Diversity aside, the largest problem with this year’s crop of Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards is that too few of the higher profile films this year had compelling male leads. Even among those nominated there’s the sense that many were chosen simply because the media-crafted narrative said that they were to be taken seriously, rather than for actual merit.
The truth is you had to look outside the expected crop of high profile Oscar bait to find performances worth celebrating. They aren’t the obvious choices for awards consideration, most are too strange and complicated to be frontrunners, but there were great performances hiding in the margins behind the few that have been championed from the start of the race.
Here are 12 Actors Who Should Have Been Nominated For A Best Actor Oscar in 2015.
13. Peter Sarsgaard – Experimenter
Experimenter is a fascinating work of post-modern art that hinges on the talents of its leading man. Peter Sarsgaard sheds all traces of ego to play the infamous social psychologist Stanley Milgrim. Donning a fake beard and adopting a depressive monotone for the duration, Experimenter is a film which itself becomes an experiment in watching a man resist change throughout his life.
Sarsgaard, never more thrilling than when able to quietly explain complex strains of human behavior, is never showy nor self-conscious, allowing his emotions to quietly show from behind a mask of disappointment and indifference to the world.
12. Michael B. Jordan – Creed
Sylvester Stallone’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor feels like a loving send off to an actor nearing the age he might be reasonably expected to retire. It just happens to come at the cost of the other acting styles on display in the movie he’s nominated for. Stallone is a big actor, even when playing a regular guy.
His screen partner in Creed, Michael B. Jordan, the lead of the film, acts in a smaller, more intimate style. He talks like a young kid would, his mannerisms perfectly and subtly showcasing everything a bigger performer would try to make clear through big gestures. Jordan is all naturalism and easy charm, but performances like that, where the audiences can’t see how much work is being done to achieve this level of realism, rarely get rewarded.
11. Jason Bateman – The Gift
Jason Bateman should have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in The Gift for a dozen reasons. He used his screen persona as the put-upon every man to his advantage, making everyone suspect that, once again, he’s just a harmless mensch at the mercy of a stalker. When the film reveals its hand, Bateman doubles down on his presumed innocence while behaving like the world’s creepiest aging alpha male.
His life crumbles and we should feel sympathy for him but his intense masculine behavior makes it impossible to sympathize. The man who had it all becomes the villain in his own story. That is no easy thing, least of all when no one ever lets you play dramatic roles.
10. Leland Orser – Faults
Leland Orser is one of American film’s secret weapons. He plays loners better than anyone, but rarely gets a chance to shine as a leading man. Riley Stearns’ Faults changed all that. Orser plays an expert on cults at the end of his tether. In debt, out of options and with no place to sleep, he accepts a job deprogramming a woman who was recently removed from a cult.
The headgames begin immediately and Orser’s achingly humane desperation in the face of one terrible turn after another is absolutely heartbreaking and enthralling. Character actors like Orser so rarely get meaty roles like this, so the few opportunities we do get to see them giving performances like this should be treasured.
9. Emory Cohen – Brooklyn
The screen time Emory Cohen has in Brooklyn may, according to rules and regulations, relegate him to Supporting Actor, but the fact is he’s the single most important element of Brooklyn’s success. After all, Saoirse Ronan’s Ellis wouldn’t have much of a crisis of confidence if the boy she left behind when she returned to Canada weren’t someone you knew she belonged with.
Tony would have to be someone whose sincerity leaks out of his wry smile, whose cool attitude can’t disguise his warmth, who so clearly wants to make her life better in whatever way he can. Cohen may not have the required minutes of screen time, but he’s the beating heart of Brooklyn.
8. Walton Goggins & Samuel L. Jackson – The Hateful Eight
The plaudits for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight have somehow not included deciding on a lead actor to reward. Truthfully, both Walton Goggins’ eccentric, excitable hillbilly and Samuel L. Jackson’s loquacious bounty hunter-turned-detective deserve the honor. Goggins fiery body language dancing around his exhaustion and confusion as tension mounts in the haberdashery where The Hateful Eight unfolds make him an engaging audience identification figure. Were it not for his racism and mean-spiritedness, that is.
Jackson on the other hand, is as commanding a screen presence as he’s ever been, but here he’s our eyes and ears to the escalating violence. We trust him implicitly from the moment he appears on screen, despite the fact that he’s sitting on a pile of bodies. They have nothing in common, the characters, nor the performers, except for their mesmerizing turns as bad men.
7. Tom Courtenay – 45 Years
For years Tom Courtenay was symbolic of the rising tide of unease and rebellion in British film. He was the young actor who gave the finger to authority figures and the banality of destiny time and again. Seeing him at 78 as a man who’d settled into marriage in Andrew Haigh’s masterful 45 Years is an odd sight to anyone familiar with his early work.
