Amy Adams - "Sunshine Cleaning" (2008)
It's easy enough to forget, now that Amy Adams is such an Oscar fixture, that the actress really hasn't been around for all that long, as her rise to fame was positively meteoric after her first Oscar nod for "Junebug" in 2006. The actress is someone who has a habit of improving almost anything she's in, from lowbrow comedies like "Talladega Nights" to half-formed prestige pictures like "On The Road" to otherwise skippable blockbusters like "Night At The Museum 2" (which is obviously very bad, but she's terrific as Amelia Earhart in it). But one that we think is somewhat overlooked is "Sunshine Cleaning," one of her first post-"Junebug," post-"Enchanted" chances at a lead role. The film—about a pair of sisters (Adams and an also-very-good Emily Blunt) struggling to get by, who set up a crime-scene-cleaning business—is a little bit Sundance-by-numbers, the kind of movie that seems to have had an exact formula of comedy and pathos to combine with its indie-pop soundtrack and high-concept premise. But it has some agreeably rough edges, and more importantly, two terrific lead performances. Adams initially appears to be in the same kind of wheelhouse of upbeat optimism as "Junebug," which threatened to see her typecast before she struck out into newer territory, but it's actually something a little different. Her character Rose is putting a brave face on life, but is certainly beaten down by the various indignities, humiliations and tragedies she's had to suffer over the years, and the moments where Adams lets the mask slipped are all the more heartbreaking because of the perkiness of the role otherwise. And there's a simmering anger that not enough filmmakers take advantage of with the actress. If you skipped the minor indie hit but are an Adams fan, you should probably rectify that situation now.
Cate Blanchett - "Little Fish" (2005)
In general, Cate Blanchett has specialized in higher-status characters—most of her best-known parts, from her breakthrough role as Queen Elizabeth to her first Oscar as Katherine Hepburn in "The Aviator" to being an elf queen in "Lord of the Rings" have seen her as the person in control. "Blue Jasmine" is atypical in that it depicts the downfall of a once high-status character, but it's not entirely out of step, as anyone who saw the quiet desperation of her performance in 2005's "Little Fish." Her first real return to Australian cinema since she became a star sees her play Tracy, a former heroin addict now clean for four years, and trying to stay that way, despite the influence of an old dealer boyfriend (Dustin Nguyen) and an ex-sports star pal (Hugo Weaving, giving arguably the best performance of his career). You're so used to seeing Blanchett play icons and goddesses that it's deeply refreshing to see her take on something so low-key and naturalistic, and she's as good here as she is otherwise, whether playing the quiet desperation as Tracy tries to escape her troubled past, or the deep hunger that bursts up when she comes into contact with the drug that ruined her life. The film (directed by Rowan Woods) comes off the rails as it heads into melodrama in the closing stages, but the performances, not least Blanchett's, shine through nevertheless.
Sandra Bullock - "Infamous" (2006)
2006's "Infamous" was undercut and overshadowed by the previous year's "Capote," which took a virtually identical premise to Oscar-winning success. And there's a degree to which that's fair—the latter is a truly remarkable film, the former is a more traditionally Hollywood affair, glossier and shallower, and more sloppily made. But it's not without its pleasures, in the shape of a Toby Jones performance as Truman Capote that's only overlooked because of the titanic one that Philip Seymour Hoffman gave, and a lovely and atypical supporting turn from Sandra Bullock as "To Kill A Mockingbird" author Harper Lee. Bullock is an actress who very rarely takes on anything but lead roles, and at the time, she was mostly seen in romantic comedies or weepies, but her take on Lee is easily one of the best performances of her career. Given more prominence than Catherine Keener's performance in "Capote," Lee's a loyal friend to the film's subject, but there's a tiredness and frustration to the performance that feels more authentic and fully-realized, to the extent that you come out feeling like you'd rather have watched a movie entirely about Lee than the cruder retelling of the earlier movie that you just sat through. Warm, precise and beautifully drawn, it makes you wish that Bullock spent more time than she does on character parts like this.
Judi Dench - "Nine" (2009)
On stage, Judi Dench is known as well for her work in musicals as she is for her Shakespeare, despite not being known particularly as a singer: her performance as Sally Bowles in the London debut of "Cabaret" helped to make her a star, and her rendition of "Send In The Clown" in Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" is still talked about in hushed tones by London's theaterati (watch it and have your heart broken here). But on screen, she's not had much chance to flex her musical muscles, with one significant exception: in Rob Marshall's 2009 "Nine." The film was famously a whopping great disappointment, somehow managing to miscast Daniel Day-Lewis and generally coming across as a misfire. But the benefit of an episodic structure is that it's a film that works much better while watching clips of its few highlights (Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz's scenes) than as a whole, and Dench's particular showcase is one of those points that makes it look like an infinitely better movie than it really is. Dench is typically good value as the costume designer to Day-Lewis' film director when she's just speaking, but she's positively transcendent when performing her big number, "Folies Bergeres," a tribute to French showgirls and their outfits. Without the aid of effects or make-up, Dench seems to get four decades younger, letting her lovely, croaky voice evoke days gone by, and lending wry humor that's somewhat lacking elsewhere in the film. Marshall might be clinically unable to break out of the proscenium arch when he shoots a musical number, but in this case, that's a benefit: stage veteran Dench is absolutely magnetic in a way that, say, Day-Lewis or, uh, Fergie aren't when their turns come.
Meryl Streep - "Heartburn" (1986)
You wouldn't have thought that an actress with three Oscars and eighteen total nominations could have such a thing as an overlooked performance, but it's a testament to the legendary status of Meryl Streep that she has a brace of performances that weren't recognized by the Academy that only serve to reemphasize her greatness. You could go with the the meaty lead role of "Plenty," the villainy of "The Manchurian Candidate," the unexpected comic grotesque of "Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events," the country musical act of Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion," and even her sharp vocal turn in "Fantastic Mr. Fox." But we'd just give the edge to her performance in Mike Nichols' "Heartburn," which reunited Streep with Nora Ephron, the writer of the earlier "Silkwood." Telling the thinly-veiled story of Ephron's marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein (whose surrogate is played here by Jack Nicholson), it's a flawed, but interesting piece of work, but one that deserves reevaluation if only for the central performances. Two full decades before Streep reinvented herself as a comedic force of nature and made herself a bigger star than ever with the likes of "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Julie & Julia," this was her first chance to display her funny bone, and Streep is so good here that you wonder why more filmmakers didn't take advantage of her light touch before. The chemistry between her and Nicholson is palpable, but more importantly, Streep shifts between comedy and real, earned pathos on a dime, in a way that's much more successful than the film itself. The film's certainly not part of the Streep canon, but there's certainly an argument that it deserves to be.