Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Blackfish — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. Before the ceremony, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The film: James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own The Night) deep-dives into 1920s New York with the story of a Polish woman named Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), who comes to America with her ailing sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Due to Magda’s illness, the two are separated at Ellis Island, leaving Ewa on her own. She’s taken in by the seemingly charming Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix)—only to be forced into a life of prostitution. Desperate to get away, Ewa falls in with Bruno’s magician cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), believing he can save her.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Put most of the blame on the Weinstein Company. For a beautifully crafted film with a wealth of A-list talent, The Immigrant flew mostly under the radar. Although it was completed in time to debut at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival, it didn’t reach Cannes until 2013. After that, the movie was being shelved until this past May—then it opened in just four theaters, getting buried among summer blockbusters and superhero franchises.
Rumors swirl that the film was also the subject of a quiet battle between Gray and Harvey Weinstein. The producer allegedly wanted Gray to change the film’s ending; Gray refused. (And rightfully so, as its final moments are by far The Immigrant‘s most powerful scenes, bringing the themes of the movie full circle). Weinstein responded by holding the film back from the 2013 Oscar season. Instead, it joined the ranks of a tight 2014 race filled with much flashier historical dramas and biopics about notable figures like Stephen Hawking.
It’s a darn shame, because The Immigrant boasts everything a nominated film should: nuanced performances, intricate storytelling, smart directing. One could argue that even if it had made a bigger splash, The Immigrant would still be considered a little too dense to merit the Academy’s attention…but then again, it’s not like voters are against showing a little love to intense, dramatic stories that deal with tough subject matter. (Hi, Selma. Hi, 12 Years A Slave.)
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Let’s start with the cast. As Ewa, Cotillard proves once more that she’s one of Hollywood’s strongest actors. And while she was rightfully recognized for her work in 2 Days, 1 Night this year, it was The Immigrant where Cotillard really shone, subtly becoming our eyes and ears in an unfamiliar world mostly dominated by men and their own ambitions. Likewise, when movie buffs talk about 2014’s most memorable performances, they’ll most likely mention Phoenix’s showy turn in Inherent Vice. But they should also remember his turn as The Immigrant‘s charismatic yet dangerous showman, who’s capable of charming a naive girl while simultaneously igniting fear at the slightest turn of events. And finally, there’s Renner, who allows us to sympathize with the earnest, light-hearted Orlando; in this role, he continues to prove that he does his strongest work as a character actor.
Gray pulls back the layers on 1921 New York (specifically, the Lower East Side) in a provocative, interesting manner that few filmmakers could imitate (on less than $13 million, no less). Between the lavish costumes and Darius Khondji’s flawless cinematography, the film looks as authentic as it feels—rich and telling, a gritty, unapologetic glimpse into the sometimes not-so-glamorous realities of the American Dream. Gray doesn’t hold back, and so while we get Ewa’s trepidation when she first arrives in America, we also get her triumph, her hope, and her fears by the time she realizes there’s no easy way to escape her situation. If nothing else, Khondji should have been recognized for his outstanding editing, which was instrumental in helping The Immigrant paint a compelling series of events with a complex cast of characters—all of whom struggle to achieve their own version of happiness.
The Immigrant is not perfect—but as Gray points out, neither is the American Dream. It can be a lot like Orlando’s magic trick—an illusion that seems flawless on the surface, until you take a closer look and discover its secrets. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be allowed to take the journey…and if the result is a film as compelling as this, it’s worth it.