Though the box office may be down for 2019 overall, just about everyone agrees that this has been a remarkable year for award-worthy cinema. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon Time in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman, James Mangold’s based-on-a-true-story Ford v Ferrari, and Sam Mendes’ war epic 1917 are traditional Oscar films that should find themselves very much in contention this year. Meanwhile, upstarts like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell make a strong case for new international cinema.
Despite efforts by the Academy and other voting groups to bring younger and more diverse members into its ranks, the question remains the same: Will the voters go traditional or look to shake things up? No matter how many times films like Get Out, Black Panther, or Mad Max: Fury Road break through and take home golden statues, there are countless examples of overlooked greatness, like Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary or Ethan Hawke’s turn in First Reformed, that still failed to make it to Oscar night, despite their popularity and critical reception.
In a year when acting performances will have to contend with the star power of Al Pacino, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron, and Leonardo DiCaprio, many will need a bit of help to garner any attention. With that in mind, we’re making an early effort to bring lesser-known films and performances into the conversation. There will always be snubs and surprises come nomination day, but we’re hoping one or two of our outside-the-box but still worthy Oscar long shots can spark enough buzz to snag a nomination. Read on to check out our picks for the 16 best unsung award-worthy performances and let us know which ones you’re rooting for in 2020.
Don’t agree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.
The Role: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, the lovable genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, and leader of the Avengers
Why It’s Award-Worthy: You don’t need to take our word for why Robert Downey Jr.’s decades-long performance was award-worthy. Just listen to the MCU’s longest-running directors and helmers of its biggest production, Avengers: Endgame. When we asked Joe and Anthony Russo about Downey’s Oscar chances, they dubbed him, “The greatest actor of his generation,” after which Joe Russo added, “What he did in Endgame is a profound performance that moved people around the world on a scale we have never seen before. If that’s not worthy of awards. I don’t know what is.” Well, sir, we concur. If we look to Oscars history, Heath Ledger remains the only actor to garner a nomination (or win) for a superhero performance. And though Joaquin Phoenix is the frontrunner to join Ledger in that distinction, we shouldn’t count out RDJ just yet. His final bow was masterful and heartbreaking, and we think we can all agree that we loved it 3000.
The Roles: A boy’s imaginary version of Hitler and the Jewish girl he discovers hidden in his attic.
Why They’re Award-Worthy: Jojo Rabbit burst onto the awards season landscape when it took home the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The award has proven a strong indicator of support during awards season, as the past eight winners have gone on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Jojo Rabbit has been lighting up the specialty box office as well, something that critics groups and the smaller guilds love to support with a nomination, which could then lead to Oscar noms. Waititi told us that he was drafted to play the fictional version of the Nazi leader in part because “No one wanted the part,” but his hilarious, over-the-top take on the character is more than worthy for end-of-year honors. Similarly, Thomasin McKenzie, who was equally brilliant in last year’s Leave No Trace, is impressive again as the young Jewish girl forced into hiding to save her life. The New Zealand actress’ Mean Girls-meets-Anne Frank take on the character navigates Waititi’s tightrope of tone impressively, and we think she deserves some love for that.
The Role: Otis, a fictionalized version of Shia LaBeouf as a youth, when he was a troubled Disney star.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: At 14-years old, Noah Jupe has amassed a filmography that actors three times his age would envy. Reviews for A Quiet Place, Suburbicon, The Night Manager, Wonder, and his latest, Honey Boy, all sing the young thespian’s praises. In Honey Boy, the British actor plays a version of Shia LaBeouf as a child TV star, while LaBeouf himself, who also makes his screenwriting debut here, plays his father. As Otis, a boy tormented by daily abuse while doggedly trying to repair his relationship with his father, Jupe masters the emotion of a child breaking under the pressures of imposed adulthood. It’s an intimidating prospect for any actor, and it’s one of two powerhouse performances the teenager brought to the box office this year, the other being his co-starring role opposite superstars Christian Bale and Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari. Jupe should be up for many a young performer prize this season, but we argue that he has done more than enough to compete with — and triumph over — the adults.
