With a week and a half to go before the Oscar telecast, there's still time to bump a few of the nominated films to the top of your Netflix queue. Five of the 10 Best Picture nominees are currently on home video (District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and Up), rather neatly representing the newly expanded category's better half, but viewing just as rewarding can be found on the margins of the nominees list.
Case in point: Costume Design contender Bright Star, which debuted on DVD last month after a too-brief stint in theaters last fall. For those who missed it then, writer-director Jane Campion's exquisitely textured film about the ill-fated romance between the Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is completely transporting—by no means the stodgy period piece some might expect from its single Academy citation. (See the thrice-nominated Young Victoria for the more conventionally corseted.)
Also more multifaceted than its only nomination might suggest: the hard-nosed political satire Il Divo, an Italian import. It's one of three films nominated in the makeup category, either a testament to the extent of the Academy's love for facial prosthetics (the Neapolitan actor Toni Servillo transforms into a convincing gnomish grotesque of seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti) or a sign of stricter-than-usual viewing requirements for voters in that particular category (Il Divo's U.S. theatrical earnings stand at less than 3 percent of the take of the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee, An Education). Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's dizzyingly stylized film follows Andreotti during the early 1990s, as the soft-spoken, enigmatic politician indirectly dispatches problematic associates and eventually goes to trial for his Mafia dealings. (Unsurprisingly, Andreotti was acquitted of the charges—and just about every other one he's faced over the years—but Sorrentino's version of events clearly finds the stooped politician guilty.)
The film begins with an on-screen-text fender-bender of epigraphs and title cards, one of which vaguely associates Andreotti with the similarly forever scandal-embroiled current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The following action moves too briskly for every name and motivation to register, but the thrust of the piece isn't hard to figure: Il Divo is an energetic, lacerating portrait of powerful old men utterly without principle. It's the Italian government as Goodfellas. (The use of pop music and the roving camera also recall Scorsese.)
Sometimes the choices of Sorrentino and his cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, are off-putting—say, their use of large paintings as visual anchors in some interior scenes—but at others their blocking brilliantly spikes the sour comedy. In one early scene Andreotti—who professes to have "a vast archive in place of an imagination"—holds a faction meeting while receiving a shave. He's immobile and prone, with a straight razor centimeters from his jugular, but he nonetheless presides coolly.
On the other end of the spectrum entirely is A Perfect Getaway, starring Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich, a proudly junky but exceedingly clever thriller, a film both for those who are put off by most Oscar-approved films, with their often canned notions of respectability, and those who simply prefer higher-octane cinema. David Twohy (Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick) wrote and directed this B movie, which didn't make much of a splash at the tail end of the summer blockbuster season. Zahn and Jovovich play honeymooners in Hawaii who, after witnessing a series of breathtaking vistas and experiencing the requisite throwaway tone-setting creepy moments, catch wind of a newlywed-murdering couple loose on Oahu. They're on another, more remote island, but their suspicions immediately fall on other couples in their picturesque vicinity.
Not-so-shocking twists follow. Zahn's character, however, happens to be a screenwriter, and the film's hyper-self-aware inquiries into the practice of storytelling, of both the on-screen and interpersonal varieties, give this film a formally playful charge uncommon to killer-on-the-loose movies. Disputes emerge over the merits of potential plot points, and, most amusingly, whether the famous narrative device is called a "red snapper" or a "red herring." At one point, a motor-mouthed Iraq war vet, Nick (Timothy Olyphant), expresses his desire to be played by Nicolas Cage, providing an accompanying impression ("I love how he gets all intense right at the end of a SENTENCE!"). Perhaps it's the mark of a truly successful movie-movie that as it rolls along it keeps generating associations: it flashed through my mind during A Perfect Getaway that I wished I could recommend Werner Herzog's recent Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, an unhinged Cage-match of official misbehavior, to Olyphant's vividly written character. The former special ops guy with a million get-this stories would certainly love it.