Oscar voting got underway this week with a January 3rd deadline that, between Christmas and New Year, will be on us before we know it. And so, with only a few weeks left to catch up in theaters and work through screeners, we wanted to pick out a few names who've been otherwise overlooked by prognosticators and experts in the conversation to date.
Yesterday, we took a look at some of the supporting actors, and today, we're putting the spotlight on the leads. Right now, the categories are more or less locked up with heavyweights like Daniel Day-Lewis and Jessica Chastain as the likely front-runners, but there's still lots of room. And while the odds of recognition for the five performers below are slim, we'd say that they absolutely deserve to sit alongside those whose chances are more realistic. Take a look at our picks below, and let us know who you'd cast your vote for in the comments section.
Denis Lavant – "Holy Motors"
The performance of 2012 isn't even going to scratch the surface of an Oscar longlist; Denis Lavant is virtually unknown to voters, he's not campaigning, the film was barely seen in the U.S., and being a foreign language flick presents another hurdle (it remains to be seen if even Emmanuelle Riva or Marion Cotillard will make the cut for their respective films). But one can only imagine that, if enough adventurous Academy members actually watched the film, it would surely be a shoe-in. Lavant plays Oscar, a man driven around Paris by Celine (Edith Scob), taking on different personas for self-contained scenarios. It's a wildly diverse selection of styles and characters, from the monstrous, clown-ish Monsieur Merde (who Lavant played in director Leos Carax's segment of "Tokyo!") to a bonkers, sexually charged segment in a performance-capture studio, to more naturalistic vignettes playing a father with a bullied daughter, or a dying old man. Each one is entirely distinct, and each one is extraordinary, and Lavant reinvents himself over and over again across one film. Carax has joked in interviews that he offered the part to Lon Chaney and Charlie Chaplin before his long-time collaborator came on board, but we're not sure even those silent greats would have done it justice in the way that Lavant does. Again, there's not a holy chance in hell of him getting a nomination, and that's one of those cases where future generations will look back and mock us for overlooking his work.
Elle Fanning – "Ginger & Rosa"
While most people won't be seeing Sally Potter's excellent post-war coming-of-age drama "Ginger & Rosa" until its February release date in North America, the film got a quiet one-week qualifying run in L.A. earlier this month. And this is all because of Elle Fanning's astonishing lead performance as the titular Ginger, a sensitive and artistic 14-year-old girl who is becoming more politically and socially aware but still grapples with her radical father, once imprisoned for his political beliefs and seemingly hell bent on testing every acceptable social more. Betrayed by her best friend and led astray by her father, Ginger is a hopeful, but confused ball of teenage emo angst. But as a vessel for Fanning, she is far more than a shrill, emotional dumping ground. A radiant and transformative Fanning gives herself to this character, letting the pain, anger and tremendous heartache just pour out of her skin. A luminous and breathtaking performance, this may be the best turn from a 14-year-old ever captured on film. Fanning is the real deal and while this performance likely doesn't even have a shot at a nomination because it’s too underseen, it's a fierce and unforgettable one that people will be looking back on when she's inevitably racking up awards later in her career (read our review).
Matthias Schoenaerts – "Rust & Bone"
Like we said, it's possible that Marion Cotillard may or may not pick up a nomination for her performance in "Rust & Bone." But however good she is in the film (the answer: very), it's not her we've been thinking about since we saw the film — instead, it's her lesser known co-star Matthias Schoenaerts. Originally intended to be played by a non-professional actor from the boxing world, director Jacques Audiard handpicked Schoenaerts after seeing him in the excellent "Bullhead" (an unlikely Foriegn Language nominee last year), and the gamble paid off. The Belgian actor plays Ali, a single father who comes with his son, Sam, to the South of France to find whatever work he can, only to fall into a curious friendship with a killer whale trainer (Cotillard) who lost her legs in a terrible accident. And he's positively magnetic, bringing a tremendous physicality to the part (he'd lost the weight from "Bullhead," and trained up again to an entirely different shape), along with a sheer screen presence that many have compared to Tom Hardy. But there's far more to it than just presence; Ali's a good man at heart, as demonstrated by the way he never treats Stephanie as a victim, but he also has no idea how to live with his son, or articulate his feelings, as he struggles to find some semblance of stability. Schoenaerts might not be in the running in a tough Best Actor field this year, but there's every chance of it happening down the line (perhaps in the upcoming "Suite Francaise," opposite Michelle Williams. Speaking of… ).
Emmanuelle Riva – "Amour"
This pick isn't within the realm of impossibility. In fact, Emmanuelle Riva, the co-star of Michael Haneke's sobering, brutal, but compassionate "Amour," has an outside shot at a nomination, but so far she hasn't snagged any strong augur nominations like the SAGs or Globes. And it’s also a French-language drama — a tough one at that — so it has that working against it slightly as well. Co-starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert, “Amour” focuses on an retired elderly couple, with a daughter who lives abroad. When Anne (Riva) suffers a stroke it paralyses her on one side of her body, leaving her husband (Trintignant) to look after her. And it’s difficult to watch, as Anne transforms from lovely elderly lady, to a someone who is gradually losing their grasp on the world, becoming more frail, angrier and then essentially mute, forced to be completely dependent on her husband. Sequences where Anne is still cogent, but unable to move her arms are particularly moving and resonant; she loathes pity and the slow dissolution of her dignity makes her bitter at the world and the ordeal she has to go through. When the character is bedridden, your heart bleeds when she’s lost the will to live, and all of this nuanced decay comes directly from Riva, who puts in a stunning performance (we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Trintignant and Huppert, but it’s Riva that has the almost impossibly difficult task to bear). Will it happen? Hard to say. It’s a crowded field and Helen Mirren (“Hitchcock”), Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”) and Rachel Weisz (“The Deep Blue Sea”) seem to be jockeying for the last slots in this category, but we certainly wouldn’t be mad if she snuck in there for this truly deserving performance.
Michelle Williams – "Take This Waltz"
Given that she's had two nominations in the last two years (for "Blue Valentine" and "My Week With Marilyn," with a supporting nod for "Brokeback Mountain" not too far in the past either), perhaps it's unsurprising that Michelle Williams is sitting the race out this year. But in a young career stuffed with outstanding work, we think the peak so far might have come in Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" as Margot, a happily married twentysomething who finds temptation away from her husband (Seth Rogen) in the shape of neighbor Luke Kirby. Thanks in part to Polley's writing and direction, it's an extraordinarily detailed portrait of a curiously recognizable woman; a sort of gender inversion of the manchild trope we've seen so often on screen. Somewhat naive and babyish (in part because of her relationship with Rogen), Margot, once she meets Kirby's Daniel, starts to get that grass-is-greener feeling we've all felt at one time or another. The brilliance of Williams' turn here is that she doesn't court any sympathy from the audience (one of the reasons many took so fervently against the film). Margot can be silly, insufferable, frustrating, even a little vacant, and her quest to fill that empty void is clearly not going to end well. And yet Williams never judges or points in one way or another, and because of that, you feel deeply for her. It's a gift of a part, and while it'll go sadly unrecognized by the Academy, we'll cherish it for a long time to come.
Your thoughts? There's obviously a bounty of actors and actresses you submit for your consideration pieces in 2012 and you may see some more from us later in what's left of the year. Follow all our 2012 For Your Consideration pieces here.