Last week, we profiled 10 deserving underdog actresses from this year’s batch of films, including Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”), Bel Powley (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor (“Tangerine”). Now we’re taking a look at the boys’ club.
First off: There are more than a few strong male performances from specialty releases that are close to being locks in both acting
categories this year. These include Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) and Michael Caine (“Youth”) in the lead category and Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo (both from “Spotlight”) in supporting (check
out an updated weekly prediction charts here).
But there’s still a little bit of wiggle room, perhaps the same sort
that brought somewhat unexpected nominations from small films like “A Better Life” (Demian Bichir)
and “Winter’s Bone” (John Hawkes) into the mix in recent years. So perhaps one or
two of the following will indeed end up in the running.
Readers should once again keep in mind that this list purposely does not
include work that looks like a safe bet for a nomination — see the names above for that — and that it only includes films
scheduled for release during the 2015 eligibility period, With that
said, here are 10 underdog actors for
Christopher Abbott, “James White”
Certainly one of the most impressive indie breakthroughs this year in terms of acting was Christopher Abbott, probably known to most audiences as Marnie’s ex-boyfriend Charlie on HBO’s “Girls.” But in Josh Mond’s “James White” — which premiered at Sundance and hits theaters next month — Abbott is given a considerable showcase as the titular character. As a self-destructive twentysomething forced to face himself when his mother (an incredible Cynthia Nixon, who made the female list last week) gets sick, Abbott is a genuine revelation. And while an Oscar nomination is extraordinarily unlikely, hopefully some other awards (Spirits, critics) give Abbott his due.
Abraham Attah and Idris Elba, “Beasts of No Nation”
Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” came out of its Venice, Telluride and Toronto premieres with rave reviews, but a lot of them wondered whether the film might be too violent for awards season. The fact that the film’s release last week — both in theaters and on Netflix — underwhelmed (we don’t know how it did on Netflix, but it didn’t do well in theaters) doesn’t help its case either, particularly in an unusually crowded October when it comes to awards hopefuls. Can it bounce back?
Netflix certainly hopes so, given that it’s the company’s first attempt at releasing a big narrative feature in awards season. If it does, attention should definitely be paid to actors Abraham Attah and Idris Elba. The latter is definitely the more likely of the two to make it into Oscar’s good graces (and deservedly so — his magnetism as the film’s menacing Commandant is staggering), but young Attah (who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for an emerging actor in Venice) is just as worthy. But given that Attah is undeniably the film’s lead, competing against the A-list likes of Michael Fassbender, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio for a lead Oscar nomination is a tall order for an unknown child actor. But hey, if young Quvenzhane Wallis could do it for a different “Beasts” a few years ago…
John Cusack and Paul Dano, “Love & Mercy”
Another amazing male two-hander this year was John Cusack and Paul Dano, each playing different versions of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad’s inventive biopic “Love & Mercy.” They are excellent in the film just as they have been in many throughout their careers, but here’s the crazy part: Cusack and Dano collectively have zero Oscar nominations. Can “Mercy” change that?
Oscar voters love biopics (especially when the actors sing), and the film definitely found its fair share of fans when it was released, becoming a minor box office hit back in May. But distributor Roadside Attractions will have a hard time campaigning for a film some might forget by December. Having said that, the distributor maintains a great track record at getting big nominations for small films. “Winter’s Bone,” “Albert Nobbs” and “Biutiful” are all recent examples.
Sir Ian McKellen, “Mr. Holmes”
Isn’t about time Ian McKellen won an Oscar? He arguably came close in 1998 (with “Gods and Monsters”) and 2001 (with “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”) but ultimately wound up going home empty-handed on both counts. That makes him one of the greatest living actors without a golden boy on his mantle. Reuniting with his “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon in “Mr. Holmes” is the best chance McKellen has had at another go for it in some time, but the competition is stacked with a lot of actors — who many are suggesting are “due” for an Oscar as well: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender…
But next to McKellen, none of those actors’ lack of awards attention seems all that tragic.
Tom Noonan and David Thewlis, “Anomalisa”
Every few years, a case is made for a voiceover performance to become the first to gain Oscar recognition, from Robin Williams in “Aladdin” to Eddie Murphy in “Mulan” to Ellen DeGeneres in “Finding Nemo.” And while following in those films’ Disney footsteps this year was an incredible performance from Amy Poehler in “Inside Out,” our 2015 MVP for voiceover work belongs to the cast of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s mind-blowing stop motion animated film “Anomalisa,” which isn’t coming out until December 30th (and will likely be the biggest competition against “Inside Out” in the animated feature category). Tom Noonan, David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the trio behind the puppets inhabiting Kaufman and Johnson’s deeply felt world, and each of them contributes significantly to the film’s accomplishment. While Leigh is already likely to get long-due awards recognition for Quentin Tarantino’s live-action “The Hateful Eight,” hopefully Noonan and Thewlis find some love somewhere — even if they are probably the most unlikely pair to do so on this list.
Géza Röhrig, “Son of Saul”
While unlikely, foreign language films do occasionally nab acting nominations, and sometimes they even win: Marion Cotillard scored an Oscar for a French-language film (and nabbed a second nomination for one last year, while Roberto Benigni did it for “Life is Beautiful.” Can this year bring us our first Oscar nomination for a performance in Hungarian? Géza Röhrig and the folks behind “Son of Saul” — the frontrunner for the foreign language film Oscar — sure hope so. Playing a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in Aushwitz, Röhrig inhabits the kind of role Oscar voters love to nominate. Plus, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more powerful performance this year by an another actor — in any language.
Jacob Tremblay, “Room”
We already brought up the unlikeliness of child actors finding Oscar nominations with respect to Abraham Attah in “Beasts of No Nation,” but 2015 has a second candidate who could be an exception to that rule: Nine-year old Canadian actor Jacob Tremblay, who has a genuine shot at becoming one of the youngest Oscar nominees ever with Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room.” Appearing opposite Brie Larson (the frontrunner to win best actress at this point), Tremblay more than holds his own as a child who has spent his life held captive with his mother in a garden shed. Proclamations that it’s one of the greatest child performances of all time are not unwarranted, and Tremblay certainly deserves to join the ranks of Keisha Castle-Hughes, Anna Paquin, Haley Joel Osment and Quvenzhane Wallis.
But will Oscar voters find room on their ballots? Here’s hoping.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contributing Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.