09/20/2013 11:16 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

'Rush' & 'Prisoners'; Or, The Oscar For Co-Lead Goes To ...

Universal/Warner Bros.

That "Prisoners" and "Rush" are out in theaters now -- the latter in platform release before a nationwide rollout on Sept. 27 -- feels like kismet. Both films fit nicely into the category of "movies Hollywood used to make," back before superheroes and remakes became coin of the realm. In fact, the only thing separating these smart, adult dramas from the 1990s is space and time: it's easy to imagine each movie thriving in a world where Kevin Costner was the globe's biggest star.

There's more, though, than an old-fashioned sensibility connecting "Prisoners" and "Rush": both films are structured as two-handers, but where the dominant hand is played by the marketing campaign's secondary star.

That's apparent from the starting line in "Rush," as Daniel Bruhl's Niki Lauda acts as the film's opening narrator, this despite the fact that Chris Hemsworth's face is the one plastered on the movie poster. Bruhl's Lauda is the character the audience is invested in; he's the character we're rooting for, even as he continues to act like a heel. (Unabashedly so; Lauda is the equivalent of the not-here-to-win-friends contestant on a reality show.) Hemsworth is very good in "Rush," and Hunt is a fun role -- it's easy to imagine Heath Ledger playing the part had he not died of a drug overdoes in 2008 -- but this is Bruhl's movie. He may not be Thor, but he's the star.

"Prisoners" deals a similar hand: trailers and posters for the film have focused extensively on Hugh Jackman's character, the devout survivalist who tortures the man he thinks kidnapped his daughter. That makes sense -- Jackman, like Hemsworth, is a huge star who's best known for his superhero role -- but it doesn't tell the whole story. The marketing, for instance, doesn't tell us that Jake Gyllenhaal is incredible as the detective trying to find Jackman's missing daughter. The marketing doesn't reveal that while Jackman is trying (and not always succeeding) to find new ways to act really angry after the film's first 30 minutes, Gyllenhaal is peeling back layers and dialing things down. It's fine, nuanced work -- the kind of muted and riveting star turn that isn't actually necessary in what amounts to a very good airplane movie. Gyllenhaal gives it his all in "Prisoners," and his performance provides yet another reminder that he may be one of Hollywood's most underrated leading men. (See also: "Brokeback Mountain," "Zodiac," "Jarhead," "Source Code" and "End of Watch.")

From an awards standpoint, however, it appears the similarities between "Rush" and "Prisoners" end there. It's Bruhl who has received deserved early Oscar buzz for his performance, while Gyllenhaal has gone relatively undiscussed. That's too bad, because Gyllenhaal is every bit as good as Bruhl -- and frankly, every bit as good as the other likely Oscar contenders in the category not named Michael Fassbender in "12 Years A Slave." It's just that there isn't a lot of extra room for him and Bruhl when the actual Supporting Actor performances are taken into account, too (Jared Leto and "Captain Phillips" co-star Barkhad Abdi, among them). If only there was an Academy Award for Best Co-Lead? At the very least, it's a category Gyllenhaal, Bruhl, Julia Roberts and Bruce Dern could get behind.

Celebrity News & Photos