And the winner probably isn't: this season's 11 overlooked film performances

From Maggie Gyllenhaal’s anxiety-inducing teacher to Steven Yeun’s chilling villain, there’s a wealth of great acting that isn’t being recognised by voters

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By Jake Nevins The Guardian 
With Oscar nominations set to be announced in a few weeks, the field of possible contenders in each category has been whittled down as awards bodies and guilds go through their paces.

Favourites have emerged, and the prospect of any genuinely surprising nominees unfortunately dims with each stop on the awards season freight train. With that in mind, here’s a last-ditch appeal to the Academy on behalf of 11 performers who’ve been flouted by the awards-season-industrial complex – some on account of admittedly stiff competition, others because they appear in smaller, less Oscar-baity films that staged less robust PR campaigns, and a few, sadly, because the movies in which they appear aren’t in English.

Carey Mulligan in Wildlife

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Yes, the race for best actress is as stacked with terrific performances as it’s been in years, but the exclusion of Carey Mulligan from the conversation is as strange and egregious an oversight as they come. In Wildlife, the directorial debut from Paul Dano, Mulligan plays Jeanette, a 1960s housewife left to her own devices after her unemployed husband abandons her and her son to fight wildfires in the forests of Montana. In a narrative presented mostly from the perspective of Jeanette’s teenage son, Joe, Mulligan gives the best acting performance of the year, male or female: she’s fickle, fierce, combustible, and impish, her tone of voice often oscillating from cheerful to coarse in accordance with the character’s mood. In a story that’s more or less about a kid coming to recognise and reckon with his parent’s flaws, Mulligan plays Jeanette with a thrilling unpredictability that calls to mind Gena Rowland in A Woman Under the Influence – and forces us, as viewers, to recount the moment we realised our parents were human, too.

Daniel Kaluuya and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows

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In a film with a cast as numerous and decorated as Widows’ ensemble – Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Carrie Coon, Bryan Tyree Henry, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Jacki Weaver are all here – it takes a real howitzer of a performance to stand out from the bunch. But in Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 12 Years a Slave, Daniel Kaluuya and Elizabeth Debicki do just that, occupying opposite ends of the film’s vast and frequently fluctuating moral continuum. As Jatemme Manning, the mob enforcer to his brother Jamal’s political campaign, Kaluuya oozes menace: to look into his eyes as he stares down a lackey spitting a few rap bars is to vow never to freestyle again. Debicki, meanwhile, is the film’s heart, a damaged woman in thrall to her abusive mother and husband who joins the Viola Davis-led heist and convinces you her life depends it. Both performances, though overlooked by most awards bodies (save a few critics’ groups), are emotionally rich but tactful, too, governed less by histrionics than meaningful glances and grimaces.

Marina de Tavira in Roma

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The star of the year’s best film, Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio, still has an outside shot at nabbing a best actress nomination. But in a crowded year for supporting actress, headlined by Regina King, Amy Adams, and the women of The Favourite, Aparicio’s co-star Marina de Tavira has fallen through the cracks. That’s a shame, since what she does with her role as the matriarch of a household in turmoil is pretty breathtaking. Her character Sofia swings like a pendulum; she lets out strident commands (“¿Adónde vas?,” she screams at her disobedient son); provides comic relief (watch her attempt to wriggle her Ford Galaxy between two trucks on a Mexico City freeway); and allows her character’s compassion and dejection to surface in gestures both big and small, a vast arsenal of actorly gifts at her disposal. “No matter what they tell you, as women, we are always alone,” she says to Cleo in a moment of desolation that’s brilliantly, perhaps surprisingly, punctuated by a burst of drunken physical comedy. In the humble opinion of this writer, it was the year’s second-best performance (a smidgen behind Mulligan).

Steven Yeun in Burning

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The year’s best, most cryptic villain – a personification of the “you v the guy she told you not to worry about” meme – was Steven Yeun’s Ben in Burning, the director Lee Chang-dong’s hypnotizing adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story. Think Jay Gatsby meets Patrick Bateman meets Dickie Greenleaf: Yeun plays this smooth-talking cosmopolite with a pathological charm that never quite reveals itself in full, which is precisely what makes the characterization so uniquely chilling and seductive. It’s a testament to Yeun’s commitment that Ben’s veneer of disquieting swagger never breaks: he yawns, laughs, speaks, smokes, shakes hands, and discloses his casual pyromania all with the same air of arrogant self-possession. Critics’ groups out of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto recognized Yeun as the year’s best supporting actor, so perhaps it isn’t asking too much that the Academy take note too.

Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline

© Getty (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

This 20-year-old actor’s debut in Josephine Decker’s brilliant Madeline’s Madeline is on par with Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York, in the pantheon of art-and-life-blurring roles. A gifted actress in a New York City-based experimental theatre troupe, and a mercurial teenager on the verge of a psychotic break, Howard’s Madeline is that rare characterisation of an adolescent that’s refreshingly unmoored from convention. Immersed in her subjectivity, we experience Madeline’s sense of disorientation in the world and then watch her bring pain and suffering into uncomfortably sharp focus, particularly in a dramatic monologue in which she’s asked to portray her own mother. In a year of outstanding film debuts from young female actors (Aparicio in Roma, Elsie Fisher in Eight Grade, Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk), Howard’s was particularly noteworthy.

Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You

© Getty (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

In the wake of the Golden Globes, Christian Bale may very well ride his win to a best actor Oscar, with Bradley Cooper and Viggo Mortensen trailing close behind. Each represents a different version of the kind of muscular, immersive leading performance the Academy likes to honour. What Lakeith Stanfield does in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, however, is considerably different. As Cassius “Cash” Green, an upwardly mobile telemarketer, Stanfield is often comically incredulous. Despite his ascent in the world of tech, things happen to Cash more often than he makes them happen, and Stanfield plays it with a certain affable bemusement. It’s one of those performances that works in service of a film-maker’s vision, in this case Riley’s wild satire of a late-capitalist wasteland and its machine full of cogs.

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In

© Getty (Photo by Dominique Charriau/WireImage)

Rare is a protagonist, especially a female, middle-aged protagonist, as multitudinous as Isabelle of Claire Denis’ radiant romcom Let the Sunshine In, the lifeblood of which is Juliette Binoche’s effusive, heartfelt, and guileless lead performance as a woman looking for love. Isabelle, and as far as we can tell, Binoche too, feels everything to the fullest extent, and throughout the film, a dialogue-heavy procession of encounters with different men, her face is a transient canvas of emotions experienced not one-by-one but all at once. Watch her, for instance, in the film’s final scene, a long discussion with a clairvoyant who predicts the future of Isabelle’s various dalliances. His every divination is met with its own reaction: Isabelle’s neck tenses up, or she laughs incredulously, or her smile broadens, or her lips purse. It’s a nakedly human and life-affirming performance from one of our greatest actors.

Sakura Andô in Shoplifters

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The slow burn and eventual emotional gut punch of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is reflected most clearly in the supporting performance of Sakura Andô, who plays her character, Nobuyo, with a delicate touch not dissimilar to the film’s direction. She is sincere but necessarily stealthy, loving and devious, easily one of the most sympathetic and likable characters on film this year, which is odd if you come across a bare-boned synopsis of the movie: a family of savvy shoplifters kidnaps a young girl. In a scene where Nobuyo is interrogated by Japanese police, her eyes evince profound sadness and principled determination, like vectors for Kore-eda and the film’s touching exploration of a family linked by trust instead of blood.

Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here

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If it were up to me, Joaquin Phoenix would have two Oscars to his name and a third – for his performance as Joe in Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here – on the way. Alas, Phoenix’s harsh, uncompromising turn as a hired gun who rescues sex-trafficked young girls has been mostly ignored by major awards bodies and critics’ groups, even though he took home the best actor prize at the Cannes film festival, where the film premiered in 2017. Here, Phoenix and his body appear more lived-in than ever, the lines that branch across his face suggesting toil and trauma. With more action than talk, Phoenix and Ramsey invite us into the character’s wounded headspace, effectively evoking the sense of rage and violent resolve that compels him to do what he does.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher

© Getty (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for National Board of Review)

As if the best actress conversation weren’t crowded enough, here’s another tour de force to consider. As a kindergarten teacher and failed poet in Sara Colangelo’s remake of the 2015 Israeli film of the same name, Maggie Gyllenhaal gives the year’s most anxiety-inducing performance, embodying obsessive compulsion and intellectual unease. Her character Lisa takes what seems like an innocent, maternal interest in the poetic ingenuity of one of her students, seeing it as her responsibility to cultivate his talent before it’s soiled, presumably like her own, by an increasingly vainglorious world. What ensues is a crescendo of discomfiting events that are both more and less ethically ambiguous than they feel, anchored by Gyllenhaal’s tremendous ability to be entirely consumed by her character’s one-track mind and strange sense of duty.


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Current News 360°: And the winner probably isn't: this season's 11 overlooked film performances
And the winner probably isn't: this season's 11 overlooked film performances
From Maggie Gyllenhaal’s anxiety-inducing teacher to Steven Yeun’s chilling villain, there’s a wealth of great acting that isn’t being recognised by voters
Current News 360°
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