Editor's note: The updated version of our For Your Consideration column looks at films and events related to awards season that we find exciting and different. For detailed analysis of every Oscar category, check out Anne Thompson's coverage.
On Monday night, the New York Film Critics Circle celebrated the previous year in cinema, primarily saluting one of its better offerings, Todd Haynes' lesbian drama "Carol." More than one presenter noted the film's capacity to explore the evolution of gay identity in America through the lens of the women's picture. While "Carol" redefines the past, however, one crucial 2015 film absent from the ceremony uses the future just as effectively to scrutinize the present — and it may have even greater momentum this awards season for just that reason.
Hours earlier, "Mad Max: Fury Road" director George Miller surfaced in the city for an afternoon teatime event, mainly to mingle with Oscar voters. Fresh from a flight from his native Australia, the director sat down with castmember Nicholas Hoult — who plays reformed "War Boy" Nux — for a conversation in midtown Manhattan moderated by Eve Ensler.
Anyone unfamiliar with the fourth installment in the dystopian action series Miller launched back in 1979 might find it puzzling that the playwright best known for "The Vagina Monologues" would surface for a conversation about this energetically violent movie, in which gun-wielding lunatics speed across a dusty landscape while howling at the wind.
However, the target of their rage extends beyond the grave-faced Max to foreground a new character, Charlize Theron's hardened survivor Furiosa.
Piloting a stolen truck full of water as she steers a horde of fellow sex slaves toward their potential salvation, Furiosa emerges as the movie's true hero, which makes a topical movie about the destruction of the planet even more topical because it's a genuine feminist survival story. Ensler not only approved of the approach; she helped shepherd it to fruition, as Miller hired the activist-writer to host workshops for members of the cast and crew. Introducing Miller to the room, Ensler called the project "radical in every way," adding that "I recognized the first time I read this script that it was feminist — which was really shocking. I had no idea."
The resulting movie offers a synthesis of big ideas about the modern world under the guise of blockbuster entertainment, making it not only the most excitingly unconventional movie released last year but also the least conventional to gain momentum at the height of Oscar season. This year's cluttered slate of movies vying to the top prizes seem to fall into two clearly defined categories: Small-scale, nuanced character studies ("Spotlight," "Carol," "Bridge of Spies") and large-scale spectacles ("The Revenant," "The Martian," "Fury Road" — and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," though it has considerably less momentum).
Among the titles in the latter category, "Fury Road" stands out as an unusually heady achievement even as it satisfies the desire for expert craftsmanship. Miller can talk — and did on Monday, for the umpteenth time — about the exact number of cuts in "Fury Road" (2,800) compared with the fewer ones in the first installment (1,200); he can discuss the link between his filmmaking and silent cinema; he can wax poetic on the colors, the practical effects and the massive crew. (Anne Thompson's interview with Miller has more details on that front.) For these achievements alone, he may indeed clinch best director on Oscar night. And he deserves it.
But there's nothing more thrilling about "Fury Road" than the way it embeds genuine intellect into its pulsating momentum. Ensler put it best when she described the clever way in which the movie shifts focus to Furiosa near the end of the first act, at which point Max joins forces with a new set of road warrior.
"They're making it better as men and women, without one dominating the other," she said. "Women get to be full-fledged, able-bodied, hot-assed, ass-kicking women — which we're now being allowed to be in movies." For Ensler, that shift in the context of a mainstream narrative could have major reverberations. "Think about how that's going to change younger girls and their self-perception, as well as younger boys," she said. "They see that we're in this together."
Topicality is nothing new in the "Mad Max" universe. The first two entries dealt with the burgeoning oil wars in the Middle East; for "Fury Road," Miller said he was primarily inspired by "water wars" he witnessed up close while spending time in India. "These movies are an excuse to be allegorical," he said. "We're basically creatures of the zeitgeist. We're all there, feeling this stuff, and somehow it seeps in to the story."
The symbolism in "Fury Road" couldn't be more specific: The dictatorial Immortan Joe lords over a hulking Citadel in the middle of the scorching desert, hoarding water along with his fellow one-percenters while keeping the rest of his society at his command far below. Miller said it went even deeper than that. "Everything in this film is a commodity," he explained. "The wives are breeding stock, Max himself is treated as a blood bank, Furiosa has been branded with the logo of Immortan Joe, the half-life war boys are basically cannon fodder."
So: Triumphant saga of powerful women or massive indictment of capitalist hierarchies? "Fury Road" rewards those who read into its complex signifiers even as it thrills on a more basic level. "Because these films are allegorical, they're timeless," Miller said. "You see incarnations of the same things. We're more aware of it that we have been in the past. Information is more free-flowing. We're looking for the signal in the noise; therefore, we tell stories."
And this story may indeed wind up as the most unorthodox Oscar winner in modern history. While other blockbusters have found their way into the best picture race — from "The Dark Knight" to "Avatar" — none of them offer such a rich tapestry of ideas to complement their baser elements. "Fury Road" is the rare movie that starts and ends with a bang that reverberates, long after the credits roll, as the conversations continue.