Immense effort and countless dollars go into securing Oscar nominations, not to mention winning the actual awards. But what of those worthy candidates that never have a real shot to compete because of lack of promotional funds, fleeting theatrical exposure, dearth of distributor interest, absence of industry juice or any combination thereof?
From the underappreciated to the obscure to the downright invisible, these would-be contestants are often as impressive — if not more so — than the most praised and publicized of the potential nominees.
FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2015
Thus, The Envelope presents the fourth annual Level the Playing Field nominations in honor of some favorite underdogs that received little to no attention this award season and, in a perfect world, could have been contenders. And if you haven't seen these (so few have), do yourself a favor and check them out.
Best picture: 'The Immigrant'
Despite a seeming lack of distributor support this award season, "The Immigrant," a richly involving story of a haunted Polish woman's arrival in 1920s New York, had many of the earmarks of a traditional picture nominee. These included a respected director in James Gray (he also co-scripted with Ric Menello), a strikingly rendered period setting, strong reviews (an 87% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and a starring trio of previous Oscar nominees: Marion Cotillard (she won in 2008 for "La Vie en Rose" and is nominated this year for "Two Days, One Night"), Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, all excellent here.
Although the film, which won several year-end critics' prizes and Independent Spirit Award nods for Cotillard (shared with "Two Days") and for Darius Khondji's cinematography, it was egregiously missing from Academy Award conversation. It shouldn't have been. It's the real deal.
Lead actor: Colin Firth, 'The Railway Man'
The absorbing, well-crafted "Railway Man," based on the bestselling memoir, starred a superb Firth as Eric Lomax, a former World War II British Army officer plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder 35 years after being tortured in a Japanese prison camp. Given Firth's many past award nods, including an Oscar win for 2010's "The King's Speech," it's odd that there was no visible push for the pedigreed actor.
Lead actress: Susan Sarandon, 'The Calling'
As a cranky, small-town police inspector who helps to unravel a series of serial killings, Sarandon was at the top of her game in the solid if minimally released procedural thriller "The Calling." Good on Sarandon for agreeing to star in this low-budget indie mystery and for making her pills-and-booze-dependent curmudgeon such a smart and memorable workaday creation.
Supporting actor: Richard Jenkins, '4 Minute Mile'
Jenkins, so good recently in HBO's "Olive Kitteridge" and the indie feature "Lullaby," was first-rate as a haunted ex-track coach training a troubled teen (Kelly Blatz) in this little-known drama. Jenkins' beautifully delivered speech about facing one's fears was the kind of movie moment that cinches acting prizes. If only more award voters — make that any award voters — had actually seen it.
Supporting actress: Kate Dickie, 'For Those in Peril'
There's a heartbreaking scene in Paul Wright's haunting film in which Dickie, as the weary mother of a young man drowned in a boating accident, sings a karaoke version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." It's just one of many riveting bits in an extraordinary portrayal that should have brought the Scottish actress ("Red Road," HBO's "Game of Thrones") some awards love.
Director: Amat Escalante, 'Heli'
Although it won the directing award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Amat Escalante's stunning "Heli" made nary a blip on the art film radar in its brief theatrical run in June. Escalante, who also co-wrote (with Gabriel Reyes) this hypnotic, disturbing tale of a Mexican family caught in the crosshairs of a drug war, evokes the cinema's best neorealists with his lyrical, deliberately paced, starkly beautiful work.
Original screenplay: Steven Knight, 'Locke'
Though the underseen "Locke" popped up on several year's-best lists and its dark-horse star, Tom Hardy, won lead actor kudos from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., the screenplay by director Steven Knight was perhaps the real unsung hero here. Knight wrung extraordinary tension and emotion from a bold, singular script that placed one resolute man in one moving vehicle on one critical night. Great stuff.
Adapted screenplay: Jonathan Tropper, 'This Is Where I Leave You'