The résumés of this year's contenders are brimming with fantastic, if lesser-known, movies. Here's a selection.
1. Steven Speilberg
(Best Director, Lincoln)
Duel (1971, PG)
Spielberg proved he was a master of suspense at 24 with his first feature (it’s actually a made-for-TV movie). Dennis Weaver stars as a commuter pursued by an unseen psycho behind the wheel of an oil truck. A white-knuckle debut.
2. Ang Lee
(Best Director, Life of Pi)
The Wedding Banquet (1993, R)
On the surface, Lee’s early comedy about a homosexual Taiwanese New Yorker (Winston Chao) pretending to be engaged for the sake of his old-fashioned parents may seem like a gay Green Card. But Lee never condescends to the film’s farcical premise. Instead, he weaves an honest, heartfelt story about acceptance.
3. Denzel Washington
(Best Actor, Flight)
Cry Freedom (1987, PG)
Following Gandhi, Richard Attenborough directed another Great Man Story, about martyred anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Washington, who was starring on St. Elsewhere at the time, makes the most of his first juicy dramatic lead role.
4. Daniel Day-Lewis
(Best Actor, Lincoln)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, R)
A year before he won his first Oscar for My Left Foot, Day-Lewis smoldered in this underseen adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel about a playboy Czech doctor torn between two women (Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche) on the eve of the Soviet invasion in 1968. It’s a beautifully sensual story — and Day-Lewis has never been steamier.
5. Bradley Cooper
(Best Actor, Silver Linings Playbook)
Wet Hot American Summer (2001, R)
David Wain’s cult summer-camp comedy is Meatballs with a hipster wink. Go back and check out Cooper’s tryst in the sporting-equipment shed with Michael Ian Black.
6. Emmanuelle Riva
(Best Actress, Amour)
Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959, Not Rated)
Riva became an art-house sensation thanks to Alain Resnais’ erotic import. It’s easy to see why. She casts a hypnotic spell playing a French actress who has an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and grapples with the scars of WWII.
7. Naomi Watts
(Best Actress, The Impossible)
Flirting (1991, R)
This Wes Anderson-esque romance about teen love at a boarding school features a who’s who of budding Aussie talent: Noah Taylor, Nicole Kidman…and Watts, as a bookish, bespectacled student who sticks up for the ostracized new girl (Thandie Newton).
8. Philip Seymour Hoffman
(Best Supporting Actor, The Master)
Hard Eight (1997, R)
The Master was the fifth collaboration between Hoffman and director Paul Thomas Anderson. The first: this stylishly low-key tale about fringy Vegas gamblers. Hoffman’s blustery scene at a craps table will make you understand why Anderson keeps asking him back.
9. Jacki Weaver
(Best Supporting Actress, Silver Linings Playbook)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, PG)
Part lyrical period piece, part supernatural chiller, Peter Weir’s account of a real-life incident about a group of young women who vanished during a school field trip is a confounding mystery. Still, there’s consolation for sharp-eyed fans of Silver Linings Playbook: Weaver as the school’s kindhearted maid.
10. Amy Adams
(Best Supporting Actress, The Master)
The Slaughter Rule (2003, R)
The main star of this small Sundance coming-of-age story about football and redemption is Ryan Gosling, who proves that the previous year’s The Believer wasn’t a fluke. But keep an eye out for a fresh-faced Adams as one of his high school pals, bucking against small-town boredom.
Skyfall (2012, PG-13)
Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem
Has 007 finally met his match? Craig’s brooding, bare-knuckle superspy goes head-to-head with a sadistic cyberterrorist (Bardem at his creepiest) in Sam Mendes’ franchise-reinvigorating 23rd installment. The best Bond flick in a while. (Also on iTunes) A
The Sessions (2012, R)
John Hawkes, Helen Hunt
A bedridden man paralyzed from the neck down from polio hires a sex surrogate to help him relinquish his virginity. (Also on iTunes) B+
Robot & Frank (2012, PG-13)
Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon
A lonely, aging man makes an unlikely friend in this sentimental sci-fi film that really shouldn’t work, but does. (Also on iTunes) B+
The Kid With (2011, PG-13)
Thomas Doret, Cécile de France
The Dardenne brothers’ prize-winning import about a boy’s search for his father gets a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion. A
The Hunter (2012, R)
Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill
In the wilds of Tasmania, a mercenary looks for a breed of tiger long thought to be extinct. A patiently paced and under-appreciated thriller. (Available on Netflix instant viewing) B
Anna Karenina (2012, R)
Keira Knightley, Jude Law
Director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic suffers from a self-conscious staginess. But hey, the costumes are great. B- 2/19
The Terminator (1984, R)
True to his ”I’ll be back” promise, Ah-nuld’s badass killing machine returns…this time on Blu-ray. A 2/19
Most grades are from EW’s reviews of the original theatrical release