’70s Formula One legend Thor (OK, Chris Hemsworth) announced the 86th Annual Academy Awards nominations yesterday morning in Beverly Hills, and his stentorian tones predominantly met and delivered to expectations. Gravity and American Hustle led all films with 10 nominations, while 12 Years A Slave was a close second with nine.

In recognition of, and as an alternative to, these top contenders I recommend viewing a film that never had much chance for a ‘big’ award (although it was fostered by a grant): John SaylesThe Brother From Another Planet (1984). Sayles (1988’s Eight Men Out, 1996’s Lone Star, last November’s Go For Sisters) used his Mac Arthur Fellows ‘genius’ grant to partially fund the $350,000 film, which would turn out to be his first popular success. Joe Morton (Terminator 2: Judgement Day , 2007’s American Gangster) stars as ‘The Brother’, an escaped alien slave with African-American features who drops into a Gothometro Area (in the harbor across from the WTC), still sliding into the burned-and-drugged-out aftermath of the Disco/ABSCAM era. He drifts over to Harlem, where after initial awkwardness (as he is telekinetic yet mute), he is accepted by the locals due to his electronics skills (watching this again after many years I flashed on Buster Keaton mixed with a bit of Jermaine Crawford’s Duquan in The Wire).

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Two ‘white’ alien bounty-hunters, played by Sayles himself and David Strathairn (Silkwood, Good Night, and Good Luck, Lincoln), turn up to turn things upside-down, propelling ‘The Brother’ on an Orpheus-like odyssey through a spacey, sleazy, exploitative and corrupt Manhattan peopled by perseverant and irrepressibly diverse denizens. Sayles uses a chain of well-scripted vignettes to make quotidian yet incisive comments on America and mankind in general, a good number of which one can see echoed in today’s Academy-nominated trio, in some cases with much less subtlety.

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Sayles and Strathairn are excellent in conveying the ‘wackness’ of the bounty hunters, and Michael Mantell (Matewan, A.I., The Ides of March), and the classic Bill Cobbs (Ghosts of Mississippi, Oz the Great and Powerful) lead an excellent ensemble cast that would provide an influence (and actors like Giancarlo Esposito) for Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It a couple of years later. There’s even a Josh Mostel sighting (Wall Street, the singing King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar), vending ‘low overhead’ Casio keyboards. And steel drums save the day!

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You can watch John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet free on FilmOn’s on-demand service now:

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