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10 Oscar Underdogs Who Stand the Best Chance at Gold

From John Ridley to Jeremy Renner to Tatiana Maslany, here's a look at some of the year's best work flying under the radar.

Bryan Cranston in “Last Flag Flying”

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Ten months into the year, it’s hard out here for an Oscar contender. Being worthy of remembering, or being watched by Academy members, demands a warm film-festival reception, rave reviews, effective marketing and distribution, strong theater attendance, and word of mouth. Check out this curated (alphabetical) selection of long-shot performers who are worthy of Oscar consideration, but may see their movies get lost in the intense competitive awards shuffle.

“Last Flag Flying”

1. Bryan Cranston

Category: Best Actor

Awards: Nominated for Best Actor by SAG and the Oscars for “Trumbo,” Cranston won three Best Actor in a Drama Emmys for playing Walter White in “Breaking Bad” and won SAG Best Actor in TV movie as LBJ in “All the Way.”

Last Hit: “Why Him?” ($60 million domestic)

Title: “Last Flag Flying” (Amazon Studios)

Bottom Line: This layered New York Film Festival opener stars Cranston in one of his signature large, colorful, entertaining performances as Sal, a hard-drinking bar owner who hasn’t changed much since he was a Marine 35 years ago. In Richard Linklater’s comedy-drama (that he roughly adapted with novelist Daryl Ponicsan, from his sequel to “The Last Detail”), Sal meets up with two ex-Marine buddies played by Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne. The movie earned positive notices from critics, but mixed reaction from the NYFF opening-night industry crowd. Amazon will take it out November 3, where it could find a warm reception from military-friendly audiences around the country. The Academy actors loved Cranston in “Trumbo,” and could respond to this showy role as well.

Quotes: “It’s a male-bonding road movie,” said Cranston. “What I felt when I read it was an emotional reaction to these men; I feel for them. They have a shared history in the Marine Corps; Sal needs to be the center of attention, to have the upper hand. He’s stuck in the past, with the same personality and aggression and testosterone drive as he had when he was 18-19-20. He never matured. All three men bring innately different energies with that history; it’s a cacophony, a symphony.”

Actors Sam Elliott and Nick Offerman from “The Hero” at Sundance 2017.

Photo by Jack Dempsey/Invision for Chase Sapphire/AP Images

2. Sam Elliott

Category: Best Actor

Awards: Won the 2015 Critics Choice Television Award for Best Guest Performer in a Drama Series for “Justified” (2010), the 1990 Golden Boot Award, and shared five Bronze Wrangler awards.

Last Hit: “I’ll See You in My Dreams” ($7.4 million domestic)

Movie: “The Hero” (The Orchard)

Bottom Line: This Sundance entry yielded upbeat reviews and box office ($4 million domestic). Actors will relate to this poignant story of an aging actor with cancer who is lauded for his hit westerns but carries regrets for a personal life unfulfilled. The film reunites Elliott with Brett Haley, his director in “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which saw a Gotham Award nomination for Blythe Danner. With Best Actor a slim field, the respected veteran is a dark-horse candidate.

Quotes: “Brett and I spent a ton of time traveling together on the press tour for ‘I’ll See You in my Dreams.’ We had a lot of conversations, and got to love and respect each other. When he got back, he wrote a script for me. It’s borne out of the dialogue I had with him, so there’s a creepy amount of truth even while it’s a complete departure from any fact: I’m still married to Katharine [Ross] after 33 years, I love my daughter more than anyone in the world, and I was always there as she was growing up. I don’t smoke dope. I don’t have cancer. Apart from that, it’s pretty recognizable.”

"Breathe" Andrew Garfield

“Breathe”

3. Andrew Garfield

Category: Best Actor

Awards: Nominated for Best Ensemble for SAG for “The Social Network,” and for Best Actor for “Hacksaw Ridge” for the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, SAG and the Oscars.

