As the Academy Award season has now opened its door of greeting, and Hollywood has begun the dance of screening next year's hopefuls to voters, entertainment thoughts turn to visions of sugarplums and movies that got overlooked. "How could that person not get nominated?!!" is a traditional refrain one hears bemoaned annually around water coolers.
(Why anyone is actually, deeply concerned about this, unless you're a Hollywood agent - or didn't get nominated yourself - is another matter entirely.)
But stepping back a moment, what about movies that get literally overlooked? Not movies that got some notice, but just weren't deemed one of the "five best" in a category. Not movies that had their fair shot, but simply didn't catch on.
No, what I'm talking about is something very different: wonderful and noteworthy movies from the previous Oscar season that were so utterly unsuccessful you may not have even heard of them. Major movies with major stars from major companies that barely got promoted when they were released, and when award season came, their companies didn't bother to re-screen them for voters.
Four movies from the previous Oscar season come to mind. The criteria here are movies that 1) got so completely dumped that you may likely not even be aware of them, 2) were not obscure, little films to begin with, but rather high profile, and 3) were gems.
Being a gem doesn't mean they're intended for everyone. Most gems aren't. But they all are beautifully crafted, intelligent and wonderfully entertaining for the audience they were meant.
By the way, the question is not "Why didn't audiences go?" It's "Why didn't these movies ever get promoted?" At the very least, companies know that off-beat treasures get high attention by Academy voters. And those are the kind that would most benefit. Last year, for example, the Best Actress category had Charlize Theron in North Country and Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents, both small and unsuccessful. Those got nominated for Oscars. These four - equally wonderful and just as high-profile - you likely haven't even heard of.
It's all personal taste, certainly. No doubt there are people who did see these and not liked them. But this isn't a debate about likes. Here are four high quality, notable movies from last Oscar season - from major filmmakers and major companies - which got so completely, utterly overlooked that...you may not have even heard of them.
Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang
Hardly obscure participants - it starred Robert Downey, Jr., and Val Kilmer, and was the directing debut of its screenwriter Shane Black, who wrote such monster hits as Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero. This movie took the film noire detective genre and hilariously turned it on its ear, joyously playing with all the conventions, right down to the last goofball scene. Violent at times with some rough language, it's an action-filled buddy movie, with clever plot twists all over the place and unexpected humor around every dark, shadowy corner. And you probably haven't heard of it.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
This featured a stunning performance by Julianne Moore which, for my taste, was the second best by an actress last year. (The best was also not nominated, Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger. I don't include that here, since it did respectably at the box office, although her oversight is bizarre.) Prize Winner also had an memorable supporting performance by Woody Harrelson as Moore's deeply loving, but angrily drunk husband. It was beautifully written and directed by Jane Anderson who has many significant TV credentials (When Billie Met Bobby and ...the Alleged Texas Cheerleading-Murdering Mom.) And based on a popular book, there certainly was an audience for it. Extremely quirky and richly underplayed, it's the true story of an indefatigable housewife who kept her 10-children family together during the 1950s by winning jingle-writing contests for products. It's an emotional, funny movie that requires appreciating subtlety, but there's glorious subtlety exploding everywhere. It has one of the great lines of dialogue in the last 20 years (when I saw the movie at the Writers Guild of America, the roomful of fellow screenwriters literally gasped in appreciation), and one of the more moving final sequences ever. And you probably haven't heard of it.
This is probably the biggest surprise of all, because of its dazzling pedigree. It stars Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow, Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins, and was directed by Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). It's based on David Auburn's Tony Award-winning play. And features a supporting role by Jake Gyllenhaal. No one is obligated to like this movie - but I would imagine you'd like to have at least known about it. Moreover, Paltrow's vibrant performance is my third favorite by an actress last year. And like all three, not nominated. (When people write it was a weak year for actresses, that's simply not true. Here are three brilliant performances - Allen, Moore and Paltrow - they just didn't get nominated.) The movie tells the story of a brilliant young woman whose genius scientist-father has gone mad, and while she's tracking down what may be his greatest discovery, there's concern that she might be going mad, as well. This is class, intelligence and quality in every nook. And you probably haven't heard of it.
The Greatest Game Ever Played
Not in the same category as the others, but thoroughly overlooked for a different reason. This is a superbly-crafted, intelligent, utterly feel-good, inspirational true story from...Disney! If any studio was perfect for promoting the bejeepers out of such a joy, these are the folks. They live for this. It's beautifully directed by actor Bill Paxton and thoughtfully written by Mark Frost, who had a huge hit with The Fantastic Four and co-created the iconic series Twin Peaks. No name stars, but it's the story that's riveting. Get this: at a time (1913) when golf was solely a private gentleman's game dominated by the British, the film tells the remarkable true story of Francis Ouimet, a dirt-poor 20-year-old amateur who overcame breathtaking hurdles to became the first amateur to win the U.S. Open, defeating a British legend - using a 10-year-old boy (playing hooky from school every day) as his caddy! This is a film about personal conviction, class division and unthinkable dreams, far more than "about" golf. But beyond the extraordinary story - which changed sports in America - it's simply a gorgeously-made movie. And you probably haven't...well, you know.
Thank goodness for DVDs.