In a perfect world, every theatrically released movie would have the exact same chance to compete each year for the Academy Award in its worthiest categories. But just like with the lottery, you have to play to win, and when it comes to the Oscars, many smaller, independently made films just can't afford to play.
Fortunately, as a Times film reviewer, Netflix devotee and overall movie junkie, I see a number of strong features each year that fly so far under Hollywood's radar as to barely exist. But they do exist, often as memorably — if not more so — than the many higher profile, more pedigreed selections that fill the lists of Oscar hopefuls.
So, with this year's Academy Award nominations just announced, it seemed like an appropriate time to recall some of 2011's best "unconsidered" films and, in that aforementioned perfect world, where they might have landed in the race for Oscar gold.
Starting right at the top is one that fully merited a place in the best picture conversation: "The Music Never Stopped." Despite receiving its share of critical praise and numerous bookings throughout the spring and summer by distributor Roadside Attractions, this tremendously affecting, beautifully performed story of an estranged father (J.K. Simmons) and son (Lou Taylor Pucci) reunited via the power of music failed to strike a major chord at the box office.
To its credit, Roadside sent "Music" screeners to academy members in early September — it was the first DVD voters received — mainly to promote the well-regarded Simmons ("Juno," TV's "The Closer") for a supporting actor nod. But Simmons and the film, directed by Jim Kohlberg from a script by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks (based on an essay by Oliver Sacks), made nary a blip on the Oscar-meter.
"It was a bit of a quixotic effort," Roadside Attractions' Co-president Howard Cohen said, "but the movie was good enough that we felt it was worth a shot — even if it was kind of a Hail Mary pass."
Count Simmons as the actor most egregiously forgotten of the year, and put him on my list for lead actor, where he technically belonged.
On the lead actress front, another highly respected performer, Maria Bello, was robbed of consideration for her stunning portrayal of a mother devastated by her teenage son's murder-suicide shooting rampage in the difficult, under-seen "Beautiful Boy." Bello's brave interpretation of Shawn Ku and Michael Armbruster's sensitive script (Ku also directed) was, in many ways, superior to Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Tilda Swinton's widely noted but arguably less accessible performance in the similarly themed "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Had "Beautiful Boy" been sufficiently exposed to academy members and other voting blocs by its distributor, Anchor Bay, Bello may have very well found herself among the many fine lead actress contenders. But, according to the film's producer, Lee Clay, it was "less an Anchor Bay-specific thing and more a small, independent movie-specific thing." He explained, "To really mount a serious Oscar campaign, you're talking about a spend of between half a million and a million dollars, which was more than the film's entire [prints and advertising] budget to begin with."
Things get really obscure, yet no less deserving, when it comes to the supporting performance categories. For supporting actress, Ashley Rickards (late of MTV's "Awkward"), who proved so remarkably authentic as a severely autistic teen at a crossroads in Janet Grillo's lovely and heartbreaking (and, yes, only fleetingly released) mother-daughter drama "Fly Away," earns my vote as most overlooked.
In the supporting actor contest, Anson Mount (AMC's "Hell on Wheels") warranted a spot for his fiercely transformative turn as a skeevy meth-head nicknamed Uncle Bump in "Cook County." Mount was every bit as impressive — and chilling — as John Hawkes' Oscar-nominated Teardrop in 2010's otherwise superior "Winter's Bone," to which "Cook County," another rural drug drama, bears comparison.
My perfect world directing mix would have included the neglected Andrew Haigh, who wrote, helmed and edited the profound British import "Weekend," which follows two very different men over several days of their new romance. This intimate, well-reviewed drama is so smartly and confidently directed that, in some ways, it redefined the relationship drama — gay or otherwise.
Deserving some original screenplay love was writer-director Mike Pavone's exceptional middle-school dramedy, "That's What I Am." Forgettable title and micro-theatrical release aside, this 1965-set memory piece was captivating, wonderfully nostalgic, splendidly written stuff.
By all rights, adapted screenplay chatter should have included another 1960s coming-of-age story, the irresistible "Toast." This lively, evocative film, directed by S.J. Clarkson, was tenderly adapted by Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot," "War Horse") from the memoir by British food writer, journalist and TV host Nigel Slater.
Finally, for best documentary, "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" was too well-crafted and historically rich to be ignored for the academy's coveted shortlist, yet it was. Joseph Dorman's highly engaging look at the so-called Jewish Mark Twain should have been a contender.