If you believe the awards season chatter, the Oscar race is practically over—even though the season is only beginning. There’s already been a lot of talk about the frontrunners this year (from “The Imitation Game’s” Benedict Cumberbatch to “Wild’s” Reese Witherspoon). But the Academy always throws some curveballs into the mix come January. Here are nine under-the-radar performances that deserve a fighting chance in this year’s Oscar race.
Best Actor, “Foxcatcher”
The trio of male performances in “Foxcatcher”—from Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo—are all worthy of Oscar nominations. But the problem is, where do you put each actor? Sony Pictures Classics had decided to campaign Tatum and Carell in lead and Ruffalo in supporting, but I fear the strongest performance in the film may slip through the cracks. Carell has gotten a lot of ink for his portrayal of lunatic millionaire John du Pont. But the movie belongs to Tatum. His understated performance as Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz might not be as showy, but he’d be a lock for his first Oscar nomination if he wasn’t competing against his co-star.
Best Actor, “Nightcrawler”
Jake Gyllenhaal has only been nominated for an Oscar once (for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain”), and since then he’s quietly turned into the gutsiest actor of his generation. His work in 2012’s “End of Watch” and 2013’s “Prisoners” should have earned him invitations to the Academy Awards. “Nightcrawler,” which opens this weekend, isn’t a traditional Oscars film—it’s far too daring for that—but Gyllenhaal’s performance is one of the acting triumphs of the year. He shed 30 pounds to play a LA paparazzo, a haunting transformation that sticks with you long after the screen goes dark.
Best Actor, “Boyhood”
The best actor race is already packed with Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”), Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”) and Michael Keaton (“Birdman”), with Bradley Cooper waiting in the aisles with the upcoming “American Sniper.” But sometimes the Academy lets a newcomer slip in. If they do, there’s a good argument to be made for the inclusion of 20-year-old Coltrane, who spent 12 years growing up onscreen in Richard Linklater’s indie.
“Gone Girl,” Best Actor
Affleck already has Oscars for producing (“Argo”) and screenwriting (“Good Will Hunting”), but he’s never been nominated in the acting category. Critics liked him as the panicked husband in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” which has so far grossed $127 million. Plus, voters owe him one for snubbing him in the director’s category for “Argo.”
Best Actress, “Begin Again”
The Academy will definitely nominate Knightley in the supporting actress category for “The Imitation Game.” But her most lovable performance this year was in John Carney’s musical comedy. As Gretta, Knightley hits high notes as a struggling Manhattan singer-songwriter, who breaks up with her rock-star boyfriend (Adam Levine). She modeled her character’s wardrobe on Diane Keaton, and “Begin Again” is Knightley’s “Annie Hall” moment. I wish more people had seen the movie. It will be discovered on non-theatrical platforms.
Best Actress, “Mommy”
The Canadian star’s performance as the title character (looking after her troubled teenage son) in Xavier Dolan’s drama is my favorite performance from an actress this year. Dorvall was robbed of an acting prize from the Cannes jury, who honored Julianne Moore in “Maps to the Stars” instead. But she will hopefully enter the conversation if she starts landing some end-of-year critics’ prizes.
Best Supporting Actor, “Love is Strange”
Ira Sachs’ drama about an aging gay couple is one of the best-reviewed films of 2014, and Sony Pictures Classics recently sent out screeners to the Academy and Writer’s Guild. If enough voters do their homework, they’ll see that Lithgow does his most heartfelt big-screen work since 1983’s “The World According to Garp.” The actor has never won an Oscar, which doesn’t seem right.
Best Supporting actor, “St. Vincent”
Is it a compliment—or a curse—to call him the most nuanced child actor since Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”? Lieberher, 12, not only carries some of the weightiest lines in Ted Melfi’s script, he makes this comedy work based on his chemistry with Bill Murray.
Best Supporting Actress, “Snowpiercer”
The Academy usually doesn’t nominate actors in sci-fi films. But Swinton is a riot in Bong Joon-ho’s trippy futuristic thriller as a dystopian leader. She’s like a cross between Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Iron Lady.”