February 7, 2016

Should the 'Essay Film' Win the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture?

It's the all important question during awards season -- who is going home with the coveted Oscar for Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards?

Fandor's Kevin B. Lee rounds out his Oscars series "Video Evidence" with a video essay that examines each Best Picture nominee, Spotlight, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Room, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Brooklyn, and The Revenant, then explores why he believes The Big Short should go home with the golden statue. Check it out below:

Here are the categories Lee puts each nominee in (which effectively pinpoints the trend that the Academy was leaning toward):

  • Visually stunning survivalist stories (Mad Max: Fury RoadThe RevenantThe Martian)
  • Powerful dramas about women finding their way in the world (Room, Brooklyn)
  • Films that turn social and political issues into gripping entertainment (Spotlight, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies)

Even though all of these films are deserving of the accolade, Lee chooses one that he believes should win due to the fact that it did the most to "change the way we see not just movies, but life." That movie is Adam McKay's The Big Short, an adaptation of Michael Lewis' non-fiction book about the collapse of the housing market and credit bubble of the mid-2000s.

Dealing with topics that are as complicated as high finance, as well as having a ton of key players and moving parts, is going to require very precise storytelling in order to explain the complex information to the audience without giving exposition heavy-handedly. However, The Big Short doesn't do that. It explains -- a lot -- everything. The entire movie is essentially one long exposition. But Lee argues that this method of providing information to an audience, something that wouldn't work for other films, works for The Big Short, because it's not like other films. It's what he calls an "essay film".

The Essay Film

Films that use experimental techniques to explore stories and topics in a critical and reflective way.

What's the difference between an essay film and every other film? Lee says that while other movies try to put you and keep you inside a fantasy, essay films try to "wake you up". They do this in a number of ways, whether it's through cinematography, editing, or some other cinematic medium, but The Big Short uses quite a few techniques to make its audience uncomfortable or aware.

  • Awkward camerawork, timing, and edits
  • Unconventional or inappropriate music and/or foley
  • Freeze-frames and voiceovers
  • 4th wall breaks by celebrities

And all of these things are used to overstimulate the viewer, or as Lee describes it, "an aesthetic of overstimulation producing an agitated zone of awareness." This keeps the audience on its toes instead of lulled into an escapist dream like cinema's traditional modus operandi. Why? Because essay films' primary goal is to inform, not entertain.

What do you think of cinematic techniques used in The Big Short? Which film do you think deserves to win Best Picture? Let us know down in the comments!      

Your Comment

40 Comments

Interesting point of view. Those were all reasons why I did not really like the film.

February 7, 2016 at 4:06PM, Edited February 7, 4:06PM

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Andrew Klein
Camera Department
178

Don't care. Not important. Won't be watching. Lost interest in Hollywood's political and social issue slant in most of the nominations long time ago.

February 7, 2016 at 6:04PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

I almost fell asleep while watching "The Big Short". Maybe I am too familiar with the topic to feel any excitement by the story, but the acting in and of itself was great.

"Spotlight" was really well made, but how many shots of journalists sitting behind desks can you make. Great story but visually I found it very ordinary.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" was a fun action movie with almost no story or dialog, and tons of big CGI backdrops enveloping almost every shot. For me this was "Mad Max: Rocky Horror Picture Show", which was a lot of fun but just so silly almost all the time.

"The Martian" was very entertaining, but I had a hard time buying into the reality of what was supposed to be taking place.

"Brooklyn" was a gorgeous 1950's romance film, that looked way better than it's $10 million budget. Good story, good acting, but it's not a big tent film so probably won't get the attention it deserves.

"The Hateful Eight" was a great Tarantino film, but I could have done with less blood'n'guts in the second half. Technically it was impressive that they shot this with Panavision Ultra 70mm camera, which is a huge and heavy camera to drag around in the snowy wilderness. I would highly recommend this film if you are a Tarantino fan.

"The Revenant" is my favorite film released in 2015. Visually gorgeous, completely immersive, I instantly fell in love with this film.

February 7, 2016 at 8:34PM, Edited February 7, 8:35PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
27993

I can't see how anyone can recommend Hateful 8. It was soul-less, shallow, vulgar (and I'm not meaning just the language), and little more than a B horror movie at times. At some point will people get tired of Tarantino movies being nothing more than segments of various movies stitched together?

