5 Great Performances Oscar is Bound to Overlook in 2010

If you've been keeping up with the Oscar Index, you'll know that 2010 is like pretty much any other year in the history of awards-season: A handful of talent breaks out early, shifts position throughout the fall, then settles into a mostly predictable nominee bracket by the end of January. It used to annoy me, but the reality is that the system Hollywood wants is the system Hollywood gets. But at least we can dream, no?

With this in mind, I thought it worthwhile to lob a few extraordinary performances -- both in front of and behind the camera -- that shouldn't go overlooked this Oscar season. Let's hear yours in the comments:

Best Actress: Annette Bening, Mother and Child

If the actor's branch really wants to reward Bening with some kind of time-served prize, it would be far more worthy doing so for this film, featuring the actress as a middle-aged nurse riven by the decision decades earlier to give up her newborn daughter for adoption. Much of Rodrigo Garcia's three-paneled drama (Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington co-star in interweaving storylines) veers into the maudlin, insistent terrain of abandonment, infertility, racing biological clocks, and a to-do list of other distaff panics -- and not always with the most ingenuous of intentions. (Garcia is a fine writer of dialogue, but his stories taper tidier than a traffic cone, and just about as alarmingly.) Yet Bening, intensely smart as she is, opts for the scenic route to salvation -- literally, in fact, in a single-take climax matching the exhilaration of a mother who finally is with the wonder of a mother who never was. Sure, it's not as flashy or edgy or theoretically "brave" as The Kids Are All Right. But its heart's in a better place because Bening put it there.

Best Actress: Katie Jarvis, Fish Tank

Cruel as it sounds, Jarvis didn't do herself any favors last year by skipping Cannes (where Charlotte Gainsbourg supplanted her as belle of the ball) because she had a 2-week-old baby at home. Bring the baby with you! The Riviera is lovely! Oscar awaits! Anyway, that's history, and despite near universal acclaim for her portrayal of a reckless street-dance urchin with a weakness for malt liquor, chained horses and her mother's boyfriend, Fish Tank was shuffled off to theaters last January without much fanfare. But! If we're to believe Jarvis did the selfless, responsible thing in 2009, then the Academy should consider doing likewise for a teenager whose sneering, sensitivity and magnetism could quite possibly re-route the direction of English-language cinema over the next 20-plus years. I mean, Jarvis could just as easily have earned a nod playing Keira Knightley's role in Never Let Me Go. Such a waste. Let's correct this.

snubs_reynolds.jpgBest Actor: Ryan Reynolds, Buried

Why Rodrigo Cortés' staggering one-man show never caught on outside Sundance is beyond me. But slouchy box-office and mixed reviews aside, few actors withstood the type of physical and emotional anguish endured by Reynolds as a private contractor kidnapped and buried in a crude coffin somewhere in the Iraq desert. Fewer still -- Natalie Portman comes to mind, and possibly Christian Bale, and oh my God let's not leave out the cast of The Human Centipede -- managed to transcend that suffering with the modulated intensity Oscar so loves. Perhaps Lionsgate never considered this a campaign-worthy film (Cortes and screenwriter Chris Sparling acquit themselves admirably, too); Reynolds' limited press exposure at the time of release didn't help with its profile. (Green Lantern probably would have been his Norbit anyway.) Still, like Sam Rockwel's Moon performance a year ago, this is gripping work under crazy-making conditions, and the least the Oscarsphere could do is tip its cap as it barrels by.

Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Hershey, Black Swan

In fairness to the Academy and the prognosticators in its orbit, Hershey's hyper-controlling ballet mom remains on the bubble in the Supporting Actress category. And depending on how Black Swan does out of the gate this weekend at the box office, she may yet overtake a few likelier contenders for the fifth slot. That said, Hershey's performance exceeds also-ran material if only for her third-act dexterity, rolling from possession to jealousy to defensiveness to intervention and, finally -- in perhaps the most devastating shot in a film full of psycho-emotional wallops -- raw, riveted pathos. Of all the twists in Darren Aronofsky's relentless inversion of Swan Lake, I was most affected by the reminder that the Swan Queen wasn't just some immaculately conceived myth. She was offspring -- hatched, nurtured and released by a mother as vulnerable to the world (if not more so) as her daughter ever was. The climactic cutaway confirms nothing less, and is earned by all that precedes it. It's sublime work -- a quality that all but guarantees the snub Hershey likely has coming to her.

Best Supporting Actor: Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom

Talk about sublime. Where Hershey embodies familial sacrifice at its most brittle, Mendelsohn's tropical-shirted Melbourne drug-and-theft kingpin is as dug into his convictions as a hoary redwood tree into coastal soil. His Pope sees all and forgives nothing, even as he entreaties his brothers and nephew (James Mandeville, in another extraordinary and utterly misunderstood performance) to confide their woes to him, the big, bad listener of the beleaguered Cody crime empire. For all the deserved accolades heaped on Jacki Weaver as Pope's outwardly sympathetic (if deeply deliberate and calculating) mother, her ballast is only as sturdy as Mendelsohn's moods are unstable. Their give-and-take -- as partners, as cohabitants and ultimately as mother and son at the end of the family line -- is the picture of desperation. That it looks nothing like the sort is a tribute to both (as well as writer-director David Michôd). But let's face it: Subtlety never got anyone anywhere at the Oscars.


  • Wellie says:

    "Fishtank" is a devastating movie: the characters are all in fairly bleak situations and have sold themselves a series of delusions that their lives are going to change, when facts/reality would dictate otherwise. But the performances by Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, and Kierston Wareing are so amazing and real, you don't walk out of the film feeling depressed. It's not a film you want to watch repeatedly, but the performances and situations really stick with the viewer.
    One of the most memorable films I saw in 2010.
    Technically though, wasn't it a 2009 release as far as awards season goes? Or was it only an '09 release in Europe?

  • Thanks for the reply, Wellie. It was an '09 release in Europe, and IFC Films picked it up in late-summer '09. They didn't qualify it last year, though; it opened Stateside this past spring, then slid off the radar.

  • richardM says:

    If ever there were a best actress performance that the Oscar is bound to overlook in 2010, it would be one that was delivered by Naomi Watts as Elizabeth in "Mother and Child", not that by Annette Bening which I think is one of the most pretentious and awkward performances I have ever seen on screen. Regards.

  • Watts was pretty good doing the best she could with such an obvious, paint-by-numbers character. I'm not sure what made Bening so awkward and pretentious; care to elaborate? We actually do need to at least attempt to make our cases around here.

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