Though the term “Oscar-nominated” will follow a given nominee around the rest of their lives, an actor’s career is far more than the performance or performances that their peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deem to be awards-worthy. Any number of factors add up to a performer receiving a nomination — there may be a perception that they’re due, there could be a notion that they’re generally well-liked or have gathered a certain amount of name recognition that they didn’t have for earlier roles, they could be talked up in the press, they could be Meryl Streep— but it often means that their very best work was overlooked by the Oscars.
That’s certainly the case this year, with the twenty actors and actresses up for prizes at this year’s Academy Awards, which is now a little over ten days away. Some might presently be doing work that stands with the best of their career, others have countless great performances behind them, but all have past gems that deserve a shout out. So with the Oscars closing in, we’ve picked out our favorite performances, excluding the ones they’re contending for, from each of the acting nominees. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.
Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh – “Mrs. Parker & The Vicious Circle” (1994)
Jennifer Jason Leigh finally received her first Oscar nomination this year thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” but she should have been nominated over two decades ago, via Alan Rudolph’s undervalued biopic of the great writer and wit Dorothy Parker. The film isn’t perfect, and perhaps Leigh suffered a little from a superficially similar performance in “The Hudsucker Proxy” at the same time, but her role as such should always have been greeted as the tour-de-force it is. Leigh grapples with both the iconic image and the true measure of Parker, with a distinctive voice that shows both her sparkle and the toll taken by her boozing, and captures the deep sadness of her personal life even while her wit remains as razor sharp as ever. It’s a defining performance: that the Academy favored nominating Jodie Foster in “Nell” and Susan Sarandon in “The Client” is almost unfathomable.
Rooney Mara – “Side Effects” (2013)
In a very short space of time, Rooney Mara’s made a hell of an impression, lighting up even the briefest of roles, as in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” with her presence. When asked to pick her finest hour, most would point to her previous Oscar nod for David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” but we might prefer another film that lands somewhere between that and the heart-strained naif of “Carol,” namely, Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects.” The director’s sly homage to Hitchcock, Clouzot and ’90s erotic thrillers deserves to be talked about more, and it lives and dies on Mara’s performance as a wealthy society girl who attempts suicide after her husband is released from prison (it’s possibly down to the titular side effects of anti-depressants). Even more than Mara’s other work, it’s a distant turn, deliberately ambiguous and inscrutable, but she doesn’t make it alienating or distracting when she takes every plot turn in her stride.
Rachel McAdams – “Red Eye” (2005)
Speaking of actresses who didn’t get the attention they deserved because they starred in a genre thriller: Rachel McAdams in “Red Eye.” Wes Craven’s late-career comeback and an unexpected sleeper hit, the film sees McAdams play an ordinary woman co-opted by initially-charming terrorist Cillian Murphy for an assassination plot, and it’s a pleasingly lean, fuss-free thriller elevated by the performances. Hitting just as she blew up with “The Notebook,” the film gives McAdams a surprising amount to play as a woman who is a victim once and refuses to let herself be so again, She plays beautifully off Murphy, both when you think it’s a rom-com and when the movie reveals itself as a thriller. McAdams hasn’t always gotten the roles she deserves, but she’s always made the ones she has as good as possible.
Alicia Vikander – “Testament Of Youth” (2014)
It seemed like Vikander was in every other movie released last year, and she was probably the best aspect of all of them, but it’s unfortunate more people haven’t seen “Testament Of Youth,” which should have received the awards attention that “The Danish Girl” got. An adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir of how the First World War claimed most of the men in her life, it’s a well-judged, beautifully made picture that has Vikander front-and-centre in an impressive cast (Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan are also particularly strong). A woman determined to make her mark on a society that isn’t quite ready for her, she pulls off a faultless English accent and period manner while also embodying a very modern woman, one who can be petulant, brave, sharp and despairing in the space of a few moments. It’s a desperately sad turn, and one that deserved more recognition.
