When the Academy Award nominations are announced, there are often surprises, sometimes including an underdog or two that may have burrowed their way into a finalist slot. It's rare, however, to find nominees who haven't been significantly promoted to Oscar voters or widely written about by award prognosticators.
As with every year, 2013 had its share of smaller, indie or under-the-radar releases with elements perhaps as strong as some of their more ballyhooed brethren. But without the marketing muscle (read: money) to push them front and center, most of these lesser-seen pictures had little to no chance of capturing the hearts and minds — and votes — of academy members. In other words, you have to lay the ground for a groundswell.
So, in honor of these many fine if relatively obscure candidates, The Envelope presents the third annual Level the Playing Field nominations, because there's always room for one more film.
Although documentaries are rarely thought of to compete in the best picture category, the superb "Letters to Jackie" should have been considered. The film, whose financing was independently raised by writer-director Bill Couterié, had a quick theatrical run last October only to air soon after on TLC. But that should in no way diminish its place as one of the year's most stirring films, as well as one of its finest documentaries.
One of a barrage of movies and TV specials timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, "Letters" was a brilliantly conceived, beautifully crafted portrait of JFK based on readings (performed by a starry cast) of actual condolence letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband's death.
Profound, lyrical and immersive, the film, though not necessarily of the visual sweep or narrative scale of such past best picture Oscar contenders as "JFK," "Frost/Nixon" or "Lincoln," was nonetheless an equally vital cinematic snapshot of American political history.
Anchoring the solemn but enormously powerful "The Patience Stone" was Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani, whose remarkable performance as a deeply conflicted Muslim wife tending to her cruel, now-comatose husband while confessing her darkest secrets should have, by all rights, qualified her for a lead actress nod. That is, had award voters been sufficiently exposed to the movie. (While "Patience" was Afghanistan's official foreign-language Oscar entry in 2012, it didn't appear in U.S. theaters until last year; screeners were not sent to academy members.)
Based on the bestselling novel by Atiq Rahimi, who directed the movie and co-adapted the script with veteran screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, "The Patience Stone" was a haunting look at extreme patriarchy and how women survive in such repressive cultures. Farahani brought unusual strength, resourcefulness and humanity to this engrossing and important film.
Last year was an unusually good one for actors, so even some of the most touted stars became also-rans. That said, busy Australian actor Joel Edgerton ("Warrior," "The Great Gatsby") gave perhaps his most effective performance yet in the exceedingly tense and emotional thriller "Wish You Were Here."
Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith from a powerful script he co-wrote with wife (and the film's costar) Felicity Price, this Aussie import combined the vacation-from-hell thriller with the best kind of personal mystery. As a seemingly average Joe torn from his comfort zone, Edgerton quietly stole the show — and should have made off with some awards season love as well.
Amid all the talk of Scarlett Johansson's literally all-talk performance in Spike Jonze's "Her," there's been nary a mention of the actress' vibrant, spot-on turn as a bridge-and-tunnel heartbreaker in writer-director-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt's bold, if somewhat underappreciated, comedy "Don Jon."
Playing the sexy, controlling Barbara, Johansson deftly embodied the title stud's would-be dream girl, replete with one of the most colorful "New Joisey" accents — and affects — this side of the Hudson River. Johansson could have given Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, who costarred as the similarly-cut Rosalyn in "American Hustle," a real run for her money. That is, if anywhere near as many folks took the modestly budgeted "Don Jon" — screeners of which were, in fact, sent to Oscar voters — as seriously as the more epic, higher-pedigree "Hustle."
Speaking of "Don Jon," comedy vet Tony Danza was egregiously overlooked for his hilarious portrayal in the film of Gordon-Levitt's old-school horn dog of a dad. Danza blustered his way through a series of edgy domestic encounters with his porn-addicted son, enjoyably commandeering every scene he appeared in with roguish charisma. And not for nothing, Danza, now 62, can still rock a tank top.
Recent Oscar-nominated comparison: Robert De Niro's obsessive-compulsive father in 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook." "Danza in the same breath as De Niro," you ask? In this case, yep. The onetime pro boxer and former "Who's the Boss?" star nailed it — and should've nailed the attention of Oscar voters.
Destin Daniel Cretton received much attention last summer — and rightly so — for writing and helming the foster-care drama "Short Term 12." But it's his work on the terrific, micro-budgeted "I Am Not a Hipster," which was fleetingly released early last year (it first screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival), that truly ranks him among the year's best directors.
Cretton, who also wrote the movie's prize-worthy script, brought such a deft eye and sharp ear to this deeply affecting, lovingly shaped tale of a talented musician (skillfully played by Dominic Bogart) at odds with himself — and his art — it would have seemed exceptional for a filmmaker's fourth or fifth picture. That it was Cretton's debut feature made it that much more impressive.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun