The Oscar nominations are just around the corner and I’m already preparing myself for the inevitable misery of it all. Terrible films will get lots of nominations while the true cinematic achievements of 2018 will be overlooked. Once again, I’m expecting women directors to be shut out entirely, but have no fear, Bryan Singer and Peter Farrelly are here to save us all. Before you jump into the pit of despair at the thought of such horror, let’s take a moment to appreciate the great actors of 2018 who are frankly too good for those little gold men. It’s been a jam packed year for amazing performances, although the seemingly ordained front-runners for the top prizes veer between truly wonderful to interesting to… Well, they’re there. So, let’s celebrate the great performances that don’t have a hope in hell of getting nominated. I haven’t included Ethan Hawke from First Reformed here because, while it has become increasingly unlikely he will be nominated for Best Actor, I still hold out hope that the Academy will acknowledge the single best performance of 2018. Don’t let me down!
Hugh Grant in Paddington 2
Comedic performances seldom get their dues at the Oscars, much less so in films that are so earnestly designed to be loved by children. Paddington 2 should be in contention for basically everything this year. On an objective level, it’s a near perfect film - and also the top rated film of 2018 according to Rotten Tomatoes - and its ingenuity will undoubtedly influence the next several generations of family films. No matter how bad the year got, we still had Paddington Bear. We also had Hugh Grant’s instantly iconic performance as Phoenix Buchanan, a washed up egotistical actor who becomes Paddington’s new nemesis. Grant is hamming it up to the nines with glorious panache, eschewing all notions of vanity to play an extremely vain man who dons perhaps the least convincing disguises ever created. It’s as much an act of self-mockery as it is great acting, a meta-performance on the entire notion of the Hugh Grant persona that has delighted and infuriated film lovers for several decades. Grant rightfully got a Bafta nomination for it last year but he deserves more. Phoenix Buchanan would agree with me.
Brian Tyree Henry in Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk
We could be here all day listing the great performances of Brian Tyree Henry, from his Tony nominated turn in Lobby Hero on Broadway - where he overshadowed a moustachioed Chris Evans - to his work on Atlanta that has garnered him a slew of awards attention. He was everywhere last year: From Hotel Artemis to BoJack Horseman to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and this year, he has no fewer than four film credits to his name. But we’ll focus on two roles today: Jamal Manning and Daniel Carty. As the local crime head turned political candidate in Widows, Henry was in many ways the cold dark heart of the story: The strongest exemplification of how the only way to win a crooked game is to be better at it than everyone else. He may not have been as menacing as his brother - damn, Daniel Kaluuya - but watching him turn from political faux niceness to murderous danger in an instant was enthralling. As for If Beale Street Could Talk? How do you steal a movie in less than ten minutes? Henry did that. Look, if Judi Dench can get an Oscar for 9 minutes of screen-time…
John Cho in Searching
John Cho has long been denied the leading man status he sorely deserves. Hollywood has remained too archaic and flat-out racist to embrace Cho’s endless charisma, even as he showed himself to be the stand-out star of many a terrible movie. Now that he’s aged into dad roles, he seems to have finally found a niche that the industry is willing to pay attention to. Searching shouldn’t work: It’s a cyber thriller that takes place exclusively online and features a lot of actors conversing vis screens where they’re never making eye contact with one another. Yet this role as a father frantically searching for his missing daughter through her web history is maybe the most interesting tole he’s ever had. Cho gets to display a remarkable level of range, and with so much of the film focused on close-ups of his face, we get to see everything he’s capable of, from poignant subtlety to infuriated panic. Fortunately, Cho has received recognition this season in the form of an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actor. If only we could get him more (and also mandatory mention that he should be Spike in the Cowboy Bebop series).
