Tuesday, February 27, 2024

FYC Outside-The-Box 2023 Awards Season Contenders To Consider Over The Holidays

Every year, come Thanksgiving time, Academy members gathering with their families sift through their piles of screeners in an attempt to figure out what they should watch. Inevitably, the latest prestige releases, critical darlings, and festival award winners rise to the top of the pile. But we here at Next Best Picture know that awards-worthy films aren’t just released during awards season, nor are they necessarily the films with the most significant buzz. We thought we’d help by compiling some of our favorite “outside the box” contenders into this list of cinematic achievements we’ve been thankful for this year.

Best Director: Chad Stahelski – “John Wick: Chapter 4”
John Wick: Chapter 4
After elevating the stakes with each preceding “John Wick” film, director Chad Stahelski set out to surpass what had come before. In the process, he, Keanu Reeves, the talented stunt performers, and other collaborators across all production areas set a new benchmark for every future action film to come. Drawing inspiration from classic samurai films, westerns, and big-screen epics like “Lawrence Of Arabia,” the scope and scale of “John Wick: Chapter 4” are ambitious and fitting for what might be the final chapter in the story of the Baba Yaga. Every aspect of “John Wick: Chapter 4” feels larger, conveying an aura of magnificence and heightened exhilaration, prompting many audience members to gaze in awe at the stunt work on the screen, wondering, “How the hell did they do that?” Such realistic, hard-hitting, and dizzyingly choreographed stuntwork hasn’t been seen in this genre since the days of classic Jackie Chan when audiences felt they were witnessing something never before attempted. Creating as safe an environment as possible for his stunt performers while pushing the boundaries of what’s achievable within the many action scenes, Stahelski dramatically ups his game, crafting the most emotionally gratifying entry in the franchise. The film introduces new fan-favorite characters and continues the story of John Wick shooting his way to freedom from the clutches of the High Table. By the time the nearly three-hour film reaches its climax—a gorgeously shot scene where the emotional stakes couldn’t be higher in a one-on-one pistol duel—Stahelski has given audiences more than their fill of thrilling action and death-defying stuntwork. Instead of pushing audiences past the point of exhaustion, he provides them a chance to take in the totality of not just this extraordinary film but four films’ worth of bullets and bloodshed in a world where honor and brotherhood are in short supply. It’s not only Stahelski’s finest moment as a storyteller but also a rousing high point for a genre that deserves more respect within the industry, especially during awards season.

Matt Neglia

Best Actress: Trace Lysette – “Monica”MonicaMonica” is the “Little Film That Can” this awards season. After a premiere at the Venice Film Festival and a small release roll-out similar to most independent films, “Monica” has slowly been gaining a powerful presence. The film follows a young woman (Trace Lysette) who returns to her estranged family and terminally ill mother who hasn’t seen her since she transitioned. It is a small slice-of-life movie that relies on stillness and silent moments that propel its story forward. The film is less about external conflict and more of a narrative about an individual and her relationship with family, forgiveness, and love. This film simply wouldn’t work without Lysette in the lead. Monica isn’t an easy character: She requires an actress who can convey all her mixed emotions without dialogue for an entire feature film. Even if she is interacting with others, there is a sense of constant isolation and trepidation. In the wrong hands, the film could have been too muted to have an impact. But thankfully, Lysette is at the wheel. The audience is constantly with Monica and observes her in a judgment-free zone. This allows the audience to follow her on her journey and feel every single emotion she encounters in the film. Monica is a quiet yet beautiful film that deserves to be seen by the masses. If nominated, Lysette would be the first transgender actress nominated for Best Actress. It would be a game-changer for representation, and trans voices; a major glass ceiling has the potential to be broken. Additionally, Lysette deserves all of the praise not just because she’s giving an excellent performance for a trans woman but also because it’s a phenomenal leading performance, period. Acting schools can teach one how to perform monologues, but Lysette’s ability to portray the ordinary and extraordinary with such honesty, truth, and complexity that the camera has no option but to stay on her cannot be taught. It is simply one of the year’s best performances and deserves tremendous praise.

