Some awards season movies just aren’t meant to be Best Picture contenders. You can pick out films that seem like prestige flicks, but as they roll out a common refrain is that the film is just not good enough… but so and so sure is great! These are the performance showcases, a film whose only nomination hopes hinge on an actor or two.

I took a look at some of this year’s performance showcases, most of which totally fizzled down the stretch. But they’re all actually quite good and worth a watch (with one very notable exception).

Fair Game

This is the one whose lack of success puzzles me the most because it’s a darn good film that seems up the Academy’s aisle. A telling of the Valeria Plame affair with Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson, Fair Game does a wonderful job of navigating a complex narrative while demonstrating the absurdities and injustices of the whole ordeal.

It’s also a terrific domestic drama. Plame just wants to be a good CIA officer and stay out of the limelight while Wilson wants to fight back in the media and take on the Bush administration. The result is a strained marriage, portrayed effectively without dialing up the melodrama.

Penn is such a blowhard in real life that I’d never expect him to have a role that allows him to bloviate about the Bush administration without coming off like a blowhard. And yet, he’s great: stubborn but loving, hurt and lashing out but intelligent and calculating. I guess I should stop being surprised by him. I walk into a film thinking about how obnoxious I find the guy and yet he always makes me forget that I’m watching Sean Penn. Watts got more awards attention, though I found her less memorable but still very good.

Fair Game is a great mix of entertainment and message without overdoing the latter. It’s a great example of how to pull off an effective political drama. I’m afraid its lack of awards season traction will consign it to anonymity.

I'm gonna work wicked hahd to get you out of jail

Conviction

If any film had “Oscar bait” written all over it, it’s this one. If it wasn’t based on a true story you might think it was a parody of Oscar films. Hillary Swank plays a single mother who puts herself through law school in order to clear her brother (Sam Rockwell) of a murder he did not commit. This should really be an unbearable cliche of a film but it’s actually pretty good. I don’t think it does anything groundbreaking, but it tells the story coherently and hits the right notes without overdoing the schmaltz.

And here’s the surprising thing: Swank is really good. If I had a ballot, she would have been on it. She’s earnest and sports a Massachusetts accent but doesn’t overdo it. She picked up a SAG nomination and seemed like a decent shot for an Oscar nod up until the end. I would have been quite okay with that. Rockwell is also good, as always. I wouldn’t recommend Conviction over Fair Game or Made in Dagenham, but I think those who rent it during the dreary spring months would be pleasantly surprised.

Made in Dagenham

Sally Hawkins is the star of this one. Literally, sure, she leads the film, but she’s so good. She plays the leader of a group of female Ford sewing machinists who go on strike in 1960s England. It’s one of those films about fighting for what you believe in and daring to dream. And it’s pretty darn good. Once again, not groundbreaking, but very entertaining and effective. It’s the kind of film that leaves you smiling as you leave the theater.

Hawkins steers the film wonderfully. She’s appropriately inspiring when necessary and nails all the rousing lines. This is usually when my eyes start rolling, but her performance and some good writing combine to hit the right, sincere notes. But Hawkins is also great because of her range. She’s not just very good as an inspiring leader, but also as a mother, a friend, and even a jokester.

It’s too bad Hawkins’s campaign never picked up much traction. Miranda Richardson seemed like a better shot for Supporting Actress, at least earlier in the season. She’s also good, but I think her success as Secretary of Employment Barbara Castle has more to do with a forcefully written role that allows her to unleash some zingers on her bumbling male staff.

I would have thought Dagenham could have made some waves in some technical categories as a period piece: Makeup or Art Direction, perhaps. A small plot point revolves around an outfit, so Costume was a definite possibility to the point that I predicted its nomination. Alas, this nice film will be totally missing from Oscar night.

This scene is especially bad

Casino Jack

Kevin Spacey landed a Golden Globe nod for his role as Jack Abramoff. But boy is this an awful movie. It goes for a zany tone like Oceans Eleven or The Informant! but it’s all wrong. Turning the story into a humorous romp undermines the political points it tries to make, not that those points are made subtly or effectively. Furthermore, the plot has trouble unfolding coherently. I didn’t like Spacey at all in this role and Barry Pepper is terrible as his business partner.

I left Fair Game intrigued and spent an hour reading up on the whole affair online once I got home. It felt like I left Casino Jack knowing even less about Abramoff than I did going in and what’s worse is I didn’t care.

Skip it!

Hooray, the movie's over!

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