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace
Aside from Paddington 2, Debra Granik’s drama about a traumatized veteran who lives off the grid with his young daughter was Rotten Tomatoes’s best reviewed movie of 2018. And with good reason. Granik, making her first film since Winter’s Bone, expertly crafts this low-key story with empathy and understanding while never giving any easy solutions. There are so many moments in the film where Granik could have made this story garish or sensationalistic, painting characters as obvious baddies with bad faith intentions and she never does. Binding this story together are two stellar performances: Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, but it’s the latter who I think deserves particular praise. The New Zealand born actress is only 18 but is already displaying maturity and emotional resonance far beyond her years. She makes it seem so effortless, as if this is simply her lived life and Granik has been fortunate enough to capture it on camera. Harcourt McKenzie has been campaigned as a supporting actress, thus exacerbating awards season’s already ridiculous penchant for category fraud. Make no mistake, this is her story.
Kathryn Hahn in Private Life
Netflix seem to have thrown all their awards campaigning power behind Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. That’s not a bad thing. It would be good to see the film break through the streaming service ceiling the Oscars seem to stubbornly cling to, and it has a solid chance at winning Best Picture. But it would have been nice to see a little more attention paid to Tamara Jenkins’s deeply personal drama Private Life. Her first film in 11 years, Jenkins’s story of an artistic New York couple’s increasingly fraught attempts to start a family did something a lot of us have been crying out for: It gave Kathryn Hahn a film role worthy of her talents. She’s been a bit-part scene stealer in many a comedy series and showed some real range in the underseen Amazon series I Love Dick, but this is her most layered work so far, achingly vulnerable but still able to elicit big laughs from that pain. Like her equally excellent co-star Paul Giamatti, Hahn has this wonderful ability to project sympathetic warmth with enough of an abrasive edge to remind you that they’re all too human.
Nicole Kidman in Destroyer
It’s a shame there seemed to be a quiet backlash to Kidman’s work in Karyn Kusama’s gritty LA noir before most people ever actually saw it. The sheer abstract of that performance - another role where a glamorous actress gets drab and ‘ugly’ - seemed to turn off many potential viewers, even with the film’s strongly positive reviews. Best Actress is not as crowded this year as it has been, and there’s a decent chance Kidman could squeeze into the top five at the last minute, but it’s looking more and more unlikely. That’s disappointing because Destroyer is another great platform for Kidman to remind the world why she’s one of the gutsiest actresses on her level in Hollywood. Watching her jump from the optimistic undercover cop of her younger days to the bitter wreck she has become could seem so unbelievable in the hands of many great actresses but Kidman never lets the gimmick overwhelm her. She inhabits that haggard look and never allows her performance to be defined by it.
Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here
I’ve had a theory for the past couple of years that the more Joaquin Phoenix mumbles, the greater the movie is. So by my own metrics, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is basically a masterpiece. He barely says more than a handful of sentences throughout the film’s scant running time, and what is said is often barely legible. But it doesn’t matter. Few actors working today can do so much through sheer posture alone as Phoenix, and it’s never been more expertly used than in his performance as Joe, a splinter of a human being whose suicidal ideation is held off momentarily by his work in extracting trafficked young girls from brothels. You Were Never Really Here smartly eschews traditional on-screen violence in favour of focusing on the trauma it creates. You don’t see all that much blood or movie-style carnage but you do feel every iota of pain and emotional devastation it causes, and nowhere is that more evident than in the way Phoenix moves through a scene like a wounded bull. Phoenix had a really good 2018 - he’s also hilarious as the sociopathic doofus in The Sisters Brothers, jumping between sinister and slapstick silliness with ease - but this was him at the height of his powers, utterly unconcerned with notions of acting glamour or catharsis. Hey, maybe that Joker movie won’t be so bad after all?
John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers
Speaking of The Sisters Brothers, John C. Reilly also had a fascinating 2018 that was primarily defined by his status as one half of multiple on-screen double acts. He played Oliver Hardy to Steve Coogan’s Stan Laurel. He reunited with Sarah Silverman for the Wreck it Ralph sequel, and as for Holmes and Watson… Well, okay, we all make mistakes. But it was Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of the Patrick DeWitt novel that was his true baby of the year. He optioned the rights to the book, his wife produced it, he got the Palme D’Or winning French auteur to make his English language debut with it, and then he smartly gave himself the best role. As Eli Sisters, the calmer and more introspective of the two brothers, Reilly is in the role you’d imagine Phoenix playing, but he’s never been more alluring in his melancholy before. It’s a great reminder that yes, the guy from Step Brothers is also the guy from Magnolia. Of course, he’s also still the guy who does all those Will Ferrell comedies, and in this film, he gets some beautiful moments of physical comedy, including maybe the funniest tooth brushing scene on celluloid. Once again, I’m mad at the world for not making this movie a big hit.
Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows
2018 was another year that had us wondering why the hell there isn’t an Oscar for Best Ensemble. The casts of Black Panther, If Beale Street Could Talk and Widows, among many others, reminded us once more of Hollywood’s continued inability to keep up with the times, and the Academy’s preference for awarding flashy solo performances over a cohesive group working in tandem. Steve McQueen’s Widows was the perfect Exhibit A for such an issue, the exemplification of how the industry struggles to deal with stories on this particular scale. Of course, there were also plenty of standouts in this heist thriller. Viola Davis is always excellent but she’s arguably never had a movie role this layered before, juggling the flinty anger of a determined woman stripped of her options with the smothering grief and betrayal of a wife and mother who’s lost it all. I could probably list the entire cast of Widows here, with each of their unique qualities, and make a case for Oscar glory for every one of them - Colin Farrell’s faltering arrogance as the spoiled heir-in-waiting to a political throne; Daniel Kaluuya’s shudder-inducing terror as the most purely sociopathic character in the film; Robert Duvall on fine fiery form as a politician driven more by greed than altruism, and of course, the aforementioned Brian Tyree Henry - but special attention must also go to Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, a brittle woman defeated by an abusive late-husband and a manipulative mother who has taught her that her only worth is as a trophy wife, Debicki may have the most satisfying character arc in the film. Alice gets to prove herself as a woman capable of much more than being very pretty (and praise be to this film for not forcing Debicki to crouch down to male co-stars so they seem taller than her). We see her use her beauty as part of the heist planning but also the weary but familiar disappointment that comes when everyone around her still reduces her to a bimbo.
Toni Collette in Hereditary
There was a brief and shining moment at the beginning of the year when we all though that maybe, just maybe, Toni Collette had a chance at Best Actress. Granted, we awards prognosticators always fall into this trap, making wild predictions about long-shot films simply because there’s nothing else to talk about so early in the season. But here’s the thing: Toni Collette is revelatory in Ari Aster’s life ruining horror Hereditary. She’s giving several different performances that shouldn’t work in tandem but are held together through her sheer force of skill. She’s the mourning daughter, the psychologically traumatized mother, the over-boiled pot waiting to spill over at any time, and perhaps the best screamer of 2018. Laura Palmer levels of screaming, I promise you. Take out the supernatural elements of Hereditary, turn it into a harrowing family drama about grief and mistrust, and then this becomes the Oscar movie of the year.
Nicholas Hoult in The Favourite
It feels almost cheap to lament the lack of attention the man is getting in a movie dominated by fascinating, prickly and uniquely strange female performances. Yet Nicholas Hoult’s turn in Yorgos Lanthimos’s historical black comedy The Favourite merits further discussion. Lanthimos loves to make his actors find the bleak absurdities layered amidst the mundane, be it the increasingly unnerving domestic drama of a home life gone wrong (Dogtooth) or the absurdly complex machinations of relationships (The Lobster). The Favourite sees him rein in some of his more esoteric tics - he didn’t write the script for this film - but it’s still classic Lanthimos in its bone dry humour and dissection of human cruelty. Hoult plays Robert Harley, the 1st Earl of Oxford and member of parliament trying to fight the land taxes being implemented by Queen Anne and her favoured Whig Party. He’s the fop to end all fops, a ridiculously vain brat who always seem a step away from throwing a toddler tantrum. Hoult is clearly having the time of his life playing such a smarmy little man, with an overblown poodle-style wig and a cane he constantly rubs in an obviously phallic manner. Hoult is oft-overlooked as a serious acting talent, and The Favourite thankfully gives him a role with which he can truly show off. In a film full of great performances that will win plenty of awards, it may be Hoult who relishes his part the most.
Header Image Source: StudioCanal