The Oscar-bait rollout starts in earnest every September, reaching its peak in the last few weeks of the year. As a result, fine performances from movies released in the first three-quarters of the year often get overlooked. Here are some Oscar-worthy performances from earlier in 2013 worth remembering when nomination voting comes to an end January 8th.
Steve Carell in The Way Way Back
This bittersweet teen comedy by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendents) didn’t get as much attention as it deserved this summer, possibly thanks in part to a TV ad campaign that made it look like it was more in the spirit of Meatballs than The Graduate. But, Steve Carell did a particularly impressive job as Trent, the supercilious new father figure. His hectoring behavior towards mopey teen Duncan (Liam James) is like one of Carell’s loveable-oaf characters like The Office‘s Michael Scott with all of the likeability and warmth removed.
Nathan Fillion in Much Ado About Nothing
Who knew that Shakespearean comedy was a natural match for Nathan Fillion’s amiable charms? His portrayal of chief constable Dogberry in Joss Whedon’s modern dress/Elizabethan text adaptation keeps the film from sliding into terminal twee-ness with a brilliant combination of incompetent idiocy and complete self-assurance. Rather than playing Dogberry as the dim bulb he is, Fillion invests each malapropism with complete, unassailable sincerity. The “I am an ass” scene alone is a master class in comic subtlety.
Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach’s character study of late-20s aimlessness is Greta Gerwig’s movie, no question about it. (And justifiably so: Gerwig and Baumbach, a real-life couple, wrote the script together.) But the reason the viewer feels Frances’ pain when her best friend Sophie decides to move in with her boyfriend is because Gerwig and Mickey Sumner’s onscreen friendship feels so lived-in and real. The daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler, Sumner likely has a strong career of playing smart, funny, feisty women ahead of her if this film is any indication.
Imogen Poots in The Look of Love
Michael Winterbottom’s archly ironic retelling of the life of wealthy British pornographer Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan) maybe borrowed a little too much from his conceptually similar 24 Hour Party People, which also starred Coogan and had an equally meta-fictional tone. Which is a shame, because Imogen Poots did a marvelous job as Raymond’s daughter and business partner, investing her essentially tragic story with enough spirit and wit to keep her from being seen as a mere victim of her father’s excess.
Tye Sheridan in Mud
Matthew McConaughey may have the title role in writer-director Jeff Nichols’ tale of a murderer hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River, but the film belongs to teen actor Tye Sheridan as 14-year-old Ellis. An improbable mix of Huckleberry Finn and Sissy Spacek’s besotted Holly in Badlands, Ellis develops an almost unsettling level of hero worship for the conniving but charismatic Mud, whom he tries to reunite with his lady love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Sheridan plays Ellis with a mixture of cocksure rebellion and shy naïveté, especially when dealing with his own crush May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).
Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station
Showier performances in more recent films (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club) may overshadow the more subtle, realistic and nuanced performance at the heart of this emotional drama. Jordan’s Oscar Grant is a conflicted soul struggling to improve his relationships with the women in his life, including his mother, girlfriend and four-year-old daughter while resisting the temptations that have troubled him. The skill of the performance comes from the fact that the viewer believes both sides of Oscar’s nature.
Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
2012’s 2 Days In New York, which Julie Delpy wrote and directed, proved that the actress had a knack for finding unexpectedly affecting truths in long-term relationships. Before Midnight, the culmination of the trilogy that began with 1995’s Before Sunrise, brings Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse into much deeper and more disturbing waters, culminating in perhaps the most emotionally raw depiction of a couple’s resentment and anger this side of Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. And yet, Delpy is so controlled and avoids histrionics so well that it makes married viewers think “These people even fight better than us.” You can read SSN’s interview with Delpy here.
Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now
After being the best thing about the faintly ridiculous TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Shailene Woodley first broke out with her Oscar-nominated supporting role in the 2011 comedy-drama The Descendants. Without George Clooney or director Alexander Payne to draw attention, the teen romance The Spectacular Now didn’t grab nearly as much attention for Woodley’s first proper leading role. But her warmhearted yet fiercely intelligent portrayal of a teenage “nice girl” with hidden depths greatly elevated this otherwise schematic tale of a troubled youth’s redemption.