Twenty Performances, or Women and Chill Don First

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With the annual Academy Awards ceremony mere days away and the sharing of my personal assessment of the previous year’s ten finest films duly completed, tradition holds that I put my pontificating about performance into the format of an Actors Branch ballot. Had I been inexplicably gifted with the opportunity to identify the finest acting in the four established categories, presented in the required order, these are the names I would have submitted to the institution dedicated to the arts and sciences of motion pictures.

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

1. Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
2. Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
3. Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
4. Song Kang-ho, Parasite
5. Adam Driver, Marriage Story

I think The Last Black Man in San Francisco is phenomenal, and the performance by Majors is a major part of that. The few awards bodies that have seen fit to throw a little attention the film’s way have tended to slot Majors into the supporting category, but I think there are dual leads. Song was similarly pushed for supporting, but lead feels right to me. And while I have mixed feelings about Jojo Rabbit, I think its young lead is marvelously expressive. I only agree with the Academy on two nominees, but I’m grateful to that voting body for giving Banderas his first nomination for career-topping work in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest. Sunday’s ceremony will undoubtedly make Joaquin Phoenix the second person to win an Oscar for playing the Joker. I can’t deny the virtuoso physicality he brings to the role, but the performance has he depth of a layer of face paint.

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

1. Lupita Nyong’o, Us
2. Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
3. Awkwafina, The Farewell
4. Scarlett Johannsen, Marriage Story
5. Ana de Armas, Knives Out

To explain the wonders of Nyong’o’s performance, I’ll defer to this tweet from Guy Lodge shortly after he first saw Us:

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She does so much with the role, absolutely reveling in the joy of intricate invention. It’s my favorite acting of the year, irrespective of category. In addition to the performances the Academy also celebrated, both Awkwafina and de Armas are marvelous in roles that get diminished because they have more comedic elements. When Renée Zellweger wins on Sunday night, it’ll be a perfectly fine choice, if another instance of Oscar voters overvaluing a performance because of displaced affection for the real person who’s being portrayed.

 

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

1. Joe Pesci, The Irishman
2. Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
3. Timothee Chalamet, Little Women
4. Alan Alda, Marriage Story
5. Winston Duke, Us

Pesci is the only person I have in common with the Academy, and upon seeing The Irishman I thought sure that he was on his way to a second Oscar. The volatile onscreen persona Pesci is known for is put aside for a more more placid take on a mob boss, which winds up as the soul of Martin Scorsese’s rueful crime drama. It’s subtle and complex, exactly the sort of acting most deserving of plaudits. I should have known better. Brad Pitt is one of those actors who is “due,” and he has the benefit of competing with a role that’s really a lead, always a boon for supporting nominees. The other performances on my list are dandy, but this is the weakest category of the four.

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Florence Pugh, Little Women
2. Shuzhen Zhou, The Farewell
3. Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
4. Eliza Scanlen, Little Women
5. Park So-dam, Parasite

Little Women is full of marvelous acting, none more impressive than Pugh’s. Smoothly and subtly, she conveys the growth of Amy and gives the film’s centerpiece monologue a measured force that feels bracingly modern and yet also properly of the time. I’m glad to join the Academy in asserting Johansson is deserving of two nominations this year, but my other supporting actress choices never got much traction in the Oscar race, but all are terrific. And Park is also a fine online tutor.