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Dear Academy Award Voters: Don’t Sleep On These Talents

Dear Academy Award Voters: Don't Sleep On These Talents

It’s a big day. After weeks and months of campaigning, backbiting and (this year especially, it seems) increasingly dirty tricks, Oscar nomination ballots are due tonight, marking the end of the nomination process (with the announcement to follow next Thursday).

All being well, Academy members have been working their way through the pile of screeners (or even better, checking the movies out in theaters), and have hopefully come to a decision based simply on what they like most. But it’s also easy, with the countless precursor awards and Oscar blogs establishing a narrative early, for them to go with the flow.

So in the few hours left until voting closes, we wanted to highlight a few films, performance or filmmakers in the top categories who we think deserve recognition from Oscar voters but who aren’t necessarily the usual suspects. We’ve tried to stay clear of those who are likely to or who have a decent shot at be nominated, so if your favorites are missing, that may be because we’re predicting they’ll be nominated. Unless your favorite is Aaron Eckhart in “I Frankenstein.” If you’re an AMPAS member, please consider the following as much as you’re thinking about the Cumberbatches and co. If you’re not, you’ll be reminded of or introduced to some of the best on and off-screen work of 2014. Take a look below, and let us know who you’d be voting for in the comments.

Best Picture

To be frank, we’re still hopeful that “Selma” will be a Best Picture nominee (and pick up plenty of others), but with the film’s shock omission from the PGA Awards this week, our confidence is a little shakier than it was, and so we wanted to use this space to sing its praises to any Academy members that haven’t yet voted. Ava DuVernay’s rousing, rigorous drama is the rare film that manages to be ‘important’ Oscar bait while also proving to be complex, exciting and powerful cinema, and full of cracking performances, not least David Oyelowo’s revelatory central turn as Martin Luther King. Assuming Paramount remembered to actually send out screeners this time, this has to be a Best Picture nominee.

It’s curious that one of the most daring choices the Academy could make this year would also be one of the biggest-grossing. Christopher Nolan’s latest might be flawed and unruly, but for all its issues it’s a film that’s infinitely more ambitious, strange and indeed cinematic than half of the movies that will (or might) end up being nominated this year (“The Imitation Game,” “The Theory Of Everything,” “American Sniper” et al). Both giant and tiny in scope and deeply personal in every frame, it’s a stirring and impeccably made whole, even if some of the individual parts aren’t entirely successful (that means you, space-headbutting Matt Damon).

Inherent Vice
The Master” did better than expected a few years ago, picking up multiple acting nods, but the chances of “Inherent Vice” doing anything similar are pretty slim —reportedly most Academy members, at least the ones who finished the screener, loathe the film. Nevertheless, we’d love for a hardcore, passionate fanbase of voters to step up and nominate Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, a bravura extended display of mood and atmosphere that, while it might not be telling the clearest story (quite deliberately, we should add), might be the director’s most satisfying film since “Magnolia” and one positively stuffed with great performances.

Also For Your Consideration:
“A Most Violent Year,” “Leviathan,” “Listen Up Philip,” “Mr. Turner”

Best Director

Dan Gilroy – “Nightcrawler”
Dismissed by many (including, uh, us) as ‘not an Oscar movie,’ “Nightcrawler” has been steadily proving everyone wrong as it continues to surprise with nods from the PGA, WGA and SAG, among others. Unless the DGA surprises next week, one accolade it’s unlikely to pick up from the Academy is a Best Director nod, which is a shame, because Gilroy delivered an enormously confident first feature film. Sure, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance and Robert Elswit’s photography are the stars of the show, but it’s Gilroy that pulls it all together into a lean yet complex whole, a film that looks like a thriller but doesn’t quite function like one. Gilroy’s brother Tony was a nominee for “Michael Clayton,” and it feels almost unfair that the latest member of the family to move into directing should be ignored for a film almost as strong as his older brother’s.

Bennett Miller – “Foxcatcher”
Though he was nominated for feature debut “Capote,” Miller missed out on a directing nod for “Moneyball” a few years back, and it seems pretty likely that this will repeat for passion project “Foxcatcher,” even if the film lands in the Best Picture line-up (as seems increasingly likely). It’s not quite surprising: Miller, as Jess discussed brilliantly here, is a sort of invisible auteur, whose films don’t contain trademark stylistic tics or continuity of casting but share a thematic obsession, meticulous filmmaking and brilliant performances, and “Foxcatcher” is the best example of his method to date.

