With the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards in our rearview and nominations for the host-less Oscars just around the corner—Jan. 22, to be exact—it’s time we recognize the standout movie performances from the past year that have been woefully underappreciated, and deserve recognition from the Academy.
Now, this is not to take anything away from some of the nominees who’ve received their just due this awards season (Glenn Close vs. Olivia Colman vs. Yalitzia Aparicio is my personal Sophie’s Choice), but we all know that those chosen by the Academy, a group composed of mostly crusty old white dudes, mostly reflect the taste of… crusty old white dudes. That means a historical bias against comedy, against racial diversity, and against women of a certain age.
The following names probably won’t be read in the early hours of Jan. 22, but dammit they should be.
BEST ACTRESS: Kathryn Hahn, Private Life
Hahn may be the most underrated performer on the planet, and here, as a woman in the throes of an IVF-fueled midlife crisis, she’s never been better, deploying her entire acting arsenal to devastating effect. Her full-frontal living-room monologue about, well, vaginas, is one for the ages.
BEST ACTOR: Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here
Like Freddie Quell, his volatile cultist in The Master, Phoenix uses every inch of his body—aching eyes, bent shoulders, concave chest, labored gait—to transform into Joe, a PTSD-afflicted loner tasked with rescuing young girls from the clutches of sex traffickers. His Joe is a paragon of pathos. An avenging angel. And this generation’s Travis Bickle.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Tessa Thompson, Sorry to Bother You
With one wide-eyed look, Thompson can elicit joy, fear or tears—such is her inimitable power. And her Detroit, an avant-garde performance artist-cum-labor activist, is the beating heart at the core of Sorry to Bother You, the most urgent film of the year.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jesse Plemons, Game Night
Landry from Friday Night Lights has blossomed into a character actor par excellence, and his puppy-clutching policeman in Game Night marks one of the great deadpan-comedy performances of the last decade. Never has a potato-chip query been so hysterically menacing. It’s fitting that Plemons played Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son in The Master. He might be his heir apparent.
BEST ACTRESS: Regina Hall, Support the Girls
Given all the hoopla surrounding Tiffany Haddish’s breakout turn in Girls Trip, it’s easy to forget that it was Regina Hall who held the film together. And in Lisa Conroy, the manager of a Hooters-like bar on a hellish day ruled by Murphy’s Law, she’s finally received a big, juicy role deserving of her talent. As she puts out one ridiculous trash fire after another, handling everything from creeps to crooks with equanimity, it dawns on you that this isn’t just the story of Lisa, but also that of so many underappreciated black women.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Steven Yeun, Burning
No character sparked more furious debate this year than Ben, the suave sonofabitch played by Yeun in Burning. Is he a harmless douche bag or an emotional terrorist (or both)? Whatever side you fall on, there’s no denying the power of Yeun’s provocative turn. “To put it simply, I play,” he says. And what a deliciously twisted game it is.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians
The presence of Yeoh’s Eleanor Sung-Young looms large in every scene of Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s a role that, in less capable hands, could easily have slid into stereotype. But in two brilliant sequences—dumpling-making and Mahjong—she manages to communicate a rich backstory, and imbue her domineering Asian mother with virtue and vulnerability. Considering its cultural impact, her legend status, and the gravity of her performance, it’s truly baffling that Yeoh isn’t receiving more awards attention. Cue Eleanor death stare.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Blake Lively, A Simple Favor
That two of the best camp performances of the year come courtesy of Gossip Girl co-stars Penn Badgley (see: You) and Lively is a wonderful bit of kismet. After some hilariously awkward turns early in her career (The Town, Savages), Lively has clearly put in the work and evolved into a confident actress with deft comedic timing. And she’s never been better than she is here, as a sociopathic socialite serving killer shade and lewks in equal measure. Few things gave me more joy last year than Lively branding Anna Kendrick’s mommy blogger a “brotherfucker.”
HONORARY OSCAR: Olivia the Dog, Game Night & Widows
This 3-year-old, 15-pound Westie is so darn adorable/skilled it not only knocked big comedic and dramatic scenes out of the park but also inspired hefty think pieces about the state of animal acting. But I’ll leave it to Widows star Viola Davis, one of our greatest living actors, to explain this pup’s genius: “I don’t own a dog in life, so I was like, ‘I’ve gotta work with a dog? What if the dog licks me? Dogs are nasty and disgusting,’” Davis recalled. Then, “Within the first five minutes, I’m kissing the dog, I’m holding the dog, the dog was on my chest. I love that dog, and she came to me so easily.” The Queen has spoken.