You’re going to have years when someone isn’t represented in the Oscar nominees. All five Best Directors being men? Nine out of 10 Best Picture nominees being directed by men? You’re going to have years like that, just like you’re going to have years when all five Best Director nominees are women and nine out of 10 Best Picture nominees are directed by women. That’s just the way variance works and – wait, what?!? There’s never been a year like that for women? Only four out of 65 Best Director nominees since 2010 have been women, and that’s such a statistical uptick we’ve celebrated it?
Look, this is one of the few years where I feel the Oscars got the Best Picture right. Normally if they remember to nominate a movie like “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, it’s astounding they recognized it – let alone seeing it win. But the full scope of the nominees remains staggeringly narrow.
This is not an article about films by women. I’ve got some in here written and directed by men that were overlooked, too. I just took my list of best films and looked at the ones that saw no Oscar nominations whatsoever. My guideline for this isn’t: select films by women. But there’s zero way of looking at the Oscars and understanding their guideline as anything but: overlook films by women. Just four out of 65 nominees. When I do an article about the best films the Oscars overlook, what do you think’s going to come up?
We constantly complain about a lack of originality in Hollywood, while overwhelmingly watching films from the same narrow band of perspectives that have been platformed for a century in filmmaking. What do you think’s going to happen?
The Oscars are recognizing more than they did before, and that means being more inclusive than before. But getting one step of the work done doesn’t mean all the work’s done. It can be true that the winner this year was the right choice, and that the nominations as a whole still have a mountain of work to do.
These are the best films that didn’t get a single Oscar nomination, and many of them deserved nominations in any fair fight. You’ve also got a film or two that didn’t meet eligibility requirements, which are a mish-mash that already disqualify an enormous number of independent, streaming, and international titles.
written & directed by Phil Tippett
We’ll start off with my most controversial pick, and I mean just among myself. My own internal monologue is asking me, “Are you sure?” and it’s responding, “Damn straight”. That’s because “Mad God” is a test of patience and fortitude, an unimaginably painstaking stop motion film from Phil Tippett.
The man is a legend in visual effects, having done the stop motion and miniatures for the original Star Wars trilogy, “Dragonslayer”, and “RoboCop”, and the visual effects for “Willow”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Starship Troopers”. He evolved from an animation director of stop motion and optical effects to one overseeing CGI. 30 years in the making, “Mad God” mixes these with puppetry and live action.
What’s “Mad God” about? A courier descends from the heavens to journey through layered histories of worlds that have each destroyed themselves. If you’ve ever seen a contemporary art installation that one of you’s going to love and be moved by and the other is going to be repulsed by and immediately leave, this is that. If you don’t have the stomach for gross and gore, don’t touch the film. One of its medical scenes is as close as I’ve come to feeling like a night terror’s been realized on screen.
I’m not usually one for that kind of thing, so why do I still like this? Its episodic journey through dense environments of violence and brutality doesn’t feel egotistical or fetishized; it feels reflective of the horrors we read about every day. It feels understanding of our smallness in the face of genocides, systemic abuses, and disasters.
My greatest fear is that this is all humanity is, that anything good or kind I do, or that anything anyone’s done to dodge or minimize harm doesn’t matter. My fear is that in numbers we constantly regress into destroying ourselves, that not enough rise against this cruelty for long enough to make a difference. Part of me knows that each kindness, protest, and the work of activism adds up to a mountain of effort that avalanches into momentum. Part of me knows that each cruelty, abuse, and con does the same. “Mad God” envisions that fear in all its horror. It even asks, “What if that’s all there is?” It doesn’t feel good, but it gives me a space to confront and process it.
That’s what the best contemporary art accomplishes. It creates a hall of mirrors to start reflecting pieces of ourselves inside. Where “Mad God” pushes even beyond this is in considering our creations of divinity. Regardless of whether a particular divinity is real, we certainly do a job of projecting ourselves onto it. “Mad God” works as both a cocktail of human horrors and a creation myth of universes each doomed to self-destruction. To beget something as violent as humanity’s been, how grotesque must divinity be if we’re made in its image? To beget a divinity that licenses and allows our cruelty, how much cruelty must we project onto it in order to justify permitting our own? If divinity is that hall of mirrors, what the hell are we reflecting?
Many of the films we celebrate each year are versions of stories we’ve seen before. I’ve seen no version of “Mad God” before. It is, perhaps, deeply flawed. It is certainly repulsive. While there are influences or fitting stop motion companion pieces to it, such as Mark Osborne’s short “More”, Fred Stuhr’s music video for Tool’s “Sober”, or Jan Svankmajer’s surreal “Alice”, “Mad God” is something for which there is no other version. That makes it the best and worst example of what it is, and what it amounts to is a truth about humanity at large that I sometimes fear overbears the other truths we carry.
written & directed by Celine Sciamma
Nelly is 8. Her grandmother has died. Her parents clean out her grandmother’s home, filled with memories of her mother’s youth. Nelly has little to do, so plays in the woods. She meets another little girl, Marion. Somehow, Nelly has met her own mother, when she was Nelly’s age.