Kate Winslet – “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” (2004)
A bit like countrywoman Keira Knightley, Winslet has sometimes been typecast in English-rose period roles even though she’s often far better and livelier when given something more contemporary to play, as her nod for “Steve Jobs” suggests. The most egregious of her Oscar misses before she eventually won for the bloody “Reader” is “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.” The mercurial, hair-dying Clementine could have come across as a nightmarish manic pixie dream girl, but in Winslet’s hands she becomes a living, breathing woman whose spontaneity and vibrancy mask a kind of self-loathing and neediness that’s as destructive to her relationship with Jim Carrey’s Joel as his introspection and surliness is. And yet Winslet treats it with a featherlight touch, being funny and sexy while never missing out on the psychological realism. Is there a person alive who really believes that Hilary Swank deserved the Oscar more for “Million Dollar Baby” that year?
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – “American Psycho” (2000)
Are we a little bummed out that Bale is nominated for “The Big Short,” in which he gives an uncharacteristically mannered turn that’s some way beneath his best work? Yeah. Has Bale given plenty of performances that deserved nomination but were overlooked? Absolutely. Despite a thirty-year career, Bale only had two nods before this year (though he did win Best Supporting Actor for “The Fighter“), and the biggest omission to us would seem to be his role as Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Mary Harron’s film doesn’t just capture Bret Easton Ellis’ satire on ’80s yuppie greed —it improves on it, in large part thanks to a performance from Bale that’s dryly funny and yet equally terrifying, a portrait of utter narcissism and self-absorption that now seems eerily prescient of the era of MRA sociopaths. The part helped to land Bale his superheroic trademark role, but we wish more directors had taken advantage of the latent comic skills displayed here (it’s no coincidence that his nominations have all come for lighter-hearted fare).
Tom Hardy – “Locke” (2013)
A movie in which only one human being appears could hardly fail to be a showcase for the actor involved, and “Locke” proved to be exactly that —a tour-de-force for Tom Hardy that even with some stiff competition (“Bronson” in particular) marks a high point for the star. Particularly lately, the actor’s sometimes traded believability for watchability, going big and broad with the accents in an overly showy way, but Steven Knight’s film about a construction foreman undergoing a long dark night of the soul as he drives from Birmingham to London gets the balance exactly right, letting Hardy put his stamp on the role (in this case, a near-goofy, Richard Burton-ish Welsh accent), without becoming a caricature. Hardy uses the running time to paint a complete portrait of an ordinary man struggling to do the right thing, even if it means blowing his life in the process, and it makes for a gripping thriller.
Mark Ruffalo – “You Can Count On Me” (2000)
Now on his third nomination (and his second in this category in two years), Ruffalo feels like he’s been part of the cinematic furniture forever, which makes it difficult to remember what an incredibly exciting discovery he seemed in Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count On Me.” The indie drama won nods for its screenplay and lead Laura Linney, but Ruffalo was clearly too new to figure in, but the film’s still perhaps his greatest performance. Lonergan wrote the part specifically for Ruffalo after working with him on the premiere of the writer/director’s stage hit “This Is Our Youth,” and it fits him like a glove. Ruffalo plays the feckless estranged brother of Linney’s single mother, and the pair are forced back together in an uneasy extended visit —the character couldn’t be better suited for Ruffalo’s trademark blend of Method intensity and laid-back charm. Despite its Oscar-nominated status and wide critical acclaim, the film’s still under-seen: hopefully that will change now that Lonergan’s “Manchester By The Sea” is winning raves.
