One of the positives of awards season is that it can help shine a light on films and performances that may otherwise go completely unnoticed. But the structure of it leads to inherent bias. It’s simple. The vast majority of films (and performances therein) that are mentioned throughout the season come from the prestige fare that hits the fall festivals and is specifically sold as awards material. This is a necessary evil. Most of these movies don’t have the gargantuan marketing budgets required to make the average person aware they even exist. They’re financed and made on the hope of snagging some of the publicity awards season provides.
It’s still frustrating to see the same names pop-up though, even if they are deserving. I’d like to mention some standout performances from movies this year that you won’t see on all these nominations list. Some of them forgotten because they come in commercial films not on the awards radar, some forgotten due to the spotlight being on other turns in the movies.
Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider
In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft a novice. She’s not yet a master of raiding tombs. So when she’s thrust into a globe-spanning adventure the physical struggle is real. The film’s action sequences love to put Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander through the ringer. She grunts and shrieks and makes mistakes, sometimes putting her foot in the wrong place or grabbing the wrong thing for support. If the film’s character moments fall a bit flat it’s more than made up for by the kinetic set pieces heightened by the illusion that you’re watching Vikander perform these stunts in real-time (some she did, others she didn’t). There’s a level of authenticity to her movements and accompanying facial expressions usually reserved for Tom Cruise.
It’s not like Vikander was out of shape or anything. Much of the movie’s press tour was her talking about her insane workout regime to prepare for the film. But the commitment from both Vikander and the filmmakers to making Croft someone taking out of her element is oddly refreshing. Whenever she succeeds, it feels earned rather than inevitable. *MINOR SPOILER ALERT* When she discovers her father is still alive in a cave on the island, Vikander somehow manages to blend exhaustion, fear about what’s next, and heartfelt relief all into a single facial expression.
Tomb Raider made just $274M on a budget of ~$100M. That’s right around the break-even point when factoring in marketing for a film of this ilk. Whether or not Warner Bros will give it a sequel likely comes down to if people warm up to it over the next year on home video and streaming. I hope they do, because Alicia Vikander is the perfect Lara Croft. If this isn’t the successful action franchise built around her, hopefully there will be another that recognizes she’s deserving of a great vehicle.
Cedric the Entertainer in First Reformed
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a peculiar thriller about existential crisis -environmental, spiritual, institutional- has received a lot of deserved praise throughout the year and into the start of awards season. The film looks poised to ride its script and Ethan Hawke’s lead performance all the way to Oscar night. But its most revelatory offering comes via a quiet supporting performance from none other than Cedric the Entertainer (credited as Cedric Kyles).
He plays Joel Jeffers, the leader of a megachurch offering counsel and support to the dwindling Dutch First Reformed parish figureheaded by Hawke’s Reverend Ernest Toller. Jeffers is a company man. He’s planning a big 250th anniversary celebration for Toller’s church. When Toller brings his newfound climate change concerns to Jeffers (and the industrial tycoon who sponsors Jeffers’ church), Jeffers scoffs it off as something they shouldn’t be concerned with as they prep for a sestercentennial that’s now become a large, political event. To Jeffers, the possibility of climate change and his booster’s role in such is a potential PR nightmare and nothing more; something with no upside to be found in even pretending to acknowledge.
Through a few well-mannered Jeffers-Toller conversations the film’s larger conflict shines. Cedric’s composed line delivery and faux-concern form the perfect foil for a Hawke performance that at this point has become unhinged. Jeffers is a master at this. He even tries to flip the conversation into being about Toller’s son who died in the war, essentially telling Toller in the most friendly, Christian way possible, “Drop this one, or we’ll bury you.” The scenes almost play is if it’s Toller who’s the stubborn asshole. That’s thanks to a performance by Cedric that’s warm and manipulative in equal parts. When Hawke pleas, Cedric leans back a bit and his eyes widen. It’s not that Jeffers can’t understand Toller’s concerns, he just has misplaced priorities. The businesslike cadence Cedric speaks with at times, as if he’s answering questions at a press conference with prepared statements, is what finally makes Toller realize that loyal service to the institution that governs his faith and service to this environmental cause are in fact mutually exclusive.
Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale
It feels weird to call 2018 a breakout year for Cynthia Erivo considering she’s already won a Tony and a Grammy for her work in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, but it certainly was a breakout at the movies. Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale and Steve McQueen’s Widows marked her first two film roles. While McQueen’s film opened to critical acclaim and awards buzz, it’s Erivo’s performance in the former that stands out the most. El Royale is one of those “take a bunch of characters with different mysterious backstories and gather them in the same place then see what happens” movies. A loaded cast of stars all do fun work but from beginning to end it’s Erivo who shines the brightest.
She plays Darlene, a struggling singer, and the closest thing the ensemble has to a decent, innocent person. She’s much smarter than she initially lets on but the lying and violence and scheming and general mysterious aura of everything are all still new to her. Erivo plays the early scenes wide-eyed and overly polite. Darlene is someone just happy to have a bed. She doesn’t begin to let on a more perceptive side until a long, multi-faceted conversation with Jeff Bridges’ character. It’s a riveting scene. Despite the friendly nature of the conversation the viewer can tell something’s not quite right due to subtle discomfort the actors exude. Such is to be expected out of a master like Bridges, but seeing it from Erivo (whom I’d never actually watched before) was awesome.
