By John H. Foote
Of the major contenders for Best Actor this year, five are previous winners, while another is a previous nominee. Collectively, a total of seven Oscars have been won by the actors listed here, while another near 20 nominations have been amassed by the group in the running for Best Actor this year.
It is with great interest I see Tom Hanks and Anthony Hopkins back in the race after years, decades without a single nomination. Each was nominated last year in the Supporting Actor category, each deserving and finds themselves back again, this time in the Best Actor race.
It is exciting to see fresh blood in the category, just as it is to see the veterans hard at work maintaining their art with mesmerizing performances. I love seeing long time character actors finally hit on a role in which they knock it out of the park, as Ben Affleck did this year and Delroy Lindo. Sadly, the fact Gary Oldman won two years ago for a lesser performance in Darkest Hour (2917) might cut him out of a chance of winning altogether, possibly even being nominated. And will enough voters actually see Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal or Bruce Dern, haunting in The Artist’s Wife? No doubt about it, things are very different this year.
One thing that has not changed is that Best Actor is wildly competitive once again.
ANTHONY HOPKINS IN THE FATHER
It has been nearly 30 years since Hopkins terrified the world as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the serial killer who dined on his victims. He followed that with an array of great performances through the nineties and 2000’s and is now set to garner another Oscar nomination. Hopkins gives a superb performance as a man grappling with dementia, struggling to be the man he believes he still is while his mind is slipping away like water. Not only is this a poignant, often heartbreaking performance, Hopkins creates a man raging with anger at what is happening to him, at being second guessed, not believed or questioned because in his fractured mind he knows, HE KNOWS, and yet we know he does not. I live next door to a wonderful lady struggling with Alzheimer’s, and I cannot imagine the pain of losing everything you are, everything you in your memory wiped clean. Hopkins delivers one of his best performances.
TOM HANKS IN NEWS OF THE WORLD
Captain Jefferson Kidd is a veteran of the Civil War, a man who has seen unspeakable atrocities in his life, and yet who has lived his life as a decent, good man. Is he capable of violence? Oh yes, but only as a last resort and when he feels his life, or the lives he protects are in danger. Hanks gives his most powerful performance since Captain Phillips (2013), which incidentally was also directed by Paul Greengrass. A widower haunted by the memories that decorate his mind, Kidd moves from town to town delivering the news happening around the world. He takes into his charge a young girl raised by Kiowa Indians, hoping to return her to her surviving family. Thus they journey across the landscape of the West, he hoping to bring her hope, laughter, everything he once had. Hanks is Oscar worthy, as is the film, the finest work of Greengrass’ career.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN IN MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
As Levee, the angry young black man of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chadwick Boseman takes a cliched character we have seen over and over and imbues him with great heart, new fire and soul. We might not understand his actions, but we get the fact he is an artist being held back by the simple color of his skin. In this instance he perceives he is being held back artistically by his own people, which enrages him. Boseman radiates charisma, that thing Pauline Kael called “bite you on the nose talent”. Sadly it is the last performance we will see from Boseman and could win the actor an Oscar. Chances are he will be nominated for supporting actor as well, for his haunting performance in Da Five Bloods. Boseman would join both Peter Finch in Network (1976) and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) who both won posthumous awards for their exceptional work. A fitting tribute for the gifted young actor, taken far too soon.
GARY OLDMAN IN MANK
Though Oldman won his Oscar for Best Actor just two years ago in Darkest Hour as Winston Churchill, it was one of those performances that was a winner without really deserving the award. Was it Oldman or was it the makeup that deserved the Oscar? I never though Oldman was great, that he gave a performance for the ages, whereas that is what he does as writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who wrote Citizen Kane (1941), forever making an enemy of William Randolph Hearst. Through his alcoholic haze, Mank sees the world as it is, not as it seems in Hollywood, where everything is sanitized in public yet pure decadence in private. Oldman is brilliant, possibly doing the finest work of his career. Masterful acting, Oldman disappears under the skin of Mank.
