Oscar buzz rarely surprises: Inevitably, the nominees are Hollywood stars in upper-middlebrow prestige pictures, with a couple of British stage actors thrown in to class up the joint. And as a result, many great-but-unconventional performances are overlooked, and this year there seem to be more than ever, from a tween action-movie heroine to an underrated character actress to a pair of A-listers who gambled on oddball (or downright bizarre) projects. Below, our favorite sure-to-be slights, for your consideration.
Any 13-year-old girl unleashing a tornado of foul-mouthed violence would’ve been shocking, but Moretz offered way more, switching between the role of Hit Girl and her exuberant alter ego Mindy Macready. She followed that with another of the year’s best (and scariest) performances, as Let Me In’s ravenous tween vampire.
Everybody ridiculed Phoenix for his fake attempt to become a rapper, but we all failed to realize that we were witnessing the role of a lifetime: raw, uneasy, painful to watch. Indeed, many critics walked away from the film convinced that Phoenix needed psychiatric help. Acting!
Usually, when given the chance to go over-the-top, Jim Carrey pole-vaults on a trampoline while wearing a jet pack. This time, as a gay con-artist kook in love with Ewan McGregor, he somehow stayed admirably grounded, in what is certainly his most human performance since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Pure physicality is what Huppert does best. In this ethereal drama about a white farmer caught in a brutal African civil war, she turns her pale, fair-haired fragility into an element of pure existential tension.
Who is this woman? As the volatile den mother of a rival family of vengeful meth-heads, she comes out like a bolt of lightning — almost single-handedly transforming this understated Ozark thriller into something out of the Brothers Grimm.
Timi’s mad, mesmeric performance as the young Mussolini has to terrify and outrage, sure, but also seduce, for Marco Bellocchio’s political melodrama is about a woman who fell hopelessly for the future Duce.
In a film that’s all about words and writing and talk and lies, Williams gives the quietest of performances and slowly becomes the real center of power in Roman Polanski’s spellbinding political noir.
The most diabolical baddie of the year wasn’t Gordon Gekko. It was the real-life creep Roger Stone, whose cretinous gloating was the soap-operatic highlight of Alex Gibney’s conspiratorial exposé. (Okay, so he wasn’t an actor. But we prefer to think of him as one so we can sleep better at night.)
Neil Marshall’s nasty Roman action film was a misbegotten flop, in part because rising star Fassbender (Fish Tank, Hunger) and West (The Wire) are hardly the kind of names that move tickets. But despite the film’s obvious flaws, the two actors were vicious, gruff, perfectly matched soldiers, utterly at home in the mud and the blood and bog. Maybe in the next action movie, they’ll get paired with marquee stars.
A renowned soap-opera actress in Korea, Kim commands the screen — masterfully straddling pathos and lunacy — for pretty much the entire length of Bong joon-ho’s bizarre, amazing family-drama-slash-small-town mystery-slash-cosmic joke.
A quiet, tensely romantic drama about the blasted dreams of the past requires an actress who can pull off passion, regret, anger, and strength, and Washington is magnificent, moving effortlessly from reflective and vulnerable to powerful and sexy.
Released way back in March, Conor McPherson’s melancholic Irish ghost story might be the most shamefully overlooked film of the year. As a widower charged with escorting a sharp novelist through a small-town literary festival, Hinds is a leading man who breathes and yearns.
That Miguel Arteta’s boisterously zonked-out, anarchic teen comedy swiftly vanished from theaters was one of the great cinematic crimes of 2010. As the moody and precocious object of Michael Cera’s affections, the gorgeous Doubleday was so compelling it was actually painful: We in the audience were as smitten with her as Cera’s character was.
Beginning with his crowning in Cannes, Rahim has won acclaim all over the world for his role in Jacques Audiard’s epic crime film about an young Arabic man who ends up in prison, where he studies the methods of a cruel French prison kingpin so closely that he threatens to overtake his mentor. The violence is spectacular, but more spectacular still are the quiet moments when Rahim watches and observes, biding his time.
This old-fashioned romance about an autumnal affair could have been a cornball wallow, were it not for the amazing lead performances. And Siddig’s Tareq, a retired Egyptian cop who finds himself in the middle of an unlikely love affair with the divine Patricia Clarkson, was the model of dignity, charm, and understated cool.
Most movies about teens dress up young people like dolls. But Andrea Arnold’s gritty apartment-complex drama gives Jarvis a heather hoodie and lets her snipe, fight, claw, and curse her way through parking lots and abandoned yards. And she nails her cocky-insecure B-boy dancing with all the angry energy she can muster — and none of the polish.
Screenwriter Mark O’Rowe (Intermission, Boy A) has a hyperactive appetite for the cruel and comic, and finds a perfect vessel in director-actor Gleeson. Opposite a weaselly, in-over-his-head Cillian Murphy, Gleeson deliver’s the year’s finest foul-mouthed deadpan.
This might have been the hardest acting job of the year: To be the eyes and ears (not to mention the subject) of French provocateur Bruno Dumont’s deliberate, opaque fable about a young Christian woman whose extreme devotion to God leads her down an unlikely religious path when she befriends a pair of possibly-fanatical Muslim brothers. Somehow both overwhelmed and full of grace, Sokolowski’s hypnotic performance holds this bizarre film together.
Frankly, everyone in Nicole Holofcener’s Manhattan drama is a marvel: Rebecca Hall, Catherine Keener, and Amanda Peet all delivered some of the best performances of the year. But Platt’s pathetically likable midlife crisis was brilliantly buffoonish and utterly charming.
Hardy is one of the most inventive actors of his generation, and he proved that even in Christopher Nolan’s hermetically sealed, expertly predetermined dream thriller. His portrayal of the forger Eames was fleet-footed, winning, almost off-handedly human; he seemed to be the only one among these tormented characters even capable of cracking a smile. And, let’s face it, he also had the best lines.
As a good cop who’s just itching to go corrupt, Hawke — once the poster child for submerged, understated pretty boys — gave the most snarling, breathlessly desperate performance of the year in Antoine Fuqua’s operatic crime epic. This could be a wonderful ongoing collaboration; it’s the second time Hawke has done amazing work for this director. (He was Oscar-nominated for Fuqua’s Training Day.)
Banksy’s meta-minded documentary is very likely an I’m Still Here–style prank: It’s doubtful that “Theirry Guetta” is who he says he is — and it seems obvious that Mr. Brainwash’s insipid art is a junkyard joke. But as a performer? “Guetta” (whoever he is) is a hilarious moron and the year’s best Borat.
She’s luminous in The Kids Are All Right, but she was the sole revelation of Tim Burton’s mostly disappointing adaptation. Surrounded by effects and plotlines that, oddly enough, were not curiouser and curiouser, her newer, tougher Alice was stiff-backed and steely.
In Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn made a nasty meathead schizo freak out of pretty boy Tom Hardy. In his Norse historical horror film Valhalla Rising, he turns the already-frightening, perennial bad guy Mikkelsen into an almost-elemental force of human brutality. He’s nasty, brutish, and humongous.