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Movies That Deserved Best Picture Nominations

Oscars academy awards

By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

When it comes to the Oscar endgame — winning, losing, or just being in the running — it’s all about the numbers: the votes cast, promotion dollars spent, red carpets walked, interviews granted, pounds lost.

The most confusing count this year — and every year since 2011 — might be the number of movies nominated for best picture. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doubled the number of nominees from five to 10. Two years later, the rules were adjusted to allow more flexibility, and the academy has been increasingly flexible ever since. Nine films were nominated in each of the three years that followed, but this year only eight movies will contend for the academy’s most coveted award.

Why didn’t the academy use all 10 best picture spots?

Oscar experts like my colleague Glenn Whipp can go on about the ins and outs of the academy’s preferential voting and how a best picture nominee must get at least 5 percent of the early votes. Others say it just wasn’t a great year at the movies.

I disagree. Those blank spaces represent missed opportunities. Two chances for the academy, oft-criticized for conventional thinking, to be bold and surprising, to broaden the “best picture” umbrella and reconsider the category for a new age.

There are many years I would not only commend the members’ restraint, I would send along my sympathies, knowing how creatively bleak some years can be — how barren of interesting films, how boring.

But 2014? Hardly the case. It was a very good year, with wonderful surprises. From massive to mini, mainstream to indie, the movies were a delicious stew to be savored — for challenging topics, flights of fancy, sheer entertainment value.

Yes, the year brought its share of duds. Even more fell into that terrible mid-range we call mediocre. Of the eight that made the A-list — American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash — most deserve their place without question, and they represent a refreshing range of styles.

A couple, however, are enough on the bubble — American Sniper carried in on the back of Bradley Cooper’s performance, The Theory of Everything pushed over the biopic pro-forma line by Eddie Redmayne’s remarkable renderings — to make the two unfilled spots even more glaring.

Since the academy didn’t choose to choose, I will.

Here are the 2014 films that I feel should have been contenders at Sunday’s ceremony for Oscar’s top prize. They are the best movies that didn’t get a best picture nomination.

Image: Davidlohr beso, Flickr

most-violent-year

A Most Violent Year

This is a film with the kind of pedigree the academy usually embraces — and for good reasons. J.C. Chandor’s penetrating story is set in the crime-ridden New York City of 1981. A mob-defying Abel Morales is the good guy played with quiet calculation and exceeding care by Oscar Isaac. His wife, Anna, is a mob baby grown good, given an edgy gum-smacking verve by Jessica Chastain. The film didn’t hit theaters until the very end of the year. Screenings for awards-season glitterati came late as well. Perhaps that sealed this fast-forgotten film’s fate; for the most part, the movie has barely registered.

Ida

Ida

Border-crossing should happen more often. This foreign language nominee is so exceptional it deserved consideration alongside Hollywood’s best. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s stirring story of religion, identity, and faith is one of the more idiosyncratic cuts at the Nazi legacy to emerge. A Catholic novitiate named Ida, orphaned as a baby and raised by nuns, is asked to visit with her only surviving relative before she takes her vows. Her journey, depicted with stunning cinematography, is a soul-wrenching one. The performances by Agata Trzebuchowska as the title character and Agata Kulesza as her estranged aunt are searing. As the young woman discovers she is Jewish by birth, orphaned by the Catholic family who killed hers for their farm and the Nazi mentality that gave them the license, the very idea of the god one prays to is contemplated.

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler

The inclusion of this provocative outsider would have moved the academy beyond its comfort zone. But deserving? Yes. Rarely has Los Angeles seemed seedier than the crime scenes caught by the lens of a serial shooter. Conjured up by writer-director Dan Gilroy, it gave us one of those memorable characters who crawls under the skin so deeply he is impossible to shake. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, a freelance videographer trolling for shots of blood and guts that can be sold to the local TV news, is hungry in every sense of the word. Though the 30 pounds the actor lost added to the eerie look, it is his portrayal of an insatiable appetite for success that unnerves. The effect of Lou’s unblinking ambition is riveting. Between Gyllenhaal’s stirring acting and Gilroy’s scary telling, the film is psychologically chilling in just the way a well-crafted, Hitchcockian thriller should be.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

Very risky business for the academy to go so light, you may be saying. Au contraire. Though Guardians — part science fiction, part spoof — puts it about as far outside the academy’s best picture box as one could imagine, qualitatively director James Gunn’s aim was true. I realize it is not one of those quote-unquote prestige pictures, but the movie was extremely smart, well-constructed, well-acted, and absolutely entertaining, due in large measure to the engaging Chris Pratt as its charming space jockey and a wise-cracking animatronic raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). Rarely do films we love enough to see again and again make it in. Guardians was a real chance go with a rule-breaker and show that the academy is open to taking the not-so-serious films more seriously.

