There are certainly exceptions. The voters seem to enjoy Duncan Jones, giving the low budget Moon the rocket in 2010 and nominating Source Code in 2012 (both flawed films, to be sure, but at least they're unexpected choices). There are a handful of other non-obvious choices (i.e. A Scanner Darkly, District 9, etc...), and a whole boatload of Hollywood pap (i.e. Avatar, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, etc...) There's nothing inherently wrong with big budgets, wide releases, star vehicles, or Hollywood invovlement, to be sure, and there are plenty of fabulous choices in that realm (i.e. Inception, Gravity), but what of the lower budget, obscure, or foreign films that never seem to find their way onto the ballot? I guess I can see why Upstream Color didn't make the ballot last year; it's a pretty inscrutable movie. But then, so was a lot of the nominated fiction! Voters are willing to dig through the heaps for short stories and novelettes, why can't they seem to find things like Detention, Sound of My Voice, Attack the Block, Timecrimes, Triangle, The Man from Earth, and probably a dozen others that are escaping me right now. Sure, many are obscure genre pics, but isn't that the point of the Hugo awards taking on the category? Movies like Avatar get plenty of recognition from the mainstream, why not highlight things that aren't so easy to find, the way we do for fiction?
This year, we have at least two nominees that were deserving (and that didn't have Upstream's impenetrable style), including Coherence (to be fair, there are some eligibility concerns on that one), The One I Love, and maybe even Snowpiercer (a film I kinda hated, but it seems up the voters' alley). Alas, they did not make it, and to be sure, Hollywood had a pretty good year, putting out plenty of genuinely good movies. Indeed, I even nominated 3 of these, so I guess I shouldn't complain! My vote will go something like this (I'm going to be partially quoting myself on some of these, with some added comments more specific to the Hugos)
- The Lego Movie - Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a career out of making movies out of seemingly stupid premises, and this movie may be their crowning achievement. This sounded so much like a cynical cash-grab by Hollywood, but I found myself immediately charmed by the film's fast paced humor and wit. The thing that tips this to the top of my vote is that it is actually very impressive from a visual standpoint. It's got great jokes, and some of them are visual jokes. This is a movie that actually uses its medium in a way that few movies do these days.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Marvel firing on all cylinders, this is a dramatic improvement over the first Captain America, topping it in everything from action set pieces to consistent interpersonal touches. Considering the wider context, this movie makes some pretty bold moves too, channeling paranoid 70s thrillers (and even casting Robert Redford to underline that point) and throwing a huge monkey wrench into the whole Marvel universe (something I admire about it - as a standalone, it would be fine, but the fact that there are seemingly lasting consequences helps here). I'm actually on the fence with where to place this in relation to Guardians, but for now, it take the #2 slot.
- Guardians of the Galaxy - This could have failed so miserably in so many different ways, but my guess is that James Gunn's goofy personality is what saved the whole thing (even if it's toned down a bit here). Once again, it's the interpersonal touches that makes these Marvel movies tick, even this one, which is almost completely disconnected from all the other movies. It's also a big ball of fun, so there's that.
- Edge of Tomorrow - There's a lot to quibble about with this movie, but I'll tell you, it really worked for me. From a filmmaking craft perspective, the editing here is incredibly well executed. The ending has some issues and Cruise has his own baggage, but I had a whole lot of fun. I actually voted for this on my ballot, not thinking it would garner enough votes (it was fairly underrated and underviewed last year, even by mainstream audiences), but even then, it would have ended up towards the bottom of my ballot...
- Interstellar - There's a lot to like about this film, but it never quite congealed into something as cohesive as Nolan's previous work. Certainly gets points for ambition, but the film is a little clunky in its execution. It all fits together, and there are great ideas and emotional moments at its core, but perhaps could use some smoothing over some of the rougher edges (of which there are, sadly, many). A clear last place finisher for the Hugos. Not an entirely unworthy nominee, but I'd have much rather seen a few other movies in place of this one...