Sometimes (OK, frequently) the Academy drops the ball. Cary Grant gave his fair share of pantheon performances (“His Girl Friday,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Awful Truth”), none of which garnered him a nomination for Best Actor (he was instead honored for “Penny Serenade” and “None But the Lonely Heart”). Ingrid Bergman’s work in “Casablanca,” “Notorious” and “Stromboli” was similarly ignored. This year’s Oscar candidates are no different, and with that in mind, here are the 15 best performances from the current acting nominees that weren’t nominated for an Oscar.
Patricia Arquette, “Lost Highway” (1997)
“Lost Highway” is sometimes overshadowed by David Lynch’s later masterpiece “Mulholland Drive,” but it’s a rewarding film in its own right, a nightmarish look at repressed guilt, barely-hidden jealousy and self-deception. Arquette (giving a canny double-performance as unfaithful wife Renee and gangster’s moll Alice) is simultaneously the most assured and the most vulnerable of the film’s central characters, a woman who’s at the mercy of violent men but who’s able to manipulate others into fighting for her. In one of the film’s most (deliberately) uncomfortable scenes, a fresh-faced Alice strips at gunpoint for Robert Loggia’s vicious mobster, and her silent terror slowly turns to a facade of confidence and assertiveness, a persona to help her survive.
Steve Carell, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005)
The Academy doesn’t often nominate actors for great comic performances, much less great comic performances in broad, mainstream movies. It’s a shame, because Steve Carell’s work in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is a good deal more nuanced than his one-note caricature of American aristocracy in “Foxcatcher.” As the titular virgin Andy Stitzer, Carell is as good-natured as he is goofy, a nerd whose hilariously stilted attempts at playing a sexist (“She was a ho. Fo sho.”) only underline his fundamental sweetness. Carell’s straight-faced commitment to Andy’s sexual and emotional immaturity is what makes the film both a funny and unexpectedly sensitive, sincere comedy.
Marion Cotillard, “The Immigrant” (2013/2014)
Cotillard was nominated this year for her great work in the Dardennes’ “Two Days, One Night,” but she’s equally terrific in James Gray’s gorgeous melodrama “The Immigrant,” which might have earned her an Oscar nomination had it been released in 2013 (as originally expected) and had it been promoted by distributor Harvey Weinstein. Cotillard never turns Ewa into a simple victim. She’s desperate, but not powerless, with the actress bringing a mixture of pragmatism, shame and pride to her character. By accepting Bruno’s (Joaquin Phoenix) work for her as a prostitute, she’s doing what she has to do, and she’s deeply sorry for her sins, but she’s unwilling to accept that she doesn’t deserve better, and by the time she reaches the film’s final scene, she finds measures of forgiveness and humility previously unhinted at. Gray’s film constantly redefines what it wants us to think of its characters, but it wouldn’t be possible without Cotillard’s emotionally expressive and dynamic work.
Benedict Cumberbatch, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
Cumberbatch earned an Oscar nomination this year for his too-mannered work as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” which turns a complicated man into a simplistic Asperger’s-afflicted movie genius whose homosexuality is less a part of his being than an inspirational theme. The adaptation of John le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” sees a much more restrained performance from Cumberbatch as a man hiding in plain sight. His character, Peter Guillam, seems petrified at all turns, but a key scene reveals that it’s as much because of his repressed homosexuality, which could ruin him, as it is the fear of a double agent in British Intelligence. It’s quietly devastating work, and it stands as Cumberbatch’s best film performance to date.
Laura Dern, “Citizen Ruth” (1996)
Laura Dern was so skilled at playing fundamentally sweet people (“Blue Velvet,” “Wild at Heart,” “Rambling Rose”) that her work in Alexander Payne’s acerbic “Citizen Ruth” came as a genuine shock to the few who saw it in its initial release. There’s no vanity or attempts to ingratiate herself in Dern’s performance here: Ruth is a rude, foul-mouthed fuck-up (“Suck the shit outta my ass, you fucker!”) prone to blatantly money-hungry ploys and irresponsible behavior, like huffing paint and drinking while she’s still deciding whether or not to keep her baby. But while she’s far from a good person, she’s the only one in this pro-choice/pro-life satire who’s genuinely struggling to make the right choice, and Dern and Payne never condescend to her even when she’s a grimy-looking glue-sniffer.
