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In Memoriam: The 10 Great Movies That Were Forgotten This Oscar Season

On March 10th, a six-month odyssey will end. Every year starting in early September, Oscar season consumes Hollywood, with expensive campaigns launched and carefully orchestrated rollouts devised. Although the endless chase for trophies might be a turnoff to some, I think, on the whole, the idea of putting a spotlight on great films is a good one. If nothing else, Top 10 lists, critics’ prizes and even the Golden Globes help remind viewers of the movies they may have otherwise missed — it’s the one time during the year where excellence, as opposed to box office, matters most.

But once the Oscar nominations are announced in January, a cruel weeding-out process begins. If your film didn’t get a single nod, you disappear from the campaign trail. As a result, the period between the nominations and the broadcast is focused on just a relatively small handful of good movies. And we’ve been especially fortunate this Oscar season: By and large, this is a superb crop of films, with nary a “Green Book” in sight. But that doesn’t mean the pictures that will be celebrated on March 10th were the only worthwhile offerings from 2023. Far from it.

During the Oscars, there’s always an “In Memoriam” segment dedicated to the artists the Academy has lost since the last broadcast. In that spirit, I wanted to offer up a testimonial to 10 films that failed to get Academy Award nominations and, consequently, have been largely forgotten. To be clear, they weren’t by the people who saw them, but because they didn’t benefit from the high-profile campaigns other films received, many viewers might be unaware of them. Nonetheless, these overlooked gems helped make this a stellar movie year. 

Sadly, limiting my list to 10 meant I had to leave off some notable films. (I ultimately decided not to include the excellent “All of Us Strangers,” which was nominated for plenty of BAFTAs and figured into so many “Oscar snubs” pieces.) But, in alphabetical order, here are some excellent 2023 films you won’t hear about during the Academy Awards (with where to watch them in parentheses)…

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (VOD)

Within the first 10 minutes of writer-director Raven Jackson’s debut, it’s clear that she has also been a poet and a photographer. Few films in 2023 were as visually ravishing or beautifully elliptical as “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” which tells the story of Mack over the span of decades. (Three actors — Charleen McClure, Kaylee Nicole Johnson and Zainab Jah — play her at different ages.) Eschewing a traditional narrative for something more intuitive and emotional — the same way that random memories show up unbidden in our consciousness, unexpectedly coloring our day — Jackson presents impactful moments from Mack’s life, moving back and forth in time so that we get lost in the wistful reverie. It’s a film about family, history, community, place and belonging — how the things that seemed so insignificant to us as children end up sticking with us forever. You didn’t watch “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” so much as you let it wash over you.

“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” (Starz/VOD)

With “Past Lives” the only Best Picture nominee released before Independence Day, this year’s Oscars once again illustrate the hard-and-fast rule that, to garner awards consideration, you need to make sure your movie comes out as late as possible. That’s not the only reason writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s lovely adaptation of Judy Blume’s influential novel failed to generate much momentum. (For one thing, it bombed at the box office when it opened in April.) But “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” was that rare movie about adolescence that felt wise not condescending, touching not saccharine. Abby Ryder Fortson proved to be the perfect Margaret — awkward, insecure, entirely her own person — while Rachel McAdams arguably did her best work in a formidable career as Barbara, a mother struggling to define herself beyond that role. 

Beau Is Afraid” (Paramount+/VOD)

Writer-director Ari Aster is now three-for-three: He’s made three superb movies, and all three of them have failed to garner any Academy Awards nominations. It was a pipe dream to imagine that “Beau Is Afraid,” his most divisive film, was ever going to get awards-season love. (Plus, the film — A24’s most expensive to that point — barely made a ripple commercially.) Nevertheless, this demanding, ambitious three-hour epic represents the sort of big swing that can be too easily forgotten during Oscar time because it’s too strange — too daring, too defiantly its own strange beast — to fit comfortably with the more polished prestige pictures. I know plenty of critics and viewers who loathe Aster’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s study of a clinically depressed everyman, but there are just as many who adore it. Like other maligned stunners, “Beau Is Afraid” cries out for reappraisal down the road. It wasn’t Oscar-worthy this year, but perhaps its statute will grow over time.

Earth Mama” (Paramount+/VOD)

In a year of great breakthrough performances, let us take a moment to single out Tia Nomore, an Oakland rapper who shouldered her first lead role in “Earth Mama.” It was no small undertaking: British-American writer-director Savanah Leaf’s muted drama follows Gia, who’s pregnant, her other two children in foster care. This single mother wants to get her kids back, but with little resources, she has almost no hope — and now must consider giving up her unborn child to a married couple. “Earth Mama” is clear-eyed about how women like Gia have few options, battling addiction and poverty while trying their best to be good parents. Nomore is commanding in the role, suggesting she might have a bright big-screen career if it ever suited her fancy. The film was honored at the BAFTAs for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, one of the few accolades this tremendous picture has garnered. 

