Full disclosure: Even we, journalists who see hundreds of movies year, haven’t seen all the Oscar-nominees. We almost have, though. Our list of embarrassing misses includes two from the Best Foreign-Language Film roster (“A Man Called Ove” and “Tanna”) and two from the Best Original Song one (“Jim: The James Foley Story” and, alas, “Trolls”). Still, we think you should be impressed. We’ve even seen all 15 of the feted shorts.
So when you’re poring over your ballot at your Oscar party on Sunday, wondering things like, “What in the hell is ‘My Life as a Zucchini?’”, then we’ve got your back. Here’s your guide to some of the lesser-known nominees:
‘My Life as a Zucchini’ and ‘The Red Turtle’
The Best Animated Feature category features some names you know: “Zootopia” and “Moana” both made Disney still more cash money, though not enough of you went to see the wondrous “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Frankly it’s weird “Finding Dory” isn’t on here, since it’s the third highest grosser of last year. Instead it lost a slot to either “The Red Turtle” or “My Life as a Zucchini” — two small toons from outside America that have only been given tiny releases here. (“Zucchini,” in fact, arrives in NYC today.)
We reviewed “The Red Turtle,” a co-production between Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli and Dutch filmmakers, over here. (Short version: It’s really good.) “My Life as a Zucchini,” meanwhile, is a French-Swiss joint effort — a small, intimate stop-motion film about a sad boy named Courgette (or “Zucchini,” hence the weird title) who is deposited at a small orphanage after his drunken mother “goes away.” This sounds grim, but the film is chill and melancholic, not harrowing and unpleasant. Our blue-haired hero makes friends, falls in love and generally learns to find his place in the world. If anything it’s a little too pleasant considering the subject matter.
‘Fire at Sea’ and ‘Life, Animated’
Three of the Best Documentary Feature nominees share the same issue: race in America. Ava DuVernay’s “13th” tells an alternative history of our country, looking at how racism has indeed been institutional, and even the overturning of slavery and Jim Crow laws didn’t stop powers from keeping America white. “I Am Not Your Negro” digs up passages by the great writer James Baldwin written during and after the Civil Rights Era, all to show how little has changed. “O.J.: Made in America” isn’t exclusively about race, but the story of O.J. Simpson, from his halcyon days through the Trial of the Century and the insane motel incident that actually threw him in jail, touches on that and much more besides.
That leaves two outliers. “Fire at Sea” tackles a timely issue, too: Filmed on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, it contains galvanizing footage of refugees who’ve wound up nearby, attempting to cross to Europe on sometimes rickety boats. That might have been why filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi traveled there, but the majority of the film is actually about the locals, chiefly a boy whose life has nothing to do with the horrors that make the news.
Subject-wise, “Life, Animated” offers the least pressing matter, although it’s still very pressing. It’s an intimate doc about a young man with autism who learned to communicate by watching Disney movies. The likes of “Aladdin” and “Peter Pan” allowed him to find a way to express himself, and when the filmmakers catch up with him, he’s finally moving out of his parents’ house and eking by on his own. We liked this very much.
‘Land of Mine’
Even if you haven’t seen the two biggest Foreign Language Film nominees — “Toni Erdmann” and “The Salesman” — you may have heard of them. “Toni Erdmann,” a near-three-hour German comedy that we swear is hilarious (and is our favorite film of last year), is about to get its inevitable Hollywood remake. Jack Nicholson will take on the eccentric father who terrorizes his workaholic daughter, to be played by Kristen Wiig. (We doubt the remake will be anywhere near three hours, much less have anything close to its specific serio-comic tone.) “The Salesman” made national news: Its filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi, will not be attending the ceremony, because the “Muslim ban” prevented visitors from Iran. Even after it was stayed, Farhadi said he would still not come, out of protest.
That leaves two films we’ve not seen (“A Man Called Ove” and “Tanna”) and one we have. “Land of Mine” unearths yet another under-told story about World War II, namely about the German soldiers who, immediately after the war, were forced to defuse the hundreds of thousands of landmines their army had buried along the Danish coast. It’s a movie about tolerance, in which a Danish sergeant learns to see Nazis as humans, too. And have you realized yet that the American title is a pun? We’re not huge fans of the film, despite some obvious merits.
Those 15 Oscar shorts
We broke this down already, so if you want to learn more about the minis nominated in the animated, live-action and documentary sections, go right here.