If you watched the snoozefest that was this year’s Oscars, you might believe that 2018 was a terrible year for movies. The Best Picture winner, Green Book, was a forgettable retread of Driving Ms. Daisy, and most of the other nominees will barely be remembered. Who will really care about Rami Malek’s toothy impression of Freddy Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody) or a biopic about Dick Cheney (Vice) in two or three years? In actuality, 2018 had plenty of great film, but it was mostly left out of Oscar consideration. Production outside of traditional Hollywood studios, young directing talents, and the ongoing documentary boom combined to create a rich and varied ecosystem of quality movies. In honor of that, here are 2018’s Anti-Oscars: great films that received no nominations from the Academy.
Won’t You be My Neighbor? (dir. Morgan Neville) — This film shouldn’t even be on this list, really, as it was one of the best movies of the year, period. If, unlike the Academy, you support love, joy, and helping children, then see this movie as soon as possible. Morgan Neville’s exploration of Fred Roger’s background and motivations, as well as testimonies from all the lives Mr. Roger’s touched, can only be described as life-affirming. Mr. Roger’s profound faith, compassion, and empathy shines throughout the film, from washing his feet with a black man during nationwide controversies over segregation to his acceptance of a gay employee during the height of the AIDS crisis. The final scene is one of the most moving I’ve ever seen; the entire theater I watched it in was crying, including myself.
They Shall Not Grow Old (dir. Peter Jackson) — The BBC and the Imperial War Museum came to Peter Jackson with 600 hours of audio and 200 hours of video from their World War One archives, with only one request: “do something interesting.” He delivered, using modern technology to colorize old film, speed up frame rates, and provide audio where there was only silence. With such potent material, Jackson made the wise decision to focus on only the Western Front and only have audio testimonies from veterans as narration. Rather than presenting a historical argument or narrative, the film foregrounds its most distinctive features: the sounds, colors, and most of all the faces of World War I, which we visualize in silent black-and-white. You cannot help but be jarred by blue skies above the Somme, green grass at Ypres, and the horrific absurdity of Highlanders in kilts, marching to the sound of bagpipes into clouds of mustard gas. It’s unsettling; as the soldiers’ faces glow with color and we hear them laugh and talk, we’re reminded that it was real people marching off to die in the trenches, not just statistics or names on a page. They Shall Not Grow Old is a first-rate work of history for the radical empathy that lies at its heart.
Ben Is Back (dir. Peter Hedges) — America’s opioid crisis is explored in heartbreaking, intimate, detail in this relatively unnoticed film. Taking place over 24 hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas, the film begins with Ben’s (Lucas Hedges) surprise return home for the holidays from rehab. His mother’s (Julia Roberts) shock and joy contrasts with the wariness and fear on his sister’s face. The first two-thirds of the film masterfully portray the fear and tension that addiction brings into a family. Ben’s presence has his entire family on a knife’s edge between relief and panic, as old temptations and sources of trauma threaten to trigger a relapse. It turns into a slightly contrived thriller in the third act, but the final scene is both devastatingly bleak and just hopeful enough to leave a strong impression. Roberts’ performance is the film’s highlight; she captures the rage, love, and grief you would expect the mother of a heroin addict to feel.
The Rider (dir. Chloe Zhao) — Chloe Zhao’s sophomore effort is based on the true story of Brody Jandreau, a young rodeo star from the Pine Ridge Reservation who fractured his skull after being thrown from his horse, forcing him to quit the sport that has defined him. The story follows the path you might expect, chronicling Brody’s denial, anger, shame, and confusion as he moves from riding broncos in front of cheering crowds to training horses and picking up shifts at Wal-Mart. It’s beautifully shot and lyrically paced, but the casting choices are the film’s crowning achievement. Zhao cast Jandreau, his entire family, and most of his friends to act in a scripted retelling of their own lives. Everyone, from Jandreau to his father to his younger sister, gives compelling, surprisingly frank, performances. The result is a film of both deep emotion and grounded realism.
Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham) — Before this movie, musical comedian Bo Burnham had two Netflix specials and a reputation as an earnest, goofy performer who skewered entertainment culture and his own misanthropy. But he showcases serious directorial promise as he follows thirteen-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) through her last week of classes in middle school. Fisher’s performance is excellent, as Kayla navigates stifling shyness, her unrequited crush on a popular boy, embarrassment with her well-meaning if bumbling dad, and the social apocalypse that is a middle-school pool party. Come for Fisher’s performance, stay for the best presentation of social media’s pervasiveness I’ve seen on-screen. The kids in the film constantly perform their lives on social media; Kayla tries to hide her anxieties by projecting an image of herself as a confident advice-giver on a barely watched Youtube channel. She begins and ends every day with her face lit up by her phone screen, images that struck uncomfortably close to home with me, and will with most Swatties.
Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland) — I’m pretty sure this is the closest I’m ever going to get to tripping on acid. In this fever dream of a film, Natalie Portman stars as a Johns Hopkins biologist whose special forces husband mysteriously disappears. She is later abducted by government agents, who reveal that he vanished on a mission inside “the Shimmer,” a mysterious bubble slowly spreading outwards from the Louisiana bayou. Portman volunteers as a scientist with an all-female expedition trying to figure out what exactly happened to her husband in the Shimmer. Once inside the Shimmer, all hell breaks loose, as the very laws of nature seem radically out of balance: alligators grow shark teeth, bears scream like humans, and the trees look suspiciously like people (or is it the other way around?). Portman and her team’s grasp on reality slowly collapses, culminating in the most mind-bending ending of any movie this year. Annihilation is simultaneously an allegory for environmental destruction, a psychological thriller about shattered identity, and deeply creepy sci-fi horror.
Aquaman (dir. James Wan) — 2019 wound up being a surprisingly strong year for superhero movies, with The Incredibles 2, Black Panther, and Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse all picking up Oscar nominations. Aquaman has no such highbrow pretensions. It does, however, have sharks with lasers. Long one of DC’s goofiest superheroes (he talks to fish, for crying out loud), Aquaman does not exactly seem like source material for a blockbuster movie. But director James Wan wisely abandons the doom and gloom of Man of Steel and Justice League for gonzo camp. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is just charismatic enough as a wisecracking surfer-bro who journeys to claim his rightful throne as king of Atlantis. The undersea world, full of Flash Gordon style submarines, strange sea monsters, and neon-tinted battles between armies of Atlanteans, is a fresh and creative use of CGI technology, so often lazily applied. And did I mention the sharks with lasers?
The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci) — In 1950’s Moscow, two bored workers observe an orchestra performance through a soundbooth. As the music is wrapping up, one receives a call and immediately panics, running outside and demanding every person stay in their seats. “Comrade Stalin” has just phoned in a request for a recording, but there isn’t one, and the performance must be repeated. The conductor faints, so a new one is hustled from his apartment in the middle of the night. Scenes like this highlight the absurdities of life under totalitarian rule, director Armando Iannucci (of Veep fame) marshals a deep cast of comedy veterans headlined by Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor to portray the Soviet Executive Council’s fevered scramble for power after Stalin’s death from a stroke. The humour is as dark as it comes; the mass murder and atrocities of the Soviet regime are most certainly not glossed over. Expect a lot of laughing and wincing.
Most of the these films received little attention outside critics’ circles, but they’re not inaccessible art-house movies. I barely watch those. They’re just indicative of the ways in which film is changing: there’s a greater variety of film being produced, but for smaller audiences and in more places. But you only need to look to find it.
Featured image courtesy of wikipedia.org