Mark Rylance – “The Government Inspector” (2005)
It’s incredibly rare now for an actor to reach a certain level of fame without appearing widely onscreen, but Rylance has been known for several decades in the U.K. before his movie breakthrough in Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge Of Spies.” He’s done some movies and TV gigs though (including some surprising jobs like Jason Statham thriller “Blitz” and last year’s Sean Penn actioner “The Gunman”), but he’s probably best in TV one-off “The Government Inspector,” an utterly powerful and fiercely political look at Dr. David Kelly, a British scientist and U.N. weapons inspector whose death after questioning by British parliament has remained one of the darkest chapters of modern British politics. A collaboration with Peter Kosminsky (who’d later reteam with Rylance for “Wolf Hall”), it’s an utterly compelling film with a performance of dignified, moving minimalism from Rylance, and should be sought out by anyone impressed by his performance in Spielberg’s movie.
Sylvester Stallone – “Cop Land” (1997)
Looking at the narrative around “Creed,” one could be forgiven for the impression that Stallone had done nothing but dumb action movies and awful comedies in the forty years since his last nomination (for playing the same character, no less). And to be fair, he has done almost nothing but, yet there is one still-underrated exception nearly twenty years back, James Mangold’s “Cop Land.” A sort of neo-Western that starred Stallone in a rare dramatic role as a half-deaf New Jersey sheriff of a town full of NYPD cops who investigates the unlawful shooting of two black teens, the film’s screenplay contains a number of all-too-convenient contrivances, but it’s a pretty good attempt at a Sidney Lumet riff. And the film’s highlight is absolutely a soulful and understated turn from Stallone as a sad, slumped man who finally finds a kind of redemption. The film didn’t live up to hopes, and the reaction saw Stallone fail to repeat a role like this until his superb “Creed” turn, which is certainly a shame.
Cate Blanchett – “I’m Not There” (2007)
A more efficient way to talk about Cate Blanchett’s best performances is to say “all of them.” Even in a blockbuster paycheck job like “Cinderella” or a misfiring prestige picture like “Truth,” the Australian actress elevates the material and turns in work better than 95% of her peers. The best example of her work might have been her boldest to date, via her previous collaboration with “Carol” director Todd Haynes, in “I’m Not There.” The director’s gloriously messy, endlessly fascinating, aging-beautifully Bob Dylan tribute revolves around a star-studded cast giving individual interpretations of his various personae, but it’s Blanchett who lingers longest. Her ‘Jude Quinn,’ an approximation of “Dylan-goes-electric,” is eerily accurate, walking the line between broad and understated perfectly and never promises to reveal the secret of the singer’s mystery: like the film, it’s a performance most memorable because it captures Dylan’s inscrutability and mercurial nature.
Brie Larson – “Short Term 12” (2013)
Even if “Room” didn’t see Larson give the single best performance of the year, one that seems sure to win her the Best Actress Oscar, we’d welcome her nomination this year, if only to make up for her inexplicable absence a few years back due to her breakout turn in “Short Term 12.” Destin Daniel Cretton’s film was widely praised but mostly ignored in theaters, yet has gradually gained fans on Netflix and elsewhere, and rightly so: this story of the staff and inhabitants of a group home is finely honed and moving, and finds the perfect centre in Larson’s Grace, a warm, maternal figure to the troubled teens, who hasn’t escaped her own difficult past as much as she might like to think. Her fierce exterior masks a shattered interior, and she makes a character who could have become a saint into a complex, sometimes frustrating human being. It is more than just a warm-up for her sublime work in “Room” — it’s a legitimately great performance.
Jennifer Lawrence – “Winter’s Bone” (2010)
It’s almost more difficult to find a great Jennifer Lawrence performance that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for than it is to find one that she was. Excluding her franchise work in the “X-Men” and “Hunger Games” movies, Lawrence has racked up nods for almost everything she’s done. Her finest hour might still have been the one that introduced her to the wider world— after a striking debut in Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain,” she is indelible in Debra Granik’s Ozark-noir “Winter’s Bone.” The Sundance hit sees Lawrence play a teen tasked with finding her meth-cooking, errant father at the risk of losing her home, and she dominates the quiet, gorgeously-drawn drama, even with terrific work from the similarly Oscar-nominated John Hawkes as her uncle. It’s a performance of unnerving maturity and steely determination, but one that, however bleak the film gets, still lets her Ree stand as a figure of optimism despite the darkness. In other words, “Winter’s Bone” prefigures so much of what was to come for Lawrence.
