Oscar season is always rancid, but few as much as this year’s. Which film will take home the top prize of the night? Will it be the movie about the unlikely friendship between a white driver and a Black pianist that was called a “symphony of lies” by a family member of the latter? Or the leaden drama that has no read on its protagonist’s emotional state? Maybe the wannabe cage-rattler with absolutely nothing to say? Oh, what about the biopic with sub-Wikipedia insights directed by a monster? Not to say that there aren’t merits to these films (well, except for “Bohemian Rhapsody”), but the batch of nominees selected by the academy this year is still subpar. Here is a grab bag of craft superlatives that largely went unrecognized last year by voting bodies. Some of these films may have never stood a chance on the awards circuit, but that doesn’t mean they don’t represent some of the strongest work of last year.
Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh, “Unsane”
Soderbergh’s examinations of economic woes calcifying around their victims had never been more urgently rendered than in “Unsane.” Shot on an iPhone, the film’s combination of the unsentimental sensationalism of the grind house genre and the democratized, subjective connotations of smartphone photography result in a purposefully ugly rendering of a nightmare. The form refuses anchorage to any bodies, the stiff framing and hazy deep focus trapping Claire Foy’s protagonist within the grimy milieu of the mental hospital she’s shanghaied into the walls of.
Director: Chloé Zhao, “The Rider”
Putting aside her undeniable eye for romantic landscapes and her confident grasp of quotidian rhythm, Chloé Zhao’s work on “The Rider” is one of the superlative achievements of last year for its heartfelt employment of fiction as a platform for personal tragedies. Working with nonprofessional actors and drawing from the lead actor’s own disabilities, Zhao gently guides the performances along. Her intimate imagery captures the minutiae of their labor while never overwhelming them with melodramatic flourishes that aren’t their own. On paper, it’s a demanding balancing act, yet you would never know it while watching it in action.
Original score: Michel Legrand, “The Other Side of the Wind”
Decades after his last collaboration with Orson Welles, the late genius Michel Legrand composed one of his finest scores with his composition for Welles’ unearthed, incomplete masterpiece. A mischievous and melancholic spiral of swing jazz, Legrand’s work is one of the film’s essential qualities, breathing vigor into the ‘70s Hollywood party milieu while anticipating the death dream of its protagonist on the peripheries. It’s a staggering swan song from one of the best composers there’s ever been.
Visual effects: “Aquaman”
That the fifth-highest-grossing movie of 2018 couldn’t find its way onto the academy’s shortlist for best visual effects seems ludicrous. Yet that’s exactly what happened while “Aquaman” was tearing up the holiday box office. James Wan’s spectacularly geeky extravaganza comes bursting with transportive action and detailed pageantry — complete with volcano coliseums, a tribe of warmongering talking crabs and a tentacled leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews. CGI is rarely this expressively profuse; even the hair had to be computer-generated. Once you see Dolph Lundgren with a ginger beard riding a seahorse, you can’t unsee it.
Sound mixing: “Zama”
Director Lucrecia Martel’s grasp of sound is possibly the most sophisticated in her field. Her indelible satire “Zama” is no anomaly in that regard, featuring a rich, bug-ridden cacophony to encapsulate the numbing purgatory of living in an insignificant colonial settlement. Both immersive and farcical, the soundscape taunts the conquistador Don Diego de Zama for his stuffy overcoats and bureaucratic dead ends, teasing out the animalistic impulses that plague his melting mind.
Original song: “Why Did You Do That?” Lady Gaga “A Star Is Born”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Ally,” says Alec Baldwin, playing himself hosting “Saturday Night Live” — easily his best work of late tied to that show. Lady Gaga’s pop celebrity takes to the stage and cranks out one of the most electric performances to ever grace Studio 8H. It’s a pivotal scene wherein Cooper’s Jackson Maine recognizes how far his wife’s sensibilities have drifted from his own. He clearly thinks the song is bad. Even the movie probably thinks the song is bad. And yet, it’s a bop.