Grading the Oscars: Best Visual Effects
The Matrix stands as a seismic event in science-fiction and action filmmaking, a triumph of creative vision whose legacy can still be felt today. This status is perhaps most apparent when it comes to the groundbreaking visual effects: from gravity-defying fights to bullet-time to the integration of the digital with the analog, The Matrix showcased what was possible at a turning point for special effects and — for better or for worse — spawned dozens of imitators.
The Academy Awards, occasionally known for getting things right, recognized the art and innovation of the Wachowskis and the film’s effects team, rewarding them with the Oscar for Best Visual Effects over the likes of Star Wars: Episode I and Stuart Little. But despite the Wachowskis continuing to push the boundaries of visual and technical storytelling with every subsequent project, not a single one of their other films has even garnered a nomination.
That oversight means it’s time for a little revisionist history: let’s take a stroll through the Best Visual Effects nominees and winners since The Matrix, handing out grades to the Academy on how well they set their slate and determining how many snubs — of the Wachowskis and others — are really justified.
Nominees: Hollow Man, The Perfect Storm
Arguable Snubs: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Cast Away
Gladiator is a worthy winner here for its impressive recreation of the Colosseum and its pioneering use of digital technology to complete the performance of actor Oliver Reed after his untimely death during filming. I don’t know how Crouching Tiger doesn’t slip in given its dominance elsewhere — perhaps a case of quantity over quality, but both Hollow Man and The Perfect Storm are perfectly defensible noms. However, take note: this also the start of a concerning trend where wild plane crash sequences are completely ignored.
Winners: The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Nominees: A.I., Pearl Harbor (01); Spider-Man, Star Wars: Episode II (02); Master and Commander, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (03)
Arguable Snubs: Black Hawk Down (01); Minority Report, The Ring (02); The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, Hulk (03)
I’m lumping these three years together given the three consecutive Lord of the Rings wins, all three of which are incredibly deserving, revolutionized the industry, and still pass the eye test despite being from an era where much of the CGI has aged incredibly poorly. It’s this latter point that stops me from fully stumping for the Matrix sequels, whose effects can be astounding at times and laughable at others. We weren’t yet at the point where a superhero movie was pretty much an automatic nomination, but Hulk remains one of the few comic book movies to legitimately do something innovative with the genre.
Winner: Spider-Man 2
Nominees: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I, Robot
Arguable Snubs: The Aviator
The second Spider-Man remains one of most seamless and best looking superhero movies of its time, the third Harry Potter was a significant step up from the two prior installments (though perhaps that’s more attributable to Alfonso Cuarón replacing Chris Columbus than anything else), and I, Robot had robots (always a plus). Overall, kinda perfunctory.
Winner: King Kong
Nominees: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, War of the Worlds
Arguable Snubs: Star Wars: Episode III, Sin City
King Kong doesn’t have quite the same pizazz as the Lord of the Rings, but it’s still pretty damn impressive stuff, another big step forward for motion capture. War of the Worlds is pure spectacle, but Narnia is a bit of a shrug. Surprising that Episode III is the only Star Wars prequel not nominated, given it’s probably the best-looking of the bunch.
Winner: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Nominees: Poseidon, Superman Returns
Arguable Snubs: The Descent, The Fountain, A Scanner Darkly
Dead Man’s Chest gave us the beautifully tentacle-faced Davy Jones, which alone is enough to at least get it a pass here. But the other nominees are nothing to write home about, and the Academy really missed an opportunity to reward the gorgeous futurism of The Fountain or the surreal rotoscoping of A Scanner Darkly.
Winner: The Golden Compass
Nominees: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Transformers
Arguable Snubs: Zodiac, Paranormal Activity, Sunshine
BORING. I guess the effects are what The Golden Compass has going for it, but if anyone says they remember this movie as anything more than “a thing they saw,” they’re lying. This would have been a good year to think outside the box a little, perhaps with Fincher’s digital recreation of ‘70s San Francisco or with Paranormal Activities budget scare tactics that launched a new wave of horror films.
Winner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Nominees: The Dark Knight, Iron Man
Arguable Snubs: Speed Racer, Hellboy II
Did you know Speed Racer didn’t even make the shortlist? Apologies to old baby Brad Pitt, but that’s absolutely unacceptable. Automatic flunk.
Nominees: District 9, Star Trek
Arguable Snubs: Coraline, Moon, Splice
Whatever you may think about Avatar, it’s hard to say it wasn’t a breathtakingly beautiful visual spectacle, the kind of movie everyone felt they had to see in theatres in order to properly experience James Cameron’s vision. The nominees could be stronger: Star Trek essentially set the stage for what sci-fi blockbusters would look like going forward, for better and for worse, and District 9 is commendable for strong alien work on a moderate budget, but Coraline, Moon, and the incredibly bizarre Splice are all just a little more unique in how they craft and deploy their effects.
Nominees: Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1, Hereafter, Iron Man 2
Arguable Snubs: Black Swan, Tron Legacy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Inception stands as one of the century’s most groundbreaking, innovative, and impressive works of effects-driven storytelling — people would have rioted if anything else had won, especially given this lineup of nominees. Alice and Wonderland definitively answers the question “can you do too much,” creating the worst kind of nightmare in the process, and the latest cookie cutter visuals from the Marvel and Harry Potter franchises aren’t taking anyone’s breath away. Tron Legacy has some less-than-perfect de-aging, but it would have come closest to actually making this a real competition, and the more complementary effects work of Black Swan deserved more recognition than it got.
Nominees: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, Real Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Arguable Snubs: Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, The Tree of Life
A rough year all around — I’m probably in the minority here, but I think all the visual artifice of Hugo greatly contributes to its status as one of Scorsese’s worst efforts. Apes should have won in a landslide, but Weta had already won four Oscars for films that involved motion-capturing Andy Serkis so perhaps the Academy was just tired of them. Not much to say about the other two nominees, better to just keep moving.
