Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
In this week's installment, in honor of Sunday's Oscars, we look at the science fiction and superhero movies that Oscar forgot. These are movies that will stand the test of time, that we’ll be talking about for decades to come, but because they were 'genre,' were completely ignored by the Academy in every category. That's right: Today we're looking at the best science fiction and superhero films that didn't just miss out on a Best Picture nomination: they didn't get a single Oscar nomination at all.
No offense to Philomena and Chocolat, but we bet these movies end up with far longer shelf lives.
Wonder Woman (2017)
The highest-grossing film of 2017 not to receive any Oscar nominations, this game-changing superhero movie helped cement Gal Gadot's star status and offered irrefutable proof to the close-minded that (1) a female-driven comic book film could be a hit; and (2) a woman could direct it. Filmmaker Patty Jenkins crafted an adventure about goddesses and mortals that emphasizes people’s inherent decency — in a world of brooding superhero flicks, Wonder Woman radiates a cheerful spirit — while delivering the expected action sequences and eye-popping spectacle. An Academy Award nomination or two would have been nice, but one suspects Wonder Woman's feminist triumph transcends Oscars or even box office success.
King Kong (1933)
At the 5th Academy Awards, there wasn't yet an Oscar for visual effects. If there were, maybe this spectacular monster movie would have gotten some love. Nonetheless, King Kong remains a key film in the development of cinematic technical wizardry, harnessing stop-motion animation to help bring the fearsome, soulful Kong to life. In the same vein that more modern-day movies like Star Wars or Titanic or The Lord of the Rings found new ways to bring spectacle to the big screen, this story of the unlikely love affair between a beauty (Fay Wray) and a hairy beast was a sensation. Audiences hadn't seen anything this visionary in its merging of fantasy, horror, adventure and drama — and the film continues to inspire subsequent blockbusters like Peter Jackson's 2005 redo and last year's Kong: Skull Island.
Under the Skin (2013)
There is no Oscar for Bravest Acting, but if there were, maybe Scarlett Johansson would have gotten that nod. Her distant, then horrifyingly vulnerable, alien from Under the Skin both stands apart from the human race and is absorbed by its cruelty, but it's worth remembering too just how much Johansson gave to the role. Most of her scenes with the men her alien character picks up were non-scripted, with non-actors, filmed with hidden cameras. The film dares her to push herself, and the audience, into some truly terrifying places. Of all the snubs for Under the Skin — particularly ignoring Mica Levi's haunting score — not noting Johansson's breathtaking work still stings years later.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
It's almost impossible to imagine this nowadays, but there was once a time when zombies weren't a cultural staple. That changed 50 years ago when a twentysomething kid named George A. Romero gathered his friends to shoot a low-budget horror movie about a few luckless souls being tormented by the walking dead.
"All I did was I took them out of 'exotica' and I made them the neighbors," Romero said in 2014 of his incorporation of zombies for the iconic Night of the Living Dead. "I thought there's nothing scarier than the neighbors!"
Shot in grainy black and white and inspired by Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend, the film isn't nearly as flashy or bloody as the dozens of imitators that came in its grisly wake. But Romero's sense of clammy, creeping dread has made the film a Halloween staple, as well as an enduring influence for no-frills independent directors longer on inspiration than cash. At that year's Oscars, its utter antithesis — the lavish big-screen musical Oliver! — won Best Picture.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick was nominated for Best Director four times, but not for any of his final three films: Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and The Shining (1980), which other than maybe 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is the movie that he may end up being known for the most. Stephen King famously disliked Kubrick's version of his movie, mostly because — as Kubrick tended to do — he stripped out everything he didn't like about King's book and replaced it with his own eccentricities and obsessions. The result is a movie so terrifying, and so clinical, and so almost-unfathomable, that a whole documentary was made three decades later about the hundreds of fan theories surrounding it. Nobody talks about 1980 Best Picture nominee Tess anymore, but we’ll never be finished with The Shining.