Nominations voting closes tomorrow for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and with the major critics’ prizes and Golden Globes handed out, conventional wisdom has coalesced around a handful of names for acting nominations: McDormand, Ronan, Oldman, Rockwell, Chalamet, Robbie, Janney, Metcalf, etc. But if I may bend your ear for just a moment, Academy voter: maybe, think about a few others? Use these last few hours to check out something that’s not on your radar? Because there were some tremendous performances last year that nobody is talking about.
Best Actress: Melanie Lynskey, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Look, I get it – this is one of the richest Best Actress fields in years, and it’s hard to even narrow this one to five front-runners. And I’m sure it’s easy to have missed this one, a Netflix streamer that premiered on the service all the way back in February. But that’s also when Get Out hit, so no excuses there! And Ms. Lynskey’s turn as a had-it-up-to-here wallflower who turns into an amateur detective/vigilante is a fine companion to Frances McDormand’s justifiably praised turn in Three Billboards – but with a bit more subtlety and finesse.
Best Actress: Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West
Everybody loves it when a comic actor dips into darkness, but for some reason, little attention has been paid to Plaza’s frighteningly raw work in Ingrid Goes West, the kind of teetering-on-the-bring-of-sanity turn that you can’t look away from – and yet, often, you have to. Her portrayal of an unbalanced young woman’s descent into a hell of her own making wasn’t exactly the neon-soaked social media satire the ads indicated, but hey, when was the last time a movie delivered more than it promised?
Best Actor and Actress: Tracy Letts and Debra Winger, The Lovers
Letts has generated a fair amount of dark-horse buzz for his razor-sharp supporting work in Lady Bird and The Post, but his best screen work this year came in the spring, and with an equally matched partner. Letts and the great Debra Winger shine in Azael Jacbos’s comedy/drama, which takes a sitcom concept – a married couple on the brink of divorce unexpectedly find themselves attracted to each other again, in effect having an affair behind the backs of their lovers – and plays it with grace and sensitivity. Watch, particularly, in the scene where they feel that thing again, for the first time in years; it’s the kind of acting you can’t replicate or describe, but can only marvel at.
Best Actor: Jason Mitchell, Mudbound
Maybe Mitchell isn’t getting the traction he should because, like Lynskey, he’s starring in a Netflix movie – and the streaming giant is still having trouble gaining mainstream awards traction. Or maybe it’s that his role in the rich ensemble of Dee Rees’s breathtaking historical drama is hard to define: not enough screen time for a traditional leading role, but too important for Supporting. But I’d call him one of the year’s best actors, easily (he has far more scenes than, say, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs), because he’s ultimately the moral center of Rees’s masterpiece, and its source of hope. Find me another actor who can hit those same notes in his last scene. I’ll wait.
Best Actor: Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky
Oscar voters love sentimentality, so it’s sort of insane that they’re not clamoring at the opportunity to honor Harry Dean Stanton’s final film performance (and one of his few leading roles) – especially considering that he was never even nominated while he was alive. (Yes, really.) But he should’ve get the nod out of obligation; he should get it because this was a deeply felt and lived-in performance, projecting his ninety-plus years of walking around this blue ball, smoking and cussing and raising hell. And if you can watch the Johnny Cash scene without misting up, well, I don’t wanna know you.
Ewan McGregor, T2 Trainspotting
McGregor won a Golden Globe Sunday for Fargo (don’t get me started on that), but his best work of the year came, surprisingly enough, in his 21-years-later return to the career-defining role of Mark Renton – a film that seemed a naked play for easy nostalgia, and turned out to be a melancholy meditation on growing up, growing old, and losing one’s edge. Not exactly sexy stuff, but McGregor was electric, creating a credible continuation of the devil-may-care protagonist, and seeming to draw from his own complex feelings about reuniting with long-estranged collaborator Danny Boyle.
Best Actor: Richard Gere, Norman
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Richard Gere’s ridiculously good looks and less-than-serious ‘80s work tends to mask the fact that he’s quietly become one of our most reliable actors – particularly when he plays onetime golden boys who find they can no longer get by on their considerable charm. That’s a fairly accurate description of the small-time political power broker he plays in Norman, and watching him cling desperately to his last scraps of relevance and access (while tossing his dignity right out the door) is one of the most dazzlingly uncomfortable things I saw onscreen last year.
Best Supporting Actress: Betty Gabriel, Get Out
Sure, Gabriel is only in a handful of scenes in Jordan Peele’s pop jewel, but you can say the same about Supporting Actress winners Beatrice Straight and Judi Dench, so enough with that. And what Gabriel is doing in those brief appearances is trickier than some leading roles: conveying the duality of a character where the mind and body are in constant struggle, and as a result, everything comes out just a little off. But hey, if an Oscar isn’t in the cards, can we at least give her a Shorty, for the “No no no no no” meme?
Best Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson, The Glass Castle
Sure, Sam Rockwell dazzles in Three Billboards – so much so that no one is really talking about Woody Harrelson’s work in the film, which is every bit as award-worthy. But Harrelson’s been doing the deceptively-simple folksy/soulful thing for so long that it’s easy to take it for granted. And that’s why it’s such a shame that seemingly nobody saw his very un-Woody turn in Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of Jeanette Wells’s memoir – a searing two-part performance as the older and younger incarnations of a complicated father, forcefully capturing the mood swings and hair-trigger temper of a lifelong drunk. In a few years, people are going to rediscover this performance, and wonder why the hell nobody noticed it now.