The Interview Seth Rogen James Franco

The Interview

Even riskier business would be the bizarre case for considering The Interview. With its farcical faux plot against North Korea’s parody-perfect leader Kim Jong Un, the silly Seth Rogen and James Franco slapstick became the most significant movie of the year. Not on the quality scale, mind you. No high IQ scores either. But thanks, or no thanks, to a very touchy foreign tyrant, The Interview became a symbol of free speech in America and the current poster child for squashing cyber-bullying rather than being merely a bad movie. I’d slip it in as No. 5 on my list, but I figure I’m already pressing my luck.

(c) 2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Johansson Mesmerizes While Getting ‘Under The Skin’

By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

To truly get “Under the Skin,” it’s helpful to come in with no preconceptions, no expectations, and just give yourself over to the primal ooze of the experience filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has created and Scarlett Johansson has made brilliantly, unnervingly real.

Watching this film feels like a genesis moment — of sci-fi fable, of filmmaking, of performance — with all the ambiguity and excitement that implies. It’s as if director and star have gone into some alien space to discover what embodies a person, exposing the interior dynamic of psyche and soul and its relationship to the exterior.

If that all sounds very abstract, not to mention bewildering, it is. Yet for all the esoteric notions floated, “Under the Skin” also affords concrete ways to see the world fresh through new eyes.

The film begins with the construction of that eye, a scene that leaves images and questions hanging in the air, creating a state of limbo that infuses “Under the Skin.” This moment comes like a quiet demand from the director as well: either accept or resist the abstraction. If resistance is your choice, walk out and spare yourself undue angst. If you accept, prepare for a sensory-saturated experience filled with ambient sounds and off-center reflections of life as we know it. The scenes, sounds and a score by Mica Levi linger and unsettle long after the lights have gone up.

Technically based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, in reality the movie sheds almost everything but the central conceit of an alien hidden inside a human form on the hunt for men and the Scottish setting. Good choices both. Where the novelist conjures up a vegan nightmare that involves farming, fattening and slaughtering to feed a starving alien race, Glazer, who wrote the script with Walter Campbell, pares it closer to the notion of what constitutes humanness itself.

Johansson strips everything away as well, including her clothing. But it is the emotional baring she does that is so riveting as her character goes from robotic to something closer to real. The actress is already building an eclectic body of work from the superhero of “Avengers” to the supercomputer voice of “Her.” In front of Glazer’s camera she is staggeringly, fearlessly uncomfortable in her own skin, the physicality of making her body seem like a foreign form is extraordinary.

The first half of the movie is spent on the logistics of the hunt and the disposition of the prey. None of the characters have names; all but Johansson are real people whom the actress spotted while driving the streets of Glasgow and seduced into her van. Director of photography Daniel Landin buried micro-cameras throughout the van’s front cab so that neither the actress nor the strangers can play to the lens.

It creates disassociation rather than connection in ways that are unerring but affecting. The back of the van hid Glazer, Landin and a skeletal crew. Another van followed so that releases from the unsuspecting could be gotten, makeup reapplied, hair properly mussed.

Outside the van, the film captures the ebb and flow of ordinary people on the streets of Glasgow and other Scottish locales. It serves to ground the sci-fi story and lends an air of authenticity to the look without feeling like a documentary. The serendipity of these scenes kept reminding me of photo-blogger Brandon Stanton’s ongoing snapshot series “Humans of New York.” Real moments, real people, real slices of life.

What happens to the men after they get into the van unfolds like a string of short stories. She begins to draw them out, to get a sense of who they are, what she needs to know to lure them into a house where the trap is laid. The patches of conversations will feel familiar, those first forays at connecting with someone else, the sizing up of one another that we tend as adults to do without thinking.

One exchange is particularly telling. A stranger with a disfigurement akin to the Elephant Man gets into the van. Where most would see ravages of the disease, she sees only a man, not registering the difference in appearance that would be the first thing the rest of us would see. Unplanned like the other encounters, it is exceedingly effective in underscoring Glazer’s quest to take us beyond the exterior.

For all the authenticity the filmmaker goes for, he is equally interesting when the film shifts to things not of this world. Glazer has always been a visual, experiential filmmaker. “Sexy Beast” did gangster somehow more darkly, “Birth” did death differently. But he’s never gone further than he has here.

When the action moves from the van into the house where the “animals” will be processed, the visualization moves to another plane of existence. The specifics of our world fade to undefined blackness, clothes fall away as do fears as the men follow her, everything slowing. It evokes a museum diorama of early man emerging from the muck, in reverse.

There are other mysteries. A man on a motorcycle, somehow a part of the alien operation, appearing and disappearing. A strange scene on a desolate stretch of shoreline captures Johansson’s status as observer, other, focused solely on her mission, unmoved by the drama unfolding around her.

The character’s turning point comes slowly as she begins to absorb what she sees. When it hits full force, you see what she feels, how she feels as she begins to become less alien, more like us. It is not an easy journey, nor comfortable as Glazer and his star reach for that new existence, that deeper humanity. The fiction and the truth of the film succeed as few movies do in getting under your skin.

Photo: Monsieur.J via Flickr