Charlotte Rampling – “Swimming Pool” (2003)
Quite rightly, Charlotte Rampling’s dunderheaded comments about the Academy and diversity have taken some of the shine away from her first Oscar nomination. But “45 Years” remains a stunning performance, as do many of the ones she’s delivered over a fifty-year career. There are many, many great Rampling turns to choose from (unusually, she’s appeared in French-language work as often as she’s been in English films), but at a push we might pick out her turn in Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” as our fave. A movie that could qualify as a sort of Europudding potboiler if it wasn’t as well-executed or as much fun as it is, it sees Rampling play a successful mystery author who vacations at her publisher’s home in the South of France, only to be disrupted by her friend’s promiscuous, fascinating daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). It’s a performance drawing on real-life authors like Patricia Highsmith and P.D. James, a smart study in repression and madness that draws the two actresses together in a friendship that often feels like a duel, and it’s one of the best showcases the actress ever had.
Saoirse Ronan – “Hanna” (2011)
The young Irish actor, still only 21, got her first Oscar nod aged just 13 in Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” but their other collaboration a few years later might be even better. Ronan plays the title character in “Hanna,” Wright’s oddball fairy-tale/action movie hybrid. Ronan plays a teen trained by her father (Eric Bana) to be a badass killer, who’s left alone when the authorities finally track her down. Ronan convinces utterly in the action, but she’s even better when the film becomes a strange coming-of-age drama, an odd girl reveling in the opportunity to be a real person, and her essential off-beat quality combines beautifully with a longing for something else. It’s a fearless and utterly committed turn, and the highest credit you could pay it is that it’s hard to imagine the movie existing were it not for Ronan.
Bryan Cranston – “Drive” (2011)
Obviously Bryan Cranston will be best known for his towering, multi-Emmy-winning TV performance that launched him from well-liked character actor to leading man. But you already know all about Walter White, so we’d rather use this space to shout up Cranston’s finest big-screen hour prior to (and probably including) “Trumbo,” his supporting turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” Released just as “Breaking Bad” was on the edge of going from cult hit to blockbuster phenomenon, the turn, as auto-shop owner Shannon, a sort of mentor to Ryan Gosling’s unnamed lead, was a little overlooked at the time, but it’s probably the most soulful in the film. Crippled after a previous run-in with mob-boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), he’s a great tragic crime movie figure: a hopeless sad-sack with big dreams whose bad luck never quite runs out. His final scene, a two-hander with Brooks, features the best acting in the movie by some margin, and was one of the first suggestions that his “Breaking Bad” chops would transfer to the big screen too.
Matt Damon – “The Departed” (2006)
It’s crazy to think that “The Martian” marks Matt Damon’s first Lead Actor nomination since “Good Will Hunting” nearly two decades ago (and that his only nod since was for “Invictus,” of all things), given the number of almost effortlessly brilliant performances he’s turned in since. But we suppose it might make a kind of sense: he’s a generous, ego-free performer to the extent that it could be easy to overlook how good he is. Case in point: “The Departed,” a Best Picture winner that won almost no awards buzz for Damon, though he gives the best performance in the movie and one of the best of his career. Playing beautifully against golden-boy type, Damon is the Boston cop secretly working for mob boss Frank Costello, blunt and funny while Leonardo DiCaprio mostly plays one note of intensity. And Damon gets better and better as things go further and further south, capturing a kind of sweaty desperation that further subverts your expectations. Damon’s always great, even in disappointing movies, but he’s never been better than he is here.
