This list was originally going to include the biggest snubs of the past 10 years, but that proved too daunting a task. Then I cut the list down to include only the past five years, but it still felt endless. The thing is, the Academy overlooks more greatness than it rewards every single year. Blame it on politics, Oscar-baiting or there just not being enough room, but deserving films and performances fall by the wayside all the time. And this year is no exception.
So, without further ado, here are 15 notable works (give or take) that I think deserved recognition from the Academy this year…
Holy Motors – Best Picture and Denis Lavant for Best Actor
There’s no denying that Daniel Day-Lewis pulls off an impressive disappearing act in Lincoln. It’s just that, in Holy Motors, Denis Lavant does it about ten times. As Oscar, a mysterious agent of fate (or something), he convincingly plays an old female beggar, a sewer monster, an assassin, an accordion player and lots more in a series of barely connected, tone-shifting scenarios. The film, which could’ve went with the more apt title Holy $#^!!!, was ineligible in the Best Foreign Film category because France submitted the more Academy-friendly The Intouchables. In a better world, this wholly unique cinematic experience would’ve gotten its due in the Best Picture category, thanks to director Leos Carax’s boundless vision and Lavant’s knockout tour de force.
Django Unchained – Samuel L. Jackson for Best Supporting Actor
Early signs indicated that Leonardo DiCaprio would run away with Django Unchained as the scenery-chewing slave owner Calvin Candie, but who could’ve guessed that he was really just a patsy (an admirable one, for sure) facilitating the meeting between Django and the film’s true villain: Candie’s sneering, complicated house slave Stephen. Jackson’s shift from hilariously cranky old servant to nefarious manipulator behind closed doors is seamless; it’s arguably his best role since his career-defining turn in Pulp Fiction.
The Sessions – John Hawkes for Best Actor
The Sessions is about as light a film as you’ll ever see about sex and quadriplegia, but that doesn’t make Hawkes’ performance in it any less remarkable. He plays Mark O’Brien, a writer paralyzed since childhood who hires a “sex surrogate” to take his virginity. Despite being rendered immobile, Hawkes remains a captivating screen presence. He exudes effortless charm while lying uncomfortably rigid through the entire film. It’s a testament to his and Helen Hunt’s superb work that the surrogate meetings are funny and honest when they could’ve gone horribly wrong.
Compliance – Ann Dowd for Best Supporting Actress
The tense and disconcerting thriller Compliance serves up a plot that’s a tough pill to swallow, even though it’s based on actual events. As a fast-food restaurant manager who gets duped into detaining a young employee by a prank caller pretending to be a cop, Ann Dowd has to convince the audience that she isn’t going along with the increasingly creepy demands out of hidden malice or sheer stupidity. It requires a tightrope walk of a performance, but she pulls it off with aplomb.
Dowd has been a working-class actress for over two decades, but last year was the first time that she’s received any sort of Oscar buzz, so she borrowed money to send screeners to Academy voters. Unfortunately, when nominations were announced, she lost her spot to Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook. (Nothing against Weaver, who should’ve won two years ago for Animal Kingdom, but really shouldn’t be here now.) It’s kind of a bummer, but considering that she has already appeared in this year’s best film so far, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, I’m sure Dowd will land back on her feet.
Magic Mike – Matthew McConaughey for Best Supporting Actor
McConaughey, much like his stripper-turned-entrepreneur character Dallas, is a performer who demands attention. He struts into every one of his Magic Mike scenes armed with swaying hips, devilish charm and a concentrated gaze, and by the end steals the entire show. An Oscar nomination would’ve been the perfect cap to the invigorated actor’s banner 2012…and just the right way to kick start a promising 2013. With appearances in Jeff Nichol’s Mud, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and the AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club, I’m willing to bet he’ll have better luck next year.
End of Watch – Michael Peña for Best Supporting Actor
This one was always a long shot, but Peña was outstanding as LA police officer Mike Zavala in the surprise hit End of Watch. It’s his affable performance as a loyal partner and family man, as well as his completely convincing friendship with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor, that makes the film resonate so strongly with audiences. Even as the plot becomes increasingly contrived, it’s their natural chemistry and fluid rapport that keep the film grounded. Peña has held his own against bigger stars before in films such as Crash andWorld Trade Center; it’s about time he gets recognized for it.
The Deep Blue Sea – Rachel Weisz for Best Actress
Weisz’s performance in The Deep Blue Sea will be dissected in acting classes for years to come. As Hestor, a suicidal woman who abandons her flaccid marriage to a good man for a passionate love affair in 1950, she is radiant and elegant in old-Hollywood fashion, but not a scene goes by where you can’t feel her conflicted emotions simmering just beneath the surface of her skin. The script is well written, but Weisz adds so much with her eyes and her mannerism and her puffs of smoke. Whether hopeful or melancholy, not a single gesture is wasted.
