Well, it’s all happening: today is the last day of the “nominating phase” of this year’s Academy Awards, which means the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are (mostly likely) just now getting around to dashing off their suggestions for this year’s Oscar nominees. And since “awards season” has been going for a good four months already, a great many are likely to just fill in the names that are getting all the buzz: Natalie, Emma, Denzel, Casey, etc. etc. etc. And those are worthy performances! But if I may be so bold, I’d like to make a few additional suggestions, for some genuinely terrific performances from last year that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the traction they should’ve.
Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Annette Bening seems a reasonably safe bet for a Best Actress nomination, and rightly so – she’s magnificent in Mike Mills’s gentle, wonderful comedy/drama, as the aging mother who’s trying to do right by her son, by letting him go. But don’t sleep on the tremendous work by Ms. Gerwig here, who takes what could’ve been a fairly standard free-spirited artist character, and invests it with kindness, sensitivity, and (most of all) a welcome unpredictability. She ends up with what feels like an accumulation of her screen work thus far – a variation on a type, but honed to perfection.
Stephen Henderson, Fences
Likewise, stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are shoo-ins for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nods (and, in at least the latter case, a win), but relatively little praise has been accorded to the generous actor who shares so many of their scenes. Henderson – primarily known a stage performer, though his film resumé also includes a small role in this year’s Manchester by the Sea – is marvelous in the role of Washington’s best buddy, work compatriot, and confidant Jim Bono. He’s a vital component in getting to know Washington’s Troy, chuckling and chiming in during the introductory scenes (“You got more stories than the devil got sinners”); watch how he knows when to laugh, and knows when to leave. But Henderson really shines in the quiet scene about midway through, when he voices his genuine concerns about Troy and “that Tallahassee gal.” It’s the best kind of supporting performance, wholly unassuming yet undeniably present.
Michael Shannon, Elvis & Nixon
The very busy Shannon may very well net a Supporting Actor nod for his (very good) work in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, but I keep thinking about his brilliant turn in another, more light-hearted picture. Taxed with playing one of the most iconographic figures of our time in Liza Johnson’s absurd and charming Elvis & Nixon, Shannon resists the understandable urge to do a mere impression – after all, everyone can do Elvis. But Shannon does something much more interesting: he keys in on a few key elements of Presley’s voice and physicality, and uses them as a way in to a fully-formed character, rather than merely an impersonation. In doing so, he turns what could’ve been a half-baked variety show sketch into something more personable, and more poignant.
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Of course, movies like Elvis & Nixon typically don’t get Oscar nominations because they’re comedies, one of the AMPAS’ least respected genres. And sci-fi/horror genre pictures barely get any more love (aside from the technical categories), which is a shame, considering the skill of Goodman’s bravura performance in Dan Trachtenberg’s Cloverfield spin-off. As a short-fused survivalist who has either saved or abducted our protagonist, Goodman pulls off one of the hardest tasks you can give an actor: he tells us nothing, while seeming to have nothing to hide. It’s a remarkable performance, with scenes that enable multiple readings without easy tip-offs or villainous tics. Goodman’s always been an underrated performer – not a single Academy Award nomination in his thirty-plus year career – and sadly, that probably won’t change this year.
Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures
The transition from singer to film actor isn’t traditionally a smooth one (just ask Madonna or Mariah Carey), so the grace with which the divine Miss Monáe made that turn this fall is one of our most heartening film stories. She’s flat-out terrific in Moonlight, and has shared in some of that film’s ensemble cast kudos (though if anyone’s going to pull a Best Supporting Actress nomination out of that film, it appears to be the showier Naomie Harris). I’d argue that she’s even better in Hidden Figures , injecting spark and life in her frequent assignment as the main trio’s comic relief, but adroitly conveying her character’s mixture of hope and frustration in her scenes away from them.
Rebecca Hall, Christine
The surplus of memorable leading actress roles this year (in sharp contrast to most) is about the only explanation I can come up with for Rebecca Hall’s general absence from the “awards conversation” – that, or Christine’s bizarre simultaneous appearance with the documentary/narrative hybrid Kate Plays Christine, which covers much of the same story (and better, in the eyes of most critics). But Hall’s performance is a monster, a tough and harrowing portrait of loneliness, frustration, and mental illness, and one that crushes the viewer for nearly two hours without the meta-movie escape valve of Kate Lyn Sheil’s (also very good) turn in Kate. It’s an upsetting performance, often hard to watch; that, too, could be why voters aren’t embracing it.
Andre Royo, Hunter Gatherer
Royo was so breathtakingly good on The Wire, so convincing and so heart-wrenching (his last scene still gives the goose-bumps) that it’d be easy to imagine him stuck there forever, unable to shake the role that he inhabited so fully. So it was a joy to see him fronting this low-key and quietly unforgettable low-budget drama, as an ex-con trying to get his life back together, yet frequently undercut by his own delusions and shortcomings. It sounds like a million movies you’ve seen before, but Royo’s slightly askew performance (and writer/director Josh Locy’s keen ear and eye for detail) gives it fresh life.
Morgan Saylor, White Girl
Before this year, most of us just knew Saylor as the poor kid stuck in those unwatchable teen subplots that just about shipwrecked Homeland. Come to find out, there was a gifted and fearless actor waiting to burst out, and Elizabeth Wood’s powerful and unsettling drama gave her the opportunity to do just that. As a Midwestern girl who moves to NYC for college, falls in with the neighborhood drug dealer, and finds herself getting a real charge out of being the “bad girl” she never was, Saylor transcends all the possible traps and clichés, conveying both what her character thinks she’s seeking out, and how quickly she discovers her life has become something else entirely.
Ethan Hawke, Born to Be Blue
On paper, Hawke’s leading turn in Robert Budreau’s biographical drama sounds like an Oscar-hungry actor’s checklist: he plays a real person (check) who was an addict (check) and a musician (check, since we’ll hear all the stories about how hard he worked to convincingly sing/play/mime). But Blue isn’t your conventional biopic, and Hawke isn’t your conventional actor – you can never catch him showing off here. He hones in on the addiction, understanding it’s the key to the character, because it was (in the end) all that mattered to the man. That’s not the sort of feel-good work that tends to win Oscars, but it makes for a far better movie than the genre usually allows.
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Look, stranger things have happened. The AMPAS have nominated pre-teens, actors making their film debuts, even non-actors. So why not a tip of the hat to Krisha Fairchild, the occasional actress who stars – playing, it seems, a variation on herself – in her nephew Trey Edward Shults’s powerful debut feature as the desperate, haunted aunt and black sheep of the family who tries, with every fiber of her being, to reintroduce herself into his life? Sure, it’s a tiny movie, it’s not an “awards contender,” and its distributors haven’t landed Fairchild any magazine covers. But it was one of the year’s best performances, and wouldn’t it be cool if that counted for something?