Forgotten gems from this year's Oscar nominees -- Check out great films starring Jack, Meryl, Julianne, and others

By Gary Susman
March 17, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Summer of Sam: David Lee

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Image credit: Summer of Sam: David Lee
‘SUMMER’ LOVIN’ Esposito and Brody embrace ”Sam”

Adrien Brody

SCREEN GEM: Summer of Sam (1999)

”Summer of Sam” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Adrien Brody

COSTARS John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito

PREMISE In the summer of 1977, a Bronx neighborhood is terrorized by the Son of Sam killings. Neighbors suspect Richie (Brody), a spike-haired punk rock guitarist with a borrowed accent and a seamy sex life.

FUN FACT Director Spike Lee cowrote ”Sam” with Michael Imperioli, before he found fame as Christopher Moltisanti on ”The Sopranos.”

WHY IT’S GREAT It’s a shock to see Brody — whose quiet dignity humanizes ”The Pianist” — sporting a blond Mohawk, a ripped Union Jack T-shirt, and a real anger-management problem. But the versatile actor wears it well.

Image credit: The Man Who Would Be King: Everett Collection
CHAPSHTICK Caine (at left) and Connery rule

Michael Caine

SCREEN GEM: The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

”The Man Who Would Be King” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Michael Caine

COSTARS Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, and Shakira Caine (a.k.a. the woman who would be Mrs. Michael Caine)

PREMISE Rough-edged, 19th-century British colonial soldiers in India (Caine and Connery) find adventure, glory, and tragedy when a local tribe mistakes them for gods.

FUN FACT Director John Huston had wanted to adapt Rudyard Kipling’s story for decades, first envisioning Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart for the lead roles, then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Robert Redford and Paul Newman, before Newman himself suggested Connery and Caine.

WHY IT’S GREAT Caine learns the high price of imperialism — much like his character in ”The Quiet American” does — but he and Connery have a roaring good time in the process.

Image credit: A Walk on the Moon: Everett Collection
FREEDOM ‘WALK’ Mortensen and Lane are hip

Diane Lane

SCREEN GEM: A Walk on the Moon (1999)

”A Walk on the Moon” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Diane Lane

COSTARS Liev Schreiber, Viggo Mortensen, Anna Paquin

PREMISE In 1969, the summer of Neil Armstrong and Woodstock, young Jewish wife Lane tastes freedom at a low-rent Catskills resort when she has an affair with hippie merchant Mortensen, shattering her family (square hubby Schreiber, sexually blossoming daughter Paquin) in the process.

FUN FACT In an interview, screenwriter Pamela Gray recalled firsthand the culture clash of tradition-minded Jews and hippies at Woodstock, a time when the local kosher butcher shop renamed itself ”The Funky Chicken.”

WHY IT’S GREAT Lane simmers, then boils over, (like the similarly adulterous wife she plays in ”Unfaithful”), offering a compelling burst of conflicting emotions.

Image credit: My Beautiful Laundrette: Everett Collection
GOOD CLEAN FUN Warnecke and Day-Lewis open a ”Laundrette”

Daniel Day-Lewis

SCREEN GEM: My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

”My Beautiful Laundrette” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Daniel Day-Lewis

COSTARS Gordon Warnecke, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth

PREMISE Omar (Warnecke), a young Londoner of Pakistani descent, and his white lover, Johnny (Day-Lewis), turn Omar’s uncle’s laundrette (that’s a laundromat to us Yanks) into a hip hotspot, confronting cultural and economic tensions not unlike those seen in ”Gangs of New York.”

FUN FACT ”Laundrette” and ”A Room with a View” (also starring Day-Lewis) were released in the U.S. on the same day in 1986, and viewers could scarcely believe that the peroxided punk of the former and the tweedy twit in the latter were the same guy.

WHY IT’S GREAT Besides being Day-Lewis’ breakout role, ”Laundrette” is a vibrant slice of the go-go ’80s that seems almost wistfully quaint nowadays.

Image credit: Living Out Loud: M. Morton/New Line
IT’S A ‘LIVING’ Latifah serenades the young lovers

Queen Latifah

SCREEN GEM: Living Out Loud (1998)

”Living Out Loud” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Queen Latifah

COSTARS Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito

PREMISE A Manhattan socialite (Hunter) takes a walk on the wild side, befriending her doorman (DeVito) and frequenting a cabaret whose headliner (Latifah) is a soulful torch singer, dispenser of earthy wisdom, and fellow lonely person seeking fulfillment in her own right.

