Well, here we are. Another awards season has just come to an end, the results have come in and I am still joyfully smug about nearly all of my predictions being correct. But there’s one group of movies that I didn’t get the chance to talk about in my last article, and which most of us have stopped talking about altogether: those films that were snubbed as early as the nominations.
These are some movies that were nominated for few to zero Academy Awards or largely glossed over in the greater public eye, despite receiving critical praise. And if the honor of Best Picture can be given to a movie made on as small a budget and marketing campaign as “Moonlight,” then perhaps films like these can, and should, gain some more attention too.
First off, I have to start with “Kubo and the Two Strings.” This is production company Laika’s fourth feature film, and many would argue its best work yet, holding the studio’s highest ratings on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes as well as, somehow, its lowest gross. And while it was nominated for two Oscars, Best Animated Feature and Visual Effects, it felt too easy to take for granted that it would not win either of them. Yet both the writing and production value still seem extremely noteworthy. I won’t pretend that the story is as solid or timely as that of “Zootopia,” but this tale of a boy on a grand quest to find a set of magical armour is still so wonderfully told; with perilous, terrifying battles, touching characters and a flow that arguably succeeds in mixing traditional Japanese storytelling techniques and folktales with the Western format of the ‘Hero’s Journey.’ And on top of all of this, the visual style of this movie is absolutely stunning. Made with a combination of computer-generated graphics and stop-motion animation, the pieces created for this production include meticulously crafted clothing and origami figures, a system of 3D-printed character faces, the largest stop-motion puppet made to date (at a height of 16 feet) and more. Really, the one qualm that I have with this movie is the casting of white voice actors for Japanese characters. Despite that, the artistry that went into this movie moves me to the point where I feel no choice but to mourn its losses at the Oscars and recommend that others see it as well. Go and prepare yourself for Laika’s signature dark and rebellious style and perhaps the best cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that you’ve ever heard.
Speaking of films that were nominated and didn’t win, I’d like to call attention to another specific category. Even though I have not yet seen these two films (I plan to eventually), I always find it worth it to observe the movies that were nominated for Best Original Screenplay and not for Best Picture – these being “The Lobster” and “20th Century Women.” The first is described as a treatise on modern relationships, set in a future where people are given 45 days to find a lifelong romantic partner or else be turned into the animal of their choosing. The second follows a 1979 middle-aged single mother raising her teenage son with the help of the artist living as a boarder in their house and a young neighbor. Both of these movies were produced by the same company as “Moonlight,” A24. And while I’m not at liberty to give a more detailed description or analysis of either, I think there’s something important to be said by the fact that these two were nominated for an Academy Award – specifically Original Screenplay. Because we all know that the writing is the most important part of any movie or piece of narrative artwork. It’s not the only thing that makes a great film, and the fact that these two weren’t nominated for any other categories probably speaks to that effect, but the story is the foundation of the piece, and what audiences really come to see and lose ourselves in. Plus, in a media environment filled with sequels and reboots, smaller, original ideas like these should be worth watching.
For one more quick mention of another Oscar nominee, I’m a little surprised that the film “Hail, Caesar!” didn’t get much attention this past year. It was only nominated for Production Design, and while I can understand this decision, the film itself is a fun, odd and irreverent comedy about gossip and scandals in 1950’s Hollywood. (As a side note: what’s the deal with movies about the golden age of Hollywood these days? I understand the appeal and the basic logistics, but why is it in the zeitgeist now? And does anyone really think that there is a movie that can somehow match “Singing in the Rain” or “The Artist” by focussing on the next couple of decades? I mean really.) There’s an amazing scene discussing the portrayal of religious material, and the overall theme centers around the light absurdity of filmmaking itself. I’ve thought about it, and I agree with the conclusion that had this film been made by somebody other than the Coen brothers, it probably would have received a lot more attention. What would be a strangely brilliant star-studded debut for one person can just end up being commonplace and possibly taken for granted coming from another source, especially if said source already made “The Big Lebowski.”
