The Academy Awards are this Sunday and if you are anything like me you have a. . .mild interest in watching. Competition in the arts is, lets face it, a little silly. The Descendants and Tree of Life are both about troubled families, and are both brilliant, but how on earth do you compare the two?

But still, but still. . . the films nominated for major categories are almost always worth taking a look at. And some of ‘em may have slipped under your radar. Hence this week’s feature on Recent Oscar Nominees You Probably Haven’t Seen.

To help narrow our focus, I decided to only pick Oscar nominees from the last 20 years. Since I normally select eight titles (I’ve been consistent, in case you haven’t noticed) I decided to do one from the Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Foreign Language and Animation categories. Sorry Best Original and Adapted Screenplays, we’ll get you next time.

With that, let’s slip on our tuxes and update our rental queues.

Best Picture:

Gosford Park (2001); Robert Altman, director

As I was perusing the lists of the nominees from the past 20 years I nearly did a spit take with my Nesquik Strawberry Milk. Gosford Park got a Best Picture nomination? That’s awesome! How the hell did that happen?

The best way to sum up Gosford Park is to try and imagine a typical “Upstairs, Downstairs” PBS costume drama set in an English country manor, but filmed with Robert Altman’s trademark seat-of-your-pants, chaotic, dialogue-overlapping wide lens. Then throw in a murder.

The film stars all the usual British actors (Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Michael Gambon, Kristen Scott Th – do you really need me to go on?) but was actually produced and dreamed up by Bob Balaban. (Balaban, if you don’t know him by name, is a classic “that guy!” and an alumnus of the Christopher Guest mock documentary cycle.) Gosford Park is a unique take on the Merchant-Ivory template – daring enough to be original, but good enough to not resort to parody.

Best Actor:

Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool (1994); Robert Benton, director

I know that trailer looks horrible, but please, please believe me when I tell you this movie is actually fantastic. (It’s the music – those soprano sax licks, especially – that make me want to throw my laptop across the room. Really, Howard Shore, is that YOU?)

Anyway, yes, Nobody’s Fool is about slowly thawing out the cold heart of a crotchety old man, and that doesn’t seem too original, but when you have a pro like Newman (and a director like Benton, and source material like a Richard Russo novel) you don’t need all that many whistles and bells. You’ll be surprised how unlikable Newman plays it, and how far the story goes before they wimp out with the extreme close-ups of bittersweet smiles. The film also acted as the other side of Pulp Fiction in terms of saving Bruce Willis’ flagging career.

Best Actress:

Mary McDonnell in Passion Fish (1992); John Sayles, director

Before she was Laura Roslin she was one of John Sayles’ most complex characters in what might be my favorite of his films. The movie opens in a hospital bed where a dazed woman wakes up to realize she’s lost the use of her legs. The (now former) daytime soap actress returns to her family’s Louisiana home to convalesce. Here she befriends a nurse with her own set of issues (Alfre Woodard) and spark a doomed affair with a married man (David Strathairn).

Passion Fish is a heartbreaking film with no easy answers, but raw meat to powerhouse actors looking to sink their teeth into something. And speaking of actors, Passion Fish has one of the greatest and funniest monologues about the craft of acting ever put to film. McDonnell is on the sideline, but check it out by clicking on the words anal probe.

Best Supporting Actor:
Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan (1998); Sam Raimi, director

I felt like this movie was being ignored even while it was still a success in theaters. It isn’t campy like Raimi’s other films, but it is a remarkable piece of visual storytelling from a master craftsman. I love the Raimi of Drag Me To Hell but some day I hope to see him try his hand at another taut thriller like this.

A Simple Plan’s top achievement is Billy Bob Thornton’s nuanced performance as the seemingly slow-witted brother with the horrible haircut. Despite being the first to panic and draw blood to protect the group’s treasure, he is the one with the clearest moral sense and is, in his own way, most brave. It’s the type of performance that a lesser actor would just play broadly, but Thornton’s creative spin elevates the entire film.

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