FUN FACT The film is based on two Chekhov stories: ”The Kiss” and ”Misery.”

WHY IT’S GREAT Latifah’s rendition of ”Lush Life” is reason enough; in fact, it probably landed her the role of Mama Morton in ”Chicago.”

Image credit: Five Easy Pieces: Everett Collection
‘PIECES’ ON EARTH Nicholson works the land

Jack Nicholson

SCREEN GEM: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

”Five Easy Pieces” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Jack Nicholson

COSTARS Karen Black, Sally Struthers

PREMISE Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) rebels against parental authority, abandoning his future as a concert pianist to work in an oil field. This is the film with the famous chicken-salad-sandwich scene: ”Hold it between your kneeeees,” Jack utters to a diner waitress who won’t let him order plain toast.

FUN FACT The title refers to a piano music instruction book.

WHY IT’S GREAT ”Pieces” continues Nicholson’s tradition — from ”Easy Rider” to ”About Schmidt” — of classic road trip films, but it’s here that he really hones his signature persona: rebellious, subversive, ornery, volatile, unsatisfied, and perversely charming.

Image credit: Safe: Everett Collection
‘SAFE’ CRACKERS Moore is under the weather

Julianne Moore

SCREEN GEM: Safe (1985)

”Safe” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Julianne Moore

COSTARS Peter Friedman, Xander Berkeley, James LeGros

PREMISE Carol White (Moore) is a California housewife whose home life is killing her — literally. Thinking she’s allergic to the toxins in her modern environment, she takes refuge at a desert spa, whose cultlike director (Friedman) spouts equally toxic pseudo-spiritual platitudes.

FUN FACT Moore reportedly wanted the part so badly that she broke into tears when she got it.

WHY IT’S GREAT In her first collaboration with ”Far From Heaven” director Todd Haynes,” Moore — pale as a luminous ghost — makes you believe that Carol suffers from more than hypochondria.

Image credit: At Close Range: Everett Collection
FEAR OLD DAD Walken shows Penn tough love

Christopher Walken

SCREEN GEM: At Close Range (1986)

”At Close Range” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Christopher Walken

COSTARS Sean Penn, Chris Penn, Mary Stuart Masterson

PREMISE You think Walken’s con man dad in ”Catch Me” was a bad influence? He’s got nothing on Brad Whitewood Sr. (Walken), who recruits his son (Sean Penn) into his crew of thieves — and then prepares to whack him when he fears the youth will squeal to the Feds.

FUN FACT ”Range” is the only movie in which Sean Penn has costarred with his brother Chris, who plays his onscreen brother. (Their real-life mother, Eileen Ryan, plays their on-screen grandmother.)

WHY IT’S GREAT Of all the psychos in Walken’s rogues gallery, this one may be the scariest.

Image credit: Defending Your Life: Everett Collection
‘LIFE’ PARTNERS Streep and Brooks are heavenly

Meryl Streep

SCREEN GEM: Defending Your Life (1991)

”Defending Your Life” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Meryl Streep

COSTARS Albert Brooks, Rip Torn, Lee Grant

PREMISE In this Brooks-directed satire, the afterlife proves no less bureaucratic than life on Earth. Streep and Brooks are a match made in purgatory: Her altruistic life means she’ll progress to a higher plane of existence; his angsty time on Earth makes him a likely candidate to be sent back for another go at it.

FUN FACT Universal Studios’ tramway buses stand in for Judgment City’s only means of transport.

WHY IT’S GREAT Like ”Adaptation,” ”Defending” displays Streep’s natural comic talents. It’s a joy to see her so relaxed, easygoing, and enchanting — no wonder Brooks falls for her.

Image credit: Everett Collection
OLD ‘FOOL’ Newman ages gracefully

Paul Newman

SCREEN GEM: Nobody’s Fool (1994)

”Nobody’s Fool” is a past gem from Oscar nominee Paul Newman

COSTARS Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Dylan Walsh

PREMISE Sully (Newman), a crusty handyman, helps his landlady (Tandy, in her last role), antagonizes his boss (Willis), flirts with the boss’ wife (Griffith), and reconnects with his estranged son (Walsh), all without undergoing the traditional Hollywood learning/growth experience.

FUN FACT Willis declined a screen credit in deference to Newman, so as ”not to mislead the audience into thinking this was a Bruce Willis movie.”

WHY IT’S GREAT Newman gives the fullest performance of his late career as a man who has squandered most of his life but survives through sheer spite and — because he’s played by Newman — charisma.