Make the Case: Acting
Welcome to the first edition of Make the Case, a recurring feature in which our contributors will argue on behalf of films and individuals that could — but shouldn't --go overlooked come awards season. In the past, our collective rage over Oscar myopia has been limited to merely ranting about it to anyone within earshot, but now, like the trained lawyers that many of our writers are, we are taking this opportunity to expand into the court of public opinion and try to change a few minds through hard evidence, persuasive rhetoric, and, if all else fails, yelling until everyone capitulates just to shut us up.
We’re kicking things off with a look at the acting categories. From tormented teens and troubled child stars to struggling country singers and empathetic bandmates, these are the 2019 performers who made us laugh, made us cry, and made us stand up and cheer — and who, unless someone valiantly takes up their case, won’t be making any speeches come February.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. — Best Actor, Waves and Luce Trey Edward Shults’s Waves puts Tyler Williams front-and-center, a high school senior who seemingly has it all: the perfect girlfriend, a bright wrestling future, and a loving – albeit tough – family. Luce, directed by Julius Onah, similarly follows the senior year of Luce Edgar. Pulled from war-torn Eritrea and adopted to an upper-middle class white couple, Luce is an all-state athlete, an accomplished debater, and one of the most adored students in school. From the outside, Kelvin Harrison Jr. picked two similar roles to anchor his breakout 2019. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Waves relies on its ability to make the audience feel what Tyler feels: the pressure, the pain, the alternating ecstasy and devastation of high school. If the film doesn’t evoke that empathy, it fails. Harrison is more than up to the task. His face shows every conflicting emotion he feels in real-time. He conveys the depth of his highs and lows through physicality. He lets the audience in through quick reactions – flashes of impatience and frustration. In short, he’s totally vulnerable. Luce pulls the opposite trick. For most of its enigmatic run-time, it draws suspense from the uncertainty around Luce’s motives. The audience is never told if he’s perfectly personable…or a complete sociopath. For the movie to succeed, the audience must believe he could be either, and once again, Harrison shoulders an Atlas-like load. The way he turns from gregarious to menacing in a split-second – and right back to affable as if nothing happened – leaves you second-guessing your instincts and your presumptions about him. With the slight gestures and small smiles, Harrison instills a self-doubt that makes us question what our biases and our eyes are telling us. Either of these performances deserve to launch Kelvin Harrison Jr. into stardom. But both in the same year? Give this man an Oscar. -Zach D'Amico
Jessie Buckley — Best Actress, Wild Rose Watching Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, you get the distinct impression that you’ve witnessed lightning in a bottle. As Rose-Lynn Harlan, a Scottish ex-convict and single mother who dreams of country music stardom in Nashville, Jessie Buckley is an absolute dynamo, careening across the screen with a frenzied energy of a presence so naturalistic that you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that it’s not acting at all. In fact, if I hadn’t just seen her give a completely polar opposite performance in a thankless role in Judy, I might have just assumed that Buckley was actually a talented country singer plucked from the streets of Glasgow, instead recognizing what a remarkable performance this is. Her Rose-Lynn just feels like a real person. Her every line sounds like it’s occurring to her for the first time as she says it, and her every decision seems like it’s being made in real time. And her singing, which is incredible, is delivered with a soulfulness and an exuberance that’s downright infectious. Like the best country artists and musical performers, you believe every word. It’s an incredible breakthrough performance, and one that’s certainly deserving of all the accolades and praise we could possibly shower upon it. -Jonny Diaz
Noah Jupe — Best Supporting Actor, Honey Boy Honey Boy is not a film for the faint of heart. An autobiographical story written by Shia LaBoeuf, it is a glimpse into the tumultuous childhood (if you can call it that) of an actor raised by an alcoholic father and all but abandoned by his mother. Noah Jupe, who plays the young version of Shia (“Otis” in the movie), delivers a stunning and nuanced performance. Jupe had the challenge of playing a child who experiences only glimpses of what it means to be loved and accepted, to be carefree and silly and playful. Jupe excels in showing us, through well-timed facial expressions and physical movement, that Otis’s turn toward adulthood is grounded in fear of isolation and failure. Jupe conveys a sense of sweetness and naivete throughout the film that makes you feel protective of his character, and that makes it all the more heartbreaking when he bargains with his dad for cigarettes, or steals food when he’s hungry and left alone, or when he confesses that he thinks his dad would leave him if not for the money. It’s the biggest role Jupe has had yet, and he absolutely shines. - Sara Murphy D'Amico
Agyness Deyn — Best Supporting Actress, Her Smell Though Alex Ross Perry’s musical drama Her Smell is a showcase for star Elizabeth Moss (herself deserving of awards recognition), the supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at. Amber Heard, Dan Stevens, and Gayle Rankin all turn in wonderful complementary performances, but the true breakout is English actress Agyness Deyn. As Marielle Hell, the bassist to Moss’ lead singer Becky Something, Deyn’s role is often reactionary, trying to put out whatever emotional fires Becky has started; this kind of character can too easily become one-note, but Deyn crucially doesn’t play the part as either a saint or a martyr. Rather, her Marielle is fully realized and relatable, a woman who is deeply caring and who wants to stand by her friend through thick and thin, but who also has a breaking point just the same as anyone else. In the end Deyn’s role is fairly small — this is Becky’s story after all — but her scenes and her presence loom large over the final product. If Moss is the storm, buffeting the audience about until we think we’ve taken all we can, Deyn is the rock we cling to, anchoring us to the humanity at the film’s core. -Carson Cook