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, Blackfish — 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. Before the ceremony, 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: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is the story of mankind’s devolution after a plan to counteract global warming backfires, transforming the entire planet into a deadly Arctic tundra. Before all was lost, a billionaire named Wilfred built a behemoth of a train to save the remainders of humanity—and quite literally compartmentalize them by class. The suffering 99 percent is held like cattle in the back of the train—nearly starved, worked to the bone, completely dehumanized, and told to shut up and be grateful, or pay dearly for their insubordination. Meanwhile, the elite one percent luxuriate in their vast front-of-the-train libraries, gourmet sushi restaurants, and plush jazz bars.
Curtis (Chris Evans) and company, with nothing to lose after 17 years of oppression, are sparked by acts of cruelty to revolt by attempting to make their way to the train’s engine. The film’s all-star cast also features Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner and South Korean star Kang-ho Song.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Science fiction and fantasy flicks have a long history of being overlooked by the Academy, save for the special/visual effects categories. The only fantasy film to ever win the group’s top prize was Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. But the tide has been turning in recent years: District 9, Avatar and Inception were all nominated for Best Picture, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity became the first sci-fi flick to win for Best Director in 2014. (It also tied with American Hustle as the year’s most Oscar-nominated film.) Still, those movies all had something Snowpiercer didn’t—massive marketing campaigns. Which brings us to the next reason the film was shut out.
Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company bought the American distribution rights to Snowpiercer in 2013, after it had been released in France, South Korea and Japan. He wanted to edit the movie’s runtime down by about 20 minutes and add expository voiceovers in order to broaden its appeal to American audiences. A petition was launched by some impassioned cinematic activists who wanted U.S. audiences to see the director’s cut. Joon-ho held out, and Weinstein finally relented. But while Weinstein didn’t cut the film, he did cut its marketing budget—a lot— and relegate Snowpiercer to a limited theater run in just a couple hundred theaters and a VOD release. As a result, the film raked in a domestic lifetime gross of just $4.5 million. (It did, however, score big numbers on VOD, becoming The Weinstein Company’s highest-grossing on-demand release.)
The film performed comparatively spectacularly overseas, with foreign box offices bringing in 95 percent of the film’s revenue. It did particularly well in South Korea, Joon-ho’s homeland—scoring the eighth best opening weekend of all time, and pulling in nearly $60 million during its run in 2013. It also performed well in France, where the comic it was based on originated, as well as China.
The movie resonated overseas in part because of its global nature—which, unfortunately, further weakened its chances at the Oscars. Snowpiercer was neither homegrown American fare nor a showcase foreign export that could be pegged to a singular exotic locale. Perhaps the globally diverse production of Snowpiercer—based on the French graphic novel series Le Transperceneige (by Jean-Marc Rochette, Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand); helmed by a South Korean genre director making his first English-language film; starring American, British, and South Korean actors; filmed in the Czech Republic—was too complex for the pigeonhole-happy Academy.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Global warming, class warfare, the indifference of the one percent, food shortages, the gross underbelly of a stratified society, the self-destruction of humanity… was Snowpiercer the most resonating, relevant film of 2014? Its snubbing becomes even more egregious when you consider how many facets of the movie legitimately merited a nomination. By my count, it could’ve been a player in at least seven categories:
Best Supporting Actress: Perhaps most obviously, Tilda Swinton deserved a nod for her gender-bending, terrifying turn as Mason—the ruthless second-in-command charged with maintaining order and perpetuating the perverse social constructions that keep the dysfunctional class system humming. Swinton steals every scene in which she appears as a manic villain with uncanny mannerisms are at once hysterical and genuinely frightening. (The Oscar-winner was, by the way, also inexplicably ignored by the Academy for two other stellar performances this year in Only Lovers Left Alive and The Grand Budapest Hotel.)
Best Actor: Chris Evans shed his Captain America suit to strip down for this understated, complex, painfully human role. He makes us believe he is a man ravaged by the soul-sucking nature of his society, doing his best to navigate the broken world he lives in and, reluctantly, lead his people out of the dark. He even manages to mutter this line without a trace of melodrama: “I know what people taste like, and I know babies taste best.”
Best Adapted Screenplay: Joon-ho first read La Transperceneige cover to cover while standing in the aisle at a comic book store in Seoul. He recruited Kelly Masterson (who wrote the dark script for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) to spin the kickass French graphic novel La Transperceneige into an even more kickass cinematic universe—complete with new characters, a compressed timeframe, and visual shock factor. The duo turned cartoon freeze-frames into a living, breathing expression of a world that only existed on paper.
Best Set Design and/or Cinematography: Every train car is a piece of art, from the sooty, decrepit caboose to the ethereal aquarium compartment. Part steampunk, part art-deco, part 1984, the look of the film is crucial to creating such a fantastical yet grippingly-real world. And the action sequences are smartly staged in such a constrained space. Most memorable is a heart-stopping fight scene in a pitch-black car, in which we navigate the bloody brawl from a first-person perspective through a pair of night-vision goggles.
Best Director: Joon-ho blew it out of the water in his first English-language film. What could’ve been an all-over-the-place mess was instead beautifully crafted and compelling. His bold, Orwellian vision and incisive execution rivals the creative genius of Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, and Andy and Lana Wachowsky, masters of the dystopian sci-fi genre.
Best Picture: Fearlessly political, brilliantly allegorical, thrilling to watch, thought-provoking, hard to forget, beautifully filmed, tautly edited, expertly acted, deftly directed, and genuinely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. What else could you ask from a Best Picture?