Carol starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett

The Mid-Budget Film Awards of 2015

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

Mid-budget films are an interesting breed these days. There’s been a great deal made about their extinction, though much of these claims exist in pretty selective territory. While it’s true that David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and John Waters have more trouble getting films funded these days, Clint Eastwood, Todd Haynes, and Denis Villeneuve don’t.

Google a couple of articles about the death of mid-budget film. Try this one, for instance. They lament that “L.A. Confidential” could never be made today, but wasn’t “Sicario” made just this year?

“The Insider” would never find a budget today! Except “Spotlight” found a budget without the benefit of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

“Zodiac” could never be made! Except “Gone Girl” was made just last year.

“In the Line of Fire?” If only lead actor Clint Eastwood had built an entire career of directing successful mid-budget films.

And certainly “Apocalypse Now” couldn’t be made for $32 million today! Well, considering that $32 million in 1979 is $104 million today, no it couldn’t.

Critics also lament that Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray are essentially retired. Well, yeah, but funding for mid-budget comedy didn’t go with them. You may not like Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Anna Kendrick, Melissa McCarthy, or Seth Rogen, but their films are getting funded and make money.

These arguments also ignore the rise in what the industry rather derisively refers to as “urban” films. If you ignore the rise of Black and Hispanic filmmaking, then yes, the mid-budget film industry is struggling because you’re cutting half of it out. Yet Black filmmaking, and especially African-American comedy, is based almost entirely within the mid-budget realm. The spate of Mexican and Spanish directors Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have brought up through the industry operate across that same mid-budget range.

When we talk about the death of the mid-budget film, we’re being incredibly selective with our choices.

For our purposes, we are defining a mid-budget film for 2015 as any film that cost between $15 million and $50 million to produce, and was either shown in at least 100 theaters for the first time in 2015, or (failing the theater requirement) became widely available to audiences through rental or streaming during 2015. The following was voted on and written by: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez:

Best Supporting Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

We liked Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs” quite a bit, as well as Mark Ruffalo’s role in “Spotlight.” Both earned Oscar nominations. What didn’t were Benicio Del Toro’s and Josh Brolin’s roles in “Sicario,” which also got a great deal of support from us. In the end, it was a close vote (that required a second ballot), but we decided on a role from a film that tried to play last year’s Oscar race, failed, and subsequently fell between the 2015-2016 gap.

Behind every great man is a great woman. That’s how the saying goes, isn’t it? In “A Most Violent Year,” the reality is a bit different. Behind Oscar Isaac’s upstanding businessman Abel Morales is a terrifying power player in Jessica Chastain’s Anna.

Abel handles their business legally, even as competing suppliers start hijacking their trucks, kidnapping their salesmen, and beating their drivers at gunpoint. It’s Anna who threatens to start doing things her way. As the daughter (and perhaps even heir apparent) to a mob empire, she’s largely given up those responsibilities in order to build a life with Abel on his more honest path.

Yet she’s constantly keeping her finger on the pulse of the film. In fact, as the company’s accountant, she often knows more than anyone else. She makes all involved aware that if and when she’s needed, she will involve herself in ways that others will not like. It may be Isaac who’s embodying an Al Pacino-style role here, but it’s Chastain who brings to life the lurking indignance, the quiet rage, and the unspoken threat of what happens when you make her angry.

And yes, this is the second supporting actor award we’ve given Chastain this year (the other being in big budget films for her role in “Crimson Peak.”)

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Jessica Chastain, “A Most Violent Year”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario”
Josh Brolin, “Sicario”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Yo-landi Visser, “Chappie”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”
Elyes Gabel, “A Most Violent Year”
Olga Kurylenko, “The Water Diviner”

Best Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
TIE: Rooney Mara, Carol
& Emily Blunt, Sicario

When we did a check-in last September, Oscar Isaac handily led this race because of his performance in “A Most Violent Year.” Nobody even came close. Then Gabe saw “Sicario” and insisted we all needed to see it in the theaters. Then Eden saw “Carol” and insisted we all needed to see that in the theaters.

Now, all seven of us have either Emily Blunt or Rooney Mara at the top of our shortlists. Although their order varies, five of the seven of us have them going 1-2 on our shortlists. Blunt got a few more points in our system, but we unanimously decided to call it a tie. Sorry, Oscar Isaac. Both Blunt and Mara dominated their films, albeit in tremendously different ways.

Mara has been doing remarkable work for years. Her run from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Side Effects” is one of the more impressive and rangy stretches of acting in the last decade. Mara’s performance in “Carol” is as vulnerable as acting gets. As the shopgirl and photographer swept up in the charms of a glamorous woman, Mara’s performance is made of utterly human reactions. From helplessness to confidence, from confusion to realization, it’s a performance to break hearts. Yet first it demands the actor break her own so that the rest of us can be let in.

