January 23, 2012

Overlooked Gems Before Oscar Time

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Nomination announcements. “For your consideration” ads. Red carpet disasters. Yes, that time of year is upon us again: Oscars season. Movie buffs and critics alike are usually able to predict the nominees, and some surprises are usually sprinkled into the mix. But it’s not only what movies and actors get nominated for the most prestigious award in film that shocks us; it’s what is criminally neglected by the Academy that really leaves us floored. 2011 saw countless films receive well-deserved award recognition (see The Descendants, The Artist and Midnight in Paris, just to name a few), but it also saw a fair amount of appallingly overlooked performances and films. Here are the films you should have seen last year, and that deserve far more award recognition than they received, if any.

If any group took Hollywood by storm this year, it was women of comedy (just ask the ladies from that little movie called Bridesmaids). But the girls had their fair share of drama in 2011 as well. The prize for the most shamefully overlooked performance in a film in 2011 is that of Hollywood veteran (which is hard to believe at the ripe age of 30) Kirsten Dunst in Lars Von Trier’s apocalyptic masterpiece Melancholia. As a bride whose psyche crumbles as a disastrous planet threatens to obliterate the Earth, Dunst manages to capture both her character’s sheer newlywed bliss and unbearable depression exquisitely. Despite her big win at the Cannes Film Festival, Dunst just couldn’t score big nominations stateside for the best performance of her career.

Some of Dunst’s other female counterparts also brought their own devastating portrayals to two of the year’s least-watched films. As the gloriously self-centered and oblivious ghostwriter for a teen novel series dwindling in popularity, Charlize Theron brought a surprising and subtle amount of tragedy to the greatly underrated Diablo Cody penned Young Adult. Theron’s Mavis Gary gradually stripped away her forever-young persona, leaving the film with an unexpectedly heartbreaking conclusion.

On a completely different plane, Rooney Mara’s portrayal of goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander was nothing short of mesmerizing. While the film boasted an impressive marketing campaign, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, grittiness and all, performed so poorly at the box office that the film’s producers were initially reluctant to complete the trilogy. But there’s no denying that Mara’s incendiary performance struck a chord. At times horrifying and at others vulnerable, Mara perfectly captured Salander’s simultaneous take-no-prisoners toughness and her girlish innocence. After catching our attention in that unforgettable opening scene in last year’s The Social Network, Mara shocked us all not just with her 180-degree transformation, but with her lack of prestigious nominations.

While we were met with this year’s Academy Awards nominations this morning, we can’t help but be aghast by the lack of sufficient awards recognition that these ladies have received thus far. But while they sit tight and wait for their moments in the Oscar spotlight, we still have their performances to watch and cherish, and later write angry letters to the organizations that neglected their cinematic turns.

Who gave the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences the final say?

Zealous Hollywood types spend months patting themselves on the back, and the Oscar ceremony closes the season with a bombastic coda. They have sure crowned the wrong king in the past (Raging Bull and Citizen Kane’s perplexing losses come to mind, as does the complete lack of recognition for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Dark Knight). The Academy praises much differently than critics or audiences; they crudely mesh the two and have a soft spot for sentimentality.

So, while your favorite movie might not pick up the Oscar for Best Picture this year, comfort yourself with the simple fact that none of this matters. There were dozens of stunning films, performances, directors and other creative minds that will likely pass the purview of the Academy tomorrow morning when the nominees are announced.

Alongside sure nominees Hugo and Midnight in Paris, my favorite film this year was 50/50, a movie with an unnaturally high ratio of viewers to vocal admirers, about 1/1, 50/50. This cancer-themed dramedy balances its somber subject matter with some racy, guttural laughs. Joseph Gordon-Levitt provides a haunting canvas for pain and acceptance far beyond his years (someone who looks like him could die??). Veteran Angelica Huston hits home as a paranoid, grieving mother and even Seth Rogen works. It is hard to be cynical about a story that stares down the abyss of despair and laughs it off.

Another atypical comedy shines in Beginners, the story of a man (Ewan McGregor) who lost his elderly father to cancer only a few years after he came out as gay. Christopher Plummer, who plays this father in the many flashbacks, is about a lock for the Supporting Actor Oscar, and deservedly so. Accepting his long-hidden secret, he throws himself into the world as the man he really is discovering joy and energy hardly seen in even a teenager (the opposite of Gordon-Levitt’s role, really). It is a beautiful performance anchoring a beautiful film, one that finds laughs with its profound Jack Russell Terrier who offers McGregor silent dating advice, and touches the heart with a minimalist, indie feel that shows people you could have known for years.

Little fanfare preceded A Dangerous Method, and why it went ignored defeats me. David Cronenberg’s latest dips into the bizarre with some explicit depictions of a mentally insane woman (played by an almost too convincing Keira Knightley). The discussions between famed psychoanalysts Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) parry with genteel grace and never demote to shouting fits, for men of the mind would already know who won. The deterioration of their once-mutual relationship proves fascinating, and we come to terms with the reality that results from two men who live in dreams.

The haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, hypnotic Drive, cathartic Warrior and crowd-pleasing Super 8 and Harry Potter will likely go shunned by the Academy as well. Money keeps those last two sleeping at night, but the admiration of viewers will immortalize the rest. Or maybe I am just wrong and Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill will take home the prize. In that case, no one wins.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos