Four Movies I Can’t Believe We’re Not Talking About

There were a lot of people who were expecting to have a very good morning when Oscar nominations were announced on January 16th. Cate Blanchett, slept well; she was going to the Oscars! My fellow bloggers were learning how to spell, Chiwetel Ejiofor, because he was getting an Oscar nomination! If you worked on the movie Gravity, you were already discussing your pressing tux issues and meeting with designers, because the Academy Awards were gonna come a callin’.

Every year there are disappointments, exclusions and snubs of such magnitude that they make you forget that there are real travesties happening in the world. You think you’ve got problems child in a Third World country without clean water? Tom Hanks didn’t get nominated for ANYTHING. True, Brie Larson was always going to get overlooked for her work in Short Term 12, and Robert Redford got left out of the overly competitive Best Actor race for All Is Lost. But the key thing is: at least we were talking about those movies. Those performances are all part of the conversation—their merits will be debated through the Oscar season and beyond.

What I’m talking about here are movies that were not even in consideration. Films and performances that were not just overlooked, they were not even on the tip of anyone’s tongue. These are performances that were too subtle to get noticed  or films that underperformed or movies that just couldn’t keep up with the Weinsteins’. These are four movies I can’t believe we’re not talking about this award season.

Should’ve been part of the conversation for: Best Picture, Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Best Actor (Hugh Jackman), Best Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo, Viola Davis), Best Original Screenplay (Aaron Guzikowski)
Prisoners is a taut, complex, morally-complicated revenge-thriller that isn’t easy to watch and even harder to like. Spoiler alert 1: It’s a major downer. But it’s good. So-so good. Hugh Jackman leads a stellar cast as Keller Dover, a recovering alcoholic father who will go to extraordinary lengths to get the truth about his daughter’s disappearance.  When I say extraordinary lengths, I don’t mean mounting a search party—I mean torturing the mentally ill, prime suspect (creepy Paul Dano) he suspects is hiding something. Spoiler alert 2: He is! Spoiler alert 3: Twist! It’s not what you think! The shocks are ongoing, the resolutions are not easy,  and you don’t ever know whom you’re supposed to be rooting for.What. A. Whirlwind. 
Last year, Jackman earned his first-ever Oscar nomination for his work in Les Misérables—he’s even better here in a significantly better movie. As the skeptical, determined Detective Loki, Gyllenhaal gives the best performance of his career. You know, a lot of talk has been made about Matthew McConaughey’s career resurgence as a character actor, but it seems no one has noticed that Jake Gyllenhaal has been delivering staggering performances these last couple of years in smaller films (End of Watch and Source Code) which Prisoners all but ignored. The key is although your loyalties switch throughout the film, even when you don’t like Loki, you still respect him. The cast is rounded out by Maria Bello as Jackman’s grief-stricken wife, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as a couple whose daughter is taken along with Jackman’s, and Melissa Leo as Dano’s aunt. Davis, as expected, makes much of her small role and is heartbreaking. The film rests on Melissa Leo’s ability to sell the punch line in the last act of the film—she nails it. In the end, the film belongs to director Denis Villeneuve, who makes his English language debut with unwavering confidence, handling the complicated subject matter with ease.

Don Jon

Should be part of the conversation for: Best Original Screenplay (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Best Supporting Actress (Scarlett Johansson)
Has anyone else noticed that this will be the third consecutive fall that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be in a fantastic, original film that will be totally forgotten come Oscar time? Last year it was Looper, which was the best kind of mind-bending mind-bender, and the year before 50/50, one of the best depictions of a cancer battle ever filmed (not to mention adult relationships between mothers and sons and a bromance for the ages). There was also Premium Rush, but no one’s perfect. Now it’s time to sigh a big sigh of disappointment, knowing that JGL will once again not hear his movie make the short list.
Don Jon tells the achingly current story of Gumba Jon, who is so good with the ladies his buddies give him the eponymous nickname. Jon’s only problem is that no matter how much talent he pulls night after night, all he wants is to spend time with, err, himself, his laptop and loads of porn. I believe this is called a champagne problem. He tries to quit his porn addiction when he meets Barbara Sugarman, who has her own sick addiction: the kind of love that only exists in terrible romantic comedies. She’s played by Scarlett Johansson; so a lifetime of sitting through Valentine’s Day or Leap Year seems worth it.
The script is sharp, funny, touching and incisive. Most of all—it’s refreshingly original, and that’s all thanks to Gordon-Levitt, who wrote the screenplay and made his directorial debut. Even if the screenplay wasn’t so rewarding, you’d almost want to nominate him just to keep artists like him inspired. But it is worth it, so that point is moot.
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The cast is fantastic, and it’s a neat bit of nostalgia when you realize that Gordon-Levitt cast Tony Danza, his co-star from Angels in the Outfield, as his hothead dad. Also, Brie Larson gives one of my favorite performances of the year—if there was an Oscar for the best three-sentence performance she would be a shoo-in. All that being said, the film belongs to Scarlett Johansson. Already generating Oscar buzz for her voice-only role in Her, Johansson gamely uses her entire presence to make Barbara the kind of girl (yes, girl) that could make a guy like “Don” Jon convince himself that he loves her—all while feeding into her own deluded view of what love and relationships are. If you’re from the NYC area, you instantly recognize Barbara as someone you’ve met/dated/hooked up with/worked with/sat next to on the bus. However, the real beauty of the performance is that regardless of where you’re from, once you take away the accent and the big hair, Johannson makes Barbara Sugarman just as recognizable as someone anyone would know.

