If 'The Big Short' showed the housing crisis from the top-down, this tense real-estate thriller is from the bottom-up.
Credit: Hooman Bahrani
  • Movie

Which movie was better: Mean Streets or The Sting? There’s no wrong answer, but here’s something that’s criminal. The Sting, George Roy Hill’s crowd-pleasing reunion with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. (That’s not the criminal part…) Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s gritty crime pic with Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, won zero Oscars. It didn’t win any Oscars because it wasn’t even nominated for a single award. Not one.

So you can debate whether The Sting was the best movie of 1973. But you can’t excuse the Academy for completely ignoring Mean Streets. Sadly, Oscar has a long history of overlooking masterful comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, and artsy foreign films — classics like The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Touch of Evil, and The Big Lebowski.

History, fortunately, is the ultimate arbiter of greatness. Before this year’s ceremony, we’re taking a closer look at 2015 films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The film: A real-estate thriller from Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart) set during the housing crisis, 99 Homes follows Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), his mother Lynn (Laura Dern), and his son Connor (Noah Lomax) in the aftermath of their eviction by cold-blooded real-estate hustler Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).

Desperate but determined to win back his family home, Dennis takes a job with Carver, becoming the guy who evicts other families who similarly are being crushed by the economic downturn. It’s a deal with the devil, to be sure, and Dennis has to wrestle with the ethical dilemma of putting other families on the street so that his own son can sleep in his childhood bedroom. How much is his soul worth, and does Dennis have a breaking point?

Why it wasn’t nominated: 99 Homes was a festival sleeper that never played in more than 700 theaters after it finally opened in September. I’m going to venture that director Adam McKay’s The Big Short — another film about the housing crisis —overshadowed 99 Homes, both at the box office and with Oscars voters. The Big Short has Paramount Pictures on its side, plus high-wattage stars like Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale. It takes a more clinical, macro approach to the financial crisis, breaking down what happened behind the Wall Street curtain with major style, punchy performances, and quippy cameos from celebrities such as Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez. 99 Homes, meanwhile, is much more micro, more emotional and personal in tone. There is a conflicted protagonist and a defined villain who represents a corrupt system. It hurts more, hits closer to home. Perhaps that made it harder to consume, too.

Shannon was nominated for a SAG Award for best supporting actor, so his peers did take notice. Bale landed one of the coveted Oscar slots, along with The Revenant’s Tom Hardy, Spotlight’s Mark Ruffalo, Bridge of Spies’ Mark Rylance, and Creed’s Sylvester Stallone. It’s a competitive field, but a stronger awards push from Broad Green Pictures may have made a difference.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: There are the performances. Garfield is perfectly morally conflicted, skirting the line between doing what he has to to get back on track and crossing ethical boundaries, and Dern is totally raw as a mother who might not have it all together, but still stands for what she believes in. They both excel in the eviction scene, where the family is given mere minutes to pack their things.

But it is the devilish Shannon who really steals the film. “When you work for me, you’re mine,” he tells Dennis. It sounds like a bad idea, but Shannon is an expert seducer who can coddle Dennis’s ego or challenge his manhood with lines like, “What did you do wrong that your family lives in a motel?” It’s an Alec-Baldwin-in-Glengarry-Glen-Ross performance, right down to the monologue about what it takes to be successful in America.

Also, what might have held 99 Homes back could be exactly why it’s remembered more favorably years from now. The film really gets at the human element of the housing crisis. It tells the people’s story by showcasing those affected, like in a montage where Dennis evicts all sorts of people from their homes, including a family with young children and an old man living alone with no one to contact who seems to be at a complete loss for what’s going on. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and it feels very authentic in the way it captures the effects of this major moment in U.S. history. More than that, it feels very important, while still maintaining its artistic integrity.

99 Homes will be available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and Digital HD on Feb. 9.

99 Homes
  • Movie
  • R
  • 112 minutes
  • Ramin Bahrani