In the age of social media and 24 hour entertainment news, the announcement of the Oscar nominations have become a reliably polarizing event. There’s as much relief over a popular favorite or deserving arthouse sleeper receiving the extra attention as there is collective chagrin that certain films got the nominations over other, no-brainer alternatives. This year’s slate, the second in a row to feature an almost exclusively white line-up of nominees in the major categories, was greeted with an overwhelmingly loud sigh.
With so many great films on offer this year, and even with the inclusion of deserving popular and critical darlings like Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a feeling on Twitter and media web coverage that there were other fish in the sea worthy of the honor.
Given that the criteria seems almost totally arbitrary, here are 12 Movies That Should Have Been Nominated for Best Picture This Year.
Controversial filmmaker Spike Lee will be presented with an honorary award for his life’s achievements at this year’s Oscars, though he’s already announced that he won’t be attending. The honorary Oscar is a kind of softball prize the Academy sometimes gives to artists whose work too frequently falls outside the umbrella of safe, crowd-pleasing adult contemporary movies. It’s bitterly ironic that they’ll be cutting Lee’s tribute from the telecast because this year he directed what may be the finest film in his canon.
Chi-Raq, a vibrant, sexy, hilarious and angry call to lay down arms is easily Lee’s finest film since his watershed 1989 Do The Right Thing. Lee’s experimental grammar and the palpable rage probably kept it off Academy voter’s radar, but this angry, kinetic call to action of a film is as deserving of the honor as anything.
After all the talk of ‘category fraud’ regarding Carol‘s awards consideration from people who believe that Rooney Mara should have been nominated for Best Actress instead of best supporting, there was an even bigger debacle waiting in the wings: it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. There’s a strong chance that its subject matter is still too bracing and radical for white-bread Hollywood voters, which is preposterous considering that we’re living in the year 2016.
Even factoring in industry prudishness or fear, it seems a gross oversight that the most beautiful, romantic story of the year, the kind of thing that used to win the big prize in the ’30s and ’40s, won’t even be granted a seat at the table. Todd Haynes’s story of a woman’s self-discovery under the wing of a harried divorcée is the stuff of golden age Hollywood, directed, designed and performed with incredible feeling. People will still be watching Carol and weeping a hundred years from now, which is more than can be said of most Best Picture winners.
10. Mississippi Grind
Maybe it’s a little too depressing in its appropriation of ’70s feel-bad movies like Mikey & Nicky and California Split, but there was no other film this year that better captured the milieu of American life in the year 2015. Rent goes up every year, salaries go down, and no one’s hiring hungover dreamers.
Mississippi Grind is a story of two guys (Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds) who wear bad luck like a cheap suit, chasing the high of winning until they run out of money to throw away at card games, horse races and slot machines. Working for a living and being dependable never felt as good as a bet paying off when the odds are against you. The Big Short may have more obviously been about the bad luck that got the US into our current financial straits, but Mississippi Grind tells the story of the people who suffered the most: the working class guys who have to pay their mortgages with money they earn at jobs they aren’t qualified for.
A moody descent into the hell that is the war on drugs, Sicario was probably too bleak and upsetting to win anything more than technical prizes. It is, however, exactly the kind of film the American blockbuster landscape could use more of.
It digs into a thorny, complex issue that everyone has a surface understanding of, just to find that the hunt requires that all sides to abandon conventional morality. The supposedly just and right are just as cunning and feckless as criminals, and progress is measured in the shuffling of names on wanted lists. Sicario is dark, even for a film about killings sanctioned by the US government, and it never stood a chance of major awards consideration, but films directed this well and written this uncompromisingly ought to be talked about more.
8. Magic Mike XXL
In contrast to a lot of the films up for the top honors at the Academy Awards this year, Magic Mike XXL‘s primary register is silliness, positivity and inclusivity. The luckless strippers at the heart of this shaggy road movie can’t quite get over their perceived personal shortcomings to enjoy themselves. They learn from each other and the varied characters they meet that the ingredients to feeling as good as they look (It is a Channing Tatum movie, after all) are inside their imaginations.
They just have to unlock their desire and deal with their hang-ups. Sometimes it’s through dance or other self-expression, sometimes it’s through being someone else’s fantasy. Magic Mike XXL is like a sexy self-help book and probably gave audiences more smiles than any other film in 2015. Unfettered joy should be celebrated as much or more as seriousness in art.
7. Straight Outta Compton
Sure it has structural problems, including a wobbly third act, but few films hit you with the force of Straight Outta Compton. Director F. Gary Gray finds the explosive power he harnessed for his ’90s heist film Set It Off to tell the story of the most influential rap group of the ’90s. This film’s propulsive editing and intense images grant you a front row seat to the unbelievable but all-too-real personalities behind N.W.A., the collective who fearlessly took on the white establishment by channeling their aggression, fear and cynical pragmatism into a fierce new direction for hip-hop.
Gray and cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoot their concerts, scrapes with the police and recording sessions with an imperative clarity. We get to see the start of a movement as if it were happening for the first time, to really understand what it must have felt like to be the first audience for a new artform. That kind of power rarely gets awards-attention, but now more than ever we need films like Straight Outta Compton and their empathetic anger.
6. James White
It’s modest and low-key but the narrative of James White is told with a brave honesty and an intimate knowledge of detail and texture. It makes its audience feel everything from the sweat on a sleepless woman’s forehead to the smell of a man pretending not to be hungover. With gripping, austere honesty, Josh Mond’s debut feature tells the story of a man (Christopher Abbot) who learns, right after his father’s funeral, that his mother’s (Cynthia Nixon, in one of her strongest performances) cancer is back and looks serious.
White struggles with his definition of responsibility while the support system he leaned on his whole life withers away in front of him. Mond, using New York’s claustrophobia to his advantage, shows how easy it is to become overwhelmed by life at the best of times. Its small-scale story of simple humanity is heart-breaking and unforgettable, and deserves to be rewarded for its artistic victories and dramatic integrity.
Few films in 2015 seemed interested in their craft as an extension of both their narrative as Creed. Director Ryan Coogler’s rock solid images let you feel the intense Philadelphia cold as strongly as the visceral heat inside the boxing ring. His choices feel of a piece with the tradition of ’70s character studies that gave us the original Rocky, whose titular lead (still played by Sylvester Stallone) now haunts this film.
Coogler’s direction, alternately big and intimate, cathartic and sensitive, does right by both his young hero (Michael B. Jordan), a new kind of leading man, and the legacy of the boxing movies that so much of America grew up watching and rooting for. And ultimately that’s what would have made Creed such a satisfying nomination. Everyone who sat in a theater watching Creed wanted its scrappy heroes to fight their way to the top, and that victory felt like more than just a story. It felt like a step towards a true popular black cinema from mainstream Hollywood, where truthful representation of non-whites was a real possibility. Denying it the coverage that an Oscar nod would have granted it feels like a blow, but nothing a film this good can’t overcome.
4. Miss Julie
Liv Ullmann, who’s been making movies for over 50 years, knows a thing or two about the dramatics of domestic conflict. She starred in some of the greatest films on crumbling marriages, damaged lives and psychosexual conflict of the 20th century. When she turned to direction, her attention to the details of inner lives was unrivaled.
Miss Julie, her adaptation of the August Strindberg play of the same name, is about an intractable class conflict that plants hideous seeds in two hearts, but also about the endless power struggle between men and women. In short, it’s timeless, but couldn’t feel any more relevant today. Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell are master and servant, engaged in frustrated mind games over the course of a long day on Chastain’s father’s estate. It’s faithful to the cruelty men inflict upon women and the privilege that the rich hold over the poor. Ullmann’s powerhouse direction makes this a film that deserves any award you could give it.
3. It Follows
Horror films don’t have the greatest track record with Oscar voters and none have had a real chance of winning Best Picture since the 1970s, but as more and more interesting filmmakers decide to dip into the back catalog of America’s finest genre filmmakers, the results seem more and more worthy of celebration and study. It Follows, which looks and feels like it could have been made in the ’70s, has an idea that will age well even if its hang-ups feel distinctly of the 21st century.
Jay (Maika Monroe) loses her virginity only to discover that her would-be suitor has given her a gift she’ll never forget – a demon of some kind will now follow her until it kills her, walking slowly but steadily in her direction until it gets to her. Under the STD-panic text, It Follows is a film about a new class of teenagers with no future. Raised by absent parents and guaranteed nothing by an economy flush with overqualified workers doing menial labor, the kids of It Follows have a big question mark awaiting their future. The monster that walks towards them is not sexual misconduct personified but adulthood; student loans, mortgages, marriages, bank accounts and minimum wage jobs.
Is there anything that sums up the fears that young people feel in 2015 better than that?
2. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
It’s downright insane that a film like Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl should feel like such a breath of fresh air in the American film landscape. After all, shouldn’t every film allow you to identify with a young woman making honest mistakes during her sexual awakening? Shouldn’t every film that looks into our shared past see, without judgment, that our social standards were diametrically opposed to what passes for good manners and ethical soundness today? Shouldn’t female artists be the ones telling the story of female artists? And shouldn’t that happen as frequently as possible with the same resources granted to macho blockbusters every few months?
Answering all these questions should make it clear why The Diary of A Teenage Girl deserved more consideration and a wider release than it received. It’s a special little movie with a sparky lead performance by Bel Powley, and it’s as fun, tragic, thoughtful, important and heart-warming as anything currently up for the big prize.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
With Mad Max: Fury Road up for best picture, it’s clear that a certain amount of crowd-pleasing artistry goes a long way. Next to Spotlight and Room, the hugely satisfying mix of carnage and choreography of Fury Road is like a pair of defibrillators to the heart of the viewer. Which makes it strange that a film as beloved as Star Wars: The Force Awakens wasn’t put up for consideration. It isn’t a patch on Fury Road, but it also provides something missing from even that movie: naive wonder, the kind of thing that blockbusters used to deliver in spades.
J.J. Abrams’s much-needed reviving of the tarnished sci-fi saga is beautifully imagined and fills the viewer with a sense of the things that are possible in filmmaking without recourse to playing to the cheap seats. There’s no sexual violence and white men don’t run the show, but there’s real happiness to be found in its brisk but edifying action sequences and snappy dialogue. Star Wars: The Force Awakens may not be the best film of 2015, but in the current crop of nominees it would make a fine Best Picture.
It’s silly to ask that our favorite films be considered for the honors granted only to a select body of work that does little more than confirm the biases of its voters, but it’s impossible not to wish for a more diverse and interesting group of nominees. Movies that tell stories that more of America can relate to, or in which they might see themselves on screen. 2015 saw the release of a huge number of very fine films and only the tiniest handful ever wind up in danger of being rewarded for their achievements.