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For Your Consideration: 11 Underdog Performances

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 16, 2009 at 2:25AM

Last week, in addition to our homepage facelift, indieWIRE quietly launched a revamped section on the site that for the coming months, will be entirely devoted to the internet journalism mammoth that is awards season. While recent expansions in internet-oriented coverage offer readers dozens upon dozens of options, we're hoping to stand out from the crowd. Our attempt to do so involves being the first to bring you breaking awards news, linking to notable awards blogs across the web, offering regular awards-related polls, extensive coverage of Oscar's smaller (and indie-friendly) siblings like the Spirits and Gothams, and weekly features highlighting awards-related trends, developments, and predictions. This article falls into that final category, and we figured in keeping with indieWIRE's indie spirit, we'd start things off by offering you a list of ten underdog performances from the festival circuit that may or may not stand a chance at sneaking into Oscar's final fives, but are all certainly worthy of it.
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Last week, in addition to our homepage facelift, indieWIRE quietly launched a revamped section on the site that for the coming months, will be entirely devoted to the internet journalism mammoth that is awards season. While recent expansions in internet-oriented coverage offer readers dozens upon dozens of options, we're hoping to stand out from the crowd. Our attempt to do so involves being the first to bring you breaking awards news, linking to notable awards blogs across the web, offering regular awards-related polls, extensive coverage of Oscar's smaller (and indie-friendly) siblings like the Spirits and Gothams, and weekly features highlighting awards-related trends, developments, and predictions. This article falls into that final category, and we figured in keeping with indieWIRE's indie spirit, we'd start things off by offering you a list of ten underdog performances from the festival circuit that may or may not stand a chance at sneaking into Oscar's final fives, but are all certainly worthy of it.

Seemingly every year, a few actors from small films manage to sneak into the race at the last minute. Last year, it was Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor" and Melissa Leo in "Frozen River," while in years past there's a surprisingly impressive little list: Laura Linney in "The Savages," Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson," Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Maria Full of Grace," Amy Adams in "Junebug." While this year some indie films have already securely supplanted themselves in the race, with many of their actors included below (most notably "Precious"'s Mo'Nique and Gabby Sidibe, and "An Education"'s Carey Mulligan and Alfred Molina, all of whom are looking like very likely fixtures comes nomination morning), there's many that face a more uphill battle. Here's eleven:

Penelope Cruz for "Broken Embraces"

While more likely to get Academy buzz for her supporting work in Rob Marshall's upcoming "Nine" (though no one has actually seen that film, so perhaps that's getting ahead of ourselves), Penelope Cruz's work in Pedro Almodovar's latest should not be ignored. Even the film's more tepid reviews highlight her work as Lena, an aspiring actress fending off the abuse of her wealthy husband. As she did in "Volver" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Cruz makes it impossible for you to look away when she's on the screen. And one should not be so naive as to believe that's simply because of her hyperreal beauty. She has plenty of pre-"Volver" roles that can prove that.

Roxanne Duran for "The White Ribbon"

Standing out from the massive crowd of a cast in Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning "The White Ribbon" is no small feat, but young Roxanne Duran does just that in her chilling role as as the doctor’s daughter. Though younger actresses are often a fixture in the supporting actress category, rarely are they recognized in foreign-language fare (a tragic example of such an oversight is Victoire Thivisol's work in 1996's "Ponette"), so Duran's chances probably stand as among the slightest on this list. However, perhaps a critic's group or a European award organization will make up for it.

Charlotte Gainsbourg for "Antichrist"

Her best actress award at Cannes was not without reason. Whatever you think about Lars von Trier's extremely divisive "Antichrist," it's difficult not to admire Gainsbourg's remarkably intense work in the film. Yet, it's not exactly an easy performance to watch. Genital mutilation doesn't usually play a memorable role in Oscar-nominated work, so it might be difficult to get most Academy voters to sit through "Antichrist." They also haven't been kind to von Trier's leading ladies in the past. While Emily Watson got a well-deserved nod for 1996's "Breaking The Waves," exceptional work from "Dancer in the Dark"'s Bjork and "Dogville"'s Nicole Kidman went unnoticed.

