It’s not even the new year and I’m already bored to tears seeing the same 10 actors on every Academy Award predictions list. It’s dull and points to a lack of scope among the voting committees who routinely overlook obscure or less-discussed performances. In most cases, those are the ones we should be talking about instead. Let’s take a hard look at this year’s acting achievements that flew woefully under the radar and give them the justice they rightly deserve.
Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson in Just Mercy
We often talk about the connection between crime and mental illness through a white lens (hello, Joker). Rarely do Hollywood films portray how the limitations of mental health care, compounded by the epidemic of mass incarceration, impact black and brown people—many of whom are veterans. In a movie boasting famous names like Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and Brie Larson, Rob Morgan’s nuanced, ninth-billed role as a man on death row could have easily been overshadowed, but the actor breathes life into the soul of a mentally-ill black man criminalized in a merciless system. Herbert’s pain and bewilderment, only matched by his fleeting hope, is finally felt and horrifyingly seen.
Daniel Kaluuya as Slim in Queen & Slim
Slim doesn’t get a whole lot of backstory for us to chew on, but that’s the magic of Daniel Kaluuya’s beautifully subtle performance. We know Slim’s on the run with a woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) after shooting a police officer in self-defense during a “routine” cop stop. Those are just plot lines though. We get to the heart of the man behind these events through Kaluuya’s portrayal, particularly during a scene where he calls his father to tell him he’s okay. The actual dialogue is assured and upbeat, but Kaluuya’s slumped posture and strained expression tells us Slim is scared and wants to go home. In a film that is largely about the hard choices we make when our backs are to the wall, Kaluuya’s vulnerability is what we remember most.
Julia Fox as Julia in Uncut Gems
It’s hard to comprehend why proverbial hot girl Julia would bother with such a perennial loser as gambling jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). But Julia Fox infuses such recklessness and desperation into her role, it quickly makes sense why the two are drawn to each other. Fox matches Sandler’s every wild endeavor with her own need to be a part of it. The two actors couldn’t be more different—she’s fanciful and he’s more calculated in his choices—but without Fox, Uncut Gems would have no heart. She brings a romance and dark humor that ultimately grounds the film. Read more about the role in Fox’s own words here.
Song Kang Ho as Kim Ki-taek in Parasite
A patriarch who comically pervades the home of a rich family with his own sewer-adjacent clan may not seem like a role that would afford an actor of Song’s caliber the depth he can certainly portray. (If you’re unfamiliar, watch The Host or Snowpiercer). But even though the role allows Song to be funny and cheeky, Ki-taek is also a father who—like many others—wants to provide for his family and see them thrive, even if it means taking from others. He’s prideful yet solemn, devious yet careful, and he cries real tears when the unthinkable happens. It’s a masterful performance that oscillates from wild joy to utter despair.
Octavia Spencer as Harriet Wilson in Luce
Octavia Spencer has over 100 screen performances under her belt, but it took her portrayal of a dubious high school debate teacher who cherrypicks (and later, castigates) an exceptional black student (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) to finally witness Octavia Spencer’s colorful range. In the role of Harriet, Spencer is allowed to fear and be feared, to challenge us intellectually without preaching to us. The subtleties in her performance, from weary smiles to indignation, show viewers how easily our inherent biases can push us to become either prey or preyed upon.
Constance Wu as Destiny in Hustlers
“I just don’t ever want to be dependent on anyone. I just want to be able to take care of my grandma for the rest of her life. And maybe go shopping once in a while.” As she drugs and robs Wall Street bros while clad in skintight dresses and a “S.E.X.Y.” gold choker, Destiny’s (Constance Wu) earnest and relatable desire to be her own woman remains at the forefront. She’s not a one-dimensional hero; she’s a stripper, a mother, a caregiver, and a businesswoman. Wu embraces all the layers of a character who has been discarded by the world at large, making you weep with her as she recounts the pain of her own mother abandoning her. In Wu’s hands, Destiny becomes a full human with fears, desires, and yes, a morality that’s been ravaged by sexism, racism, and capitalism. It’s a more complex role than it’s given credit for, but Wu makes it look effortless.
Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride in Ad Astra
We don’t meet Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) wayward dad, engaged in a disturbing solo mission, until more than halfway through director/cowriter James Gray’s epic space saga. Tommy Lee Jones portrays a mentally and emotionally wrecked man still fiercely clinging to a false sense of superiority; his frail yet determined gait is all you need to see to understand the senior McBride’s psychological capacity, rendering the character’s thoughtless neglect of authority, fatherhood, and even logic all the more frightening. Jones makes Clifford, whose fate is inevitable to everyone except him, a mad genius in his own mind. It’s a nightmarish feat that is astounding to witness.
Jocelyn DeBoer as Jill in Greener Grass
No last name, just Jill is fine. As the relentlessly agreeable suburban housewife trapped in a surreal nightmare, Jocelyn DeBoer taps into a palpable fear of losing everything that’s familiar to her. The actress, who’s also the co-director and cowriter, embodies a kooky character who makes one asinine decision—gifting her baby to a friend who was gushing over her—that is met with a series of increasingly bizarre events. Jill isn’t just another wife on the suburban conveyor line; she the wild-haired pariah who can’t even keep her family together. This is first-rate horror in suburbia.
Purbi Joshi as Eram Masood in Hala
In most coming-of-age dramas, it’s the adolescent girl on the cusp of adulthood who has the transformative storyline. While writer-director Minhal Baig’s film portrays this in Geraldine Viswanathan’s central role, we also see a suppressed Muslim mom blossom and find her own voice. Purbi Joshi does what every great performer should: Invite you into a character’s world and yearn for her survival, regardless of where they fall on the call sheet. We ache when Eram is continuously wedged into the margins by her daughter, her husband, and a culture she honors. And we celebrate when she finally sets herself free with three simple yet hefty words: “I divorce you.” Joshi is a revelation.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as Luce Edgar in Luce
It takes a skilled actor to make literally every line in director/cowriter Julius Onah’s beguiling drama sound like both a charming remark and an imposing threat. Kelvin Harrison, Jr.’s Luce is a performance within a performance—a black high school student who must contort his behavior to accommodate both the high expectations of his proud white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and his “favorite” teacher (Octavia Spencer). Who knows who the real Luce is, since he can be whatever the situation calls for? But the thrill is watching his façade questioned by those who helped him build it, and how he reaps an almost bleak satisfaction from it. Harrison absolutely nails this.