In just a few weeks (24 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes and 58 seconds to be exact) the 87th Oscars will begin. That leaves you under a month, before winners are announced, to catch some of the best performances of the year. Though the Academy Awards is known for overlooking stellar performances from time to time. So while this past year held many Oscar-worthy performances you should certainly see, in addition to this pre-Oscar performance watch list I’ve gathered for you, there are a few that burned long enough in my memory after viewing that it only seemed right to include, nominated or not.
In short: You don’t want to miss these movies.
JK Simmons in Whiplash
Whiplash is essentially a psychological experience of any impassioned music student, only in somewhat of a horrific level. Before stepping on stage to perform, most musicians experience an adrenaline that cannot always be described or easily summed up (at least for those of us who aren’t natural born prodigies). Yet this film manages to sum it all up, particularly the intense mental combat any musician faces with a professor who is set on bringing the best out of you, even if that requires pulling out your guts along with it. JK Simmons, nominated this year for Best Supporting Actor, plays the unbridled jazz Professor, Fletcher, who has seen something of a gift in the young jazz drummer, Andrew (played by Miles Teller). Simmons, who has commonly played the supporting role of the dad you pity in a film, like Juno and Up in the Air, portrays that terrifying teacher whose expectations give you the kind of nightmares that make you wake up in a sweat imagining you will never meet up to them. Yet as frightful as Simmons is, you can’t help but love him for it.
David Oyelowo in Selma
After having the opportunity to catch this film early on, there was no doubt in my mind that the British David Oyelowo was in the run for Best Actor of the Year. No doubt you’ve heard of the shock in response to the absence of Selma in the category of Best Actor and Director (though the film is nominated for Best Picture of the Year). Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the first ever featured film of his life and delivers with such conviction and spirit, it’s unlikely we will see anyone even try to tackle this role for some time. When it comes to displaying a man (emphasis on the man, and not the icon) who’s movement boldly and righteously shaped our current culture, his simply can not be topped.
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
Of course probably the most fascinating story and riveting performance was the one I didn’t even have on my radar early last fall. Cumberbatch, best known as Sherlock (if you haven’t seen it, getting Netflix solely for this reason will completely be worth it), plays Alan Turning, the British pioneer computer scientist (**spoiler alert** since many of us Americans are too busy with frivolities, such as blogs, to have learned such astonishing stories of history), whose skills and innovations inevitably broke into Germany’s Enigma machine which is believed to have shortened World War II by two or four years, saving countless lives. One of many persecuted for his homosexuality at the time in Great Britain, Turning underwent treatment from the government that no doubt deteriorated his spirit at a young age. Cumberbatch’s transformation from the impeccable brilliant man he is commonly pinned as, to a broken and complex intelligent individual just may be the performance of the year (in my book, at least.)
Jack O'Connell in Unbroken
Had Unbroken been released five years ago (when films like Crazy Heart, Up in the Air and The Hurtlocker were the frontrunners), it likely would’ve received nominations for every major category. But alas, we are in 2015, where if a film doesn’t have enough quirk or dullness in the name of being unique, they are simply overlooked. And if ever there was a film overlooked this year it was Unbroken. Having read the gripping true accounts of Louis Zamperini, in Lauren Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, I was thrilled for the film to come out simply for those of you who “don’t read much” to finally take it in. While fans of Zamperini are disappointed at the selective timeline of his life that the film covers, Jack O'Connell displays the spirit's wrestle of survival like one who has been making epics for years. O'Connell is sure to be an actor on the rise. And Unbroken was certainly a high place to start.
Christoph Waltz in Big Eyes
Big Eyes. It’s one of those films you likely overlooked this past Christmas, but another true account that is better than fiction. It is the story of artist Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams). Waltz (Oscar winner from Inglorious Bastards) plays Walter Keane, a gregarious artist who sweeps Margaret off her feet, as well as the credits for her art work and skillfully makes Keane a household name. Watching Christoph Waltz, no matter what he’s in, is like a circus at the movies. There is something both magical and insane that he brings, and this role truly allowed the many talents of Waltz to shine all at once.
Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night
Cotillard is the purists’ actress. It seems most anything she’s in, be it a furiously divine love in Inception or a soft-spoken stunner in Midnight in Paris, and it turns to gold. This french film is about as subtle and simple as they come, yet Cotillard's performance couldn’t be anything but. Two Days, One Night is the story of a woman who has discovers her employers have bribed her employees with a lofty bonus, so that she can be let go. In the course of two days and one night, Sandra (Cotillard) sets out to ask of her co-workers, individually, to reconsider the bonus and vote that next Monday for her to stay. It may seem underwhelming in plot, but in portrayal Cotillard touches upon such a modern human emotion, that truly stings in light of our present economy and workplace politic, it can’t be forgotten.