Robert Duvall, “MASH” (1970)
“MASH” is a very funny movie, but one of the funniest performances in the film comes from someone who hardly cracks a smile. Duvall’s deeply religious Major Frank Burns is a self-righteous jerk, someone who blames his mistakes on others (or cites the will of God). This makes him the perfect target for the irreverent surgeons Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould), especially when his affair with “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is discovered. To Duvall’s credit, however, he never plays Burns as a cartoon of the religious right or of military hypocrisy, but as a flawed, taciturn man unwavering in his convictions. He’s a total straight man in the middle of all the smartass hijinks, and “MASH” is much funnier because of it.
Michael Keaton, “Beetlejuice” (1988)
Keaton actually looked like he was on his way to an Oscar nomination back in 1988 after he won the National Society of Film Critics Award for his performances in “Clean and Sober” and “Beetlejuice.” His superb work as a nervy, guilt-ridden drug addict in the former film was the more likely candidate, but he’s even better as the the live-action Tex Avery cartoon Beetlejuice. As the titular character, he’s all raging id, acting like a demonic used car salesman, talking and moving so fast that it’s hard to keep up with him. Keaton has plenty of great moments in his underrated career, but none as indelible as Beetlejuice zipping through his ghostly qualifications, starting mock mild-mannered and becoming increasingly, hilariously deranged.
Julianne Moore, “Safe” (1995)
Moore is arguably the finest American actress of the past 20 years, but her best work didn’t get so much as a Golden Globe or SAG nomination, let alone an Oscar. As a housewife who develops an apparent allergy to her very environment, Moore gives one of the most bravely blank performances in the history of American movies. Even before her ailment starts wearing her defenses down, Carol White seems vacant and unsure of herself, incapable of being assertive or ordering food without depending on the decisions of others. She’s been denied a personal identity, so she’s unable to form one whether she’s surrounded by possessions or tucked away in the country, listening to testimonies of other people suffering from the same disease. Moore can break down as well as any actor, but she’s at her best here when being told she’s loved or that she needs to love herself, with her uncertain response telling us that she has no sense of self.
Edward Norton, “25th Hour” (2002)
“Fight Club” fans might protest, but while Norton’s terrific as the enjoyably snarky narrator of that cult classic, his best performance is in Spike Lee’s moody, melancholy drama. As Monty Brogan, Norton is an unrepentant jerk and a drug dealer who lashes out at the people who care about him and doesn’t seem to mind that he’s caused them pain. Yet Norton plays Monty as someone who knows, deep down, that he fucked up, that there’s no way for him to escape his prison sentence, and that he shouldn’t. In a show-stopping monologue, Norton bitterly blames his problems on everyone around him, from the citizens of New York to his own father, only to realize that he’s the one who blew it.
Rosamund Pike, “An Education” (2009)
“Gone Girl” gave Rosamund Pike the breakout role she’s deserve for a long time, but it’s not her first great performance by any means. Though “An Education” mostly served as a star-is-born role for Carey Mulligan, Pike shines in a small but vital role as the girlfriend to Dominic Cooper, who plays the best friend and right-hand man to Peter Sarsgaard’s duplicitous charmer. Pike’s character isn’t bright, but Pike doesn’t condescend to the character. Rather, she’s plays someone who’s constantly listening to the people around her without understanding – listening to Mulligan say “it’s too expensive for me” in French, not understanding, then not understanding when Mulligan explains she said it in French. It’s shows that playing dumb requires actors to be just as in-the-moment as playing smart, and it’s an early sign that Pike was on her way to great things.