Lauren LaMagna

Best Actor: Franz Rogowski – “Passages”
This year’s Best Actor category is already filled with many fascinating contenders that convey so much great work. However, there is always room to find exceptional portrayals on much smaller scales amongst the heavy hitters. Franz Rogowski’s profile has been rising throughout the years and has continually shown the massive talent he has. In “Passages,” he is presented with yet another opportunity to showcase his skill at deftly inhabiting the multitude of emotions embedded within a character. For this film, the role of Tomas is a challenging one. He is self-absorbed, narcissistic, and utterly oblivious to the destructive impact he has on those closest to him. Yet, Rogowski threads this difficult needle to find the humanity beneath that toxic exterior. His selfish lust for life is a genuine pursuit driven by an unbound hedonism that fuels his artistic spirit. All the while, this man possesses a charisma that is easy to be taken with, just as one can see the façade crumble when consequences reveal themselves. It is in these nuances that Rogowski perfectly captures this tortured man. He is able to convey the bountiful endearments that are weaponized when confronted with difficult decisions. Thanks to this performance, Tomas remains a captivating figure without ever turning wholly repulsive. There is a pathetic sadness that fights with his confidence, an emotional tightrope that Rogwoski beautifully demonstrates. This is yet another masterful performance from an actor who has continued to showcase his deft ability to present engrossing depictions of flawed yet intriguing characters. It’s a role that succeeds magnificently due to the capabilities of a wondrous performer who deserves acknowledgment for a difficult task that was superbly accomplished.

Josh Parham

Best Supporting Actress: Patti LuPone – “Beau Is Afraid”
Beau Is Afraid
If there’s one thing that Broadway legend Patti LuPone knows, it’s how to make an entrance. After being talked about at length for the first two hours of “Beau Is Afraid,” LuPone’s character of Mona Wassermann thought to have been killed in a freak accident, slowly emerges from the shadows very much alive, ready to take on her wayward son Beau (Joaquin Phoenix). And she’s pissed. Any theatre critic, producer, or patron with a cell phone who has faced the wrath of Patti LuPone knows just how terrifying this Broadway diva can be if she’s unhappy. While a fiery glare may be intimidating, what makes LuPone’s work here truly an awards contender is her brilliant decision to slowly reveal the genuine pain beneath Mona’s fury. A woman with mommy issues herself, Mona was determined not to repeat her mother’s mistakes in raising her son Beau, only to continue the vicious cycle of too-high expectations, and it is Beau that bears her wrath. So, awards voters, when you’re considering whom to cast your ballot as the year’s Best Supporting Actress, just try not to consider Patti LuPone. She’ll be watching.

Tom O’Brien

Best Supporting Actor: Glenn Howerton – “BlackBerry”
Not since JK Simmons in “Whiplash” has a performer brought such complexity and nuance to a performance driven mainly by shouting and screaming as Glenn Howerton does in “BlackBerry.” He sheds nearly all of the likability (and hair) of his characters in shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” transforming into a character who is described as a “shark” and looks every bit the part. As real-life Blackberry co-CEO Jim Balsillie, when Howerton isn’t screaming, smashing phones, and berating coworkers, he’s staring out with a steely, merciless gaze that leaves no question that this is a predator eyeing his prey. It’s a genuinely frightening performance; he’s scary when yelling, yet somehow even more dangerous when not. Nonetheless, Howerton never ultimately plays the character as a one-dimensional villain. Howerton mines the character for insecurities and flashes of humor that sometimes make him grudgingly likable. Taking a character who reads on paper like Tom Cruise’s producer in “Tropic Thunder” and making him feel like a real person isn’t easy, but Howerton is more than up to the challenge. One hopes that even without a major studio backing the film, he has a chance to break into the Best Supporting Actor lineup.

Will Mavity

Best Original Screenplay: “Bottoms”
Think of the films most meaningful to you when you were younger. Think of the films that you’ve watched over and over again throughout the years. Chances are you thought of at least one high school comedy – “Booksmart,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Clueless,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Mean Girls,” etc. These films create indelible time capsules of pop culture that still speak to young people decades later, standing the test of time better than many prestige films, yet they never get Oscar nominations. “Bottoms” is the latest example that should be on the Academy’s radar. Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott’s uproarious film has one of the most original premises of the year, and they follow through in the execution: Unpopular lesbians PJ and Josie start a girls-only fight club (that’s “self-defense club” to any school officials) in the hopes of getting their cheerleader crushes to have sex with them. It’s a clever flipping of the script from the usual teen comedies, in which the boys are the misguided horndogs. But it’s not just the premise that’s clever, though, as the Seligman/Sennott dream team satirizes American high school culture with ruthless precision while crafting a meaningful story about finding your innermost strength and confidence. Yes, it is hilariously funny and even bizarre at times (the school’s star wrestler is always kept in a cage; the big slogan for the football team is “Get Horny!”), but the care taken with the characters ensures that “Bottoms” will last forever as a high school classic. What do you say, AMPAS – how about we get ahead of the curve on this one?