There’s also the singing. A key sequence in the movie relies entirely on you believing that another character (Dakota Johnson) could be so transfixed by Darlene’s singing that she completely ignores everything else for a moment and lets a big chunk of cash get away from her. I bought it and then some.
John Cho in Searching
I wanted to hate Searching and assumed I would. It premiered at Sundance to great acclaim, but I still wasn’t buying it. You know how Sundance-goers can be. A missing teenager movie set entirely on phone and computer screens? Sounds like some cheap “millennials be crazy” gimmick to me! But as usual, I was being an ass. Searching is great, and John Cho is great in it.
The film’s structure and style (it really is all done on screens) takes away the things that an actor can usually lean on. You can’t chew scenery ff there’s no scenery to chew. As a widower whose seemingly straight-edge daughter goes missing, Cho is tasked with channeling the darkest of emotions via FaceTime. It’s a remarkable performance by someone who’s quickly established himself as one of our finest working actors. In a single shot, he’ll go from heartbreak to illogical paranoia to furious anger. It’s believable because a missing loved one could do that to you, sure, but also because Cho shows no discipline. Not that a director really could block these scenes, but they really are just the actor getting inside the character and improvising not necessarily the lines but the expressions.
Cho picked up an Indie Spirit nom for his performance and could pop up on some critics lists, but that’ll be it for him this season. Searching is just not the type of film that lands with awards bodies. But don’t get it twisted. This is one of the finest bits of acting to grace the screen this year. Cho has come a long way from being one of the MILF guys in American Pie and a titular character in a stoner franchise. When you watch this and the fantastic Columbus from last year, it’s easy to imagine a trophy in his near future.
Lily James in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
You know going in whether the Mamma Mia! movies are your thing or not. They don’t try to hide themselves or sell anything they aren’t. Either you love watching hot people dance around on sun-drenched sets while singing ABBA tunes, or you don’t. A lot of people do, as evidenced by Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again grossing almost $400M. The undeniable star of the sequel is Lily James. As a young Donna Sheridan she sings and shakes her way to perfectly channeling Meryl Streep’s apparently iconic performance from the first film, overalls and all.
James could’ve easily shown up for work with her impressive vocals and good looks and probably gotten the job done. These movies don’t ask for much on the dramatic front. But it’s clear she spent a lot of time watching Streep and practicing in front of a mirror to truly create a younger version of the character rather than just someone who looks younger and shares the name. Donna Sheridan moves in a way only Donna Sheridan does. It’s like there’s always music playing in her head. She takes “you can jive” as a mission statement.
The sequel/prequel sees young Donna first meeting and dot-dot-dotting with the three possible fathers of Sophie. Through James’ pure energy these sequences never feel tired despite their predictability. It’s easy to build a musical sequence around her. She’s infectious. She’s quietly been everywhere the last few years (she was Cinderella, she was on Downton Abbey, she was in Baby Driver and Best Picture nominee Darkest Hour last year) and yet Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again feels like her true breakout. It’s one of those turns in a movie musical that combines genuinely great singing with unapologetically campy acting. Perfect casting. Perfect performance.
Tom Hardy in Venom
Is it possible for a big-budget superhero movie to be an auteur film with the auteur being the lead actor? Probably not. But Venom is the closest we’re ever going to get. Mocked for its zaniness and early-2000’s feel (which are actually strengths here) by critics and fans conditioned to believe that the MCU formula is the only way to do a superhero movie, Venom has laughed its way to $850M at the worldwide box office.
Tom Hardy, our hardest-working movie star, plays Eddie Brock. Eddie is a stubbornly serious journalist whose commitment to bringing down billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) despite everyone in his life telling him to chill costs him everything…his job, his sanity, his longtime girlfriend (Michelle Williams). When an alien symbiote finds its way inside Eddie and gives him the violent (and always hungry) alter-ego Venom, Hardy gives a dual performance that’s so batshit crazy the film’s questionable internal logic and visual effects are forgivable because you can’t take your eyes off its star. Watching a good actor go all-in on the ridiculous -bouncing around, talking to himself, calling himself a pussy- without fear of being laughed at is one of the great joys of being a moviegoer. It’s an actual performance. He gives the character his own physicality and visual unpredictability that isn’t reliant on computer-generated effects (something he also does well in big movies such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight Rises). It’s one of the most human performances in this genre, which is odd considering Eddie isn’t exactly a human anymore.
Maybe Venom is more ironically fun than it is good. Something about it works. That something comes from Tom Hardy. The restaurant scene in particular is one of the more chaotic, hilarious things I’ve seen on film the last few years.
- Anne Hathaway in Ocean’s 8
- Andrea Riseborough in Mandy
- Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds
- Barry Keoghan in American Animals
- Charlie Plummer in Lean On Pete
- Colin Farrell in Widows
- Domhnall Gleeson in The Little Stranger
- The voices of Jim Cummings and Brad Garrett in Christopher Robin
- Molly Parker in Madeline’s Madeline
- Rachel McAdams in Game Night
- Tom Waits in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
- Zoë Kravitz in Gemini