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The Forgotten Oscars: The year's best comedy, sci-fi, and horror films

 

This year, the Academy expanded the Best Picture nominations from five to ten, providing a glimmer of hope for the genre films -- it's a step in the right direction, but the Oscar machine still manages to trample multitudes of attention-worthy films.

Why are so many deserving pictures ignored? Two major reasons:

1. The film belongs to one of the Forbidden Genres: comedy, sci-fi, and horror. Saying that one genre is better than another is purely subjective. A more accurate way to judge a movie is by how well it achieves its goal, and then compare films across genres. The Academy doesn't understand this – with rare exceptions, the Best Picture has to be dramatic, about some “important” issue/war, or intensely depressing (perhaps they should rename the category "Best Drama That Involves Rape/OCD/Incest And Stars An Overpaid Hollywood A-Lister").

2. The film was released during the first six months of the year. There are a few exceptions (Up was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, despite its May release; in 1997, the Academy nominated Paul Attanasio's Donnie Brasco screenplay, which blessed audiences with more Al Pacino-ish Pacinoism the previous February). But 99% of the time a film has to be released from September to December to get any Oscar love.

So I present to you my Fantasy Oscars, from my own Fantasy World, where we ride dinosaur robots to school and pure milk chocolate runs from the taps. OK, maybe not that fantastic, but you get the idea. Let's take a moment to focus on some overlooked gems that weren't nominated -- and, given the history of the Oscars, never had a chance in the first place. And now, the envelope please. (Caution: Spoilers abound! You've been warned.)

Best Adapted Screenplay: David Hayter and Alex Tse for Watchmen
Release Date: March 6

Like most fans of the Watchmen graphic novel (one of the most beloved in comic-book history), I never thought this could be adapted to the big screen. The story is epic and unconventional, with a core message that completely contradicts the Hollywood action/comic-book formula. I was convinced Hollywood would change the the story to appeal to more demographic groups: Dr. Manhattan spouting one-liners like Vin Diesel, or Rorschach and Nite Owl II re-imagined as gay cowboys.

I was proven wrong, and I couldn't be happier. Every actor was perfectly cast, the creative team captured the look and feel of the comic, and director Zach Snyder pulled it all together. An immense feat in and of itself. But it never would have worked if the script wasn't right. The story is immense, with seven lead characters and about a million supporting roles, yet Hayter and Tse included every main character's arc and every plot point -- except for one, but for good reason. They knew that a mass audience would never accept the comic's original giant squid ending, and cleverly adapted it without compromising the message. Watchmen's and Avatar's theatrical running times are identical (162 minutes), yet Hayter and Tse make every second count. James Cameron should thank the 3-D gods that his film is so visually amazing that no one cares about its terrible, poorly paced script –- and don't even get me started on unobtainium, easily the stupidest plot device since the midi-chlorians in Star Wars:The Phantom Menace.

Hayter and Tse pulled off the impossible. Maybe the Academy would have noticed if Watchmen was released in December and produced by Stephen Spielberg.


Watchmen trailer

Best Cinematography: Jonathan Sela for The Midnight Meat Train
DVD Release Date: February 17

If you look up The Midnight Meat Train on imdb, it claims the film was released by Lionsgate in 2008. I call bullshit. This film had one of the most miniscule releases by a major studio ever. Once slated for a blockbuster May release, a change in Lionsgate personnel killed the film and buried it in a shallow grave (and not in a fun horror-movie way). It showed at two North American film festivals and two UK ones, and while I would love to go to San Diego or London to see a movie, it ain't gonna happen unless Delta and Fandango join forces for the best frequent-flyer promotion in history. And then Lionsgate pulled the ultimate fuck-you on the horror-watching public: they released The Midnight Meat Train for a week in August, with no advertising, in 102 dollar theaters (as in cheap, sleazy one-dollar theaters, not gold-plated one-hundred-and-two-dollar theaters). Does this really qualify as a release? When I have to buy round-trip air fare or go to a dank theater in the Combat Zone to see a film that no one ever told me was coming out, that does not qualify as a release. Shame on you, Lionsgate – you deserve to be severely beaten and hung from a meathook. Thank Satan that MMT was finally released on DVD in February 2009, in all its gory goodness.

