2018 in Review: Underrated Performances by Rebecca Pahle

This time of year, with Oscar season is full swing, the conversation about the previous year’s “bests” have begun to calcify. Frontrunners emerge as others fall by the wayside, dreams of Oscar glory (whether their dreams or those of their publicists/agents/parents who want bragging rights) diminishing to the merest twinkle in the rear-view mirror. Inevitably, some worthy actors get passed over. But just because the Academy is set to ignore the genius of Hugh Grant’s supporting performance in Paddington 2 doesn’t mean that I will!

Hugh Grant actually did receive some awards love for playing the hammy, past-his-prime actor Phoenix Buchanan. He was nominated for a BAFTA last year (in the UK, Paddington 2 was a 2017 release), and the brave souls in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named him their runner-up in the Best Supporting Actor category. (He was beaten by Steven Yeun in Burning, and while his performance was the best part of that film, did he have a song-and-dance number over the credits? No.)

But whither the love for John C. Reilly, who turned in a pair of great performances this year in The Sisters Brothers and Stan & Ollie? Of the two, Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers (also regretfully absent from the awards conversation) is the superior film, spinning an inventive take on the Western genre where Stan & Ollie goes the straightforward (an occasionally schmaltzy) biopic route. John C. Reilly makes both his characters—an assassin who’d really rather not be an aging comedy legend—relatable and authentic without tipping over the line into melodrama. Because that is what John C. Reilly does. (Remember Chicago’s “Mr. Cellophane.”) John C. Reilly is capable of just about everything, and we take him for granted, and it’s not cool. He could star in a remake of The Human Centipede, and he would probably still deserve an Oscar, if only as a retroactive apology for not properly honoring him in Walk Hard.

Another actor who flew somewhat under the radar in 2018 was Amanda Riseborough, who played Mandy and Nancy in… Mandy and Nancy. Mandy, with its hyperviolence and psychedelia, isn’t a particularly Oscar-y film. (Your parents would probably like Green Book better.) But there’s one moment that ranks among the most sublime 2018 had to offer. Mandy has been kidnapped and drugged by a Manson-esque cult leader (Linus Roache) who proceeds to go on a long, portentous rant about how he is the best thing ever and she should be honored to be his new bride/sex slave. Mandy’s response is to laugh in his face uncontrollably. That unwillingness—that inability—to take her captor seriously is more subversive, more wounding to this megalomaniacal manchild than any screaming or crying could possibly have been. Riseborough’s performance, in that moment, is raw and unhinged, the catalyst that takes Mandy from “OK, this is weird” to “what the hell is happening?”

Riseborough goes a more subdued route in writer/director Christina Choe’s debut feature Nancy, playing a woman who comes to suspect that she’s the long-lost child of a couple (Steve Buscemi, J. Smith-Cameron) whose daughter was kidnapped decades prior. It’s a somewhat Lifetime-esque premise, but Riseborough and Choe avoid sensationalism, instead looking inward to craft a nuanced portrait of a woman defined by a desperate desire for belonging. (If Mandy and Nancy are both a bit heavy for you, Riseborough stood out from some very august company in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin.)

On the breakthrough performances front, Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) and Yalitza Aparicio (Roma) are the most-cited names. And rightfully so—they turn in starmaking performances in movies that have captured the critical eye. Another critical darling, though one with less awards season momentum, is Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls. It delivers a manifesto of modern womanhood—the struggles, the betrayals, the exhaustion, the anger, the solidarity—through the lens of the employees of a Hooters knock-off. Regina Hall holds down the film as Lisa, the supportive yet suffering manager, and Haley Lu Richardson is a bright light in a supporting role. But—if you’ve been paying attention—you already knew Hall and Richardson are great. The true revelation here is Shayna McHayle as Danyelle, the third member of Support the Girls’ central trio. If Maci is optimistic and Lisa isn’t but is trying desperately to look like she is, Danyelle is the deadpan wit who’s fully in-tune with the idea that life sucks, but you do what you gotta do to get through it.

But the grand poobah of underrated great performances belongs to Carey Mulligan in Wildlife, the feature directorial debut of Paul Dano. The movie, centering on the dissolution of a marriage in ’60s suburban Montana is well-crafted, especially for a first feature. Dano has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, Bong Joon-Ho, Denis Villeneuve, and Kelly Reichardt, and clearly the guy’s kept his eyes open. But Mulligan takes an otherwise been-there-done-that tale of suburban ennui and family drama and breathes fire into it. As seen through the eyes of her teenage son, Jeanette (Mulligan) strikes up a relationship with an older man while her shiftless husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) is away on a long-distance job. Every frame of Mulligan’s performance—and Wildlife’s script, penned by Dano and Zoe Kazan—imbues Jeanette with frustration, pain, and yearning for a fulfilling life. The actress takes a character who lies and cheats, plants her feet, and refuses to let you dismiss her as some cardboard villainness. 

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