Earlier this week, I brought your attention to several movies coming out in the next month that are likely to get nominated for Oscars in January. Although December is traditionally the time for Oscar contenders to be released, movies have been coming out all year, and plenty of them deserve to be in the awards conversation. I’ve selected 10 movies we shouldn’t forget about as we compile our year-end lists. Here are the first five – look out for part two next week.
Of all the movies on this list, Beasts of the Southern Wild is most likely to find itself an Oscar nominee come January. Director Benh Zeitlin (who also composed the popular score with Dan Romer), cinematographer Ben Richardson, and especially young star Quvenzhané Wallis have all received high praise. The film, which won top awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, is arguably the indie darling of the year, but it only made $11.2 million domestically, and there are many more mainstream options that might edge it out of the Oscar race. That would be a real pity, as Zeitlin’s raucous, rambunctious tale of a young girl surviving the decline of her southern Louisiana homeland and the death of her father is undeniably one of the best movies of the year. Simultaneously deeply painful and full of the ecstatic joy of childhood, it – like its protagonist – is a tour de force, and will last much longer than this awards season, no matter its short-term fate.
Like Beasts, Looper has a decent shot of scoring some Oscar nominations – if it doesn’t at least get nominated for Best Makeup for transforming Joseph Gordon-Levitt so convincingly into a young Bruce Willis, I’ll be pretty confused. But Looper deserves far more than one or two technical nominations, though it’s undeniably a feat of below-the-line talent. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s script, which tells the story of an assassin who kills people sent back in time from the future, and who must face off against an older version of himself, is a minor marvel. In addition to building a wholly distinct and plausible sci-fi universe, complete with possibly the smartest use of time travel I’ve ever seen, Johnson imbues his characters with deep psychological drives and yearnings, and elegantly weds plot to emotion throughout the movie. The actors are also excellent across the board, particularly Emily Blunt – easily the best thing about the film – and the boy who plays her son, Pierce Gagnon. Read my review here.
If Beasts of the Southern Wild represents the future of cinema – it was written and produced by a slew of people in their twenties and deals with a community that is distinctly post-racial reacting to the results of global warming – then The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies, might be said to represent the old guard. Adapted from the 1952 play by Terence Ratigan of the same name, The Deep Blue Sea takes as its subject a woman living in post-war Britain who has left her older husband for a dashing young ex-RAF pilot who also turns out to be a narcissistic brat. But though we’ve heard this story before – and will again, in the form of Joe Wright’s currently-expanding adaptation of Anna Karenina – the movie is never anything less than full-blooded and vital. Though it may seem old-fashioned, its dedication to probing the ugly underbelly of the central relationship feels thoroughly contemporary. The Deep Blue Sea also happens to boast two of the year’s very best performances: Rachel Weisz has never been better than she is here, and rising star Tom Hiddleston cements the promise he exhibited in Thor and The Avengers. When they inevitably are passed over by the Academy on nomination day, there probably won’t be anybody who was more unfairly snubbed. Read my review here.
Wildly divisive from the get-go, Prometheus has somewhat unfairly become the butt of many jokes online for its sizable plot holes, and complaints about its unresolved, philosophical conclusion have distracted from its significant strengths. Full disclosure: I liked this movie a lot. The plot holes didn’t bother me much, and the ending didn’t leave me feeling cheated. But even for viewers who did find certain things about the movie frustrating, there was much to admire. Prometheus is a technical marvel: stunningly shot and inventively designed, it also features some of the best CGI work I’ve ever seen. Only twice during its two-hour runtime did I actively think about the fact that the monsters and gore I was seeing had been made by computers. And let’s not forget how eerily perfect, how malevolently sympathetic the great Michael Fassbender is as David, the resentful android onboard the ship who sets the plot into motion. He deserves a nomination for the hair-dye scene alone. (Well, maybe not – but still, that scene was pretty great.) Read my review here.
Return is a small film that tells the story of Kelli, a woman who struggles with reacclimatizing to her husband, daughter, and the small town where they live after returning from her tour of duty in Iraq. Director Liza Johnson mounts one of the most sensitive and realistic depictions of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that I have ever seen, and the fact that her protagonist is a woman, and specifically a mother to a young girl, makes her film all the more noteworthy. For such a modest enterprise, the cast list is impressive: Linda Cardellini, of Freaks and Geeks fame, plays Kelli, with support from Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) and John Slattery (Mad Men). But though Shannon and Slattery may be the biggest names in the credits, the movie belongs to Cardellini, whose performance is utterly astonishing. Though she appears to be a marvel of restraint, the viewer can nevertheless sense palpably that Kelli is perpetually on the verge of losing her fragile composure. Cardinelli feels strongly enough about the movie that she is funding an Oscar campaign for her performance in order to raise the profile of the film, a startling commitment for an individual actor.
Return is available to rent online from Amazon for a mere dollar – do yourself a favor and check out this underrated gem.