My top five films overlooked by the Oscars have some commonalities. Four are by women. Four are by directors who wrote or co-wrote the screenplay. Four are international productions. Four squarely have feminist themes running through them, though not in the ways we’d expect. All five deal with trauma survivors in remarkably different ways – a war orphan and found family, migrants confronting domestic abuse, a woman being stalked as her support system evaporates, the survivor of a school shooting, a musician rejected by her own family for being a daughter instead of a son.
Once again, this features only films that received no Oscar nomination whatsoever. Each of these films is remarkable and will stay with me. Each is one I’ll revisit again:
The Girl from the Other Side: Siuil, a Run
directed by Kubo Yutaro
written by Maiya Satomi, Nagabe
A perfect fairy tale, dark and caring with no easy answers. A little girl named Shiva is alone in the forest, orphaned by war. Creatures that can curse you with a touch lurk here. One such beast discovers Shiva, but being kinder than the others he decides to care for her.
He can’t remember his life, his name, his family, or anything but the loneliness of his curse. Scared she will fall to the same fate, he is determined to return Shiva to humans. Neither his own kind nor the humans make this easy.
The film is short at an hour and 10 minutes, and you can tell it’s on a budget. That hardly matters when the shot choice is this good, the visuals this unique, and its use of light and shadow can make a single moment blossom with emotional implication.
“The Girl from the Other Side” is gorgeous in aesthetic and spellbinding in its storytelling. Watching it reminds me of the feeling I got when I watched “The Last Unicorn” for the first time as a kid. I felt a genuine threat of not knowing what was going to happen, and a sense of things I couldn’t put words to back then, but I might now: Some stories can make you feel as if you absorb fragments of the stillness and grace its characters possess in the midst of chaos. I can only describe that feeling as a fusion of heartbreak and reassurance. A good fairy tale can balance us on the precipice between the two, and “The Girl from the Other Side” is a perfect balance.
You can watch it on Crunchyroll. It came out as a film, but in the U.S., it’s divided into three episodes – probably because our viewers are more likely to watch when it’s presented that way.
written/directed by Angeles Cruz
Sometimes late at night, after watching a good movie, I come across a still moment and I just feel kindness. As in: the storyteller understood these people that the whole world passes by. She was kind to them when you or I might not even notice the opportunity to be kind. She saw them and said, “You exist, I see you,” and Angeles Cruz is a strong enough artist to help the rest of us notice.
“Nudo Mixteco” is composed of three loosely connected vignettes. Each centers on a migrant worker coming home to their town in Oaxaca. The events in one story don’t trigger those in another, as we often see in American ensemble stories. Instead, their connection as parts of the story develop our better understanding of a community and its generational history. This is common in Latin American literature. The stories are related not because they shape each other, but because they shape and reshape how we perceive each.
Much of what’s tackled in the film are realizations of women’s sexuality and their agency within a Mixtec town. The implications of so many small moments in the film don’t dawn on us until later – not because of a plot development, but because we understand a character and what they’ve been through better. As we understand the lives they left and have returned to, our ability to infer what those moments mean grows: what a man glancing at a woman tells us about his fidelity away, what a woman’s nausea tells us about her own history.
“Nudo Mixteco” sees real people more clearly than perhaps any other film this year, but they don’t give awards for that.
directed by Chloe Okuno
written by Zack Ford, Chloe Okuno
“Watcher” got lost in the shuffle because it came out within weeks of Netflix’s aggressively mediocre “The Watcher”. The film “Watcher” is a masterpiece of slow burn horror. It builds around how women’s real concerns for their safety are brushed under the rug and dismissed as hysteria.
Julia moves with her husband to Bucharest, Romania. Alone in their new apartment, she spies a man watching out his window. Is he watching her? The city? Is he the same as the one she thinks is following her? Is she building paranoia from feeling stressed and alienated, or is her husband alienating her as a response to her legitimate fear?
