If Once had been a big Hollywood film, it would have starred a frumped-up Mandy Moore opposite some clown like John Mayer, and the movie would have culminated in a crowd-pleasing, macchiato-flavored kiss after a chance (but how you’d been hoping for it!) encounter at the local Starbucks. Instead, John Carney delivered a microbudget indie musical that charmed its way into box-office semi-gold based on its sweet, subtle soundtrack; its unresolved but poetic ending; and the wry performances of its unknown leads, singer Glen Hansard (of the Frames) and Czech neophyte Marketa Irglova.
Irglova's in particular is the kind of role that rarely gets an Oscar nomination: natural, understated, and overshadowed by her tall, sensitive Irish co-star. But it wasn't easy. The inchoate, undefined connection between the two made Once a thing of frustrating beauty, and Irglova — maybe because of her lack of experience on the big screen — took a character that might have been a total cipher and made her feel completely real. When was the last time Keira Knightley had to convince as a love interest in the shackles of an unflattering haircut and a body-thwarting wardrobe so out of date that even calling it vintage would be a stretch? And can Keira sing? Or play piano? Anyone who can do both onscreen without setting off our cheese alarms deserves the Academy’s respect. —Sara Cardace