While you can argue about some of the choices for this Sunday’s Oscars — e.g., Mel Gibson’s hokey Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t deserve a Best Picture slot — the nominees are mostly a strong group of affecting, eclectic films. But what if you want more of where they came from? That’s where I come in: I’ve taken seven Oscar-nominated movies (and one whole category) and offered further suggestions tailored specifically to those films’ themes. Think of me as a one-man Netflix recommendation algorithm — except I won’t try to push any Adam Sandler crap on you.
I liked Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic. Has that director done anything else? Viggo Mortensen received a Best Actor nomination for this thoughtful, sometimes cloying indie drama about a survivalist who’s raising his six children out in the woods, teaching them philosophy and how to live off the land so that they can reject America’s capitalist society. But Matt Ross, who wrote and directed Captain Fantastic, made an even better film with 2012’s 28 Hotel Rooms, which looked at the unlikely relationship that develops between a New York writer (Chris Messina) and a married Seattle accountant (Marin Ireland) as they conduct an affair through clandestine hookups.
Set entirely in the hotel rooms where they meet up, the movie starts off as a steamy drama, both characters enjoying the thrill of their secret tryst. But eventually, feelings start to develop, which introduces the question: Can people have excitement and security at the same time? 28 Hotel Rooms barely got released, so the hope is that Captain Fantastic’s Oscar buzz will bring a little attention to this under-seen gem.
I’m not into romantic dramas. I’m more into sci-fi stuff like Arrival. The intelligent, surprisingly emotional Arrival was rightly praised for being that rare science-fiction blockbuster to treat the science seriously rather than just as an excuse for cool special effects. But the recent master of this approach actually came from the world of low-budget indies — 2004’s Primer. It was made for around $7,000 and has a brilliant conceit: While messing around in their garage on new patent projects, two Dallas engineers stumble upon a device that creates time travel.
The debut film from writer-director-editor-composer-star Shane Carruth is a mind-bender in two ways. For one, Carruth trusts his audience’s intelligence enough to know that they’ll be able to follow along with the gist of what’s happening — even if we don’t understand every little nerdy detail thanks to his somewhat confounding, tech-heavy dialogue. For another, Primer dives into the loopy logic of how time travel would work from a completely realistic perspective. For example: The engineers have to hide in a hotel room during the day so they don’t alter anything in the world while their “doubles,” who have traveled back in time to earlier that same day, take advantage of stock market information they’ve collected from the “future.” (Yes, it’s incredibly intricate but, believe me, Carruth makes it decipherable.)
Removing the romanticism of time travel, Primer is a scary, deceptively blasé examination of self summed up perfectly by a Chuck Klosterman essay on the film: “If you go back in time today and meet the person who will become you tomorrow, which of those two people is actually you? The short answer is, ‘both.’ And once you realize that the short answer is ‘both,’ the long answer becomes ‘neither.’ If you exist in two places, you don’t exist at all.”
God, that sounds confusing. I just want a no-nonsense drama like Hell or High Water. Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Texas brothers who rob banks to help pay off the mortgage on their dead mother’s ranch before it falls into the hands of creditors. Celebrated for its marriage of the Western and current events — specifically, the damage done during the 2008 housing crisis — this crime drama has a spiritual precedent in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which hit theaters in 2006.
The directorial debut of Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones stars him as a Texas rancher who exacts an unusual revenge for the death of his friend Melquiades (Julio Cedillo), an illegal Mexican immigrant murdered by a racist border-patrol officer (Barry Pepper). Rather than killing the officer, the rancher takes him hostage, forcing the racist to accompany him across the border so that they can give Melquiades a proper burial. A surreal road movie, Three Burials tackles both economic inequality and immigration. Plus, for a movie more than a decade old, it feels like it was inspired by Trump’s rise to power.
I also really liked La La Land, which was just a fun musical. The Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone romance is going to win a ton of Oscars, but it’s not the only recent musical about the struggle to find one’s place in the world. In 2008, Spike Lee made Passing Strange, which is essentially a concert movie of the Tony-winning stage musical of the same name.
In the musical, L.A.-based indie songwriter Stew crafted a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about “Stew,” a black kid growing up in South Central who dreams of becoming a musician. His journey takes him to Europe, where he falls in love, deals with homesickness and finds himself.