Next, I want to talk about “A Monster Calls.” Written by Patrick Ness and adapted from his book, this movie is, at its essence, a modern-day fairy tale. The story tells of a 12-year-old boy having to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness when he is suddenly visited by an ancient and mysterious monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). The ideas and themes of this movie are heartfelt and beautiful and tragic. I would have loved to see Patrick Ness recognized for his screenplay, as he is an amazing author, but perhaps standing equal with this aspect of the movie are the visuals it produces. This is a film that can be paused anywhere, with the resulting picture being worthy of hanging in an art museum. Each individual frame has some form of aesthetic thought put into it, not quite to the level of, say, a Terry Gilliam-directed film, but it still feels absolutely remarkable here. I’d think it would earn the Academy’s attention for Writing and Directing, if not Cinematography, and I’m genuinely shocked that I didn’t hear more people talking about this movie after its release. All I know is that the only other films to make me cry nearly as much as this one did are “Inside Out” and “Dead Poets Society.”
The last movie I want to talk about is, I admit, my personal favorite to come out in the last year. This is yet another small-budget arthouse film from A24 and has been colloquially known as ‘the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie.’ It’s a weird one. The title is “Swiss Army Man.” The story is about a man named Hank (Paul Dano) who is stranded on a deserted island when he finds a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that is discovered to have superhuman abilities, powerful farts among them. As the mostly-inanimate corpse begins to speak to Hank, he ends up being the key to Hank finding his way home, and Hank, in turn, tries to help him remember what being alive is like. Besides being absurd and hilarious throughout, the movie also delves deep into themes of depression, loneliness, and the nature of longing. Emphasis is put on the things in life that we, as members of society, are not supposed to talk about, and what that does to one’s way of thinking and feeling. It shows the value and practice of true companionship while ultimately demonstrating that all we really have is ourselves, and that we have to love ourselves because being alive is just… beautiful and worth it. There are so many great thematic and symbolic elements in this movie, and I am by no means the first to give it praise. It won the Directing Award at Sundance, and Daniel Radcliffe’s incredible performance is lauded by many critics and even most people who’ve reviewed/talked about it online have insisted that the track “Montage” would get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. So why did such a film get overlooked? One could blame the marketing and distribution, but I didn’t see any ads for “Moonlight” before its nominations were announced. Perhaps the Academy avoided it because it first appears to be a comedy filled with low-brow fart jokes. My personal theory as to why the reason why so few comedies get considered for Academy Awards is that members want to give critical focus to the storytelling and not be caught up in the affectation of jokes or spectacle, a la almost any J.J. Abrams movie. It’s why no one is surprised when something like “Deadpool” doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, despite having clever writing. But it wouldn’t stop critics from seeing the film in the first place, and I still think that a movie like this would warrant attention from the Academy through its themes and originality. Sure, it’s bizarre, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but neither is a film like “Manchester by the Sea” or literally anything made by Mel f-ing Gibson. Thus, as a critic, I’m genuinely upset that “Swiss Army Man” was not up for any Oscars this year. And as a moviegoer, my anger resembles that of many when “The LEGO Movie” was snubbed.
This past year, while difficult, has been a great year for movies, and the selection at the Oscars already demonstrates that. But there are a multitude of films that got overlooked and are overlooked every year. Stories that are original, strange, artistic and inspiring. I can’t cover them all here because I haven’t been able to see all that I would want to. The films on this list, the films not on this list and even a lot of the films that were nominated for Academy Awards but didn’t win much (“Arrival,” “Lion,” “Hell or High Water”) are all well-made works of art that shouldn’t deserve to just fall into obscurity because the timing was wrong or they didn’t have the marketing budget to get a proper amount of attention. I would highly encourage finding these films and seeking out other lists of great original movies that have fallen by the wayside over the years, as I myself plan to do as well.