Every year, moviegoers are treated to new unforgettable films. But far too often, the spectacular acting performances that make the films so great are overlooked. Here, we honor actors’ work that has been underrecognized, underappreciated, and unacknowledged during awards season.
10 Joaquin Phoenix—You Were Never Really Here
Who better to kick off this list than someone who has continuously flown under the radar? It wasn’t until 2020 that this brilliant artist won an Academy Award: a well-deserved honor for interpretation of the iconic Joker. But two years earlier, Joaquin Phoenix gave one of 2017’s most unforgettable performances as Joe, a war veteran with PTSD who earns his living rescuing sex-trafficked girls in the crime/thriller You Were Never Really Here, written and directed by Lynne Ramsay.
“It’s tempting to say Phoenix has never been better than he is here, but that just would not be true,” writes film critic Sheila O’Malley. “He was great in The Master and Inherent Vice, in two very different kinds of roles. His career has been a bit all over the place, but in the last few years he’s settled into himself. It’s like he feels the earth beneath his feet, and he knows what to do. It’s been exhilarating to witness.
“At his very best, he doesn’t ‘show his work.’ You’re just hanging out with whatever peculiar character he’s playing. He’s not self-consciously ‘stretching’ as an actor by taking these different kinds of roles. It’s just that he, to steal from Walt Whitman, ‘contains multitudes.’ In You Were Never Really Here, he sometimes vibrates with unmanaged trauma and suicidal ideation. His tears are heart-rending because he is so helpless when they come. His translucent green eyes pulse with mute torment. You are never 100 percent sure what Joe is going to do next.”
9 Melissa McCarthy—Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy does not disappoint with her portrayal of the real life Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s comedy-drama from 2018, Can You Ever Forgive Me? A frustrated alcoholic and unsuccessful writer desperate for money, Lee pays her rent by forging old letters by famous writers and selling them for big bucks. While McCarthy was nominated for the role, her stellar performance was otherwise overlooked.
“Playing Lee, McCarthy manages something very special: She makes a character who is odd, obnoxious, difficult, and alcoholic seem lovable and even heroic,” writes Geoffrey Macnab @TheIndyFilm. “McCarthy doesn’t try to be ingratiating at all or to tone down Lee’s mixture of awkwardness and malevolence.” Somehow, she makes the audience root for this despicable character.
8 Robert Pattinson/Willem Dafoe—The Lighthouse
It’s impossible to recognize one without the other. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe compliment each other brilliantly, acting opposite each other as the leading men in Robert Egger’s 2019 psychological horror film, The Lighthouse. The two men try to maintain their stanity while living on a remote island and working as lighthouse keepers.
“At the core of the film is Pattison’s impressively committed performance as the taciturn Winslow,” writes Alison Willmore for Vulture. “Dafoe may be a delight as a sea-brined gremlin with a bottomless thirst and a surprising sensitivity about his own cooking. (‘Yer fond of me lobster,’ he howls at one point. ‘Say it!’) But it’s Pattinson, playing the straight man, who sells the slow deterioration of the pair’s mental state.”
7 Ethan Hawke—First Reformed
In Paul Schrader’s 2017 drama/thriller First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, the pastor of a small church in upstate New York. Toller begins to question his faith and spiral out of control after an existential encounter with an environmental activist and his wife.
“You are drawn into Toller’s story by a steady, unblinking camera that quickens your pulse even as it encourages your contemplation,” writes Justin Chang for the Los Angeles Times. “And you are held there by the mesmerizing clarity and intelligence of Hawke’s performance, which suggests that the most powerful epiphanies may also be the subtlest.
“Possibly too subtle,” continues Chang. “Hawke was conspicuously not conspicuously not nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award or a Golden Globe, both key Oscar precursors. It’s easy to see why. This isn’t the kind of acting that calls attention to itself, that bowls you over with bravura feats of vocal distortion and prosthetic wizardry.
“First Reformed gives us the latest in a string of remarkable Hawke performances, following the subtle explorations of midlife discontent in Before Midnight (2013) and Boyhood (2014) and the biographical transformations of Born to Be Blue (2015) and Maudie (2017). It is, I would propose, the culmination of the richest, most accomplished and surprising career of any actor now working in American movies.”
6 Natalie Portman—Vox Lux
It’s not on the same level as her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan, but Natalie Portman’s portrayal of a Celeste in Brady Corbet’s musical drama Vox Lux is one you don’t want to miss. Celeste is a school shooting victim-turned-pop star. Now 31, she is on the verge of a comeback when another horrific scandal threatens her career. Terrorist attacks juxtaposed with the wild world of pop? You bet!
Film critic Luke Chanell explains that in directly referencing both the Columbine High School massacre and 9/11, Vox Lux seeks to explore the connection between popstars and terrorism—coaxing up a wealth of thought-provoking ideas in the process:
“This is held together by a powerhouse performance from Portman. She’s equal parts fierce, bratty, and unhinged, yet she is also empathetic, emotionally wounded, and deceptively intelligent. Portman’s complex portrayal is never less than enthralling and she completely looks the part too with her over-styled quiff and swaggering demeanour. She is utterly captivating and convincing as a world-famous pop star in the film’s climatic concert sequence.
