Paul Schrader's latest film, which stars Oscar Isaac as torturer-turned-poker player William Tell, was unfairly ignored by awards season.

They're destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our attention throughout a year (and awards season) like no other. Ahead of the 94th Oscars ceremony on March 27, EW is breaking down the year's best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.

The film: "You live like this?" That question, the centerpiece of a popular meme, is posed by two different characters in The Card Counter. Paul Schrader's latest film stars Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a military veteran haunted by his participation in the torture at Abu Ghraib and the 10-year prison sentence he received as a result. Having taught himself how to count cards in prison (in order to pass the time as much as anything else), Tell now lives on the road, moving from one casino to the next and only ever using his skills to win modest sums. Along the way Tell meets a younger man named Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan) and takes him along on his gambling trips (in order to save him from violent urges as much as anything else).

Tell is just as disturbed by Cirk's dirty, disheveled housekeeping as Cirk is, by the way. Tell covers all the furniture with white sheets secured by twine in every room where he sleeps. Each asks the other, "you live like this?" But the whole film is asking that same question of the modern American viewer. After the crimes of the War on Terror, is this really how we're going to live: Moving among hotels, restaurants, and public places with décor so soulless they're hardly distinguishable from prison? Are we going to reckon with past crimes and try to punish those responsible (like Willem Dafoe's torturer-in-chief), or just shove them under the proverbial rug forever?

It may not be a happy watch, but in a culture so suffused with escapist fantasy, The Card Counter stands out for its attempt to address the contemporary world.  

Oscar Isaac as torturer-turned-poker player William Tell in 'The Card Counter'
| Credit: Focus Features

Why it wasn't nominated: Even as he became a director in his own right in the late '70s, Schrader continued to collaborate with Martin Scorsese, writing the screenplays for many of the latter's most beloved films (including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull). So the fact that he didn't get a single Oscar nomination until 2018's First Reformed says a lot about what the Academy thinks of Schrader's black-eyed, sharp-tongued critiques of American society.

Schrader's films are also deeply influenced by French auteur Robert Bresson (as he would be the first to tell you), and "austere minimalism" has never really been the Oscars' cup of tea; they'll take campy maximalism every time. They also love period pieces! Of this year's Best Picture nominees, only three (CODA, Don't Look Up, and Drive My Car) of the 10 are set in the here and now, and Don't Look Up is a heightened satire while Drive My Car takes place in Japan. The Card Counter's assessment of modern America is a lot bleaker than the heartwarming CODA, which is probably why it got ignored (alongside Sean Baker's Red Rocket, another movie with lots to say about Trump's America that the Academy doesn't want to hear).

Schrader isn't the only artist involved in The Card Counter, but given that the Academy previously snubbed Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis (one of their most embarrassing foibles of the 2010s), it is sadly no surprise that they ignored his riveting performance here as well.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: After the debacle of Rise of Skywalker, Isaac was finally freed from Star Wars — the franchise that made him famous as an internet boyfriend even as it ate up several of his prime years. As he continues to be tied up in other Disney franchises like Moon Knight and the Spider-Verse sequels, movies like The Card Counter — where he plays an actual human being in a story about the real world — will only seem more important as a reminder of Isaac's true gift as an actor.

As for Schrader, he came of age in the so-called "New Hollywood" era when filmmakers earnestly tried to address contemporary concerns. Decades later, he is one of the few left who is still trying to do that. Debt, for instance, is the kind of thing that defines life for millions of Americans — whether incurred by medical procedures, student loans, high rent, or a variety of other malefactors — and continues to spike interest in the potential payoffs of newly-legalized sports gambling or volatile NFT markets (despite the risks of even more debt incurred by losses). The Card Counter reflects this reality: Tell strikes up a reluctant partnership with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who represents a group of investors, in order to pay off Cirk's debts so that he might put some good into the world to make up for his past crimes. It doesn't go according to plan, but The Card Counter will still be worth revisiting in the future as a snapshot of 2020s America even without any Oscars (besides Isaac) to its name.

EW's countdown to the 2022 Oscars has everything you're looking for, from our expert predictions and in-depth Awardist interviews with this year's nominees to nostalgia and our takes on the movies and actors we wish had gotten more Oscars love. You can check it all out at The Awardist.

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