Winner: Life of Pi
Nominees: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Avengers, Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman
Arguable Snubs: The Dark Knight Rises, Cloud Atlas, Dredd
Ang Lee and his team turned what had been considered an unfilmable novel into a visual masterwork, crafting a seamless blend of digital and practical effects that make Life of Pi a deserving winner. It’s great to see Prometheus here, an absolutely breathtaking piece of sci-fi action horror, but Peter Jackson’s Hobbit experiment is a major step down from The Lord of the Rings visually thanks to the new technology at play and The Avengers and Snow White are impressive enough but not groundbreaking in any way. Nolan’s superhero epic is the one that’s really continuing to push the boundaries of special effects bombast, and Cloud Atlas uses its effects to further an incredibly ambitious narrative structure. Special shout-out to Dredd, a mid-budget actioner that gets the most out of its stylish, striking, and distinctive visuals.
Nominees: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness
Arguable Snubs: Oblivion, Man of Steel
Another slam-dunk winner in Gravity, similar in scope and scale to the effects work on Life of Pi with excellent results. Also another grouping of less-than-inspiring nominees (though Iron Man 3’s plane rescue sequence may be the most thrilling and technically impressive of any MCU installment), but without a deep bench of reserves that would truly be considered overlooked.
Nominees: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past
Arguable Snubs: Snowpiercer, Edge of Tomorrow
The problem once we reach this point is that Disney’s subsumption of the Marvel and Star Wars franchises essentially guarantees them multiple slots a year in this category — the resources and practice creates a fairly high floor effects-wise. But those latter strengths also lead to a cookie-cutter feel to so many of these high-profile franchise efforts: no disrespect to the VFX teams on these films, who are likely making hard work look easy, but I’m just not wowed by it anymore. It’s why I’m thrilled to see something like Interstellar win here (a real “wow” of a movie if I’ve ever seen one) and why I’m disappointed why one of the Marvel slots couldn’t have gone to a Snowpiercer or Edge of Tomorrow, both of which feel a little more innovative.
Winner: Ex Machina
Nominees: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Arguable Snubs: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Ant-Man, Jupiter Ascending
Clearly the best 1-2 punch the category has had over the course of the past two decades — Ex Machina vs. Fury Road is like David and Goliath except you love both David and Goliath and want all three of you to be good, differently sized friends. If Marvel movies are just going to be auto-noms in this category it’s weird to exclude Ant-Man, and Jupiter Ascending is yet another Wachowski movie that didn’t really get a fair shake, but looking at the list of nominees it’s pretty hard to complain about snubs. Academy, give yourselves a hand.
Winner: The Jungle Book
Nominees: Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, Kubo and the Two Strings, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Arguable Snubs: Arrival, A Cure for Wellness, Sully, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Hard to argue with The Jungle Book, an unnecessary movie in every respect except as a technical showcase, where it undoubtedly impresses. I’m torn here on the nominee slate though: I love that Kubo and the Two Strings sneaks in here — the Academy is usually pretty loathe to reward animated films for their effects (perhaps it just opens the floodgates a bit too much), but there’s something particularly amazing about stop-motion, enough for the team at Laika to break through. On the other hand, the Arrival snub is unfortunate, though perhaps they felt the Production Design nom covered the bases, and I’m always ready to go to bat for A Cure for Wellness and its eels.
Winner: Blade Runner 2049
Nominees: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Kong: Skull Island, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes
Arguable Snubs: A Ghost Story, Dunkirk, Alien: Covenant, It, Okja
Top to bottom, one of the most competitive years the category has seen. Blade Runner’s vision of the future is stunningly and terrifyingly realized, improving on the original in exhilarating fashion. I’d like to complain about Dunkirk in particular being left out (seriously, how did that happen), but Last Jedi, Skull Island, and Planet of the Apes were all showcases for how to break free of the visual effects mold in franchise filmmaking. Even Guardians 2 has a lot going for it, taking swings with its design that few Marvel movies do. Ultimately, it’s a shame all of these movies came out in the same year — if you had told me the five snubs listed here were the nominees instead, this still would have been a top tier performance.
Winner: First Man
Nominees: Avengers: Infinity War, Christopher Robin, Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story
Arguable Snubs: Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Annihilation, Aquaman, Hereditary, Paddington 2
We’re back to good winner, boring nominees again. At least they gave it to First Man instead of Avengers or Solo, but you’ve got an incredibly deep bench here that’s completely overlooked. You want sci-fi? Annihilation has some of the most haunting, horrifying, and memorable effects design in years. You want superheroes? Aquaman makes sure you know that every dollar spent shows up on screen, but in a good way. You want to think outside the box? Hereditary is right there. Sigh.
Nominees: Avengers: Endgame, The Irishman, The Lion King, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Arguable Snubs: Us, Ford v Ferrari, Ad Astra, Alita: Battle Angel, Doctor Sleep, Gemini Man
Justice for my beloved Alita. Yes, I like 1917 for the win — as a technical achievement it’s hard not to be impressed. But would I have rather had a lineup that mostly consisted of the snubs list? Sure, especially since The Lion King and Rise of Skywalker were two of the worst movies I saw that year, and I’d prefer we just not acknowledge them, and I found (from an effects perspective) Gemini Man’s take on the digital restoration of youth more compelling than The Irishman’s. Mostly a shrug to round out the decade.
With relatively few blockbusters in this strange year, 2020’s nominees stand to be slightly more interesting than in years past; let’s hope that serves as an inspiration and a challenge moving forward. And who knows — maybe Matrix 4 will finally return a Wachowski film to the big VFX stage.