The concept is explored slowly and simply. The two girls aren’t there to ask sci-fi questions about time travel or come up with a solution to their mystery. There’s no ticking clock or magical quandary. They build a hut from tree branches, play board games, and put on a play for no one else but themselves. In these simple activities rests a profound and needed connection, one that speaks to Nelly’s fracturing family and Marion’s own well-being.
Celine Sciamma is the writer and director of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Girlhood”. I’d argue she’s our best director working today, but that’s for another article. Suffice to say “Petite Maman” is her lightest touch yet. Sciamma can sit you in moments that are passing and forgettable in ways that make you realize how human and deeply caring they are. An observation from a child can describe the situation of an adult more succinctly than our greatest writers. The smallest and most ordinary act can be a towering expression of love.
Sciamma explores a child’s fear and confidence as the shape of her world changes. She explores how generations can care for each other, yet be incapable of communicating the impact of loss between them. She explores how a child sees a parent’s chronic illness, and comes to understand it with maturity. “Petite Maman” feels like every moment of it really happens, that this tale is as natural as a windy day.
The film presents what happens as real, confirmed by other characters in different ways. Yet even if it is metaphor or imaginary friend, that demarcation becomes unimportant because it represents something real to a child. It represents what they are going through. That internal reality has to be the film’s and thus ours as well. Anything else wouldn’t be a true window into Nelly’s experience.
Sciamma doesn’t overwhelm you; she gives you the space to overwhelm yourself. These acts and expressions of care often go unrecognized in our lives. She simply recognizes them with us. She opens a window onto other people’s lives so that we might understand our own better. I leave all her films feeling gentler and, I truly think, understanding kindness better.
The Woman King
directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
written by Dana Stevens, Maria Bello
“The Woman King” easily stands beside other historical epics in terms of visuals, design, acting, story – everything you want out of the genre. The African Kingdom of Dahomey is at a crossroads, on the precipice of war with its neighbors and debating its participation in the slave trade even as European nations encroach. Viola Davis plays Nanisca, the general of the nation’s all-women fighting corps.
Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi is given up by her father to the army and undergoes grueling training to become a soldier as war breaks out. Under the tutelage of Lashana Lynch’s veteran Izogie, she learns to manage her training in conjunction with her independent streak. There are battle scenes, political intrigue, even a forbidden love story. It’s all well done, and none of it pretends that the era can only be presented in muddled gray-blues the way our historical epics about Europe are.
Why didn’t “The Woman King” get more recognition? It suffered a concerted effort from right-wing social media to de-legitimize its launch. Click on any video or article about it and you can see a deluge of comments criticizing the film for pretending Dahomey didn’t have slaves of its own. Except this is wrong. Not only is Dahomey depicted having slaves of its own, whether it should continue participating in the slave trade is the entire plot of the movie. Yet the controversy allowed conservative media to make the argument that if Black filmmakers were erasing an African country’s history of slavery (they didn’t), why shouldn’t white people be allowed to do the same? This is an argument easily disproved by watching the actual movie, or even just the opening text crawl of the movie, but the average Fox News viewer or Kiwi Farms poster isn’t going to do that when they could just spend that time getting angry about something they made up.
The astroturfing didn’t stop there – conservatives went on about how the women army unit of Dahomey lost in both battles it fought, in 1890 and 1892, as if the two-and-a-half years Europeans had bothered to record was somehow a representative history of a unit that was in service for more than 200 years. If I looked at two later years of Vietnam and extrapolated that it meant the United States’ military was a joke that had never won any battle or war, I’d be laughed out of any room where someone hadn’t already punched me in the face. So why would we do the same to someone else’s history (hint: cause racism!)
Yet this concerted effort across conservative media and mainstream social media hamstrung the film, discouraged audiences, and blunted enough support to turn American awards bodies away (“The Woman King” did fine overseas at the BAFTAs with two nominations, for instance). We accept deeply inaccurate historical films all the time. There’s virtually no scene in “Braveheart” that isn’t rife with inaccuracies (Robert the Bruce, who betrays William Wallace in the film, never betrayed him and was the actual figure celebrated in Scottish history as Braveheart; none of its battles happen the way they’re presented; the princess Wallace gets pregnant was three years old at the time; there’s a whole list of this). In fact, “The Woman King” is probably on the more accurate side of historical epics – not that this is saying all that much given the genre. So why do we suddenly care if a historical epic has inaccuracies? (hint: cause racism!)
Choose to watch the film, however, and you get a lively, engaging, visually exciting, and terrifically acted drama.
directed by Dan Trachtenberg
written by Patrick Aison, Dan Trachtenberg, Jim Thomas
With apologies to whichever guns you think are top or most mavericky, “Prey” is the best Western action movie since “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”. This is due to the film’s focus on character development and plot. What’s all that nonsense doing in a modern action movie? Hearkening back to an age when action-adventure movies didn’t leave off the ‘adventure’ side of things. I like my action-action movies and my action-romances and my join the Navy-join the Navy movies, but action-adventure still has a very compelling place.