The Role: A death row inmate who murdered a woman while tormented by PTSD.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: If there is any trepidation about Jamie Foxx earning his third Oscar nomination, it might be due to the fact that there’s another standout performance in his film. What Foxx does as the falsely accused Walter McMillian in Destin Daniel Cretton‘s Just Mercy is extraordinary, but what Rob Morgan displays in his limited screen time is also near-perfect. In a too-brief appearance, Morgan’s character wrenches both tears and laughter from the audience, and he’s the emotional catalyst for the film, with some critics saying he eclipses all of his co-stars, even Oscar-winners Brie Larson and Foxx.
The Role: A hilarious hustler and uncle to Queen, one half of the titular pair on the run.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Bokeem Woodbine is one of those actors who could make a phone book sound interesting. A familiar face from films like Dead Presidents and The Rock, he’s not quite a household name, though his role in Noah Hawley’s Fargo brought him to the attention of many. As Uncle Earl in Queen & Slim, Woodbine’s impeccable timing and delivery are on full display, and he never misses a beat. The sordid history between Queen and her estranged Uncle passes clearly across the New York actor’s face with more detail than pages of dialogue could ever explain.
The Role: Sister and primary character in the familial drama/love story.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Waves is an inventive and stylized narrative that follows a middle-class family in Miami, Florida. Russell plays Emily, the pre-teen daughter, Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays her brother, Renée Elise Goldsberry her mother, and Sterling K. Brown (one of our early picks for Best Supporting Actor) plays her Dad, and as a newcomer, she skillfully matches their brilliant performances. She disarms the audience in the second half of the film, and according to the director Trey Edwards Shults, she displayed that captivating vulnerability from her first audition, ‘On her audition tape, you couldn’t take your eyes off her. She didn’t have to say anything, and I was so compelled.’ As Emily, the tenderness and innocent of Russell’s gaze never faulters, even as she is inflicted with unspeakable life-altering trauma. An often missed part of the ‘love story’, perhaps the most passionate romance the audience experiences is their love for her character and investment in her happiness.
The Role: The eccentric best friend to Jimmy, who travels daily to his former home in San Fransisco.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: As a dedicated playwright and unwavering best friend, Jonathan Majors displays incredible presence in this quiet slice-of-life drama, part fable and part allegory, exploring the evils and consequences of rapid gentrification. In a year stacked with big-budget, A-list cinema, it will take a groundswell of support for a newcomer in a modest indie like The Last Black Man in San Francisco to compete with Brad Pitt and Al Pacino, but on the merits of performance alone, we argue he deserves consideration. As Montgomery, Majors remains reserved and observant, and it’s only in the final act that we get the triumphant and theatrical display of his profound insight into the world around him, particularly his beloved best friend.
The Roles: A painter and her muse who tragically fall in love on borrowed time.
Why They’re Award-Worthy: It’s Call Me By Your Name with corsets; need we say more? If we must, allow us to tell you that stars Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are hypnotic in a tale about love, art, and seduction. Artist Marianne (Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Haenel), a reluctant subject betrothed to a man she doesn’t love. As she attempts to complete the portrait, Marianne quarrels, flirts, and eventually falls in love with Héloïse, only for the pair to realize they have mere days to live in the bliss of their affair. The tragedy of their brief romance is only punctuated by its passion, and how drawn they are to each other. In this masterpiece of queer cinema, each actress seduces the audience as much as they do each other on screen. If you ever wondered how sexy a single silent gaze could be, watch Merlant and Haenel. It’s masterful.
The Roles: The actor-turned-director of the blaxploitation film Dolemite and his leading lady.
Why They’re Award-Worthy: Dolemite Is My name is a pitch-perfect story about “the hustle” of Hollywood and what it takes to make it. Similarly, its stars Wesley Snipes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are enjoying a Hollywood-styled comeback and debut, respectively. Snipes, whose personal and professional prospects took a hit in recent years, bounces back with this hilarious, preening take on actor D’Urville Martin, the real-life director of Dolemite. In a film stacked with comedy giants, Snipes goes toe-to-toe with comedians Mike Epps, Eddie Murphy, and Craig Robinson, and believe it or not, he bested them all for laughs. Similarly, newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph also brings the comedy and the emotional resonance as Lady Reed. As the actress marvels at seeing herself on screen at the premiere for the movie within the movie, the importance of representation hits the audience right in the feels.