Passing Strange is unavoidably stage-bound — even if you’re watching a Broadway musical from a better vantage point than anyone in the audience. But Lee makes it incredibly dynamic by training his cameras on Stew, his band and the cast, who give funny, moving performances of these propulsive rock songs. In the process, we get an insight into a talented, conflicted young man struggling with racism and chasing his artistic aspirations.
I’m ready for a good cry, something like Manchester by the Sea. Yeah, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan specializes in dramas about people in mourning. Look no further than Manchester by the Sea, in which Casey Affleck plays a man who’s grieving for his dead children and failed marriage when he loses his older brother to a heart attack. For my money, though, the best of his films remains his first — 2000’s You Can Count on Me. It focuses on adult siblings (played by then-newcomer Mark Ruffalo and Oscar-nominated Laura Linney) who, in their own ways, never got over the death of their parents as kids. (He’s a drifter; she’s a single mother stuck in a passionless affair.)
Lonergan and his cast detail the biggest truth about coping with loss: You never really get over it — and often your healing process is awful, awkward and interminable. But just like Manchester, You Can Count on Me can be darkly funny, acknowledging that mourning provides all kinds of opportunities for bizarre comedic moments. Ruffalo and Linney became major names thanks to You Can Count on Me, which ends on one of the most perfect, tear-jerking finales of any movie this century.
What about the Best Animation nominees? I’ve liked a few of them, but I also wouldn’t mind something more geared to adults. This category features everything from mainstream Disney fare (Moana) to stop-motion foreign-language entries (My Life as a Zucchini). But in terms of pure innovation, no contemporary animator is working at a higher level than Don Hertzfeldt. Based in Austin, this writer-director has been nominated twice in the Best Animated Short category (Rejected, World of Tomorrow), and 2012’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day powerfully encapsulates everything he does well.
Hertzfeldt’s debut feature-length film tells the story of Bill, a regular guy consumed by worry that he’s dying. Incorporating deceptively simple hand-drawn animation — Bill is little more than a rudimentary stick-figure that moves — the film feels primitive, but that only makes its emotion and humor more direct. Like lots of Hertzfeldt’s work, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is so bracing because it’s so honest about the anxiety that eats away at us. Death, aging, loneliness, regret: You wouldn’t think those topics would make for such an oddly funny, life-affirming film, but that’s Hertzfeldt’s particular genius.
I saw that Michael Shannon got nominated for Nocturnal Animals. Does he always play eccentric weirdos? Shannon received his second Oscar nomination playing a shit-kickin’ Texas detective in Tom Ford’s psychological thriller Nocturnal Animals. It’s an onscreen persona the 42-year-old actor has perfected — that of the twitchy, scene-chewing oddball — but those showier roles sometimes overshadow the more naturalistic work he does in other films.
Take Shotgun Stories, from 2007, in which he plays the oldest brother, Son, in a poor Arkansas clan that’s been feuding with their father’s other family. Once the father dies, tensions escalate between the two sets of half-brothers, leading to violence and death.
This was the first major film role for Shannon, and there’s nothing peculiar or eccentric about the character. Instead, he just portrays a painfully ordinary guy who can’t seem to escape his alcoholic dad’s doomed legacy. (Son has a gambling problem, which is even more tragic since he’s convinced it’s the only way he can escape poverty.) Shotgun Stories remains one of the best things Shannon has ever done — Oscar nomination or no Oscar nomination.
Man, I loved Moonlight. Anything else like that out there? Filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature is La La Land’s main Oscar competition, telling the story of a young, gay black man coming to terms with his sexuality. If you’ve already seen Moonlight and checked out Jenkins’ debut film, Medicine for Melancholy, then why not seek out the movie that was a huge influence on him?
2000’s George Washington is a character drama Jenkins saw in film school while searching for movies that depicted African-American experiences. (Only later did he learn that the film’s writer-director, David Gordon Green, was white.) George Washington looks at the lives of several lower-working-class kids, most of them black, in the South, and like Moonlight, it possesses an incredibly atmospheric, intimate grasp of time and place.
This was Green’s first film, and it still might be his best, which makes his later transformation into the turn-key director of stoner studio comedies like Your Highness and Pineapple Express all the more crazy. I hadn’t considered the connection between George Washington to Jenkins’ work until he himself mentioned it. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense: Moonlight is a worthy heir to that earlier film’s concern about what happens to young people who run the risk of falling through the cracks of a society that doesn’t care about them.