Few actors have received the Academy’s recognition for performances in genre cinema, despite the sometimes stunning interpretations those stories allow for. Linda Blair (The Exorcist), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs), Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense), and, more recently, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) are among the limited exceptions to that unfortunate truth.
The dismissal of Toni Collette’s remarkable turn in Ari Aster’s terrifying Hereditary, as a mother on the brink of losing her sanity in the face of supernatural tragedy, proved that Oscar voters don’t often see the work in horror, science-fiction, fantasy, and their many subsets on the same plain as the more traditionally dramatic work they celebrate year after year. For every star that earns a nomination for a biopic, countless others miss out for daring parts in boundary-pushing genre productions.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that great acting in genre films isn’t out there consistently. This year alone, Lupita Nyong’o has received considerable praise for her dual turn in Jordan Peele’s Us – and has racked up a few awards already – and so has Willem Dafoe for his role in the bizarre black-and-white buddy nightmare The Lighthouse. However, there were many other actors who challenged themselves playing offbeat characters or the grounded-in-reality centers of some excellent genre fare.
Psychologically complex characters abound in these movies, which present unique challenges for the actors embodying them – being haunted by malevolent specters, lost in space, tormented by mental illness, or adored by cult members is no easy task. Below, we’ve highlighted 12 actors whose blood-curdling, exhilarating, and even moving appearances in genre movies released in the U.S. this year impressed us enough to advocate for their well-deserved accolades.
Take note, Academy.
What was your favorite genre performance of the year? Let us know in the comments.
The Role: Richie Tozier, a comedian who returns to his hometown to face a killer clown alongside his childhood posse.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Hader’s adult version of Richie captures the spirit of the character as played by Finn Wolfhard in the first installment of Andy Muschietti’s two-part saga. He grapples with the past through humor and in turn adds a thin layer of lightness to the gruesome saga of the Losers Club, who return to Derry to find that Pennywise — the supernatural being that wants them dead and won’t leave them alone — isn’t gone. Instead of playing Richie’s coping mechanism purely for laughs, the gifted actor fully embodies Richie and his inner turmoil, building up to a tear-inducing finale. Having said that, seeing Hader as a self-deprecating trash-talker who doesn’t miss a single moment to make a joke, even when someone has just been murdered, is a weird pleasure we don’t feel guilty about.
The Role: An introverted college student haunted by a diabolical imaginary friend.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Although you might remember Robbins as the man bun-wearing hipster in parental comedy Blockers or the doomed hipster boyfriend in 2018’s Halloween, he has serious range, and it’s on display in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s psychological horror feature. As Luke, a student struggling with his own mental health while caring for his schizophrenic mother, the actor essentially delivers two distinct personalities: First, he is an insecure young man dabbling in dating, but when his old imaginary pal Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) returns, he becomes aggressively masculine right until the new personality fully takes over. The last segment of this under-the-radar creepout gives Robbins the opportunity to truly go all-out with the transformative nature of his performance.
The Role: The leader of a French dance troupe that collectively devolves into a drug-induced trip into madness.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: What the Algerian-born French dancer, model, and actress brings to Gaspar Noé’s intoxicating and provocative vision is sheer emotional rawness. Following a string of action movies – including Kingsman: The Secret Service, Atomic Blonde, and The Mummy – Boutella entered the void of the auteur’s latest mind-bending project to great results. Drugged out of her mind, Selva, her character, roams around a gym where her fellow dancers have also ingested an unknown substance and are morphing into instinct-driven beasts. From executing the incredible choreography that opens Climax to her furious outbursts and the disturbing mindlessness she exhibits, the talented multi-hyphenate lures us into this dehumanized underworld with every wild step. Physical and visceral throughout, Boutella brims with fiery energy.
