The most unappealing part of the Oscar season–besides the sniping text messages from Mickey Rourke–is observing how the echo chamber created by critics (and bloggers) ends up affecting the mindset of actual Academy Award voters. It seems like fewer and fewer movies and performers are invited into the inner circle each year, probably because so many are written off as non-contenders by the cognoscente before they even in theaters. Don’t worry! We’re here to rectify that injustice. You won’t find these people mentioned on any Oscar prognostication websites, but here are four of our favorite under-the-radar performances from 2008.
Greg Kinnear, Ghost Town
Ricky Gervais’ attempt to headline a movie in America bombed so badly that he was already making jokes about it at the Emmy Awards during the film’s opening weekend. That’s too bad. Just released on DVD this week, we can’t recommend Ghost Town enough. It is quite possibly the best romantic comedy to come along in some time–a caustic lark that harkens back to the days of snappy black and white. It would be very easy to place Mr. Gervais on our list, too, but as good as he is, we’ve seen him do this type of role before. Greg Kinnear, on the other hand, is a revelation. From the opening scene, which culminates with his tuxedoed lothario getting creamed by a New York City bus, Mr. Kinnear is operating on another level. Sure, he’s doing Cary Grant in Topper, but he’s so good, you don’t really care. The reason Ghost Town works so well is because the sugary sweet sentiment goes down like a whiskey sour (with extra sour). Mr. Kinnear is the snarky prick that stirs the drink.
Demián Bichir and Santiago Cabrera, Che
As the star of Steven Soderbergh’s Che, Benicio Del Toro is sturdy, single-minded and very mannered–it’s the type of performance we used to imagine seeing from Robert De Niro. But the film really belongs to Demián Bechir and Santiago Cabrera. During part one, titled The Argentine, both men exhibit such life and exuberance, that they inject the proceeding with a much-needed levity. As Fidel Castro, Mr. Bichir (best known for his stint as Mary Louise Parker’s hot, drug kingpin boyfriend on the fourth season of Weeds) is idealized to be sure, but that has more to do with the Pollyanna writing than anything else. It’s to his credit that you sense an underlying uneasiness anytime he’s on screen; in keeping with the Robert De Niro motif, his Castro is like Young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. And as Camilo, a happy-go-lucky brother-in-arms to Che, Mr. Santiago (who similarly had a TV stint, on Heroes) steals literally every scene he’s in with brisk humor and charm to spare. When both actors disappear from the story during part two, things sag. Their absence from the final two hours is a major reason why Che would have been better served as a 170-minute affair.
Hiam Abbass, The Visitor
An actor himself, director Tom McCarthy clearly knows how to get the best out of his performers. And while Richard Jenkins is deservedly receiving Oscar heat for his performance in The Visitor, Hiam Abbass is the heart and soul of the movie. As a mother who sees her son detained (and then deported), the Israeli-born actress is filled with believable determination and warmth. She doesn’t have a big moment decrying the arbitrary nature of the U.S. immigration policy (that’s left to Mr. Jenkins), but she is so powerful that speeches aren’t necessary. The last look she gives Mr. Jenkins as she heads towards her plane says it all. This is the type of performance people usually bend over backwards to praise (see: Viola Davis in Doubt), but for some reason, they aren’t. It’s too bad Ms. Abbass didn’t get herself into the echo chamber.
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