The fifth main entry in the “Predator” series is the best by far, and a remarkably technically accomplished one. If you’re not familiar with the franchise, it tells the story of an alien race that treats the Earth as a hunting ground, complete with the kind of trophy killing our hunters take part in. Humans inevitably prove one of the most sought after prey. Landing in the Great Plains of 1719, the Predator quickly starts hunting people, Comanche and colonizer alike.
“Prey” features a mostly indigenous cast. Amber Midthunder plays Naru, a Comanche woman who bucks gender roles by wanting to hunt. She’s a good tracker, but also doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. “Prey” is intriguing because it doesn’t pose an Arnold Schwarzenegger commando, Danny Glover cop, or squad of elite military getting overwhelmed by Predators. It poses a talented but still inexperienced hunter against something unfathomable. She’s prone to make costly mistakes, but she’s also quick to observe and learn. This ratchets up the tension, and “Prey” does the best job in the series of having us notice things the hero can use right as she does.
There’s also a lesson taken from “Alien” here – the inherent tension of a woman making the right decision and men assuming she knows so little they should immediately do the opposite regardless of whether it’s smart. That speaks to something real. No matter how much you’re trained as a soldier or hunter, the one thing men are trained in even earlier is to automatically dismiss what women tell us. “Prey” portrays the cost of this bluntly.
It still may seem ridiculous to suggest a “Predator” movie is one of the best films of the year, but it really is that good. No nomination for its cinematography, which relies almost entirely on natural light, is one of the biggest oversights of the Oscars. The pacing is extraordinary and genuinely communicates the threat of a Predator as something unknowable and difficult to quantify, maddening in its otherworldly incomprehensibility. It makes the creature more than an action movie villain, it makes the Predator a horror movie stalker.
This is all paired with a surprisingly complex and moving metaphor for the horrors of colonization and genocide. It manages to take how we feel in opposition to an inhuman hunter of people and reflect it onto how we should feel for an inhumane one. There’s a scene of slaughtered buffalo as far as the eye can see, killed to starve out Native American tribes and skinned to deny them a resource and trade good – something that is real and did happen far beyond the already unfathomable extent shown in the movie. A Predator suddenly seems far less otherworldly and cruel by comparison. It’s one of the best scenes in a film this year, and it’s hardly the only pointed moment “Prey” brings to bear.
It’s a complex and thoughtful movie that delivers on action, adventure, pace, atmosphere, character, and goes above and beyond when it comes to theme and implication. You can watch it in English or a Comanche dub.
Don’t Worry Darling
directed by Olivia Wilde
written by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke
“Don’t Worry Darling” is the tale of gossip websites pitting two women against each other despite evidence to the contrary. It’s the story of yet another conservative astroturfing campaign being way more successful in de-legitimizing a woman than you’d like to believe they’re capable of. It obsesses over what day several years ago Olivia Wilde might have started dating her actor Harry Styles because we care when women do this, but shrug our shoulders when a significant portion of male directors do.
But there’s a film, too! One of the best of the year even! Did you know that? “Don’t Worry Darling” isn’t just another opportunity to de-legitimize and trap a woman in a make-believe world where men dictate reality, it’s also a complex cyberpunk tale about…well, crap…de-legitimizing and trapping a woman in a make-believe world where men dictate reality.
None of that’s a spoiler. Unlike apples-to-oranges “The Matrix” comparisons, “Don’t Worry Darling” is a cyberpunk movie that acknowledges the last 20+ years of cyberpunk filmmaking and assumes you already know how all that works. Instead, it becomes a Hitchcockian take on the genre that studies how Florence Pugh’s Alice can recognize and escape a false world. The film picks apart male supremacy movements with expert precision and doesn’t forget to highlight the extent to which complicity enables oppression.
Read any of the news about this film, and you’d think it’s more important who director Olivia Wilde is dating, or – despite a complete lack of evidence – whether that dating means she cheated on her husband (like we know for certain Steven Spielberg and James Cameron did to their wives with their actresses to our utter lack of giving a shit, as well as continuing to nominate them regularly including both their films this year. But a woman might have possibly done it maybe but also maybe not, so get the klaxons klaxoning).
Wilde leveled one of the most important films aimed at dismantling male supremacist bullshit in years, and the MRA and far right convinced people left, right, and center that her relationship history meant her film was unimportant and unworthy. How far we’ve come. We like to imagine we’re immune to the next Trump when we conform to the groundwork of it every day. Luckily, artists like Wilde are making films meant to shine a spotlight on this treatment – if only we’d watch them, and by ‘we’ I mean men as well.
Read Part 2, featuring another five films the Oscars forgot.
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