Dan Bayer

Best Cinematography: “El Conde”
El Conde
What else can be said about Ed Lachman’s striking cinematography for “El Conde?” A satire about a vampiric Augusto Pinochet is undoubtedly an odd sell to viewers, yet it’s impossible to resist because of how stunning each frame is. Its quasi-gothic nature is serenaded with impressive scenic shots of Chile, beautifully captured in black and white. Thanks to the silvery shine of the images, it’s as gorgeous to watch Pinochet bicker with his parasitic children as it is to watch him weightlessly float the night away on the hunt for blood. All these months later, it’s hard to forget Lachman’s work. Let’s hope the Academy keeps him top of mind when it comes time to vote.

Giovanni Lago

Best Costume Design: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.
Are you there, Oscar voters? It’s the work of two-time Oscar winner Ann Roth, the legendary costume designer behind the textured, lived-in wardrobe of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s instant classic, adapted from the beloved Judy Blume novel of the same name, tells a heartfelt coming-of-age story about girlhood, womanhood, and self-discovery. Craig lovingly expands on Blume’s novel, and that warmth shines through every element of the film, from the screenplay and performances to the wardrobe. Much of the film’s world-building — set in 1970s New York and New Jersey — comes from the costume design. Each character’s wardrobe feels specific to a sense of personality and place. You could envision their closets full of clothes and characters, such as the protagonist Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) sorting through which outfit to wear. Roth’s costumes also capture the story’s multigenerational reach, finding pieces that reflect the individuality of Margaret’s mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), and grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates). With the Best Costume Design category full of strong contenders this season, it happens far too often that smaller gems get lost in the mix. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” deserves to stay in the conversation, and if recognized in costume design, Ann Roth would make history as the oldest person ever nominated competitively. You must, you must, you must consider Roth’s gorgeous hand in creating the fabrics of these characters’ lives and the worlds they inhabit while also maintaining remarkable specificity to a particular era and sensibility.

Nadia Dalimonte

Best Makeup & Hairstyling: “Evil Dead Rise”
Evil Dead Rise
It’s the holiday season, and there’s no more heartwarming, bring-everyone-together thing to do than gathering the folks around the TV and watching a story of family bonding and true perseverance – “Evil Dead Rise.” It tells the tale of a family of five struggling to make ends meet, get along, and defeat the demonic force trying to pick them off individually. The film uses all sorts of sickeningly impressive – and impressively sickening – practical makeup tricks to not only show the effects that the demon has on those possessed but also to make viscerally real the nasty injuries that are accrued across the course of the movie. Horror has long been disrespected by film awards, with the Oscars only deigning to reward them a few times. It’s a genre that should be more frequently represented across all craft categories, especially Best Makeup and Hairstyling, given how boundary-pushing and astonishing their makeup effects often are. “Evil Dead Rise” is truly something to be thankful for – an unrelenting and fun journey of terror, lovingly put together by some twisted filmmakers.

Cody Dericks

Best Documentary Feature: “Our Body”
Our Body
The term “essential viewing” gets thrown around a lot these days, but “Our Body” deserves that classification and should not be ignored when considering documentary feature films. Claire Simon’s simple but powerful film captures the day-to-day events that take place behind closed doors in a women’s wing of a Parisian hospital. It shows the strength women of all backgrounds have, whether they’re hearing the best news of their lives or processing an immense tragedy. It’s also an essential lesson in the numerous unique, messy, frustrating, and painful experiences that shape womanhood. “Our Body” will certainly open many people’s eyes to the struggles that women face, such as fertility issues, cancer, and transitioning, especially when many of these topics are not as freely discussed as they should be. As much as the film is an ode to women, it’s also a wonderful homage to healthcare workers and the dedication they show their patients. We should be so thankful that Simon has given us another beautiful and gentle look into life and the good, bad, and ugly moments that shape it.

Ema Sasic

​These are only some of the performances, films and crafts we’ve chosen to highlight but, obviously, there are many others to go through this awards season before voting commences. Please feel free to share what are some of your favorite awards season contenders you want voters to consider more outside of the obvious contenders? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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