Leonardo DiCaprio – “Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
After four acting nominations, this seems to finally be Leonardo DiCaprio’s year to take the home the Oscar rather than just a supermodel, but what’s interesting is that when we tried to think of our absolute favorite DiCaprio performance, most of our frontrunners weren’t the ones he was nominated for (to refresh your memory: “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator,” “Blood Diamond” and, perhaps our fave of the four, “Wolf Of Wall Street.”) The one that stands out, in fact, is one that stands apart from the kind of intensity he’s made a trademark more recently, in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can.” Playing fresh-faced con artist Frank Abagnale Jr, DiCaprio got to flex his movie-star charms in a way he’s only just reconnected, and he’s charming, light and funny when required, slipping in and out of identities while also never letting us forget that his character is a little boy lost, one who misses his family deeply. Just because he didn’t eat a bison liver doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve more recognition.
Michael Fassbender – “Shame” (2011)
The Irish-German actor finally gets a Best Actor nod this year (after a Supporting one for “12 Years A Slave”) for his astonishing “Steve Jobs” turn, but in a perfect world he would already have one for Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” The second of three collaborations between the actor and director, on the back of an equally impressive — and more physically transformative, with substantial weight loss involved — turn in “Hunger,” it saw Fassbender play a Manhattan finance type with a sex addiction. That the film doesn’t become scurrilous or lurid is, along with McQueen’s restrained, contemplative direction, down to Fassbender’s performance, as a man constantly chasing a physical high that seemingly no longer even gives him any pleasure. He’s after that brief taste of oblivion that comes with orgasm, but he’s left as a sort of husk of a man, and Fassbender brings an exquisite sadness to a performance that could have been utterly alien, while really letting us into the soul of the man he played, something he’s been doing across his career to date. Well, maybe not in “Jonah Hex,” but still.
Eddie Redmayne – “Savage Grace” (2007)
Older than his boyish face suggests (he’s 34, and has been acting professionally for fourteen years), Redmayne’s been visible on screen for a decade now, first breaking through in Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd,” as the son of Matt Damon’s central character. He’s good there, but better in the following year’s “Savage Grace,” a deeply uncomfortable Greek tragedy of an indie from director Tom Kalin. Based loosely on a real-life incident, it takes full advantage of Redmayne’s upper-crust looks to see him play the schizophrenic, gay scion of a wealthy family who sleeps with his mother (fellow nominee Julianne Moore) before killing her. It’s a tough watch, but brilliantly acted by everyone involved (Stephen Dillane and Hugh Dancy are both great too), but Redmayne’s turn, louche and intense and passionate, like the child of a character in a Whit Stillman film and a Gus Van Sant film, might be its highlight.
Honorable Mentions: Some have had longer careers than others, but every one of these actors could have figured into this list with a different role. We might have talked about Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Fast Times At Ridgmont High” or “Margot At The Wedding,” Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, Rachel McAdams’ breakthrough in “Mean Girls,” Alicia Vikander in “Ex Machina” or “Anna Karenina,” or Kate Winslet in “Heavenly Creatures” or “Little Children.” We might have mentioned Christian Bale in “Empire Of The Sun” or “The Prestige,” Tom Hardy in ‘Bronson,” Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher,” Mark Rylance on stage in “Jerusalem” or on TV in “Wolf Hall,” or Sylvester Stallone in “First Blood.”
We might have brought up “Little Fish” or “Blue Jasmine” for Cate Blanchett, “Rampart” or “Trainwreck” for Brie Larson, “The Hunger Games” or “Silver Linings Playbook” for Jennifer Lawrence, “The Night Porter” for Charlotte Rampling or “Atonement” or “Byzantium” for Saoirse Ronan. And we could have written about “Argo” for Bryan Cranston, “The Informant!” for Matt Damon, “Revolutionary Road” or “The Wolf Of Wall Street” for Leonardo DiCaprio, “Macbeth” or “Frank” or “Hunger” for Michael Fassbender and “The Theory Of Everything” for Eddie Redmayne. Let us know your own favorite performances by this year’s crop of nominees: everyone will have different line-up, we’re sure.