Oscar Watch: Geeky Nominations & Movies That Should Have Been Nominated

By Emma Louise Backe

2016 Oscars season is rife with controversy. While the Oscars, like the SAT’s, are known to be somewhat of a rigged system–one that depends on knowing not necessarily the right answer, but rather the one that the Academy or the graders are looking for–Hollywood’s diversity problem and myopia around inclusion, representation and intersectionality has finally fomented into a challenge surrounding the entire night, which is considered by some to be the apogee of their careers. #OscarsSoWhite has been a call to arms for many in entertainment to address the Ivory Tower mentality of the industry. The Oscars this year, however, also include a host of nominated speculative and science fiction movies. Below is a guide to geeky nominated movies you should know about, and the ones that also got snubbed by the Academy.

Mad Max: Fury Road, Best Picture, Directing

Opening Scene, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/halfmind/19031352322

My world is fire and blood, Flickr, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/halfmind/19031352322

If you didn’t see this movie in theaters, I don’t know where your priorities were this summer but I would recommend seriously reconsidering them. If you can, find a friend with a really great in-home theatre or access to an IMAX screen when this movie comes out on DVD and BluRay, because otherwise you are depriving yourself of one of the most incredible visual spectacles ever to engulf the silver screen. Apart from the incredible cinematography, choreography and sheer graphic dazzle of Mad Max, the movie is, quite simply, incredible. Spare on dialogue, the story moves at a break-neck pace, wholly overwhelming the viewer in an intricately designed, post-apocalyptic world where a human’s dependence on water is interpreted as a sign of weakness, turf wars over gas and driving territory have given rise to the almost divine dictatorship of Immortan Joe, and humanity is literally festering with the ills of environmental degradation. Once you have time to take a breath in between shots (good luck with that), you might be able to notice the minute details that demonstrate the level of detail and precision with which George Miller, the original director of the Mad Max franchise, approached these highways of hell. The movie sparked an uproar amongst the “menist” community for its “feminist propaganda,” and whether or not you believe that the film is feminist, it did give us the transcendent Imperator Furiosa, a female, differently-abled heroine who is ultimately searching for redemption in an otherwise cruel world parched of hope. An homage to the tropes of so many great action movies, Mad Max is political, an incredible feat of direction and editing, and proves that you can have an incredibly entertaining blockbuster hit with a poignant message about social justice and responsibility. We should be honored to witness it. (Mad Mad is now available on DVD)

The Martian, Best Picture

 

The story of Andy Weir and his novel’s rise to fame could be a movie in and of itself. Weir initially published a serialized version of The Martian on his blog, before self-publishing on Amazon. The fan response to the book was so immediate and overwhelming that Weir finally managed to sell the print rights to the book to Crown. The novel went on to debut on the New York Best Sellers List for 2014. The book itself has been praised for its scientific precision and accuracy, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted his endorsement of the movie’s treatment of the science underpinning most of the narrative thrust of the story. I personally preferred the movie to the book simply because Scott streamlines most of the chapters devoted to the mathematical algorithms Mark Watney calculates to assess his chances of survival. While the book reads like a triumph of technological innovation and mathematical ingenuity, the movie succeeds in recentering Mark Watney and the lengths to which his shipmates and NASA will go to rescue him. It’s no Alien, but The Martian is undeniably an enjoyable film to watch with some incredible imagery and Matt Damon doing what he does best–sarcastically muddling his way through a vast journey gone horribly wrong.

Ex Machina,Writing (Original Screenplay)

The best way that I can describe Ex Machina is elegant. The story telling is so tight, and although the movie revolves around Ava—a potentially conscious, self-aware robot—the character development and escalation of the plot feels completely organic. Even though I’ve always loved movies, over the past couple of years I’ve become increasingly jaded by the same kinds of stale, unconvincing characters I see over and over again. Instead, I was startled and delighted by how complex and dynamic Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and Ava (Alicia Vikander) were—each gave impressive, subtle performances that demanded the complete attention of the audience. There are shots that hover for minutes in silence, unafraid to escalate the tension between Caleb and Nathan, their unsettled energy left to linger without any background music or technological flair. The verisimilitude of the characters is just as vital to the success of the story as the ambiguity and gracefulness of Ava’s performance, because she is indeed performing—for Caleb, for the audience, and for herself. For any geeks interested in AI, singularity, cognitive science or philosophy, the movie is similarly rewarding, with expositional scenes on the problem of qualia and the fraught definition, or rather the conception, of consciousness. Ex Machina is also a movie about gender and race, as much as it is about technology and the human ego. Just as Ava slowly, delicately unfurls layers of new skin over her cybernetic architecture, the movie unfolds intentionally and unhurriedly, leaving the audience with a vague sense of chill and foreboding.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Film Editing, Visual Effects