The Way, Way Back

Should be part of the conversation for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell), Best Original Screenplay (Jim Rash and Nat Faxon)

This movie made a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival last year and was supposed to be the next Little Miss Sunshine. (Are we still looking for the next Little Miss Sunshine? It’s like saying you’re trying to launch the next Napster.) Instead it entered theaters, made a bit of money and faded away without any real momentum to push it towards the award season glory it deserved. And what a shame.
The story is simple: shy kid Duncan (Liam James) spends summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her jerk of a boyfriend (Steve Carrell). Kid finds surrogate family with wacky employees at local water park. Growing, hugs and coming of age ensues.  In the wrong hands, this could’ve been a cloying nightmare of a film—too precious by half. But in the deft hands of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who co-star, write, and make their directorial debut, the movie is funny and unexpectedly powerful in its depiction of adolescence. It is the rare film that can make you feel like you are pulling back the curtain and getting a glimpse into a very specific moment in someone’s life. Rash and Faxon, dialing into their own teenage years, prove their Academy Award win for The Descendants was no fluke.
Furthermore, Sam Rockwell, an underrated actor whom I have never been as enamored with as others, is pitch-perfect as Owen, the man-child owner of the water park who takes a lost Duncan under his wing. The script spins a refreshing take on the Bill Murray character from Meatballs-meets-Robin Williams-from Good Will Hunting, but the mischievous twinkle in Rockwell’s eye sells it. On the other end of that spectrum, Carrell is shockingly unlikable as Trent, whom we are introduced to by seeing him ask Duncan to rate himself. “I think you’re a 3.” Ouch, dude. Carrell does a lot with this character and resists the urge to make Trent even remotely likable. That takes guts from a guy who is most famous for making Michael Scott the World’s Best Worst Boss.
Frances Ha

Should be talked about for: Best Picture, Best Director (Noah Baumbach), Best Actress (Greta Gerwig), Best Original Screenplay (Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig)
I loved this movie. Loved. Sure, it may have been written-off as a big screen version of the polarizing vortex that is Girls (HBO series—it even co-stars Adam Driver!), but maybe that’s not so bad. In fact, the perfect summation of the film is pretty much this Hannah Horvath quote: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance…” That’s the start of the story for Frances (a sublime Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner)two BFFs in their twenties in a very  brooklynee Brooklyn. Frances is in a perpetual state of being in her twenties—she’s a “New Yorker,” but she doesn’t really have any money or a stable place to live. She’s an apprentice at a dance company, but she doesn’t have the goods to be a dancer. She’s fascinating, because she’s absolutely lost, and has no idea about it. Until, of course, Sophie starts showing signs of growing up, and the two begin to grow apart.
The film, directed in crisp, perfect black and white by Noah Baumbach, never makes the pain of Frances and Sophie’s distance seem juvenile or immature, even when Frances is the most immature person on the screen. To Frances, her friendship with Sophie is coming to an end, just because Sophie has decided to put roots down with a solid, but not spectacular guy. As the audience watches, we know these two aren’t growing apart, they’re growing up and entering an even better phase of their friendship. The film never panders to Frances. The obvious truths of the film are due, in large part, to Gerwig’s performance as Frances. Frustrating, funny, flawed and fearless, Gerwig has a true star-is-born moment.  The movie feels like footage from a lost, great Woody Allen film. Had it been, maybe we’d be talking about more during award season. 

Eddie Mouradian

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