ven the Academy would admit that there are numerous films and performances left out of the many nominations that they bestow each year. That’s why, each February, we enter the fray and offer our alternative in five of the most important categories. (We’ve already weighed in on our best picture of the year here.) We only have one rule: anything that the Academy does honor, we don’t. Enjoy!
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Seema Biswas (Water)
Like Catherine Keener in last year’s Capote, Seema Biswas seizes a peripheral role and becomes the moral center of her film. Playing Shakuntala, a deeply religious widow, Biswas adds notes of ambiguity to what could have been a screed against fundamentalist India. The camera gapes in horror at a seven-year-old widow, but Shakuntala matter-of-factly chastens the child, refusing to accept oppression as an excuse for bad behavior. As the woman embarks on her own journey, coming to question her faith and her values, Biswas never plays the anachronistically spunky rebel. Her painfully real evolution destroys her sense of self and hope for the future. The performance is brave and unpleasant, perhaps the most moving of the year.
[L. Michael Foote]
Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson)
In her feature debut, then-15-year-old Shareeka Epps performs with masterful simplicity. Her character, Drey, is Half Nelson’s only untouched eyes and ears, and her fate is the film’s ultimate concern. The screenplay affords her few lines, requiring her mostly to observe and evaluate, but Epps’s emotive understatement gets at Drey’s often-dangerous curiosity with restraint few young performers can match. It’s clear this girl is just getting started.
Déborah François (L'enfant)
Jérémie Renier is terrific in L'enfant as the callow young father, but the film would likely drift away from shore if not anchored by the motherly indignation of Déborah François' Sonia. Other films have looked fondly on such reckless, amoral young men, but a story that begins with a mother banging down her locked apartment door upon returning from the maternity ward will not let our sympathies stray too far. François excellently balances her maternal duty and anger with an obvious desire for intimacy.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (World Trade Center)
Maggie Gyllenhaal enters in purple-maroon, pulling her cell phone away from her ear in frustration. The camera tracks her as she strides purposefully, shoulders hunched, toward a screen displaying the smoking remains of the Twin Towers. It's only when she stops that we see that she's pregnant. Not only is her dread for Michael Peña's safety crushing her, the physical exertion of the walk has exacted its toll too. What's harder to express is how, as she tries to troop on, she seems a little off-kilter. Acting normal must be hard enough for her in the best of times; here, every flip of her hair seems to foreshadow her shattering. Her eccentricity doesn't diminish her suffering: it makes her beautiful.
Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo (Volver)
Though the Academy took the easy route, nominating only Penelope Cruz, it's hard to separate one actress from the superb ensemble that motors Pedro Almodovar's wise, witty Volver. Coming after a pair of male-centered films, Volver marked the welcome return of Almodovar's fascination with relationships between, and among, women. No film in 2006 offered finer female roles than matriarch Irene, dutiful daughter Sole, and cancer-suffering pot smoker Agustina. With verve and vitality, these actresses made us laugh and cry, surprised us with their secrets, and stirred us with their resilience. That none of these characters was somebody's "love interest" is a sad commentary on how little Hollywood is interested in women, and on how much grand material—and grand talent—we're all missing out on.
WINNER: Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo (Volver)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy)
In the dual role of Uncle Toby Shandy, keeper of a sprawling model of the Flanders battlefield where he sustained a potentially emasculating wound, and the sardonic comedian Rob Brydon who portrays him, Rob Brydon pilfers the movie from Steve Coogan, who draws the short straw in playing a pair of passive Shandys as well as the insecure rising star Steve Coogan. Once the Sterne novel’s narrative more or less jumps the track a half-hour in, the one-upsmanship scenes between the two Brit wits have the most snap. “All men lose their libido,” a grinning Rob assures diaper-changing father Steve. Their end-credits screening room squabble alone features Dueling Pacinos and Brydon’s topper on his acting aesthetic: “I regularly go to Streisand.”
Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine)
During the more implausible scenarios in Little Miss Sunshine—a teenager takes a vow of silence to honor Nietzsche, an ex-lover who should be safely tucked away at Yale turns up in a remote gas station, a hospital loses a corpse—Uncle Frank raises his eyebrows in bemusement. Then, without fail, he accepts his bizarre circumstances. The man is an outsider to his dysfunctional family, silently and hilariously commenting on the action with every line of his face. Steve Carrell brings a welcome injection of irony to an absurdist comedy. Just before the suicidal scholar schtick gets old, he unleashes the Frat Pack comedy and joins the zaniness, shuffling birdlike into glass doors with his shoulders shrugged to the sky.
[L. Michael Foote]
Robert Downey Jr. (A Scanner Darkly)
A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's trippy second stab at animated live-action, blends bizarre verbal humor with oppressive, disturbing paranoia—and no one nails the suspicious, up-all-night patter of the habitual drug user better than Robert Downey Jr. After seeing the film, a friend remarked that he wasn't certain whether he found Downey's stoned ravings horribly alienating, or jaw-droppingly hysterical; it seemed to me the perfect response to Scanner, a drug movie that neither endorses nor condemns drugs. Whether ranting about the mechanics of bicycle gears, or coolly arranging for a friend's arrest, Downey's performance as the amoral Barris is sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying, and always compelling—any resemblance to the actor's own life, with its spirals in and out of addiction, is unintentional of course.
Jack Nicholson (The Departed)
How Jack Nicholson avoids self-parody in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant return to form defies modern science. Exponentially so, considering he does it playing the Devil. Frank Costello is the most sadistic and appealing villain to grace the multiplex screens since Tommy DeVito did 16 years ago, but this latest concoction of so-bad-it’s-good pathology is not so much a study in psychotic behavior as it is an exploration of a bravado soaked archetype, which Jack wears like a custom fit Isotoner. His interpretation of a mob boss teetering on the cusp of sanity is the very definition of “engrossing performance.” The Departed, as a whole, is craft elevated to a work of art. The Cuckoo Man abides. Being played like a fiddle never felt so good.
Michael Sheen (The Queen)
This is not the Tony Blair you know today, burnt-out and splattered across the BBC with promises of stepping down. As invoked by Sheen, who just a year ago was shackled in movies like Underworld: Evolution, this Blair is a fresh-faced symbol of promise for the future of Britain. The Queen might not be his movie, but Sheen is just as much a force in the film as the titular character, pulling off an uncanny embodiment of Blair and the complexity of his fledgling relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Observant, wry, and careful, Sheen is the film’s only actor who makes the scenes set outside Buckingham palace worthy of the rest of the movie.
WINNER: Robert Downey Jr. (A Scanner Darkly)
Ana Cristine De Oliveira (Two Drifters)
By standards of realism, Ana Cristina de Oliveira fails. The actress summons untold depths of vulnerability, self-delusion, calculation, and loving affection; she then hurtles each emotion into her monstrous cipher of a character. Odete is the seed of evil in a cheesy melodrama; when the Lord’s Prayer is uttered, she grimaces in contempt before storming off upon the ��deliver us’ bit. Using her deep voice, alien beauty, and cruelly long fingers, she shocks and seduces the most hardened of audiences. Though her every decision is stranger than the last, de Oliveira never descends into cheap chaos, instead convincing us that the cleverest of intentions lie beneath her indecipherable performance. She mercilessly forces the story to its perverse conclusion with confidence and an unparalleled love of wickedness.
[L. Michael Foote]
Laura Dern (Inland Empire)
To recognize Laura Dern’s mind-destroying portrayal of ��a woman in trouble’ in David Lynch’s film as ��courageous’ seems an understatement. ��Ballsy’ feels plain contrary. Regardless, the Spawn of Bruce dominates the shit out of every on screen second she’s allotted (of which there are more than 10,800). Morphing between an aging actress, an unhappy housewife, and a desperate L.A. hooker while simultaneously navigating alternate realities like it’s nobody’s business, her emotions cascade in torrential form, shatter the fourth wall in their brutality and leave the audience certifiably traumatized. It is difficult to fathom how this actress can so unflinchingly evoke such damaging energy and maintain her sanity, so we’ll hedge our bets and dedicate this nomination to Ms. Dern’s obliterated psyche. Lest you forget, “cheese comes from milk.”
Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette)
In a film derided for its superficiality, Kirsten Dunst managed a performance that was anything but. This is a superficial character, folks, not a superficial movie—and Dunst's charming work as the titular Queen kept the whole ornate affair from crawling up its own beautifully-designed ass. This Marie Antoinette is bratty, childish, and willfully ignorant, but Dunst keeps her sympathetic by rooting her often-ugly behavior in fleeting, rarely-portrayed emotions that range from self-doubt to confusion, from boredom to exuberance. It’s a likable film about an unlikable character, and Kirsten Dunst manages to be both—often simultaneously. That critics (and audiences) saw only the shining surface is proof of how well Dunst and director Sofia Coppola succeeded. Now who's being superficial?
Ivana Baquero (Pan's Labyrinth)
Ivana Baquero’s performance as Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth helped us believe not only in the fantasies of another world but in the realities of this one. It’s a forceful display that taps into the energy of femininity, embracing a pre-sexual potency in keeping with the murky logic of fairytale and legend. Baquero offers more to this stock role than we had any right to expect. She brings an endearing selflessness to her character, a bravery present until her very last moments. It’s because Baquero has managed to convince us during the course of the film that Ofelia is destined for greatness that the ending is as full of hope as tragedy. She really might be something special, after all.
Julianne Nicholson (Flannel Pajamas)
As Jeff Lipsky’s chronicle of romance run dry is purportedly autobiographical, Nicholson bears the burden of doing justice to an ex- who may or may not find the impersonation repugnant. At the risk of further invasiveness, here’s what I gather about Ms. X: her pathological reticence was at once alluring and maddening; Lipsky brutally mishandled that reticence, and attempted to atone for it by inducing in his star one of the most beautifully performed scenes of the year. In spite of this tension, the relationship flourished because she compensated for her shyness with (what else?) private perversity. This made her lovable, in spite of and yet due to her impossible personality—which would make her rightly terrified to randomly encounter Nicholson, her masterful double.
WINNER: Ivana Baquero (Pan's Labyrinth)
Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
Approximately once every generation, the Jewish people produce a comedian that seems to be the apotheosis of our neuroses, tics, and anxieties. From Groucho Marx to Woody Allen to Larry David. Yet Gen X had seemed strangely silent. In fact, Ben Stiller threatened to be the next great Semite hope, until Sascha Baron Cohen showed up on our shores a few years ago, with his outrageous grab bag of personalities, each one ingeniously engineered to lampoon the various intersections of race, religion, and politics. Ultimately, Borat wouldn’t resonate if Cohen stuck exclusively to his Kazakh protagonist’s anti-Semitism. No, Borat and by extension Cohen, work because he taps into something greater than mere bigotry. In Borat’s gonzo dash across the country, he touches upon our darkest fear: that nothing ever really changes.
Ion Fiscuteanu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu)
A quick glance at the nominees for this year’s Oscars suggests that the Academy tends to favor visible acting over more subtle performances. In short, if you’re not shouting your lines, you’re not acting. Theatrical performances have their own merit, but too often unjustly overshadow the more restrained performances. Take, Ion Fiscuteanu in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. In this film, Fiscuteanu exhibits a Bressonian style of truth, in which the distracting element of melodrama is effectively eliminated. Fiscuteanu approaches the part of the dying man Mr. Lazarescu with natural nuance quietly turning in one of the most austere and effective performances of the year. What might be mistaken for a lack of talent—his nearly impassive expression and slouching demeanor—in fact helps envelop him entirely within the character. In effect, we cease to see him as an actor and truly believe him to embody the soul of this decrepit, bitter old man.
Will Oldham (Old Joy)
“You can’t get real quiet anymore,” drifter Kurt grumbles to his lapsed friend and camping partner Mark, but Will Oldham brings off the crucial silences between Kurt’s ramblings on physics, transcendence, and drum dancing. Toking mechanically in the car or glowering in a diner booth while Mark takes calls from his wife, Oldham makes Kurt’s lonerism neither pitiable nor romantic. When he shakes his bowed head at fireside, virtually keening “Something’s come between us,” it’s an aching plea for intimacy that recalls River Phoenix’s campfire scene in My Own Private Idaho. If Kelly Reichardt’s pastoral is slighter than that Portland buddy film, Oldham’s weary manchild elevates it, and the darting of his eyes as he wanders downtown streets is one of 2006’s most touching codas.