David Fincher – “Gone Girl” 

Speaking of meticulous: David Fincher. The “Seven” director has a couple of nominations under his belt thanks to “Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network,” but whether or not “Gone Girl” makes the Best Picture ten, it’s unlikely that he’ll pick up a third nomination. He doesn’t particularly care, but it’s a shame if one of his richest, smartest and funniest films will end up going unrecognized. Gillian Flynn’s novel might have made a decent thriller in the hands of another filmmaker, but Fincher elevates it, his wry misanthropy and eye for hypocrisy and absurdity transforming the material from airport thriller to malevolent social satire. All without putting a frame out of place.

Also For Your Consideration:
Jonathan Glazer for “Under The Skin,” James Gray for “The Immigrant,” Mike Leigh for “Mr. Turner,Matt Reeves for “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.” And we’re still confident that Ava DuVernay is nominated for “Selma,” because anything less would be a tragedy. 

Best Actor

Channing Tatum – “Foxcatcher”
Who’d have thought a few years ago, when he was mostly a ‘Charming Potato’ punchline, that one of the finest performances of the year would come from Channing Tatum? Sony Pictures Classics’ (reasonable) decision to campaign for both Tatum and co-star Steve Carell in the Best Actor race means that the former has little chance of a nod, but he’s just as good and just as much of a revelation: he plays Mark Schultz as the “ungrateful ape” that Carell’s John du Pont calls him at one point, turning increasingly inwards with melancholy and self-loathing. The film misses him when he drops away in the final stages, and it’s a mark of how far Tatum’s come that you can say that.

Tom Hiddleston – “Only Lovers Left Alive”
Given how closely he’s associated with his breakout role of Loki in the Marvel movies, it’s easy to overlook the fine work that Hiddleston’s been doing away from comic book movies: in his early roles in Joanna Hogg’s films, as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight In Paris,” and in Terence Davies’ mournful “The Deep Blue Sea.” But his finest hour to date was in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” in which Hiddleston gives a subtly hilarious and sweetly disaffected turn that proved once and for all that the young British actor is the real deal. Hiddleston even risks stealing scenes from co-star Tilda Swinton (the pair making the sexiest screen couple in years), and few higher compliments can be paid.

Oscar Isaac – “A Most Violent Year”
Jessica Chastain’s getting a lot of praise and acclaim for her work in J.C Chandor’s brilliantly chaste crime and morality drama “A Most Violent Year” and it’s easy to see why: she’s Jessica Chastain; her character is a kind of Machiavellian mastermind; and it’s the most showy of performances in this controlled and restrained movie. But equally good but in a totally opposite manner is her Juilliard comrade Isaac, who’s in deep in the pocket in service to Chandor’s muted but simmering movie. Isaac’s role is the movie, a tale of the American dream gone wrong and of the immigrant who incorrectly believes he is taking a virtuous, above-the-fold approach to his business. But as his hands get a little dirtier, he becomes more and more compromised, eventually reaching a point where the facade is broken. Isaac’s Abel Morales character is proud but simmering with an angry resentment for the perceived price he has to pay for being “righteous.”

Also For Your Consideration:
Jesse Eisenberg in “The Double,” Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,Joaquin Phoenix in “Inherent Vice,” Russell Crowe in “Noah,Tom Hardy in “Locke,” “Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man,” Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar,” Chadwick Boseman in “Get On Up.

Best Actress

Gugu Mbatha-Raw – “Belle”/”Beyond The Lights’
While we’re pleased to see her getting a deserved boost (she’s booked starring roles opposite Will Smith and Matthew McConaughey in recent months), it’s outrageous that Mbatha-Raw could give not one but two of the best performances of the year and yet fail to break into a Best Actress race that most describe as a weak one. In both Amma Asante’s “Belle” and Gina Pryce-Bythewood’s “Beyond The Lights,” she movingly captures two women born two centuries apart and who are unsure of their place in the world, and did so with ferocity, compassion and pure star quality. It’s surely only a matter of a few years before Mbatha-Raw is nominated, but she should have been this year.

