THE LISTS: Top 10 performances you’re underestimating

Posted by · 7:22 am · September 16th, 2008

Every year it seems there are a number of performers in the thick of an Oscar hunt that don’t get the same attention as the expected heavy-hitters.

It’s no surprise, of course, that Oscar prognostication would lean toward the anticipation of what lies ahead, unseen, unproven.  The mystery stays in tact, if for precious few moments.  But a number of nominated actors and actresses, year after year, tend to bank on the underestimation of the masses, allowing those heavy-hitters to fall by the wayside and provide just the opportunity they were waiting for all along.

Here, then, is an attempt to shine a light on 10 stealthy contenders that seem to be flying low on the radar so far this season:

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor10. Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”
At the moment, “The Visitor” star Richard Jenkins might seem like the obvious bet for a list such as this.  But with Overture Films planning an Oscar campaign for the character-actor-turned-leading-man and a year increasingly giving credence to smaller films, this gem of a performance from way back in the first quarter of the year could find room to make a move.  A prime DVD release date will keep the film fresh in voters’ minds and perhaps divert some of the attention away from the Brad Pitts, Sean Penns and Frank Langellas for a spell.

Tobey Maguire9. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
Jim Sheridan’s Susanne Bier re-make “Brothers” has been so quiet that even yours truly forgets it is out there waiting in the wings.  It remains to be seen whether MGM can sustain any reasonable Oscar campaign for the film, but one thing that seems to be standing out is Tobey Maguire’s performance as a P.O.W. in Afghanistan thought to be killed in action.  The narrative recalls Bier’s “Things We Lost in the Fire,” and could be awards fodder for Jake Gyllenhaal as well, but Maguire is said to be the one to watch…and nobody’s watching him.

Clint Eastwood8. Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino”
Clint Eastwood is so frequently underestimated at this stage that it’s becoming cliche.  No one could have anticipated “Million Dollar Baby”‘s sucker punch in late 2004, but perhaps more should have been on guard when he strolled into the end of the 2006 season with “Letters from Iwo Jima.”  Already on a considerable buzz wave for the Angelina Jolie-starrer “Changeling,” which bowed at Cannes, the actor is still waiting in the wings with “Gran Torino.”  And it’s a hell of a role that could even be the one that finally brings him gold as an actor.

Elizabeth Banks in W.7. Elizabeth Banks, “W.”
Film-goers are looking forward to Oliver Stone’s “W” with varying degrees of anxiety and expectation.  An all-star cast begs consideration for a potential stand-out waiting to pounce, while Josh Brolin’s lead portrayal of the disgrace himself has plenty chomping at the bit.  But early trailers seem to indicate a difficulty with seeing past the stars and into the roles of various figures within the Bush administration.  The one actor that seems to be coming off clean from afar is Elizabeth Banks, who really has the only grounded role in the entire script and could be a dark horse amid the rubble.

Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler6. Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
All eyes are turned toward Mickey Rourke this year as a comeback story can’t be beat in Hollywood.  Some have already anointed him this year’s frontrunning contender in the lead actor field, while director Darren Aronofsky has received his fair share of kudos as well.  But tucked into many a review are solid — in some cases fawning — notices for Rourke’s co-star, Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei.  Experiencing something of a career resuscitation herself as of late (performances in television’s “Rescue Me” and Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” have been well-received), she is certainly one of the more underestimated performers of 2008.

Liev Schreiber in Defiance5. Liev Screiber, “Defiance”
Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” could go either way at the end of the day.  One can never count Jews kicking Nazi ass out of any Oscar debate, despite the quality of the finished product.  But by all backstage accounts, the performance to watch out for is Liev Schreiber’s as one of a brotherly trio that take a stand with Russian resistance fighters in the Belarussian forest.  Zwick has nabbed supporting actor nominations for performers in three of his eight films to date.

Elsa Zylberstein in I\'ve Loved You So Long4. Elsa Zylberstein, “I’ve Loved You So Long”
Another case of all eyes being on the lead actor, many prognosticators have failed to notice some glowing assessments of Elsa Zylberstein’s work alongside Kristin Scott Thomas in “I’ve Loved You So Long.”  At the end of the day, Philippe Claudel’s film could be the beneficiary of serving France in the foreign language film race, in addition to a potential bid for Best Original Screenplay.  And in the weakest acting category of the year (as usual), anyone is a contender.

James Franco in Milk3. James Franco, “Milk”
The initial expectation of Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk biopic was that Josh Brolin would be a stand-out as the assassin Dan White.  Bigotry and homophobia can go a long way toward owning the scenery when such a character is on the screen.  But it seems, from a read of the script and hearing things here and there, that James Franco’s performance as Milk’s lover, Scott Smith, is going to be the one to watch as he enjoys much more screen time than Brolin and obviously has more of a supporting connection to the main character throughout.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy2. Michelle Williams, “Wendy and Lucy”
The lead actress category is spinning heads this season.  It has been some time since the field was so heavily stacked with more than a dozen leading ladies proving their cases left and right.  But one Cannes favorite is flying way under the radar as a campaign begins to build behind the scenes from those who believe in the portrayal.  Michelle Williams reportedly carries “Wendy and Lucy” through it’s emotional narrative, raising eyebrow after eyebrow along the way.  A prominent role in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” will keep her on the map and — let’s face it — it would be something of a fairytale to see her ride the awards circuit alongside Heath Ledger’s inevitable notices.

Michael Shannon1. Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”
Coming to a decision for this list’s #1 was a simpler task than I initially would have thought.  The one name that hasn’t been brought up in any commentary of note has been Michael Shannon for his performance as a mental patient in Sam Mendes’s upcoming Richard Yates adaptation “Revolutionary Road.”  It’s understandable, of course, seeing as the Leo-Kate reunion is cat nip for the media.  Kathy Bates can’t even get some love.  But whispers on the winds tell me that Shannon owns the film every moment he’s on the screen.  After a number of bit, character and supporting portrayals that have certainly given him a stage for talent exhibition, this could be his moment…and so far, precious few are looking his way.

Who do you think we’re underestimating at this point in the season?  Tell us in the comments section below!

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53 responses so far

  • 1 10-08-2008 at 3:34 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    By the way, Winger hasn’t been absent for 15 years — I’m sure we all wish “Radio” had never happened, but sadly it did :(

  • 2 10-08-2008 at 5:05 pm

    Eunice said...

    Yes to Aaron and Silencio’s Amy Adams comment. She’s practically in the middle of everything, so why are people looking at Viola Davis? (Question’s rhetorical.)

    Also, I hope Liev Schreiber gets in. Man, what does he have to do to get noticed? I love the guy and his acting. He’s such a subtle, fly under the radar kind of actor that you sometimes forget his intensity and propensity for creating really demented and self-loathing characters.

    “One can never count Jews kicking Nazi ass out of any Oscar debate, despite the quality of the finished product. ” –Oh yes, so true.

    And based solely on the Changeling trailer, John Malkovich has to get in at some point.

  • 3 10-08-2008 at 8:17 pm

    Dean Treadway said...

    Sorry for the assumption on Debra Winger. She was great in A DANGEROUS WOMAN, I agree.

    Ghod, she was in RADIO? I wouldn’t come within ten feet of a DVD of that crap.