February 7, 2016 at 10:57PM, Edited February 7, 10:57PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

ignore gene's comment, this guy's second job is hating on hateful eight.... the revenant was a well shot movie, but that was pretty much it. The big short, steve jobs, bridge of spies,, ex machina were all much better all around films .

February 8, 2016 at 1:15AM

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How old are you Nick?

I'm just giving an honest opinion. Did you see it? It was categorized western. John Wayne would be more acidic about the movie than me. It had no decency, no character.

February 8, 2016 at 1:48AM, Edited February 8, 1:50AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

The Hateful Eight was stylized as a spaghetti western, which were known for their grit, their tension, and a darker view of humanity and the classic "western" world. In their nature, they are diametrically opposed to the classic westerns and their tame and clean view of the place and time.

The Hateful Eight, unsurprisingly, very much follows this trend, and succeeds in creating an unpleasant, real feeling world for the story to unfold within, and multi-faceted, complex characters to tell it.

Not every western has to be, nor should be a clean cut John Wayne style western. To expect such is missing a whole part of the human experience, history, and storytelling based around it.

February 8, 2016 at 8:08AM, Edited February 8, 8:09AM

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Jacob Floyd
Writer / Videographer
789

There was nothing 'real' about Hateful 8. Pulease. You are putting lipstick on a pig.

Clint Eastwood was in spaghetti westerns. They had stories, plot, that made you want to wait until the end to see what would happen. They weren't just circumstances in the first half that served only as an excuse to have a shocking, B movie, violence filled, disgusting blood-fest in the second half.

Multi-faceted, complex characters. LOL.

February 8, 2016 at 8:45AM, Edited February 8, 8:54AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

Here's a review of Hateful 8 that gives it its due:

"The Hateful Eight wears out its welcome well before the halfway point, leaving the equivalent of a whole other movie to sit — and suffer — through.

February 8, 2016 at 9:44AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

The Unforgiven. Felt about as real as I could imagine but not a spaghetti western and certainly not a classic western.

Tarantino's formula is tiring.

February 9, 2016 at 5:54PM

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I often wonder how old you are, Gene. If I had to guess, I'd say early teens.

February 8, 2016 at 9:53AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
686

You often wonder it? Your work looks very good. It has elegance and character. I really like your work. It looks like it takes a long time to produce. Honestly, I wouldn't think you'd have so much time to think about me.

You thought Hateful 8 was a good movie? If you do, it doesn't seem commensurate from looking at what you produce that you'd like what Quenten Tarantino produces.

February 8, 2016 at 10:05AM, Edited February 8, 10:33AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

Gene, I'm not sure that I would say Hateful 8 is a great movie but, I don't over-analyze movies that much. I love westerns. I love the way snow looks in pictures. I love Bob Richardson's camera work, I love Bruce Dern and, occasionally, I enjoy seeing someone's head being blown off. Great movie? Maybe not but, I enjoyed watching it.

And thank you very much for your kind words concerning my work.

February 9, 2016 at 9:34AM, Edited February 9, 9:35AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
686

Yes, your work is very good Richard. It puts me in mind of Karl Lagerfeld.

February 10, 2016 at 10:35AM, Edited February 10, 10:35AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

Was it supposed to be decent? And, I would argue that the film did have a lot of character - an unsettling one, but it's there.

February 8, 2016 at 7:25PM

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Alexandra
Videographer / Documentary Filmmaker
205

What is is?

February 8, 2016 at 11:41PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

Gene, insulting people because they disagree with you is immature. Go away. We get it. You didn't think Hateful Eight was good.

February 9, 2016 at 10:07AM, Edited February 9, 10:07AM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
1149

Who did I insult? I complimented Richard. Read my comment again.

Yes, Hateful 8 was not good. On the contrary, it was a bad movie. Is it ok that someone could disagree with you with you telling them to go away? If you search you will see there are many people that didn't like it. You will find them quickly. It's not just me. It should not have been categorized a Western. It should have been categorized Horror.

February 10, 2016 at 10:32AM, Edited February 10, 10:33AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

Did you mean this that I said to Jacob?

