Every awards season you hear about the “contenders”—names that have emerged during the various fall film festivals, received additional momentum throughout the film’s release via critical plaudits and costly PR campaigns, and become so-called locks for nominations by the time voting begins. And, at least when it comes to Oscar, these ballyhooed performances reflect the taste of the Academy, which is currently 73 percent male and 89 percent white.
You’ve so far been inundated with the names Casey Affleck, who, despite his disturbing past, will probably take home the Best Actor Oscar for the devastating drama Manchester by the Sea, or Viola Davis, who is a shoo-in as Best Supporting Actress for her towering turn in Fences. There are others, like Natalie Portman’s delicate rendering of Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, Emma Stone’s vivacious, song-and-dance routine in La La Land, and Mahershala Ali’s quietly powerful performance in Moonlight, that have been on the lips of awards pundits and voters, too.
This story isn’t about them. Rather, it’s about the actors—and performances—that have not received just acclaim, and deserve to be included in the awards conversation.
BEST ACTRESS: Royalty Hightower, The Fits
As Toni, an 11-year-old torn between her lifelong passion for boxing and newfound obsession with a dance drill team, newcomer Royalty Hightower is mesmerizing. It’s a muted turn, but don’t you dare look away, as this innately gifted young actress can communicate more with a glance or a nod than most actresses can in a five-minute scene. When girls on the team begin succumbing to violent fits, Hightower delves deeper and deeper, her character perfectly in tune with director Anna Rose Holmer’s hazy, dreamlike aesthetic, until a complex portrait emerges.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
If you thought Ralph Fiennes’s gloriously ribald turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel was marvelous, wait till you see him as a randy music producer obsessed with his former protégé (Tilda Swinton) in Luca Guadagnino’s twisty psychological thriller. He is a dancing, cocaine-snorting, penis-flashing force of nature—the type of friend who is equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, yet thoroughly captivating. Give Meryl Streep’s character in Mamma Mia! a line of coke and two hits of ecstasy and you’ve got Fiennes’s Harry, who, if there was any justice in the world, would be a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nod.
BEST ACTOR: Parker Sawyers, Southside with You
Billed the “Obama date movie,” this indie film was met with considerable side-eye when it was announced at Sundance. A dramatic interpretation of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in Chicago? That’s crazy. Then people saw Richard Tanne’s tender, heartfelt movie and sang a very different tune. It is a miracle that Parker Sawyers’ turn as Obama, a sitting president and paragon of charisma, is this effective. It’s not only a feat of mimicry, with Sawyers capturing everything from Obama’s stroll to the way he dangles his cigarette, but also of presence, as Sawyers’ Obama commands rooms with his unique mix of charm and intellectual vigor. There are times throughout the film when you’ll look at Sawyer and think you’re watching the real Obama. He’s that good.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kathryn Hahn, Bad Moms
The Academy has not been kind to comedy, ignoring some of the greatest film performances of the last ninety years, from Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday to Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. If this largely old, male, and white voting body had any sense, they’d throw some votes towards the always brilliant Kathryn Hahn for her hilariously wacky turn as Carla, a laid-back, raunchy single mom who’s run out of fucks to give. No performance this year made me laugh harder than Hahn’s, as she struts her stuff all over this left-field comedy hit. Like a boss.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
With his electrifying turns as a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer and a crackhead teacher in Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling established himself as one of the finest actors of his generation. And, while he’s receiving well-deserved kudos for his turn in the delightful musical La La Land, he’s even better here as Holland March, a bumbling private eye on the hunt for a missing porn actress. His comedic timing is impeccable, with each line delivery giving you the giggles. That such a handsome, stylish fella can so convincingly play a clumsy fuck-up is a true testament to his talents.
BEST ACTRESS: Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Though the film as a whole becomes tedious in its final third, one never loses sight of Anya Taylor-Joy, who leads viewers down a dark, winding path towards one of the most WTF denouements of the year. As her Thomasin, the daughter of a Puritan family in 17th Century New England, gets pushed further and further to the periphery, our sympathies remain in her grasp. Taylor-Joy, with her immense almond eyes and inquisitive brows, has one of those compellingly watchable movie star faces—one that will surely grace many a screen to come.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Shia LaBeouf, American Honey
Tabloid baggage aside, Shia LaBeouf has always possessed a commanding screen presence—from his days on Even Stevens to his breakout turn as a troubled teen navigating the mean streets of 1980s Queens in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Here, donning suspenders and a curious rattail hairdo, his Jake is a splendid guide for the troubled Star (Sasha Lane), as the two hawk magazines and chase dreams across the American Midwest. It’s the most enchanting turn of LaBeouf’s career, and one that perfectly embodies the film’s rebellious spirit.
BEST ACTOR: Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead
No character was more wildly unpredictable than Don Cheadle’s gun-toting, Jheri curl-sporting Miles Davis in this free-form biopic. Every time his unhinged jazz legend enters a room, you don’t know whether he’ll fire off his gun or a breathtaking trumpet solo, and it’s all thanks to Cheadle’s live wire performance. That awards pundits have largely ignored it is a damn shame.
Alden Ehrenreich—otherwise known as the next Han Solo—delights as an imbecilic movie star cowboy in Hail, Caesar! while funnyman Craig Robinson delivers a tender, compassionate turn as a father in Morris from America. Kalieaswari Srinivasan of Dheepan and Paulina Garcia in Little Men fully embody two strong, courageous mothers who will do anything for their children, and Tom Holland achieved the unthinkable in Captain America: Civil War in making Spider-Man great again.