14 Under the Radar Performances To Consider for Awards Season

By  · Published on November 24th, 2015

Sony Pictures Classics

It’s almost that time of year again. Soon enough, we will all start making lists hoping to memorialize the year in film, grouping them in best, most, worst, Top 10 underrated, etc. categories. Consider this an early-ish stab at one of those lists. I’m not sure what to call it, frankly. It’s not a list of “underrated performances,” as many of these have received critical acclaim if in no other form than reviews. It’s not a list of “best performances” either (at least not a complete one), since I have purposefully omitted some fantastic ones from 2015 –an embarrassment of riches- that are already in hearts and minds (and ballots) of many as we will get to see throughout the Oscar season.

Perhaps we can call it a list of ‘under the radar’ performances that people need to be reminded of. Why not? The timing is right. National Board of Review will announce their winners on December 1st (once again, claiming the first out of the gate spot after losing the honors to New York Film Critics Circle for the past few years.) Meanwhile, NYFCC voting will take place on December 2. Screen Actors Guild nominations are near by as well, with ballots due on December 7 and nominations to be announced on December 9.

Or maybe I am taking it too far. Let’s just say this is a list of great performances not many are talking about. They are (mostly) from very good films you should check out, talk/tweet about, and recommend to others. And hopefully some of “you” belong to one of the aforementioned groups, or others in charge of voting or making lists.

Some ground rules. I made sure all performances are from films released in The States in 2015. Also, I tried to stick with the “under the radar” mandate as much as possible. Some of these are more obscure and I know they won’t reach anywhere’s near “awards season” (and that’s OK). And some are a bit (or, a lot) closer to “awards chatter” (that’s OK too).

Just like many of you, I’m still playing catch up; so full disclosure: I still haven’t seen Girlhood, The Mend, James White and Duke of Burgundy (four of the most passionately loved films in the more “under the radar” crowd) among others. So don’t go grilling me if your favorite performance from a small (or big) film didn’t make it in this list (though please make sure to let me know of any you feel strongly about.) And I surely had to narrow the list down somehow. That said, many performances I loved this year didn’t make it in the list: Olivia Wilde (Meadowland), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Slow West), Christina Hendricks (Lost River) and Jafar Panahi’s wonderful, motor mouth niece (Taxi) are among those honorable mentions.

Without further ado, and in no particular order:

Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in my Dreams

Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in my Dreams

Playing Carol Peterson, a 70-something ex singer and retired teacher who lost her husband many years ago, Blythe Danner navigates through a later-in-life romance, friendships and fears gracefully. Marc Basch and Brett Haley’s script gives her a meaty role that doesn’t trivialize or marginalize old age, which she nails the nuances of with consistent assurance. Her buddies –including the young pool boy Lloyd whom she newly befriends- find great joy and pleasure in Carol’s company. And thanks to Danner’s superb performance that doesn’t rely on big, explosive moments, so do we.

Shameik Moore, Dope

Shameik Moore, Dope

Following its warm Sundance reception, I desperately wanted this film to score a more enthusiastic response during its early summer release. Not only is the Rick Famuyiwa-directed Dope an end-to-end fun ride with a stylish throwback to the cinematic style and the music of the 90s, but also its lead –Shameik Moore- gives one of this year’s most disarming and charming performances. As the geeky Inglewood high schooler Malcolm –accidentally mixed up in drug trafficking in the midst of Harvard and girl-next-door dreams– Moore is a Sundance breakthrough many seem to have forgotten somehow. In Famuyiwa’s words, “he is a star.” Time to reconsider him.

Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What

Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What is inseparable from its lead actress Arielle Holmes’ real-life story. Her experience as a junkie -whose daily survival in the brutal, icy streets of New York City- is what informs and guides the movie, as well as her knockout performance. Her character Harley’s bitter tongue, anger and passion become her greatest assets and worst enemies as she tries to negotiate her way through a little bit of cash, something to eat and a fix here and there; for both heroin and her boyfriend/second addiction Ilya. Holmes easily gives one of the most thought-provoking performances of the year and makes us believe in and deeply feel Harley’s physical and emotional torment. With two films already in post-production (one by Andrea Arnold), she is a name we will thankfully continue to hear from.

O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton

In an exhilarating performance as the rap pioneer Ice Cube (his real-life father), O’Shea Jackson Jr. makes an impressive acting debut that displays a wide range of his skills, capturing the mobilizing spirit and legacy of the 90s musical/cultural movement. This unruly, wildly entertaining and absorbing biopic might lose a little steam at times, but his dedication throughout remains consistent, and captivates the viewer with vibrant energy and emotional resonance.

Sarah Paulson, Carol

Sarah Paulson, Carol

You might not be aware, but actors other than the fabulous duo Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett exist and have vital roles in Carol. Awards season category fraud might push Mara -playing 1950s department store salesgirl Therese Belivet- as a supporting character (even though she is the lead, alongside Blanchett who plays Carol), but Paulson’s Abby Gerhard is the real supporting persona here. Her romantic history/current friendship with Carol lingers as a confident guiding voice in the film, as Carol falls in love with the young and inexperienced Therese whose sexual and artistic identities awaken as a result. Paulson commands all her scenes with a cool poise and gently claims her crucial stance among the trio of Carol, Therese and Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, also noteworthy.) Sadly, her nuanced work in 12 Years A Slave went largely unnoticed. Hope the same doesn’t repeat here.

Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Theeb

Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Theeb

Part coming of age tale, part adventure, Theeb finds its titular character in a distant part of the Ottoman Empire in 1916 as he joins his brother in escorting a British officer across the desert. Remarkable first-timer Al-Hwietat’s performance is raw and perceptive, relying not on heavy dialogues but a quiet clash of survival with love, loss, grief and loyalty. The young actor’s face mirrors his instincts as they complement and come at odds with one another throughout the story.

Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria

It’s tough for some of us to think of Clouds of Sils Maria as a 2015 movie, since it’s been playing in the festival circuit throughout 2014 (starting with Cannes in May of that year.) So it’s worth a reminder that this marvelous, mystifying film by Olivier Assayas indeed opened in the US this year and is eligible for awards. Juliette Binoche in the role of a veteran, world-famous actress is surely a wonder, yet Kristen Stewart, who already won a César as a Best Supporting Actress (first American actress to ever claim a César) playing her cool, competent assistant, more than holds her own next to Binoche with understated authority.

Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl

Already a hit at the upcoming Gotham Awards with multiple nominations, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the other Sundance coming-of-age tale that introduced a breakthrough performance to the world. As a teen budding artistically and sexually in the freewheeling world of the 70s San Francisco, Bel Powley as Minnie manages to be a grown up and a kid, vulnerable and sexy, innocent and fiendish all at the same time. Hopefully, the echoes of her grand performance will extend beyond the Gothams, and land on the Spirits as well.

Richard Gere, Time Out of Mind

As a homeless man undertaking his damaged relationship with his daughter and the escalating impossibility of his situation, George (Richard Gere) floats over NYC in a complete daze, in Oren Moverman’s moody and dreamlike film. George’s hazy state of mind and the film’s otherworldly feel are one and the same, which Gere perfectly captures and weaves into every painful, half-realized/half-lived moment in George’s life. This is perhaps the first time ever Gere has wowed me, and made me forget the name actor I was watching. Bilge Ebiri’s wonderful blog entry sings eloquent praises of the film and Richard Gere’s performance. Read, and seek this one out before the year-end.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Tangerine

Sean Baker’s sun-soaked, yet gritty LA tale is a convention-breaking film. It’s shot on an iPhone, yet it looks gorgeous. And it features two of this year’s most full-fledged performances –by transgender actors playing transgender people- as part of an equally capable ensemble. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor deliver memorable, fiery performances full of wit and humor as they roam through the streets of Los Angeles to settle personal scores. Both Rodriguez and Taylor are nominated for a “Best Breakthrough Actor” Gotham Award and likely to pop up in the awards conversations again once Independent Spirit Awards announce their picks.

Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, The Tribe

The Tribe Movie

Another duo of actors whose names need to be spelled out together as part of a jaw-dropping ensemble. In the most psychologically challenging film I saw this year, real-life deaf actors Fesenko and Novikova play students of a Ukranian school exclusively for the deaf. Fesenko is a newbie who gets mixed up in the ordeals of organized crime, and Novikova is the girlfriend of the leader whom he falls in love with to disastrous consequences. Shot entirely in sign language, The Tribe has no subtitles or plot-describing title cards, so the narrative is all on the actors’ faces and body language. This high concept might come across as a gimmick, yet thanks to the unapologetic performances of Fesenko and Novikova, The Tribe becomes a living, breathing film and finds humanity amid despair and some (very) graphic violence.

Félix de Givry, Eden


Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden is one of the best films released this year, and tells a Llewyn Davis-esque story about a DJ of the “French Touch” generation. In the role of Paul, de Givry delivers a richly layered performance that spans over two decades (starting with early 90s) as his character’s love of and obsession for electronic music –and high-minded fight against a soul-sucking desk job- become less fulfilling and more destructive. As Paul’s desperation and helplessness sneaks in and escalates, de Givry’s honest, temperate performance ensures we never lose sight of his character’s founding ideals, even during his inevitable decline.

Nina Hoss, Phoenix

Nina Hoss in Phoenix

In yet another collaboration with writer/director Christian Petzold following Barbara, Nina Hoss manages the impossible in the role of Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust survivor with a disfigured face, who goes under a facial reconstruction surgery. She somehow plays three roles in one body. As Nelly wrestles with physical and emotional identity upon seeing her new, unrecognizable face, Hoss effortlessly conveys the battle between her character’s past and present selves; who further complicates things by testing the loyalty of her husband under a different name. This is another film that played the 2014 festival circuit, yet released in the US just last summer. Take note.

Günes Sensoy, Mustang

Güne? ?ensoy, Mustang

Portraying Lâle, the youngest of 5 sisters raised by a conservative family in a patriarchal Turkish town near the Black Sea, Sensoy constructs the backbone of Mustang’s many emotions, ranging from joy, to distress, anger and fear. The first-timer grasps this feminist fairytale’s shades with an enchanting sweetness and surprising muscle. Her performance is the fortitude of the stellar ensemble, all portraying teenage girls that lose their freedom after an innocent game with boys on the last day of summer. Mustang is France’s Oscar submission and is currently a frontrunner, so you will (hopefully) hear about it more in the upcoming months.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.