You can count on every Oscar season to have an awfully competitive race for Best Actor, but this year, the real action is with the women. Finally, we’ve got a wealth of contenders who are not just deserving, but feasible nominees, too, including actresses like Lily Tomlin (Grandma), Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), and Blythe Danner (I’ll See You In My Dreams), with highly anticipated performances from Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) and Angelina Jolie (By the Sea) yet to come. Those five actresses alone would make for a pretty potent category, but here are five other performances — all of which have screened at the Toronto Film Festival to great acclaim — that could easily score nominations, too:
Brie Larson, Room
At an IMDb-hosted dinner earlier this week in Toronto, Brie Larson claimed that IMDb is the only reason people would know who she is, given her “Who’s that girl?” roles in projects like The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12, and 21 Jump Street. Well, after Room comes out, far fewer people will need reminding. Larson is terrific in it, as a long-kidnapped young woman who must raise her 5-year-old son in captivity while plotting their escape. What's particularly impressive about the 25-year-old actress’s work in Room is that she doesn’t treat her character like a saint: Despite the fact that she’s acting opposite one of the most adorable child actors ever conceived, the stunning Jacob Tremblay, Larson gets believably frustrated and even flinty with the boy in a way that any mother will immediately find relatable. And while we only get as much backstory here as the little boy is able to learn, there’s an additional lifetime of information to be gleaned by the feelings that flicker on Larson’s face.
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Could the older-skewing 45 Years come on strong with Oscar? I was knocked out by the film, which premiered back at the Berlin Film Festival and has been popping up on the fest circuit on its way to Toronto, where I keep running into people who tell me it’s their favorite. Directed by Andrew Haigh (Weekend), it follows long-married Brits Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as they prepare for their 45th anniversary. Rampling is warm and loving at the start, but as she learns about her husband’s feelings for an old flame, doubt seeps into her bones, and soon she’s questioning everything. The 69-year-old star has never been Oscar-nominated before, but this is a real showcase role for her, and I suspect the movie itself could find traction, too — it’s reminiscent of Amour, which was nominated for five categories, including Best Picture. There are a lot of ingenues in the running this year, and Rampling may have to fight for her spot against other older actresses like Danner and Tomlin, but I believe her 45 Years performance, exquisitely calibrated down to the most subtle hand-flutter, is the absolute best of that bunch.
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Twenty-six-year-old Swede Alicia Vikander has come on strong this year, thanks to roles in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and in the transgender drama The Danish Girl, she nearly steals the movie away from her Oscar-winning co-star Eddie Redmayne. They play husband-and-wife painters Einar and Gerda Wegener, whose bohemian 1920s marriage is tested as Einar begins to present as a woman and pursues one of the first gender-reassignment surgeries ever attempted. Unlike Redmayne, whose freckled nose and trout pout give him one of the most distinctive faces in the business, Vikander has a more mutable, subtle visage that she leverages like the similarly stoic Jennifer Lawrence: Whenever an emotion lights up Vikander’s placid face, it's like she allowed something to escape. Vikander is the one that you want to watch, and when you couple that physical charisma with her striking, husky voice — which she effectively uses to dominate every scene with Redmayne — a star is born.
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
I guarantee that at some point during this Oscar season, your mom will email you to say how much she loved Brooklyn. This sweet little story casts Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant who makes her way to America in the 1950s and promptly falls for a brash New Yorker (Emory Cohen), though tragedy brings her back home, where a kind Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson) woos her, too. The love triangle is played as gently as Ronan’s performance, and if the movie clicks with enough Academy members (and it ought to, after rapturous premieres at Sundance and Toronto), Ronan could pick up her second Oscar nomination, a remarkable feat after earning her first nod at age 13 for Atonement.
Cate Blanchett, Truth
Could Cate Blanchett be her own biggest competition this year? Over the past week, the Weinsteins announced that she would be positioned as a Best Actress candidate for her work in the coming lesbian romance Carol (her co-star Rooney Mara, with whom she shares equal screen time, was bumped down to supporting), but Blanchett also had a breakthrough in Toronto with Truth, where there’s no question that she’s the leading lady.
In this fact-based drama, Blanchett plays hard-charging 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, who found her career in tatters after shepherding a questionably sourced report on George W. Bush’s stint in the National Guard. Audiences here in Toronto raved about Blanchett’s full-throttle turn — though Mapes is a more put-together character than Blanchett’s Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine lead, the actress gives a performance that is no less showy — though my colleagues are still split on which of her big fall movies is best positioned for Oscar. The Guardian’s Nigel Smith thinks Blanchett will be snubbed for Carol in favor of Truth, while Indiewire’s sage Anne Thompson predicts that Truth will languish in the shadow of the smarter, surging journalism drama Spotlight. How will these films fare once real audiences get ahold of them? We’ll soon see … and a whole lot of award-worthy actresses will be watching.