Every year, a few actors from small films manage to make their way into the
Oscar race. Think Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour,” Demián Bichir
in “A Better Life” or Jennifer
Lawrence and John Hawkes in “Winter’s Bone” in recent years. None of them were sure things until Oscar nomination morning. So in
keeping with Indiewire’s indie spirit, it seemed appropriate to make
arguments for twenty performances that deserve to be the next Wallis or Bichir or
Lawrence or Jenkins. The ladies come first this
week, then we’ll tackle the gentleman next.
Commentators should keep in mind that the list does not include
work that looks like a safe bet for a nomination (like Julianne Moore in “Still Alice,” Reese Witherspoon in “Wild,” or Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”), and that it only includes films
currently scheduled for at least a qualifying run during the 2014 eligibility period (for example, Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” is apparently only eligible in the foreign language film category this year — otherwise we’d be all about advocating for its actresses Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement here).
Keeping that all in mind, here are 10 underdog actresses (whether
lead or supporting) for your consideration:
Marion Cotillard, “The Immigrant” or “Two Days, One Night”
It’s been seven years since Marion Cotillard made a very grand entrance into mainstream recognition thanks to winning an Oscar on her first nomination for playing Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” Since, she’s offered us scores of wonderful performances both in English and her native French, suggestively coming very close to a second Oscar nod for both 2009’s “Nine” and 2012’s “Rust and Bone.” Will Academy voters finally offer a second round for Cotillard this year? Well, 2014 did see the release of arguably two of her greatest performances yet, one English language and one French. In James Gray’s “The Immigrant” — which was finally released this year after premiering at Cannes back in 2013 — Cotillard is as haunting as ever as a Polish nurse turned prostitute in 1920s New York City. In the Dardenne Brothers’ “Two Days, One Night” — out this December after premiering to raves at Cannes this year — she offers a quieter but not less powerful performance as an emotionally fragile working class woman trying to save her job. Whether the films end up getting Cotillard an Oscar nomination, they collectively make for an incredibly impressive year for the actress either way.
Scarlett Johannson, “Under The Skin”
Johannson is not even 30 (seriously), but it already seems like a travesty that she
hasn’t managed an Oscar nomination yet. She came pretty close with “Lost
in Translation” and “Match Point” (and should have come closer with
“Ghost World” and “Her”), but no cigars. This year will likely be the same story
with a very deserving bid for Jonathan Glazer’s critically acclaimed, but likely too out there for the Academy, “Under The Skin” (which earned her a second straight nod in
the Gotham Awards’ best actress category, so at least someone is paying attention). Johannson has done such an admirable job balancing her career between reasonably high quality Hollywood blockbusters (this year alone also saw her star in “Captain America: The First Soldier” and “Lucy”) and eclectic, challenging roles from some of the most interesting filmmakers out there. “Under The Skin” is no exception. Johannson plays a seductive alien in a human body who drives around Scotland in search of earthling prey to take back home. It’s an intense, erotic and altogether mesmerizing performance that, while unlikely to finally nab Johannson that elusive Oscar nom, continues to build on a remarkable filmography for any actress, let alone one still in her twenties.
Keira Knightley, “Laggies”
All right, so it seems kind of unfair to vouch for an actress assured to receive some major awards love this year. But it’s for the wrong film! Keira Knightley had a major year thanks to a trio of performances, including a turn as Alan Turing’s beard in “The Imitation Game,” which will likely get her a second Oscar nomination, and another one in “Begin Again,” that could very well get her some awards notice as well (particularly in the Golden Globes’ comedy/musical actress category). No disrespect to those two entirely affecting performances, but it was another that personally proved most impressive as far as Knightley’s big 2014 was concerned. In Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies,” Knightley tapped into a comedic charm that we’d yet to see from her on screen as a 28-year-old woman suffering from some serious arrested development. It’s also her most seemingly effortless performance to date, which is probably part of why it might get forgotten next to the more showy likes of “Begin Again” and “The Imitation Game.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle” or “Beyond the Lights”
What a breakthrough year it’s been for 31-year-old British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Best known Stateside before this year for her work on cancelled network series’ “Undercovers” and “Touch,” Mbatha-Raw got major exposure when Amma Asante’s “Belle” — in which she plays the titular role — became an unexpected box office hit in North America. Then, a few months later, she earned rave reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival for her work as an up-and-coming pop star in Gina Prince-Blythewood’s “Beyond The Lights.” Both incredibly different roles have already managed to get Mbatha-Raw some major notice this awards season. She received two British Independent Film Award nominations for “Belle,” and a Gotham Award nomination for “Beyond The Lights.” For now, that actually makes her the most nominated person so far this season, though suggesting she’ll ride that to an Oscar nomination remains a bit of a stretch (but here’s hoping that changes). And while in a perfect world this wouldn’t be such a notable aside, it’s quite something that Mbatha-Raw represents a black actress who had such a big year via two films each directed by different black female filmmakers (each of whom deserve some recognition this season in their own right).
