Once Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and New York introduce fistfuls of films to the awards race each autumn, it can feel as though the commentariat’s collective memory of what came prior has been erased. With the calendar racing toward deadlines for Academy shortlists and guilds and critics groups preparing to vote, we thought it high time to offer a reminder about eight early-year releases that deserve consideration.
(Mark Harris conducted an informal poll on Twitter, and four of our choices landed in the top ten vote-getters: “Queen of Earth,” “The Duke of Burgundy,” “Mistress America,” and “Clouds of Sils Maria.”)
READ MORE: “Oscar Predictions 2016 (UPDATED)”
“The Duke of Burgundy”
Peter Strickland’s exquisite “The Duke of Burgundy” is so far from the Oscar race it may as well be stranded with Matt Damon on Mars, but it’s undoubtedly one of the year’s highest achievements. With reference to psychological horror, European erotica, and even black comedy, this pas de deux between two kinky lesbian lepidopterists is as fecund and fetishistic as its central relationship—credit to Nic Knowland’s gorgeous cinematography, Pater Sparrow’s impossibly rich production design, and finely tuned performances by leads Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna. Like the rare butterfly of the title, the mere sight of it will leave your heart racing, and for that it deserves every award in the book.
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
The prolific Alex Gibney’s thorough—and thoroughly disturbing—investigation of the Church of Scientologyis, like so much of the director’s work, is a fastidiously constructed argument against powerful special interests. Though the film was re-released in September, following an initial theatrical run and HBO premiere in the spring, Gibney’s careful, journalistic approach may have hurt him in the Best Documentary race against sexier, more salacious portraits such as “Amy” and “Listen to Me Marlon.” It’s time for his powerful exposé to return to the conversation.
READ MORE: “5 Things to Expect From Alex Gibney’s Damning Scientology Doc ‘Going Clear’ (Trailer)”
“Clouds of Sils Maria”
In this complicated, fretful examination of art, fame, and aging, writer/director Olivier Assayas weaves misty Alpine vistas with a thrillingly intimate, combative relationship between iconic star Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Though she disappears before the extended epilogue, Stewart’s Valentine is a mordantly funny, intelligent creation, and a worthy adversary for Maria. Stewart is unlikely to nab a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but one can hope the Academy follows the French example: they rightly awarded her a Cesar for the role earlier this year.
READ MORE: “Kristen Stewart Explains How She Held Her Own with Juliette Binoche in ‘Sils Maria’—and Won a Cesar”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“Mad Max” is almost sure to collect a flotilla of crafts nominations, and possibly a Best Picture nod, so it’s not quite right to call it “forgotten.” Still, it’s worth remembering Charlize Theron’s ferocious performance as Imperator Furiosa—all the more impressive, perhaps, for being constructed almost without dialogue—and especially George Miller’s visionary direction come Oscar time. Though the “Mad Max” franchise may be outside the Academy usual “prestige” wheelhouse, its auteur’s propulsive style is as artful as anyone in the Best Director race.
READ MORE: “‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Sequels: Where Are We Now?”
“Testament of Youth”
Alicia Vikander’s stunning performance as World War I nurse Vera Brittain is the obvious choice here—though, unfortunately, it’s likely to be overshadowed by “The Danish Girl”—but it’s the film’s studied evocation of Brittain’s eponymous memoir that stands out from the more hopeful epics that often feature in awards season. Would that writer Juliette Towhidi were among the contenders in adapted screenplay. Aided by James Kent’s fine direction, Towhidi captures the stricken spirit of the text: first romance, then funeral march, “Testament of Youth” is a small antiwar classic, run through with Brittain’s valor.
READ MORE: “London Fest Review: Heartbreaking ‘Testament Of Youth’ Stars Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander”
On the original screenplay side of things, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s latest collaboration manages to capture the dark anarchy of classic Hollywood screwball for a new generation: as with the equally delightful “Frances Ha,” if you are of a certain age, the comedy of “Mistress America” will cut you to the bone. (Gerwig’s performance deserves attention as well, but let’s not get greedy.)
“Queen of Earth”
After losing out once again at the Emmys for her career-defining performance as Peggy Olson, on “Mad Men,” it would be poetic justice to see Elisabeth Moss win a few prizes—more likely from critics groups and the Indie Spirits than the Academy, if we’re being realistic—for her unraveling in “Queen of Earth.” (The same goes for Katherine Waterston, in a role that requires her to keep her cards much closer to the vest.) Still, the key to director Alex Ross Perry’s beautifully crafted knockout, an intimate affliction in extremis, is Robert Greene’s editing, turning our attention from the sun-dappled to the ice-cold and back again as an idyllic weekend in the country becomes a psychological nightmare.