"Multi-faceted, complex characters. LOL."

Well, I suppose that could be construed as an insult. But did you see Hateful 8? It wasn't a deep movie.

February 10, 2016 at 8:27PM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
800

Which CGI-backdrops are you talking about in Mad Max? I remember one blatant use of CGI which was the firestorm. Other than that, they strived to avoid CGI as much as humanly possible.

Kind of ironic how The Revenant was your favorite film, seeing as how it has a thinner story and much less character development than Mad Max. I enjoyed both, but were it not for the cinematography from Lubezki, The Revenant wouldn't really have much to stand on.

I would have loved to have seen Ex Machina and Sicario get best picture noms.

February 8, 2016 at 9:54AM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
471

Take a look at the BTS footage and you will see that all of the vehicles and actors are real, but the background scenery looks nothing like the film. The real locations are boring flat desert locations, while the film has all this highly stylized super saturated backgrounds that look nothing like reality.

February 8, 2016 at 10:32AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
27993

>>>I would have loved to have seen Ex Machina and Sicario get best picture noms.

I loved "Ex Machina" more for the VFX than anything else. It was a small film but done really well, but I would not put it in the Best Picture category.

"Sicario" seemed so over-rated to to me. Other than having a non-traditional main protagonist with Emily Blunt, the rest of the film seemed to be generic action film stock. For me, Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995) was a much better action film that still holds up even after 20+ years.

"Heat" (1995)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfKbIbiX458

February 8, 2016 at 10:43AM, Edited February 8, 10:48AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
27993

I've seen the BTS and I don't think it looks different, just that the end result is more colorful. I'd put all of that to the power of grading and not cgi. If you look at skin tones in the BTS, you'll notice they're similarly much less punchy.

To each their own. Both those films are more deserving of a best picture nom than The Martian, imo. While The Revenant is a massive feat of filmmaking and will obviously be remembered for its technical achievements, I think both Sicario and Ex Machina are much better films.

Ex Machina is one of those rare films that makes me wonder where all the accomplishments of the human race has led us and where we are yet to go. Exceptionally effective and minimalistic sci-fi. While the VFX are incredible, Alicia Vikander's performance and the potency of the script are more memorable to me.

Sicario, for me, was just fantastic filmmaking. Contemporary story that still would've worked equally well any time in the past few decades. A serious topic that still makes for marvelous entertainment is never easy, yet it never turned into an action film for me. More of a study of the questionable methods of fighting a war that no one ever wins and the struggle of coming to that realization. Technically, it's impeccable yet never draws attention to itself (take note, Revenant) and features some of Deakins best work since 2007. Most of all, Villeneuve has that extremely rare grip on atmosphere and creating that creeping tension, that I also enjoy with Hitchcock and Fincher.

February 8, 2016 at 11:50AM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
471

Here's a link to compare the BEFORE CGI and AFTER CGI for "Mad Max: Fury Road". Looks like tons of CGI to me...

http://goo.gl/6Kvov6

February 8, 2016 at 1:00PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
27993

Sure, there are a lot of VFX in the film, but a lot of it is compositing and not CGI. 3 of 9 shots in the article are from that firestorm i mentioned.

From the article: "Visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson says that there’s very little CGI in the movie: instead, they used real stunts, color grading, compositing, and roughly 2000 VFX shots."

February 9, 2016 at 9:22AM, Edited February 9, 9:22AM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
471

By my book if the visual FX are not practical then they are created by a computer, whether it's 3D models or multiple image composites it's still generated with a computer and does not exist in the practical real world.

February 9, 2016 at 12:43PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
27993

That's not how it works in everybody else's book though. VFX are by definition computer-generated (or at least done in post) whereas SFX are practical. It sounds like VFX is really what you describe CGI as.

I see where you're coming from, but if you're merging two images of things that exist in the real world, that hasn't been generated out created in a computer. It's definitely VFX work, but in no way CGI. Would you call Fincher's split frame technique CGI? Cause that's essentially the same thing as they're doing here.

February 11, 2016 at 6:30PM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
471

The Big Short was directed so poorly. How the hell is Adam McKay nominated for best director over Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott? That is pure bullshit.

