I had so much fun the other day exploring the films of this year’s crop of Oscar nominated directors, that I decided to keep going. The SAG Awards were last night, so I decided to look into this year’s Oscar nominated actors. By the way, there was no reason for me to include that the SAG Awards were last night, but I just want to keep this somewhat relevant.
The rules here are similar to those of my director column. This isn’t about each actors best performance, but rather about ones that define them in some interesting way. For some of them, I couldn’t completely do them justice, so I brought a friend in to help. Without much further adieu, here are some other noteworthy performances from each of this year’s Oscar nominated actors (includes those nominated both for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor):
Steve Carell: Anchorman
Steve Carell is a bright spot in the otherwise dreary Foxcatcher. As great as he is as John Du Pont, it is always depressing to see a great comedic performer feel the need to don ugly makeup and a sad face in order to get the attention of the Academy. That is more an indictment of a system that doesn’t take comedy seriously than on Mr. Carell himself. A veteran of Second City, Carell’s incredibly quick wit and improvisational genius has made for some of the best comedy of the past decade. In 2004, he had a small role as Brick Tamland, the mentally challenged weatherman of Anchorman, and he stole every scene he was in. Being the generous performer that he is, Carell let Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner shine while knocking it out of the park every once in a while with lines like, “I love lamp” and “I stabbed a guy in the heart with a trident.” The 40-Year-Old Virgin turned Carell into a leading man, but few things make me laugh hadrer than Brick riding a bear. It really makes me wish Foxcatcher didn’t try to hide him under a prosthetic nose.
J.K. Simmons: Juno
J.K. Simmons more than deserves his nomination (and almost definite win) for Whiplash. However, it bothers me that people seem to think he just suddenly became a force over night, as if his career has only consisted of Whiplash and insurance commercials. Simmons has been doing great work for decades. He has earned a reputation as one of the most consistently talented and underrated characters actor in Hollywood. One of his career highs is his performance in Juno. As Juno’s MacGuff’s earnest father, he nails every single comedic and dramatic beat handed to him in Diablo Cody’s script. Partially why his performance in Whiplash is so terrifying is because for the past 20 or so years, J.K. Simmons has just been the kind, humble Midwestern dad who can express disappointment with just a subtle nod. Just watch the clip below. It will make you want to win J.K. Simmons’ approval.
Edward Norton: American History X
Ed Norton’s commitment to his craft scares me sometimes. That is why it was nice to watch him poke fun at his own self-serious persona in Birdman. In American History X, he brought a neo-Nazi to life. This is a character nobody wants to see, but his performance is so good, that you feel like you have to watch it. He has the ability to be as captivating as he is repelling, spewing out bullshit that you somehow feel compelled to listen to. While it sometimes feels like American History X isn’t really saying anything new about racism, Norton’s embodiment of modern hate and redemption is unlike anything I have ever seen.
Michael Keaton: The Other Guys
Did you know Michael Keaton began his showbiz career in stand-up? This should not be seen as a surprise, given how much humor he brings to all of his roles. I almost forgot about how funny he is in Adam McKay’s overlooked The Other Guys, in which he has to go head-to-head with Will Ferrell. He can be the goofy idiot and the straight man, sometimes all in the same scene. Long before Birdman, Keaton proved that he could skewer the tough guy persona that Batman once earned him.
Bradley Cooper: Silver Linings Playbook
Thank David O. Russell for taking one look at Bradley Cooper and seeing more than just a pretty face. Silver Linings Playbook was Cooper’s first of three Oscar nominations three years in a row. As the bipolar Pat, he is equal parts funny and disturbing. One moment, he will insult your outfit, and the next he’ll throw an Ernest Hemingway novel out a window. His unpredictable nature makes him all the more enthralling to watch. Cooper also doesn’t mind playing unlikable. Yes, Pat is an asshole, but he is honest, and most importantly, he is trying his best to get better. Let’s give him a round of applause for effort because seriously, few people seem to work harder, and seem to be capable of such a diverse array of performances (Wet Hot American Summer, Wedding Crashers, Guardians of the Galaxy, American Hustle, to name a few) than Bradley Cooper.
