By Christian Blauvelt
Updated February 26, 2012 at 09:53 PM EST
Myles Aronowitz

Every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars.The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Persona, Breathless, Hoop Dreams, King Kong, Caddyshack — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, 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: Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed opus about an Upper West Side high-schooler named Lisa (Anna Paquin, never better) who inadvertently causes a terrible accident that takes the life of an innocent pedestrian (Allison Janney), after she flirts with a bus driver. The next two hours show the complex evolution of her guilt as she launches legal proceedings against the driver, while not fully acknowledging her own role in the tragedy. Lonergan, who immediately established himself as a master of quiet relationship studies in his debut, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, crafts a coming-of-age tale with novelistic richness, showing Lisa’s clashes with her shallow actress mother and her mom’s new boyfriend (Jean Reno, doing his best “Most Interesting Man in the World” impression); her heated foreign policy discussions in debate class; her first sexual encounter (with Kieran Culkin!); and a budding romance with a self-righteous teacher (Matt Damon). How Lisa’s life and daily routine slowly unravel as a result of her complicity in that horrific traffic accident is a beautiful and terrifying thing to watch.

Why It Wasn’t Nominated: You’d think the A-List cast alone would have raised Margaret’s profile with Oscar. But like Contagion, Margaret sets about cutting its stars down to size: Matt Damon is an amoral, bike-riding hipster who sleeps with his students; Matthew Broderick’s teacher is a pseudo-intellectual poseur; Allison Janney is killed off in the first ten minutes; and Anna Paquin’s Lisa is so self-absorbed that she has to make everything, including the death of Janney’s pedestrian, about her. Apparently, viewers don’t much like Anna Paquin when her character thinks the world revolves around her; but they love her on True Blood, because there the world really does revolve around her. Oscar voters like their A-Listers either glamorous or self-consciously slumming it (see: Charlize Theron in Monster) and they definitely have no use for teenage narcissism unless said teenager comes with a hamburger phone and dialogue about “home skillets.”

You’d think Margaret’s behind-the-scenes pedigree would be even more Academy-ready. That’s because its producers are Oscar magnets like Scott Rudin (The Social Network, True Grit), Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa), and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain). Unfortunately, both Pollack and Minghella have since died. Pollack in 2008, Minghella in 2009. Indeed, their names in the credits instantly clue you in to the troubled nature of this production. Lonergan shot Margaret in 2005, when Paquin (now 29) could still credibly play a teenager, Matt Damon was still thin, Janney was still a star on The West Wing, and Pollack and Minghella were still alive.

So why did it take six years to get it released? Because Lonergan absolutely fell in love with a three-hour cut of his movie—Martin Scorsese has called that version “a masterpiece”—but 150 minutes was the longest runtime distributor Fox Searchlight would allow for the director to have final cut. With Lonergan refusing to make trims, the studio thought they were saddled with a movie they couldn’t release, and lawsuits were exchanged between Fox Searchlight and Margaret producer Gary Gilbert in 2008. Finally, when Gilbert was able to get Lonergan to reedit the film to a releasable 149-minutes, it got a limited showing starting on September 30, 2011. But very limited. It only played in 14 theaters in New York and Los Angeles, earning just $46,500.

Fox Searchlight didn’t launch an awards campaign for Margaret—crucial for any chance of Academy acknowledgment—and, tellingly, neither Lonergan nor the cast made much effort to promote the 149-minute cut. Margaret’s best chance with the Academy would have been for an Original Screenplay nomination—for my money, it would have been entirely deserved—but Fox Searchlight didn’t circulate its screenplay to critics’ groups, though it did for its other 2011 contenders The Descendants, Shame, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. At the urging of Slant Magazine critic Jaime N. Christley, the studio did start distributing awards screeners of the film so that reviewers outside of New York and L.A. could see it, and they brought it back for a two-week run at New York City’s Cinema Village in late December. The time to build any sort of Oscar campaign, though, had very much passed.

Even if it had been given a sustained awards season push, I’m not certain the Academy would have appreciated Margaret’s relentlessly dark tone. The other Original Screenplay nominees include decidedly lighter fare like Midnight in Paris, The Artist, and Bridesmaids. While a film like Margin Call, with its evocation of the financial collapse, appeals to Oscar’s love of hot-button topics. A Separation, though equally great, is notable for its Swiss-watch plotting, a far cry from the internally-driven, shambling narrative of Margaret. Also, it’s such a quintessentially New York tale that I’m not certain it would have had much resonance for Hollywood types. Sure, the Academy has honored the Big Apple’s favorite son Woody Allen, but it never awarded Sidney Lumet in a competitive category, and Martin Scorsese only won his Oscar when he made a film in Boston.

Why History Will Remember It More Fondly Than Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close:

Margaret features one of the most powerful depictions of death I’ve ever seen put on celluloid. When Allison Janney’s pedestrian meets her torturous, limb-severing, blood-spurting demise, you can’t help but think how stale and safe most other screen depictions of death really are. Unlike films that take up hot-button topics (terrorism, the financial collapse, etc.), Margaret dives deep into the issues that really, at the end of the day, matter most: How do we face our own mortality? How do we process guilt and grief? I’d say it’s like a Bergman film if it weren’t just so profoundly American. At a time when Hollywood seems poised more and more to embrace the “post-human era,” as Richard Corliss calls it, Lonergan shows that there’s still nothing more interesting than us mere mortals.

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Owen Gleiberman’s review: Margaret