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For Your Consideration: 13 Underdog Actresses That Deserve Oscar's Attention This Year

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 11, 2011 at 3:2AM

Instead of dipping into the already repetitive waters of October Oscar talk (the only real recent update being that "My Week With Marilyn" seems like a sure bet for a best actress nomination, though not much beyond that), this column will take the next two weeks as an opportunity to discuss a few names that aren't getting much talk (though here's the weekly prediction chart to supplement that) --mainly because they aren't likely to end up garnering nominations. But it's certainly not impossible.
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Instead of dipping into the already repetitive waters of October Oscar talk (the only real recent update being that "My Week With Marilyn" seems like a sure bet for a best actress nomination, though not much beyond that), this column will take the next two weeks as an opportunity to discuss a few names that aren't getting much talk (though here's the weekly prediction chart to supplement that) --mainly because they aren't likely to end up garnering nominations. But it's certainly not impossible.

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 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-six performances that deserve to be the next Lawrence or Jenkins or Hawkes or Linney. The ladies come first this week, the gentleman next.

Commentators should keep in mind that the list does not include work that looks like a safe bet for a nomination, and that it only includes films currently scheduled for release during the 2011 eligibility period (thus excluding Stephanie Sigman in "Miss Bala," for example). Keeping that in mind, here are 13 underdog actresses (whether lead or supporting) for your consideration:

Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
Winner of best actress at Cannes Film Festival last year, Juliette Binoche's work in Abbas Kiarostami's twisty, beautiful "Certified Copy" is actually eligible this year due to its March theatrical release. In the film, Binoche gives a complex, compassionate (and funny!) performance that stands among her very best and certainly among 2011's. Unfortunately, her chances at an Oscar nomination for it are next to nil, but hopefully a critics group or the European Film Academy decides to help make up for that.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene." Fox Searchlight.

Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
In Paddy Considine's directorial debut, which first screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year (it's being released Stateside November 18), Olivia Colman plays Hannah, a Christian do-gooder who gives refuge to an alcoholic, rage-filled widower (played by Peter Mullan). Colman, known best for her comedic work in British television (though she does have a small role in the much more Oscar-friendly "The Iron Lady") is an absolute revelation, garnering herself some of the best reviews to come out of Sundance (and a special jury prize that she shared with Mullan). Like Binoche, she faces an uphill battle when it comes to mainstream awards recognition, but she'll hopefully be remembered by others for giving one of the year's most powerful performances.

Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia
Continuing the trend of major film festival acting award winners on this list, Kirsten Dunst's performance in Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" got her a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year (impressively beating out Tilda Swinton in "We Need To Talk About Kevin," which many suspected was a shoo-in). Dunst's depressive, nuanced performance is intensely affecting, as is the work of her co-lead Charlotte Gainsbourg. The two play sisters intimately facing the apocalypse in very different ways, and -- like almost any performance by a lead actress in a von Trier film -- their work is hard to shake even weeks later. Only Emily Watson has ever nabbed a best actressnomination for a von Trier film, with the Academy snubbing the likes of Bjork ("Dancer in the Dark"), Nicole Kidman ("Dogville") and Gainsbourg herself ("Antichrist"). Dunst is clearly the more likely of the two to break the trend, but both actresses deserve recognition for taking on "Melancholia" (and Gainsbourg earns bonus points for being the first of von Trier's leads to actually work with him again).

Jennifer Ehle, Contagion
In Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," Jennifer Ehle (who also plays George Clooney's wife in "The Ides or March") got "best in show" notices across the board for her wonderfully appealing performance as Dr. Ally Hextall, a heroic scientist who takes matters into her own hands while developing a vaccine for the virus at the center of the film. It's hard to stand out in a cast that includes the likes of Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne (who between them have more Oscar nominations than I have time to count), but relatively unknown Ehle did just that. Hopefully the early September release won't feel like too distant a memory for people to remember that accomplishment.

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Felicity Jones, Like Crazy, Adepero Oduye, Pariah and Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Seemingly every year as of late, a young breakout actress from the Sundance Film Festival manages to score herself an Oscar nomination. Last year, it was Jennifer Lawrence. The year before, Gabourey Sidibe. But this year, three of this year's Sundance "it" girls, Felicity Jones, Adepero Oduye and Elizabeth Olsen, seem to face much more of an uphill battle.

