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Longlists to Nominees: Actor

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Best Actor. One of the toughest categories out there. And this is no exception. As it was with Original Screenplay, any 5 of these, chosen at random, could be a decently respectable category. In fact, I’ll do that, but first, the contenders:

  • Christian Bale (American Hustle)
  • Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
  • Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
  • Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)
  • Jude Law (Side Effects)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (Her)
  • Robert Redford (All is Lost)
  • Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty)
  • Tye Sheridan (Mud)
  • Forest Whitaker (The Butler)

The results of the random draw:  Bale, Ejiofor, Jordan, Phoenix, and Redford. That’s…really good, actually. Let’s do it again.

Results: Bale, Dern, Jordan, Phoenix, and Whitaker. Not as good, but still, pretty workable.

As with Actress, I’ll forgo my precursor lists and go straight to the longlist. Because we’ve got work to do.

  • Christian Bale (American Hustle)

My mixed feelings about the film aside, Bale really exceeded my expectations here. He really makes you feel the shit Irving has to go through to save his skin, and the toll it takes on him–because, conman though he is, Irving is a mensch, and his relationship with the good-hearted mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner)–whom he’s setting up as part of the FBI’s anti-corruption sting–is by far the most touching and effective element of the film. It surprises me how people have dismissed Bale’s work since he got the Oscar nomination, since he’s probably the only nominee from the film who actually deserves it. He really does a good job here, plus he was apparently great in Out of the Furnace (which I haven’t seen). So…I really have to at least short-list him.

  • Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

It’s really a nice performance. There’s something about his laconic, unassuming nature that reminds me of my own father (who is otherwise not like Woody Grant at all). I most appreciate Dern’s refusal (like Judi Dench in Philomena) to play “cute”. He’s very honest about the sort of man Woody is, and doesn’t exaggerate for effect–which, since this is his best role in years, is something of an accomplishment. I’m not sure he needs my nomination (though I would have been disappointed if the Academy had overlooked him), but he’ll be considered.

  • Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)

For sheer scale, you can’t top DiCaprio’s work here. He’s in almost every scene of a three-hour film, and plays manic self-indulgence, sober reflection, and everything in between. It’s a hell of a performance. That said, for reasons hard to explain (though the lack of space is also a factor), I’m not dead-set on nominating him. Maybe because he’s almost too unflinching in his depiction of Belfort’s madness–just look at the moment where he pours the coke into his nose. There’s pathos, revulsion, and a dash of incredibly dark humor there, and hard as it is to watch, there’s no denying DiCaprio’s commitment to the role.

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

What Ejiofor does, which some might overlook but which I much appreciated, is show how Solomon uses his wits to avoid worse suffering. For example, in this clip, he tries to outwit, as discreetly as possible, the brutal Epps; in another, he makes the mistake of reading a grocery list in front of Epps’ wife, and bluffs his way out of that. It’s a subtle but vital element of the character, and Ejiofor pulls it off marvelously. But the whole performance–from the cheerful free man at the start to the shattered survivor at the end–is a sobering achievement, the core of a great, sobering film. He’s on for sure.

  • Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

If the whole performance were as good as that scene, he’d be on. The rest of it, though, while very good, doesn’t reach the same heights. Not because of any failure on Hanks’ part–it’s just a very low-key performance for the most part. A fine job, but a runner-up this year.

  • Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)

This one is tough for me. I’ve liked Isaac ever since I saw Sucker Punch, where he played a loathsome villain who was nonetheless human–a real accomplishment in such an over-the-top film. And so, once he started getting raves here, I was excited to see his real breakthrough performance. And, to be fair, he’s really good. He doesn’t sugarcoat what a son-of-a-bitch Llewyn is, he’s totally convincing as a period folk singer, and he fits right into the Coens’ design. But…I’m not sure he makes the final five. In fact, I doubt it. I won’t toss him off just yet, but it’d surprise me if I found room for him.

  • Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)

Jordan does quite well here, in spite of the script’s issues (it tends to deify Oscar Grant when a well-rounded portrayal is called for); his love for his family (especially his daughter) is tender and sincere, as his desire to put his life back in order, but we also see his troubled side, his sometimes-violent temper (which flares up in the climactic confrontation which costs him his life), and his willingness to lie to survive, and Jordan is consistently assured in his portrayal (maybe he falters a tad in some of the film’s weaker moments, but nothing significant). He’ll make the second round.

