One of the negative aspects of awards season is seeing multiple groups repeatedly mention the same names that are predicted by pundits. (Are these individuals skilled at forecasting, or are award organizations simply too uninterested to consider alternatives?)
However, one of the most thrilling parts of awards season is the feeling of accomplishment when an award organization goes against common beliefs and chooses a performance that was not previously considered an Oscar frontrunner. This can bring a significant amount of attention to the work. Each year, there are usually a dozen or more deserving candidates for this recognition in just the acting categories. All they require are awards voters who are willing to pay attention to them (or in the absence of that, viewers who actively seek them out).
If you’re looking to break away from the conventional award-worthy performances, check out these 12 standout performances from 2023 that have slim to no chance of winning major accolades. They should be seriously considered by those with a voting ballot, or anyone who wants to experience some exceptional acting.
Nicolas Cage, Dream Scenario
Nicolas Cage has been making numerous low-budget movies for several years, causing difficulty in keeping track of his movements. However, with his recent comeback performances, we may have started to take him for granted. A prime example is his exceptional portrayal of Paul Matthews, a seemingly unremarkable college professor in the darkly humorous Dream Scenario. In this film, his insecurities and deep desperation are exposed when he inexplicably starts appearing in people’s dreams, initially resembling a kinder version of Freddy Krueger. While his performance is small, it is incredibly impactful, striking a balance between humor and humanity while maintaining the necessary harshness required by writer-director Kristoffer Borgli. Unfortunately, it may have been overshadowed by Cage’s more exaggerated performances in Mandy, the self-aware comedy of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, or the subdued intensity of Pig (which also did not receive enough recognition). Cage showcases his versatility in this regular-guy role by altering his voice to sound needy and excited for the momentary burst of positive attention, while also conveying a sense of menace in some of the dream sequences.
Penélope Cruz, Ferrari
It’s difficult to believe that Penélope Cruz’s portrayal of a strong, betrayed wife who threatens her powerful husband with a gun in a popular biopic isn’t automatically considered a top contender for awards season. It’s possible that the Academy’s fondness for her will still lead to an Oscar nomination. However, there has been surprisingly little buzz for Cruz’s performance in Ferrari so far, which is particularly unusual considering she completely dominates every scene as Laura Ferrari, the wife of Enzo and the one in charge of finances at his struggling car company. Laura could easily be portrayed as a stereotypical character, but Cruz brings a raw emotion and humor to her character that is both heart-wrenching and entertaining, embodying the control and sophistication associated with the Ferrari brand.
Matt Damon, Oppenheimer
It is unlikely that Oppenheimer will go unnoticed during Oscar season, although it has surprisingly not been included in the long list for visual effects. With a star-studded supporting cast, experts and those promoting the film are likely to focus on a select few individuals, with Robert Downey Jr being the favored choice for Best Supporting Actor. However, there is another performance that deserves equal recognition for its appeal to the masses. In his role as General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, Damon excels at embodying a straightforward and overwhelmed project manager with a military background. This is one of Damon’s best performances in a “dad movie” genre.
Mia Goth at the Infinity Pool
Last year, Goth’s performance in the horror film Pearl, where she played a farm girl with unfulfilled dreams, was overlooked despite its brilliance. This lack of recognition is not surprising, considering that it was preceded by her equally impressive dual role in X. However, her role in a January release, which was not as good as the Ti West movies, also received little attention. Despite this, Goth shines in Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror film, showcasing a range of emotions from seduction to cruelty to madness as she revels in the disintegration of her facade as a fun-loving party girl. One line delivery in particular, where she shrieks at the “people of the bus,” has become a frequent imitation of mine over the past year.
Marin Ireland, Birth/Rebirth
Marin Ireland had a highly successful year, as she often does. The talented actress outshone Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway with a powerful monologue in Eileen. She also delivered standout performances in The Boogeyman, based on a Stephen King story, and the yet-to-be-released Somewhere Quiet, showcasing her skill at portraying complex and privileged characters. In addition, she had a rare opportunity to take on a leading role in Birth/Rebirth, a horror film with a Frankenstein-inspired plot. As Rose Casper, a pathologist with a knack for creation but not necessarily traditional motherhood, Ireland expertly balances humanity with a touch of monstrosity. In the film, she stars alongside the equally impressive Judy Reyes, playing a grieving mother. Overall, Ireland proves her ability to embody a unique version of a “scream queen” – a determined and capable woman with a hidden dark side.
