Members of the motion picture Academy now have ballots in hand. Presumably many of them are reading these very words. So it feels like something of a duty to whisper a few suggestions, particularly as the awards season can so quickly be reduced to the same handful of names and titles.
First and foremost, there are a few contenders that seemed strong coming into the season, but have somehow been all but forgotten. Take Jake Gyllenhaal in “Stronger.” Here is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), dealing in a well-worn, Oscar-friendly genre (a biopic centered on a disabled person who beats the odds), featuring another great turn from an actor who has delivered a number of awards-caliber performances lately that have gone unrecognized by the Academy (“Prisoners,” “Nightcrawler,” “End of Watch”). What’s it going to take to put his name on the ballot?
Then there’s Ray Romano in “The Big Sick.” His performance is a funny, warm, endearing portrait of a father coping with a comatose daughter; her suitor, to whom he can only attempt to relate; and the colorful trail blazed by his firebrand wife, who’s emotionally estranged from him. Holly Hunter has deservedly been in the thick of awards buzz throughout, but Romano, like Gyllenhaal, only has nominal recognition from regional critics to show for his impressive work.
And what about Bria Vinaite in “The Florida Project?” A non-actor discovered by director Sean Baker on Instagram, she gives so much life and dimension to the film. Willem Dafoe has been the torch-bearer for the cast, and may be in line for his first-ever Academy Award, but Vinaite would likely be a foregone conclusion if she, too, were a well-known star. Perhaps her character is held against her; she plays a struggling single mother who’s clearly made bad choices in her life. There’s complexity there, though, if you’re willing to look.
Elsewhere, it would be great to see Andy Serkis (“War for the Planet of the Apes”) finally overcome the actors branch’s performance-capture bias. Sterling K. Brown is superb as the wrongfully accused Joseph Spell, represented by a future Supreme Court Justice in the very respectable “Marshall,” though that film appears to have become a casualty of distributor Open Road Films resetting its course in 2017. And while Melissa Leo is devilishly good as a convent Reverend Mother in “Novitiate,” little effort appeared to go into positioning that Sundance title in the race.
“You have a stack of screeners. Take some chances on a few.”
Performances in foreign films are often overlooked, but there are gems to be found. Claes Bang is simply brilliant as an art museum curator in Ruben Östlund’s modern-art satire “The Square.” Diane Kruger won the Cannes lead actress prize for her gut-wrenching work as a woman whose husband and son are killed in a terrorist bombing in Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade.” And one of the most electric and emotional performances of the year came courtesy of Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as an AIDS activist in Robin Campillo’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute).” All are worth a serious look.
And while we have your attention, in the crafts categories, spare some consideration for the cinematography of “First They Killed My Father” and “Hostiles,” the film editing of “A Ghost Story” and “Good Time,” and the original scores from “Logan” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” just to spotlight a few areas.
As ever, one can only hope Academy voters will look beyond the framework laid out by the season and, ahem, its analysts. You don’t have to conform. You have a stack of screeners. Take some chances on a few. But do it fast; you were given only a week this year to vote!