Every year, a few actors from small films manage to sneak into the Oscar race at the last minute. There's been the likes of Demián Bichir in "A Better Life" (last year's biggest acting nom surprise), Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone," Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger," Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor," Laura Linney in "The Savages" and Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson," just to name a few. So in keeping with Indiewire's indie spirit, it seemed appropriate to make arguments for twenty performances that deserve to be the next Bichir or Lawrence or Jenkins or Hawkes or Linney. The ladies come first this week, the gentleman next.
Commentors should keep in mind that the list does not include work that looks like a safe bet for a nomination (even though it's quite something we can call Quvenzhané Wallis' work in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" a safe bet... it would be pretty surprising that she misses out on a nom at this point) and that it only includes films currently scheduled for release during the 2012 eligibility period (thus excluding Greta Gerwig's extraordinary work in "Frances Ha," for example). Keeping that in mind, here are 10 underdog actresses (whether lead or supporting) for your consideration:
Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, Your Sister's Sister
Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt have both come quite close to an Oscar nod in 2006 and 2008, respectively -- both for roles opposite Anne Hathaway. Blunt was fantastic as Meryl Streep's other assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada," while DeWitt's titular role in "Rachel Getting Married" was perfect subtlety opposite as Hathaway's more showy role as her sister. This year they are just as deserving in another sistery affair, Lynn Shelton's lovely "Your Sister's Sister." Though their chances at this point are pretty slim, voters should definitely consider the layered -- and impressively largely improvised -- performances both actresses give as Hannah and Iris, sisters that end up in a triangle of sorts with Mark Duplass (also excellent) when they all end up at their family cabin for the weekend.
Perhaps the least known actress on this list, Ann Dowd has been steadily working for over twenty years with small, memorable (you might not know her name, but you'll recognize her face) roles in both film ("Philadelphia," "Garden State") and television ("Freaks and Geeks," "The X-Files"). But in Craig Zobel's "Compliance" -- one of the best films to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival -- Dowd gets her meatiest role yet (no pun intended) as Sandra, the manager of a fast-food restaurant. Based on real life events, Dowd's Sandra gets a prank call from a person pretending to a police officer who says one her employees has stolen from a customer. The film spirals out from there, and works so well in large part because of Dowd's riveting performance (her co-star Dreama Walker -- as the employee in question -- deserves a shout out as well, but there was only so much space on this list).
Elle Fanning, Ginger and Rosa
Aforementioned Quvenzhané Wallis deservedly seems the child actor most likely to succeed this year (which has been a remarkable year for young actors, male and female -- see "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Impossible," as well). But don't forget about Elle Fanning. The 14 year old actress has remarkably given a few award-worthy performances already ("Somewhere," "Super 8"), but she's never been better in Sally Potter's "Ginger & Rosa," playing a teenager girl in 1960s London. The film is getting a qualifying release later this year, and she's definitely its best bet for a vulnerable, deeply affecting performance that once and for all proves this Ms. Fanning is far from just Dakota's little sister.