Last year around this time, the 2015 Golden Globes nominations were announced, with “Boyhood” and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” the clear front runners in the awards-season sweepstakes. “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s experimental project in which he filmed his actors over the course of 12 years, and “Birdman,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s similarly unconventional backstage dramedy seemingly filmed in a single take, proved worthy opponents, with “Birdman” eventually taking the big prize on Oscar night. The big winner, most filmgoers and observers could agree, was audacity itself, as two equally bold sensibilities got the visibility and box office business that, without awards chatter, would otherwise have eluded them.
This year, the Globe nominations told a different story — and one that’s just as encouraging. Although Thursday’s announcements featured plenty of films that pushed boundaries in form and content, they also suggested that, if 2015 can be described in one phrase, it would be a return to simple, unadorned classicism. The ballast of Globe nominations this year went to films that evinced more interest in understatement than staking a claim on the outer edges.
At their best, they sacrificed nothing by way of vision or ambition. “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s riveting procedural about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic church, epitomized that sensibility, eschewing conventional “movie moments” to wring drama and emotion from the most quiet, un-showy moments. “Carol,” which received five nominations, including for actresses Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, took a similar deceptively simple approach, its glossy surfaces becoming their own visual language to tell the story of a closeted lesbian love affair in 1950s New York.
Like “Carol,” “Brooklyn” and “Bridge of Spies” were set in the same time and place and took a cue from their time periods, evoking the look and feel of the era as well as the kind of straight-on storytelling audiences now associate with a bygone, less artistically self-conscious age. (“Trumbo,” also set in the 1950s, received one nomination for its star, Bryan Cranston.)
Even more modern-day stories felt reassuringly old-fashioned, from the appealingly warm and self-effacing “Rocky” re-boot “Creed,” whose co-star Sylvester Stallone received a nomination for best supporting actor, to the gumption and wholesome can-do spirit of “The Martian,” which received three nominations, including one for its star, Matt Damon.
In the comedy category, “The Martian” will go head-to-head with “The Big Short,” Adam McKay’s smart but often gimmicky adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the build-up to the financial collapse of 2008. Filled with cheeky inserts and propelled by whiz-bang edits, “The Big Short” possesses the kind of strutting, frenetic energy of the cynical business culture it depicts.
Although “The Big Short” is clearly popular, it’s easy to see “The Martian” taking the Golden Globe, if only for its sheer likability. The same can be said for “Spotlight,” which manages to evoke the golden age of the 1970s discipline and restraint while re-defining those values for a new era. Anything can happen on awards night, of course, but this year’s line-up speaks to a year in which modesty took a welcome, improbably muscular, swing for the fences.