Every award season has its underdogs, this year more than usual given that every other nominated film is quaking behind La La Land. Unrewarded does not mean unrecognised, but there are always nominees that remain unappreciated; despite their nominations (and occasionally their wins) they have failed to reach a wide audience.
A limited release can mean that even when a nomination generates interest, actually watching the film can be difficult. This has been the fate of a number of this year’s Oscar nominees, particularly 20th Century Women and Loving, which were screened across the country but sporadically and often without the benefit of prime time viewings.
20th Century Women is a nostalgic but authentic glimpse into 1970s Southern California, and a boarding house that holds an odd assortment of women, amongst them Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbey (Greta Gerwig) who become the particular favourites of the woman of the house Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her son. The film and the 70s culture which imbues it with its own unique charm are stunning without ever distracting from the irresistible performances of the film’s leading ladies. Bening, in particular, is dazzlingly witty and dryly humorous and grounds the film which might otherwise get lost without a conventional plot. Her Golden Globe nomination was disappointingly unfulfilled and the film’s Oscar nomination (for Original Screenplay) was surprising only because the film was recognised in no other categories. Its lack of recognition in no way translates to the quality of the film, though, and it is one of the rare films that is able to feel uniquely uplifting without losing touch of reality or its rambling passivity.
Loving, on the other hand, is much more obviously a story of hope, although that in no way means that it has a straightforward arc or narrative. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) play a couple who are forced to fight against the laws criminalising interracial marriage in 1967 Virginia. Their case is taken to the Supreme Court at the height of the Civil Rights movement, with the film stressing the tension and anxieties of everyday life as a family whose very existence is forbidden. The subtlety of Negga’s performance is what gives it its weight and depth and poignancy, and she sets the tone for a film which garners its power from the individuals amidst the history and the intimacy of the portrait of the family. Her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations are unanimously applauded and Edgerton’s Golden Globe nomination equally celebrated.
Perhaps the most bizarre Oscar nominee, The Lobster, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well as being recognised in a number of categories by Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Globe awards, and the BAFTAs. The film is set in a dystopian world where relationships are mandatory and newly single people are turned into the animal of their choice if they fail to find a similar partner within 45 days. An obvious satire on social norms and constructs, The Lobster is strange enough to pique interest and certainly won’t bore you even if it is a little violent and intense to comfortably entertain you. The film gets even weirder as it progresses but eventually concludes with a happy, if incredibly disturbing, ending which elevates the ambition of the entire film.
Not quite so bizarre but similarly unsettling is Captain Fantastic. The story follows a family’s return to society after the death of their mother brings an end to their extended period of isolation in the wilderness. For his role as the family patriarch, Viggo Mortensen received nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards and the equivalent at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and the SAG awards, which also nominated the film for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. The film has received mixed reviews, with particular criticisms for feeling slightly contrived at times, but the film’s unexpected twists and turns and its ability to juggle a range of social issues is one of its strengths. Held together by Mortensen’s multi-faceted and sensitive performance, the film might not appeal to everyone but Mortensen will certainly draw you in.
I, Daniel Blake has won some of the most prestigious awards the season has to offer including the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the Prix du public at the 2016 Locarno International Film Festival, and the 2017 BAFTA for Best British Film. But how many of us have actually seen the film? It focuses on the failings of the welfare state and the dehumanisation of the claimants who rely upon it. The film is provocative and has received mixed responses regarding the portrayal of welfare administrators, but the human struggle at the centre of it is an undeniably and unfortunately realistic representation.
My Life as A Zucchini was nominated for Best Animation at the Oscars, but remains relatively unknown, particularly in comparison with Disney’s nominees Moana and Zootropolis. Zucchini is the story of a young boy who is accidentally responsible for the death of his mother and is taken to an orphanage where he meets an assortment of other children who all come from equally unsettling and disturbing backgrounds. He falls in love with fellow orphan Camille, and together with their friend Simon they are able to find a happy ending in spite of their very unhappy beginnings. The film has been nominated in a variety of categories at lesser known awards shows, including nominations for its script and soundtrack which work together to create a vibrant and sensitive presentation of the innate strength and ingenuity of children.
It is not only individual nominees that go underappreciated, but whole categories which are often overlooked and fail to reach wide audiences for a variety of reasons. Oscar nominees for Best Documentary (both Feature and Short film) frequently only reach audiences who already have a particular interest in the documentary’s subject or stance.
This need not be the case for Life, Animated, the story of a young autistic boy who learns to understand and communicate with the world around him through his love of Disney films. Rather than being self-consciously about film, the documentary is rather an insight into the role art plays in bringing people together and creating shared experiences which illuminate our own.
Similarly, nominees for Short Film (Animated and Live Action) and remain difficult for a mainstream audience to access despite the ease of their consumption. But if you can watch Pearl you should. The soundtrack driven story of a father and daughter on a cross country trip is the first virtual reality film to be nominated for an Oscar, but the novelty of the filming in no way overwhelms the hope and warmth of the story.
The difficulty in finding a screening of the nominees for Foreign Language Film is in part a response to audience laziness and the undesirability of reading subtitles. Tanna, however, is more than worth the required effort if the numerous film festivals (including Venice, BFI London, and Adelaide) which have recognised it are to be believed. The Romeo-and-Juliet-esque love story set in the South Pacific Tanna island is true to the story shared and created by the tribe members it films, delivering a beautiful blend of fairy tale and realism.
At times unaware of them, or restricted by the difficulty of finding screenings of them, the underdogs of awards season more than deserve the effort it requires to seek them out and their audiences are well rewarded. You might have to wait until the post-awards season to watch the films after they have been made available to stream or buy, but they are more than worth the wait.
They offer unique and unexpected experiences and tell stories which are able to resonate more profoundly with individuals as opposed to being made for mass appeal. And they have the added benefit of not being spoiled by over-eager marketing campaigns and over-played trailers which influence the audience’s expectations and attention before the opening credits have even begun. Their lack of visibility is in no way a reflection of their quality, and they might be a little kooky, but that is half their charm and only adds to their intrigue.