I’ve learned over the years not to bother getting overly heated about Academy Award nominations or victories. I like what I like, and the Academy voters like what they like. And while it’s disappointing when they miss an opportunity to bolster a career of someone promising, it’s actually a good thing that a single awards ceremony isn’t the be-all and end-all of success or failure in the movie industry. But the so-called list of “snubs” in the nominations process this year is a good reminder that, as you’re scheduling your awards-season watching, the movies that people are surprised didn’t make the cut are just as good, and often even more interesting, than the ones that earn nominations. So if the announcement of Oscar nominations this morning has you considering your weekend plans, here are five movies you should add to your queue:
1. Short Term 12: One of the funniest movies of 2013 was a story about an incredibly traumatized employee of a short-term housing facility for troubled teenagers. That makes it sound like Short Term 12 trivializes its subject matter, but it’s exactly the first. Destin Cretton’s movie hurts more because it’s often so hilarious, and because it’s about the ways that both the employees and the residents use comedy, hip-hop, short-story-writing and illustration to manage emotions that are constantly threatening to overwhelm them. Brie Larson stars in the movie, and when she’s the next Amy Adams — who is presently in the process of becoming the next Meryl Streep — this will be the moment when everyone should have realized how terrific she was. John Gallagher, Jr., who plays her long-term boyfriend and co-worker, has never been more likable, and the dynamic between them is fantastic and specific.
2. Stories We Tell: I’m all for political movies walking off with lots of shiny hardware. But Sarah Polley’s documentary about her mother’s acting aspirations, her parents’ marriage, and ultimately, the question of her parentage, is a reminder that documentaries don’t have to be about political movements or political history to make powerful points about the way that we live and the assumptions that guide our lives. Stories We Tell, bolstered by a huge amount of home movie footage, starts off as an affectionate portrait of Polley’s mother, who kept up her work in regional theater as an adult, even after it was clear she was never going to break out and become a major star. But it gets more difficult, though no less fair, as Polley starts to explore the persistent family jokes that suggested she didn’t share a father with her siblings, and begins to uncover her mother’s affairs. Ultimately, the movie is deeply sympathetic to Polley’s mother, and ends in a place of enormous emotional generosity.
3. Wadjda: I love Haifa al-Mansour’s debut feature, the first shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. The story of a little girl who enters a Koran-recitation competition to win the money to buy a shiny, green bicycle she covets in part because it will let her race a neighbor boy, Wadjda works equally well as a small, personal story, and as social commentary. The former is boosted by terrific performances by everyone involved. And the latter works because al-Mansour digs into the details behind issues that have become buzzy outside the borders of the kingdom. The titles character’s mother’s relationship with the immigrant man who drives her to work is drawn from al-Mansour’s own experiences. And al-Mansour’s portrait of Wadjda’s experiences in school captures all the ways in which policing young girls’ sexuality actually makes sexuality significant in their lives from a far younger age than might have been the case otherwise.
4. Fruitvale Station: I’m not actually outraged that Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was shot to death on a BART platform on New Year’s Day in 2009, wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, or that Coogler and his star Michael B. Jordan didn’t get nods for directing and acting. As soon as the Weinstein Company scheduled the movie for a summer release, I figured that they weren’t going to put a major push behind it. And that seemed doubly true after the emergence of 12 Years A Slave, because Fruitvale Station, as Anna Holmes put it, has an “indictment of state-sponsored violence [that is] not so comfortably situated in the past.” That impression seems to be confirmed by a screw-up with the screeners for the movie, which went out to Academy voters with a note asking them to consider its actresses in the wrong category. Maybe I should be irritated that the Academy, which could have nominated up to ten candidates for Best Picture, only picked nine, which seemed to be making a point that the contenders who didn’t make the cut were decidedly second-tier. But this seemed like a lost cause as far as awards were concerned.
That said, the heck with the Oscars! Fruitvale Station is a terrific movie and you should go see it immediately. I wrote a piece about both it and Wadjda earlier in the year in which I argued that one of the huge strengths of those movies is that they understood how to deploy humor to build their main characters’ humanity, and thus to make audiences much more deeply attached to those characters. Political movies so often rely on the sort of grave dignity that characterizes 12 Years A Slave that they forget that just plain making us like someone can radically shift our perspective. When we look back on this cultural moment, the fact that Coogler and Jordan made this movie and then moved on to a weirdo entry in the Rocky canon and a sex comedy, respectively, we’ll think it’s an awesome display of their virtuosities.
5. After Tiller: I can only imagine the cataclysm in commentary that would result if the Academy gave the Best Documentary Feature honor to a movie that honors the compassion, wisdom, and struggles of late-term abortion providers, and the terrible pain of the families who come to them for help. That’s exactly what After Tiller does. It’s a plain-spoken, plainly-shot movie, and its simplicity cuts through many of the canards about abortion, revealing the doctor’s reservations, the family’s regrets, the clients they turn down, and the funerals they help arrange for children who were badly wanted but could not survive. And After Tiller gets at an important and terrifying part of the future of reproductive health: these doctors are all in the latter halves of their careers, and it’s not remotely clear that when they retire, anyone will keep their practices alive.