Robert Duvall: Apocalypse Now
I haven’t seen The Judge yet, but based off of most of the reviews, it seems most likely that Robert Duvall got nominated because he is Robert Duvall. There was a time when nominating Robert Duvall for an Oscar actually meant something. I don’t remember, because I wasn’t born yet. However, I suspect that it was around 1979, when he was up for Best Supporting Actor for his amazing performance as Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. This is the one where he blasts “Ride of the Valkyries” while bombing a village and then proclaims his love for napalm. In the short amount of screen time that he has, Duvall chews the jungle scenery up. While Kilgore is known for his insanity, people seem to forget the part where he tells his troops, “someday, this war is gonna end.” Duvall delivers the small yet powerful line in such a way that you’re not sure if he’s being optimistic or pessimistic. It is the most weirdly ambiguous part of a film that involves both Marlon Brando and a live cow sacrifice.
Mark Ruffalo: The Avengers
I am one of the few people left on this planet who didn’t like The Avengers, and for that I have been scolded many times. However, the biggest standout amongst Marvel’s team is Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. Great actors (Eric Bana, Ed Norton) have tried unsuccessfully to capture the madness of suppressing the anger of a giant green dude inside of you. Ruffalo finally did it, and with a great sense of humor to boot. For the first time, watching Bruce Banner talk was just as much fun as watching Hulk smash.
Ethan Hawke: Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight
It took me until Boyhood to realize how lucky we all are to share breathing space with Ethan Hawke. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy was Boyhood tailored specifically for Ethan Hawke. Over the course of three films spanning 18 years, we see his character grow and evolve in remarkable ways. He falls in love, ruins one marriage, and tries to save another. Hawke’s casual, intellectual attitude is perfectly suited for Linklater’s stream of consciousness writing. Here, he is not quite the cool dad that he was in Boyhood, but he always seems like somebody I would love to have a beer with. The best performers are always comforting, as if they are everybody’s friend, but they mean something especially unique to you.
Eddie Redmayne: Les Miserables
I am sorry for this, Eddie. You are very charming. Maybe that is because you are British, or maybe it is because you are actually a cool dude. I am also sorry that I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything yet. I am even more sorry about the fact that the only film I can judge you off of is Les Miserables. You might have been one of the best parts of that film, despite the fact that you kind of sounded Kermit the Frog. However, what I am most sorry about is the fact that I could not finish a single YouTube clip of your performance, because any clip of Russell Crowe as Javert is light years more hilarious. Take it as a compliment.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Sherlock
“Sherlock, like a good cup of tea, is both strong and bold. You can thank it for pioneering the onscreen usage of texts and text messages that has now permeated Hollywood, as well as for slaying the less than stellar RDJ Sherlock Holmes installments. Its greatest achievement, however, is the propelling of Benedict Cumberbatch (as well as co-star Martin Freeman) into stardom.
Cumberbatch’s work in Sherlock is as complexly superb as the titular character. Through the show’s three seasons, Benedict has brought a refreshing depth to the legendary detective. He has worn every hat, including the infamous one, ranging from comedy, to cunning, to chilling intellectual, to a conflicted man whose prized skills of deduction don’t delude him to his lack of humanity. It’s the kind of character, and performance, that you just can’t get from film and leaves no wonder as to why Benedict was given the role of Marvel’s titular sorcerer supreme in the upcoming Doctor Strange.
In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch is challenged to once again play a misunderstood intellectual. His performance supersedes the material and proves that this British lion is no one trick pony. While he may have seemed an obvious choice on paper, Cumberbatch approaches Alan Turing in an entirely different fashion and, while the similarities exist, the differences stand as a testament to Cumberbatch’s mastery of the craft. Turing is repressed and overwhelmed. Almost a bizarro Sherlock. It’s a tight race, but perhaps Cumberbatch’s real achievement is making the story of Turing palatable and engaging to even the most simple viewer.” —Ryan Little
TOMORROW: The best of this year’s Best Actress nominees.