DELROY LINDO IN DA 5 BLOODS
A longtime character actor who flirted with an Oscar nomination as the dangerous, insidious drug lord in Clockers (1995), Lindo is nothing short of magnificent here as Paul, the Vietnam veteran who wears the scars far too deeply and recalls everything about his time in Vietnam. As Paul, he is a man of contradiction, who proudly voted for Trump despite what his friends say about him, and who harbors a terrible secret about the fate of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and is haunted by what took place. The men return to the jungles of Vietnam to retrieve the bones of their leader and take home with them the gold bars they buried so long ago. The howls of anguish that come exploding from him are the howls of pain from a man who cannot shake the ghosts he carries around and has for 40 plus years. An extraordinary performance that could very well win the Academy Award.
RIZ AHMED IN SOUND OF METAL
Imagine being a drummer for a heavy rock group and suddenly, in the matter of a few days, your hearing is gone, not fading, but gone. Your entire world is not silent and you are not in any way prepared for that silence. That is the world of Reuben, a tattooed, peroxide blonde recovering heroin addict who must learn to deal with it. And he does, at least he tries with the understanding and great help of his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). If the eyes are the windows of the soul, we can see directly into the soul of Ahmed with his exquisite performance which perfectly captures a man losing what matters to his senses most. New and on the rise, it would be his first nomination for Best Actor, but certainly not his last.
BEN AFFLECK IN THE WAY HOME
As a recovering alcoholic himself, Affleck went far beyond method acting in this film as a drunk given the chance to redeem himself. Portraying a down on his luck high school basketball coach who finds a chance to bring some good into his life, Affleck is a revelation, and he responds with the finest performance of his career. Already celebrated, and rightly so as a formidable filmmaker and screenwriter, Affleck has always been a very fine actor – Chasing Amy (1998) and Argo (2012) attesting to this – but here he gives a performance for the ages and one he will be remembered for. With this he found greatness. Every aspect of alcoholism is captured here, just as Nicolas Cage did in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), though here we have some hope, and Cage had none. That said we know Affleck must turn his lifer around before he is out of time.
GEORGE CLOONEY IN THE MIDNIGHT SKY
Clooney soared in The Descendants (2011), still his finest screen work for which he was robbed of an Oscar, but he is damned fine here as a terminally ill scientist in the year 2049. Working in the frozen Arctic, he is witness to an extinction level event on earth and his station is evacuated, or so he thinks. Struggling each day with his chemo and dialysis, he discovers a child left behind on the station, and knowing a space shuttle is returning to earth not knowing of the disaster, he decides to cross the Arctic and warn them. With a child in tow, and dying of cancer, this is not an easy feat. The child never speaks, but they do their best to communicate. On the shuttle, they work to get closer hoping to find an entry point before realizing they cannot get home. Clooney is as always terrific, gradually becoming aware of who this mysterious child is, though he might have known all along. A challenging film, a great performance from a gifted filmmaker.
STEVE YEUN IN MINARI
Is critical support enough to propel an actor into the Oscar race? It was enough for Edward Norton in American History X (1998), but it has not happened since. Yeun is well liked and has worked a lot the last 10 years so he is not an unknown but is that enough? Set in the eighties, the film explores a family who come from South Korea to rural America looking for a fresh start. Brutally honest, Yeun gives an equally honest performance, capturing the pain of leaving a homeland and a move to an often hostile new land. Petty racism dominates their life in America, and rising above it can be difficult, even impossible. The honesty in Yeun’s performance is shattering, and biting in its painful authenticity.
BRUCE DERN IN THE ARTIST’S WIFE
Yes, he is a long shot, but as deserving as anyone on the list. Back into the game after his nomination for Best Actor in Nebraska (2013) it is great to see this gifted actor back on the big screen. A mainstay in the seventies with superb performances in Silent Running (1972), The Laughing Policeman (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), Smile (1975), Black Sunday (1977) and Coming Home (1978), the latter two for which he should have won, Dern slipped out of the scene through the eighties, save a few supporting cameos and supporting performances. But now he is back and as good as ever. Here he is an artist slipping into the darkness of Alzheimer’s with the strong possibility of not finishing his new work before his showcase. Unsettling and urgent in every way.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.