Arbitrage – Richard Gere for Best Actor and Nate Parker for Best Supporting Actor
Arbitrage requires Richard Gere to pour everything that makes him alluring as a movie star into a character that’s essentially a bad guy. That guy is Robert Miller, an extremely wealthy and likable businessman whose bad decisions all come back to bite him at the same time. Parker, displaying the intensity and charisma of a young Denzel, is a forgotten family friend who unwittingly gets dragged into Miller’s problems and may have to pay a hefty price. The conclusion might not satisfy everyone, but it’s worth it just to watch these excellent actors under pressure.
Amour – Louis Trintignant for Best Actor
I’m rooting for Emmanuelle Riva to take home the trophy on Sunday night, but Oscar voters failed to recognize that Amour is most devastating because it’s a one-two punch. Riva breaks your heart as a retired piano teacher painfully succumbing to old age, but it’s Trintignant as her husband who we empathize with the entire time. He’s helplessly forced to watch her deteriorate and he clearly loves her so much and oh God I need to stop typing before I cry…
Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director
Ben Affleck’s Best Director snub was the best thing that could happen to Argo, but what about poor Kathryn Bigelow? Zero Dark Thirty is a supremely well-crafted thriller that covers the hunt for Osama Bin Laden as thoroughly as possible in two and a half hours. Politics aside, the film should be judged by whether it’s successful as a film. The answer to that is obvious; ZD30 is a smart, taut and rousing entertainment. Bigelow was robbed.
Bernie for Best Adapted Screenplay
Bernie is like a cross between a Mike Judge comedy and a crime reenactment TV show. Jack Black and Shirley Maclaine play Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent, the most beloved man and hated rich old widow in Carthage, Texas, respectively. The town was turned upside down when it was discovered that Tiede murdered Nugent and hid her body while spending her money on gifts for the locals. The reenactment is intermingled with interviews of townsfolk, some of them the real deal, who share memories of Tiede and Nugent’s strange relationship, the murder and resulting trial. Director Richard Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth use the peculiar case to hilariously and affectionately capture the idiosyncrasies of small town living, but not without a dark streak and a hint of tragedy.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi for Best Documentary
Likely winner Searching for Sugar Man nabbed the feel-good doc nomination this year, leaving the other four spots for more “important,” socially-conscious fare, but I wish the Academy would’ve found room for the genuinely inspiring Jiro Dreams of Sushi. 85-year-old Jiro is an artist, and his outlet is sushi. He owns a world-renowned, 10-seat restaurant in Tokyo that requires patrons to book reservations months in advance. His secret? He loves doing it. He makes sushi every single day and each time he strives to make it better. Watching him delicately assemble each roll is calming and encouraging, because it looks so simple and repetitive and yet that’s his skill and he’s better at it than anyone else in the world. Anyway, now I have a new item on my bucket list: Go to Jiro’s.
Oslo, August 31st for Best Foreign Language Film
This film wasn’t Norway’s official submission for Best Foriegn Language Film, but it should’ve been. It’s a somber, contemplative look at a day in the life of Anders, a recovering junkie who takes a 24-hour leave from his treatment center to attend a job interview and catch up with old friends. Leading man Anders Danielsen Lie feels immediately familiar and still enigmatic and withdrawn. As he makes each pit stop on his journey, he feels progressively disconnected from a world that has clearly moved on without him. It’s an utterly engrossing trip that sticks like a haunting dream.
The Master – Best Picture, Jonny Greenwood for Best Musical Score and Mihai Malaimare Jr. for Best Cinematography
The Master is probably P.T. Anderson’s most flawed and confounding film. It’s still one of the best of the year. The Academy acknowledged its stellar performances, but failed to appreciate those who made it sound and look so unforgettable. Composer Jonny Greenwood was shamefully disqualified for his There Will Be Blood score in 2008 (I still hear the soundtrack in my head every time I walk somewhere with purpose), but instead of trying to right a wrong, the Academy ignored another brilliant score. And don’t get me started on the gorgeous cinematography.
Moonrise Kingdom for Best Picture
I can accept that The Master and Holy Motors are too weird and esoteric to be nominated for best picture, but there is no excuse for overlooking Moonrise Kingdom, especially with one Best Picture slot left vacant!. It’s a wonderful love story. A crowd-pleaser. It features not one, but TWO promising young discoveries as leads. It has a supporting cast filled with big names doing things we’ve never seen them do before. The fantastic script includes what’s probably the best movie line of the year: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s beautifully shot and put together. The music. The production design. The costumes. No excuse, Academy. No excuse.