There’s always a certain lack of ambition and creativity in awards consideration, especially when it comes to performances, the strength of which are too subjective for an entire voting body to agree on. What makes a performance great? Is it great if it moves you, or if the actor seems to have become someone else? The nominees for Best Actress at the Academy Awards are all great actresses, many doing the best work of their career, but there is a sense that they only scratched the surface.
There were dozens of bold, incredible performances by great actresses, many of them newcomers, for whom the awards would have been meant more for their careers. And then there are great performances hiding in unlikely places less celebrated due to attention paid to other parts of the film.
For whatever the reason, there were too many great female lead performances to count this year, but here are the 12 Actresses Who Should Have Been Nominated For An Oscar This Year.
12. Rooney Mara – Carol
Cate Blanchett absolutely deserves her nomination for Best Actress – her work in Carol is unprecedented, some of the finest work in an astonishing career – but there’s something off about her being the actress chosen for the lead category. Rooney Mara, also brilliant, is in the film a longer amount of time, and it’s frankly her story before it’s Blanchett’s.
Mara plays Therese Belivet’s awakening with the perfect amount of first-timer’s nervousness and gall. She wants to say yes to everything, to really experience life, and that’s tough to do without going overboard, but Mara, one of the best young American actresses, keeps her emotions just tight enough to her chest. It’s not easy to go toe-to-toe with Blanchett, but Mara doesn’t break a sweat. Carol is as much as her movie as Blanchett’s, categorization be damned.
11. Teyonah Parris – Chi-Raq
Known to millions as Don Draper’s secretary Dawn on Mad Men, Teyonah Parris jumped into the limelight in style when she took the lead in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. Swaggering like John Wayne, she does everything right as Lee’s updated Lysistrata.
Undulating through war-torn Chicago like a displaced God, she rolls with the rhyming prose and gigantic demands of this part, which requires her to be both the perfect woman and the figurehead of an international movement. Parris’ bombastic work was plainly too much performance in a film too angry for the whitebread Academy members. In short, she was robbed.
10. Mae Whitman – The DUFF
Comedic performances almost never earn Academy Awards unless there’s at least a hint of prestige attached (like Jean Dujardin in the nostalgia-caked The Artist). So it’s little surprise Mae Whitman walked through 2015 without earning much in the way of plaudits. But it is a shame, because she’s a knockout as a woman experiencing a social breakthrough and discovering herself in the teen romcom The DUFF.
She chugs through Josh Cagan’s screenplay like a 40s screwball comedienne, a Rosalind Russell with overalls and a Twitter account. She talks a mile a minute and commits to the film’s many types of screen comedy with aplomb.
9. Nina Hoss – Phoenix
The language barrier is too frequently a stumbling block for Oscar voeters, so some of the best work of the year just drifts past unannounced. Nina Hoss (familiar to viewers of Homeland) has been doing unbelievable work for two decades, one of the finest, most subtle talents of the new German cinema.
As Nelly Lenz in Christian Petzold’s marvelous wartime noir Phoenix, she literally wears a mask of fortitude while her soul is beaten to a pulp. Wearing a reconstructed face after escaping the Nazis, she tries to reconnect with her lover, who sold her out. Watching her have her world destroyed a second time is gut-wrenching stuff, and Hoss carries it all with wounded grace.
8. Anne Dorval – Mommy
French Canadian Anne Dorval languished for years without parts big or meaty enough for her immense talent until heartthrob director Xavier Dolan found her and reintroduced her to the world. Dolan has given Dorval, a rapacious force of nature in haute couture, the role of a lifetime, twice.
In Mommy she’s allowed to be both monstrous and tender, childish and wizened. She plays a woman tasked with raising her awful son after a law has been introduced allowing her to have him committed for delinquency. She sees in her son the freedom she’s been denied as a single mother and doesn’t handle it well. She knows her boy has potential, but she hasn’t the strength, time or knowledge to draw it out of him. Dorval may never be an Academy favorite, but as long as she’s this honest and engaging a performer, it won’t matter a whit.
7. Carey Mulligan – Far From The Madding Crowd
There are many ways in which Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From The Madding Crowd suffers in comparison to its first adaptation (in 1967 by John Schlesinger), but finding an actress worthy of the complexities of the novel’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, is not one of them.
