I am not the half of Gobbledygeek who loathes the Oscars; in fact, they’re an annual tradition in my house. This year, we even ponied up for chocolate Oscar statuettes powdered with gold. We don’t mess around. Amazingly, I even liked seven of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees (the odd ones out being War Horse and, ugh, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). At the same time, I realize that the Academy often fails to recognize some truly brilliant films, and in the interest of counter-programming, I thought I’d point out some of the ones it missed this year.
These films didn’t garner a single Oscar nod this year (if it wasn’t for Sound Editing, Drive would be all up in here), and were actually eligible by Academy rules (otherwise, I would have spotlighted The Sunset Limited yet again, alongside the hilarious concert film Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater).
We’ve got 11 great movies here, divided up into three categories. To get us started…
BOLD FEMALE PERFORMANCES (aka, FUCKED-UP GALS)
There were a number of breathtaking performances by leading actresses this year; it’s just a shame that the Academy only nominated two of them (best of luck to Rooney Mara and Michelle Williams). First up, on the relatively sane end of the spectrum, we have Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary in Young Adult, a YA author who has deluded herself into thinking that she can stroll into her hometown and seduce her high school sweetheart away from his wife and newborn daughter. Going into the awards season, it seemed like Young Adult was bound to be nominated for something: Diablo Cody’s uncomfortable screenplay, a sharp departure from Juno cutesiness; Patton Oswalt’s painfully familiar take on the nerd Theron ignored in school; and especially Theron’s fearless performance. She does not concern herself for one instant with whether or not you like her, and the film is all the stronger for it. Instead, Meryl Streep got nominated for imitating Margaret Thatcher and Glenn Close for one of the worst performances of her career. Good job, Oscars!
Saoirse Ronan, another former Oscar nominee, also delivered strong work as the titular teen assassin in Joe Wright’s Hanna. Ronan was good in Atonement, but in Hanna, she really made me sit up and take notice. Not a single moment of her performance felt false; it was one of the crowning achievements in a year full of wonderful child performances. Unfortunately, Ronan never had a shot at a nomination, which can’t be said for my next pick: Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Newcomer Olsen gave one of the most unforgettable performances of the year as a young woman struggling to escape the cult mentality she’d been brainwashed into. Olsen’s absence was perhaps the most surprising moment of nominations morning. In addition to Olsen, first-time writer-director Sean Durkin deserved recognition for his subtle, intricate screenplay.
Then, on the far end of the insanity spectrum, we have Tilda Swinton as the mother of a Columbine-type killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Swinton is one of the best actresses in film right now, and I say this without even having seen her acclaimed turns in Julia and I Am Love. However, her devastating work in Kevin is proof that there aren’t many better than Swinton in the biz right now. Director Lynne Ramsay jarringly cuts back and forth through time to show Swinton’s character falling apart at the seams, and Swinton conveys that mental unraveling in as quiet and imperceptible a fashion as possible. Apart from the justly nominated Mara, Swinton gave the best performance of any actress last year.
DYSFUNCTIONAL MEN (aka, FUCKED-UP GUYS)
Another of Oscar’s more surprising omissions this year is Woody Harrelson as a corrupt member of the LAPD in Rampart. Harrelson has made a career out of playing mentally disturbed psychopaths, and his work in Rampart may be his finest yet. Much like Vic Mackey before him, you get the sense that Harrelson’s Dave Brown does the terrible things he does in part because he believes he’s actually protecting his family. It’s a sad, powerful performance. And speaking of sad and powerful–not to mention fucked-up–you don’t get more, well, any of those things than Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. Shannon has become typecast as the craziest weirdo in the room, but there’s a reason for that: he does it better than anybody this side of Nic Cage. As a man who is either witnessing apocalyptic visions or slowly becoming unhinged from reality, Shannon elevates his typical work with an extra added layer of pain and heartbreak. Spine-tingling stuff.
On the less fucked-up side, but definitely still dysfunctional, there’s Jacob Wysocki in Terri. Unlike most teenage outcasts you see in the movies, Wysocki’s Terri feels like a genuine outsider. Every inch of his performance radiates the kind of awkwardness any loner can relate to. The film also features memorable turns from John C. Reilly as the assistant principal at Terri’s school and Creed Bratton as Terri’s Alzheimer’s-addled uncle. Even less fucked-up is my next choice, but I had to find somewhere to slot it in: Super 8, which nevertheless did feature Joel Courtney as a young man grieving his mother and coming to terms with his absentee policeman father, played by Kyle Chandler. We here at Gobbledygeek have discussed this film numerous times, but hey. It’s great.
What does Steve James have to do to get the Academy to throw him a bone? His 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, one of the most revered docs ever made, only got a Best Editing nomination. Last year, he returned with The Interrupters, a film almost as powerful, only to get zilch from Oscar. Never mind that, though; it was the best documentary of 2011, and a film you should see as soon as possible. Its subject is the Chicago-based organization CeaseFire, which seeks to interrupt street violence by sitting down the opposing parties and having them talk through their issues. Of course, not just any voices would be heard by those seeking to do harm, and that’s why CeaseFire is made up of former criminals, gangsters, and murderers. If you’ve seen it, you already know how many tears it inspires, and if you haven’t, well, get on it.
My last two picks both concern themselves with venerable musicians. The first is Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which rendered a portrait of the quiet Beatle as a man caught between his spiritual Hare Krishna ways and his materialistic rock star lifestyle. Though the first half of the film once more recounts the oft-told Beatles saga, the second half comes blissfully to life with never-before-seen home movies and rehearsal footage. If Scorsese was able to explore new facets of one of my musical heroes, with Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe was able to do something perhaps even more admirable: make me realize just how much I loved a band I’ve only ever been a casual admirer of. I think Pearl Jam has made some great albums, but they’re kind of like the grunge U2 in that people are so caught up in mocking Eddie Vedder’s earnestness that it at times becomes difficult to celebrate the actual music he and his bandmates make. Crowe’s warm, honest, and eye-opening film makes it less difficult.
So there you have it: 11 great films which the Academy didn’t see fit to honor this year. You can enjoy the Oscars’ lavish, self-important spectacle–I know I will–but if you’re looking for something else to do Sunday night, you can’t go wrong with any of these movies. Either way, enjoy.