The Oscars may be as much of a meritocracy as most high school elections, but that doesn't mean they can't serve as a force for good. Despite how easy it is to entirely dismiss the entire affair — and the endless glad-handing and yearly coronation of undeserving winners make it pretty easy — the fact remains that drawing any amount of attention to movies and performers as varied as Dogtooth and Tilda Swinton can only be regarded as a good thing when it actually happens. That cautious optimism is the impetus behind this second annual roundup of the films that should be Oscar-nominated but probably won't be.
By far the most awe-inspiring film of the last 12 months was Leviathan, a documentary about fishermen, filmed off the coast of Massachusetts. The imagery captured by co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel is unreal: seagulls hovering above the stormy waters before diving under the surface to seize upon the chum, POV shots of GoPro cameras making that same plunge, the inner workings of the blood-soaked boat itself. Leviathan won't get anywhere near an Oscar nomination — whether for Best Documentary or Best Picture, which is where it belongs — but it was the purest example of cinema's unique power to hit screens in 2013.
Not as outwardly abrasive but equally masterful was Museum Hours, whose director, Jem Cohen, deserves to be recognized on a much wider scale than he already has. The story of a security guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum striking up a friendship with a woman in town to visit an ailing relative, the film is among the most patient and understated examinations of human interaction you're ever likely to see. It's also one of the most affecting. Cohen's direction is sensitive, more nuanced than it might initially appear to be, and perfect for the story he's telling. It's exactly the kind of behind-the-camera outing the Academy sets out to recognize in theory but rarely does in practice.
Four people received screenwriting credit for Reality: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso and director Matteo Garrone. Split the Best Screenplay award four ways and call it a day. As implied by its title, the film tells of a fishmonger who gets talked into trying out for the Italian equivalent of Big Brother and ends up taking the prospect dangerously seriously. The four scribes who put this tale together playfully engage with our culture's reality TV fixation, yes, but their depiction of obsession as a slippery slope, which seems harmless at first but has the power to take down entire families, is what makes Reality's silly-sounding concept take on such disheartening implications and ideas.
In front of the camera, the first performance that comes to mind is Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt. He won Best Actor at the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival for his portrayal of a man falsely accused of molesting a small child in Thomas Vinterberg's divisive drama and would more than warrant an Oscar nomination. The Danish thesp is always game, whether as a Bond villain in Casino Royale or as Hannibal Lecter in the latest TV show bearing the cannibal's name, but he's on another level here.
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Andrea Riseborough similarly carried Shadow Dancer, an intelligent thriller set in 1993 Belfast — a place and time that likely tells you exactly what James Marsh's film is about. An English actress who's just now beginning to receive the same level of acclaim here that she has garnered for years on the other side of the Atlantic, Riseborough is so expressive that she hardly even needs to speak. When she does, the musicality of her voice makes her performance even more deeply felt than it already is.
Whither the love for the Best Supporting Actress of the year, World War Z's Daniella Kertesz? The Israeli actress made the zombie apocalypse bracingly human as a near-silent soldier whose too-small role brought layers of depth to an otherwise boilerplate blockbuster. Performances like hers have the power to make a movie seem better than it is, and Kertesz stole every scene she was in.
Ditto James Franco in Spring Breakers. The multihyphenate's broad range of projects and interests sometimes makes him an easy target for claims of insincerity or simply being a dilettante, but when he's on, the guy is genuinely compelling. Harmony Korine's ode to (or indictment of — it's kind of hard to tell with him) excess and greed vis-à-vis the American dream finds its most compelling voice in Franco's Alien, a dreadlocked rapper whose rendition of Britney Spears' "Everytime" may well have been 2013's most transcendent five minutes of cinema.
Franco was at once the unlikeliest, most obvious-in-hindsight candidate to play this utterly absurd embodiment of avarice, a confluence that comes along rarely. Stunt casting forever, y'all.