Ben Foster - "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"
Quietly, for fifteen years or so, Ben Foster has been doing absolutely sterling work on a consistent basis, standing out even in questionable affairs like "Hostage" and "360." He might well be in the awards running for real next year, playing Lance Armstrong for Stephen Frears, but he certainly deserves to be in the conversation this time around. Though he's also put out strong work in "Lone Survivor" and "Kill Your Darlings," his performance in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is certainly the best in that film, and might be the best of his career to date. The focus of David Lowery's film is on the one-time runaway lovers played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, but the real heart of the picture is Foster's Patrick Wheeler. Patrick is a police officer who was wounded by a shot from Mara's Ruth during their stand-off, though he believes it was fired by Affleck's Bob. The years pass, and Patrick has befriended Ruth, and, being desperately in love with her, clearly wants more. Decency is a difficult thing for an actor to play without seeming dull, but Foster manages it here: Wheeler is a genuinely good man, one that represents a new life for Ruth, and there's a quiet stoicism to the way that he conducts himself that's deeply moving. The film subtly shifts its attentions to him as it closes, to the extent that you end up wishing that the focus had been on Foster throughout: it's the best kind of supporting turn, the one that feels like it could be a lead in a different movie. As such, we hope it won't go totally forgotten come voting time.
James Franco - "Spring Breakers"
Let's not beat around the bush here: for all our pleading, there is exactly no chance of James Franco's Alien in Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" being recognized by the Academy. Bravely, A24 have been campaigning for him, but even if older Academy voters get around to watching the film, the opening sequence of slo-mo "Girls Gone Wild"-style debauchery is likely to mean that they don't get as far as Franco's entrance. And even if they do, a performance that we described in our review of the film as "Matthew McConaughey doing an impression of Lil' Jon" is hardly the kind of thing that usually appeals to the Academy. And that's a shame, because Franco's never been better than he is here as his dread-locked, metal-mouthed Miami Beach Fagin. Alien's a principally comic creation, and a broad one at that (it sometimes feels like he's channeling buddy Danny McBride), but the actor gives him all kinds of texture along the way—a trademark sexual ambiguity, a slightly hapless puppy feel as he falls under the spell of his Spring Breakers, and ultimately, he becomes a somewhat pathetic, tragic figure. It's a hilarious performance, but also a deeply sad one, and a reminder that when Franco is focused on a project, he can go blow-for-blow with anyone.
Ray McKinnon - "Mud"
Even for those that didn't entirely connect with the film as a whole (this writer included), "Mud" was a veritable cornucopia of excellent male performances, from Tye Sheridan's lead and Jacob Lofland as his buddy, to Matthew McConaughey's title character (which, were it not for "Dallas Buyers Club," would surely be a bigger force in the awards season), to Joe Don Baker's villain, and Michael Shannon's atypically warm cameo. But we'd argue the finest performance in the film came from a somewhat undersung but ever-reliable actor who does an awful lot with relatively little screentime: Ray McKinnon, as the father of Sheridan's Ellis. You may not necessarily know the name, but you probably know the face: McKinnon had substantial roles in "Deadwood" and "Sons Of Anarchy," had a part in "The Blind Side," previously cropped up in director Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter," and even won an Oscar, alongside his late wife Lisa Blount and Walton Goggins, for the short film "The Accountant" in 2001. But in a good year that also saw him create the excellent Sundance Channel series "Rectify," he gets his best big-screen showcase to date. Senior, as he's known, is a fairly decent man, but clearly somewhat feckless, and crushed by the dissolution of his marriage, but still harsh and stern. McKinnon's careful not to make Senior weak, but the moments when he shows real vulnerability are among the most moving in the film. "Mud" is, ultimately, a film about fathers and sons, and though his role is small, we are surprised at how little McKinnon's performance has been talked about as awards season has approached, because it's a crucial one to the piece as a whole.
Also Worth Considering: James Badge Dale has been omnipresent this year, consistently stealing the show, but is probably best in the otherwise-terrible "Parkland," proving the film's one saving grace. Bill Nighy is at his Bill Nighy-iest, to great effect, in "About Time," while Jason Schwartzmann does very solid work in "Saving Mr. Banks" that's going to be overlooked in favor of co-star Tom Hanks. Emory Cohen turned a lot of heads in "The Place Beyond The Pines," while from the smaller part of the world, Myles Paige was incredibly compelling as Papageorge in Andrew Bujalski's great "Computer Chess." From the more comedic side of things, Danny McBride was a force of nature in "This Is The End," Ben Kingsley walked away with "Iron Man 3," and Moises Arias came up with one of the year's most memorable comic creations as Biaggio in "The Kings Of Summer." And finally, the chances of a Michael Bay movie picking up anything less than technical nominations are incredibly slim, not least for a film as disappointing as "Pain and Gain," but that doesn't change the fact that Dwayne Johnson gives a tremendous performance in the film, proving for once and for all that he's capable of more than just action parts.