The Role: Dani, one half of an American couple nearing a break-up when tragedy hits and they decide to take a trip to a midsummer festival in Sweden.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: It’s Toni Collette all over again! And no, we are still not over it. In a physical, twisted, and gut-wrenching performance, Florence Pugh gives us everything an actor can give over the course of Midsommar‘s 140-minute runtime. As she vacillates between debilitating depression and manic laughter, there isn’t a beat on the emotional spectrum she doesn’t nail. Now, we’re not saying there’s a bias against horror in the Academy, but there is, and we’d be lying if we said Midsommar isn’t more than a little messed up, because it is. But it’s also brilliant, and so is its lead actress. Just send voters the crying scene — that has to be enough for a nomination, right? If not, early word is that Pugh may get the nod for Little Women, in which case we can a least take a little solace in that, but only a little.
The Role: The brash and abusive French prince, the Dauphin.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Much was made of Robert Pattinson’s French accent when The King premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but if you get distracted by that, you may lose sight of how transformative he is in the role. Detestable and seductive, Pattinson’s Dauphin insults the stoic King Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) mercilessly. And according to Chalamet, it was so deeply insulting that he had no problem staying in character, i.e., hating him. A comedic but essential part of the narrative, the Dauphin is the (mostly) unseen but constant antagonist to every move Henry makes, and Pattinson runs away with every scene he’s in. We loved his work in The Lighthouse, but this role, campy and over-the-top in all the best of ways, is just as electrifying.
The Role: Detective Benoit Blanc, who is hired to investigate the sudden death of a famed mystery writer.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: We’re not saying it’s just the accent, but the accent is truly amazing. British actor Daniel Craig should pre-roll his best moments from Skyfall before voters watch him in Knives Out, just to remind them of his range. The fact that our current James Bond could pull off the Sherlock-styled New Orleans Detective Benoit Blanc flawlessly is beyond award-worthy. While solving the suspicious death of writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), he quips and quizzes the all-star cast while he chews every inch of the screen, with relish. Given that this a mystery that many haven’t seen, we will just leave you with this: Craig as Benoit Blanc can make the word “donut” side-splittingly hilarious and thought-provoking all in the same breath. Cue the awards music, please.
The Role: Kevin Garnett, of course.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: Okay, we know playing himself puts Kevin Garnett at a bit of an advantage, but if you’ve ever wondered just how difficult that can be, watch a couple of non-actors on Saturday Night Live. In truth, playing a version of yourself can prove more complicated than a wholly fictional character — we’re looking at you Micheal Jordan (even though Space Jam was great). But this is not Mike Tyson in The Hangover or another celeb stunt casting; KG truly brings the goods. As he holds the “uncut gem” that shady jeweler Howard (Adam Sandler) is trying to sell him, he exudes all the reverence of Gollum with his “precious” — another performance, by the way, that deserved multiple nominations and got none. Garnett also manages to pull this off against the backdrop of the Safdie brothers’ fast-paced and frantic-to-the-point-of-chaotic narrative, a feat that even veteran actors like Eric Bogosian and Judd Hirsch found challenging.
The Role: Comic Richie Tozier, an adult member of the Losers Club.
Why It’s Award-Worthy: We don’t know who Bill Hader should thank for his part in It: Chapter Two, writer-director Andy Muscetti for writing the brilliant and emotionally resonant role or Finn Wolfhard, who played Richie in the first It, for suggesting Hader play the adult role in the sequel. Maybe, just to be sure, he should thank both, because despite the film’s somewhat mixed reception, nearly everyone singled out Hader’s performance as the best part of the film. As in the first film, Richie is the foul-mouthed comedic vehicle for most of the laughs, but in Chapter Two, he matches that comedy with a heart-wrenching unrequited love story that had us all openly weeping in the final act. We still tear up just thinking about it.