The Oscars will air this Sunday (March 2) and then the Oscar predictions will give way to many long, angry ruminations on why such and such film won this or that award and such and such another film didn't win this or that other award. The winning choices will most likely lean towards the conservative (as the nominations did) and, just as there is every year, there will be a lot of talk onstage about how exceptional this year has been because somehow "exceptional" at the Oscars means "typical." But before all that, it's worthwhile recalling some of the many great films that Oscar neglected in years past.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Jim Henson and Frank Oz's incredible live-action film, entirely populated by muppets, is an unprecedented and unmatched technical achievement, but it was poorly marketed and failed to gather either the critical acclaim or the box office numbers it deserved. The Dark Crystal is a moody allegory about good, evil, and holism set in an extraordinarily vividly imagined fantasy world. The puppeteers did magnificent work bringing the many creatures to life and there have never, before or since, been more complex and vibrant sets in a fantasy film.
Should have been nominated for: Best Original Screenplay (Jim Henson and David Odell), Best Original Score (Trevor Jones), Best Art Direction (Brian Froud, Harry Lange, and Charles Bishop)
The Quiet Earth (1985)
This ambiguous sci-fi film from New Zealand follows a researcher who wakes up one day to find that he is the only human being left on Earth. As he strives to understand the consequences of what he eventually dubs the Effect, he meets two other survivors and together they form an uneasy surrogate family. The Quiet Earth, like Contact, is about the frightening and wonderful possibilities of modern scientific discovery, but it is equally a depiction of existential crisis and the fundamental isolation of being human.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Geoff Murphy), Best Actor (Bruno Lawrence), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, and Sam Pillsbury), Best Sound Mixing (Mike Westgate), Best Visual Effects (Ken Durey)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Strangely enough, The Muppet Christmas Carol is the most faithful adaptation of the beloved Dickens novella and certainly the most fun. Michael Caine plays the miserly Scrooge, opposite Gonzo as Dickens (a brilliant casting decision if ever there was one), Kermit as Bob Cratchit, and Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit. The film captures Dickens's humor and crosses it with the manic pace of the muppets, while still proving effectively frightening when it needs to be and successfully breaking the fourth wall without breaking the narrative. The songs are, every one, wonderful.
Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Michael Caine), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jerry Juhl), Best Original Song ("Scrooge" - Paul Williams, "It Feels Like Christmas" - Paul Williams)
The Piano Teacher (2001)
Michael Hanneke has made a good bit of headway with the Academy - The White Ribbon was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Amour won the award and was also in the running for Best Picture. One of his earlier films, The Piano Teacher, is based on Elfriede Jelinek's deeply disturbing novel about a profoundly repressed piano teacher (Isabelle Huppert) drawn into a dangerous liaison with a student (Benoit Magimel). Few films are as effectively frank about the dark side of human sexuality.
Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Hanneke), Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert), Best Supporting Actress (Annie Girardot), Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Hanneke), Best Foreign Language Film
The Son's Room (2001)
Nanni Moretti's film is one of the finest cinematic explorations of grief of all time. Moretti and Laura Morante play happily married bourgeois parents, blindsided by the loss of their son (Giuseppe Sanfelice) in a freak scuba diving accident. Though the film could have so easily descended into melodrama, Moretti resists the sort of simple pandering one might expect. Instead, a relatively bare soundtrack, hyper-realistic and understated performances, and an unflinching approach make this one of the best films of the current century.
Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Nanni Moretti), Best Actor (Nanni Moretti), Best Original Screenplay (Nanni Moretti), Best Foreign Language Film
Russian Ark (2002)
The Academy is known for its conservative tastes and thus it is no wonder that it ignored this very avant-garde experimental film that has to be seen to be believed. Filmed in one continuous moving shot of 96 minutes, the camera, with an unnamed narrator and another man known simply as the "European," makes its way through more than 30 rooms of the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, exploring 300 years of Russian history, with a cast of thousands and three different orchestras. Both an extraordinary achievement and a fascinating experience, Russian Ark will definitely be remembered as one of the great cinematic achievements of its time.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Alexander Sukorov), Best Original Screenplay (Anatoli Nikiforov and Alexander Sukorov), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography (Tilman Buettner)
Good Morning, Night (2003)
A brilliant re-imagining of the shocking kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Brigate Rosse, Good Morning, Night is a gorgeous film that meditates on political agency, action, and apathy, as well as the complexity of a violent heritage, and the youthful idealism of the 1970s, which certainly had its darker side, particularly in Italy. Despite its subject, the film has a dream-like quality, one that teases the imagination with fantastic possibilities, even as one knows what history wrought.
Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Marco Bellocchio), Best Actor (Roberto Herlitzka), Best Actress (Maya Sansa), Best Adapted Screenplay (Marco Bellocchio and Paola Tevella), Best Foreign Language Film
Conversations with Other Women (2005)
This character piece explores the relationship between a man and a woman who meet at a wedding and slowly reveal, through their memories, their past relationship. Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart both give profound performances, but the film's special qualities are due to the controversial decision of making the film split-screen, with each character's perspective portrayed individually and simultaneously. Canosa's film is all the more impressive given that it was his directorial debut.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Hans Canosa), Best Actress (Helena Bonham Carter), Best Original Screenplay (Gabrielle Zevin), Best Film Editing (Hans Canosa)
The Fall (2006)
Tarsem Singh's wildly imaginative film is about a little girl (Catinca Untaru in an astonishing debut performance) in the hospital for a broken arm who meets a severely injured stuntman, who tells her an amazingly inventive fairy tale in exchange for stolen morphine. The film really soars in its fairy tale sequences, which are a colorful mishmash of Westerns, the 1001 Arabian Nights, and epic fantasy a la The Princess Bride or Willow. There's no other film quite like it.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Tarsem Singh), Best Actress (Catinca Untaru), Best Original Screenplay (Tarsem Singh, Dan Gilroy, and Nico Soultanakis), Best Art Direction (Ged Clarke), Best Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka)
Fish Tank (2009)
Andrea Arnold won the Oscar for her short film, Wasp, which inspired this feature length film, but she received no recognition for the feature. Katie Jarvis, a non-professional actress who gives a great performance, plays a troubled British teen, living with her still very young mother (Kierston Wareing) and a number of half-siblings. Her mother's boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) encourages her dancing and sparks her interest. An anti-romantic film that owes much to documentary filmmaking, Fish Tank is one of the best British dramas of the past decade.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Andrea Arnold), Best Actor (Micharl Fassbender), Best Actress (Katie Jarvis), Best Supporting Actress (Kierston Wareing), Best Original Screenplay (Andrea Arnold)
Four Lions (2010)
As black as a comedy could possibly be, Four Lions is about four British Muslims, radicalized and eager to engage in a jihad. Terrorism hardly seems like a topic for comedy, but Four Lions succeeds both in humanizing men who at first glance appear to be monsters (if absurd ones) and in accentuating the disturbing ludicrousness of modern terrorist objectives. It's also extremely funny. This is another fine debut film, this one from Chris Morris.
Should have been nominated for: Best Supporting Actor (Kayvan Novak), Best Writing - Original Screenplay (Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and Simon Blackwell)
Yet another fabulous debut film, Monsters is proof that one doesn't need a fortune to make a great action-packed sci-fi film. After a NASA probe crashes in Mexico, it proves to have been a carrier of an invasive form of alien life, resulting in the annexation of half of Mexico. A photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) and his boss's daughter (Whitney Able) decide to risk an illegal trip through the forbidden zone to get back to the US. The stunning visual effects were done by director Gareth Edwards with retail software on his laptop - an unbelievable achievement and one that was shamefully ignored.
Should have been nominated for: Best Writing - Original Screenplay (Gareth Edwards), Best Sound Editing (Gareth Edwards), Best Editing (Colin Goudie), Best Visual Effects (Gareth Edwards)
The Princess of Montpensier (2010)
This bitter romantic drama, one of my favorite films of the past decade, is about the beautiful Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry), infatuated with the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), but engaged to the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), and enchanting powerful men left and right from the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) to the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz). Gorgeously photographed, brilliantly written, and beautifully acted, this is a decidedly adult period piece about love, lust, and what they mean to both men and women.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Bertrand Tavernier), Best Supporting Actor (Gaspard Ulliel), Best Writing - Adapted Screenplay (Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rousseau, and Bertrand Tavernier), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Score (Philippe Sarde), Best Art Direction (Guy-Claude Francois), Best Cinematography (Bruno de Keyzer), Best Costume Design (Caroline de Vivaise)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who is stunned to discover that he has a malignant tumor. Will Reiser's autobiographical screenplay is absolutely great, zeroing in on the blackly humorous aspects of living with a possibly terminal disease without ever minimizing the seriousness of the diagnosis, treatment, or possible outcome. Seth Rogen proves that he has genuine acting chops as Adam's best friend, and Anjelica Huston is stellar as Adam's smothering mother.
Should have been nominated for: Best Supporting Actor (Seth Rogen), Best Original Screenplay (Will Reiser)