This year, the Oscars are almost as confusing as the 2016 presidential race. While many candidates have thrown their hats in the ring—from “Brooklyn” to “Carol,” “Room” and “The Martian”—there’s yet a frontrunner in the best picture race. And the acting categories are even harder to handicap. Will Johnny Depp manage to keep the momentum going, despite mixed reviews for “Black Mass”? Or will the soft box office for “Steve Jobs” hurt Michael Fassbender’s chances? Every year, the Academy throws some curveballs into the mix. Here are 11 performances that haven’t been buzzed about enough, but deserve Oscars consideration.
Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actor, “The Intern”
De Niro could lock up a nomination for his supporting role in “Joy,” David O. Russell’s upcoming drama that hasn’t screened yet. But his strongest performance in years—even better than the last time he was invited to the Oscars, for 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook—is in Nancy Meyers’ “The Intern.” De Niro plays a retired widower who goes to work for Anne Hathaway’s tech company, and he injects this comedy with so much soul, he’s almost as impressive as Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give.”
Best Supporting Actress, “Clouds of Sils Maria”
This drama directed by Olivier Assayas, which premiered at Cannes 2014, snuck into theaters last spring and mustered less than $2 million at the box office. But in a year of powerhouse female performances, Stewart—playing the assistant to a fading movie star (Juliette Binoche)—delivers her strongest, most understated work yet. In February, she won the Cesar Award for the role, France’s equivalent of the Oscar. If voters saw this film, they’d agree.
Best Actor, “The Martian”
It might be a stretch to call Damon’s performance in “The Martian” under-the-radar, since Ridley Scott’s space epic has so far grossed $170 million. But outside of “Gravity,” the Academy has a mixed track record for recognizing actors in special-effects spectacles. Most of the awards-season chatter has focused on Johnny Depp (“Black Mass”), Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”), with Damon being considered an outside possibility. But with “The Martian,” his greatest screen performance, Damon should be the frontrunner.
Best Actress, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
With the Independent Spirit Awards now matching the Oscars with its list of nominees, big performances in small movies aren’t as likely to pick up steam with voters. But Powley should be in the race: her star-making turn in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is the kind of debut that brings to mind Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” When audiences at Sundance heard the British actress speak at a Q&A, they gasped because she so convincingly plays a lovesick American teenager from the ’70s.
Best Supporting Actor, “Brooklyn”
If this Fox Searchlight indie turns out to be the Oscars darling that many are predicting it will be, Saoirse Ronan will certainly be nominated for best actress. No less deserving of Academy Award recognition is her onscreen partner, Emory Cohen. As the idealistic American smitten by the local Irish girl, he makes viewers swoon over this feel-good romance.
Best Supporting Actress, “Spotlight”
There’s a scene in “Spotlight” where McAdams confronts an elderly priest accused of pedophilia by knocking on his door. When he matter-of-factly confesses, she lands every nuance of her newspaper reporter character: the frantic shuffling of notes, the faux-calm line of questioning, the stoic nod intended to mask the sudden rush of adrenaline in her cheeks. “Spotlight” is mostly a male ensemble, but McAdams’ lone female journalist is my favorite performance in the film. After “Mean Girls” and “The Notebook,” this is the comeback for McAdams that Hollywood has been waiting for.
Best Supporting Actor, “Spotlight”
It will be tough for Academy voters to decide between the actors in “Spolight,” who are all being campaigned in the supporting categories. Michael Keaton, coming off “Birdman,” is getting the most press. But Ruffalo, who after last year’s “Foxcatcher” and “Begin Again” continues to reinvent himself with every film, should also join him in the race, for playing seasoned Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes.
Best Supporting Actor, “Truth”
Redford’s last and only Oscar acting nomination was for 1974’s “The Sting” (though he did win the directing statue for “Ordinary People”). After voters overlooked him for 2013’s “All is Lost,” can they really do the same with “Truth?” Redford may not look or sound like fallen “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather, but he channels his persona so exactly, “Truth” at times feels like watching a documentary.
Best Actor, “Beasts of No Nation”
He has no formal training as an actor, and director Cary Fukunaga doesn’t know his exact age. But newcomer Abraham Attah manages to carry almost every scene in “Beasts of No Nation,” the gritty drama about child soldiers in an unspecified country in West Africa. The movie would not have worked if it weren’t for the truth of his performance, which is a revelation.
Best Actress, “I’ll See You in My Dreams”
The conventional wisdom is that either Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”) or Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”) will take the AARP spot in the best actress race. But don’t underestimate Danner, who received the biggest standing ovation at Sundance for her wistful portrait of a widow in Los Angeles, dealing with grief. Danner, who has never been nominated for an Oscar before, could build off the momentum of her Gotham Independent Film Awards nomination. Her character in “Dreams” is not only the most three-dimensional of the bunch, she’s also the most likely to make you sob.
Best Actress, “Woman in Gold”
If Simon Curtis’ drama had opened this fall—instead of last April—Mirren would be seen as a strong contender in the best actress race for playing a Jewish Erin Brockovich who goes to battle with the Austrian government over a valuable painting of her aunt. But instead, voters might be more likely to give her a best supporting actress nomination for “Trumbo,” where she channels famous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.