Nominated for Nothing: Dick Johnson Is Dead should have lived large at the Oscars
They're destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our attention throughout a year (and awards season) like no other. Ahead of the 93rd Oscars ceremony on April 25, EW is breaking down the year's best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.
The film: Acclaimed documentarian Kristen Johnson (Cameraperson) follows the titular Dick — octogenarian psychiatrist, devoted Seventh Day Adventist, and most importantly, her dad — as he confronts his own mortality. Or really, as his daughter does: Dick himself seems pretty sanguine about death, not least because he wholeheartedly believes it will reunite him with his late wife in the great beyond.
Kristen is less sure of heaven (though she recreates his customized idea of it gloriously), but she does know how to make movies; and so she starts concocting end-times scenarios for her father: jaunty little snuff films in which he meets his maker via falling air-conditioner, construction accident, an ill-timed tumble down the stairs. He gives lying in a coffin a trial run, and even a full-blown funeral service — because really, who hasn't dreamed of attending their own memorial?
If that sounds macabre or even borderline deranged, it's actually funny and tender and genuinely profound, thanks in large part to the gentle, guileless joy that Dick radiates in nearly every scene. And in its own way necessary, too: as a friend of his says sagely, "Everybody has to sort of prepare, because everybody dies." By putting Johnson's inevitable end at the center of the frame — and imbuing it with so much genuine empathy and intimacy — the movie becomes not just a love letter to one remarkable man, but to life itself.
Why it wasn't nominated: Look, we get it; no one comes to the Oscars for the documentaries. They're the conscientious kids in the corner, a scrap of hardy burlap nestled in the pomp and glitter of the industry's most glamorous night. But that only makes it more strange that the Academy snubbed a film as a joyful and cinematic and wildly inventive as Dick — particularly when so many trophies, including a Special Jury Award from Sundance, where it premiered, and Best Documentary prizes from a number of prestigious critic and industry groups, preceded it.
To be clear, this year's nominees, including the powerful Romanian political exposé Collective and aching incarceration memoir Time, are more than deserving; if anything, 2020 was an embarrassment of riches for the non-fiction form — so much so that a movie about the spiritual connection between a man and his cephalopod (My Octopus Teacher) could fairly beat out exceptional entries on LGBTQ rights (Welcome to Chechnya), the U.S. Gymnastics scandal (Athlete A), teenage democracy (Boys State), and slain journalist Jamal Kashoggi (The Dissident). Whoever wins this one, it will still go down as a great year for documentaries, full stop.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Nommed or not, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a playful, poignant gem of a film, one that can take comfort in the many awards it's already reaped. But what makes the movie so startling is also precisely the reason we need more stories like this: in a society that almost obsessively fetishizes the dewy beginnings of things and so rarely addresses our greyer, messier ends, death has become one of the last Rubicons; why not confront it with clear eyes and full hearts? Also, while most docs live and die in VOD obscurity, Dick is on Netflix; if that's not eternal life in entertainment terms, we don't know what is.
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