The Midnight Meat Train is based on a Clive Barker short story – which, like most Clive Barker stories, combines beauty and excessive gore, simultaneously repelling and attracting the viewer in a Megan Fox-ish sort of way. Jonathan Sela's gorgeous compositions, tightly controlled color palette, and brilliant camera movement contrast perfectly with the head-smashings and flying eyeballs. This is easily the most stunningly shot Clive Barker film since Hellraiser.

The setting of The Midnight Meat Train is incredibly challenging for a cinematographer, as 99% of the film takes place in a subway car. How do you keep the shots from getting boring and repetitive? Sela puts the camera in every place imaginable, going so far as to swing the camera 180 degrees around the outside of a speeding subway car. He also delivers the best shot of the year: the killer decapitates a woman with a large hammer, sending her severed head rolling across the floor ... shot from the woman's point of view.

WARNING: This clip has been rated R, for Graphic Hammer-Related Violence and Mild Sexism


Above, the MMT trailer. Apparently, Lionsgate isn't too keen on embeddable media, either; click here to see the MMT decapitation scene.

Best Supporting Actress: Betsy Rue in My Bloody Valentine 3D
Release Date: February 16

The academy honored some great supporting actresses this year. This one, however, blows them all away.

Betsy Rue is only on screen for a few minutes, but boy, does she make them count. The scene: stab-happy pickaxe master Harry Warden attacks her; she flees, hides under a bed, and fights for her life. Pretty typical slasher stuff, right?

Not this time. Rue brings a level of intensity and believability rarely seen in this brand of terrortainment. She plays the scene so perfectly that you really care for her, and summons surprising courage and strength to fight the pissed-off coal miner. Not too bad for only five minutes of screen time. The crowning achievement of Rue's impressive performance: she plays the entire scene in a pair of high heels ... and nothing else. Great actors bare all for the camera, but usually they mean emotionally, not literally. Rue's dedicated, unselfconscious performance will stand the test of time as one of the best nude scenes in horror history.

WARNING: This clip is NERSFW (Not Even Remotely Safe For Work)


My Bloody Valentine 3-D trailer; click here for the NSFW Betsy Rue clip

Best Supporting Actor: Ken Jeong for The Hangover
Release Date: June 2

The Hangover is a damn funny movie, but you already know that. Universally praised as the most hilarious film of the year, The Hangover joins other overlooked Oscar-worthy super-comedies like Borat and South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. Academy voters, you really fucked up this time.

Flashback to June: I was sitting in the Boston Common multiplex, enjoying Todd Phillips' irreverent and hilarious flick ... and then Ken Jeong made his grand entrance. Before this point, I was laughing pretty hard. When Jeong jumped stark naked from a car trunk and assaulted our heroes, I lost it. I fell from my chair in uncontrollable laughter, struggling to breathe. When I finished hyperventilating a few minutes later, I pulled myself from the sticky, Pepsi-covered floor and back into my seat.

Great comedy is very difficult to do well – as difficult as any other genre. Ken Jeong's brilliant acting was more impressive than any other supporting actor's, regardless of genre. Of all the great supporting performances in 2009, Jeong's is the most memorable -- and not just because he's naked.

2009 saw two great full-frontal performances, and the world is a better place for it. It was a banner year high-quality explicit public exposure – let's hope for more in 2010.


Ken Jeong on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

Best Actress: Isabelle Fuhrman for Orphan
Release Date: July 24

In 1976, Taxi Driver propelled Jodie Foster from little-known commercial actress to Oscar-nominated breakout star. Her role as a young prostitute showed her remarkable talent, and the past 36 years have brought her critical acclaim and two Oscars (for Silence of the Lambs and The Accused) .

Jodie, meet Isabelle. Simply put, Isabelle Fuhrman kicks major ass in Orphan. She plays 12-year-old Esther, who – you guessed it – is an orphan. And since this is a horror film, you know that evil lies beneath her pale, quiet demeanor. Fuhrman's riveting performance elevates Orphan from a decent Child From Hell flick to a terrifying must-watch. I can't remember the last time a child gave this kind of powerhouse performance. The role is challenging, and requires a full range of acting skills. The film needs her to be creepy? Check. How about vulnerable? Manipulative? Slipping from innocence to cunning and back again? Check, check, check.

Remember her name. The Academy might not recognize her talent now, but in ten years, she could very well be clutching her own gold statuette at the podium.


