Oscar Voters: Keep These Vital Actors and Movies in Mind as the Season Takes Hold

Sending up a flare before these entries end up buried under the rubble of the season.

Oscars: Can Jack O'Connell, Other Underdogs
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions/A24

This week, Variety kicks off its coverage of the 2015 Oscar season in style, with our annual Awards Launch issue. But as we dive headlong into a fray that is bound, as ever, to recycle familiar talking points and contenders, we would be remiss not to pause to shine a light on worthy players who may well end up getting buried in the campaign avalanche.

Yann Demange’s “’71,” part of a triptych of films that introduced the world to actor Jack O’Connell, premiered at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, but remains one of the best films of 2015. (It was finally released in February.) A nail-biting cross between “Judgment Night” and “Bloody Sunday,” and set along Belfast’s tumultuous Falls Road during the height of 1971’s Catholic/Protestant strife, it’s a unique playground for O’Connell, compared with his breakout work in “Starred Up,” and his stab at gravitas in “Unbroken.” Featuring stirring photography, razor-sharp editing and Demange’s perfectly tuned helming, it’s worth catching up with this one.

Ditto Sundance bow “Mississippi Grind,” released Sept. 25. Writers-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck hit a speed bump with 2010’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” but with penetrating dramas like “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” they had already brought a unique vitality to the indie scene. In “Mississippi Grind,” a character study of a man with a gambling addiction, Ben Mendelsohn delivers a wonderfully layered performance that’s so palpable you can almost feel the tremors in your stomach. Still, it’s hard to see him competing with other thoroughly marketed big guns, even with savvy distributor A24 steering the ship — though the scrappy New York outfit is clearly coming into its own with films like “Ex Machina,” “The End of the Tour” and “Room”.

Another young indie distributor serving the art house well is Broad Green Pictures, with offbeat films like Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes.” That film, which began its journey at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, has stirred deserved talk for Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, though Laura Dern is easy to take for granted in a less-carved-out role. Most notable, though, might be Bahrani’s efforts on the page, creating the kind of character-focused, genre-flirtatious work that scored points for “Nightcrawler” last year.

Elsewhere, while Blythe Danner and Lily Tomlin have rightly drawn awards chatter for their performances in “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and “Grandma,” respectively, Sam Elliott delivers breathtaking supporting performances in both films — enigmatic and slick in “Dreams,” spurned and quite complex in “Grandma” — and makes both turns look effortless.

Finally, while “Love & Mercy” certainly looks to remain on the radar, staying fresh in voters’ minds thanks to intimate, once-in-a-lifetime, Brian Wilson concert events — and John Cusack and Paul Dano are sure to draw continued enthusiasm for their dual depictions of the fragile artist — here’s hoping Elizabeth Banks’ beautiful, empathetic performance (the heart of the movie, really) can stay in the conversation.

There’s also Bel Powley’s complex portrait in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” the intriguing metaphor of David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows,” and Jason Segel’s spin on David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour” to consider.

And these are all just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully voters can find time to sample the work of these worthy contenders as more robust Oscar campaigns rev their engines throughout the rest of the season.