Why watch the Oscars this Sunday? To snark on the stars? To see overpaid underachievers advertise designer gowns? To watch a solitary corner of the movie industry—the corporate studios, who focus on big-budget superhero films, low-budget horror films, and wannabe-prestigious biopics—crown themselves as the end-all be-all of world cinema? Well, sure, if you’re into all that.
But every year, in each category, great works go unacknowledged, merely because they don’t fit into the cookie-cutter molds (American-made, inoffensive, uplifting) that the Academy prefers. This is the Super Bowl for movies, but it’s dedicated to the part of the industry that least deserves a Super Bowl, and you’d do better to spend your Sunday night watching one of the films that were left out. The following alt-Oscar picks deserve your attention, and are at the ready for download or streaming now:
The glorified facial contortions of actors like Michael Keaton, to wit, don’t hold a candle to the nuanced work done by Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (now available on Amazon Instant). She plays an alien predator, outfitted with the body of a seductress, who in the midst of long-term work capturing horned-up guys for extraterrestrial overlords becomes plagued by existential anxiety. The role allows her to amp up her World’s Sexiest Woman persona (and in the film men are literally dying to fuck her) but it also lets her stretch and suggest that such a thing is merely a fleeting projection; the character panics when she realizes that perception is shaped solely by appearance. The dialectic plays out on her daringly blank let lovely face, which is rendered stoic and unencumbered by dialogue. In the end, she takes the year’s headiest film and gives it a sensual core.
Let’s also laugh about Morten Tyldum and Bennett Miller being nominated for Best Director (for the distressingly boring Imitation Game and the distressingly campy Foxcatcher, respectively) while Bong Joon-ho and his Snowpiercer (Netflix) efforts remain totally dismissed. In staging a post-apocalyptic class war within the confines of a moving train, Bong created a visual language for social climbing: The proletariat pound their way from the back cars to the front, left-to-right, while his camera moves horizontally alongside them. Chris Evans leads, the film attached to his hip, while one-percenters in the front aim to grind the forward progress to a standstill, and unaffiliated passengers rest framed in corners or crannies. Moral divisions and sociological barriers are coded into each visual composition. If we’ve produced an heir to the meticulous formal control of Alfred Hitchcock (who never won an Oscar), Bong is it.
But before actors and directors come screenplays, another celebrated Oscar category in which 2014’s most ambitious will likely go unmentioned. In Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, (Amazon, iTunes), Jason Schwartzman plays a manic-depressive novelist who lays into his friends and family with barbs so verbose they’d leave Groucho Marx jealous and stealing quips for future use. Moreover, the elegant narration elucidates his perfectionist worldview, while scenes playing under the voiceover reveal a pathetic egotist unable to live up to his own standards. It’s an anti-coming-of-age narrative. Cues are taken from Philip Roth and John Cassavetes, and all of it is armed with a bilious bite. It’s sure to turn off any viewers in search of the “likable characters” who populate the annual Oscar winners, and for that alone we should be thankful. I’ll take the tragedy of self-loathing over a self-aggrandizing acceptance speech every single year.