Carey Mulligan, both soft and steely, plays Bathsheba as a woman who understands the limits of power allotted to women in a very masculine age, but lets it roll off her. She has plans and will not let a power structure stop her from achieving her goals, which means social savviness and quiet ambition. Mulligan radiates intelligence and poise as she handpicks the parts of her future from the most attractive parts of her presence. Far From The Madding Crowd may not be a new classic, but Mulligan’s performance is a wonderful melding of the old and new.
6. Blythe Danner – I’ll See You In My Dreams
Blythe Danner’s been breaking hearts since the 1970s, and not only does she seem more beautiful now than ever, she’s also charted a course of roles that fit her perfectly, more aware than ever what he strengths are. As a woman suddenly adrift in the autumn of her life, Danner’s performance is filled with pathos and humor. The milieu she chose for herself many years ago now seems like a trap, and she needs to think about the best way to pull herself out of it.
Comfort is now painful and rest seems like one step closer to death, which makes her mistrust her instincts. Danner is puzzled by fun, but wants more of it. Her resolve to find herself before it’s too late is quietly heartbreaking and I’ll See You In My Dreams is a testament to an actress who knows and respects herself.
5. Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Alicia Vikander gave 8 (count ’em) terrific performances in 2015 but only wound up nominated in the supporting category. This is disappointing to fans of the Swedish dynamo, as her best work was in a film a touch too heady and weird for academy voters.
As the robot (sorry, A.I.) Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Vikander is a marvel. Every turn of her head is precision itself, her eyes swimming with ambiguous portent, maybe scheming, maybe genuinely naive. It’s a remarkable performance projecting everything and nothing, aware every blink is being measured for meaning. Vikander may or may not win for her work in The Danish Girl, but she’s already been snubbed for the other amazing work she did this year.
4. Shu Qi – The Assassin
Nearly mute and based on imperceptible changes in mood and body language, the kind of work Shu Qi does in her star turn in The Assassin is anathema to American mile-markers for great performances. This performance could have been given a hundred years ago and still felt like a revelatory but appropriate piece of acting.
Shu Qi keeps her emotions inside and only lets them out in bursts of highly coordinated combat. She cries with her fists, declares love through a knife, and shouts with her feet. The Assassin is a poem of light and Shu Qi’s sparingly parsed emotions are the ink in which its written.
3. Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road
Like Charles Bronson with one arm, Charlize Theron is the fuel-injected heart of Mad Max: Fury Road, trucking and fighting with single-minded determination and an uncommon command of the screen. She stares like Clint Eastwood right out of the screen and into the eyes of each viewer, and you know she’s serious.
It’s not every actor who can convey a lifetime of torture and degradation and the incredible struggle to free herself from those awful circumstances in just the way she holds her gaze a little too long, but Theron is not every actor. Mad Max: Fury Road may nominally be about a guy named Max, but it’s Theron’s show from beginning to end.
2. Bel Powley – Diary of a Teenage Girl
London-born Bel Powley’s portrayal of a troubled American kid in Diary of a Teenage Girl is amazing for any number of reasons: the purposeful awkwardness with which she manages her new body, the thousands of feelings illuminated in her big eyes, the emphasis she places on key words in sentences which sound like accidents, and that she sounds and acts so American throughout are just a few.
Powley’s sex-obsessed teen discovers in short order that there’s a whole grown up world of privilege she’s so close to accessing, and then quickly sees why it is adults look so miserable all the time. She handles the rise and fall of her character’s dreams excellently, and this wonderful little movie looks a lot bigger when looking into her big hopeful eyes.
1. Ronit Elkabetz – Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Unfortunately, if understandably, not sent by Israel to the Oscars for consideration (it’s a damning indictment of their justice system, among other things), Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’ Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was one of the strongest piece of fiction filmmaking released last year. As co-writer, co-director and star, Ronit Elkabetz has a profound love and understanding for the character Viviane Amsalem, who she has played in two other movies.
Amsalem is a woman whose sturdy, unfaltering posture and harsh gaze symbolize the plight of women trapped in marriages, at the whim of other men who make choices for them. The movie is so tightly wrapped around Elkabetz’ performance that the audience becomes an extension of her emotional response. We laugh when she laughs, cry when she cries, sigh when she sighs. A comprehensive portrait of a woman throwing off the chains of oppression, one stuttering court appearance at a time.
What actresses do you think got overlooked at this year’s Oscars? Who do you hope leaves with the prize? Rooney or Cate? Let us know in the comments!