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Nominated for Nothing: Beasts of No Nation

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Wednesday, February 10th, 2016
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Which movie was better: Mean Streets or The Sting? There’s no wrong answer, but here’s something that’s criminal. The Sting, George Roy Hill’s crowd-pleasing reunion with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. (That’s not the criminal part…) Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s gritty crime pic with Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, won zero Oscars. It didn’t win any Oscars because it wasn’t even nominated for a single award. Not one.

So you can debate whether The Sting was the best movie of 1973. But you can’t excuse the Academy for completely ignoring Mean Streets. Sadly, Oscar has a long history of overlooking masterful comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, and artsy foreign films — classics like The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Touch of Evil, and The Big Lebowski.

History, fortunately, is the ultimate arbiter of greatness. Before this year’s ceremony, we’re taking a closer look at 2015 films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The film: Agu (Abraham Attah) is your average mischievous 12-year-old, but his West African nation is disintegrating under the weight of civil war. He has a loving mother, a protective father, a brother, and sisters, but the family is split when their village becomes part of the battlefield. The women are hurried to the presumed safety of the capital, and his father and older brother become quick casualties of the fighting. Lost in no-man’s land, Agu is picked up by a rogue rebel battalion lead by the Commandant (Idris Elba). His soldiers are mere boys, who are brainwashed into thinking they are invincible in their revolution against the government. Agu witnesses — and perpetrates — all sorts of crimes against humanity with his new brothers in arms, as the deranged Commandant preys on the boys’ innocence, their dedication, and their dependance on his paternal approval. It is a tragic story of child soldiers, told in unflinching detail — the beasts that are built and the lost boys that are left behind.

Cary Joji Fukanaga (True Detective) wrote and directed Beasts, based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel. Fukanaga gambled on a young cast of mostly unproven actors — including Attah, who was discovered on a soccer field in Ghana — lending the drama an unnerving level of authenticity. Attah’s performance is devastating, but it is Elba who oozes the charisma and machismo that believably blind his child soldiers to barbarous behavior.

Why it wasn’t nominated: Beasts of No Nation might be Exhibit A of the #OscarsSoWhite outrage. After all, Elba was considered a favorite for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he actually won the prize from the Screen Actors Guild (becoming the first such winner to fail to earn an Oscar nod). But the film appears to have suffered from its unconventional distribution: After the film premiered to rapturous reviews at the prestige film festivals in September, Bleecker Street gave it a token limited release at the same time that it debuted in more than 60 million homes of Netflix subscribers. In theory, that type of exposure and availability could’ve helped Beasts of No Nation reach a wide audience, but though Netflix later boasted that the film had been streamed more than 3 million times, Oscar voters — who skew older, and perhaps are not as Netflix savvy — did not take notice. Plus, the film’s harsh subject matter made it perhaps a strange fit for the Netflix generation. Beasts of No Nation required a commitment by the viewer, with harrowing subject matter that nevertheless has proven to be Oscar friendly in the past. (See: Hotel Rwanda.) Unfortunately, Beasts played in theaters for only two weeks.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Because, eventually, more people are going to see it. It’s not difficult to imagine an alternate Oscar 2016 scenario where Beasts of No Nation entered February with several nominations, including multiple mentions for Fukunaga, who also excelled as cinematographer. Elba, who won two SAG Awards — and is still in contention for the BAFTA and Spirit Award — might eventually win the Academy’s favor, but it will be this overlooked performance that aficionados will remember with a What-Were-They-Thinking? shake of the head. Elba’s Commandant is terrifying and ruthless, but you don’t doubt his sway over the boy soldiers for a second. You understand it completely.

The Best Actor field is extremely competitive this year, and Attah’s debut performance had an uphill battle against more established performers. He and Room’s Jacob Tremblay were touted as early contenders, but both were ultimately overshadowed by better-known stars in wider-seen films. Whether Attah continues to act and becomes a prolific artist or not, his performance in Beasts of No Nation is forever.

Inside the industry, Beasts might be remembered for what not to do. Perhaps Netflix is a better platform for selling Adam Sandler’s comedies than prestige awards bait. Or perhaps Netflix — and a more savvy Oscar voting bloc — will solve the puzzle themselves. After all, before House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, there was Lilyhammer.

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