rants to his marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet).  He distances himself from his business partner Steven Wozniak (Seth Rogan)

For Jobs, people are products unbecoming, merely flesh and blood cogs in the machine (at least as movie claims) that seem to be no more use to him than a wrench or a screwdriver.  He doesn’t give credit, only orders.  As the film opens, he threatens to expose one of his engineers Andy Hertzfeld (played by the invaluable Michael Stuhlbarg) for his inability to get the Macintosh to say “Hello.”  Jobs won’t relent to porting the new system because he wants it to be a separate entity from the landscape of the PC and with that he goes to war with Wozniak.  The Mac fails and Jobs is fired from Apple.  Later he makes a reckless bid for redemption by forming NeXT

Jobs goes to war with everyone.  The specifications in his head, he believes are beyond argument whether it is getting the computer to speak or making the diameters for the NeXT into a perfect cube or even the simple request of acknowledging the work of the original Apple II team, he has a thorny personality that is highly disagreeable.  He even carries it into his relationship with his former girlfriend who is heartbroken that he won’t acknowledge the parentage of their daughter Lisa -in an ironic twist, he doesn’t admit that he’s her father until she draws and abstract using his new MacPaint program.  Lisa is the one thing he persistently struggles to deny.  Everyone else is a cog in the machine, whether it’s Wozniak or his marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) or Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels).  He’s always at war with someone over his ideas, his attitude or his reckless behavior.  Even his former girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) get not sympathy (in fact, she may get the most hurtful of his tirades).

Michael Fassbender doesn’t much resemble Steve Jobs but never-the-less I think he’s the ideal choice to play him.  He is an actor who always seems to play men wrestling with their emotions and their addictive natures, whether it be a sex addict (Shame), a vengeful holocaust survivor (X-Men: First Class), a slave owner (12 Years a Slave) or even a robot observing human behavior (Prometheus).  His characters are always struggling but none more than Steve Jobs, a man who (at least in the movie) seems welded to ideas that he cannot let go.  At each of the three points, we see the evolution of what he’s learned about himself through is experience.  At the launch of the Mac, we see a guy who is wired and energetic.  After it fails, we meet him at the lauch of NeXT were we sense a much more reckless and impulsive man who seems to be diving into his new venture without a parachute.  Finally, at the launch of the iMac we see a man who is older and much more relaxed, yet circumstances with his personal relationships have not improved – he just seems to have found new ways to push people away.

Whenever I see Fassbender I’m always looking for something new.  He always plays damaged characters but I want to see him adding a new angle.  With Jobs he is challenged with playing a man so publicly revered but at the same time so privately reviled (Jobs brings it on himself) that we wait for the moment when the redemption will fall on him like a ton of bricks.  The beauty of Sorkin’s writing is that when his revelation comes, it makes perfect sense.  It doesn’t feel perfunctory.  At a moment of reconciliation with Sculley (Apple fired Sculley, purchased NeXT, and named Jobs CEO) Jobs has a moment of revelation.  He was adopted as a child and now as an adult struggles to regain the power he couldn’t have in childhood.  BUT it’s not a moment that forces him to burst through the door and give everyone hugs.  Jobs is still the same SOB he always was, but we have a better understanding of the fuel to his fire.  He makes one apology, to Lisa, and admits tellingly that “I’m poorly made.”  Something, perhaps, he sees in his own disconnected childhood is being heaped upon his daughter and there is a measure of humanity that is creeping into his reluctant bones.

The ending, I think, is a little too celebratory.  Lisa stands in the wings as her dad is about to unveil the iMac and the music swells and we’re suppose to feel that something big has been achieved.  I think its the wrong note, heaping heroics on a man who has spent the last two hours spitting acid at those closest to him.  Something of a life-goes-on note might have been more appropriate.  I like just as many things about Jobs that I don’t like, but one fault that the movie doesn’t have is Fassbender who isn’t afraid to go for broke here.  He’s playing a broken man whose desire for perfection were headache inducing for those around him but strangely beneficial to the culture he was helping to create.  He saw that others could not and connected us like never before.