Last Hit: Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” ($67 million domestic)

Movie: “Breathe” (Bleecker Street)

Bottom Line: Garfield earned raves for portraying polio-ridden quadriplegic Robin Cavendish, but mixed reviews and treacly marketing for this Andy Serkis true drama took their toll with a weak opening weekend  (and a low-attendance official Academy screening). But Garfield is on a roll: He earned raves for his recent roles as a starving missionary in Japan in Martin Scorsese’s “The Silence” and Prior Walter in the National Theatre’s “Angels in America.”

Quotes:  “Robin was unconventional, eccentric, awake to absurdity and the cosmic joke. It was a remarkable thing to experience for a short time, to find it as you go. After the choice to live, Robin finds, with the help and love of Diana and those around him, that his life force slowly starts to come back. l found that because my body was inert, all that energy, life force, and chi has to find somewhere to go and was expressed in the face. There was something liberating about that. Usually with film acting, you fear finding that something is too much, but there was no such thing as being too much for Robin. His only vehicle was his face and eyes and that struggle to express himself with his voice. He got good at using his ventilator like an instrument.”

Nick Quested and Sebastian Junger at Hot Docs

4. Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested

Category: Best Documentary Feature

Awards: Junger and his directing partner, the late photojournalist Tim Hetherington, won the Sundance grand jury documentary prize for Afghan war film “Restrepo,” which was also nominated by the DGA and the Oscars.

Last Hit: HBO’s “The Last Patrol”

Movie: “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” (NatGeo)

Bottom Line: While there’s a slew of Syria documentaries this year, Junger and his producer-turned-director Nick Quested create a comprehensible timeline for the ongoing human disaster in Syria with help from go-to documentary writer Mark Monroe (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years”). As Junger finished his 2016 book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” Quested dug into extensive archived and on-site research in Syria and linked up with a Syrian family who were trying to escape from war-torn Aleppo. He gave them a video camera and instructions how to use it. The father was a natural, capturing amazing footage of the family cowering from bombings, escaping to refugee camps and later, to Europe by boat. Junger, who gave up frontline reporting after Hetherington died in Libya (tributed in “Which Way is the Front Line From Here?”), fashions a compelling narration.

Quote: “Isn’t that the point of journalism?” Junger asked me. “To make everything make sense?”

Tatiana Maslanay and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Stronger"

“Stronger”

5. Tatiana Maslany

Category: Best Supporting Actress

Awards: Won two Critics Choice and one Emmy Best Actress Drama Award for her multiple roles in BBC America’s “Orphan Black.”

Last hit: “Orphan Black” just wound up its final season.

Movie:Stronger” (Roadside Attractions)

Bottom line: David Gordon Green brings humor and finesse to the true story of Jeff Bauman, a regular guy whose legs were blown off at the Boston marathon finish line. He survives thanks to his girlfriend Erin (Maslany). She shines in intimate scenes where she lovingly ministers to him and eventually demands that he stand up and become a man. While “Stronger” is not taking off at the box office, reviews for both Gyllenhaal and Maslany have been effusive. Actors will recognize the degree of difficulty in portraying the film’s raw emotions.

Read More: ‘Stronger’: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Moving Performance as a Bombing Victim Could Finally Mean an Oscar

Quotes: “[That first intimate scene] is a microcosm of the film, the cell of what the movie is about. Oddly, it was a last-minute addition, part of an early draft that was thrown away. David and Jake needed a scene where you feel the pain Jeff goes through. We pulled off the bandages with little dialogue. It was amazing that Erin was going to be there for him in this difficult time and see the pain he’s in. Sean Bobbit shot it, feeling so deeply what that moment meant. And the editor let it sit for that long, trusting it could live—it’s all one shot, which cuts wide near the end when he’s sick into the basin because of the pain. David does make unusual choices, to make the process human and unexpected and interesting. It was never going to be the idea in my head, but something more off-kilter, expressive and alive.”

Chasing Coral

“Chasing Coral”

6. Jeff Orlowski

Category: Best Documentary Feature

Awards: “Chasing Ice” won the cinematography as well as the documentary audience award at Sundance 2013, the audience documentary award at SXSW, the Cinema Eye Honors Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography, and the News and Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Nature Programming.

