The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominees for the 86th annual Oscars this Thursday, and as far as the performance categories go, a lot of worthy actors will be trying to cram into a succession of five-seat Minis. Maybe Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips” or June Squibb in “Nebraska” will pick up a supporting nod or maybe they won’t, but at least their names are in contention. And if it’s a shame that Matthew McConaughey won’t get a best actor nomination for “Mud,” it’s only because he’ll almost certainly be honored for “Dallas Buyers Club.”
But what about those actors who don’t stand a chance? The ones who gave performances that can rip your heart out or change how you think about them, yet whose movies went largely unseen or were overshadowed by Oscar-friendly costars? Thanks to the post-theatrical digital slipstream, their work is easier to find, and it deserves to be. Here, then, are my choices for the Best Unsung Performances of 2013, in both the stand-alone category and unexpected acting duets.
Coogan’s established comic persona, a charmingly snide upper-class rotter, has started to wear thin in recent years, notwithstanding his running vaudeville routine with Rob Bryden in “The Trip” and elsewhere. Clearly something had to change, and with his caring but shiftless father in the Henry James update “What Maisie Knew” and especially as toff reporter Martin Sixsmith, shown up by common-sense Judi Dench in “Philomena,” Coogan moved elegantly and with surprising depth into straight drama. He co-wrote and co-produced the latter movie, too — the man is serious. At last.
The little girl from “Field of Dreams” and “Uncle Buck” has grown into an otherworldly alt-movie sprite, no more so than in this Chilean farce about an obnoxious American hippie (Michael Cera) and the free spirit who follows him into the South American wilderness on a psychedelic cactus excursion. Hoffman gets a gloriously hirsute nude scene (“I’m human; I have hair,” she told The New York Times) and morphs from the movie’s joke to its dreamy, indestructible goddess of wisdom.
Another treasure from Chile (seriously, what’s going on there?), Sebastian Lelio’s gentle comic drama about a 50-something divorcee getting on with her life takes wing on Garcia’s beautifully lived-in title performance. Yes, she looks a little like Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie,” but as the movie rolls on and Garcia registers lust, loss, humor, and fatalism, you realize you’re watching a real woman in a rare movie about same. Pray that Hollywood doesn’t try to remake this. (Opens in the Boston area on Jan. 24.)
We don’t appreciate our great character actors enough, and we really don’t appreciate Tucci enough. The guy had a hand in seven movies in 2013! He’s the hardest-working man in showbiz! More to the point, his Caesar Flickerman is the hardest-working man in the totalitarian showbiz of the future: delightfully charming, effortlessly entertaining, and a working definition of the banality of reality-TV evil. For all of Caesar’s extra-strength pep — and those teeth! — it’s the cold, cold eyes that give him and his masters away.
One of the most fearsome performances of the year came from an actor many had written off in a story no one wanted to hear. Washington, hustled off “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007 after controversial remarks, dug deep and dark to play John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper who, with teenager Lee Malvo, killed 10 and terrorized millions in 2002 Washington, D.C. Alexandre Moors’s debut feature is a no-frills case study of rage and pathology in the margins of America, and the star captures Muhammad’s diseased moral certainty with grimness and skill.
Oh, Hermione. At first you barely notice Watson’s Nicki in Sofia Coppola’s chilly tale of celebrity-obsessed LA teen criminals. She’s there in the corner, staring into her cellphone with the watchfulness of a small carnivore, but the film’s nominal stars — Katie Chang and Israel Broussard — take up center frame. By the end, with the arrests and the shame and the exposure, Nicki is ready to be “rehabilitated” into the next successful stage of her life. “I want to lead a country one day,” she tells the cameras, and the set of Watson’s jaw has you fearing for that country’s citizens.
How do you steal a movie from Meryl Streep at her take-no-prisoners Streepiest? By keeping things real. Playing Mattie Fae Aiken, long-suffering sister to the star’s toxic matriarch Viola Weston, Martindale creates a tart-tongued mama bear with a steel-trap mind. Mattie Fae makes a mean casserole, she knows where the bodies are buried, and in a late-inning scene with costar Julia Roberts, the actress quietly makes you feel this woman’s past sins and present compromises. As her pothead good ol’ boy husband, mellow until it’s time to settle accounts, Cooper is simply the movie’s grounding principle.
Two teenage girls, best friends, both ready to ditch their families and move on. But where Fairaway’s Ellen can’t wait to get away from mother Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyus, another of the year’s underappreciated performers) and start college, Chloe (Gevinson) needily adopts Eva as the hipper mom she wishes she had. You can’t just trade parents, can you, though — even in LA? Both actresses are fairly new to the scene (Gevinson is better known as the teen blogger-editor of Style Rookie) but each nails her assignment. They’re the two faces of leaving home — hopeful and terrified — yet, by the end, you’re not sure which one’s which.
Oh, Harry. In John Krokidas's sharp, soulful feature debut, Radcliffe plays the young Allen Ginsberg, arriving at Columbia University in 1943 unaware he’s primed to explode. DeHaan is the detonator as Lucien Carr, the charismatic little genius who sparked the early Beats and enmeshed them in a murder trial. DeHaan has the showier role — you can’t take your eyes off him — but Radcliffe goes the farther, subtler distance as a young poet learning to speak.
Pictured from left, Ben Foster, Daniel Radcliffe, and Dane DeHaan in “Kill Your Darlings.”
The adrenaline in Ron Howard’s racing drama comes less from Niki Lauda’s and James Hunt’s duels on the track than from what Bruhl and Hemsworth do off of it. The movie’s an irresistible tale of the wonk and the playboy, the grind and the grasshopper, a man for whom everything was hard and a guy for whom everything came easy. Who deserves to win in a lifelong marathon like that? Bruhl convinces you of Lauda’s will to survive and Hemsworth gets you to temporarily forget about “Thor: The Dark World.” I’d say it’s a draw.
Imagine a John Hughes teen romance, except better, more realistically written, with less resort to high school cliquery and a sharper ear for how adolescent lovers might actually talk. Now put two superb young actors in the roles: Teller (“Footloose”) as a beloved, alcoholic class cut-up and Woodley (“The Descendants”) as the normal girl, the one no one sees until one day he does. The performances are as scrubbed free of artifice as the actors are of makeup.
Fine, I’m cheating here, but these are still two invisible performances without which their respective movies would flounder. Of course Johansson deserves the same praise that’s going to “Her” costar Joaquin Phoenix and writer-director Spike Jonze; as the heart, brains, and (gulp) soul of OS1, she’s half the movie’s troubling equation. (And talk about character growth.) While Cumberbatch was everywhere in 2013, he was the most slyly enjoyable aspect of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth theme park, providing a majestic vocal insecurity to the movie’s CGI behemoth. When the dragon has more dramatic mojo than the hobbit, your series probably needs fine-tuning. But, honestly, we’re not complaining.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.