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Despite the initial excitement that J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Wars franchise didn’t suck (almost helping us to forget how horrible the prequels were), the critical aftershock was quickly followed by a number of reviews blaming The Force Awakens’ success on the cultural cache of nostalgia. The reviews characterized The Force Awakens as derivative, simply recapitulating many of the same narrative conventions as A New Hope. I agree with Alastair over at StoryWonk that the parallels and synergies between The Force Awakens and A New Hope were intentional not due to creative negligence or lethargy, but rather because they are built around the structure of myths, a genre with clearly established narrative arcs for the protagonists and antagonists of the story and discursive patterns that can be systematically mapped out across cultures from around the world. The intentional world-building that occurs within an established mythic structure, one that makes reference to itself in a much more macrocosmic conversation about the stories we wed ourselves to as humans, elevates the artistry of The Force Awakens, so much so that some have argued that it deserves to have been nominated for Best Picture of the Year. Whether or not The Force Awakens is a good Star Wars, nay, science fiction movie, and its place in a stand alone category like Best Picture is up for debate. But The Force Awakens has done a lot for diversity and representation, particularly in a genre that has traditionally been marked by whitewashing.

Geeky Movies That Should Have Been Nominated

Advantageous

The concerns of Gwen Koh, an employee at the Center for Advanced Health and Living, are the same many contemporary mothers share—how to provide for her daughter as a single mother in an increasingly competitive job market and demanding educational system that expects excellence, professional development and drive even before secondary school. Gwen’s nuclear family has disintegrated to simply herself and her daughter, who is already chafing under the unrealistic expectations she must fulfill to join the educated elite that promises to launch her into a prestigious university and gainful employment. Gwen is faced with unemployment, outmoded not by her expertise or skill set, but rather by her physical appearance and the fundamentally human problem of aging. She is forced to decide which elements of her self and her livelihood she is willing to sacrifice to even give her daughter, Jules, a chance at a better life. Not a guarantee—just a better ticket in a lottery system that seems disproportionately stacked against women and girls. Mid-way through the movie, Jules asks her mother, “Are women really going backwards going forwards?” giving voice to a concern that has been growing inside me as well. Beyond the gender politics of Advantageous, the movie also speaks to the capitalism that drives technological innovation and the subterfuge in marketing that occurs to push a product, often to the detriment of its consumers. The Center for Advanced Health and Living invites customers to “Be the you you were meant to be,” yet throughout the movie you can witness the multifarious ways in which the society conspires against classes and identities that don’t have the advantage of remaking themselves. (Advantageous can be viewed on Netflix.)

The Witch

the-witch-image-6

When Robert Eggers’ film was released at the Sundance Film Festival, the critical applause was immediate. The sub-title of the film, “A New England Folktale” indicates the pastiche of historical accounts, folklore, fairy tales, legends and ephemera which inform the supremely eerie story. Like many European horror movies such as Let the Right One In (2008) and Borgman (2013), The Witch matches the asceticism of the New England landscape, utilizing the natural setting of the isolated farmstead as a visual rhetoric for the tension that builds around the Puritan family, banished from their community over a vague religious dispute. As their hunger and desperation grows, the family’s devout religiosity and fervor for God begins to turn inward. The dialogue is sparse but poetically superb and the entire cast is utterly captivating. It’s an artistic tour-de-force yet does not shy away from the supernatural elements that inform the fear of witchery that pervades the family’s suspicion. While some traditional horror fans lamented that the film wasn’t “scary” enough, I left the theatre energized by the incredible mastery of the film and the ambiguity of the ending. The Witch, like The Babadook, achieves what so many horror films fail to do–it transcends genre and reminds us why we watch movies.

Beasts of No Nation

Ok so bear with me. I know that Beasts of No Nation doesn’t fall under the stereotypical category of a “geeky” movie. But the director is none other than Cary Joji Fukunaga of True Detective (Carcosa, ya dig?) and features Idris Elba, a true veteran of science fiction (Thor, Prometheus, Pacific Rim). From an anthropological perspective, this movie has everything. A film about conflict in West Africa, child soldiers, psychological warfare and manipulation, radicalized ideologies and trauma, Beasts of No Nation is impeccably shot and so palpably realistic it’s hard to look away. The movie features a number of first time actors from different parts of Africa and doesn’t verge toward exotification or otherization, as so often happens in films about war torn regions of the continent. While the story is set in a fictional country, it reminds us of the psychological toll continuous conflict and political instability can cause, as well as the indomitable will to survive.

Are there any movies that we missed that you think should be included in this list? Feel free to let us know!

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About Emma Louise Backe

MA in Medical Anthropology and Global Gender Policy from George Washington University, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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