The Role: Rose the Hat, the head of the True Knot cult that preys on Shiners and feeds off of their psychic powers.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Ferguson’s flamboyant villain is part Mad Hatter and part ruthless vampire. In the Swedish thesp’s hands, Rose the Hat exudes a mixture of sophistication and cruelty enhanced by her sleek outfit and centuries-old hat. There’s an unnerving self-assurance in her despicable mission that makes us fear and admire her. Previously seen in blockbusters like Mission: Impossibles Rogue Nation and Fallout and The Greatest Showman, Ferguson has continued to build momentum, and this Stephen King adaption is no exception. Even if critical reception for Doctor Sleep wasn’t unanimously positive –it’s sitting just inside the Certified Fresh zone – Rose the Hat became a fan favorite. Whether she is stealing the life force out of a person cursed with the Shining – rather horrifically in one pivotal scene – or reading their thoughts from a supermarket, she rocks the nefariousness.
The Role: Ruth, a recovering drug addict from a lineage of Black women with superpowers who’s on the run from government agents.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Despite its hyper-limited release and muted reception at the box office, Julia Hart’s sophomore feature found an audience and some serious affection through online word-of-mouth. One of its major assets is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s commanding presence as a young mother with substance abuse issues caused in part by her inability to control the super-human abilities she was born with. Far from a one-dimensional superhero type, Ruth is conflicted about her life choices and even more so about the power she didn’t ask for. The actress subtly and skillfully conveys the pent-up frustration and guilt the protagonist carries for not being a part of her young daughter’s life in a world where water is scarce. The genre elements are always present, but Fast Color works because it cares more about the multigenerational relationships between Mbatha-Raw and her co-stars Saniyya Sidney and Lorraine Toussaint.
The Role: A deranged European widow obsessed with befriending younger women.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: There are no limits to the ways in which French icon Isabelle Huppert can surprise us with each new credit she puts under her elegant belt. For Irish director Neil Jordan’s ’90s-style stalker-thriller, she embraces one of the most wonderfully demented women she has personified in her jaw-droppingly prolific career. In the skin of the title character, a mysterious widow desperate for attention, Huppert goes full-on cuckoo as she lurks around New York City and harasses Chloë Grace Moretz’s character. A scene inside a restaurant where she loses her temper and another where she maniacally twirls while holding a dangerous syringe make for something deliciously unexpected. Nominated for an Oscar once before for Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, as a rape survivor seeking revenge, the goddess of international cinema clearly has no plans to stop amazing us.
The Role: Sheila, a bank teller who buys a new red dress to get back into the dating scene, but ends up being tormented by the wicked garment.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Knitted within Peter Strickland’s giallo-infused horror diptych is a sharp commentary on the weaknesses and desires we all try to escape or fulfill and how evil prays on them. That’s why having Oscar-nominated actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies) act as the emotional anchor of this stylish contender for the most WTF movie of the year feels essential. Sheila is not a mere vehicle for the movie’s madness or just another victim, but rather a woman who wishes to find a partner, whose relationship with her adult son has deteriorated because of his live-in girlfriend, and who, on top of that, has to deal with a freakish piece of clothing that turns her washing machine into a deadly weapon. The near-absurdity of a screenplay centered on a killer dress is grounded thanks to Jean-Baptiste.
The Role: Roy McBride, a decorated major in the U.S. Space Command and the son of a legend.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Each time a melancholic Brad Pitt wearing an astronaut suit stares into the camera in James Gray’s powerful sci-fi drama, we can sense a profound emptiness, an emotional void that not even an accomplished professional life can fill. With Earth’s future threatened by a phenomenon known as the surge, Major McBride is sent on an outer space mission to save the planet, which may force him to confront his long-lost father. Set in a near future where the moon has become just another enclave of humanity’s voracious ambitions, this spiritual space odyssey is, at its core, a father-son story focused on a man looking for intimate answers in the vastness of the universe. An understated Pitt, both on screen and in voiceover, delivers some of his most finely tuned work.