The trio were part of a extremely strong batch of female-led American narrative films at Sundance this year. In Dee Rees' "Pariah," Oduye gives a heartbreaking performance as a Brooklyn teen confronting her sexual identity; Olsen masterfully takes on the psychological damage of living with a cult in Sean Durkin's riveting "Martha Marcy May Marlene;" and Jones emotionally portrays the heartache of a long-distance relationship in Drake Doremous' crowd pleasing "Like Crazy."

But unfortunately for all of them, it's a tough lead actress race that many assume already has four likely nominees in Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Michelle Williams and Viola Davis. That leaves one slot for any number of women, and might not leave enough room for a Sundance breakout. Notably, none of these films have actually opened yet, which could be telling. Olsen in particular stands a reasonable shot if "Martha Marcy May Marlene" finds strong numbers at the box office.

Carey Mulligan in "Shame."


Anna Kendrick, 50/50
Making good on the promise of her Oscar-nominated work in Jason Reitman's "Up In The Air," Anna Kendrick gave a remarkably heartfelt performance opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50." As the inexperienced psychologist helping Gordon-Levitt's character deal with cancer diagnosis, Kendrick brings a fresh, touching energy to a role that could have easily been one note. While the film's underwhelming box office performance and general lack of buzz seems to suggest Kendrick will have to wait a bit longer for her second Oscar nod, let's hope casting agents take notice and give the actress more work worthy of talents.

Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
While some are already calling "Bridesmaids" breakout Melissa McCarthy a reasonable bet for a supporting actress nomination, that seems hard to believe. Comedic performances rarely make the Academy's shortlist, particularly when it's a woman behind the comedy. There are exceptions -- Joan Cusack in "In & Out," Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinny" -- but never for a comedy broad as "Bridesmaids." Surely she would become the first Oscar-nominated performance to feature someone defecating in a sink at a bridal salon. And if that were to happen, McCarthy would totally deserve it. Though a Golden Globe nomination is much more likely all that's in the cards.

Carey Mulligan, Shame
Her co-star, Michael Fassbender, is deservedly getting a boatload of praise for his work in Steve McQueen's "Shame," but Carey Mulligan definitely warrants some her own. As Sissy, the troubled sister of Fassbender's equally troubled character, Mulligan gives a raw, uncompromising performance that stands in impressive contrast to her Oscar-nominated work in "An Education." It was an admirable move in what is likely to be a very long, award-winning career. And while "Shame" is more likely to nab Fassbender an Oscar nod than Mulligan, his performance wouldn't have worked so well if he didn't have such a capable co-star supporting him.

A scene from "We Need To Talk About Kevin."

Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin
In a perfect world, we'd be talking about "Kevin" as Swinton's likely third Oscar nomination in a row. But the Academy passed on Swinton's brilliant work in both "Julia" and "I Am Love," and it's possible they will again with her equally strong performance in Lynne Ramsay's "We Need To Talk About Kevin." Which would be quite the shame. As Eva, the mother of sociopathic boy that goes on a school shooting rampage, Swinton owns every horrifying frame and anchors a tense, challenging film that raises important questions about contemporary familial relationships. Whether she makes it to the Academy's shortlist or not, Swinton continued to make it clear she can do no wrong with "Kevin."

Manjinder Virk, The Arbor
Absolutely the least likely Oscar nominee among these 13, Manjinder Virk gave one of the most stunning performances ever by an actress in... a documentary. "The Arbor," Clio Barnard's experimental portrayal of late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, uses actors to dramatize her life by lip-syncing over recordings of interviews with Dunbar's family and friends. Virk plays Dunbar's troubled daughter Lorraine, who becomes the center of Barnard's story and a devastating development in Andrea Dunbar's post-death narrative. Given it's a British documentary that grossed $21,620 in the U.S., it's extraordinarily unlikely Virk will battle it out with Meryl Streep for Oscar glory. But maybe one of those documentary-specific award shows can create a new "acting" category.

Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Music Box Films has not officially set a date for Terence Davies's "The Deep Blue Sea," which it picked up out of the Toronto International Film Festival. But they have said it will at least receive an Academy qualifying run in December, which would clearly have one dominant purpose: To put into contention the phenomenal work of Rachel Weisz, who stars in "Sea" as the wife of a British judge caught in a self-destructive love affair with a Royal Air Force pilot. But one fears Weisz will get lost in a sea of more established contenders this late in the game, suffering the same fate of Gillian Anderson - a non-nominated hopeful for another Davies film, "The House of Mirth," back in 2000.

This article is related to: Academy Awards, Like Crazy