Marion Cotillard – “Two Days One Night”
The Dardennes aren’t exactly known for working with big names: Jeremie Renier is about as far as they go (and no, that’s not French for ‘Jeremy Renner’). But the astonishing turn by Oscar winner and Batman villain Cotillard in “Two Days One Night” suggests that they should do it more often. De-glammed and appearing in virtually every frame, Cotillard plays a woman recovering from depression who has to persuade and plead with her colleagues to reject a bonus so that she can keep her job. It’s a turn of quiet desperation but also of immense humanity, with the force of will that it takes not just to go door to door to her colleagues, but also to get up in the morning, which is entirely visible on the actress’ face throughout (she’s also great, obviously, in James Gray’s “The Immigrant”).

Emily Blunt – “Into The Woods”
Into The Woods” is a long way from being a good movie, but it contains some very fine performances, from Meryl Streep as the witch (who will be nominated, obviously), to James Corden’s sweet leading man and Chris Pine’s hilarious Pierce-Brosnan-does-George-Michael extended cameo. But the absolute highlight is Blunt, as is the case with most things that Emily Blunt does these days. In a wildly different performance from her similarly excellent turn in “Edge Of Tomorrow,” Blunt is a total knockout. Her loose, goofy energy enriches the character of the Baker’s Wife, her perfect comic timing providing most of the film’s big laughs and lending genuine pathos. Plus she sings her bloody heart out too. Is there anything the woman can’t do?  

Also For Your Consideration:
Jenny Slate in “Obvious Child,” Tessa Thompson in “Dear White People,” Scarlett Johansson in “Under The Skin,” Tilda Swinton in “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

Best Supporting Actor

Toby Kebbell – “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes”
It would feel very strange for someone other than Andy Serkis to be nominated for an acting award for a performance capture role, and yet Kebbell is so good in “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” that he steals the film from right under the mo-cap pioneer. The British actor, known for “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “Control” among others, plays Caesar’s right-hand-man turned nemesis Koba in the ‘Apes’ sequel, and with only a few barked words and an endless array of facial movements makes him into one of the most complex and rich villains in years. The scene where the scar-faced ape plays the fool for a pair of human guards before switching on a dime into an act of brutal violence is something of a mini-masterclass.

Riz Ahmed – “Nightcrawler”
As the straight man (to a degree at least) in Chris Morris’ outstanding satire “Four Lions,” Ahmed should have broken out in a big way, but it somehow failed to arrive. Dan Gilroy was clearly paying attention, though, casting Ahmed as Jake Gyllenhaal’s navigator/gofer in “Nightcrawler,” and in a film with two other great turns already, he proves to be more than a match for his better-known co-stars. Effortlessly playing both American (he’s a Brit) and about ten years younger than his age, Ahmed adds much-needed notes of humor, horror and nerviness to the film while subtly becoming ever-more like his shark-like mentor as the film progresses.

Scoot McNairy – “Frank”
Having appeared in “Argo” and “12 Years A Slave,” the last two Best Picture winners, McNairy is seemingly everywhere. Although he’s always excellent, the wiry character actor made his greatest impression yet with his killer supporting turn in “Frank.” In a weird little film, McNairy might be the weirdest aspect, the initially seemingly-sane manager of the Soronpfbs who turns out to have both suicidal depression and a particularly strange fetish. McNairy’s unpredictable and off-kilter energy pleasingly unsettles the film’s first half, and in leaving it provides its biggest gut-punch. He makes such an impression on the film that one Playlist staffer remains convinced that McNairy, not Michael Fassbender, is actually the actor under the Frank mask.

Also For Your Consideration: Josh Brolin in “Inherent Vice” (though he may be nominated), Tyler Perry in “Gone Girl,” and the aforementioned Chris Pine in “Into The Woods.”

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Ryan – “Birdman”
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and, in this category, Emma Stone are all seemingly assured of Oscar nominations for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman,” but one of our favorite performances in the film is one that we haven’t heard getting much of a shout out elsewhere: the great Amy Ryan, who plays Keaton’s ex-wife in the film. Many of the roles for women in the film are either fantasy figures (Andrea Riseborough) or straw-women for purposes of points-scoring (Stone, Lindsay Duncan’s critic), but in only a few brief scenes, Ryan creates a flesh and blood individual, one still fond of her ex-husband and increasingly concerned for him, even if the reasons for the split remains palpable. Ryan continues to be a secret weapon for many top-flight filmmakers, but hopefully one helmer will soon give her a part that earns the same recognition she received for “Gone Baby Gone” a few years back.