Rene Russo, “Nightcrawler”
After dabbling with the A-list in the 1990s thanks to roles in “Get Shorty,” “Ransom,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and the “Lethal Weapon” series, Rene Russo seemed to take herself out of the spotlight, appearing only in a few roles here and there. In 2011, she returned with what was essentially a cameo role (her scenes were largely cut) as Thor’s mother in “Thor,” which left us wanting something more extensive from the return of Russo. And boy did we ever get it in “Nightcrawler.” Directed by Dan Gilroy (who just so happens to be Russo’s husband of 22 years), the film gives Russo her juiciest role in a good long time as a desperate and morally questionable morning news director who gets entangled with Jake Gyllenhaal’s psychopathic title character. You can’t take your eyes off her performance, and one can only hope Academy voters might feel the same. Russo has never received an Oscar nomination, and this is most certainly the kind of performance that warrants changing that.
Jenny Slate, “Obvious Child”
Along with the aforementioned Gugu Mbatha-Raw, another actress likely to be showing up on many a list of 2014 “breakthroughs” is Jenny Slate. Previously known best for a run on “Saturday Night Live” and for those “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” shorts, Slate took on her first major lead film role in Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child.” Largely billed as an “abortion rom com,” since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, “Obvious” has proven so much more than that as it found its way to audiences this past summer. That was in large part thanks to Slate, who is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking as a young woman trying to forge her way into emotional and professional adulthood. It’s this year’s answer to “Frances Ha” (though the films have entirely different sensibilities), and hopefully Slate finds the recognition that didn’t quite meet deserving “Frances” star Greta Gerwig last awards season.
Imelda Staunton, “Pride”
We’re almost certain that if Matthew Warchus’ “Pride” was released in, say, 1998, it would have been all over Oscar prediction lists. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing, heart-warming British comedic drama that was a regular fixture at the Oscars back then (see “The Full Monty” and “Billy Elliot”). But in 2014, it’s just not the kind of film we often see anymore. Which is a shame overall, but perhaps most of all with regard to Imelda Staunton’s absolutely adorable turn as a feisty woman in a small mining town circa 1984 who joins forces with a lesbian and gay rights group. Staunton, an Oscar nominee only once before for “Vera Drake,” genuinely makes you want to stand up and cheer whenever she’s on screen, and that’s no small feat.
Tilda Swinton, “Only Lovers Left Alive” or “Snowpiercer”
Tilda Swinton might have won an Oscar for “Michael Clayton,” but we’d gladly trade that recognition in for an Oscar nod or two for the truly remarkable series of lead roles that followed. In “Julia,” “I Am Love” and “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” Swinton created a trilogy of very different maternal characters that collectively made for quite the cinematic ride. But Oscar voters ignored them all. Now they have a second chance with a very different trilogy of sorts. Swinton offered us three distinct performances this year, each far from the women we met in those aforementioned films: A centuries old vampire (“Only Lovers Left Alive”), a 90-year-old aristocrat (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), and an apocalyptic dictator (“Snowpiercer”). Now, we recognize her role in “Budapest Hotel” is simply too small to warranted awards consideration, but in a perfect world Swinton would be heading for a double nod this year: Best Actress for “Only Lovers,” and Best Supporting Actress for “Snowpiercer.” Hell would have to freeze over much like the earth did in “Snowpiercer” for that to happen, but thankfully that won’t change the fact that Swinton is one of the most gloriously unpredictable actresses out there.
Tessa Thompson, “Dear White People”
The Gotham Awards just gave Tessa Thompson a deserved nomination for Best Breakthrough Performance, and let’s hope some more groups follow suit. Her performance as biracial media arts major in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” (currently making some decent dough at the box office) is arguably the best in a film filled with breakout actors (Teyonah Parris also deserves some consideration in that regard). Thompson fleshes out her character well beyond what it could have been, offering a sharp and complicated characterization that stays with you long after you leave the theater. The chances of it becoming a full-on Oscar player are slim, but one thing’s for sure: Tessa Thompson is an actress to look out for in the coming years.
Mia Wasikowsa, “Tracks
Reese Witherspoon is all-but-assured an Oscar nomination for her performance as a real life woman who treks thousands of miles in the wilderness, but she’s not the only worthy example of that. The still Oscar nomination-less Mia Wasikowska seems likely to be overshadowed for her exceptional work portraying a woman who spends nine months traveling the Australian desert in “Tracks.” But unfortunately the film came and went quite quickly from theaters in September and much awards recognition seems unlikely, particularly with Witherspoon’s “Wild” coming out in December (though Wasikowska did just get a deserved Gotham Award nom). If there’s room for two actors portraying real life British geniuses who took impossible mental journeys in this year’s race (see Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne), why not two actresses portraying remarkable woman who took impossible physical ones?
Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contributing Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
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