Nominated for Nothing: 'Melancholia'

Melancholia

Image Credit: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Persona, Breathless, Hoop Dreams, King Kong, Caddyshack — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The Film: Melancholia, the latest meditation on the absurdity of human existence from Danish provacateur Lars von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst in a theoretical comeback performance as a manic-depressive woman struggling to get through her own wedding. Also, a runaway planet slams into Earth, destroying all life on our planet. Also, Kiefer Sutherland.

Why It Wasn’t Nominated: The artiest of art films, Melancholia is split into two distinctive acts with extremely different tones: Part 1 is practically an ensemble wedding farce, while part 2 is a hermetically sealed drama about a family facing down the apocalypse. And both are tremendously depressing. Although the Academy isn’t against nominating sad movies, they usually prefer their melancholy with a hefty dose of uplift: Witness the love for the family-friendly Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, or the magic-hour PG-13 vision of WWI in War Horse. Melancholia is the opposite of uplifting: It’s a film which seems to argue that life itself is pointless. Or, as Dunst says at one point: “When I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on Earth, and not for long.”

Dunst herself received accolades for her role in the movie, but her performance is extremely internal. Which is appropriate — she’s playing a character who feels locked away from normal human interaction. Unfortunately, it also means that Dunst doesn’t really have any obvious showcase scenes. By comparison, four of the current Best Actress nominees played characters who essentially only have showcase scenes: Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Rooney Mara, and Michelle Williams spend their movies covered with makeup (and piercings), playing broad characters with memorable accents.

You could argue that the Academy only had room for one cosmic-themed, narratively complicated family drama — and the humanistic vision of The Tree of Life is much more palatable than Melancholia‘s relentless misery. You could also point out that, if you want your movie to get nominated for an Oscar, it helps to be even just a little bit likable — and the famously combative von Trier was already a controversial personality before he decided to make jokes about Nazis. A dark, weird little film with a curious title and murky lighting and a brutal vision of humanity, Melancholia also only made about $3 million in domestic theaters. In short, this is not a movie that host Billy Crystal could have readily worked into his opening act.

Why History Will Remember It More Fondly Than Extremely Loud & Incredible Close: Because Melancholia is really, really funny. I’m serious. The first half in particular is filled with moments of dry humor. In particular, Sutherland shines in a role that’s basically the anti-Bauer: He’s a wealthy fussbudget oddly obsessed with making sure the wedding stays on track. (Sutherland gets some of the best lines: “Those bitches have locked themselves in their bathrooms and now they’re taking a bath.”) Von Trier has a reputation for being unrepentantly bleak, and some of his films (like Manderlay) almost seem like angry parodies of artsy claptrap. But he brings an oddly light touch to Melancholia. (You can’t tell me that the casting of both SkarsgĂ„rds was anything but an incredible in-joke.)

The second half is decidedly less funny. It’s also one of the most magnetic portrayals of the end of the world ever captured on film. We’ve gotten used to seeing the Earth destroyed, Roland Emmerich-style: Tidal waves, firestorms, skyscrapers falling over. In Melancholia, the end of the world plays out entirely in the emotions of the cast. It’s a low-fi apocalypse, and it’s remarkably effective.

Melancholia is, as you might have guessed, incredibly weird. Weird movies aren’t always popular in their own time. And unlike, say, Donnie Darko, Melancholia doesn’t have any obvious cult appeal. It’s an uncompromising vision of loneliness, which assures that it will probably never be popular. But don’t be surprised if an entire mini-generation of nihilistic teenagers discover the movie on Netflix and start wearing “Planet Melancholia Is Coming” T-shirts.

Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
‘Melancholia’ wins top prize at European Film Award
‘Melancholia,’ Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst win National Society of Film Critics awards
‘Melancholia’: Best and Worst 2011

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