The 20 Overlooked Performances That Should (But Won’t) Get Oscar Nominations

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

Academy Award voters have until tomorrow at 5 p.m. to turn in their nomination ballots, and when the nominations are announced on January 16, there will be six whole weeks to cry and carp about who was robbed. The following list isn’t intended to remind voters that Amy Adams in American Hustle and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street deserve to be on their ballots. This is a list of performances that have a slim-to-none chance of being nominated. They’re already robbed.

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
When you see Isaac in a movie, you ask, who is that? He’s got an offbeat handsomeness. He’s ethnically ambiguous, and never going for too much. The Coen brothers cast him as the title character in their folk-scene comedy and got more, I think, than they could have predicted. What Isaac has goes beyond talent and skill (he has both). Llewyn is a narcissist and a snob. He’s self-sabotaging, too. But for reasons that have everything to do with what’s not on the page, you feel for him. What Isaac has is intangible: confidence, sexiness, comfort, soul, cool. It can’t be taught or learned, just harnessed and deployed. Inside Llewyn Davis would have worked without Isaac, but with him it’s a stronger movie. With him, it sings.

Alfre Woodard, 12 Years a Slave
Of all the devastating work done in this movie, the performance that stuck with me most is one of the briefest. Woodard appears for one scene in which her character — a slave turned plantation mistress — sits on a porch and explains how she acquired her comfortable position. Woodward applies lyricism and musicality that sting. This is a woman who has already wept and bled. What Woodard plays is the bitter flower that’s arisen from the scar.

Mickey Sumner, Frances Ha
My ambivalence about this movie never reached Sumner. She made Greta Gerwig’s diffidence make sense for as long as she was around. Sumner has a sad face that dark hair and horn-rim glasses only accentuate. But she performed with all the conviction that Gerwig used to stay in one spot (Gerwig is the flightiest comedian never to actually take off). I didn’t go into this movie thinking Sumner was much of an actor — Trudie Styler and Sting are her parents; it seemed to run in the family. Plus, I’d seen her aptly cast as Patti Smith in CBGB, nearly the worst movie of last year. But I left thinking she had strong presence. That appears to run in the family, too.

Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Colman Domingo, Lee Daniels’ The Butler
So much about this movie is so loopy. But the historical absurdism in the White House is never upstaged by the camaraderie among the men providing the service. They all help relax Forest Whitaker’s rigidity. Gooding supplies the obscenity, Kravitz the steadiness, and Domingo, in another part of the house, a dab of queeny snobbiness. The temperature of any Daniels movie is hot, but with these three he generates something that’s almost better: warmth.

Julianne Moore, Don Jon
Maybe we’re still recovering from the 30 Rock accent, maybe we know too well all the tics (the stammering, the open-mouth dry-heave crying jag). But we’re taking this woman’s general excellence for granted. She’s so good so often that it’s starting not to mean anything. That’s a crime. This year, she was good in two so-so movies (What Maisie Knew and Carrie) and brilliant in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s more than so-so Don Jon. It didn’t seem like a promising character: a single, middle-aged night-school stoner. But Moore gave the part all her sensuousness and wise humor. When she shows Gordon-Levitt how to make love to her, you’re not noticing her actorly technique. You’re taking notes.

Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon and Her
I don’t like that we’re calling her “ScarJo.” When you’ve got talent, a name like that cheapens your aura. Elizabeth Taylor detested being called Liz. (JLaw, beware!) With Johansson, the nickname obscures how much better she’s gotten. This is the rare actress who, in a decade or so, has traveled from arguably overrated to severely underrated. She spent a season doing Arthur Miller on Broadway and became a creatively richer performer who, in Don Jon, understood how to use her body and, in Her, dared to work without it. In Jonathan Glazer’s upcoming Under the Skin it’s back to being physical, but soulfully, inventively. Still, it’s thrilling to think that Johansson’s voice might be body enough.

Toni Servillo, The Great Beauty
It’s possible you’re reading this name and thinking I have no idea who that is. Stop reading this right now and find his photo, not accepting an award (he has a few), but in character. Actually, just watch him work — as part of the ensemble in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah or any of the five movies he’s made with Paolo Sorrentino, including this one. Servillo plays a jaundiced socialite turned self-satirizing novelist amid morally decayed Roman aristocracy. Observant boredom shouldn’t be this acrobatic. But Servillo is the sort of great, appetizing actor who seems like he’s in motion even when he’s standing still.

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Sure, Cate Blanchett: from here to eternity. Her crackpot head case was simply the most magnificent contribution to Woody Allen’s mostly magnificent movie. (It has really grown on me.) But Hawkins matches Blanchett’s fragility with steeliness and brittleness of her own. She has a masterly hotel-room scene with Andrew Dice Clay (who’s very good, too) that turns sitcom into sensual theater. With Blanchett, Hawkins’s coquettishness dissipates. She’s breathless, windswept, and flummoxed, this small town leveled again by a tornado.