Mark Ruffalo, “You Can Count On Me” (2000)
Ruffalo’s “You Can Count On Me” co-star Laura Linney earned a richly-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her work as the high-strung single mother Sammy Prescott, but he’s every bit as good as her aimless brother. As Terry, he’s as pessimistic and grouchy as his sister is faithful and kind, but as the film continues, Terry shows a good-humored rapport with his nephew (Rory Culkin) that shows his goodness in spite of how deliberately caustic he can be. What’s more, “You Can Count On Me” establishes Ruffalo’s gift for shaggy, low-key charm, something that he’s demonstrated time and time again since. It all started with his breakthrough performance here.
J.K. Simmons, the “Spider-Man” series (2002/2004/2007)
Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” aside, performances in superhero movies don’t often get honored by awards bodies. It’s a shame, because it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Daily Bugle editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson better than J.K. Simmons. Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” films benefit from deliberately heightened performances, and nowhere is this clearer than in Simmons’ cartoon of a brash, constantly-barking newsman who’s more concerned with sales than truth. Simmons’ ability to turn on a dime is put to great use here, whether he’s deciding to put Spider-Man on page one because the paper is selling out or he changes from contrite to outraged when the web head steals back his costume from the Bugle offices.
Emma Stone, “Easy A” (2010)
Emma Stone gave memorable supporting turns in “Superbad” and “Zombieland,” but her ascension to stardom was completed with her winning performance in “Easy A.” Stone is the much-needed dose of sincerity needed to balance out Will Gluck’s too self-aware tendencies (which proved fatal in his remake of “Annie”), a young woman who finds that taking charge of her sexuality can be difficult in an environment that views female sexuality as taboo. Stone is both deeply vulnerable and, when she’s pretending to be promiscuous, the most confident presence on the screen, someone who’s navigating a minefield by dancing millimeters away from the mines. Her final monologue ultimately guides the film past its creakier moments to a fervently feminist ending, which declares that who with, where and when she decides to have sex is “nobody’s goddamn business.”
Meryl Streep, “Defending Your Life” (1991)
There are Meryl Streep performances that haven’t been nominated? Strange but true. After a seemingly endless run from 1978 to 1990 that saw her honored a whopping nine times, the Academy took a four-year Meryl break. While some might cite her performance in the Robert Zemeckis film “Death Becomes Her” as a highlight from this period, her most underrated performance is in the Albert Brooks romantic-comedy/fantasy “Defending Your Life,” in which she plays a woman whom Brooks meets and falls in love with while awaiting judgment to enter Heaven. Streep was known primarily for heavily-accented dramatic work at the time, but “Defending Your Life” sees her at her most naturalistic and open in a tricky role – she’s playing no less than the living embodiment of human joy and kindness. Streep has gone back to the comedy well many times since, to the point where her work in “It’s Complicated” and “Mamma Mia!” is more a collection of “effervescent” tics than anything else. But she’s spectacularly unmannered here, her cheerful slurping of spaghetti a reminder of a rare instance where she was ignored for a great performance instead of nominated for mediocre ones (cough “Into the Woods” cough cough “August: Osage County”).
Reese Witherspoon, “Election” (1999)
Probably the most baffling omission on this list, Witherspoon was pegged for an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her career-best work in “Election” (she likely missed out in favor of Meryl Streep’s shrug-worthy work in “Music of the Heart”). No matter: Witherspoon is rarely better than when her naturally plucky screen presence is twisted for darker means (see also: “Freeway”), and nowhere is that more clear than her performance as the almost transcendentally annoying Tracy Flick. The ultimate overachieving student, Flick’s drive for success is less ambition than pathology, and Witherspoon’s every cold glare and darted word works simultaneously as an exaltation of her own hard-working nature and as a bitter condemnation of anyone who has success handed to them on a silver platter, regardless of whether or not that’s true. She is campaign speech and political backbiting incarnate, and she’s the future of America.