Maika Monroe stars, meaning the “It Follows” actress has now led two of the most important horror films of her generation. She is superb and adds real heft to a role that’s historically been played far more breathy and helpless.
The premise may reflect “Rear Window”, but the film itself mirrors some of the best giallo horror of the 70s, such as “Deep Red” and “Don’t Look Now”. For all its style, “Watcher” feels grounded and consequential. The horror isn’t unstoppable, but neither is Julia skilled or brave. They’re both limited like most of us are, so much of the horror is played out in who believes Julia. The more she reaches out for her support system and authorities that are supposed to help, the more they shirk responsibility. The foundation upon which “Watcher” is built is a very real world horror that women have to survive.
This makes “Watcher” feel much more terrifying as it edges closer and closer to bursting into the type of horror movie we recognize. Aiding this is one of the most effective soundscapes of the year, a use of subtle white noise and room tone that finds its way under your skin and becomes deeply unsettling. “Watcher” is the tensest film of the year. It inverts much of what we expect horror to be in a way that makes a hell of a point and escalates what we’re familiar with to a level of sheer terror. And it has the best closing shot of the year.
written/directed by Megan Park
I want to call “The Fallout” timely, but since the cycle of school shootings at its heart is endless in the U.S., I’m not sure there’s a moment when it wouldn’t be. I’ve rarely seen a film tackle a traumatic topic better. It does so from the eyes of Vada, who doesn’t have it in her to turn her experience of survival into a fight for justice or change. It’s all she can do to get back to any kind of normal. She processes her experiences through the filter of teenage hormones and a mix of building and burning bridges.
At its heart is Jenna Ortega’s performance as Vada. Ortega’s getting recognition for “Wednesday” and “Scream”, as she should. With five films and a series, playing wildly different roles in each, she was the performer of the year in a way no one’s been in ages. Her role in “The Fallout” is one of the best and most realistic performances of coping with trauma that’s ever been put to screen, down to the way post-traumatic tremors just become a chronic norm of her existence.
There’s a scene where she lies to her therapist in order to convince herself she’s fine, and it’s revealingly desperate yet guarded. She embodies both reaching out for help and slapping away any hand that’s offered because she needs to regain control of her surroundings, and you can’t regain control when the person helping you is driving. She needs the help, but she also needs to recapture expressing her agency strongly enough to reject it. Ortega’s is such a psychologically complex realization of someone stuck in the push-and-pull between these contrary needs, and she acts them as if clinging on to survival. Her not being nominated is the most glaring oversight of the Oscars, but “The Fallout” is in the class of film that the Oscars routinely ignore.
Maddie Ziegler, who you may know from her youth as a dancer on TV and in Sia music videos, also surprises with what should’ve been recognized as a superb supporting performance.
The filmmaking retains an indie ethos that feels rarer in recent years, one that’s been supplanted by a “studio indie” vibe over the last decade-plus. Writer-director Megan Park’s intact sense of experimentation and confrontation is key to telling stories about young adults because it goes outside a formula to portray contentious and lost characters. So much of YA work has figured out how to convey themes from the inside of the system out, and that’s important, but we still need movies like “The Fallout” that tackle their stories and perspectives from the outside-in.
“The Fallout” brilliantly portrays the often incomplete stages of coping with trauma, while reflecting a broader trauma our children endure today in the name of money the gun lobby dumps into politics.
directed by Anvita Dutt
written by Muhammad Asif Ali, Anvita Dutt
Gothic horror doesn’t hide its monsters from you, it tells you how they came to be. There’s no twist that you can’t already identify yourself. Instead, gothic horror tells us how its monsters costume themselves in human forms, a humanity they only recognize as those who named them monsters in the first place. Musicals don’t allow characters to hide from each other long. They betray their characters’ forms and bring to the fore their hidden agendas.
This is the unexpected axis upon which Anvita Dutt’s gothic horror musical “Qala” turns. Qala is the inheritor to her late father’s musical legacy, but much to her mother’s humiliation, she’s not a boy. One form of abuse turns into another when her mother discovers a musically talented orphan boy she can adopt and use to replace Qala. Suddenly Qala is disposable, to be married off and forgotten. How does she get from there to become a celebrated film singer?