His schizophrenic camera zooms and pans are completely unmotivated by the narrative. His jerky camera movements are an indication of how little confidence he had in telling the story and keeping interest. Compare that to Spotlight -- elegant, thoughtful camera direction that helps heighten the emotion of the scene, reveal the inner lives of the characters, or just stay the fuck out of the way and let the actors breathe.

McKay's compositions and framing blow, the editing is shitty, tonally the movie is a mess, there's way too many characters that are impossible to connect with -- its 100% literally the worst directed oscar nominated movie that I've ever seen. You'd think this was made by the guy who directed a bunch of Will Ferrell movies.

February 8, 2016 at 8:48AM

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I don't agree at all. I felt the camera-work is there to kind of enforce the "reality" of the story, similarly to what he says in the essay, and it worked for me. The editing was snappy as all hell which I also enjoyed. The fact that this story was told in that amount of time without turning into a complete mess is an accomplishment in and of itself, and directors without that kind of comedic experience probably couldn't pull it off.

I enjoyed Spotlight immensely but it was way more by the books. It looked bleak, which works within the story, and like you said they let the actors do the work, but visually it's really ordinary.

February 8, 2016 at 9:47AM, Edited February 8, 9:50AM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
471

Yep.

February 8, 2016 at 12:41PM

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Don't you think that the mockumentary style with unmotivated and sloppy whip pans and distracting zooms can be considered to be very ordinary now? That "style", or more precisely lack thereof, has been played. It takes far more planning, stronger sense of technique, far more confidence and directorial ability to make create something as composed and deliberate as Spotlight as the pseudo run and gun, improv style of The Big Short.

But besides, its not one or the other. There is no freaking way it was directed better than The Martian, Ex Machina, Carol, Hateful Eight, Sicario, Phoenix or Bridge of Spies.

February 10, 2016 at 8:56AM

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They did a hell of a job turning the book into an enjoyable movie. Frankly, it was probably one of a very few ways to film the book as a enjoyable narrative instead of a documentary. It captured the experience of reading the book very well.

And Christian Bale was fantastic.

February 24, 2016 at 9:32PM

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I really enjoyed The Big Short overall, but I have two big problems with it: Christian Bale's performance / storyline and the damn wigs.

It's hard for me to understand how you can make a movie as good as this and not get the wigs right. Both Bale's and Carell's hair looks so fake it's ridiculous. Worse, it's distracting.

As for Bale's performance, it just strikes me as a series of gimmicks and mannerisms and not an actual character. The wig and the contact lenses didn't help.

February 8, 2016 at 11:17AM, Edited February 8, 11:17AM

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Ricardo
Film Student
15

Funny, I thought Bale was the standout performance. It reminded me how much of a chameleon he really is. Don't think he wore a wig. He has similar hair in parts of both Batman Begins and The Prestige.

February 8, 2016 at 11:33AM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
471

You're not alone. He did get another nomination after all.

But he really did wear a wig. Everyone did, except Brad Pitt.
http://www.gq.com/story/the-big-short-hair

February 8, 2016 at 5:36PM, Edited February 8, 5:36PM

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Ricardo
Film Student
15

Wow, I stand corrected. Great read as well :)

February 9, 2016 at 9:28AM

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Oscar Stegland
DP/Steadicam
471

The Big Short and Spotlight are OK, but, to me, the art of cinema is a whole other thing.

February 8, 2016 at 11:57AM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
740

I feel like this essay nails it. The Big Short is pretty great in a strong field - Room and Mad Max also terrific. But where's Sicario?

February 8, 2016 at 12:40PM

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For me The Big Short and also Spotlight were TV serials glorified.
The Big Short in particular falls into the category of pseudo intellectual.
The Revenant was the Best Film standing out technically on all the points :)

February 9, 2016 at 10:30PM

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Bhushan Gaur
Director / Writer
79

I think that`s a poor portrait of the essay film, I am sorry but your are misinformed, I recommend you read Translating the Essay into Film and Installation by Nora M. Alter or The Essay Film:Problems, Definitions,Textual Commitments Laura Rascaroli they are both in the net.

Cheers!

February 12, 2016 at 10:45AM, Edited February 12, 10:45AM

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Rafael M. Denis
Director, Producer, Editor.
1