Jennifer Lawrence, No Hard Feelings
One of the most talked-about scenes in No Hard Feelings features a playful moment between the film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, and the conventional expectations of modesty and sexuality in romantic comedies. In a scene of skinny-dipping, the lead characters are discreetly obscured until Lawrence, a worldwide superstar, emerges from the ocean fully nude to defend against some intruders stealing clothes. This scene could also be seen as a satirical take on the trend of “brave” nudity in award-worthy films, showcasing Lawrence’s boldness and skill in a more impressive manner. Her performance as Maddie, a woman in her thirties who is paid to help a teenage boy come out of his shell, is among her best and most well-developed work as an actor. Unlike her roles in David O Russell’s films (which earned her three Oscar nominations), Lawrence’s portrayal of Maddie feels like a more natural fit, with her impeccable comedic timing and delivery adding depth to the character. Despite her outstanding performance, Lawrence is not receiving much awards attention, highlighting the lack of recognition for comedy in the industry.
Teyonah Parris, They Cloned Tyrone
Parris is most likely known for her role as Monica Rambeau, the niece of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She portrayed Monica with charm in the ill-fated (but enjoyable!) space adventure film, The Marvels, but her standout performance in 2023 was in a role closer to the ground: Yo-Yo, a sex worker who becomes part of an unlikely trio investigating a mysterious conspiracy in the science fiction comedy, They Cloned Tyrone. Parris ensures that Yo-Yo is not reduced to a crude stereotype, infusing her dialogue with cleverness and unexpected humor – a standout performance that matches the equally humorous performances of Jamie Foxx and John Boyega in every scene.
Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson, Asteroid City
Wes Anderson employs large and notable casts, making it difficult to choose just a few names to highlight. However, Anderson has a keen sense of when to let actors bring out deeper emotions through their deadpan delivery and when to use them for comedic relief or brief moments of sincerity. This is especially evident in his film Asteroid City, where stars like Steve Carell, Margot Robbie, Matt Dillion, Tom Hanks, and Edward Norton all deliver fantastic performances. Amidst the star-studded cast and impressive sets, two actors stand out even more. Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson play multiple characters in the film’s nested narrative, creating remarkable connections between their roles. Schwartzman portrays grief with subtle restraint, a performance that becomes even more heartfelt and touching when he breaks the fourth wall. Johansson, on the other hand, brings to life an alternate version of Marilyn Monroe who embraces her own woundedness with grace and composure. The two actors are often seen facing each other like Peanuts characters, but their chemistry sparks from a distance.
Tilda Swinton, The Killer
Swinton, a member of the Asteroid City group, has impressed with her eccentric and attention-grabbing performances in supporting roles for Anderson and others. However, in both Asteroid City and The Killer directed by David Fincher, she tones down her shape-shifting oddity but still manages to steal the scene effortlessly. In The Killer, she plays a wealthy assassin tasked with killing Fassbender’s character, another hired gun. When Fassbender finally catches up to her, she engages him in a conversation over whiskey and playfully points out his professional quirks – and indirectly, her own. Despite being a small role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it as perfectly as Swinton does.
Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One
AV Rockwell’s family drama spans over a decade and stars Teyana Taylor, who brings a modern twist to the classic melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Set in New York City during the 1990s and 2000s, the film sheds light on the struggles faced by single mothers in disadvantaged circumstances. While performances of women fighting for their children are often recognized by the Academy Awards, Taylor’s portrayal may have been too raw and unflinching. Despite her experience in the music industry as a choreographer, singer, and dancer, Taylor’s character Inez remains free from any hint of showbiz vanity and carries the movie through some risky plot choices. Although Taylor’s performance in A Thousand and One has received nominations and accolades from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Oscars tend to prefer a more simplified approach to melodrama.
Donnie Yen, John Wick: Chapter 4
Action movies are often overlooked by award shows, which is unfortunate because the best action stars deliver physically demanding performances while also portraying a unique character. It’s more like dancing than just athleticism, and this is especially true for Donnie Yen’s role as Caine in John Wick: Chapter 4. Caine may seem like a typical blind assassin or rival to the hero, but Yen brings him to life through his movements and dialogue with Keanu Reeves’ Wick. As a supporting actor, Yen adds depth and vibrancy to the film, even when he’s not at the center of the action. He elevates the story every time he appears on screen.