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: Force Majeure, a tense thriller that’s also a dark comedy, until it becomes a tragic melodrama. Unless it’s all a straightfaced satire, or maybe an allegory for the internal corrosion of the nuclear family. First and foremost, Force Majeure is a family movie: A handsome businessman and his attractive wife take their cute Swedish children on a ski trip to the French Alps. The beautiful family is having a beautiful time…until their lunch is interrupted by an approaching avalance. The wife hugs the children close to her; the husband runs away. No one is injured, but in the aftermath, the entire foundation of the marriage and the family starts to come undone because of the husband’s split-second decision. It’s equal parts horrifying and hilarious.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Some years, Best Foreign Language Film is the most exciting category at the Oscars. It’s the place to reward adventurous auteurs like Paolo Sorrentino, who won last year for The Great Beauty, or Asghar Farhadi, who took the prize for 2011’s A Separation, a Kafkaesque family drama with subject matter and an unusual tone of droll cosmic terror that vaguely recalls Force Majeure. But Best Foreign Language Film can also trend conservative and sentimental. (Two words: Roberto Benigni.) Above all, when you look at the last decade or so of Foreign Film nominees, you can feel a general urge for importance—although self-importance works, too.
So although Force Majeure was one of the most critically acclaimed films of last year, it’s not difficult to see how it got edged out of the Foreign Film category. The five nominated films are up front about their Big Idea themes: Islamic extremism, Putin-esque political corruption, the Chechen/Georgian conflict. Category frontrunner Ida sounds, on paper, like a parody of a foreign art film: A black-and-white movie about an orphaned nun who discovers her Jewish heritage before setting off with her alcoholic aunt to find out where her parents are buried.
Ida is fantastic, but it’s heavy. And there’s a fundamental lightness to Force Majeure that feels very anti-Academy. This is not a topical story of political realism or a historical investigation of a defining 20th century event; it’s the story of a family on a ski vacation, a film shot mostly in the corridors of a resort and on the snowy slopes of the Alps. Force Majeure’s jaunty tone is part of the movie’s stealth-missile impact—it’s a family farce only like The Great Gatsby is a romantic comedy—but it might have looked weightless next to its more explicit opponents.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Because it’s timeless. Force Majeure’s perspective on its characters is razor-sharp. It’s sort of like a Richard Linklater movie: The “story” is really just a steady unwrapping of the characters as their happy-family veneer gets stripped away. (Force Majeure is like the dark mirror of Boyhood.) But if the characters are specific, the setting is purposefully vague and universal. The characters are Swedish, they’re in France, people they meet speak English: Force Majeure imagines a luxury resort as a kind of postmodern nowhere, where the usual trappings of society fade away into a Hobbesian state of nature. It’s the kind of place where a wife can finally see her husband clearly.
As a result, there’s a fundamental approachability to Force Majeure that sets it apart from most foreign films—heck, from most films, period. There’s a sequence toward the middle of the movie that practically holds a mirror up to the audience. Why did the father run away from his children? Was it just an impulse, or something deeper? What would you have done? Again, there’s that Richard Linklater quality: Like the Before movies, Force Majeure feels like a film that offers different insights depending on where you are in life when you approach it, and which member of the family you empathize with.
Writer-director Ruben Ostlund has been a rising star in his native Sweden, and the acclaim around Force Majeure seemed to confirm his arrival on the international scene. He’ll have to wait a bit longer for his first trip to the Academy Awards. But at least he can lay claim to one of the high points of the 2015 awards season: A video reaction to his snub that plays a little bit like a meta-sequel to Force Majeure, complete with a crying fit.