Orphan trailer

Best Actor: Dustin Milligan for Extract
Release Date: September 4

I don't understand why studios hate on Mike Judge. He has a good track record, with hits like King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead, and Office Space, one of the biggest cult hits of the last 20 years. His animated TV shows usually get good promotion, but his films are unceremoniously dumped into theaters, left to attain cult status on DVD and cable. So it should come as no surprise that Extract, Mike Judge's latest film, was quietly released on Labor Day weekend and didn't last long in the theaters.

It's too bad. Mike Judge delivers yet another comedic masterpiece, containing more jet-black comedy than any of his previous endeavors. Every actor does an outstanding job, and if I could nominate an ensemble for Best Actor, I would. Of all the stellar performances, Dustin Milligan stands out as Brad, the handsome, vacuous gigolo/pool boy. His screen time straddles the line between Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor territory, but since the Academy modifies their rules as they see fit (such as nominating Life Is Beautiful for Best Picture and Best Foreign Film in the same year), then I can push him into Best Actor Land. On first impression, Brad seems like he could have walked off the set of Desperate Housewives, but as the film continues, we realize that the character is much more layered. Brad is dumb and self-centered, but also genuinely sweet and sincere. Milligan keeps everything in perfect balance, so you can cringe at his behavior and still root for him at the same time. His role has a tiny margin of error: if he doesn't play it just right, the film falls apart. To top it off, he gets the biggest laughs and steals the show – no small feat in a cast that includes Arrested Development's Jason Bateman, Knocked Up's Kristen Wiig, and Anchorman's David Koechner.

Milligan's career before Extract consisted of supporting roles in Slither, Final Destination 3, and 2008's 90210 TV series – not exactly the kind of resume that will attract meaty acting jobs. Mike Judge clearly recognized his acting skills, and gave him a breakout role. Hopefully the rest of Hollywood will notice, and cast him in other projects worthy of his talent.


"Tell Me What Happened" scene from Extract

Best Director: Pascal Laugier for Martyrs
DVD Release Date: April 28

The last eleven years have spawned a hardcore horror revival. American films like Hostel, Saw, and The Passion of the Christ might be the most famous, but they are Scooby-Doo compared to Japanese films like Audition or Ichi the Killer and French flicks such as High Tension or Inside. Run-of-the-mill torture-porn films would slit their collective wrists (if they weren't already chopped off) to be as cool and brutal as their foreign counterparts.

In 2009, the French film Martyrs grabbed the torch and set a new standard for squirm-in-your-seat horror. Laguier delivered the tortuous goods, but he didn't stop there. He used two other played-out horror conventions: Japanese Ghost-Horror and Shyamalan-ish twisty narratives. Laguier could have screwed up Martyrs in about a million different ways. Acting, FX, sound, and everything else had to be in perfect balance, or the film would be just another torture flick, chained to a dirty radiator with all the other wannabes. Against incredible odds, Laguier pulled it all together, grabbing the audience in his lacerated, filthy grasp and never letting go.


Martyrs trailer

Best Picture: Martyrs
DVD Release Date: April 28

The Academy rarely gives Best Picture and Best Director to the same film. It's a judgment call, I suppose, but I think they take the politically correct path and try to please as many people as possible. In 2009, there is no contest. Sure, there were lots of good films this year, and some great ones. I have always felt that a truly special film will be amazing now, ten years from now, or one hundred years from now (if our robot overlords still let us watch movies). The best films leave an imprint on your brain, on your heart, forever leaving their mark. You might forget the specifics over time, but the imprint remains.

As a horror fan, I constantly search for movies that stare death right in the face – for me, that is the ultimate emotional experience. I crave films that capture mankind's most fundamental, primal fears. Horror that lurks under your skin, in your soul – deep rooted fear at its most pure. Many films try to achieve this, and few succeed. Even though I seek out these films, I have to work myself up to see them through weeks of mental preparation. It is a short list. Number two is Cannibal Holocaust. Number one is Martyrs. If that isn't the mark of a Best Picture, I don't know what is.


Michael Neel is the director and co-creator of Drive-In Horrorshow, an anthology horror film comprised of five terrifying tales. When he's not busy cloning a race of super-beings, he co-writes a blog full of helpful indie filmmaking advice. For more info on DIHS and the filmmaker's blog, visit www.driveinhorrorshow.com. Drive-In Horrorshow is playing at the Dark Woods Con in Pikeville Kentucky this Friday, March 5 at 7:15 pm.

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