2016 Awards Season: Feature Film Highlights

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The 2016 Academy Awards will be held on February 28, 2016.  Take some time out to catch up on some of the nominated films up for awards! (best picture, directing, acting, editing, writing, music, visual effects, sound editing and mixing, production and/or costume design).  A number of these movies are still playing on extended run at your local theaters.

Here are some of the highlights:

MV5BMjM2MTQ2MzcxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzE4NTUyNzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_“The Big Short”

Mortgage-backed securities.  Subprime loans.  Adjustable rate mortgage.  Credit default swaps.  Collateralized debt obligation.  How do you think a movie tackling such dry and difficult topics fare?  Dull?  Cumbersome?  Incomprehensible?  Not even close.  The filmmakers craftily executes the film.  To avoid monotone exposition, concepts and occasions are illustrated in a variety of ways.  Songs and news and characters facing and speaking directly to viewers.  And most ingeniously, comically utilizing actress Margot Robbie, chef Anthony Bourdain and singer Selena Gomez, who all make cameos as themselves.  With such serious subject, surprisingly, “The Big Short” is not short on jocularity.  The madcap pace, akin to the award-nominated “The Wolf of Wall Street” (albeit without the gratuitous shots or glamorous sheen), helps make it entertaining.  The film is an enlightening companion piece to the award-winning documentary, “Inside Job.”   The ending will make you think about whether the whole economic apocalypse could happen all over again.  Ingloriously funny, fiery and frightening, “The Big Short” is no small feat.  Check out the full review and trailer here


MV5BMjIxOTI0MjU5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzM4OTk4NTE@._V1_SX214_AL_“Bridge of Spies”

In 1957, a New York insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks, “Saving Mr. Banks“), gets pulled back into criminal law, called to represent an accused Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).  James, an honest, principled man finds that justice can be relative, even as America showing to the world that we provide due process and capable defense for everyone.  A skilled negotiator, James intuitively understands his opponents and pushes the right buttons to make things happen in tricky political waters and hostile climate.  This is a story about doing the right thing even when it doesn’t suit your purpose and having respect for people for doing their job honorably for their country even when you don’t agree with what they do.  Not as tension-filled as one might think, it’s a serious slow-burn, surprisingly sprinkled with mordant humor. Based on real events and helmed by Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln“), “Bridge of Spies” is classily crafted, directed and acted.  Steady, measured and assured historical Cold War drama.  Check out the full review and trailer here.



It’s every little girl’s fantasy. Being a princess. And among all the princesses, Cinderella is arguably the fairest of them all.  Unlike the reinvention of the last several adaptations, which edges on the darker side or leans towards modern feminism, “Cinderella” is a straightforward retelling of the classic, although it’s not without surprising gems.  The fairy magic does wonders. It’s magical to see Cinderella transform, twirl and glow in the shimmery ball gown and sparkling glass slippers. And the rest is a delightful treat because of the gradual transmutations where you can still see partial semblance to the original forms. From pumpkin turning carriage, mice into horses, goose into coachman, lizards into footmen, and back to their origins.  For an old-fashioned story, it ends with an empowering message to speak your mind, stay true to yourself and have the courage to do the right thing.  Lushly gorgeous and opulently vibrant, “Cinderella” is so earnest and charming that you’ll be swept away in the dreamy fairy-tale romance and magic of happily ever-after.  Check out the full review and trailer here


MV5BMjA0NjA4NjE2Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzIxNTY2NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_“The Danish Girl”

Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything,” “Les Miserables,” “My Week with Marilyn“) is documented as one of the first persons to receive a sex reassignment surgery.  In 1920, Copenhagen, Einar and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander, “Ex-Machina,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E“) are like any other young, married couple.  Einar is a successful landscape artist and Gerda a portrait painter.  When a model fails to show up for painting, Gerda jovially persuades her husband to stand in with a women’s clothing.  It is at this moment that Einar feels… something.  Something indescribable that makes him feel closer to his true self, which he believes that he’s woman.  The film has a soft-focus feel with colorful palette, postcard-perfect scenery, impeccable interior and luxurious costume design.  While Redmayne bravely steps into a unique role, it is Gerda’s perpective and Vikander’s acting that stand out.   Perchance “The Danish Girl” is not about Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, but a story about the ‘other’ Danish girl, Gerda Wegener.  Check out the full review and trailer here



A young coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins an office prize for a weeklong retreat with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company’s reclusive CEO and inventor of the world’s most popular search engine. Nathan has been working on a secret project, artificial intelligence in the form of humanoid-robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  You’d feel things are not what they seem and something sinister is going to surface, but you don’t know what, when or how. It’s tantalizingly thrilling. Vikander is a wonder, walking a fine line between human and machine. Her Ava, partially translucent with wires and circuits and partially covered in human skin, is both mechanically perfect and surrealistically human. The reveals come in pieces and they boggle the mind. Ethical quandaries of identity, humanity, freedom, life and mortality. If you could create a machine with human consciousness, would you… just because you could? What if artificial intelligence goes beyond artificial? Does it have the right to exist? How would it be integrated to society? What are the implications? What will become of mankind?  Strikingly compelling, cerebrally cool and eerily suspenseful, “Ex Machina” delivers on the futuristic visual and philosophical level and ceases with an ending that lingers in your mind.  Check out the full review and trailer here.  


