The awards season for 2016 films is in full swing. The Golden Globes are in the books and the Oscars are just over the horizon.
Dominating so far are Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. One of these two is likely to take home the Academy Award for Best Film.
If there is a shred of justice that remains in the process that film will be Moonlight.
But one of 2016’s strongest and most polarizing films has been completely left out of the awards discussion: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man.
The bullet points for Swiss Army Man make it a hard sell.
Upon release, it was relegated to the status of the “farting corpse movie.”
Well, truth be told, that’s pretty accurate. It is a farting corpse movie. It’s exactly that premise that caused critics to walk out of its Sundance Film Festival premiere last January.
Even so, the film won one of Sundance’s top awards, for best directing (going to, as they collectively refer to themselves, Daniels).
It’s one of the most original, if unsettling, stories told on the big screen this past year. A young man named Hank (the always effective Paul Dano) is stranded on an island, ready to end his own life, when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing his post-Harry Potter not-giving-a-f*** run) washes up on the shore.
The dead body starts flatulating, and Hank starts to discover that this corpse has strange abilities, ones that he uses to escape and try to head toward civilization. As the corpse begins to speak, the two become friends, in what should rank as one of cinema’s all-time great odd couples.
Personally, this is the kind of fresh, irreverent movie that is exciting to see.
In a movie culture that is saturated to the bone with sequels, prequels, reboots and comic book adaptations, a scrappy, low-budget comedy starring Harry Potter as a surprisingly useful dead body stands out for all the right reasons.
The award at Sundance wasn’t a mistake. Here’s why.
The movie’s humor comes in a lot of ways, not exclusively fart jokes. The real source of comedy is the dialogue between Hank and the body, who we come to know as Manny. Hank and Manny have a strange repartee due to Manny’s complete memory loss. What is “weird,” Manny wants to know? What is “Jurassic Park?” But through the humor, the two develop a relationship that starts platonic, even sort of paternal, but ends in a very different mode.
The film eventually gets to places of such heartbreak and heartwarming affirmation that they rank among the most emotionally effective scenes of the year.
One scene in particular is a stunner: Throughout the film, Hank and Manny build elaborate recreations of the real world in their trash-filled wilderness. When Hank builds a public bus out of branches, him and Manny recreate a powerful moment of love-struck wonder wherein Hank’s unsuspecting love interest walks aboard the bus.
Hank’s obsession with the woman he’s never met is nothing short of creepy, but this scene is shot with all of the innocent butterflies of love at first sight. Hank also plays the part of the woman, while Manny serves as his character.
This play-acting at recreating a potential love affair recalls the muted passions of Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love.
Much like Tony Leung’s Mr. Chow, Hank soon finds that the character he’s playing is blending into his reality.
That emotional complexity, combined with dazzling slow-motion that recalls Wes Anderson’s iconic Margot Tenenbaum moment, makes this one of the best scenes of the year.
Despite a really impressive performance on the festival awards circuit, Swiss Army Man received zero Golden Globe nominations. As far as its Academy Award prospects go? This movie is far from Oscar-bait. Very, very far.
In fact it seems actively against the dull seriousness that many awards season films tend to exhibit. The film’s willingness to go 100% all out with both its jokes and its emotional arc is truly inspiring, and it will no doubt quickly take up cult classic status. It was one of the most profoundly surprising and entertaining movies of 2016, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been recognized on the same level as its peers, many of whom it outclasses entirely.
In an alternate world, Swiss Army Man would have nominations for Best Directing, Best Original Score (an amazingly fresh acapella soundtrack that cleverly blends diegetic and non-diegetic sound), Best Editing and a Supporting Actor nod for Daniel Radcliffe.
Oscar nominations are due out January 24th but not a single gasp of breath is being held for the film that should stand out among the best of the best.