Last Hit: “Chasing Ice” ($612K domestic)

Movie: “Chasing Coral” (Netflix)

Bottom Line: After using technology and time-lapse cameras on “Chasing Ice” to show the ravages of climate change on polar ice caps, Orlowski turned his attention to the oceans’ vanishing coral reefs. Over 3 1/2 years, Orlowski took on the task of making accessible and translating decades of scientific research for an uninformed public. The filmmakers welcomed Netflix’s outreach to more than 100 million subscribers in 190 countries. The movie played well at Sundance and is positioned to gain traction in the documentary feature race; it was shortlisted at DOC NYC. 

Quotes: “We wanted the film to be an engaging and compelling behind-the-scenes adventure. The hope was the audience might not care about coral reefs, but would see how someone like Zack cares, see his pain and suffering over the loss of ecosystem he loves. Zack undergoes a huge transformation as he watches the dream of his entire life die. It’s like he got to go to Disneyland for the first time to see all the rides fall apart. It’s heartbreaking.”

HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALESMandatory Credit: Photo by CANNES FILM FESTIVAL/HANDOUT/REX/Shutterstock (8825676c)Jeremy RennerWind River - 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 19 May 2017An undated handout film still provided by the Cannes Film Festival organization on 20 May 2017 shows US actor Jeremy Renner in a scene of 'Wind River'. The movie by Taylor Sheridan is presented in the Un Certain Regard Competition at the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival running from 17 to 28 May 2017.

Jeremy Renner in “Wind River”

HANDOUT/REX/Shutterstock

7. Jeremy Renner

Category: Best Actor

Awards: In “The Hurt Locker,” Renner made us understand the extraordinary toll of the war in Iraq on American soldiers, as well its allure. He earned his second Oscar for Ben Affleck’s well-reviewed heist thriller “The Town,” stealing the movie as a crooked Boston bank robber who doesn’t want his best chum (Affleck) to leave him in the rear view for a straight woman (Rebecca Hall).

Last Hit: “Arrival” ($100.4 million domestic)

Movie: “Wind River” (The Weinstein Co.)

Bottom Line: Renner put his movie stardom to smart advantage, ranging from archer Hawkeye in “The Avengers” to throwing banter with Simon Pegg in “Mission: Impossible.” Those movies make it possible for him to be a magician in love with a Frenchwoman (Marion Cotillard) in James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” or the pompadoured Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmen Polito in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” He’s an athletic everyman from Modesto, Calif. who can carry an action film and woo the girl. But those big blue eyes draw us into his deeper feelings; he can be smart and dangerous, but also vulnerable and emotional. He avoided reading the “Wind River” script for a year until he finally read the first 10 pages and was hooked. When he met “Hell or High Water” writer-director Taylor Sheridan, he was up for playing this wily but damaged tracker of predators who investigates an ugly murder of a Native American girl in a remote wintry rural location, aided by an FBI rookie (Elizabeth Olsen). Weinstein Co. launched the film well at Sundance, took it to Cannes where it won best director at Un Certain Regard, and pushed it to $33 million domestic summer success. It would be a pity if the company’s current crisis prevents Renner from getting the attention he deserves for this role.

Quotes: “A movie like ‘Wind River’ lets me flex a bit and go deep, use all six gears… I wanted to explore the loss, the character themes. He’s carrying the weight and the burden of being a father, the righteousness, the humility… he has strength and fortitude, but there’s an emotionally sensitive awareness. There’s a sense of his being fallible and broken and far from perfect. You can judge him by his actions, but he’s compassionate and thoughtful.”

John Ridley

John Ridley

Daniel Bergeron

8. John Ridley

Category: Best Documentary Feature

Awards: Won the Independent Spirit Award and the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years a Slave.”

Last Hit: ABC series “American Crime.”

Movie: “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992” (ABC)

Bottom Line: When ABC came to Ridley, he’d already spent a decade developing a movie narrative of the wide-ranging events surrounding Rodney King, delivering some reporting to NPR and Los Angeles Magazine. Ridley dug into period-video archives and interviewed many of the people directly involved in the riots that yielded 55 lives lost, 1,100 buildings destroyed by fire, and some $1 billion in property damage. He conducted many interviews himself and got people on all sides of the story — cops, rioters, victims of assault and their saviors — to share their perspectives. Even after 25 years or more, their memories and emotions remain vivid. One African-American grandmother remembered reacting to the savage King beating on March 3, 1991: “It reminded me of what my ancestors went through.”