Carrie Coon – “Gone Girl”
David Finchers latest is positively stacked with great character-actor work from the assembled cast, enough so that there was some fierce competition for this slot alone (we could have also included Kim Dickens‘ wonderfully weary, smartest-person-in-the-room detective too). But it was Coon who demanded inclusion in the end. A recent Tony-winner who also broke out on the small-screen this year in “The Leftovers,” Coon plays Ben Affleck’s sister in the film, establishing an unfakeable rapport with the star while also introducing an ambivalent closeness that the film’s tabloid press blow up into something queasier. That aside, Coon’s the moral center of the film, and her reaction at the end is arguably the most wrenching and powerful moment in the film.

Rene Russo – “Nightcrawler”
It says something about the number of roles for women above a certain age that Russo only made a relatively small number of films since the year 2000, most notably thankless cameos in the “Thor” franchise. But fortunately, Russo’s husband Dan Gilroy wrote her a plum part in his directorial debut “Nightcrawler,” and it’s one that she knocks out of the park. Playing Nina, the ruthless local news producer who becomes a mentor/lust object/target for Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, she excels as a smooth and seemingly heartless operator who finds that the next generation down makes her own seem warm and fuzzy. Her mounting horror and yet increasing interest at or in Bloom is one of the most memorable beats of a hugely memorable film.

Also For Your Consideration:
Tilda Swinton in “Snowpiercer,Rose Byrne in “Neighbors.”

Best Cinematography

Bradford Young – “Selma”/”A Most Violent Year”
Award nomination snubs are collateral damage and part of the fabric of judging art; there’s only so many slots available and someone’s not going to make the cut. But it must be said two huge jaw-gaping snubs in the ASC Cinematographers Guild were the absence of Robert Elswit (see below) and Bradford Young. Both cinematographer have had banner years, knocking out two of the best looking movies of the year each. Young, the DP from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Middle Of Nowhere” is easily one of the most formidable talents in the field right now. But in 2014 he proved he’s up there with all the contemporary greats and needs to be treated as such. In “Selma,” he proves once again he’s the greatest thing to happen to black skin on film since Gordon Parks: the levels of texture, nuance and dimension he captures is astonishing, and he makes 1965 look utterly authentic and lived-in. In J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” he’s doing similarly exemplary work. It’s dark and moody ala Gordon Willis’ amber and ochre tones in “The Godfather,” but it’s also doing its own thing (man that chase sequence is something else and so good we listed it in our 17 Best Action Sequences of 2014).

Robert Elswit – “Nightcrawler”/”Inherent Vice”
A favorite of Paul Thomas Anderson, George Clooney, Brad Bird and others, Robert Elswit had perhaps the finest year of a very fine career in 2014 thanks to a pair of pictures that confirmed him as one of the finest cinematographers working today. Elswit’s one of the great urban DoPs, working to great effect with “Nightcrawler,” which featured perhaps the most atmospheric and definitive look at L.A. at night on screen since Michael Mann’s “Collateral,” cunningly mixing digital and 35mm to wondrous, electric effect. Elswit then took a very different look at the same city forty-odd years earlier with regular collaborator PTA for “Inherent Vice,” shooting on glorious sun-dappled film, magically and beautifully evoking a time and place hat no longer exists. It might just be Anderson’s most gorgeous-looking film to date, and it’ll be an injustice if Elswit isn’t nominated for either.

Greig Fraser – “Foxcatcher”
With “Bright Star,” “Let Me In” and “Zero Dark Thirty” among his credits this year, it seems like an injustice that Aussie DoP Fraser doesn’t have an Oscar yet (or even a nomination). Even with “Foxcatcher” surging of late, it seems like Fraser won’t crack the field this year for his stunning work on Bennett Miller’s film, which is a damn shame given that it was one of the most striking-looking films of the year. Muted and wintry, blending docudrama realism and almost heightened metaphorical images, it’s the perfect mix of beauty and ugliness that, as with Miller’s film in general, is always sure to let the performers lead the way. We saw the film in Cannes on the day that Gordon Willis died, but we’re sure that the late great cinematographer would have been proud of Fraser’s work here.

Also For Your Consideration:
Seamus McGarvey for “Godzilla,” Jeff Cronenweth for “Gone Girl,” Hoyte Van Hoytema for “Interstellar

— Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

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