The Oscar telecast right around the corner, and this year’s race for Best Picture is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable in years. Pundits have whittled the contest down to a three-horse race between Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s epic The Revenant (which nettedInarritu the DGA award), Tom McCarthy’s docudrama Spotlight (which took home the ensemble prize at the SAG awards), and Adam McKay’s comic The Big Short (which took top honors at the PGA awards).
There is also room for an upset this year (Mad Max: Fury Road, anyone?) which ups the ante even more.
This year’s crop of Best Picture nominees make for a solid group of contenders despite the usual array of snubs (Carol, Straight Outta Compton, Ex Machina, Sicario) which just proves that 2015 was a great year for film.
If you’ve seen the nominees this year and crave similar experiences, here are five films that share DNA with the nominees. Each of these films, some little seen gems that got zero awards love, are well worth your time!
1. MOON (2009) – Rivals The Martian
Duncan Jones (son of the late David Bowie) made an impressive directorial debut with this offbeat sci-fi drama anchored by one of Sam Rockwell’s finest performances. He plays Sam Bell, a space miner wrapping up a gig on Earth’s natural satellite, which has become an important source for alternate fuels in the future, when strange things begin to happen and his journey home becomes less and less guaranteed. While Moon shares the same DNA as Ridley Scott’s Best Picture nominee The Martian (astronaut trapped alone on a desolate place), this film actually goes a few steps further by literally being a one-man show. Save for some interludes with Bell’s family via FaceTime and his AI companion, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Moon is a literal one-man show. As the film’s twisty plot gains steam, Rockwell remains a force to be reckoned with and gives Moon a surprising emotional heft. Kudos should also be given to Jones for utilizing practical effects such as models in lieu of CGI while making the most of a $5 million budget.
2. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972) – Rivals The Revenant
Before The Revenant‘s Hugh Glass, there was Jeremiah Johnson. Played by Robert Redford, the titular hero of this film is a weary Mexican-American war veteran who decides to live the rest of his life in isolation. Arriving in the western Rockies and becoming a trapper-by-trade, Johnson’s dream of a quiet life is interrupted by the unpredictability of nature and, worse yet, man. Sydney Pollack, who would eventually make seven films with star Redford, including 1985 Best Picture winner Out of Africa, is not known for grand storytelling but, working from a script co-written by John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Apocalypse Now) and cinematographer Duke Callaghan (also of Conan the Barbarian fame), has fashioned a quietly powerful character study on an epic scale. While Redford is not an actor of great range, he delivers a performance that easily ranks with his best.
3. AVALON (1990) – Rivals Brooklyn
While there are plenty of immigration tales that one could seek out after watching Best Picture nominee Brooklyn, an obvious place to start would be with Barry Levinson’s Avalon. While Levinson, who won an Oscar for directing Rain Man, is a hit-and-miss filmmaker at best, his semi-autobiographical “Baltimore quadrilogy” (which also includes Diner, Tin Men, and Liberty Heights) have always been solid. Avalon, chronicling the plight of his immigrant parentage, is easily the finest of the four. Armin Mueller-Stahl (Angels & Demons) plays Sam Krichinsky, the patriarch of a Polish American family who settles in Baltimore in 1914 and watches the world change with wide eyes. A superb ensemble cast – Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins, Joan Plowright, Kevin Pollack, a very young Elijah Wood – contribute to this wonderful slice-of-life that also ends on a quietly moving note.
4. THE PAPER (1994) – Rivals Spotlight
Before Spotlight, Michael Keaton was part of another ensemble drama, albeit with a lighter touch, set in the world of reporting. While a blip on Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard’s oeuvre, The Paper is well worth a view thanks to the superb work of a great cast, David and Stephen Koepp’s deft script that takes a page (no pun intended) from His Girl Friday, and Howard’s brisk direction. Set during one “make-or-break” 24-hour period, Keaton plays Henry Hackett, the editor of a fictional New York tabloid who stumbles upon a hot story involving the shooting death of two white businessmen allegedly by a couple of African American teens and must decide how to pursue it. Subplots big and small are thrown in involving everyone from Hackett’s very pregnant wife (Marisa Tomei) to his tumultuous relationship with the paper’s icy managing editor (Glenn Close), keeps the action moving. Randy Quaid, Robert Duvall, and Jason Robards round out the strong cast, but it’s Keaton, just as he showed in this year’s Best Picture nominee, who proves to be the glue holding it all together.
5. LORENZO’S OIL (1992) – Rivals Mad Max: Fury Road
How can I compare a drama to the biggest action blockbuster of the year? Bear with me here. If you were blown away by Mad Max: Fury Road, then the obvious rival film is The Road Warrior, George Miller’s second installment in the Mad Max franchise. But you’ve probably seen that film more than you can count, so why not delve into Miller’s small but versatile filmography, starting with this fact-based medical drama that moves like a thriller. Miller, whose credits also include The Witches of Eastwick and both Happy Feet films, actually studied medicine before segueing into filmmaking so it’s no surprise why he was drawn to the story of young Lorenzo (Zach O’Malley Greenburg), who is diagnosed with ALD, and the miraculous drive and courage of his parents, Augusto (Nick Nolte) and Michaela (Susan Sarandon), to find a cure. While nominated for two Oscars (Best Actress for Sarandon and Best Original Screenplay), Lorenzo’s Oil hardly made waves upon its release. It remains almost lost in the consciousness of moviegoers but is a prime example of just how skillful a filmmaker Miller really is. There is not a single car crash here, but the effect of the film is no less exhilarating than Fury Road.
Do you agree with these picks? What films do you think rival the Oscar nominees? Sound off in the comments!