The discord is purposeful, for, no sooner have we see him as a contented husband that the cracks begin forming on the sheen of his perfect marriage and life. He’s been keeping secrets and the more he lets them rule into his life, the more he seems a man haunted by the passing of time. He wants to keep his life but take solace in the comforts of the life he once knew, and doesn’t see that the two can’t co-exist. Courtenay’s wavering in the face of the future is deeply worrying, enervating and sad. Courtenay may no longer be the angry young man of British film, but he’s still one of its most talented actors.
6. Jacob Tremblay – Room
A lot of deserved attention has gone to Brie Larsen, who’s been quietly good in everything she’s ever touched, as the actor at the center of the emotional, middlebrow sleeper Room. She’s on equal footing with her young co-star Jacob Tremblay, as the baby she didn’t want but now loves more than anything. The two craft a believable relationship in the confines of their tiny, square prison based on the lies Larsen has told Tremblay all his young life.
He has to not only play a believable kid whose life experience is dictated by Larsen’s whims, but then explode his little world as she reveals the lies in order to enlist his help in escaping. The film’s unremarkable direction makes young Tremblay’s work all the more impressive.
5. Joshua Burge – Buzzard
Joel Potrykus’ excellent Buzzard is like a microbudget version of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for a post-recession America. Experience and punctuality have stopped being enough to guarantee the nation’s slackers a job. Burge plays a man used to cutting corners and skating by. Unfortunately so is every other young white guy in Detroit.
He’s not special, no matter how much special attention he requires. His threadbare living becomes increasingly feral and paranoid as he runs out of money and his usual scheming stops working. His big, hungry eyes and wiry frame make him look like a caged animal, and in many ways he is. The cage is an urban landscape with no place for him. He reacts with believably violent frustration when he realizes no one is coming to his rescue.
4. Ben Mendelsohn – Mississippi Grind
Ben Mendelsohn seems to be in everything these days, but even now that he’s become the busiest man in show business, he still never phones anything in. This year alone saw him anchor the TV series Bloodline, take supporting roles in four different movies and play Gerry in the marvelous, subtle character study Mississippi Grind, one of his best performances.
It lacks his usual, welcome ticks (he never seems crazy or mean-spirited here, just deeply lonely and socially inept) and instead goes for full on honest failure. Gerry is a degenerate gambler who can’t say no to another fix. Mendelsohn never tries to make him pitiable, his behavior does that, instead finding strength in his irrepressible spirit and chipper sociability. After all, no one sees themselves as a bad guy, and Gerry is no different. He loves the little reprieve from life’s many disappointments that gambling offers him. What’s more human than that?
3. Will Smith – Concussion
Though his star power has faded in recent years and his children’s shenanigans have left a wake of tabloid coverage and curiosity in their wake, the former Fresh Prince proved this year that he is still worthy of attention. As Bennett Omalu, the Nigerian doctor who took on the NFL to prove the dangers its players were facing.
Though Smith looks nothing like the real-life doctor he’s playing, and his attempt to replicate a Nigerian accent could have been seen as opportunistic, but Smith nevertheless embodies Omalu, and you never question the authenticity or integrity of his performances. Though Smith has devoted most of his career to action movies, it’s in films like Concussion and Ali that he really proves his worth as an actor.
2. Géza Röhrig – Son of Saul
The poet Géza Röhrig had never acted in a film before taking on the lead role in the holocaust drama Son of Saul. Röhrig’s life as an artist, did, however, adequately prepare him to let his face become a mask upon which horror and tragedy are projected.
As a man whose life may end horribly at any minute, Röhrig’s Saul knows to look past the Nazi soldiers who dictate his every move, rather than into their eyes. He stares a hole in the walls of the camp he’s forced to work, singleminded in his quest to find a rabbi to help bury his son. Every tense muscle in Röhrig’s body is thrown into his task, ignoring the horrors of the world around him as best he can so that he may find some purpose in the insane horror that life has become.
1. Christopher Abbott – James White
Though perhaps best known for his role on HBO’s Girls, Christopher Abbot is quietly becoming one of the most commanding young actors in America. His role as the title character in James White proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can hold a camera and an audience in rapt attention for a film-length showcase of his talents.
Abbott’s White is an angry, bad mannered dope who suddenly realizes that he’s about to lose everything he cares about and his home in one fell swoop. Ill-tempered and irresponsible, he has to step up when his mother’s cancer returns. He throws himself into the role of care-giver because he sees that this may be his last and likely only opportunity to give back to the woman who raised him. It’s a devastating film and though Abbott masks his pain with brashness and pragmatism, he hurts loudly and endless inside.
Maybe every actor nominated deserves the gold fair and square, but that doesn’t mean there was a shortage of great work done this year. Who would you like to see win best actor? Who do you think is overrated? Who do you think was overlooked this year? Let us know in the comments!