Oscar is only a start: A world of best performances from the past year

Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios/AP
Ilda Mason (left), Ariana DeBose (center), and Ana Isabelle dance in a scene from “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg. Ms. DeBose, who plays Anita, is nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Movies, especially in troubling times, are often belittled as mere escapism. But some escapes can bring us into a wider comprehension of who we are. In the arts, there is no higher calling than this. And there is no more powerful way to connect with oneself than to live through the experiences of others. 

This is why the art of acting, of performance, has always meant so much to me, and never more so than now. With this in mind, and with the run-up to the Oscars in full swing, I want to weigh in on a few of the nominated choices that impressed me the most in the four acting categories. More important, I’ll also single out some terrific work that didn’t get nominated.

The Oscars are far from the ultimate arbiter of excellence.

Why We Wrote This

Movies help us live through the experiences of others and bring us into a wider comprehension of who we are, suggests Monitor film critic Peter Rainer. Ahead of the Oscar awards, he shares his choices for the performances that transported audiences in 2021.

Best actress

Of the five best actress nominees, I like best Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” and Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter.”

It’s never easy playing a celebrated public figure, especially an icon as overexposed as Princess Diana. Stewart triumphs by allowing us to experience Diana as a real person entrapped in a surreal, albeit gilded, cage. Diana’s fragile selfhood, and the happiness of her two sons, is at stake. Stewart makes us see just how high those stakes were for her.

Pablo Larrain/Neon/AP
Kristen Stewart is a best actress nominee for her portrayal of Princess Diana in “Spencer.”

As Leda, a middle-aged literature professor seeking a solitary beach vacation in Greece, Colman is playing a woman for whom, it soon becomes clear, motherhood was a suffocating responsibility. This is not how we are accustomed to seeing motherhood portrayed in the movies, and it’s to Colman’s immense credit that she doesn’t attempt to soften the impact. It’s a subtly creepy and nuanced performance, full of impacted sorrow. 

I am not trying to be esoteric when I say that the best performance of the year for me was given by Jasna Ðuričić playing Aida, a schoolteacher in the neglected political thriller “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” about the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Amid such turmoil, the sheer vehemence of Aida’s compassion, without the slightest bit of grandstanding, raises the character to heroic heights.  

Another amazing non-nominee was Ann Dowd in “Mass,” as the mother of a high school shooter who, with her ex-husband, has a confrontational sit-down with the parents of one of the victims. The film is a remarkable ensemble piece, but Dowd is the standout. She gives her character such a febrile intensity that at times I felt the impulse to look away from the screen. And yet how could I? Her slightest quiver speaks volumes.

Best actor      

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar-nominated performance as the surly, shadowy cowboy in “The Power of the Dog” has been getting major buzz, but in some ways I prefer his much less heralded work as the deliriously eccentric real-life painter of cats in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.” Cumberbatch is unmatched at bringing out the humanity in genius oddballs (see also his Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”) and never more so than here.

Kirsty Griffin/Netflix/AP
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in "The Power of the Dog." He is among the nominees for best actor.

Will Smith has made his share of middling movies, but he’s at his best as Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, in “King Richard.” We often don’t give movie stars enough credit for, at least in some cases, also being star actors. But Smith’s propulsive Oscar-nominated performance in this film should come as no surprise to anyone who saw him in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Ali,” or “Six Degrees of Separation.”

As for the unnominated: It’s been a long time since Nicolas Cage showed up in a movie that was watchable as anything except high camp. In the superb “Pig,” as a reclusive truffle hunter with a dark backstory, he reminds us of just how good an actor he is. Best of all, he does so without all his usual weirdo mannerisms and exhortations (as entertaining as those can sometimes be).

Also unrecognized were two of the year’s finest: Aditya Modak as an aspiring Hindustani classical musician in “The Disciple” and Adarsh Gourav as the ambitious Indian servant in “The White Tiger.” Performances aside, these films were among the year’s best.

Best supporting actress

There was probably more first-rate work in this category than in any other this year. Three Oscar nominees stood out for me.

Ariana DeBose’s Anita in “West Side Story” is in many ways the film’s propulsive core. As both actor and dancer, she has an incendiary forthrightness that recalls the young Rita Moreno, her celebrated Oscar-winning predecessor in the part (who also appears in a newly created role in the remake, to its great advantage).

Aunjanue Ellis, playing Richard Williams’ exasperated wife in “King Richard,” transforms what could have been a thankless role into a rendition so rich you could easily imagine the movie centering on her. 

Like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench is a perennial nominee, and for good reason. She can play regal and bedraggled with equal assurance. As Granny in “Belfast,” she is at her most poignant, and never more so than in her final words to her departing family: “Go. Go now. Don’t look back. I love you, son.”

Other standouts, unnominated, include Sally Hawkins as Diana’s passionately loyal lady-in-waiting in “Spencer”; Kathryn Hunter playing to sinister, sinuous perfection all three witches in “The Tragedy of Macbeth”; Toko Miura as the sad-eyed personal driver in “Drive My Car”; and Gaby Hoffmann as the beset sister and mother in “C’mon C’mon.” 

Rob Youngson/Focus Features/AP
A scene from “Belfast” includes (left to right) Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciarán Hinds. Both Ms. Dench and Mr. Hinds are nominated for Oscars for their supporting roles.

Best supporting actor

Judi Dench’s great work in “Belfast” would not have been as effective without the Oscar-nominated Ciarán Hinds playing opposite her as her husband. Hinds, who grew up in Belfast, is one of those actors who, especially in repose, seems to carry within him an entire universe of feeling. His stillnesses are more eloquent than most actors’ orations.

But lest you think I’m averse to watching talented actors strip-mine the scenery, three unnominated hambones especially caught my eye last year: Richard Ayoade as the hypertemperamental film director in “The Souvenir Part II”; Bradley Cooper in “Licorice Pizza” as the real-life movie producer Jon Peters – a definitive sendup of showbiz egomania; and Al Pacino as one of the egregious Guccis in “House of Gucci.” If there were an award for most acting, these guys would rate high.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. The Oscars award ceremony airs on ABC on Sunday, March 27. 

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