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For your consideration: this season's most overlooked film performances

The Guardian logo The Guardian 09/01/2020 Guy Lodge

Getty © Getty Getty Academy awards voting opened last week, and runs for just six days: the shortest period of balloting ever, characteristic of a squeezed season that will end unprecedentedly early, when the Oscar ceremony takes place on 9 February. That’s good news for the established acting frontrunners – hotly hyped contenders like Renee Zellweger, Adam Driver and Brad Pitt have less distance to run in a marathon that can often trip up sure things in the final leg, as voters have more time to consider their alternatives (Just ask Glenn Close). It’s bad news, however, for the dark horses and rank outsiders of the race: already up against it with limited publicity and precursor awards attention, and now given just a few days to pray that voters pick their screeners up off the pile and are wowed by their unheralded brilliance.

With that in mind, here are ten worthy names that currently aren’t widely predicted to be nominated. Some are just on the fringes, while others are pick-in-the-sky dream picks – but all of them merit your attention.

Alfre Woodard, Clemency

Obviously, “overlooked” is a flexible term: Alfre Woodard has been nominated for an Independent Spirit award for her career-crowning role as a morally tortured Death Row warden in Chinonye Chukwu’s searing chamber drama, while she and her co-star Aldis Hodge – also superb as the condemned man spurring her internal agony – were both nominated for Gotham awards at the outset of the season. That’s not nothing. But they’ve both been largely frozen out of the Oscar conversation, following a lack of interest from other precursors and critics’ awards. That’s criminal in the case of Woodard in particular, who may give the year’s greatest performance by an American actor: a masterclass in restraint and from-the-inside-out character breakdown, etching every minute stage of her character’s incremental self-reckoning in the twitch of an eyelid or the tremble of a lip. This shouldn’t have been a hard get: Woodard is a respected previous Oscar nominee, long deserving of greater recognition, headlining a film that won Sundance’s top prize, backed by hot distributor Neon, which is currently working campaign wonders with Parasite. Is her work too subtle? Is the film too despairing? Was late December simply too late to release a slow-building indie? All are likely factors in Woodard’s strange lack of traction, but here’s hoping for an eleventh-hour surge.

Franz Rogowski, Transit

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 17:  Franz Rogowskiv is seen at the 'Transit' press conference during the 68th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 17, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images) © Getty BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 17: Franz Rogowskiv is seen at the 'Transit' press conference during the 68th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 17, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images) This could be the year that Joaquin Phoenix finally takes the Best Actor Oscar for his strident, elastic supervillain in Joker: he wouldn’t be unworthy, but it’s worth noting that the actor often cited as Phoenix’s European doppelganger deserves the prize a little more this year. Truth be told, Rogowski and Phoenix don’t much resemble each other beyond their respective harelips; it’s more the rising German star’s quietly concentrated, wound-up intensity that evokes his American elder, and it’s put to exquisitely anxious use in Christian Petzold’s brilliant, audaciously era-mixing refugee drama. As a German Jew seeking to flee a desolate Marseilles that is at once Nazi-occupied and entirely contemporary-looking, his darting, internally bruised characterisation can take much of the credit for pulling off the tricky political double consciousness of Petzold’s experiment.

Gallery: Actors and actresses who've never won an Oscar or Golden Globe (StarsInsider)

Cho Yeo-jeong, Parasite

Bong Joon-ho’s universally adored Palme d’Or winner (and unexpectedly potent best picture threat) has been widely hailed as a perfectly integrated ensemble piece – to the point that it even scored a best ensemble nomination from the generally insular Screen Actors’ Guild, only the second non-English-language film ever to do so. A deft and balanced team effort it may be, but that has also prevented many from differentiating its exemplary individual contributors: the Academy traditionally has a blind spot when it comes to Asian actors, and it’d be a shame if that continued this year. Song Kang-ho’s wily, impoverished patriarch won the LA critics’ supporting award and has an outside shot at an Oscar nod, but I’d be even more thrilled (and considerably more surprised) to see recognition for Cho’s canny, drily perceptive turn as a privileged trophy wife whose gentleness and callous cluelessness wrestle for dominance inside her. Rather like her character, it’s a performance that’s easy to dismiss without a closer look: Bong’s film isn’t morally one-sided in its class war, and her oddly sympathetic vacuity is instrumental to that tension.

Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgard attending the world premiere of The Aftermath, held at the Picturehouse Central Cinema, London (Photo by Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images) © Getty Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgard attending the world premiere of The Aftermath, held at the Picturehouse Central Cinema, London (Photo by Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images) Jason Clarke, The Aftermath

The Aftermath was released back in the doldrums of March, and has barely been spoken of since. There’s a reason for that: a handsome, lightly swoony post-WWII soap opera set in Allied-occupied Hamburg, James Kent’s film is a pretty rainy-day diversion, but utterly unremarkable outside of its truly luscious silk-and-knitwear wardrobe. Oh, and then there’s Jason Clarke, the reliable Aussie stalwart who may take the year’s prize for Most Memorable Performance In An Unmemorable Movie. As a grief-stoking, stiff-upper-lipped British army colonel paralysed between stoic military duty and emotional obligation to his wife (Keira Knightley) – at the very moment she falls for their dishy German housemate, dishily played by Alexander Skarsgard 3– he’s both perfectly mannered and intensely moving in a role that hearkens back to many a sidelined Other Guy figure from 1940s melodrama: squint a bit, and it’s not too hard to imagine a Trevor Howard in the role, thanks in large part to Clarke’s gracefully repressed delivery.

