To care about the Oscars is to be continually disappointed. Low-key films unexpectedly attain presumed–front-runner status by sweeping the critics’ awards, only to fall victim to last-minute surges by unworthy usurpers; sentimental favorites get nominated time and again so that out-of-nowhere upstarts can dash their dreams. Why we keep allowing the Academy to (in)validate the movies and performers we care about is something of a mystery, but it certainly has to do with legacy. Tom Hooper will always have beaten David Fincher for Best Director, regardless of how much better The Social Network was (and is) than The King’s Speech; Alfred Hitchcock, Judy Garland Peter O’Toole will never win one.
As the Academy prepares to announce the nominations on Thursday, let’s again get our hopes up and reflect on the worthy movies and performers who should (and, conceivably, could) be nominated — but probably won’t.
Kristen Stewart, for instance, became the first American actress to win a César award (read: France’s version of the Oscar) for her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria. She also dominated the L.A. Weekly/Village Voice film poll in the Supporting Actress category — seriously, she received more than twice as many points as her closest competitor — in addition to winning the New York Film Critics Circle award and being named runner-up by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. All these richly deserved accolades have translated into conspicuously little momentum with Oscar.
Whether that has more to do with the false-but-enduring perception of Stewart as untalented or the film’s nonexistent awards-campaign budget is difficult to say, but it’s a shame nevertheless. As the assistant to a renowned actress played by Juliette Binoche (herself a Best Supporting Actress winner), she has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shrewdness that not even her employer tends to notice; it’s subtle, sure, but difficult to overlook unless you haven’t seen the film itself, which is likewise superlative.
Michael Shannon has won a number of plaudits for his work in 99 Homes. It’s a characteristically solid turn from the preternaturally intense actor but not actually his best of the last 12 months. That would be The Night Before, in which his frightening presence is filtered through the stoner-humor sensibilities of a Seth Rogen comedy. As Mr. Green, the aging pot-dealer to stars Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie, he waxes philosophical about The Great Gatsby, accurately predicts the future and compliments Miley Cyrus on a killer rendition of “Wrecking Ball” at an underground, invitation-only Christmas party. It’s a hilarious, vaguely mystical performance from an actor we’re used to being afraid of — an ever-present fear that Shannon uses to his advantage in every one of his too-few scenes.
Singling out but one thespian in The Hateful Eight is something of a fool’s errand, given the awe-inducing work of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins, but the ensemble’s backbone is undoubtedly Samuel L. Jackson. As he often does, the endlessly quotable actor gives fierce expression to Quentin Tarantino’s verbose script, nowhere more so than in a monologue that gets more vulgar and explosive throughout. (You’ll know it when you see it.) Jackson’s illustrious career includes a single Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in Pulp Fiction, so rewarding him for an equally distinguished collaboration with Tarantino would be fitting.
The phenomenon of foreign auteurs transitioning into Hollywood careers continues to fascinate, with Denis Villeneuve being the latest case in point. After scoring a Best Foreign-Language Film nod for Incendies five years ago, the Quebecois filmmaker directed Prisoners (which disappointed) and Sicario (which didn’t). Emily Blunt anchored the latter with grit and aplomb as a neophyte CIA operative looking to do good in a system more concerned with maintaining the status quo. Blunt has quietly emerged as one of the most consistently excellent actors working over the last few years, something the Academy would do well to finally recognize.
Sometimes, though certainly not always, the Best Original Screenplay prize functions as a consolation prize for films that are too weird to win the big one. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy certainly fits that description — a lesbian romance, it’s heavy in butterfly imagery and hardcore S&M. It’s also a surprisingly thoughtful look at compromise of all kinds between romantic partners, whether they’re into nerdy conferences or being locked in a trunk all night long. (As for Adapted, give it to Brooklyn, and call it a day.)
Not that we needed it, but Blackhat provided further proof that no one can frame an action sequence like Michael Mann. He makes globe-trotting cybercrime feel punishingly real in his vastly underrated exploration of the unseen forces that threaten to throw the world into disarray at a moment’s notice, each soaring bullet and falling body landing with a sickening thud. There’s an immediacy to Blackhat unlike anything else released in theaters last year; future viewers seeing it for the first time will reflect on how ahead of its time it was.
Ever since expanding the Best Picture field to as many as 10 nominees, the Academy has occasionally seen fit to act hip by throwing a bone to successful genre fare — think District 9 and Inception. This year that spot will likely (and rightfully) go to Mad Max: Fury Road, but they ought to make room for one more: It Follows. The best horror film in years is a total experience, rich in dread-laden atmosphere that washes over you in waves.
Spotlight — apparently the film to beat in this category — is a tasteful paean to the power of workaday journalism, lionizing the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the full extent of the Catholic Church’s sex scandal without the usual bombast. It also just sits there on the screen, solid but flat. David Robert Mitchell’s chiller, meanwhile, announces itself as a capital-M movie like few others. No horror movie has been nominated for Best Picture since The Sixth Sense more than 15 years ago. Not many have been this good, either.