by George Wood
One year ago, who could have predicted that Everything, Everywhere All at Once, a genre-bending indie comedy with a cast of mostly Asian descent, would sweep the slate with eleven nominations?
But for all the success that EEAAO has achieved, this year’s Oscars have not avoided criticism around diversity and representation. Andrea Riseborough’s successful last-minute campaign to be nominated for To Leslie and Ana de Armas’ unexpected nomination for the controversial Blonde have been criticised for pushing out Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler for The Woman King and Till respectively. And after two historic, back-to-back wins by female directors (Chloé Zhao and Jane Campion), once again we have an all-male lineup in the Best Director category.
While individual nominees are not to blame, this year’s nominations are symptomatic of a wider industry that struggles to reward films outside of the racial, gender and class biases within Hollywood, and the individuals who lack the social capital to navigate such biases (perhaps doubly so for films produced outside of the English language, Hollywood circle).
Of course, there is such a rich treasure trove of movies that the Academy could choose to recognise in any given year, and this year is no different. Below are some films that have been completely ignored by this year’s Oscar nominations but absolutely should not be missed.
Perhaps the biggest snub of this year’s Oscars is the failure to recognise Jordan Peele’s Nope in any category. Peele walked away in 2018 with the award for Best Original Screenplay for his debut film Get Out, but his films have since struggled to capture the Academy’s attention; especially strange in Nope’s case, a film about Hollywood filmmaking which the Academy tends to relish. But Nope is a dark parable about blockbuster spectacle, and its themes of exploitation and racism in the entertainment industry were perhaps too thorny and close for comfort for the Academy.
Nope is a strange beast, playing with staple Hollywood Western, sci-fi and action film iconography, topped off with the most terrifying sequences put to screens last year (featuring a chimpanzee and a cloud). Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun as the three leads put in some of their impressive work in their careers to date. Nope is also a technical triumph, and even more of a snub in below-the-line categories where it should have been nominated for Hoyte van Hoytema’s spectacular day-for-night cinematography, or the dazzling visual and sound effects that went into creating Jean Jacket.
The Woman King
Another big, successful Hollywood film that was completely shut out from this year’s nominations was Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King, a historical epic about the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors set out to protect the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. It’s worth reading Prince-Bythewood’s own words on her disappointment and frustration with the industry currently, and with what she describes as “…the consistent chasm between Black excellence and recognition”. It’s incredibly rare that we get original action drama films of this scale, let alone ones led with a Black female cast on an underrepresented period of history.
Already mentioned is the failure to recognise Viola Davis’ tremendous performance as General Nansica, but other leading cast members are also terrific: Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and in her film debut, Thuso Mbedu. Like Nope, The Woman King could have easily been recognised for its crafts (at the very least, the sheer scale of its costume and production design).
De Humani Corporis Fabrica
The documentary branch of the Academy are not against nominating non-English language documentary features, although it’s much harder for such films to clench the trophy. That said, I struggle to see how this boundary-pushing, visceral exploration of the human body by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel would have ever been considered by the Academy.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica (“In the Fabric of the Human Body”) shares its namesake with Andreas Vesalius’ 16th-century books on human anatomy, and here the filmmakers achieved an extraordinary feat in microscopic cinematography, revealing an alien landscape within the insides of the human body during real-life surgeries and autopsies. But the film’s real punches come from the fly-on-the-wall observations of staff sweating and swearing during long, unrelenting shifts, in a vérité portrait of the French healthcare system.
This brilliant documentary does not yet have a release date in the UK yet, but whenever possible it is a must-watch, provided you have the stomach for it.
France’s nomination for Best International Feature Film, Saint Omer, did not make it into the nominee list; a timely reminder of Bong Joon-ho’s comments from a few years ago that Oscars still remain a “very local” awards ceremony (out of the Best International Feature Film nominees this year, only All Quiet on the Western Front broke into other categories).
Alice Diop’s legal drama thankfully has received some recognition elsewhere, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Venice where it premiered last year, and picking up some nominations and a win at France’s own César Awards. Inspired by a real-life court case that Diop herself attended, Saint Omer follows literary professor Rama (Kayije Kagame) travelling to the town of the film’s namesake to write about the case, which sees student and Senegalese immigrant Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) accused of leaving her 15-month-old daughter on a beach to die.
Most of the film takes place within the courtroom, with long takes focused on Coly’s defence who maintains that she was subject to witchcraft. Malanda gives an astonishing, reserved performance in a story that questions, in the eyes of the Rama, the jurors, and the viewer, whether this human being – educated, Black, female, immigrant – has already committed an act of transgression in white Western society long before any such crime was committed. An added layer is Rama’s increasing feelings of personal connection to Coly, reflecting her own doubts, fears, and anxieties on motherhood, depicted in an impressive performance by Kagame that relies so much on passive reaction.
The combination of direction by Diop, screenplay by Diop, Amrita David and Marie NDiaye, and cinematography by Claire Mathon (known for her work on Portrait of a Lady on Fire) make this a stunning piece of cinema to behold, and one that will stick with viewers for a long time.