Best Actress

Brie Larson (Room)
The Nominees: Cate Blanchett (Carol), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
My Nominees: Cate Blanchett (Carol),
Brie Larson (Room), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy),
Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq), Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road)


The most damning thing that may befall the mainstream career of Brie Larson is her inability to stand out.  When she’s onscreen she doesn’t have a large personality that overtakes you.  That’s not a dig at her talent.  There are some actors who are just better at playing characters who are low-key but effective – Robert Mitchum built his career on this.  Before the Academy Award, Larson was a child actor who had spent a decade and a half working steadily in mainstream films playing supporting roles of no real significance.  She turned up in 13 Going on 30, Hoot, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, 21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now and Trainwreck, but she never made an impact because she doesn’t enter the scene with thunder and lightning.

Her low-key approach is served best in small independent films.  Somehow she just seems much more effective, and a lot more comfortable, in a film that strives for realism.  If you saw her critically acclaimed performance as Grace Howard the supervisor of a troubled youth home in the indie Short Term 12 then you know what I’m talking about.  And it worked equally in her performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s terrific indie drama Room, the performance that brought her an Oscar.

In Room, she plays Joy Newsome, a woman who has been forced to spend seven years locked in a tool shed by a sicko (Sean Bridgers) who kidnapped her.  In that time she has given birth to a son who is the  result of her kidnapper’s nightly visits.  It’s a surprising film because it doesn’t move toward the easily exploitable angle – in fact, Donoghue’s story doesn’t go where we expect at all.  And Larson’s performance surprises us because she doesn’t play a helpless victim.  She plays a woman who settled into her confinement years ago and whose major concerns have moved toward the safety and well-being of her son.  When the two (SPOILER WARNING) manage to escape, Joy’s freedom is a readjustment but it doesn’t mean that she goes back to warm hugs and happiness.  There’s bitterness at readjusting to family and the world.  That’s where the best parts of her performance reside.

Seeing the film again, I greatly admire Larson’s performance but I believe that the bulk of the movie really belongs to Jacob Tremblay who plays her son Jack.  His adjustment to the world comes completely out of nowhere.  He’s spent his entire short life in that tiny room and now must adjust to the larger world that he has never known.  In truth, while I admire Larson’s performance, I think that the back half of the movie is really his – if I ever give out awards for supporting roles, he will get my award here.

My Armchair Oscar in this category goes to one of the best, and oddly quietest, surprises of the year.  Charlotte Rampling came out of the crop of great stalwart British actors who made a name for themselves during the British Invasion of the early 60s.  She was a popular actress, consistently good in great films like Henry VIII and his Six Wives, The Flesh and the Orchid, Farewell My Lovely, The Wings of the Dove, Swimming Pool and Life During Wartime, but wasn’t until two thousand-fifteen that the Academy finally noticed.  Yet, the movie came to America at perhaps the wrong moment to find an audience.  Andrew Haigh’s British drama 45 Years had the misfortune to land stateside at the exact moment that nearly the entire population was wrapped up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens so virtually no one saw it.  I kind of get that.  Who wants to see elderly people with marital problems when you have lightsabers and Han Solo?

However, those of us who could pull ourselves away from a galaxy far, far away found that Charlotte Rampling’s performance could engulf us into a drama with as much emotional punch as the search for Luke Skywalker – maybe more.

In 45 Years, Rampling plays Kate Mercer, a 64 year-old British retiree who has been married to her soft-spoken partner Geoff (Tom Courtenay) for the past 44 years.  Living out their retirement in the lush green Norfolk countryside there is a settling factor of their marriage that we recognize in all couples who have spent the better part of their lives in one another’s company.  There’s an informality to these people in which we don’t have to worry about a lot of establishment.  They have a relaxed manner with one another, loving and sometimes fussy that we recognize as the keys in all long-standing marriages.  It is clear that Kate is the more dominant and practical while Geoff is the more emotional.  He’s a good old fellow whose age is catching up to him.  He has a soft-voice that reveals that his mind is getting a bit dotty (in some ways we sense that it has always been that way).  They are sweet together, not always chatty but always content with one another.  We sense that Kate has spent many years overlooking Geoff’s shortcomings.  He probably needs her more than she needs him.

The film takes place over six days as the plans for a party celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary are undercut by the unearthing of something from Geoff’s past.  A quiet emotional earthquake arrives one morning in the form of a letter from Switzerland informing him that the body of his former girlfriend has been discovered after having been lost for the past 50 years.  All those years ago, before Geoff and Kate, he loved a German woman named Katya, a woman that he had hoped to marry.  Those aspirations were cut short during a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps when she fell into a crevasse and disappeared.  Recently, officials have discovered her body encased in an Alpine glacier that is melting.  Suddenly the flood of emotional connection comes washing back into Geoff’s soul.  Katya was the great love of his life and something in this discovery possesses him.  Kate had only a vague awareness of this tragedy but she has no reason to be angry.  “I can hardly be cross about something that happened before we even existed,” she says, but after a pause adds “Still…”.

Over the next few days Geoff quietly obsesses about Katya.  He seems distant.  He goes about a measure of routine, fixing a broken toilet, reading Kierkegaard and taking up an old smoking habit despite a recent bypass surgery.  He renews a long-dormant interest in sex with Kate – during which she implores him to open his eyes (was he imagining being with Katya?)  Kate wakes up one night to find Geoff in the attic going through old scrap books and looking through old slides of his former love.  This, obviously, begins to weigh heavily on Kate and the emotional fissures that have lain dormant for 50 years begin to open.  Katya has remained in Geoff’s heart for more than half a century despite the life that he and Kate have built together.  Why does he obsess over Katya?  What does he hope to recapture?  Those questions begin to surface when she discovers that he is quietly planning a trip to Switzerland due to the fact that officials in Switzerland have deemed him her next of kin.

Here’s where the movie finds its center.  We might expect that the film would focus on his obsession, but instead director Andrew Haigh shifts the focus on Kate.  What could have been a thankless role of a wife feeling jilted by her husband’s hidden passions becomes a perfectly modulated performance by Charlotte Rampling of a woman who feels that her whole marriage is just a matter of coming in second.  Did Geoff marry her only because he couldn’t have Katya?  Has he been thinking about her all these years?  What Rampling does with this role is kind of brilliant.  She doesn’t rant and rave with standard dialogue and speeches but instead we see the pain of these revelations in her face.  What’s to be done?  There’s no repairing the lingering emotion that has lived in his heart for half a century.

There is a haunted quality to this problem.  His soul – and by extension their home – have become possessed by the spirit of a woman who died more than 50 years ago.  Subtle changes in their behavior become evident.  There is a moment when she stops by a shop window and thinks about buying Geoff a watch, but reconsiders – time for this man have become relative and essentially meaningless.  Her mental toll is reflected (literally) in repeated trips to the mirror in which she is forced to see a new version of herself.

Kate is obviously frustrated by Geoff’s obsession with Katya, but even she can’t deny a certain lack of a past with Geoff in the face of such overwhelming keepsakes taking up space in their attic.  There is a moment when she finally gives in and climbs up to the attic to discover Geoff’s bizarre ersatz shrine.  There are photos, scrapbooks, letters and, she discovers, a sheet stretched around so that he can look at slides of Katya.  One slide of the young woman in particular signals broadly to Kate perhaps why she and Geoff remain childless.

The whole performance is in Rampling’s face.  She goes from contentment, to concern, to sorrow, to heartbreak and finally into an impassive feeling of displacement.  She’s been placed at the center of Geoff’s world, but never in his heart.  The sorrow of this revelation weighs down on Kate and we can see the heartbreak just under the surface.  This is a very subtle performance, beautifully modulated.  There are no overt outbursts.  When she confronts Geoff about his feelings for Katya, there are no raging tyrades.  He understands that his heart has been misplaced and promises a fresh start.  Kate is no fool.  She knows that 50 years of aching passion doesn’t simply wash away overnight.  At the kitchen table she tells him, “I think I was enough for you, I’m just not sure you do.”  It’s a hard truth.

The ending is one that I’ve studied over and over, when Geoff and Kate finally get to their anniversary party.  Kate clearly finds it difficult to be happy and rosey at this moment due to the events of the past few days (heck! – the last few decades!).  Her face says it all.  A fissure has broken open in their marriage revealing something that his heart and his mind have refused to allow her to become the center of his life.  As Geoff gives a sweet, impassioned profession of love, Kate sits stone-faced and impassive, particularly as he reveals that “the choices we make in our youth are most important.”  There’s a playful dance, but she senses that it is all for show, especially as they part and she becomes closed in on the crowd.  She sense that this is all she is, just and other friend, another acquaintance, a convienance who has come in second in her husband’s heart for nearly fifty years.

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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.