We’re just days into awards season, and already each new weekend is bringing movie fans the kind of noteworthy titles and buzzy performances that get voters and prognosticators talking. This weekend, Robert Redford returns to theaters – apparently for the last time before going into retirement – with his disarming and hilarious turn as an aging bank robber in The Old Man and the Gun; next week, the crowd-pleasing A Star is Born is primed to dazzle audiences in the same way it’s already captivated critics (it’s currently Certified Fresh at 94% on the Tomatometer).
The onslaught of big awards aspirants at this time of year is, of course, no accident. Studios postpone the release of movies they deem awards contenders to couple with ‘For Your Consideration’ campaigns and to ensure voters have the films and the performances in them top of mind when it’s close to voting time. It’s a strategy that works. Of the last three year’s Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards, only one film each year was released before September: Genre favorites Mad Max: Fury Road, Hell or High Water, and Get Out were the precious few that managed to remain in the conversation months after their release. Similarly, the acting categories are typically dominated by showings in later-in-the-year releases.
Here, we’re making a case for some actors who staked a claim for gold many months ago, some as far back as February. These are the impressive early-year performances that critics singled out, and we hope Oscar voters haven’t forgotten.
Toni Collette | Alex Wolff | Emily Blunt | Joe Cole | Helena Howard
We’re seeing more and more genre films land nominations – and wins – in major categories. Last year, Get Out and eventual Best Picture winner The Shape of Water topped various Oscar categories, while in other recent years, Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity, and Arrival have taken home golden statuettes. Still, the Oscar spotlight rarely shines on performances in genre films, particularly multiple genre performances in the same year. This year could be different. For Hereditary, released in June, Toni Collette managed to be both convincingly terrified and terrifying in a performance that’s unquestionably deserving of voters’ attention – critic Christy Lemire called it an “all-time great Toni Collette performance.” (And, on the subject of fierce horror performances, don’t dismiss Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place.) Hereditary costar Alex Wolff also has a chance to join Collette for his unsettling and eerie turn as teenage Peter in the supporting categories. But don’t overlook some of the less prominent indie genre darlings, too. Joe Cole, in a primarily non-verbal role, transformed into a gut-wrenching bare-knuckle boxer in A Prayer Before Dawn. Hard to watch but impossible to shake, Cole – who many may remember from Black Mirror‘s “Hang the DJ” episode – gives an astounding and, according to critic Stephanie Watts, “brilliantly physical performance.” Like Cole, newcomer Helena Howard wowed critics as the titular character in Madeline’s Madeline; Minneapolis Star Tribune critic Colin Covert called her a “once-in-a-generation talent” in his review of the film.
Lupita Nyong’o | Danai Gurira | Michael B. Jordan
Black Panther will likely land several Oscar nominations. Below-the-line contributions from costume designer Ruth E. Carter, production designer Hannah Beachler, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison will probably receive their due, but there are a handful of onscreen efforts that we should keep in mind six months after the film stormed into theaters, particularly the work of Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. As Nakia, Nyong’o preached the virtues of Killmonger’s message without adopting his ‘by any means necessary’ militant approach, while Gurira balanced ferocity and grace for a surprisingly emotional portrayal of the Dora Milaje general, Okoye – her tearful threat to her husband Wakabi, played by Daniel Kaluuya, still delivers the chills. “Men quail before her,” Vulture’s David Edelstein wrote of Gurira’s Okoye in his review. “Black Panther gives her a wide berth. Everything in her affect says ‘uncontainable’.” Letitia Wright as Shuri is a fan favorite but unlikely to get any traction with voters – though stranger things have happened. Of the men, while Winston Duke impressed as M’Baku, Michael B. Jordan‘s Killmonger might be one of the strongest supporting performances of early 2018. Uncompromising and charismatic, Jordan was the ultimate antagonist, delivering biting one-liners laced with social commentary and shaping what many have called the most complex and interesting villain in the MCU.
Charlie Plummer | Brady Jandreau | Elsie Fisher | Rachel McAdams | Ben Foster | Ethan Hawke
Understated, early-in-the-year performances tend to be subsumed by the showier stuff that hits screens during awards season, but this year we could be different. Pay particular attention to Charlie Plummer in Lean On Pete and Brady Jandreau in The Rider. Plummer disarmed critics as an unassuming runaway, journeying to find a home for himself and his aging racehorse Pete, and the role cemented the All the Money in the World co-star as a young actor to watch. Meanwhile, Jandreau’s performance in The Rider is so subtle that its brilliance takes a minute to creep up on you – AARP‘s Tim Appelo writes that Jandreau has “the presence of a screen veteran” in his debut. The same could be said for Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Bo Burnham’s authentically awkward and heartrending Eighth Grade. Ben Foster earned praise for Leave No Trace (Certified Fresh at 100%), as did Rachel McAdams in Disobedience; whether they can compete with the likes of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga come ballot-time, though, remains to be seen. Among the set of quieter performances that earned acclaim early in the year, Ethan Hawke’s as an equal-parts nihilistic and hopeful priest in First Reformed seems the surest bet to be in the awards conversation. Questioning his faith and ultimately his existence, Hawke is unyielding and devastating in a performance that multiple critics have called a “career best.”