In the few weeks since we put a spotlight on the Best Actor race, the competitive field has only tightened further. Robert Redford, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Hanks have only firmed up their status as near-certain nominees, and if there was any doubt that Bruce Dern would pick up a nod, the actor’s fierce campaigning makes it more and more likely that it’ll come to pass. Short of a real shock, or a swell of momentum for late entrants Christian Bale (“American Hustle“) or Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf Of Wall Street“), those will likely be your five nominees come January.
And that’s a real shame, because as ever, there’s a breadth and depth of talent that are likely, sadly, to go unrecognized. So, with voting approaching any day now, and having already looked at Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor, we’ve picked out ten performances from the last year that, in an ideal world, would be rewarded alongside the five frontrunners. Read our picks below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. And next week: Best Actress.
Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt”
It’s pretty much a given at this point that Mads Mikkelsen will be the best thing in whatever he’s in, but he’s mostly familiar in the U.S. for his villainous turns, particularly in “Casino Royale” and “Hannibal.” Which is one of the things that makes his casting in “The Hunt” (a performance that won Best Actor at Cannes in 2012, but sadly has little chance with the Academy) so clever. In Thomas Vinterberg‘s film, he’s a thoroughly decent, almost saintly man, a schoolteacher so entirely baffled by the idea that he could be accused of sexual assault that he doesn’t even think to defend himself. By putting the often-shifty Mikkelsen in the role, Vinterberg allows you to see how the town can turn against him, even with his absolute goodness never being in doubt. Some find the slow-burn excruciating, unable to understand why he won’t stand up for himself, but Mikkelsen entirely sells both that, and his furious indignity when it finally comes. It’s the best performance to date by one of our finest actors.
Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis”
It’s almost absurd that Oscar Isaac is on this list. In any other year, the actor would surely be a shoe-in for a nomination, but with the competition so stiff, and the star still a relative unknown, he’s sadly likely to be frozen out. Still, we live in hope (a Spirit Award nomination bodes well), because almost no one is more deserving than Isaac. The film is the Coens‘ most focused character study since “Barton Fink,” and it needed an actor of immense talent to hold the screen throughout: fortunately, they found one, in the shape of Isaac. In his hands, Llewyn Davis is an infuriating, arrogant, impossible man, but also a deeply sympathetic one. The performer’s careful to show his talents, even if they’re limited, and for all his more asshole-ish qualities, it’s always clear how deeply wounded he is by his lack of success, by the suicide of his musical partner, by the fact that he’s in love with someone who mostly has only contempt for him. It’s a fully realized character at every level, and Isaac makes unexpected and inspired choices at every opportunity. He might not end up with a nomination, but he’ll be remembered decades from now for this one.
Simon Pegg – “The World’s End”
Oscar and comedy rarely go well together—just think of the greatest comic performances in cinema history, and then shake your head at how few of them were ever recognized with an award. Given that it’s a relatively small, esoteric British sci-fi action comedy, “The World’s End” was less likely than most to prick the consciousness of Academy voters, but they’ll be missing a trick by ignoring Simon Pegg‘s stunning lead performance. Though he’s often been a likable presence, nothing in his career so far prepared us for Pegg’s turn as Gary King, the goateed smackhead out to relive his glory days, only to stumble upon a body snatchers-style alien plot. King is borderline insufferable—a deeply selfish, maddening human being who ends up ending civilization as we know it due to being such a prick. But Pegg’s innately winning qualities (and his comic gifts) somehow keep you invested in him all the time, and it pays off beautifully near the end, as the true pathos of Gary’s existence becomes apparent. It was a revelatory performance in the best sense of the word, and has us keeping our fingers crossed that even if the Cornetto trilogy is done, Pegg and Edgar Wright will continue to come up with creations as bold as this one together.
Pilou Asbaek & Soren Malling – “A Hijacking”
Overshadowed somewhat by “Captain Phillips” even though it premiered nearly a year earlier, Tobias Lindholm‘s Somali hijacking thriller was nevertheless an equally gripping, and very different, take on the subject matter. And as excellent as Tom Hanks in the lead role in Paul Greengrass‘ film, the co-leads of “A Hijacking,” Pilou Asbaek and Soren Malling are just as awards-worthy. The former, best known for “The Killing” and “Borgen,” brings his bear-like, Michael Shannon-ish presence to the ship’s cook Mikkel, who suffers more than most during captivity, ending in a devastating conclusion that’s just as powerful as Hanks’ final scenes in “Captain Phillips.” Malling, another “Borgen” veteran, meanwhile brings a buttoned-down gravitas to his company man determined to free his men and handle the negotiations himself, and Malling nails both the character’s hubris, and his very real passion. There’s very little to choose between them, and in an ideal world, they’d both be in serious consideration at this time of year.
Jack Reynor – “What Richard Did”
Barely anyone saw “What Richard Did,” at least outside of its native Ireland—the film sadly made less than $3,000 in its brief theatrical run in the U.S. But lead Jack Reynor at least got in front of the right people, having won the lead role in next year’s “Transformers: Age Of Extinction.” While we’re not ones to judge prematurely (*ahem*), we’d wager that Michael Bay‘s latest won’t even use 10% of the potential that Reynor shows in his breakout role in Lenny Abrahamson‘s wrenching drama. Reynor plays the titular Richard, a popular, athletic student who, when testosterone, jealousy and alcohol gets the better of him, accidentally kills a romantic rival. Everyone grew up with someone like Richard: the golden boy you’d hate if he wasn’t actually kind of a good guy, and Reynor feels immediately authentic, with a natural movie star charisma that makes him immediately recognizable. As a result, despite his terrible action, you feel genuinely nauseous for him as he sinks deeper and deeper into a moral quandary. The film isn’t on the radar of any Academy voters, but if there’s more like this down the line, it surely won’t be long before we see Reynor nominated.
