Awards season has officially kicked into high gear with almost a dozen movies being considered Oscar frontrunners and numerous actors’ performances being heralded as the ones to beat, but you know what? There are a lot of great performances in smaller movies that maybe didn’t get as much attention as they deserved and that should be watched before filling out those ballots.
I have 13 performance suggestions that award voters should check out and keep in mind while filling out their ballots this year. Some of these movies played the festival circuit last year but didn’t get a theatrical release until this year, so they all should count.
Geza Rohrig in Son of Saul
It probably makes sense to start with the least known of the bunch: Géza Röhrig anchors Lázló Nemes’ Holocaust drama, which got a lot of attention when it first played at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and has gotten kudos throughout the festival season. Nemes’ film takes place almost in real-time, and Röhrig is in almost every single frame. With the movie thought to be the frontrunner in the Oscar Foreign Language category, it will be interesting to see if Röhrig, who has been a poet and teacher in New York for 15 years, might get more offers to act after this movie.
Nina Hoss in Phoenix
Some might remember the German Ms. Hoss from the political thriller A Most Wanted Man opposite the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but her performance in this World War II thriller about a singer who returns to Berlin after having facial reconstructive surgery, trying to connect with her former husband who betrayed her to the Nazis, is outstanding. The movie didn’t get nearly as much attention on the festival circuit as others, but it’s currently sitting with a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, it didn’t receive Germany’s support as its Oscar selection for the past two years, so it remains a hidden gem driven by Hoss’ performance.
Gong Li in Coming Home
Similarly, who knows why the latest film from Zhang Yimou hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as his previous films? Maybe it was the fact that China didn’t pick it as its Oscar choice last year and then Sony Pictures Classics waited more than a year after its festival premiere before giving it a low-key release. The fact that Gong Li has never been nominated for an Oscar despite her amazing performances in director Zhang’s previous films Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and The Curse of the Golden Flower prove that she is more than due. Although it’s unlikely that Sony Classics will even send this film to Oscar voters.
Ben Mendelsohn in Mississippi Grind and Slow West
Admittedly, I’ve been a member of the Mendelsohn fan club for years, ever since I first saw him in the Australian crime-drama Animal Kingdom. He’s always impressed me with his ability to embody whatever character he’s playing, including his role on the Netflix drama Bloodline, for which he received an Emmy nomination. He’s been in a number of movies this year, and his characters in these two movies couldn’t be more different—he plays Gerry, a sad sack gambling addict in the former and a boisterous bounty hunter in the latter, giving two sides of an actor who really should be getting more attention and probably will.
Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind
Whether or not you’re into the slow-moving vibe of Oren Moverman’s drama about a homeless man trying to reconnect with his daughter, it includes one of Gere’s most daring performances in years. Gere threw himself so much into this character that he could walk around New York while filming without being noticed, but it really confirms that he remains one of the top dramatic actors especially in the scenes where he has no dialogue whatsoever. It’s shocking that he’s yet to be nominated for a single Oscar.
Paul Dano in Love and Mercy
Paul Dano got a lot of attention for his supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood but fell just short of any of the major awards. And his casting as the younger Brian Wilson in this drama from director Bill Pohlad (also written by Oren Moverman, oddly enough) is nothing short of brilliant. He has just the right demeanor to play Wilson to the point that when he’s slotted into recreations of classic Beach Boys videos, and you barely realize it’s him. Also the fact that he just won the Gotham Award for his performance on Monday night should only buoy his chances.
Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl
One of the big breakouts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival was this adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel from actor-turned-director Marianne Heller, which mostly got attention for the daring performance by newcomer Bel Powley. Although she hasn’t quite gotten the buzz of Jennifer Lawrence or Carey Mulligan after their Oscar-nominated performances in Winter’s Bone and An Education, it’s a daring performance featuring a number of intimate scenes with Alexander Skarsgård that should be getting more attention.
Cynthia Nixon in James White
For years, I hadn’t taken much notice of Cynthia Nixon’s work, maybe because it just didn’t seem to diverge much from her character on Sex and the City. But her playing the mother of the title character in Josh Mond’s directorial debut really shows another side of her as she struggles with late-stage cancer. It’s one of the big revelations from this edgy indie drama that also played at Sundance earlier this year.
Benicio Del Toro in Sicario
The first time I saw Denis Villeneuve’s crime-thriller, I was completely struck by Del Toro’s performance as a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro, with whom Emily Blunt’s federal agent comes in contact while trying to take down the Mexican drug cartel. Because Del Toro won an Oscar for his portrayal of a similar character in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (and received another nomination for Alejandro Iñárritu’s 21 Grams), it seems like he’s due for more attention. Also, this comes out in the same year as his turn as Pablo Escobar in Escobar: Paradise Lost, a movie that was barely seen.
Michael Shannon in 99 Homes
Shannon’s already received a lot of attention for his past roles, receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. In Ramin Bahrani’s drama about the Florida housing market following the market crash of ’08, Shannon plays Rick Carver, a realtor who has been capitalizing on the misery of others, buying and flipping their homes for profit. When he hires a young father who has been evicted, played by Andrew Garfield, he learns that he might have met his match. Shannon seems to revel in playing such a despicable character.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw
It’s hard to imagine Jake Gyllenhaal would ever be considered an underdog in any year where he has a movie but after being overlooked for 2014’s Nightcrawler, I wouldn’t put anything past Oscar voters to do the same for this boxing drama, which may already be forgotten with the release of last week’s Creed. Gyllenhaal went through a complete transformation for his boxing matches as Billy “The Great” Hope. Yet, it was his more dramatic scenes with his daughter (played by Oona Lawrence) that really impressed me. (And while we’re talking Southpaw, previous Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker gives an amazing performance as Jake’s trainer.)
Cate Blanchett in Truth
Likewise, it’s probably a foregone conclusion that Cate Blanchett would get nominated for anything she does with two Oscars and three further nominations under her belt, but she’s getting a lot more attention for Todd Haynes’ Carol than she is for James Vanderbilt’s directorial debut about the controversial firing of Dan Rather from his CBS Evening News anchor chair in 2005. Blanchett plays Rather’s producer Mary Mapes (on whose book the film was adapted) and she has a number of powerful, dramatic moments.
Alicia Vikander in EVERYTHING!
And last but certainly not least is the Swedish actress who’s clearly this year’s “It Girl,” appearing in nearly half a dozen really good movies. It started with Alex Garland’s Ex Machina where she played a robot girl we all fell in love with, and then her career took a very different direction with period dramas Testament of Youth and The Danish Girl, as well as a great supporting role in Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. There’s a good chance she’ll get a nomination for The Danish Girl (which should be in the lead category), but she’s just as good in those other films.
With the New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review and Gotham Awards being announced over the past few days, it’s unlikely any of the above will be included, but there’s still time to find and watch some of those screeners if you haven’t filled out your ballot yet.