Jennifer Lawrence - "X-Men First Class" (2011)
It's a measure of the extraordinary talents of Jennifer Lawrence that, at the age of 23, even aside from the three movies that she's been Oscar-nominated for, even aside from "The Hunger Games" series, and even aside from "The Burning Plain" (about which we wrote in a similar feature last year), there's still a number of roles that were contenders here. She's very strong in the otherwise dodgy horror film "The House At The End Of The Street," and shines with thankless characters in Jodie Foster's "The Beaver" and Drake Doremus' "Like Crazy." But it's actually her non-Katniss foray into blockbuster fare that we wanted to focus on here. "X-Men First Class" is by no way shape or means a good movie (except perhaps in comparison to some of the other latter-day X-movies), but it is held up by the performances of its leads, with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender (albeit hampered by a wonky accent) and Nicholas Hoult all doing strong work. But Lawrence might be the best of the three. Despite being hampered for much of the film by a heavy prosthetic make-up job, Lawrence does more to build a fully-dimensional character here than Rebecca Romijn did in three previous movies as the older version of the character: her Raven/Mystique is a sweet, lost kid with a sexuality that's about ready to explode, and a darkness inside her that Fassbender's Magneto gradually starts to exploit. For all its flaws, Lawrence brings a humanity to the movie that's rare for the genre, and while sequel "X-Men: Days Of Future Past" looks like a hot mess, we'll be checking it out just to see her reprise this role.
Julia Roberts - "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997)
Given that romantic comedy was her bread-and-butter for so many years, it's not entirely surprising that it was only with inspirational biopic "Erin Brockovich" that Julia Roberts won an Oscar (though she was nominated for "Steel Magnolias" and "Pretty Woman") -- romantic comedy hasn't been an Academy favorite since "Annie Hall." But it also means that some of the actress's best, most effortless work has gone unrecognized, not least "My Best Friend's Wedding," which even above "Pretty Woman," might be her finest achievement in the genre. Coming off a run of flops, this returned Roberts to her comfort zone -- except, that in some ways, it didn't. Sure, Roberts is charming and displays impeccable comic timing (Lucille Ball is namechecked at one point, and it's not an unfair comparison), but her character, Julianne, is a darker sort. Sure, she's trying to win over the man of her dreams, but she's doing it through manipulation, and by attempting to wreck another relationship. It's a delicate balancing act to pull off, but Roberts walks that tightrope like she's been doing it forever -- you're a little appalled by Julianne's behavior, but she's so likable and charismatic that you're sort of rooting for her nevertheless. Sadly, the romantic comedy has become so bowdlerized as a genre that she's rarely had a part of this quality in subsequent ventures, but it's a deceptively brilliant performance nevertheless.
June Squibb - "Getting On" (2013)
Even among the first-time actors in the supporting category, June Squibb is something of an outlier: she was a successful stage actress, without every appearing on screen, for thirty years. Even when she finally made her movie debut, aged 61 (as the assistant/nanny of the title character in Woody Allen's 1990 film "Alice"), it was in a small role, and while she's racked up impressive credits -- "The Age Of Innocence," "Scent Of A Woman," "In & Out," "Far From Heaven" -- they were pretty much day-player parts, with only a handful of lines, and not much chance to make an impression. Even in her earlier film with Alexander Payne, "About Schmidt," she's only in the movie for a few minutes before she pops her clogs. TV parts have been more substantial though (she played Larry David's real mother in "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), and there look to be more of those to come post-"Nebraska" as she'll play Lena Dunham's grandmother in an upcoming episode of "Girls." But the one we cherish (and, we'd argue, a performance better than the one she's Oscar-nominated for) is the one in the second episode of underwatched HBO nursing comedy "Getting On." It's in the same kind of vein as the "Nebraska" turn, in that she's a filter-free elderly person, but even more so: her character, Varla, a particularly difficult head-injury patient, is racist, homophobic, insists on smoking in the hospital, and makes passes at male patients before hissing "fuck you!" at them when they fail to respond. It's a gloriously funny and vanity-free performance (throwing up on herself like she's in "The Exorcist"), and awards worthy in and of itself.
Lupita Nyong'o & Barkhad Abdi - "12 Years A Slave" & "Captain Phillips" (2013)
Though their performances are wildly different, Lupita Nyong'o and Barkhad Abdi have one thing in common: their nominated turns, in "12 Years A Slave" and "Captain Phillips," are their first-ever pieces of screen acting. Nyong'o is a Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised Yale grad, who'll next be seen in Liam Neeson actioner "Non-Stop," while the Somalian-born, Minneapolis-based Abdi had been working as a chaffeur until he landed the role in Paul Greengrass' film. As such, they're not terribly good fit for this particular feature. But it's always worth shining a light on their current performances, given that Nyong'o is a wrenching force of nature as despairing slave Patsey, while Abdi is by turns terrifying and empathetic as the young leader of the pirates who take the Maersk Alabama. Regardless of whether they win on Oscar night, they'll hopefully have many more performances to come.
Check back next week for the underrated performances of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees, and let us know your thoughts on these choices below.