Instead of dipping into the already repetitive waters of October Oscar talk (the only real recent update being that "Lincoln" seems like a sure bet for a slew of nominations after its "secret screening" at the New York York Film Festival, including best picture and acting nods for Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones), this column will take the next two weeks as an opportunity to discuss a few names that aren't getting as much talk as they may deserve (though here's updated weekly predictions to supplement that).
Every year, a few actors from small films manage to sneak into the Oscar race at the last minute. There's been the likes of Demián Bichir in "A Better Life" (last year's biggest acting nom surprise), Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone," Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger," Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor," Laura Linney in "The Savages" and Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson," just to name a few. So in keeping with Indiewire's indie spirit, it seemed appropriate to make arguments for twenty performances that deserve to be the next Bichir or Lawrence or Jenkins or Hawkes or Linney. The ladies come first this week, the gentleman next.
Commentors should keep in mind that the list does not include work that looks like a safe bet for a nomination (even though it's quite something we can call Quvenzhané Wallis' work in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a safe bet… it would be pretty surprising that she misses out on a nom at this point) and that it only includes films currently scheduled for release during the 2012 eligibility period (thus excluding Greta Gerwig's extraordinary work in "Frances Ha," for example). Keeping that in mind, here are 10 underdog actresses (whether lead or supporting) for your consideration:
Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, Your Sister's Sister
Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt have both come quite close to an Oscar nod in 2006 and 2008, respectively — both for roles opposite Anne Hathaway. Blunt was fantastic as Meryl Streep's other assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada," while DeWitt's titular role in "Rachel Getting Married" was perfect subtlety opposite as Hathaway's more showy role as her sister. This year they are just as deserving in another sistery affair, Lynn Shelton's lovely "Your Sister's Sister." Though their chances at this point are pretty slim, voters should definitely consider the layered — and impressively largely improvised — performances both actresses give as Hannah and Iris, sisters that end up in a triangle of sorts with Mark Duplass (also excellent) when they all end up at their family cabin for the weekend.
Ann Dowd, Compliance
Perhaps the least known actress on this list, Ann Dowd has been steadily working for over twenty years with small, memorable (you might not know her name, but you'll recognize her face) roles in both film ("Philadelphia," "Garden State") and television ("Freaks and Geeks," "The X-Files"). But in Craig Zobel's "Compliance" — one of the best films to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival — Dowd gets her meatiest role yet (no pun intended) as Sandra, the manager of a fast-food restaurant. Based on real life events, Dowd's Sandra gets a prank call from a person pretending to a police officer who says one her employees has stolen from a customer. The film spirals out from there, and works so well in large part because of Dowd's riveting performance (her co-star Dreama Walker — as the employee in question — deserves a shout out as well, but there was only so much space on this list).
Elle Fanning, Ginger and Rosa
Aforementioned Quvenzhané Wallis deservedly seems the child actor most likely to succeed this year (which has been a remarkable year for young actors, male and female — see "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Impossible," as well). But don't forget about Elle Fanning. The 14 year old actress has remarkably given a few award-worthy performances already ("Somewhere," "Super 8"), but she's never been better in Sally Potter's "Ginger & Rosa," playing a teenager girl in 1960s London. The film is getting a qualifying release later this year, and she's definitely its best bet for a vulnerable, deeply affecting performance that once and for all proves this Ms. Fanning is far from just Dakota's little sister.
Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy
Say what you want about Lee Daniels' extremely divisive (though mostly negatively received) "The Paperboy," but it's hard to believe anyone could come away from that film at least admiring what could very well be Nicole Kidman's funniest and sexiest performance ever (save maybe "To Die For"). As Charlotte Bless — a Southern woman who spends her time writing correspondence to murderers in prison — Kidman is a true revelation and most definitely deserving of a fourth Oscar nomination. If only to say give a nomination to a performance where urination plays a large part a year after giving two best supporting actress nominations to performances involving feces.
Melanie Lynskey, Hello I Must Be Going
Nearly twenty years ago, Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" introduced the world to two promising young actresses: Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. While Winslet has clearly gone on to receive the better end of the stick, her co-star Lynskey has built an admirable career of character work in films like "Shattered Glass" and "Away We Go." And in this year's "Hello I Must Be Going," she nabs an admirable lead role as Amy, a recent divorcée who seeks refuge in the suburban Connecticut home of her parents. Part awkard and heartbreaking, part hilarious and charming, it's a career-defining performance for Lynskey.
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Some are suggesting Emmanuelle Riva has a very good chance at a best actress nomination for her stunning work in Michael Haneke's "Amour" (she definitely is the best bet on this list), but it's far from a sure thing. Foreign language performances are nominated few and far between, and Riva's fellow countrywoman Marion Cotillard is already a good bet for "Rust and Bone." But it would be a remarkable shame if the Academy overlooks the 85 year old French legend's unforgettable work as Anne, a retired music teacher who suffers a stroke. And it would additionally be a lovely way for the Academy to celebrate Riva's career, which began in 1959 with Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima Mon Amour."
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Music Box Films picked up Terence Davies's "The Deep Blue Sea" out of last year's Toronto International Film Festival and released it early this year. Hopefully, they will send some screeners to remind voters of the phenomenal work of Rachel Weisz, who stars in "Sea" as the wife of a British judge caught in a self-destructive love affair with a Royal Air Force pilot. But it's more likely Weisz will get lost in a sea of more established contenders this late in the game, suffering the same fate of Gillian Anderson – a non-nominated hopeful for another Davies film, "The House of Mirth," back in 2000.
Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams is quickly establishing herself as one of her generation's greatest actresses with yet another award-worthy performance in Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz." As a Torontonian woman questioning her generally happy marriage when she meets a sexy artist on a business trip, Williams manages the difficult task of making both likeable and relatable a woman who makes some very questionable decisions. If she manages it (though it would be a big surprise at this point), Williams could earn her third consecutive best actress Oscar nomination for the role, after "Blue Valentine" and "My Week With Marilyn." Though mind you she was just as deserving for non-nominated work in "Wendy and Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff," and she'll likely manage many more nominations in the future if "Waltz" doesn't take to Oscar voters.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed
You've probably seen Mary Elizabeth Winstead in films like "Final Destination 3," "The Ring Two" and "Live Free or Die Hard" but you might not recognize her in James Ponsoldt's "Smashed." Winstead plays Kate, a woman who decides to get sober after deciding that her alcohol abuse (which she shares with her husband, played by Aaron Paul) and is spiralling out of control. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film out of Sundance and is planning a push for Winstead. If it ends up happening, it would be more than deserved for a performance that proves this actress is worth more than supporting roles in sequels.
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