The Role: Alice, a scientist who creates a “happy flower” meant to help improve the owner’s mood, but instead produces perverse side effects.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: The jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival made a point by awarding Beecham the Best Actress prize for her subdued performance in this eerie slice of science-fiction. Her cerebral character, Alice, is a meticulous plant-breeder and a mother whose most ambitious enterprise yet is a sterile flower that requires lots of care to make it produce a hormone that’s supposed to make people joyful. Beecham begins the film stoically, with her Alice uninterested in developing any relationships at work; it’s only when her teenage son Joe’s (Kit Connor) attitude changes, possibly because of her creation, that she loses her controlled façade. It’s a mostly internal performance, but the precise Beecham knows exactly when to imbue her gaze to communicate anguish, disbelief, and regret. Not a typical awards-winner, but it should be.
The Role: Dani, an American woman coping with a devastating family tragedy while on a bizarre trip to an almost otherworldly Swedish festival.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Flower crowns can’t hide the immense grief and romantic woes that afflict a young American couple on the brink of separation in Ari Aster’s sun-drenched terror fest. As Dani, Pugh’s face flits between gut-wrenching fear, disappointment, delirious joy, and ultimately menacing empowerment. In her darkest hour, the strange cult that welcomes her could actually mean her salvation. Pugh has enjoyed a banner year with Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and her incredible but under-seen lead role as an aspiring wrestler in Fighting with My Family. It’s difficult to argue which of these three efforts is the greatest, but the notable physicality and mentally draining situations that Midsommar required may tip the needle in its favor. Still, having multiple praise-worthy releases in a single year automatically makes her the queen of the whole year, not just May, in our opinion.
The Role: A spineless director tasked with creating an absurd zombie movie for Japanese television.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: In this ingenious horror-comedy movie about making movies, Takayuki Hamatsu, making his movie debut, breathes life into a filmmaker whose bad reputation has pushed him to take whatever job he can get – including a low-budget zombie production to be broadcast live on TV. A natural pushover, the fictional director endures criticism from his daughter and wife at home, but once on set he must act tough to brave the ridiculous obstacles that await him. On the surface, Hamatsu’s hilarious take on an incompetent creator finding a new alter-ego behind and in front of the camera could seem broad, something we’ve seen before. But what’s required of him – and what he delivers – is a deft understanding of the screenplay’s tonal shifts and the movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie mechanics of this incredibly clever piece of cinema. He gifts us laugh-out-loud brilliance.
The Role: Grace Le Domas, a bride who unknowingly marries into a murderous family.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: When we first meet Grace, right before she walks down the aisle, her spirited demeanor is infectious. She is unequivocally ecstatic to be getting married, and that effervescence follows her right up to the moment when she discovers that her now-husband’s family treasures a psychopathic and ritualistic tradition: Her in-laws, the Le Domases, want to murder her before dawn via a gory game of hide-and-seek. Weaving, an up-and-coming Australian actress, handles this transition from joy to panic, and later to pure survival mode, with complete believability – and never loses her edgy sense of humor. This is a woman in love forced to rip apart her gorgeous dress, dodge literal bullets, and bash people’s heads in order get through the night. As the twisted plot escalates, the darker parts of Grace awaken, and Weaving renders that blend of emotions impeccably.
The Role: El Shine, a jaded young boy trying to survive in a merciless Mexican ghost town.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Issa López’s unforgettable dark fantasy features a remarkable troupe of young performers, many of them first-timers, as a group of children fending for themselves in a nameless Mexican city where criminals run the streets and most people have mysteriously disappeared. Among the cast, Juan Ramón López stands out as a young man whose innocence has been ravaged by his environment. But when Estrella (Paola Lara), a girl searching for her missing mother, joins the crew, El Shine shows glimpses of the child’s buoyancy that he’d suppressed. Playing a kid who’s far from likable and contains such heavy emotions at such a young age could easily be daunting, but López channels the right amount of anger and determination into his character.
Thumbnail image: @Gabor Kotschy / Courtesy A24, Brooke Palmer / © Warner Bros., Jacob Yakob / © Codeblack Films