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The 95th Oscars: The most interesting films up for awards this year

Awards season can be a contentious time for cinephiles, movie buffs, and casuals alike. For every Forrest Gump that wins Best Picture, there’s a Shawshank Redemption that doesn’t, and for every Driving Miss Daisy that takes a big win just to be forgotten about expediently, there’s a Do The Right Thing that we’re still talking about over thirty years later. Similarly, for every person courting a debate about such things, there’s another, sometimes frothing at the mouth, telling you that these things just don’t matter. The idea that any art can be awarded as the best in its medium during a particular period of time is, fair enough, a bit silly. In sports, we have rules, scores, and a referee to objectively determine who has won what and by what distance, but film is one of the most subjective arts we have. The Academy’s voters may claim to be judging the craft and importance of a film in order to determine what the best is, but the criteria with which they do that will change from judge to judge, as will the art itself. With all that considered, does it even matter who wins and who loses? In a way, it does.

When Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2020, he made an acceptance speech that included something of an insight into the frustrations of a foreign language filmmaker trying to access western audiences. “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” is perhaps one of the most poignant lines ever to be delivered from behind the Academy’s podium. This year, with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinnochio picking up its fair share of awards on the way to the big one, he seems to be on a similar campaign trail, but for the medium of animation instead. In his BAFTA acceptance speech for Best Animation, he said “Animation is not a genre for kids. It’s a medium for art, it’s a medium for film, and I think animation should stay in the conversation.” Put simply, awards season means, for these films, recognition for something which perhaps isn’t recognized as much as it should be.

If the Oscars exist for any good reason, then it should be to spotlight films that would otherwise be unable to reach wider audiences. These are two categories that typically champion something a bit more diverse, independent, and innovative than the typically more safe choices that are up for the other awards. So let’s take a look at some of the most interesting choices in the two categories this year.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a fantastic example of the freedom that Netflix allow the filmmakers they work with. The director describes it as “a musical of Pinocchio, about life and death, where everybody dies at the end, during the rise of Mussolini,” and it only becomes an even more difficult sell when you factor in that it’s stop motion too.

As one of three Pinocchio films that came out in 2022, del Toro’s is easily the strongest. The puppetry on show just feels like it’s an inherent part of the story of Pinocchio, despite it coming along nearly 140 years after the original source material. It’s incredible to think that this could be released in the same year as Disney push out a live-action remake of the Pinocchio that we’re all so familiar with, directed by none other than Robert Zemeckis, yet this is the one that feels like the definitive film adaptation.

As a favourite of the Academy with several wins under his belt already, del Toro is no stranger to delivering an impassioned speech about his work. There is something about this, however, that does truly feel like an underdog story despite its widespread praise and acclaim. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a traditional kid’s story, presented in what is traditionally considered a kid’s medium, but it’s making a case for animation as an adult art.

All Quiet on the Western Front also has a Best Picture nomination going for it, amazingly only the fourteenth non-English film in the history of the Oscars to hold such a title. Having won the BAFTA for Best Picture last month, it even stands a chance of becoming only the second non-English film in history to win it, after Parasite in 2020.

The First and Second World Wars are arguably overdone when it comes to fictional stories set during them, but much like Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, All Quiet on the Western Front has been able to rise from a crowded field to capture the imagination of modern audiences. Although this is a film based on a book released in 1928 about a war that was fought over a hundred years ago, its story remains painfully relevant today.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of this one is how beautiful it is. It never glorifies war, nor does it pretend that it’s anything other than a brutally discomforting experience to be a part of, but it does go some way to show how ordinary people were able to survive it mentally. Interspersed with moments of pain and sorrow, there is genuine nuance accentuating how low the lows are.

Close forces us to confront some of the universal regrets of the human race — those that come from a time when we acted on an instinct that we didn’t know any better than. The narrative centers around two best friends in their early teens. Heartbreakingly, once the nature of their relationship starts being questioned by their peers and the people around them, they consciously drift apart in order to quash any speculation about their sexualities. When the worst happens, one is forced to confront why he deliberately distanced himself from his closest friend.

In a world where we seem to be regressing in our attitudes towards marginalized groups, where clickbait journalism is deemed more important than simple human rights, this film couldn’t have come at a better time. Close presents an uncomfortable truth about the heartbreaking effects that internalized prejudices can have on the vulnerable. This is exactly the kind of film that the awards season should be introducing mainstream audiences to. Not only because it’s fantastic, but because it’s important too.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On brings a philosophical question with it, one that’s very relevant to the modern age of filmmaking. How much animation does a film need to be considered an animated film? After all, this is a mostly live-action mockumentary that features a cast of very simple yet charming stop-motion characters amongst a host of real-life human actors. If this qualifies for a nomination for Best Animated Feature Film, then what’s stopping us from calling most modern blockbusters animated feature films too There’s surely more animation in the CGI of any random MCU movie than there is in this.

That said, the real beauty of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is that it’s a mockumentary that respects its central character. Most standards of the genre are films that draw fun from their subject. In Spinal Tap the joke is the band, in What We Do in the Shadows, we’re laughing at the vampires. What Marcel the Shell with Shoes On does which is so refreshing is that it uses the format of the mockumentary to draw empathy from us, and with that comes the ability to see the world on a completely different scale from our own, from the perspective of a modestly sized shell. Surely that’s exactly the kind of thing that the medium of animation was made to do for us.

Of course, there are other worthy contenders in each category. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has taken everyone by surprise, reviving the Shrek franchise with one of its fondest instalments despite only existing for a few months. EO has had extensive backing from the likes of the BFI for its artistry in showing the world through an animal’s eyes. Argentina, 1985 seems to have gained a whole country’s support through national pride in the rarity that an Argentinian film would garner so much praise.

What’s true of all of the nominations for both categories though, which isn’t so true for the traditionally more popular categories that are the usual talking points, is that whatever wins it will be celebrating something interesting. Whether that’s a stop-motion auteur musical, an innovative recontextualization of the mockumentary genre, an unfortunately timely story of childhood regret and sexuality, or otherwise. These are the films that depend on most on institutions like the Oscars and are all worthy of their day in the sun when the ceremony comes.

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