The Academy Awards were held last Sunday, and the focus was naturally on the winners. Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun were jubilantly celebrated outside of the Hollywood landscape for being the first Asian and Muslim men to be nominated for lead roles. Trial of the Chicago Seven demonstrated that we hadn’t learned much from the past, while Promising Young Woman brought the discussion of #MeToo front and center. Other impressive works of art were buried among those names. Below, we list some pieces worth watching in lesser-known categories such as short film features, documentaries as well as the coveted Best Picture category.
For starters, one of the most undervalued but innovative categories is short film live-action (aka 40-minute films). There are plenty of other rules, too, and one might think that they limit the creative process, but that’s inaccurate. These pieces of art have often been the springboard for notable directors to make feature films, and requires the director to be more disciplined and focused with its narrative due to the time constraint; however, it doesn’t hinder the director from demonstrating skill. These films tend to be more specific with their subject, incorporate fewer locations and a smaller cast. A few projects that come to mind are Taika Waititi’s “Two Cars, One Night,” Christopher Nolan’s “Doodlebug” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Big Shave,” which he made while in film school at New York University (NYU). This year, the big prize went to Two Distant Strangers; however, other titles that deserve your attention include The Letter Room and The Present.
Next, if feature films are the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, documentaries are its soul. Longform documentaries are where risks are taken. The category was first introduced in 1941 and has since gone to the likes of Jacques-Yves Costeau, a marine conservationist who won the award twice, and pioneer Walt Disney who won for the films The Living Desert and the Alaskan Eskimo. Documentarians also tend to tackle heavier subjects such as war, pandemics, and the press’s freedom. One doesn’t become a documentarian for the money—it’s more of a calling. We have seen filmmakers place themselves at risks, such as in the moving Restrepo by the late Tim Hetherington and Raul Peck’s revolutionary I Am Not Your Negro. These films made many of you think and, at times, uncomfortable—a required discomfort to help
You take an honest look at the world we reside in. After having taken the time to craft these thoughtful films, filmmakers must submit their films to an approved film festival. This step is necessary if one is to compete for an Oscar. The list includes Sundance, Berlin, True/False, SXSW, Tribeca and more. This year’s winner was My Octopus Teacher, the first nature documentary to win since 2005 began its journey to Oscar with the Jackson Hole film festival.
Documentaries make us think, and feature films help us dream. They take us back in time or transport us to a world greater than our imagination. Those are the films that have been honored by the Academy with nominations in the Best Picture category since 1929.Wings—a silent film—was the winner of the inaugural awards. The category has grown tremendously since, as can be seen in notable winners like An American in Paris, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. But, as we saw this year, the winner doesn’t necessarily mean that the other nominees aren’t noteworthy films—such was the case with two films that made the top eight but lost to Nomandland.
All in all, here is a short list of films worth watching:
The Letter Room (Amazon)
The Letter Room centers around a correctional officer whose job it is to scan and read all of the prison’s incoming mail. Through this process, he becomes more involved in the prisoners’ personal lives. Reading the correspondence allows him to have more empathy for the imprisoned. Directed by Elvira Lind and starring her husband, Oscar Isaac, this is one of Isaac’s more vulnerable performances of his career.
This story centers a father and daughter residing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They plan to purchase an anniversary present for Yusef, the main character’s wife. This film displays some unique features that add to the film’s authenticity and gives the viewer some insight into the maze Palestinians must navigate to accomplish mundane tasks like shopping. Director Farah Nahbulsi was willing to take a risk to help the public understand the complexities involved in living in the occupied West Bank, and it paid off.
Crip Camp (Netflix)
Crip Camp begins its journey in an upstate New York camp for disabled youth in which they get to be themselves, date, and just be teenagers without judgment or limitations. The film shows the courage of many of the characters, such as activist Judith Heuman who helped bring forth the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act of 1990. This film was thoughtfully directed by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht (a disabled man/activist), which allowed the film to be genuine.
This film was initially meant to be a short. Fox Richardson provided director Garrett Bradley with a bag of mini-DV tapes containing 100 hours of home videos. Bradley knew that this needed to become a feature film. At the heart of this story was Fox Richardson’s fight for the release of her husband, who had been sentenced to an over 60 year sentence for armed robbery. The film tackles unfair sentencing, a theme that is front and center in today’s political climate, and family. Richardson wants the public to understand that she wasn’t just fighting for her husband but her family.
The Mole Agent (Hulu)
A Chilean man answers an ad from a private investigator to see if abuse occurs at a nursing home. The man for the job is Sergio Chamy, aka the mole, after having passed a rigorous application process. His task is to focus on the investigator’s client’s mother, who feels that some of her items have vanished. What occurs as Sergio is undergoing his assignment is a poignant look at aging and what life is like for a community of elders. Director Maite Alberdi artfully directed this loving and insightful film. The Mole Agent was also Chile’s entry for best international film.
Sound of Metal (Amazon)
Sound of Metal is the story of a punk rock musician, Ruben, who loses his hearing and deals with the challenge of navigating the world as a deaf man. Darius Marder makes a clear statement showing that Ruben is the outsider for thinking that he will be a whole person if he regains his hearing. It shows that being deaf doesn’t mean less—he’s simply different now, but still vibrant. Sound is also masterfully used in this film, helping the viewer go on this transition journey with Rueben.
What makes something an American Story? Director Lee Isaac Chung shows his family’s journey to attain the American dream. Migrating from South Korea, a family moves to Arkansas to become soybean farmers. The journey isn’t easy, but the goal of owning something is what pushes this family forward. The performances are heartfelt, and one can’t help but root for them to succeed. This film is primarily in Korean, but the story is authentically American. It mirrors so many of our lives who left our homelands for the possibility of something better.