  • Jude Law (Side Effects)

This is a great performance that you could easily take for granted; as the lead of a slick, Hitchockian thriller, a smooth, professional performance is expected, but Law goes above and beyond the call of duty. It’s hard to describe exactly why this performance is so good, but suffice to say Law gives Dr. Banks the depth and complexity to firmly put you on his side as he struggles with…well, with being the protagonist of a conspiracy thriller. It’s best to just see the film and appreciate how Law negotiates the story’s twists and turns (plus, it’s a fine film). For a nomination…I don’t know. I’m not sure he needs one, but to be a runner-up in a year this strong is no disgrace.

  • Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

I’m sometimes reluctant to nominate an actor if I’ve nominated or awarded them previously, and certainly, since Phoenix was my winner last year, he will not win this year. But that doesn’t mean I won’t nominate him if he deserves it. And he does. His is a great portrait of a sad, lonely man who blossoms in a relationship that may sound unlikely, yet works beautifully. He’s funny, aggravating, touching, and just further proves how great an actor he truly is (and, this year, he’s reuniting with P.T. Anderson, so he might just turn up at the next awards). How the Academy screwed him for a second year in a row, how they nominated Her for Best Picture yet didn’t nominate him along with it, is baffling to me. He’s on, no question about it.

  • Robert Redford (All Is Lost)

Props to Redford for taking on a one-man show at 77 (especially one as taxing as this), one almost totally without dialogue, and for holding up his end so well. But, unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity (which this film has been compared to), Redford has no real character to play. He’s an Everyman, and the film deliberately gives no information about who he is or how he came to be sailing, alone, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Even his most notable speech, a letter written to his family (I’m guessing), is free from specifics, only mentioning a sense of regret and personal failure in the face of mortality. So, good job though he does, there’s really nothing you can nominate here. I’d guess that, if a lesser-known or unknown actor had played the role, and the results were the same, there would be far, far less buzz around the performance. He’s off. 

  • Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty)

Yeah, this is more of an honorable mention than anything else. Servillo’s great; he plays Jep Gambardella, a one-time novelist turned society reporter, who seeks to recapture the “great beauty” of his youth that drove his art, who finds himself less entranced with Roman high society as he turns 65. As a portrayal of witty regret and reawakened yearning, it’s excellent. No nomination (especially since the film isn’t all that great), but he is good.

  • Tye Sheridan (Mud)

When I saw this film, Sheridan jumped to the top of my list, so good was his performance, especially given he was 14 at the time. There was none of the stiffness or self-consciousness you often see in young actors; his is a natural performance, and I really identified with Ellis, thanks to the strength of Sheridan’s performance. I haven’t rewatched the film since, and I wasn’t as impressed by the clips I saw, but this is one of those films that must be seen whole, even on repeat viewings. He’s not the dead-lock he once was, and I may set him aside until I rewatch the film, but damned if he wasn’t good.

  • Forest Whitaker (The Butler)

Whitaker is so good here, even in the face of such gooey melodrama as the film trades in. The loving father and husband, and the discreet, watchful White House butler are alike brought superbly to life. Would I nominate him? I’m not sure about that. But those who may have written the film off based on the (awful) trailers should know: he really does fine, fine work here.

Oy. 1,600 words in and I haven’t even begun to nominate. First off, Ejiofor and Phoenix are on. That isn’t up for debate.

Now, who’s still under consideration? Bale, Dern, DiCaprio, Isaac, Jordan, Law, Sheridan, and Whitaker. 8 men, three slots. Let’s start trimming.

I’ll take DiCaprio off, I think. It’s a really good performance, but I’m not nominating it until a second viewing (seeing clips won’t cut it). Isaac is off until further notice. Whitaker–good job, mediocre film. He’s off. So that leaves Bale, Dern, Jordan, Law, and Sheridan. Two have to go.

Really, I don’t like to do it, but Law probably should go. He’s really fucking good, but the competition is awfully stiff. And Sheridan…I really need to see Mud again before I feel good about nominating him (I’m sorry I keep saying that. I’ll try and be better about that this year).

Fuck, it’s really hard for me to leave off DiCaprio. If I take anyone off for him, it’s Bale. I’m not taking it away from Dern or Jordan. And I didn’t even think I was going to nominate Jordan when I started the article. (I drew him twice, though. That might count for something.)

This is murderous. I might just flip a coin here. (Also, I really should’ve longlisted Margot Robbie. Shame on me.)

Fuck it. I’m taking DiCaprio. He goes so far in that movie it’s insane. Maybe I’ll put Bale back on, especially if Out of the Furnace is as good as I’m hoping, but I’ll give Leo the slim, slim edge.

And, at long last, your nominees:

  • Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
  • Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (Her)
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One thought on “Longlists to Nominees: Actor

  1. Pingback: ANT-MAN (***½) and FANTASTIC FOUR (***): A Tale of Two Shadows in One Review | If you want the gravy...

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