Each Oscar season, many are called, but few are nominated — and, if you ask us, not all of them are as deserving as some other candidates. Here are 10 instances where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Snubs (er, Sciences) overlooked a worthy nominee from last year.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Acting draws on so many things: gesture, costume, makeup, props, facial expression, body language, voice. What happens when a performer has recourse to just one of them? More than that, what happens when the sheer plausibility of the movie hinges on so constrained a performance? Well, when it’s Scarlett Johansson, using just her voice as she plays Samantha, the computer operating system in “Her,” the result is a triumph. That voice — that performance — is the most human, humane, and expressive in the movie.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
The powerhouse performance from Lupita Nyong’o, as Patsy, is expected to win best supporting actress. But this category should have had two nominees from “12 Years a Slave.” In the unsympathetic role of Patsy’s tormentor, Mistress Epps, Sarah Paulson’s chilling, vicious presence helps create the constant threat of violence on the plantation that gives the film its powerful sense of dread. With a fearlessness that echoes Bette Davis, Paulson plays Mistress Epps as a monster — her sudden hurling of a vase at Patsy’s head is one of the film’s most devastating moments.
Give this award to a film shot with an antique video camera? The images may be drab in Andrew Bujalski’s sui generis human-versus-computer chess showdown set around 1980. But the concept is brilliant — a period film about advances in technology shot with the technology that was in use at the time the film takes place. Instead of surface beauty, cinematography should be judged as an integral part of the whole. Here it’s so integral it’s almost unwatchable.
Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” was snubbed for a best documentary nod by an Academy in love with Big Issue or agenda docs. It was a frustrating omission for a nonfiction film that pushed the boundaries of the genre, playing with form in a way that reflects and illuminates Polley’s theme about the slipperiness of the past and what we believe to be true. No documentary has ever been Oscar nominated for best picture or best director, and only four women earned nods in the directing category. But this inventive and deeply moving film would have been an inspired choice. The film paints a portrait of Polley’s mother, Diane, who died when Sarah was just 11, and investigates the mysteries about a long-rumored family secret. But it’s really a meditation on the murkiness of memory and how storytelling helps create order out of a messy and unknowable past.
Rodney Ascher’s study of the many themes supposedly running through Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is bonkers. Presented through the words of a group of “experts” on the 1980 film, we get clips aplenty, and we’re told, authoritatively, what it’s really about: the genocide of the American Indians, suggests one; the labyrinth in Crete, with Jack Nicholson playing the Minotaur, insists another. Wait, here’s a quote from yet another: The story “has its birth in the idea that Stanley Kubrick was involved in faking the Apollo moon landing.” Great stuff! It at least should have been nominated as the looniest documentary of the year.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Haifaa Mansour’s funny and poetic debut should have been a contender not just because it is the first film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia, but because it is one of the best films made by anyone in 2013. This simple tale of a Saudi girl who wants to buy a bike critiques her society but also shows the humanity it holds in common with our own. At least it won the Boston Society of Film Critics’ award.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Amid Hollywood’s endless end-of-the-world claptrap taking us from “Oblivion” to “Elysium” and back, this little modest Austrian gem went all but unnoticed. A woman (Martina Gedeck, from “The Lives of Others”) visits a remote mountain cabin, and gets cut off from humanity via some invisible, palpable and existential barrier, forcing her to forage for food, and madly keep a journal to stay sane. Director Julian Pölsler’s grim but gorgeous meditation on solitude and the pre-civilization natural world is far more Cormac McCarthy than Tom Cruise. The year’s finest post-apocalyptic offering, with nary a Rock ’em Sock ’em Giant Robot or alien invasion in sight.
It’s not as if German-born composer Zimmer has a history of being overlooked by Oscar. He won a statuette for “The Lion King,” and has been nominated another seven times. But some of the inclusions and omissions are odd. A nod for “Sherlock Holmes,” but not for “The Dark Knight”? Or for “Rush,” Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing drama? Zimmer’s propulsive mix of guitars and electronics takes the mood of his recent work and turns it even more harrowingly urgent — like his “Inception” score custom-remixed for a Danny Boyle acid house playlist. A perfect sound for a movie all about the thrill of the chase to the finish line.
With the Academy’s bias toward seriousness and substance, there’s no way this novelty number was going to be nominated. But it’s a novelty number that does especially well what a song in a movie is meant to do. It advances the plot. It illuminates the characters. It alters the movie’s rhythm and flow. Witty and tuneful, the song is the one bit of natural cheer in an otherwise-uninterrupted parade of characteristically Coenian sourness and sneers. “Please Mr. Kennedy”? Please Motion Picture Academy.
The superhero slot in this category understandably went to “Iron Man 3” and its 42 suits of teched-out armor and its high-flying Air Force One rescue. But “The Wolverine,” while uneven, does deliver one of the year’s most stunning set pieces: Hugh Jackman’s X-Man battling Japanese gangsters atop a speeding Shinkansen bullet train. Tokyo flashes by, mutant claws scrape for traction, combatants hurtle to strike — or to their doom. It’s an action cliché made to feel as if we’re seeing it for the very first time — a trick that’s pretty magical even for movies.