Ridley knows what he is doing as he builds up to revelations of random acts of heroism. One policewoman and her male partner insisted on returning to the fray to save someone who was being attacked, knowing they would be in extreme danger. When the man asked his partner to contact his wife if anything happened to him, she came out to him by asking him to contact her girlfriend. 

The 145-minute cut of Ridley’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992” played theaters while an 88-minute version aired on ABC on April 28.

Quotes: “It was a difficult undertaking in a film, with the money involved. There were no particular heroes or villains. The news division producers know how to put together a factual story. And I knew how to weave an appealing and engaging narrative, to put together all the parts to form a revealing mosaic… They recollected moments like they happened moments ago… They rose to the occasion, from all stripes and backgrounds, irrespective of who was being victimized. To see people unwilling to sit by and see their fellow human go through those things is very reassuring.”
"The Big Sick" cast and crew

Judd Apatow, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Barry Mendel, and Michael Showalter

Daniel Bergeron

9. Michael Showalter

Category: Best Director

Awards: Both “Hello, My Name is Doris” and “The Big Sick” won the audience award at SXSW.

Last Hit: “Hello, My Name Is Doris” ($14.4 million domestic)

Movie: “The Big Sick” (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)

Bottom Line: Producers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel brought Showalter into the development process two or three years in, when he read a long draft of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s true romance. Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, and Holly Hunter joined Nanjiani in the cast. The movie played well at Sundance, and Amazon acquired it in a bidding war for $12 million; the film went into release over the summer to great acclaim and box office ($42 million domestic). Showalter is a bit of an unsung hero in this narrative, overshadowed by producer Judd Apatow.

Quotes: “[The script] was very long, overflowing with great scenes and ideas. I was very inspired by this big-hearted draft, but it felt like it was not yet in the shape of a movie. I was thinking in terms of seeing what the blueprint structurally is underneath it all. What’s going to make this into a movie? When Ray, Holly, Billy, and other actors were cast, we did 10 more rewrites….This wasn’t a Michael Showalter film per se. I felt like Judd [Apatow] was supportive of every person’s ability to be creative and give all of themselves to the project, knowing when it comes to it, that he would be the person to make a final difficult casting decision. By luck, we worked well together. There is no element that I am secretly handwringing about, that I would have done differently. My director’s cut was my last chance to show every version of what I wanted it to be. Then it became everybody’s movie collectively. We all had a similar vision of what movie we were trying to make.”

Tim Robbins, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm and Geena Davis

Tim Robbins, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm and Geena Davis

Daniel Bergeron

10. Lois Smith

Category: Best Supporting Actress

Awards: She won the National Society of Film Critics award for her supporting role opposite Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” and shared the Robert Altman ensemble award with the cast of Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give.”

Last hit: “The Nice Guys” ($36 million domestic)

Movie: “Marjorie Prime” (FilmRise)

Bottom Line: “Marjorie Prime” is a well-regarded arthouse flower co-starring John Hamm as the A.I. version of Marjorie’s late husband, who is eager to learn more about himself and his family. Geena Davis and Tim Robbins play Marjorie’s daughter and her husband, respectively. Now 86, Smith is precise and heartbreaking in the film, as we look into the future and see the end of life through a new lens. She also cameos in Greta Gerwig’s festival hit “Lady Bird,” but actors will appreciate this performance — if they see it.

Quotes: “I’ve been living with the [Jordan Harrison] play; the Mark Taper Forum’s first production was more than a couple of years ago. Michael Almereyda saw that production and wanted to make a movie of it. And he and Jordan got together and wrote the adapted script. We were faithful to the play, which was different in tone. Michael’s film is more somber, slower in pace, less funny, sadder. It was very interesting for me to go through these various lives with different directors. What a journey.”

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