Best Supporting Actress - Amy Adams - "Her"
Amy Adams may or may not turn out to be an Oscar nominee tomorrow—in the lead category, for the first time—for her performance in David O. Russell's "American Hustle," but she's hardly new to the supporting category: she's been nominated four times, though has never won. But neither of these things should mean that her turn in Spike Jonze's "Her," which we'd argue is an even better performance than her one in "American Hustle," should be overlooked. An entire world away from her British-accent-adopting hustler/survivor in the David O. Russell film, she plays one of the quartet of women (along with Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde and, of course, the vocal chords of Scarlett Johansson) on which the film pivots, in this case a close friend of Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore, who has her own marital difficulties and her own burgeoning relationship with an A.I. She's, ultimately, a sort of device, allowing parallels to be drawn with Theodore while serving as an added love interest for when it all goes sour with Samantha. But Adams does an enormous amount in terms of turning Amy into a real, fleshed out person, who, like Phoenix's character, is a little beaten down by life, capable of great anger or sadness but still warm and alive. It's one of our favorite Adams performances to date, and off the back of her wildly different turns in "The Master" and "American Hustle," is essentially proof that Adams should pretty much be in everything.
Best Supporting Actor - Jake Gyllenhaal - "Prisoners"
While it was warmly received at Telluride and Toronto, awards buzz dissipated quickly for "Prisoners," which, while liked by critics and audiences, was likely ultimately too pulpy to make much of an impression on a competitive race. It's a shame, because while the film's occasionally silly in its plotting, it's one of the more absorbing and well-made pure thrillers in recent years, and Jake Gyllenhaal gave a legitimately awards-worthy performance in it. On paper, the ludicrously named Detective Loki is a cliché: a loner cop who's solved every case he's ever had, and isn't going to let his latest one defeat him. But Gyllenhaal makes it something stranger than the archetype: with a blinking tic, tattoos and borderline Asperger-y social skills, he hints at a darker past a long way from his current path of law and order, one that the performance and film is smart enough to keep in the margins. Almost every choice the actor makes is a little unexpected, and his off-beat rhythms clash beautifully with Hugh Jackman's terrifying, grief-stricken revenge-bear. Clearly, Gyllenhaal and "Prisoners" director Denis Villeneuve have found fruitful collaborators in each other, as Playlisters who saw their other film together, "Enemy" (due for release next year), suggest it's something to get equally excited about. But for now, we're just pleased that the actor was able to elevate material that might have been by-the-numbers into one of the more exciting performances of the year.
Best Supporting Actor - 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.
Best Supporting Actor - Kyle Chandler - "The Wolf of Wall Street"
This year saw the Academy add a branch for casting directors, which has only intensified long-brewing talk that the Oscars should introduce a category honoring the often unsung people who fill movies with actors. No movie made that argument better this year than "The Wolf of Wall Street," and the work of casting director Ellen Lewis. Scorsese's latest picture has a ridiculously deep bench, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill doing career-best work, and with a whole host of unexpected figures turning in stellar performances, from veterans Rob Reiner and Joanna Lumley, to breakout star Margot Robbie, to smart filmmaker cameos like Spike Jonze and Jon Favreau, to the mostly unknown faces like P.J. Byrne, Aya Cash, Kenneth Choi and Henry Zebrowski, mostly drawn from the comedy world, who play Jordan Belfort's co-workers. But one of our favorite performances in the film comes from an actor who isn't exactly doing something unexpected. The idea of Kyle Chandler playing a straight-arrow FBI agent is sort of a no-brainer, but the actor takes minimal screen time and turns what could have been a generic role into something delightfully specific. The scene where he comes face-to-face with Belfort on the yacht is a terrific bit of writing, and an even better bit of acting, Chandler's Jimmy Stewart-esque aw-shucks facade gradually slipping to reveal the utter contempt that he holds for Belfort and those like him. Between that and his impressive performance in "The Spectacular Now," it's increasingly clear that Chandler's capable of much more than just being Coach Taylor.
Best Actress - Brie Larson - "Short Term 12"
Honestly, what's the point of even holding an awards ceremony in the year 2013 if you're not going to recognize one of the standout performances of the last twelve months? It's not to say that Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson et al. aren't deserving, but the slim likelihood of recognition for Brie Larson's thunderbolt of a performance in indie sleeper "Short Term 12" is the sort of thing that makes us want to tune out every ceremony between now and the end of February. Larson's been an actress of clear promise for a little while now, with striking turns in the likes of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "Rampart" and "21 Jump Street," but they barely hinted at the kind of range and depth the 24-year-old actress demonstrates in Destin Daniel Cretton's film as Grace, the supervisor of a foster-care facility with her own troubled history in the system. Seemingly playing older than her years, there's something deeply selfless and maternal about Grace, but with actual motherhood fast approaching, and a reminder of her own childhood popping up in the face of fiery abuse victim Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever, who's also great), the solid, responsible sense of composure falls away to reveal the fiery, fragile person underneath. Larson has to turn on a dime to pull off the many different facets of the character, and does so without the strain even nearly starting to show. She might not be a nominee now, but expect many to come over the years.