Fernanda Montenegro, Invisible Life

Back in the 1998 race, Gwyneth Paltrow’s widely derided best actress win over then-revelation Cate Blanchett rather obscured the unlikely presence of the most deserving nominee: veteran Brazilian stage actress Fernanda Montenegro, improbably nominated for a rare screen lead in the Portuguese-language festival hit Central Station. She seemed like one of the Academy’s occasional international outreach beneficiaries who probably wouldn’t ever be invited to the ball again. That’ll probably remain the case, but she sure as hell deserves another shot for her piercing, film-binding cameo in the ravishing melodrama Invisible Life, Brazil’s unjustly overlooked submission for the foreign-language Oscar. Now 90, the actress turns up as a key character’s elder incarnation in the film’s final stages, bearings deep reserves of accumulated sadness and regret in her creviced expression and clear but fragile line readings. You will weep.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp and Victor Garber attend "Dark Waters" New York Premiere at Walter Reade Theater on November 12, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage) © Getty NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp and Victor Garber attend "Dark Waters" New York Premiere at Walter Reade Theater on November 12, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage) Bill Camp, Dark Waters

Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters has been more or less invisible all season, despite rock-solid credentials – Haynes himself, a high-end cast including Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins, a true story about environmental crime and underdog legal warfare that sounds on paper like Oscar Bait 101 – and approving reviews. Perhaps it never quite recovered from a deceptively dour trailer that had the queer Carol director’s auteurist acolytes wondering why he’d make something so drably procedural-looking. It’s a shame, since the film turned out to be immaculately directed and deeply stirring. Had it landed a bit less quietly, perhaps its secret weapon, Bill Camp, would be the best supporting actor frontrunner he deserves to be. One of America’s most dependable and undersung character actors, he’s lacerating as the film’s wounded soul and gruff conscience: a West Virginia cattle farmer who calls out the literally poisonous influence of the DuPont chemical corporation on his land and community. It’s a role that could be played as a salt-of-the-earth victim, but adopting a thick, brusque regional vernacular and bristling body language, Camp finds of a more striking, disruptive voice for the voiceless.

Constance Wu, Hustlers

From the day it premiered to gleeful acclaim at Toronto, Jennifer Lopez has been the headline attraction of Lorene Scafaria’s richly enjoyable, woman-powered true-crime yarn: her luxuriantly fur-draped diva stripper was declared an Oscar contender from day one, and deservedly so. That’s all well and good, but one can’t help feeling for the film’s actual leading lady, Constance Wu, who’s been largely left out of the discussion. As go-along girl turned fraught conscience of the story’s sordid patriarchy-smashing scam, she’s vital to the film’s fine threading of the needle between raucous comedy and ethically weighted tragedy – particularly in its framing of latter-day scenes, where her prickly, self-revising account of events doesn’t speak of lessons learned so much as questions never asked. That, and she nails one of the film’s most vivid, appallingly funny feats of physical performance: panicked and oblivious, running her daughter to school in a blood-stained boob tube and precarious go-go boots. J.Lo’s fab, but her dignity is never quite so tested.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 30: Actor Baykali Ganambarr poses for portrait at SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations with "The Nightingale" at SAG-AFTRA Foundation on July 30, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images) © Getty LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 30: Actor Baykali Ganambarr poses for portrait at SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations with "The Nightingale" at SAG-AFTRA Foundation on July 30, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images) Baykali Ganambarr, The Nightingale

The Venice film festival’s Marcello Mastroianni Award for young actors has christened a few stars in its time, landing upon Gael Garcia Bernal and Jennifer Lawrence early in their careers. One can only hope it bring some good fortune to its 2018 recipient, Aboriginal dancer and first-time actor Baykali Ganambarr, who’s unlikely to be winning any other prizes for his captivating performance in Jennifer Kent’s challenging, divisive follow-up to The Babadook. As an indigenous tracker reluctantly roped into a young Irish widow’s revenge mission against the English colonial soldiers who killed her husband and child, he’s often the lifeline of humanity in a film of punishing anger and spiritual corruption – yet he never plays the role as a straightforward naif or victim, imposing a raw, rueful awareness of difference into proceedings every time it threatens to become a united buddy story.

Elizabeth Debicki, Vita and Virginia

An awards plea for a performance as Virginia Woolf? 17 years after Nicole Kidman’s fine, duly Oscar-garnished work in The Hours, do we need to go there again? Willowy Australian star Debicki makes a strong case for doing so. A reliably strange and bewitching screen presence ever since her best-in-show turn in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, she’s ideally cast here, capturing both Woolf’s touched, otherworldly quality and a sharp current of sensual desire that entirely distinguishes her performance from Kidman’s more rigid, nervy interpretation. Sadly, it’s gone largely unnoticed. Focused more on Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, gamely but less fascinatingly played by Gemma Arterton, Chanya Button’s distinctively stylised but uneven biopic never quite found its audience back in the summer – leaving Debicki, who likewise deserved Oscar attention for Widows last year – once more on the outside looking in.

Stephen Graham, The Irishman

Joe Pesci and Al Pacino’s names were both pretty much written in ink as best supporting actor nominees when Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic started screening, with the real question being whether either man could overcome internal competition to take the gold. Pesci leads in terms of precursor awards, though Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is the heftier, more flamboyant (and arguably co-leading) role – and that veteran rivalry has effective pushed an equally deserving but less widely recognised third contender out of the running. Stephen Graham’s unassuming but punchy power may be well-known to his British compatriots — and indeed to Scorsese, who cast him in Gangs of New York way back when – but to many he was a riotous revelation as “Tony Pro” Provenzano, the brash, shorts-sporting Teamster who gets Hoffa’s goat in memorable style. Graham aces the film’s most wicked stabs of comedy, at no cost to his character’s seamy undercurrent of danger. It won’t land him an Oscar, but here’s hoping Hollywood casting agents pricked up their ears.

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