Critic's Notebook

Oscars 2015: the best movies not up for best picture

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
The academy missed a chance to fill all 10 spots of its best picture prize. @BetsySharkey fills in the blanks

When it comes to the Oscar endgame — winning, losing or just being in the running — it's all about the numbers: the votes cast, promotion dollars spent, red carpets walked, interviews granted, pounds lost. ...

The most confusing count this year — and every year since 2011 — might be the number of movies nominated for best picture. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doubled the number of nominees from five to 10. Two years later, the rules were adjusted to allow more flexibility, and the academy has been increasingly flexible ever since. Nine films were nominated in each of the three years that followed, but this year only eight movies will contend for the academy's most coveted award.

Why didn't the academy use all 10 best picture spots?

FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2015

Oscar experts like my colleague Glenn Whipp can go on about the ins and outs of the academy's preferential voting and how a best picture nominee must get at least 5% of the early votes. Others say it just wasn't a great year at the movies.

I disagree. Those blank spaces represent missed opportunities. Two chances for the academy, oft-criticized for conventional thinking, to be bold and surprising, to broaden the "best picture" umbrella and reconsider the category for a new age.

There are many years I would not only commend the members' restraint, I would send along my sympathies, knowing how creatively bleak some years can be — how barren of interesting films, how boring.

But 2014? Hardly the case. It was a very good year, with wonderful surprises. From massive to mini, mainstream to indie, the movies were a delicious stew to be savored — for challenging topics, flights of fancy, sheer entertainment value.

Yes, the year brought its share of duds. Even more fell into that terrible mid-range we call mediocre. Of the eight that made the A-list — "American Sniper," "Birdman," "Boyhood, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Imitation Game," "Selma," "The Theory of Everything" and "Whiplash" — most deserve their place without question, and they represent a refreshing range of styles.

PHOTOS: Oscars 2015 top nominees | Presenters | Nominee reactions | Awkward moments

A couple, however, are enough on the bubble — "American Sniper" carried in on the back of Bradley Cooper's performance, "The Theory of Everything" pushed over the biopic pro-forma line by Eddie Redmayne's remarkable renderings — to make the two unfilled spots even more glaring.

Since the academy didn't choose to choose, I will.

Here are the 2014 films that I feel should have been contenders at Sunday's ceremony for Oscar's top prize. They are the best movies that didn't get a best picture nomination:

"A Most Violent Year"

This is a film with the kind of pedigree the academy usually embraces — and for good reasons. J.C. Chandor's penetrating story is set in the crime-ridden New York City of 1981. A mob-defying Abel Morales is the good guy played with quiet calculation and exceeding care by Oscar Isaac. His wife, Anna, is a mob baby grown good, given an edgy gum-smacking verve by Jessica Chastain. The film didn't hit theaters until the very end of the year. Screenings for awards-season glitterati came late as well. Perhaps that sealed this fast-forgotten film's fate; for the most part, the movie has barely registered.

"Ida"

Border-crossing should happen more often. This foreign language nominee is so exceptional it deserved consideration alongside Hollywood's best. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's stirring story of religion, identity and faith is one of the more idiosyncratic cuts at the Nazi legacy to emerge. A Catholic novitiate named Ida, orphaned as a baby and raised by nuns, is asked to visit with her only surviving relative before she takes her vows. Her journey, depicted with stunning cinematography, is a soul-wrenching one. The performances by Agata Trzebuchowska as the title character and Agata Kulesza as her estranged aunt are searing. As the young woman discovers she is Jewish by birth, orphaned by the Catholic family who killed hers for their farm and the Nazi mentality that gave them the license, the very idea of the god one prays to is contemplated.

"Nightcrawler"

The inclusion of this provocative outsider would have moved the academy beyond its comfort zone. But deserving? Yes. Rarely has Los Angeles seemed seedier than the crime scenes caught by the lens of a serial shooter. Conjured up by writer-director Dan Gilroy, it gave us one of those memorable characters who crawls under the skin so deeply he is impossible to shake. Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom, a freelance videographer trolling for shots of blood and guts that can be sold to the local TV news, is hungry in every sense of the word. Though the 30 pounds the actor lost added to the eerie look, it is his portrayal of an insatiable appetite for success that unnerves. The effect of Lou's unblinking ambition is riveting. Between Gyllenhaal's stirring acting and Gilroy's scary telling, the film is psychologically chilling in just the way a well-crafted, Hitchcockian thriller should be.

OSCARS 2015: Complete list | Ballot | Cheat Sheet | Top nominees | Presenters | Timeline

"Guardians of the Galaxy"

Very risky business for the academy to go so light, you may be saying. Au contraire. Though "Guardians" — part science fiction, part spoof — puts it about as far outside the academy's best picture box as one could imagine, qualitatively director James Gunn's aim was true. I realize it is not one of those quote-unquote prestige pictures, but the movie was extremely smart, well-constructed, well-acted and absolutely entertaining, due in large measure to the engaging Chris Pratt as its charming space jockey and a wise-cracking animatronic raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). Rarely do films we love enough to see again and again make it in. "Guardians" was a real chance go with a rule-breaker and show that the academy is open to taking the not-so-serious films more seriously.

Even riskier business would be the bizarre case for considering "The Interview." With its farcical faux plot against North Korea's parody-perfect leader Kim Jong Un, the silly Seth Rogen and James Franco slapstick became the most significant movie of the year. Not on the quality scale, mind you. No high IQ scores either. But thanks, or no thanks, to a very touchy foreign tyrant, "The Interview" became a symbol of free speech in America and the current poster child for squashing cyber-bullying rather than being merely a bad movie. I'd slip it in as No. 5 on my list, but I figure I'm already pressing my luck.

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