Cameron Diaz, The Counselor
Alex Pappademas has already paid her a great tribute. But I pray the movies let Diaz stay around whatever corner she turned as the secret puppet master in this roundly rejected, instantly underappreciated Cormac McCarthy/Ridley Scott horror-comedy. She gave her sexiness and comedy a hard, lacquered finish, going crazy without going too far. Even as she made love to a car windshield, she had all the control. That’s what was so exhilarating about her here. Our pulse went up because hers didn’t.

Jon Bernthal, Snitch, Grudge Match, The Wolf of Wall Street
The first time I noticed Bernthal in a movie, he was playing Ewan McGregor’s overeager literary agent in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, and he wasn’t that good. He didn’t know how to handle the lines. But he had something — an unusually handsome face (his nose looks like it’s still broken) and an athlete’s charisma. When he popped up opposite Dwayne Johnson in Snitch as an ex-con dragged, nobly, back into crime, I couldn’t believe it was the same actor. Bernthal brought gentleness and texture to a part that didn’t need either. He did the same as the son of Kim Basinger and an estranged Robert De Niro in Grudge Match and as a risibly macho drug dealer in The Wolf of Wall Street.

In all three movies, he could be a variation on a goon, but he locates the person in the part, even in a cartoon like his Long Island pusher (right now he’s playing a gangster in TNT’s Mob City; he was Al Capone in the second Night at the Museum and also spent two seasons on The Walking Dead). I’ve come to love Bernthal in these movies because he seems to go beyond what’s necessary in order to reach what’s true for him as an actor. He also looks like he comes from somewhere, ethnically and class-wise. He’s like Oscar Isaac that way: suddenly incapable of not making a movie more interesting.

Dwayne Johnson, Pain & Gain
The awards people might be forgetting the complexity of his performance in Michael Bay’s caper comedy. I haven’t. Initially, it seemed he was going for a send-up of himself. But he took his juiced-up, coked-out idiot bodybuilder to the fun house. He’s the tragicomedy the rest of the movie can’t live up to. There’s a sequence in which he’s tasked to help dispose of bodies, and his high-energy nincompoopery distracts from the gratuitous grossness of the scene. Johnson is an action star — a good one (I liked him a lot driving a semi, in terror, for one tense scene in Snitch). But there’s more to him than that. This is it.

Matthew McConaughey, The Wolf of Wall Street
He has only one scene in this movie. But it’s crucial. He has to seduce Leonardo DiCaprio’s finance-industry rookie into a life of addiction and corruption and make us see what a young broker would see in him. He flutters his hands and drums on his chest and moans the film’s caveman theme song, all while laying out the terms of malfeasance that set the movie’s gluttonous tone. It’s hard to mistake his macho grandiloquence and the maniacal greed it provokes as anything but absurdism. McConaughey’s probably Oscar-bound for fighting AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. But I’ll always take him doing Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now over Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

Paula Patton, Baggage Claim
Is this another opportunity to write about how much I love Patton? Well, this is me taking advantage of it. This movie wasn’t a hit. I heard it was terrible. That’s not the movie I saw. I saw a romantic comedy that Patton rode like a bronco. She has a great movie ditz’s sense of timing and respiration, and even in crap, it’s something to see. At the risk of endorsing remakes, is anybody doing Private Benjamin? Would those people please hurry up and put Patton in it?

Yolanda Ross and Edward James Olmos, Go for Sisters
You can rethink blaxploitation a dozen ways. John Sayles’s approach is to treat the genre as it elementally is: action movies born of social reality. Doing so lets Ross, as an ex-con, and Olmos, as a beached LAPD detective, explore characters instead of attitudes. Ross’s bodaciousness isn’t the first thing you notice. First, it’s how contrition mellows the hard edges of her face. Then you notice that this woman is all charisma. Olmos is still — still! — being asked to play Mexicali gangsters (he acquitted himself with menace in Two Guns). This was an emotional vacation. He’s dour and craggy and put-out, but he’s in the kind of foul mood only a veteran could humorously sustain. He’s following the plot, but he’s playing a moment of regret.

Rooney Mara, Jude Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Side Effects
Steven Soderbergh’s movie was too frigid to be a bigger hit than it was. All that chill came straight from the women, while Law, who had a good time working with Soderbergh, tries to understand why it’s so cold. Mara is the sort of actor who can seem like she’s acting inside a coffin. Here that’s a strategy rather than a pose. And Zeta-Jones is a star who’s really good with deviousness. When she’s not doing musicals, she should do mischief. The movie’s about Big Pharma shell games. Had this movie come out three weeks ago, we might be talking about these three the way we’re talking about another group of actors. This was an American hustle, too.

Filed Under: Academy Awards, Cameron Diaz, Dwayne Johnson, Inside Llewyn Davis, Jude Law, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Scarlett Johansson