It seems to be a consensus among critics and moviegoers that 2013 had an embarrassment of cinematic riches, and with Oscar nominations set to be announced this coming Thursday, the field is already overloaded.
The acting races are particularly competitive this year – I can think of nine performances that all have a good shot at being nominated for Best Actor.
There are a few shoo-ins – Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”), Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Michael Fassbender (“12 Years a Slave”) and most of the cast from “American Hustle” – but there’s still a lot left up in the air. After all, how do you pare down a stable of award-worthy performances to five and not leave out someone deserving?
I’ve gone through the list of 2013’s best acting work and have picked a handful of excellent performances that deserve Oscar recognition but likely won’t get it: Either these actors don’t have an aggressive media blitz behind them, or they’ve simply been crowded out by other, bigger names. All of these performances (with one glaring exception) are defined by subtlety, and maybe that caused them to fade into the background. Still, they all deserve another shout-out.
• Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight” – Richard Linklater’s “Before” series has had a lot of praise heaped upon it, but it’s only ever received one Oscar nomination, for the screenplay of 2005’s “Before Sunset.” That script was a collaboration between Linklater and the movie’s stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, whose performances deserve as much recognition as their writing. Very few actors are given the chance to develop their characters as extensively as Hawke and Delpy, playing two characters who grow and change with the actors over long stretches of time. The last hour of “Before Midnight” is essentially an acting showcase for the two of them, when we see every peak and trough in these characters’ shared histories. It’s about time their onscreen work got some recognition from the Academy.
• Ad è le Exarchopoulos, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” – One of the most remarkable breakout performances in recent years, Adèle Exarchopoulos was only 18 and had just a few acting credits to her name when she was cast in Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial, Palme d’Or-winning coming-of-age drama “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” In a movie that could have easily devolved into pretentious art-house nonsense, Exarchopoulos’ authentic performance, which spans several years in the life of her character, grounds us firmly in reality. It’s the kind of work that usually doesn’t get recognized by the Oscars – it isn’t showy or heavy on theatrics, and Exarchopoulos spends as much time quietly observing as she does emoting – but we come to understand who she is and how she sees the world around her.
• Greta Gerwig, “Frances Ha” – In the hands of anyone else, the title character of Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” could have been an obnoxious, vacuous, one-note caricature, the sort of airhead hipster stereotype we’ve seen a thousand times before. But as played by Greta Gerwig, the film’s co-writer, Frances becomes a warm, sympathetic and vulnerable human being. She’s not an easy character to pigeonhole: She’s a flighty 20-something who needs to be whacked upside the head with reality, and there are as many moments when we’re enraptured by her presence as there are moments when we’re frustrated by it. But that’s the beauty of the character, and Gerwig, who has played variations on this role before but never so effectively, is the reason “Frances Ha” works as effortlessly as it does.
• Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale Station” – When “Fruitvale Station” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival early last year, its star, Michael B. Jordan (“The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights”) had a lot of buzz surrounding his performance as a troubled 22-year-old on the last day of his life. Now he seems to have been lost in the shuffle, and that’s really too bad. Playing Oscar Grant, a San Francisco resident who was gunned down by police officers in 2008, Jordan isn’t afraid to show us every side of the character, warts and all – at one point he’s the portrait of intimidation, the next he’s a selfless nurturer. Jordan’s work here is quietly illuminating, and like all of the performances mentioned previously, it’s made up of small, intimate moments that add up to something much more enlightening.
• Brie Larson, “Short Term 12” – Although writer-director Destin Crettin’s “Short Term 12” is showing up on a number of critics’ year-end lists, Brie Larson’s central performance in the film is being unfortunately overlooked for major awards consideration. Larson, 24, plays a staff member at a foster home for neglected kids – she’s bright, funny, in a seemingly stable relationship with a co-worker – and Larson peels away the layers of her character to reveal deep wounds from her past that aren’t apparent on the surface. Her interactions with the kids in her care are the heart and soul of the movie, elevating a story that could have been a cheap afterschool special into something approaching transcendence.
• Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now” – Another Sundance darling, James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now” is a perceptive teenage drama about the unlikely romance that blossoms between an extroverted teenage alcoholic (Miles Teller) and a shy honors student (Shailene Woodley). The movie subverts a number of stereotypes and clichés – it’s closer to John Hughes than, say, “Beverly Hills, 90210” – and much of the credit goes to the actors: They’re smart kids facing dire circumstances, and these young actors bring more compassion and warmth to their roles than most adults in big budget Hollywood romances. Woodley was previously overlooked by the Academy for her rich work in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants;” let’s hope this doesn’t become a trend.
• James Franco, “Spring Breakers” – I don’t totally understand what Harmony Korine was up to in his DayGlo nightmare “Spring Breakers,” which felt to me like an arresting short film stretched into a baffling, repetitious feature. But then about 45 minutes in, James Franco shows up and breathes life into the movie as a wannabe rapper named Alien. It’s the sort of heedless, go-for-broke, scenery-chewing performance the Academy loves to reward, but my bet is the movie itself will go so far over the voters’ heads that they won’t even consider it. Is the movie itself worth watching? I don’t really think so, but if there is a reason to see it, it’s James Franco.
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