5 Jake Gyllenhaal—Nightcrawler
In perhaps one of the finest performances of his career, Jake Gyllenhaal blew audiences away as Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s 2014 crime/thriller, Nightcrawler. Louis begins a new career as a freelance cameraman after discovering that he can earn money by selling footage of accidents and crimes to local news networks. He becomes obsessed with getting the money shot and is willing to do anything it takes to get it.
“Gyllenhaal’s bold, committed performance makes Nightcrawler one of the most entertaining movies of the year…” writes Jocelyn Noveck for the Associated Press. “The most frightening thing about [Gyllenhaal]—even more than those sallow, sunken cheeks, those googly eyes, and that unkempt hair tied into a greasy bun—is his smile. They invented the word ‘creepy’ for that smile, a goofy, confident grin that reaches its full breadth just when you’re starting to realize how deranged the guy really is.”
4 Lupita Nyong’o—Us
After snagging an Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave back in 2014, it’s surprising that Lupita Nyong’o would be passed up for a nomination five years later when she took on the dual role of Adelaide and Red in Jordan Peele’s horror film, Us.
“A vibrant, appealing screen presence, Nyong’o brings a tremendous range and depth of feeling to both characters, who she individualizes with such clarity and lapidary detail that they aren’t just distinct beings; they feel as if they were being inhabited by different actors,” writes Manohla Dargis for the New York Times.
“She gives each a specific walk and sharply opposite gestures and voices (maternally silky vs. monstrously raspy). Adelaide, who studied ballet, moves gracefully and, when need be, rapidly (she racks up miles); Red moves as if keeping time to a metronome, with the staccato, mechanical step and head turns of an automaton. Both have ramrod posture and large unblinking eyes. Red’s mouth is a monstrous abyss.”
3 Song Kang-ho—Parasite
Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 comedy/thriller Parasite swept the Oscars, but the acting performances did not receive the credit they deserved: in particular, Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek, the father of a destitute family struggling to make ends meet. After his son lands a job as a fake tutor for the wealthy Park family, the other members of the Kim family soon find themselves lying about their education and experience level to land jobs within the household.
Bong explained that choosing Kang-ho to star in the film enabled him to embolden his approach. “There was a relief that came from the certain expectation that if this actor plays this role, even the controversial parts will definitely be convincing to the audience. The script of Parasite, especially, has bold, unexpected, or somewhat controversial moments in its latter part, but having Song Kang-ho in mind resolved the fears and concerns that I had writing them.”
Kang-ho, who has starred in more than 30 Korean films and collaborated with Bong on four of them, says, “Over the years, the characters I’ve played have appealed to the Korean audience more as familiar, very realistic people that they can relate to, rather than somebody from a fantasy world.” But in Parasite, Kang-ho isn’t the “big star,” nor is he able to lean on his instant likability, says Patrick Brzeski for the Hollywood Reporter.
Bong observes: “Indeed, the acting format is that of an ensemble, where almost 10 main characters work with each other in even balance. Despite this, as can be seen when we look back on the film’s climax sequence, it’s Song Kang-ho who’s bearing the core sentiment of the film as well as its riskiest moments, the most daring parts,” he said.
2 Toni Collette—Hereditary
One of the worst Oscar snubs of the last decade was Toni Collette’s performance in Ari Aster’s 2018 horror film, Hereditary. Collette plays Annie, a grieving mother who has just lost her daughter in a tragic car accident. Annie is unable to cope with the loss of her daughter and quickly becomes unhinged, spiraling down a rabbit hole of satanic rituals and discovering that her own mother may be to blame for a curse on their family.
“The film’s most important asset is Collette, who weeps, screams, and snarls her way halfway off the screen and into the audience’s laps,” Tasha Robinson wrote for the Verge. “Annie is a complicated character, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes outright repulsive. The role only works because of Collette’s power to sell her emotions to an audience that may want to distance itself from her visible agony. Watching her suffer is emotionally exhausting, because she plays the character with such intensity.”
1 Adam Sandler—Uncut Gems
Last but most definitely not least, one could argue that Adam Standler gives the best performance of his career as charismatic New York City jeweler and gambling addict Howard Ratner in Josh and Benny Safdie’s crime thriller Uncut Gems. Sandler brings audiences along with him on the ride of their life as he rushes around the busy streets of Manhattan, placing high-stakes bets and fighting off Jewish mobsters all while dealing with a messy life at home that includes a divorce and a girlfriend half his age.
“The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems proves to be one of the most mesmerising thrillers in a long time, and Sandler is a major reason why it works,” wrote Nick De Semlyen for Empire. “It’s a career-best performance, reminiscent of his character study 17 years ago in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love but even more layered and magnetic. His Howard is instantly iconic: part Job, part Jordan Belfort, part Jerry Maguire, he’s louchely attired, balancing out his shady wardrobe and dirtbag facial hair with a Star of David pinkie ring. Rarely stopping to take a breath, he is by turns hilarious, soulful and maddening; drilling down into a character who seems initially cartoonish but becomes ever more fascinating and human, Sandler is totally believable as a rapacious lowlife with big dreams.”