Hal Holbrook for "That Evening Sun"

Eighty-four year old Holbrook gained his first nomination two years ago for Sean Penn's "Into The Wild" and was unfortunately nominated alongside Javier Bardem's work in "No Country For Old Men." Now, with a tiny film that premiered at SXSW, he seems like he's getting another chance. A festival circuit favorite, "That Evening Sun" is being released via Freestyle this November. Holbrook plays an aging Tennessee farmer facing family betrayal, and with the right campaign, and a mix of sentimental and critical support, Holbrook could find himself in the mix.

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Ben Foster for "The Messenger"

Quietly finding warm notices at Sundance earlier this year, Oren Moverman’s "The Messenger" finally got picked up this July by Oscilloscope Laboratories. The announcement came with explicit suggestion the film would be receive an awards push, and though there are various deserved suggestions across the board - from Moverman and Alessandro Camon's screenplay to performances by Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton - it seems lead actor Ben Foster is the film's best bet. Foster gained glowing notices for his work as a U.S. Army officer who has just returned home from a tour in Iraq and is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Though lead actor could become a very crowded category, with Foster could be competing as a dark horse against another actor playing a Iraq War soldier (see below),

Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker." Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker"

Both nominees at last year's Spirit Awards (where "The Hurt Locker" was eligible due to its screening during last year's festival circuit), Renner and Mackie's work as Sgt. William James and Sgt. JT Sanborn in Kathryn Bigelow's critically acclaimed film might get overshadowed by the film's action-driven plot. While the film seems assured nods for Bigelow's direction and a variety of technical elements, it would be unfortunate if voters overlook how these little-known actors carried this film with their charismatic and jolting performances.

Michelle Monaghan for "Trucker"

Like "Locker," "Trucker" was favorite on last year's festival circuit. Acquired a few months ago and long after its debut at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, the film features what should be a star-making performance by Monaghan. Playing a truck driver who lives a life of long-haul trucking, one night stands and all-night drinking, she's been receiving stellar notices across the board. And while the best actress category this year could use a good dark horse, "Trucker"'s tepid box office is not going to help.

Tahar Rahim for "A Prophet"

Along with "Fish Tank"'s Katie Jarvis (who would be on this list if the film hadn't recently been set for 2010 release), Tahar Rahim was hailed as one of the major acting breakthroughs of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. In his first lead role, the twentysomething French actor blew Cannes away with his performance as an illiterate small-time crook sentenced to prison for six years. While "A Prophet" seems assured a foreign language film slot (though you never know with the Academy), Rahim making the best actor shortlist seems like quite the stretch. The last time a foreign-language performance made it to that category's final five was Javier Bardem in "Before Night Falls" nearly ten years ago. But support for this film come its December release is likely to be quite passionate. [EDITOR'S NOTE: "A Prophet"'s U.S. release date has been officially moved back to 2010, therefore Rahim's performance is now ineligible for this year's awards. In keeping with the eleven, indieWIRE would like to nominate Sam Rockwell's fantastic work in "Moon" as a replacement.]

Paul Schneider for "Bright Star"

Though "Bright Star"'s leading lovers Ben Winshaw and Abbie Cornish seemed to get most of the attention, Paul Schneider (who with "Lars and the Real Girl" and the "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," has been building a excellent reputation as a character actor lately) and his performance as portly and overprotective Charles Brown is hard to forget. A departure from his recent roles, had Jane Campion's "Bright Star" performed a bit better at the box office and held on to its out-of-Cannes buzz, perhaps Schneider would be among supporting actor predictions. But hopefully some year end attention for "Star" from critics will put him back in the mix.

Tilda Swinton for "Julia"

In what Roger Ebert called a performance that "goes for broke and wins big time," Tilda Swinton created an cinematic alcoholic for the ages as the titular character in "Julia." As a desperate, fiercely unlikeable woman who takes up a neighbor's offer to kidnap her son for her, Swinton managed to add yet another layer to her already expansive and diverse filmography. While unfortunately filmgoers didn't give Erick Zonca's film much of a chance (the film grossed only $65,000 this past Spring), it would not be surprising if the major critic's circles (many of which have yet to honor Swinton's work), decide to award the performance come December.

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