Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, 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: Chronicle, the found-footage superhero thriller/high school drama about a trio of teenagers who develop strange powers far beyond those of mortal men. Airborne football, awkward drunken hook-ups, and climatic telekinetic showdowns ensue.
Why it Wasn’t Nominated: “Found footage,” “superhero,” and “high school” is a unique hat trick of “Things The Oscars Do Not Pay Any Attention To.” The whole fake-found-footage style of filmmaking is, at this point, a debased concept in the movie universe. The Academy has been resolutely opposed to nominating big-studio superhero movies that earned critical acclaim and billions of dollars; it’s unlikely that they would be interested in a weird off-brand, no-costume, low-budget superhero riff. And the Academy has never paid much attention to movies about teenagers: They prefer movies about grown-ups or movies about childhood that treat childhood with an unabashedly nostalgic, old-man-looking-back-at-his-youth air (like Hugo or The Tree of Life or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.) The Social Network is a rare example of a movie about young adults that earned lots of nominations, and Chronicle didn’t have the cachet of an Aaron Sorkin script, and anyways The Social Network lost to a movie about a stuttering Nazi-fighting, British king.
Chronicle actually bears a superficial resemblance to District 9, one of the weirdest movies to ever receive a Best Picture nomination. But 2012 was arguably a more crowded year for great movies — or anyhow, Oscar-friendly great movies. And where District 9 managed to earn nominations for its Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Chronicle was completely shut out. Again, this is understandable, albeit indefensible. The film’s plotting and characterization is remarkably subtle and effective, but the mockumentary style mostly hides that subtlety. Honestly, most people are probably so annoyed by the mockumentary style that even a good example of the form just seems like a fundamentally lesser movie. Throw in the fact that Chronicle was released in the dead zone of February and basically starred a bunch of unknowns, and it’s difficult to think of a less Academy-friendly movie.
Why History Will Remember It Better Than Amour: Because Chronicle is the first movie about people with superpowers that feels genuinely tapped into the problems and fascinations of the current moment. Even the best superhero movies of the last ten years are really just retellings of old stories, dressed up in new surroundings. Some of those movies try to speak to current events; some of them are about a guy who hits things with a giant hammer. But even though Chronicle cherrypicks various comic book tropes, it tells a uniquely focused story about three teenagers in contemporary America.
In the process, Chronicle also finds one of the most intriguing uses for the found-footage style. Filmed mostly from the perspective of loner Andrew, who has a sick mother and an abusive father, Chronicle initially seems like a movie about a misfit who learns to express himself with a camera. Andrew films everything; he’s not too far removed from the Wes Bentley character in American Beauty. And the film initially seems like the tale of Andrew’s rise — his newfound powers briefly make him a popular figure on campus. But that rise is shortlived, and as the film continues, we realize that we’re really witnessing one boy’s descent into a kind of mad narcissism. Scenes that could have played as fun — like when Andrew takes revenge on one of his bullies — become terrifying.
To a certain extent — SPOILER ALERT – the film can be read as a corrective to the Spider-Man myth. Peter Parker was also a misfit with a difficult home life, but he was instilled with the relatively old-school sensibility, “With great power comes great responsibility.” For Andrew, with great power comes great overindulgence. Much credit has to go to Max Landis, who scripted the movie. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Chronicle plays with superhero tropes in a way that you may not even realize until after you’ve seen the movie. The character Steve is explicitly set up as a kind of proto-Captain America — beloved jock, prom king, etc — which makes his mid-movie death one of the more genuinely unexpected main-character exits in a major Hollywood movie.
Likewise, Andrew’s cousin Matt initially seems like a typical lazy high schooler, smoking weed in his car and pining after the girl of his dreams. It’s only upon rewatching that you notice the subtle ways in which the movie turns him into a heroic figure. (The girl he’s pining for is Casey, a model-pretty blogger who becomes a damsel in distress, is probably the film’s most ridiculous character, but she’s also an intriguing analogue to Lois Lane.)
Even if Chronicle never had a shot at a screenplay nomination, it seems outright lunatic that the movie didn’t earn a nod for its Visual Effects. The films that were nominated for the trophy seem to indicate that the Academy is focused less on Best Visual Effects than on Most Visual Effects.
Chronicle, conversely, manages to recreate all the wonder and terror of superpowers within its found-footage construct; in the process, it brings a whole sense of wonder back to the idea of superpowers. Just compare the city-bashing fight at the end of The Avengers to the one that ends Chronicle. The former is a cartoon that looks like it was shot on the world’s biggest soundstage, featuring deathless heroes and a nonstop barrage of skeleton aliens dying bloodlessly. The other looks like an Evening News bulletin, with two recognizable humans using the whole environment of the modern city to pummel each other to death.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich