In the few weeks since we put a spotlight on the Best Actor race, the competitive field has only tightened further. Robert Redford, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Hanks have only firmed up their status as near-certain nominees, and if there was any doubt that Bruce Dern would pick up a nod, the actor's fierce campaigning makes it more and more likely that it'll come to pass. Short of a real shock, or a swell of momentum for late entrants Christian Bale ("American Hustle") or Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Wolf Of Wall Street"), those will likely be your five nominees come January.
And that's a real shame, because as ever, there's a breadth and depth of talent that are likely, sadly, to go unrecognized. So, with voting approaching any day now, and having already looked at Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor, we've picked out ten performances from the last year that, in an ideal world, would be rewarded alongside the five frontrunners. Read our picks below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. And next week: Best Actress.
Mads Mikkelsen - “The Hunt”
It's pretty much a given at this point that Mads Mikkelsen will be the best thing in whatever he's in, but he's mostly familiar in the U.S. for his villainous turns, particularly in "Casino Royale" and "Hannibal." Which is one of the things that makes his casting in "The Hunt" (a performance that won Best Actor at Cannes in 2012, but sadly has little chance with the Academy) so clever. In Thomas Vinterberg's film, he's a thoroughly decent, almost saintly man, a schoolteacher so entirely baffled by the idea that he could be accused of sexual assault that he doesn't even think to defend himself. By putting the often-shifty Mikkelsen in the role, Vinterberg allows you to see how the town can turn against him, even with his absolute goodness never being in doubt. Some find the slow-burn excruciating, unable to understand why he won't stand up for himself, but Mikkelsen entirely sells both that, and his furious indignity when it finally comes. It's the best performance to date by one of our finest actors.
Simon Pegg - "The World's End"
Oscar and comedy rarely go well together—just think of the greatest comic performances in cinema history, and then shake your head at how few of them were ever recognized with an award. Given that it's a relatively small, esoteric British sci-fi action comedy, "The World's End" was less likely than most to prick the consciousness of Academy voters, but they'll be missing a trick by ignoring Simon Pegg's stunning lead performance. Though he's often been a likable presence, nothing in his career so far prepared us for Pegg's turn as Gary King, the goateed smackhead out to relive his glory days, only to stumble upon a body snatchers-style alien plot. King is borderline insufferable—a deeply selfish, maddening human being who ends up ending civilization as we know it due to being such a prick. But Pegg's innately winning qualities (and his comic gifts) somehow keep you invested in him all the time, and it pays off beautifully near the end, as the true pathos of Gary's existence becomes apparent. It was a revelatory performance in the best sense of the word, and has us keeping our fingers crossed that even if the Cornetto trilogy is done, Pegg and Edgar Wright will continue to come up with creations as bold as this one together.
Ethan Hawke - “Before Midnight”
With his career shifting worryingly into Nicolas Cage/John Cusack territory (three cheap exploitation flicks, "Sinister," "The Purge" and "Getaway," over the past year), we could have used a reminder of how talented Ethan Hawke really is. Fortunately, this year saw him reteam with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater for "Before Midnight," the third in their trilogy of love-story travelogues, and Hawke might have pulled off his finest hour in it. If the first film was about potential, and the second about that potential being unfulfilled, the third is about reality, and 'Midnight' presents an all-grown-up version of Jesse, imperfect and tired to the point of brokenness at being separated from his son. Of course, it's impossible to talk about these films by separating the central duo (and we'll get to Delpy in due course...), but while she was the clear stand-out in the earlier films, Hawke goes toe-to-toe with her in "Before Midnight."
Ali Mosaffa - “The Past”
After "About Elly," "A Separation" and now "The Past," Asghar Farhadi is starting to look like one of the best directors of actors in the world right now: there hasn't been a performance in any of his films so far that feels anything less than lived-in, multi-dimensional and totally convincing. While Berenice Bejo might have won the lion's share of honors, taking the Best Actress prize in Cannes (and rightly so), we wouldn't want Ali Mosaffa to be forgotten for his unbelievably fine work in the central role. The Iranian actor and director, mostly unknown in the West before now, plays Ahmad, who returns to France after a four-year gap to finalize his divorce from his ex-wife (Bejo), only to become caught up with troubles with her daughter and new beau. It's rather a passive character, in some ways, carried along by other events, but Mosaffa unveils real generosity and love in Ahmad, even as he shows glimpses of the reason that the marriage initially fell apart. It's the best kind of ego-free acting, enabling his co-stars while quietly stealing scenes himself, and as good as anything else you'll have seen this year.
Isaiah Washington - "Blue Caprice"
It takes a pretty special performance to come back from scandal, and whatever his previous sins, Isaiah Washington gives that kind of turn in "Blue Caprice." The actor's barely figured in any significant work since he was fired from "Grey's Anatomy" in 2007, but Alexandre Moor's retelling of the real-life Beltway Sniper killings puts him front-and-center as serial murderer John, and reminds us all of how impressive he could be at his best. He has a thin veneer of charisma on the surface—just enough that you can believe he can lead his surrogate son into terrible acts—but underneath is a terrifying and broken man, a portrait of evil and mental illness, or somewhere in between, that's not quite like any seen before on screen. Even if the film had found a wider audience, it's likely that Washington's baggage would have prevented a nomination, but if he keeps letting the work speak for itself like this, a full-on comeback could be on the way.
Honorable Mentions: Other performances that caught the eye of Team Playlist in the last twelve months include Conner Chapman in "The Selfish Giant," Dane DeHaan in "Kill Your Darlings," Josh Pais in "Touchy Feely," Chris Hemsworth in "Rush," Michael Shannon in "The Iceman" and Tony Leung in "The Grandmaster." Any others that you think deserve recognition? Let us know in the comments section below.