Entertainment
by Luke Johnsen on January 7, 2014

So I’ve compiled a list of movies to watch out for as we head through January and lead into the Academy Awards in February. Keep in mind, I’m not making a list of movies whose distribution and prestige is inherently formulated to garner a nomination. Yes, we're all excited for The Wolf of Wall Street—as we should be—but this list isn’t for those movies. Instead, this is a selection of smaller films that I feel could get nods in the coming weeks and that you should educate yourself on in preparation.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Calling this film small would be accurate, though the same cannot be said about its directors. Even if you aren’t caught up with all of the Coen brothers’ work, Joel and Ethan’s unique style is one of a kind—or rather two of a kind. Inside Llewyn Davis is about the part-time folk singer, and full-time couch surfer, Llewyn Davis as he traverses the New York folk scene of the early 1960s. Haunted by the suicide of his former partner, Llewyn tries to make a name for himself as a solo act. The idea of an artistic duo being split apart by a sudden death can certainly be juxtaposed to the Coen brothers’ own endeavors as a filmmaking twosome.

Keep an eye out for some best original song nominations for this movie. The music is really the centerpiece of the film. Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons fame and actor/singer-songwriter Oscar Issac produced much of the soundtrack (with the help of the Coens, of course). The movie is bleak, as should be expected from any Coen brothers’ film, yet a tiny ray of hope always seems to shine through whenever someone picks up a guitar and begins to sing.

Nebraska

I give Alexander Payne, and whomever his casting director is, all the credit in the world for being able to bring individual, nuanced characters to the screen. I’ve never seen a director that is able to get the same mannerisms out of actors the way Payne can.

But despite how unique his character portraits appear to be, I always seem to ask myself the same question when watching a Payne film: am I supposed to be laughing at these characters or with them? Nebraska is about Woody Grant, a man who is slowly slipping in senility and on a quest to collect a million dollars from a sweepstakes he got in the mail. His son (Will Forte), in an attempt to garner a relationship he never quite had with his father, decides to take him to Nebraska where he can claim his prize. Nebraska made me dead silent in the heartbreak you feel for the two characters, and laughing out loud at the disturbingly accurate family drama that unfolds throughout the film. In fact, I think that this film finally answered my question: Never once did I feel the movie was asking me to laugh at the sorry state of Woody Grant. Instead it had me backing the wacky son of a bitch at every turn.

Dallas Buyers Club

I want to be perfectly clear that I don't believe gaining or losing weight for a role is merit alone to consider a performance to be good—let alone deeming it worthy of any sort of nomination. It does, however, take a certain kind of actor to be able to dedicate him or herself to losing or gaining a large amount of weight to fit a specific character. And those kinds of actors tend to be the good ones.

There are two body transformations that take place in Dallas Buyers Club. The more talked about of the two is Matthew McConaughey, who trimmed his Magic Mike stripper physique down 40 pounds so he could play Ron Woodroof, a drug-addict who finds out he has HIV/AIDS. The second transformation is made by Jared Leto. Leto, who is a fairly skinny to begin with, plays a transgender that soon finds himself to be Woodroof’s business partner. Woodroof takes on the Food and Drug Administration in an attempt to sell alternative medicine to combat AIDS in a time when there was basically no treatment. The story gets a little self-righteous at times, but McConaughey and Leto’s performances are ones you won’t want to miss.

Gravity

This is a total homer pick on my part. Gravity got a wide release and absolutely killed it at the box office, so it doesn’t exactly fit my criteria of “smaller movies.” But I would be doing myself, and those of you who overlooked this one, a great disservice if I didn’t mention it.

I’ve seen the movie twice in theaters, both times in 3D—as I recommend you should—and the second time was just as immersive of an experience as the first. The opening shot, which lasts a total of 15 minutes, is equal parts breathtaking and petrifying. Astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski are hard at work making repairs on the International Space Station when a report comes in that a debris field of destroyed satellites is headed in their direction. Director Alfonso Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki essentially invented the video technology they needed in order to get the shots for this movie. Be on the look out for some directing and visual effects nominations for this one. I haven’t been to space, and after seeing Gravity I’m not quite sure I want to, but if I were to I imagine it'd look a little something like this film.

The Act of Killing

Since I went with a commercial success with my previous pick I suppose I’ll just go right off the deep end with my last one. The Act of Killing is a documentary that follows the lives of Indonesian death squad leaders who participated in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of alleged Chinese communists in 1965. These men, however, live freely in their hometowns where they are even revered as heroes. They appear to have no remorse for what they've done. They even joke about their brutal killings in casual conversation.

It’s all really disturbing, but it doesn’t stop there. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer befriends these men and makes their dream of being in the movies come true. He stages elaborate musical numbers recounting their heinous acts. If you’ve read this far and decide you don’t want to see this film I can’t blame you. Halfway through watching this movie I was still blown away that it even exists. It is another example of a singular movie that can’t quite be compared to any other. I have no doubt that this film will get a best documentary nod, but I highly doubt it will win simply due to the disturbing nature of its subject matter.

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