The Iron Claw” (VOD)

Released during a crowded Christmastime, writer-director Sean Durkin’s family drama never could get a chokehold on voters, this sad, moving real-life tale of the Von Erichs, a family of wrestlers beset by multiple tragedies. (In fact, Durkin excised one of the family members from his script, worried that there were simply too many terrible incidents for one film to bear.) As the luckless Von Erich brothers, Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson conveyed the joy and pain of close-knit siblings trying to reconcile with an impossible father (Holt McCallany) who demanded they be champions or else. Any list of the best sports films of this century would be incomplete without “The Iron Claw,” which wrings considerable pathos from both what happens inside the ring and out. 

Occupied City” (VOD)

Ever since “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture, Steve McQueen has been absent from the Oscars. Which is a shame considering his “Widows” was the sort of engrossing, thoughtful crime thriller that the Academy usually loves. (As for his exemplary five-part series “Small Axe,” it was understandably not eligible.) McQueen followed up those masterworks with another: an engrossing four-hour documentary that looks at modern-day Amsterdam from the perspective of the Nazi’s occupation of the city during World War II. The film is formally brilliant, presenting specific locations in Amsterdam while narrator Melanie Hyams relates stories of what occurred there some 80 years ago. The specter of the 20th century’s darkest days haunts the proceedings, reminding viewers of the unseen history rippling through the towns we live in today. 

Origin” (VOD)

Ava DuVernay’s finest film was ignored, both commercially and by awards-season voters. It was their loss: “Origin” is a radical, audacious adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s groundbreaking 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, casting Oscar-nominated “King Richard” actress Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as the author, who navigates the heartbreak of losing her husband (Jon Bernthal) while doing the research that will inspire Caste. A film about grief both personal and societal — along the way, other family members will die, and the murder of Trayvon Martin hangs heavy over the proceedings — “Origin” is energized by its ideas, electrically dramatizing how caste (not race) has defined our civilization’s systemic inequality. Ellis-Taylor’s intelligent, impassioned turn destroyed me. This movie is alive with such pain, anger and sorrow.

Passages (Mubi/VOD)

In a career that has now spanned decades, Ira Sachs has never had a film garner an Oscar nomination. Indeed, his movies are often too risky or intimate to connect with Academy voters, but the director behind “Keep the Lights On” and “Love Is Strange” delivered another thorny examination of love with “Passages,” a romantic triangle concerning a discontented married couple (Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw) and the openhearted young woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who enters their orbit. My colleagues in the New York Film Critics Circle were perceptive enough to award Rogowski with Best Actor, praising one of 2023’s gutsiest performances as a fickle filmmaker who lets his sexual appetites drive his decision-making, but all three leads are remarkable. Propelled by its headlong rush and its legitimately steamy sex scenes, “Passages” proved that provocative arthouse cinema is still alive and well — even if the Academy didn’t bother to pay attention.

Showing Up” (Paramount+/VOD)

Three of the stars of director Kelly Reichardt’s divine eighth feature received Oscar nominations last year: Michelle Williams (“The Fabelmans”), Hong Chau (“The Whale”) and Judd Hirsch (“The Fabelmans”). I daresay they’re all even better in “Showing Up,” a meditation on art, personal expression and the annoyance of having a landlord. This is the fourth time Reichardt and Williams have collaborated, resulting in one of the most creatively rewarding partnerships in modern cinema. Here, Williams plays Lizzy, a struggling Portland sculptor getting ready to put on a solo show — that is, if the minutiae of her life doesn’t overwhelm her. The filmmaker behind “Certain Women” and “First Cow” often focuses on intimate tales that have a profound resonance, the micro becoming the universal. “Showing Up” is no different, but it might also be her funniest film — albeit in a rueful, bittersweet manner. With Chou as Lizzy’s landlord (and more successful rival) and Hirsch as her supportive artist father, the film lets the act of creation remain a teasing mystery, offering no opinions on whether Lizzy’s work is “good” or “bad.” It simply is, which is ultimately all that matters — a necessary reminder during Oscar season, when we force films and performances to compete against one another to determine which is “best.” 

The Unknown Country” (Mubi/VOD)

Speaking of “Certain Women,” that 2016 film introduced many filmgoers to Lily Gladstone, who had an incredible 2023 thanks to “Killers of the Flower Moon.” But let me highlight her other great film from last year, an underrated road movie that stars Gladstone as a woman who is driving to her cousin’s wedding, grappling with grief while meeting kind strangers along the way. “The Unknown Country” is lyrical and gentle, writer-director Morrisa Maltz pausing the narrative every time Gladstone’s loner encounters someone new, letting us glimpse that other person’s life for a moment. It’s a bighearted movie, and as marvelous as Gladstone is in the Scorsese film, I might prefer her in this quiet, emotionally overwhelming odyssey. Once you’ve seen “Killers,” give this a try — just because the Oscars overlooked this movie doesn’t mean we should.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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