MV5BMTc2MTQ3MDA1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA3OTI4NjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_“The Martian”

During an exploration in Mars, a fierce sandstorm forces a team of astronauts, led by commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Debt“) to abort their mission and evacuate the base.  Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, “Elysium,” “The Adjustment Bureau“) is impaled by a satellite antenna, left stranded and presumed dead.  In a hostile, arid planet and encased in solitude, Mark uses his expertise as a botanist and resourcefulness to generate oxygen, create heat, produce water, grow crops and ration his limited food.  And perhaps just as important, not losing his sense of optimism and wry humor to keep his sanity and spirit alive.  On Earth, a lively group of really smart, passionate people working together tirelessly to develop solutions to rescue Mark.  Drawing upon science, intelligence, collaboration and imagination, it shows how the brightest minds can accomplish great things together.  “The Martian” is a crowdpleaser, hopefully one that may inspire the next generation of space explorations.  Check out the full review and trailer here.



The film takes us back to 2001 for a behind-the-scene look at “Spotlight, ” a team of professional journalists working tirelessly to uncover the truth, unravel and assemble information piece by piece, yielding chilling revelations that rock one of the oldest and most esteemed institutions, the Catholic Church.  Their year-long investigative work and news story won them a Pulitzer award.  This is more than chasing a story,  making a mark or generating money for the publication.  While it’s an explosive expose, it is not sensationalized.  This is a hard-hitting storytelling, conducted with sensibility and acted with remarkable realism.  The film also shows the power of the press.  That when a focus of a story is carefully selected, thoroughly investigated, responsibly corroborated, persistently followed through and timed well for publishing can make a far-reaching and lasting difference.  “Spotlight” not only demonstrates investigative journalism at its finest, but perhaps more importantly, it shines a spotlight on a previously untouchable story.  Check out the full review and trailer here


MV5BMjE0NTA2MTEwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzg4NzU2NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_“Steve Jobs”

“Musicians play the instruments.  I play the orchestra,” said Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, “X-Men” series, “Prometheus“) in response to a question why he gets all the glory since he’s not an engineer or designer, and that he takes all the credit for the brilliant and tireless work from the people who devote themselves to him.  The Danny Boyle-directed “Steve Jobs” is uniquely structured like a play, a three-act play before three key product launches; Macintosh, NeXT and iMac.  A paradox, Steve Jobs is out-of-the-box thinker, yet out-of-touch with human connection.  The backstage drama is a cacophony filled with farcical facades about product features, room preparations, and intense confrontations about relationships where each act ends with a phenomenal, cult-like mania when the man of the hour seizes the stage.  The rapid-fire dialoguerazor-sharp script, deft direction and fast-paced editing will keep you fixated onto the screen.  The stakes are elevated and emotions are running at a fever pitch.  “Steve Jobs” is masterfully orchestrated like a spectacular theatrical play in a grand opera house, complete with orchestral music.  Check out the full review and trailer here



“Trumbo” chronicles the life of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of Tinseltown’s most successful and highest paid screenwriters in the 1940s and 1950s.  It’s a dark time in Hollywood and American history; the Red Scare period post-World War II where thousands and thousands of people suspected for or believed in communism are targeted unjustly.  Even branded as a traitor, Dalton never lets darkness dims his survivor spirit.  Dalton starts ghostwriting for other writers, working for a fraction of his fees for B-rated producers producing movies starring A-list stars.  Even more fascinating, he establishes a homebased screenwriting business, working with other unemployed screenwriters and cranking out script after script.  The shenanigan eventually pays off, with films like “The Roman Holiday,” “The Brave One,” “The Exodus” and “Spartacus” grace the silver screen, furtively netting Dalton two Oscars.  “Trumbo” is oddly delightful.   If you’re into the movies scene, politics and civil liberties, you’ll enjoy the film’s history lessonold-fashioned Hollywood feel, witty wordsmithery and joie de vivre spirit.  Check out the full review and trailer here

Copyright (c) 2016.  Nathalia Aryani.

Nathalia Aryani is a film columnist and has a movie blog, The MovieMaven( Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at

Nathalia Aryani is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic ( She has a movie blog, The MovieMaven ( Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at [email protected].

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