Even if the music is compartmentalized within performances, those performances always betray what’s really going on. Why do that when its gothic horror explicitly tells us? Because its monster isn’t hiding from us, it’s hiding from herself.
With “Bulbbul” and now “Qala”, Dutt and lead actress Triptii Dimri have created two very different feminist gothic horrors, each asking us to understand the necessity and tragedy of its “monsters”. Dimri’s monster in “Bulbbul” was righteous and right. Her monster in “Qala” is much more complicated. She reflects and repeats abuses because this is how she’s been taught the world works. Her actions are the result of learning at her mother’s feet how disposable she is. Her survival is a mix of emulating her mother’s actions, even when a pale imitation of her mother’s cruelty meets with her mother’s rejection and disapproval.
The monster here is less Qala and more the cycle in which she’s trapped. “Qala” isn’t about a big realization you couldn’t have guessed much earlier. Gothic horror doesn’t hide its monsters from you. Musicals don’t allow their characters to hide. They tell you how a monster comes to be. In illustrating the cycle of abusing and rejecting daughters, it reflects a horrific monster that much of the world maintains and practices. This is how Dutt makes gothic horror that’s both classic and evolved. The monster in “Qala” is only hiding in the forms we taught her, costumed in the humanity that surrounds her. What’s horrific and monstrous about her is a reflection of what surrounds her.
“Qala” is a technical marvel, with astounding cinematography, set design, and costuming. Dutt has arguably become our most important horror director working today. I’ve compared Dimri to Anthony Hopkins before, in her ability to glance across the camera and let you know, “Watch this, watch what I can do” before a character bites. That ability to loose sheer will onto the screen lets her turn a film on a dime, from one where everyone’s acting for the audience into one where everyone’s acting for her character, where we as audience turn from viewer to enabler. It is awesome and frightening, and Dutt and Dimri might be the best director-actor pairing going today.
Honorable Mentions/Films I Missed
There are so many honorable mentions. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s “Do Revenge” is a remarkable teen comedy and satire about performative allyship that boasts a sharp screenplay reminiscent of “Clueless” if it were out for blood.
Ti West’s duology of horror movies “X” and “Pearl” both star Mia Goth and take us through unexpected relationships between different eras of cinema and the adult film industry.
Jordan Peele is ever-reliable and “Nope” continues his string of exceptional horror movies. It says something when someone’s worst reviews are for a film still considered borderline-great.
There are still other films I haven’t seen yet: journalism drama “She Said”, the Lithuanian sci-fi “Vesper”, Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future”.
No list like this is ever going to be complete, and that goes to my point in what the Oscars miss. They dismiss many films, particularly indie and international films that don’t fit their eligibility requirements and especially films made by women because they don’t match the mentality of nominating the same, old perspectives over and over again.
The Oscars got their top choice right this year, but that’s not a reliable habit on their part, and they’re not getting the nominations as a whole right when just four of the last 65 Best Director nominees are woman, when just one of 10 Best Picture nominees was directed by a woman, when just two of 18 people nominated in the Best Screenplay categories were women, when only three women have ever been nominated for Best Cinematography, when only 20% of Best Editing nominees are women.
If you think Hollywood lacks originality, the answer is there: seek out the perspectives that are original because they’ve rarely been featured before, because they bring new perspectives than the ones that we’ve platformed and awarded. Those films are being made and ultimately, what the Oscars missed is a framework to highlight this other work that is out there, that is creative, that is original, that gives you access to 100% of the talent making films instead of just 50%. Why would any of us trap ourselves into having so little, enjoying so little, when there’s so much more filmmaking and filmmaking that’s so much more expansive. What the Oscars miss is just a useful lens for what we miss. There is so much more out there to see.
Read Part 1, which features five more films the Oscars forgot.
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