Clive Owen (Children of Men)
As Theo Faron, the terminally grieving father of a child lost to a flu pandemic in the days when women still bore children, Clive Owen personifies a whole world collapsing under grief for its lost children. Apocalyptic and overwhelming as Alfonso Cuarón’s parable is, every scene turns on Owen’s unexpectedly nuanced performance. After a string of ultra cool and aggressively coiled roles—in Mike Hodges’ Croupier, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, as Larry in Closer and as Dwight in Sin City—Owen moves gracefully into the deeper waters of tears and wonder.
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
Guy Pearce (The Proposition)
Guy Pearce staggers through The Proposition, emaciated and torn to shreds. He scrapes the celluloid itself, so jagged is his aspect. He creates a classic man of the West: a lonely hero clinging to a meaningless bond in a land that has abandoned everything but thirst. A quiet man is hard to judge, but Charlie’s grim, sober determination is unmistakably potent. Pearce proves that less is more. In fact, any more of Charlie Burns and we’d all be doomed.
WINNER: Clive Owen (Children of Men)
Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation)
Andrew Bujalski’s direction is so striking, at least in part, because of the alarming frequency at which it can be felt. Many good directors can embed a scene or shot with a personal signature; Bujalski seems less than content if a single line delivery hasn’t been shaped to reflect his concerns, namely for the way we lacquer pain with a smile to the point where the latter actually indicates the former. While his lackadaisical editing rhythms are the mark of someone for whom time is a string of arbitrarily related events, Bujalski makes up for being so lost in the fray by generously planting meaning in the white noise. In its own way, this is naturalism for the OCD.
Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men)
In Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón trades in the current taste for jig-saw narrative in favor of a straight-ahead dash of a story whose complexity comes instead from its remarkable visual layering and impeccably drawn range of characters. From social disintegration on a global scale to barefoot flight through broken glass, Cuarón leaves no detail to fend for itself.
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
David Lynch (Inland Empire)
“Instinctive!” David Lynch interjected at a New York Film Festival Q&A; when Laura Dern described how 20 minutes of nonstop shooting with a small DV camera freed his actors to give “instinctual” performances. “Instinctual is ��I'm hungry, I gotta go eat.’” Never a huge Lynch fan—his reliance on genre pastiche from Blue Velvet to Lost Highway now seems like insurance against a feature-length spinout into his unconscious—I find his strange-and-yet-stranger Hollywood diptych begun with Mulholland Dr. to be the most satisfying development of his career. Since after two viewings of Inland Empire I’m still not certain where the circus gypsies and the Phantom fit in, the narrative maze offers endless potential reinterpretations, perhaps to be found (in his lexicon) more instinctually than instinctively.
Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu walks a very fine line between tragedy and black comedy, and if it manages that tightrope act successfully, credit is certainly due to director Cristi Puiu. Stately cinematography, beautiful actors, and a blaring soundtrack full of heartbreaking strings could have made this the biggest tearjerker of the year. Instead, Puiu trains his wry gaze via grainy handheld footage on grimy apartments, ambulances, and hospital rooms populated by the overworked, underappreciated, and forgotten. He coaxes an extremely bodily performance out of lead actor Ion Fiscuteanu, full of grunts, grimaces, and an almost visible bad odor, and then surrounds him with such outrageously awful companions that it only feels appropriate to chuckle along empathetically.
Michael Winterbottom (Tristram Shandy)
It can be a daunting task adapting a novel as dense as Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, but director Michael Winterbottom proves worthy of the task. Winterbottom doesn’t necessarily shoot the material at hand but constructs an elaborate hypothetical reality in which he films himself attempting (and failing) to successfully adapt the novel. It sounds more complicated in theory than it is in action since Winterbottom integrates the behind-the-scenes antics with elements of Sterne’s narrative so seamlessly that each side of the story feels like a natural extension of the other. Although his characters unexpectedly break from the narrative, shifting from fiction to supposed reality, Winterbottom’s fluid direction keeps the flow tightly knit while allowing the content to spin off into a dizzying comic array that, like Sterne’s novel of procrastination, is satisfyingly incomplete.
WINNER: David Lynch (Inland Empire)
By: Stylus at the Movies
Published on: 2007-02-20