The problem with the Oscars is “Oscar season.” The awards industry is so big that it’s created an echo chamber where just a few movies survive, are anointed, then exhaust themselves by the end. We always play the same game of pretending one movie is the frontrunner only then to pretend to be surprised when it is upended. It’s only interesting to Film Twitter or people who are closely watching the Oscars — which has become, sad to say, a dwindling group.
As usual, our Oscar race started in Sundance, then stopped off in Cannes, then hit Venice and Telluride, then Toronto, rounded the bases in New York, and finished up at the AFI Fest. The same movies, more or less, landed. Steven Spielberg tried his hand at the festival circuit for the first time after the box office wipeout of West Side Story. The Fabelmans wowed the audiences there, where it won the People’s Choice award at Toronto. Just that win alone means The Fabelmans has a good shot to win something. Belfast won Screenplay last year after winning in Toronto. It still might win Best Picture. Though at the moment it’s being setup as the “mean old frontrunner” to be overtaken by the “scrappy underdog.”
The race has never been more micromanaged as it is right now. Two decades ago we only really had a few major voices of dissent who wrote for the mainstream news outlets, like David Carr at the New York Times and Mark Harris, for the brief time he wrote for the Oscars. He doesn’t now because his husband, Tony Kushner, is often in the race and he finds it to be a conflict of interest. Harris does still, I believe, participate in the AFI Awards and perhaps some other awards here or there.
But Harris was the only prominent person to criticize Oscar season for so greatly limiting the choices on offer, and setting up the “mean old frontrunner” vs. the “scrappy underdog.”
All of this to say that it’s always worth taking a macro (not a micro) view and looking at the films that aren’t being buzzed or herded into the tiny pen that the Oscar voters them choose from. So here is a list of ten movies I think aren’t getting enough attention, or were killed early on by some high status critics.
- Empire of Light — Sam Mendes’ deeply moving, personal story of his youth, but with a twist. He injected a element of racism in the UK at the hands of skinheads (which was a thing back then) to build a May/December interracial romance at the film’s center. The criticism by the “cabal” was that he was trying to do too much, and I suppose that’s fair if you are looking for one kind of story. But to my mind, as long as the movie works it doesn’t matter how unconventional it is or how many threads run through it. It might not be a movie for Film Twitter but it’s still one of the best films of the year with maybe the best female performance of the year by Olivia Colman. In a season of films that are either repulsive or opaque, it stands out all of these months later. Just because a tiny handful of critics dumped on it should not disqualify it from the screener pile. Here’s hoping Oscar voters actually watch it and see for themselves.
- Elvis — While pundits are just now starting to come around to Elvis as a major player, some of us have been on the Elvis train for months. But it’s more than just Austin Butler’s performance, which remains the best male performance of the year. It’s the film overall, especially Baz Lurhmann’s direction, but maybe the writing too. In short, it could be a strong Best Picture contender heading in, especially since it made $150 million.
- Vengeance — BJ Novak’s black comedy where an NPR-like podcaster tries to investigate a true crime story in Texas and learns that his preconceptions have been wrong. He also learns about himself, his casual cruelty, and his willingness to exploit vulnerable people to deliver a juicy podcast. Brilliantly written, directed, and acted, with a supporting turn by Ashton Kutcher that deserves recognition, Vengeance has been mostly ignored by the Oscarati, which is a shame. History will remember this movie well.
- All Quiet on the Western Front and Argentina 1985 — Both of these films will be relegated to the International Feature category by default, but both are worthy of Best Picture of the Year because they tell stories like Hollywood used to tell. They’re just well-written, historical and traditional dramas that are beautifully shot, directed, and acted. If Hollywood isn’t stepping up to the plate then the Oscars will definitely have to keep expanding outward to international filmmakers to find the best movies the year produced, and these two absolutely hit that marker.
- The Woman King — It’s too early to say whether Oscar season has forgotten Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic film. While it’s true that it takes liberties with history in a way that bothers some people, the film overall is much more about the relationship between a mother and daughter as women warriors than it is about the history of slavery. That’s the background, for sure, but the film is more concerned with their story, the story of women. With two strong performances at the center of the film, Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King feels like the kind of big canvas movie we often crave by year’s end. And yes, for that it will be running up against Black Panther: Wakanda Forever head-to-head in many categories. The Woman King feels more fantasy to me than historical reality. But both films are strong on crafts and are anchored by a primarily black female cast.
- Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery — It’s too soon to say whether this movie will land in the Oscar race, but that it was Netflix’s first theatrical release and has demonstrated such a strong performance at the box office is proof enough that this should be considered among the top contenders by year’s end. It fits as a hybrid model to have one foot in the theatrical world and one foot in the streaming world. That is the future. It has a big cast and is popular enough for people to have some interest in the Oscars.
- Nope — Jordan Peele’s film definitely doesn’t seem to be in the conversation, probably because it was an abstract film that had many different storylines throughout. But there is so much there worth noticing, especially with the cinematography, the visual effects, the costumes. It’s a big budget art movie that made $123 million. That’s a pretty big deal in a year like this.
- Inventive horror movies like Watcher, Barbarian, and Fall — all three of these movies featured a central female heroine who must survive danger of one kind of another. All three are directed by new stars who are really good behind the camera and all three have bright futures. Remember their names: Zach Cregger for Barbarian, Chloe Okuno for Watcher, and Scott Mann for Fall. These films, like Vengeance, aren’t “traditional Oscar movies,” but all that means is that what defines “traditional” needs to change.
- White Noise — Much has been made of the ancillary notions about Noah Baumbach’s White Noise. That Don DeLillo’s novel is “unfilmable.” That Baumbach has never worked with a budget this big. That audiences won’t understand the off-beat, deeply satirical humor. Put all that aside. Instead, what Baumbach gave us in the film White Noise is a deeply entertaining, thoughtful, and surprisingly faithful adaptation of DeLillo’s great novel. As his first adapted screenplay, White Noise exhibits a raucous freedom that Baumbach’s films have rarely captured. He’s never been this unhinged, or this fun, in my opinion. White Noise is a unique marriage of DeLillo’s vision and Baumbach’s deep sense of character set in a gorgeously designed 1980s day-glo world. Of everything 2022 had to offer, White Noise emerged as a pleasant surprise that hopefully rises above its initial reaction to find an audience on Netflix.
- 13 Lives — So many of us in the Oscar world watched and admired The Rescue so it was harder to get excited about Ron Howard’s live-action version. But most of those who never saw the documentary have been captivated by this story. Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, and Joel Edgerton play the divers who spent hours rescuing young Thai boys stuck in an underwater cave. The audience loves the movie though the critics and bloggers have blanked it almost completely for Oscar season.
The best way to save the Oscars is to get rid of “Oscar season.” That’s never going to happen, since many of us make our living on Oscar season. But we can still pretend it could and that it’s all still very wide open.