Gary Oldman’s pitch perfect performance as Winston Churchill might be one of the last of the great performances where the actor’s work alone is the greatest visual effect. As Hollywood moves away from relying solely on the actor and towards a more digitally friendly paradigm, Oldman’s work stands out as a reminder of what old-school actors can do when given the opportunity. Oldman *is* Churchill in Darkest Hour.
The more you know about Churchill, the more you’ll appreciate his work and Darkest Hour overall. We hear his name a lot. We’ve seen many television shows and films about him. We know he was the most valuable player among the Allies when it came to stopping Hitler. But only an actor who can bring the kind of deep, thoughtful work that Oldman has done here would know the tiny things, the nearly invisible aspects of Churchill that he’s captured here. Things like a pause to take a breath, a surreptitious glance of disapproval, the occasional humility. It’s probably easy for some to write it off as one of your typical Oscar bait-y performances, but let’s not make the mistake of forgetting why an Oscar is supposed to be awarded. It is not supposed to celebrate the prom king and queen. It is not even supposed to given to someone voters respect or a character they admire. It is supposed to reward the highest achievement in the art of acting.
Also opening this week is Denzel Washington as Roman Israel, Esq. Washington remains one of the best actors in American cinema and it’s his performance alone that is being singled out in a film that is receiving a few mixed to negative reviews. Washington might get a nomination on star power and talent alone. He gave the best acting performance of last year in Fences, a film he also directed.
Also soon to be seen is Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. Hanks plays a younger Ben Bradlee in the early days of the Post’s rise to prominence as a national force to be reckoned with, first with the publishing of the Pentagon Papers against the forceful wishes of the White House, and next with Watergate, bringing down that very same administration. Hanks might very well be one of the five Best Actor contenders this year, especially if The Post takes off with critics and audiences. Many will be tempted to compare his work here to his role in Bridge of Spies. They are completely different, but Bradlee being such a well-known and beloved figure should help Hanks more this time around than his notable work in Bridge of Spies, Sully, and Captain Phillips — all great performances that were ignored by the Academy’s acting branch. Best Actor is not especially strong this year, so there’s a chance that Hanks will finally get his first Oscar nomination since Castaway.
One of the most memorable and moving performances of the year has to be rising star Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. He’s brilliant throughout; funny, tentative, restlessly confident, and coming of age right before our eyes, Chalamet’s final scene is the killer. Chalamet can also be seen in two other prominent films this year, Lady Bird and Hostiles, but this is easily his best work. As David Edelstein said in his review, he’s an actor to keep an eye on.
James Franco has also become one of the most buzzed actors in recent weeks for his role as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist. Franco plays both Wiseau and Wiseau playing “Johnny” in the cult phenomenon, The Room. Franco’s portrait is unexpectedly sympathetic and funny. It helps that every actor in Hollywood is in the thing, and that Franco did such a good job directing it.
Christian Bale can always be counted on to turn in some of the year’s best work with any film he’s in, whether it’s The Fighter or The Big Short or his vehicle this year, Hostiles. As we speak, he’s transforming himself into Dick Cheney, one pie at a time. But in Hostiles we see more of a personal turn and less of one that is about how he’s able to physically disappear into the role. That’s probably due to the raw vulnerability of the performance — where it starts and where it ends. He’s playing a traditional leading man’s role here — an iconic western hero subverted. Though more subtle than some of his other performances, it has to be one of the year’s best.
Daniel Kaluuya is so much of the reason Get Out works and yet, for some reason, he hasn’t been getting much buzz in the Best Actor category. He is our eyes and ears while we watch Get Out, our translator that tells us how we’re supposed to interpret this surreal and powerfully satiric (and horrific) look at race and racism among people who claim not to have a racist bone in their bodies. That said, both the Gothams and Spirits have given Kaluuya Best Actor nominations, which certainly should help elevate his profile.
Algee Smith is mesmerizing in Detroit, absolutely worthy of serious consideration for Best Actor. He plays an up-and-coming Motown singer whose career is derailed by a night of horror on the outskirts of Detroit the night of the 1967 riots — a gruesome act of injustice in America that demands our attention.
Also well-worth mentioning is Matt Damon, who gives two strong lead performances in Downsizing and Suburbicon — two completely different roles in films that seem to be the flip side of each other. Harry Dean Stanton does memorable work in his last role, Lucky, which may or may not find a place in this year’s awards race. Hugh Jackman’s work in The Greatest Showman has not yet been seen but may or may not be “awards worthy.”
But the Best Actor race is nowhere near settled until this weekend, when critics and bloggers and pundits will finally get to see Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. Lewis has said it’s his final performance before retiring, and early word is that it’s extreme in the final act, revolving around sexual sadism and obsession. The Best Actor race can’t be determined until that role is seen.
Right now, Best Actor seems like Oldman’s to lose. In a year of strong women fighting back, Oldman’s Churchill is a necessary presence in our troubled times, no matter if the critics got it, support it, or not. Some performances are unequivocal. Oldman’s Churchill is one of those.