Credit: Claire Folger

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: Black Mass, a wide-reaching look at James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), an Irish-American mobster, and the impact his life of crime had on his family, Boston, and the law forces working against — and even with — him. Followed through three key perspectives — Bulger, FBI agent and old friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), and Whitey’s brother and Massachusetts State Senate president Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) — Black Mass traced the costly and deadly impact of Bulger’s deeds.

Why it wasn’t nominated: There are a few reasons awards analysts could blame for Black Mass’s absolute absence at the Oscars. Its September release came only a week before The Martian kicked into critically and commercially successful gear, which landed it Golden Globe wins and Oscar nominations including a Best Picture nod. There’s also studio Warner Bros.’ focus to consider, as it turned attention to ramping up a push of Mad Max: Fury Road, which proved more and more like a serious contender after a number of critic’s choice wins and guild nominations.

But there may be one other reason, even obvious than the rest — the film just wasn’t that beloved a release compared to the other contenders in the Oscars race. Black Mass received some favorable reviews, though they largely centered around one central aspect (more on that in a bit), as the rest of the film was frequently dinged for being so overly reminiscent of past mob movies that it became more a forgettable imitator and less a welcome new addition to the genre.

Of course, diehard Black Mass fans could also always blame The Departed, which was inspired by Bulger’s life and only nine years ago won Best Picture and finally earned Martin Scorsese his first Best Director win.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Whichever side of the scale reviews tended to lean for Black Mass, they all seemed to agree on one thing — Johnny Depp delivered a riveting, stellar performance as Whitey Bulger. After a series of missteps (Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Mortdecai) that felt more like ecentric parodies of Depp’s better roles, Bulger proved a surprising return to form for the actor, one that many suspected would have him in serious awards contention for the first time in years.

And Depp’s performance is a terrific one unlike anything he’s done in years. For an actor who looks little like the real-life person he’s portraying, Depp settles into the shocking blue eyes of Bulger with impressive presence, switching nimbly from calm and collected to powerful and furious and back again in seconds. His mysterious smile, his coolly exterior, and terrifying presence commanded attention every time Bulger was on screen (and made the film notably less enjoyable when he was absent from it).

Black Mass‘ ensemble cast of recognizable actors surrounded Depp with varying degrees of success (a few actors could have certainly used a few extra days in Boston accent class). Joel Edgerton (who was already having a good year with the praise for his work on The Gift) proves to rise most to the occasion alongside Depp, giving life to FBI agent John Connolly, who serves as a bridge between the law and underbelly of Boston. Aligned to his work but committed to his childhood friend Whitey, Edgerton adds a human touch to the mob story, as viewers watch Connolly frantically work to balance both facets of his life. (And on the non-acting front, Tom Holkenborg’s haunting score is a smart pairing for the material, but the composer may have overshadowed himself with his excellent Mad Max: Fury Road score, as there is no Doof Warrior in sight of Black Mass to bring his score to life on the streets of Boston.)

But above all, Black Mass belongs to Depp, and though Scott Cooper’s film may not have gotten the awards accolade of some of its mafioso brethren, it has hopefully reoriented Depp back toward intriguing, memorable performances and away from the likes of Mortdecai‘s mustache. Hopefully years from now, Black Mass can be viewed as the beginning of a long and prosperous Deppaissance that will eventually land Depp another Oscar nod — even if he’s already set to return to the dreads and captain’s hat of Jack Sparrow.

Black Mass
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes