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.
Oscar Isaac - "Inside Llewyn Davis"
It's almost absurd that Oscar Isaac is on this list. In any other year, the actor would surely be a shoe-in for a nomination, but with the competition so stiff, and the star still a relative unknown, he's sadly likely to be frozen out. Still, we live in hope (a Spirit Award nomination bodes well), because almost no one is more deserving than Isaac. The film is the Coens' most focused character study since "Barton Fink," and it needed an actor of immense talent to hold the screen throughout: fortunately, they found one, in the shape of Isaac. In his hands, Llewyn Davis is an infuriating, arrogant, impossible man, but also a deeply sympathetic one. The performer's careful to show his talents, even if they're limited, and for all his more asshole-ish qualities, it's always clear how deeply wounded he is by his lack of success, by the suicide of his musical partner, by the fact that he's in love with someone who mostly has only contempt for him. It's a fully realized character at every level, and Isaac makes unexpected and inspired choices at every opportunity. He might not end up with a nomination, but he'll be remembered decades from now for this one.
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.
Pilou Asbaek & Soren Malling - “A Hijacking"
Overshadowed somewhat by "Captain Phillips" even though it premiered nearly a year earlier, Tobias Lindholm's Somali hijacking thriller was nevertheless an equally gripping, and very different, take on the subject matter. And as excellent as Tom Hanks in the lead role in Paul Greengrass' film, the co-leads of "A Hijacking," Pilou Asbaek and Soren Malling are just as awards-worthy. The former, best known for "The Killing" and "Borgen," brings his bear-like, Michael Shannon-ish presence to the ship's cook Mikkel, who suffers more than most during captivity, ending in a devastating conclusion that's just as powerful as Hanks' final scenes in "Captain Phillips." Malling, another "Borgen" veteran, meanwhile brings a buttoned-down gravitas to his company man determined to free his men and handle the negotiations himself, and Malling nails both the character's hubris, and his very real passion. There's very little to choose between them, and in an ideal world, they'd both be in serious consideration at this time of year.
Jack Reynor - "What Richard Did"
Barely anyone saw "What Richard Did," at least outside of its native Ireland—the film sadly made less than $3,000 in its brief theatrical run in the U.S. But lead Jack Reynor at least got in front of the right people, having won the lead role in next year's "Transformers: Age Of Extinction." While we're not ones to judge prematurely (*ahem*), we'd wager that Michael Bay's latest won't even use 10% of the potential that Reynor shows in his breakout role in Lenny Abrahamson's wrenching drama. Reynor plays the titular Richard, a popular, athletic student who, when testosterone, jealousy and alcohol gets the better of him, accidentally kills a romantic rival. Everyone grew up with someone like Richard: the golden boy you'd hate if he wasn't actually kind of a good guy, and Reynor feels immediately authentic, with a natural movie star charisma that makes him immediately recognizable. As a result, despite his terrible action, you feel genuinely nauseous for him as he sinks deeper and deeper into a moral quandary. The film isn't on the radar of any Academy voters, but if there's more like this down the line, it surely won't be long before we see Reynor nominated.