Blunt is the polar opposite as Kate Macer in “Sicario.” The leader of an FBI SWAT team, she is tasked to an anti-cartel operation that doesn’t seem to be telling her the entire truth. Tough, commanding, sure of herself but distrusting of others, Blunt makes Kate one of the strongest heroes in recent thrillers.

Despite playing a very different sort of character, the unspoken treatment of Kate by the men around her most recalls Jodie Foster’s role in “Silence of the Lambs.” “Sicario” puts Kate’s life at stake a few times, but what it’s really doing is putting her entire reason for being at stake. It puts all of who she is and why she is on the table, and when Kate is finally confronted with making a choice between that and survival, Blunt makes you inhabit the impossible choice of that moment like few actors can.

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Emily Blunt, “Sicario”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”
Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

Best Screenplay in a Mid-Budget Film
Spotlight

We had to do three ballots to finally figure this one out. See, we liked “Carol” for its lack of frills – for its ability to get at the story, yet it’s a film that puts a little more on its performances, direction, and design. We adored “A Most Violent Year” because it depicts a gangster film from the perspective of the one honest person in the entire plot. It also depicts that determination for honesty as something that can be wielded very powerfully.

Ultimately, we chose “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that revealed systemic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Catholic priests. Making a film about a procedural investigation is difficult, not least because we’re inundated with procedural TV series that increasingly make procedure up as they go. “Spotlight” manages to find the drama in the process of uncovering research. It also boils down the essence of editor-reporter relationships: when you pursue a story and when you don’t, how you keep a story churning when it gets put on the backburner, when you have to break the rules that protect yourself in pursuit of a breakthrough.

“Spotlight” is a special film in how it gives its entire cast a process to work through as their characters. It also presents the investigatory process to audiences as a living mechanism to reveal truth and affect change.

All writers receiving a vote (descending order):
Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Phyllis Nagy, “Carol”
Charles Randolph & Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Taylor Sheridan, “Sicario”
Aaron Sorkin, “Steve Jobs”
Matt Charman, Ethan & Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies”
Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington, “Creed”
Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff, “Straight Outta Compton”
John McNamara, “Trumbo”

Best Director of a Mid-Budget Film
Sicario

We liked “A Most Violent Year” and “Carol,” but this was a runaway vote. “Sicario” is just too perfect of a beast. There’s a sense that every speck of dust in the film has been consciously placed where it needs to be, yet the film doesn’t feel passionless because of this. If anything, the film is yearning yet melancholy, dissatisfied yet resigned. Those are rare descriptions for a thriller about the Drug War.

Despite its sense of control, however, the actors seem to have been given free reign. They’re taking chances routinely, which is something that’s come to define Denis Villeneuve’s films. There’s a sense of history, of lives lived, of both small and large sacrifices made in each of their lives that bring them to this point. “Sicario” is less of a story, and more of a culmination of lives thrown together.

It’s this mix of organic, loose performances in a tightly controlled world that makes “Sicario” feel most real. Sometimes we feel like the universe is against us, as if we’re responding too organically to something that’s consciously leading us down a path without our knowledge. “Sicario” is drenched in that feeling because it’s more or less the truth of this film. Villeneuve has made this feeling, this sense of inevitability, his calling card on film. It is rare and powerful, and it makes his films feel truly unique and purposeful.

All directors receiving a vote (in descending order):
Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario”
Todd Haynes, “Carol”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Ryan Coogler, “Creed”
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies”
F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton”

Best Mid-Budget Film of 2015
Carol

If you’re guessing this came down to a four-horse race, you’re right. Even on our final vote, the difference between “Spotlight” (4th) and “Carol” (1st) was a difference between 2 points out of a possible 21. “A Most Violent Year” and “Sicario” were stuck in between.

Ultimately, “Carol” carried it, and for good reason. The love story at its core is exquisitely realized. Few films are able to carry their emotions on the surface while also hiding them from view. There’s a sense of privacy to the film, as if we’re looking in on someone else’s life from the outside. It makes us feel both invited and intrusive. “Carol” occupies a beautiful middle space that runs counter to the world continuously buzzing around its characters. That helps us feel the impossible space a lesbian relationship had to occupy in 1952, and in many ways in our society, still does.

It’s a beautiful film and one that travels in ways you don’t expect. Its snub for Best Picture at the Oscars is inexplicable.

All films receiving a vote (in descending order):
Carol
Sicario
A Most Violent Year
Spotlight
Creed
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton

Also check out our awards for Big Budget Films in 2015.

 

Where did we get our images? The featured image from “Carol” comes from Roger Ebert’s site, still maintained by a host of other reviewers even after the great critic’s passing. The image from “Sicario” is from Fox Force Five’s review.

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