The Best Recent Oscar Nominees You Probably Haven't Seen

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.

Best Suporting Actress:

Amy Adams in Junebug (2005); Phil Morrison, director

Everyone who saw this sharp Sundance indie knew that Amy Adams had what it took to become a major movie star.

What makes this film so remarkable is that it is nuanced enough to headfake like it is going to poke fun at Southern stereotypes, then reverse to make you think it is actually a heartwarming tale about loving family for who they are, then it breaks once more to conclude that – gasp! – all people are individuals and few people are either saints or demons.

Okay, so I just made this movie sound really heavy. In actuality, it's a really smart, character-based comedy that has been completely forgotten now that Adams is, indeed, a big star.

Best Director:

Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 2007

That trailer lays it on a little thick with the affirmation of life jazz, but if it came out and said "this is a movie about a guy where all he can do is blink" it'd be pretty tough to get butts in seats. It also does a decent job of hinting at just what a visual feast this movie offers.

Indeed, how the hell do you tell a story about a guy who can only lay in bed and blink? For one, you find the warmth and humor in every situation, then you go nuts with the associative imagery. Schnabel is willing to try just about any filmmaking trick to get you to empathize with his characters. Bonus points for making a film in French when he is, in fact, American. If you believe the press, he taught himself the language prior to production.

Best Foreign Language Film:

Four Days in September (1997); Bruno Barreto, director

Sorry the above trailer is in Portuguese with what is French and (I think) Flemish subtitles. But you may get a sense of the heavy drama going on.

It's the late 1960s and the corrupt Brazilian government is oppressing its citizens like the day is long. A group of idealistic radicals, most of them good people, realize they can only get the international attention they need if they do something big. Someone suggests kidnapping an American diplomat. In retrospect, not a good idea.

There are few films that personalize a political struggle as well as this film. You grow to love all the characters, you grow to hate all the characters. This is essential viewing for anyone who likes to make blanket statements about sweeping world affairs.

Note: don't confuse this one with One Day in September (the very good documentary about the terrorists at the Munich Olympics) or Four Days in November (a documentary I haven't seen about the Kennedy assassination made by Mel Stuart.)

Extra Points!!

In 2003, the most deserving Foreign Language Film actually won the award with the Quebecois picture The Barbarian Invasions. For God's sake, please don't check out the trailer online – it makes it look like the worst Miramax schmaltz you'll ever see. It is actually a sublime character study of a group of friends converging to say goodbye to a dying friend. Watching this film was almost like a religious experience for me. It doesn't bullshit, it doesn't talk down to you, but it leaves you with a sense of peace that is absolutely breathtaking.

Best Animated Film:

Chico & Rita (2011); Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, directors

We're gonna close out with something that's up for a nomination this year. No, I don't actually think it deserves to win (Rango 4 Life!) but this is a really fun and charming animated film for grown-ups. And if you are a fan of classic jazz, it's a must-see. (It's not often you'll get to see a cartoon rendering of Thelonius Monk, you know.)

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