By Steve Guntli
This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was one of the best in recent history: swift, topical, and, for the most part, the right movies got the right awards. But even in a good year, things tend to slip through the cracks, either not earning enough recognition from the Academy or being ignored completely. Here are three films from 2015 that were shamefully underrepresented at this year’s awards.
Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Musical biopics are a dime a dozen, and there are far more bad ones than good. “Love & Mercy,” a film about troubled Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, is one of the best in recent memory. The film benefits from a relatively small scale; rather than a cradle-to-the-grave retelling of the artist’s life, the film focuses on two pivotal moments in his life and uses them to give a sense of a brilliant but complicated man.
The film splits its time between two eras in Wilson’s life: the older Wilson (played by John Cusack) struggling with mental health difficulties in the early ’90s, and the younger Wilson (played by Paul Dano), working on his seminal album “Pet Sounds” and feeling the first stirrings of the schizophrenia that would come to dominate his life.
The scenes set in the ’90s have a bit more plot momentum. Wilson falls in love with a beautiful woman (a wonderful Elizabeth Banks), who tries to free Wilson from the control of his cruel and sleazy psychotherapist (Paul Giamatti). The scenes with the younger Wilson have a more dreamlike effect, and we watch the younger man put the full force of his vision behind what would become one of the best pop albums ever recorded.
All of the actors are phenomenal, but it’s Dano’s performance as the sensitive, fragile younger Wilson that makes the movie soar. It’s heartrending to watch him start to unravel, frightened and confused as his illness begins to tear apart his family, his band and himself.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Seventh time’s the charm, I guess? “Creed,” the latest film in the long-running “Rocky” franchise, is a breath of fresh air, not just for the 40-year-old film series but also for sports movies in general. It’s a movie made with passion and intelligence, and a living argument in favor of more diversity in movies.
The film follows Adonis “Donny” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring before Donny was born. After spending his early years in juvenile detention centers, the boy is adopted by Apollo’s widow, who helps him build a comfortable new life. But Donny is restless, and can’t get the thought of being a prizefighter out of his mind. He leaves behind a cushy job in L.A. and heads to Philadelphia, where he implores his father’s best friend and rival, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train him.
What follows is fairly standard to fans of sports movies: lots of training montages, little victories and losses leading up to one big fight against the world heavyweight champ. But the way director Ryan Coogler approaches the material, and the perspectives that imbue the journey, makes the film soar.
Jordan is a revelation in the title role, fierce, determined and likeable. Stallone, though, steals the show in the best performance of his career. It’s remarkable to see the man slip back into the persona that first made him a household name, and to see the years weighing on him as he settles into old age. It’s one of the most loveable screen performances ever.
Directed by Paul Feig
“Spy” is a hard movie to describe, because there really isn’t any kind of gimmick or hook to it. A pitch for this movie must have stopped after the opening sentence: “OK, so Melissa McCarthy plays a spy…” “Sold!” But despite the generic title, Paul Feig’s espionage comedy manages to surprise with its sheer quality.
Melissa McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA handler who must go into the field for the first time to rescue operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law), with whom she’s been secretly in love for years.
Often underestimated due to her size and gender, Susan is actually a powerhouse, a skilled martial artist and gifted chameleon who can easily throw her weight against the swaggering men’s men, typified by the unhinged Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham). To save Fine, she must worm her way into the inner circle of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a psychotically icy heiress and possible criminal mastermind.
The plot isn’t really all that dissimilar to your standard Bond picture, and that’s where it’s genius lies. This is a film that delivers what’s written on the tin: it’s a spy movie, and if you thought it would be about a bumbling or inept spy because McCarthy is on the poster, well, that’s just one of the many expectations this movie manages to subvert. But more than a quality action picture, the movie is really, really funny.
McCarthy is one of the most reliable comic voices working today, but she’s rarely given the quality of material that she gets here, and she makes the most of the opportunity. Byrne is gaspingly hilarious as the ice queen Rayna, perfectly modulating her posh British accent to deliver withering barbs.
Statham is the real surprise here, though. The prototypical action star has a real knack for comedy, perfectly embodying a lunkheaded He-Man who doesn’t seem to realize he’s not the star of his own movie.
The Academy doesn’t generally acknowledge genre pictures, but the performances and the writing on display in “Spy” warranted more attention.
Each of these films is available through the Blaine library or on the streaming service of your choice. To reserve a copy, visit the Blaine branch or go online at wcls.org.