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The 25 Best Performances Not Nominated for an Oscar in the 21st Century, From Kristen Stewart to Andy Serkis

And the Oscar doesn't go to...

5. Samuel L. Jackson, “The Hateful Eight”

Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson have has as many memorable collaborations as nearly any other director/actor pair, from the iconic (“Pulp Fiction”) the barely-there (“Kill Bill”). Not content to simply show up, yell “motherfucker,” and leave, Jackson outdid himself once again in this curiously overlooked performance, which features one of the most delirious flashbacks ever conjured (you know the one). What’s most remarkable is that Jackson, who’s such a ubiquitous and comforting onscreen presence, manages to terrify anew — it’s as though he’s forcing us to forget every other character he’s ever played. —MN

4. Naomi Watts, “Mulholland Drive”

Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive

There have been countless movies made about Hollywood dreams and its harsh realities, but never have both the starry-eyed and deep despair of Los Angeles been so perfectly rolled up into one performance like Naomi Watts’ breakout role in David Lynch’s masterpiece. In what might be considered two roles – the plot is impossible to completely piece together – Watts brings to life a wide-eyed Betty, who arrives to stay at her aunt’s only to get caught up in the mystery of an amnesiac (Laura Harring) hiding in the apartment. Watts would of course go on to be a big star playing characters who are often strong, steady types (like outed CIA agent Valerie Plame in “Fair Game”), but as we’ve been recently reminded with her appearance in the new “Twin Peaks” she can go deliciously big and unfiltered, demonstrating an incredible tonal range. She has an innate ability to adapt to Lynch’s unique cinematic world and quickly land completely authentic moments of wonder, desire, and desperation. —CO

3. Ralph Fiennes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

It’s no secret that Oscar voters prefer dramatic turns to comedic ones, something actors with a lighter touch have long bemoaned. Ralph Fiennes’ devoted hotel concierge is made all the more impressive given the contrast it shows for the actor, previously best known in heavy Oscar favorites “Schindler’s List” (won) and “The English Patient” (nominated). The devil is in the details in Wes Anderson’s meticulously crafted worlds, and Fiennes brings that same kind of specificity to the eccentric character. In the hands of lesser actors, Anderson’s hyper stylization often obscures the deeper themes he tries so hard to render. As the best actors do, Fiennes grounds his performance in reality, elevating “Grand Budapest” beyond even Anderson’s own vision. —JD

2. Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia”

Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia

“Melancholia” starts off with Dunst’s lavish castle wedding, destroyed by the beautiful bride’s plunge into depression, followed by how she and her family deal with a planet hurtling toward a possible collision with Earth. Dunst and Lars von Trier had both experienced depression; he opened up to her and earned her trust. Dunst actually won Best Actress at Cannes, even after Trier’s Cannes 2011 press conference outburst got him banned from the festival. “Melancholia” might have had a shot at the Palme d’Or won by “The Tree of Life” had it not been overshadowed by von Trier’s misbehavior. The movie went on to a modest arthouse release with strong reviews but no awards traction: it’s possible that the unforgettable spectacle of Dunst as a drunk newlywed peeing on the lawn in the moonlight in her wedding dress was not the stuff of Academy voters’ dreams.  —AT

1. Paul Giamatti, “Sideways”

Paul Giamatti in Sideways
At a certain point in life, some of us realize we’re not the person we’d hoped to be. This can result in existential crises, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, strained personal relationships — or, in the case of Miles Raymond, all of the above. Paul Giamatti is late-30s disenchantment personified in what remains Alexander Payne’s most affecting film, a melancholy buddy comedy that finds its hero’s depression played against his best friend’s decadence. (Thomas Haden Church received an Oscar nomination for his work, as did Virginia Madsen). Known primarily as a ubiquitous-but-unsung character actor until the year before, when “American Splendor” offered him a chance to step into the spotlight, Giamatti shows here that it’s where he’s always belonged. “Sideways” never descends into miserablism even when Miles does as the wine-drunk goings on strike the perfect balance between his many moods — even if we’re still not drinking any fuckin’ Merlot. —MN

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