Ethan Hawke – “Before Midnight”
With his career shifting worryingly into Nicolas Cage/John Cusack territory (three cheap exploitation flicks, “Sinister,” “The Purge” and “Getaway,” over the past year), we could have used a reminder of how talented Ethan Hawke really is. Fortunately, this year saw him reteam with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater for “Before Midnight,” the third in their trilogy of love-story travelogues, and Hawke might have pulled off his finest hour in it. If the first film was about potential, and the second about that potential being unfulfilled, the third is about reality, and ‘Midnight’ presents an all-grown-up version of Jesse, imperfect and tired to the point of brokenness at being separated from his son. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about these films by separating the central duo (and we’ll get to Delpy in due course…), but while she was the clear stand-out in the earlier films, Hawke goes toe-to-toe with her in “Before Midnight.”
Toni Servillo – “The Great Beauty”
One of the more divisive films of the year, Paolo Sorrentino‘s “The Great Beauty” is, depending on who you ask, either a gloriously heady, incredibly rich masterpiece, or an indulgent, empty-headed pastiche of better filmmakers (and occasionally, somewhere in between…). Whichever way you come down on it, though, we hope we can all agree on the brilliance of its central performance by Sorrentino favorite Toni Servillo. The actor essentially is the film as Jep Gambardella, a writer decades on from his acclaimed, but lone novel, still living the high life in Rome, and the whole simply wouldn’t work without the wry, glorious minimalism of Servillo’s turn—he’s a man who’s lived so much and so hard that he’s now exhausted and disgusted by his friends, his parties, his city and his women. The film brings all kinds of colorful characters into Jep’s orbit, but it’s always him in the middle, and you couldn’t ask for a more watchable performer: Servillo might even have topped his extraordinary turn in Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” here.
Ali Mosaffa – “The Past”
After “About Elly,” “A Separation” and now “The Past,” Asghar Farhadi is starting to look like one of the best directors of actors in the world right now: there hasn’t been a performance in any of his films so far that feels anything less than lived-in, multi-dimensional and totally convincing. While Berenice Bejo might have won the lion’s share of honors, taking the Best Actress prize in Cannes (and rightly so), we wouldn’t want Ali Mosaffa to be forgotten for his unbelievably fine work in the central role. The Iranian actor and director, mostly unknown in the West before now, plays Ahmad, who returns to France after a four-year gap to finalize his divorce from his ex-wife (Bejo), only to become caught up with troubles with her daughter and new beau. It’s rather a passive character, in some ways, carried along by other events, but Mosaffa unveils real generosity and love in Ahmad, even as he shows glimpses of the reason that the marriage initially fell apart. It’s the best kind of ego-free acting, enabling his co-stars while quietly stealing scenes himself, and as good as anything else you’ll have seen this year.
Isaiah Washington – “Blue Caprice”
It takes a pretty special performance to come back from scandal, and whatever his previous sins, Isaiah Washington gives that kind of turn in “Blue Caprice.” The actor’s barely figured in any significant work since he was fired from “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007, but Alexandre Moor‘s retelling of the real-life Beltway Sniper killings puts him front-and-center as serial murderer John, and reminds us all of how impressive he could be at his best. He has a thin veneer of charisma on the surface—just enough that you can believe he can lead his surrogate son into terrible acts—but underneath is a terrifying and broken man, a portrait of evil and mental illness, or somewhere in between, that’s not quite like any seen before on screen. Even if the film had found a wider audience, it’s likely that Washington’s baggage would have prevented a nomination, but if he keeps letting the work speak for itself like this, a full-on comeback could be on the way.
Hugh Jackman – “Prisoners”
Audiences have become used to Hugh Jackman playing a largely invincible hero as Wolverine across a series of comic book movies, but when he emerged this fall as a hulking, bruised and haunted man in Denis Villeneuve‘s shattering “Prisoners,” it was a reminder of the depths the actor is capable of reaching. The moody crime saga and domestic drama follows Jackman’s survivalist, ready-for-anything, All-American everyman Kelly Dover who is forced to come face to face with something he could never be ready for: the abduction of his daughter. And what follows is a man sickened by a situation that has run out of his grasp, and who takes extraordinary measures to inflict some sort of cruel justice and becomes wholly haunted by the person he has become and the weakness of character he displays. It’s complex, riveting stuff and Jackman is a hulk of man trying to keep it together in a performance that re-confirms that the actor is so much more than the adamantium claws he displays every couple of years. “Prisoners” has quieted in awards season talk but anything can happen, and we’d be pleased if this film and Jackman got recognized.
Honorable Mentions: Other performances that caught the eye of Team Playlist in the last twelve months include Conner Chapman in “The Selfish Giant,” Dane DeHaan in “Kill Your Darlings,” Josh Pais in “Touchy Feely,” Chris Hemsworth in “Rush,” Michael Shannon in “The Iceman” and Tony Leung in “The Grandmaster.” Any others that you think deserve recognition? Let us know in the comments section below.