CAUTION: There may be some spoilers for the films listed below.
Forest Whitaker for Best Actor in a Leading Role - Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013): Cecil Gaines (The Butler) AND Oprah Winfrey for Best Actress in a Leading/Supporting Role - Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013): Gloria Gaines
The Butler was one of those Oscar-bait type movies that just didn't seem to land any awards. Unlike some Oscar-bait films that try so hard to be good they fail however, this one was very well done and was a surprise to many that it got not even one solitary Oscar or Golden Globe nomination. However, the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) awards that the film was nominated for give us a clear indication of just what Oscar categories it was contending and should have been competing for. One of the two BAFTA nominations The Butler received was for Oprah Winfrey as Best Supporting Actress. The SAG nominations included Oustanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role by Forest Whitaker, Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role by Oprah Winfrey, and get this, Oustanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture (this included Mariah Carey, Joan Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, and Oprah Winfrey). Some thought the film just didn't receive its rightful recognition because of a similar "type" of film (albeit a very different storyline), 12 Years a Slave (2013) sort of stole the subject's spotlight, which managed to garner an impressive nine Academy Award nominations, three of which it won, including Best Picture. Some people also thought that while The Butler had an impressive cast, it was more or less one of those star-packed films that just didn't have much substance. While I agree that most of the supporting cast, while great in their roles, did not have enough screen time to really get what their talents deserved (which I understood because there are a lot of characers to reckon with over a long period of time), Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey both delivered oustanding and extremely powerful performances here.
The BAFTAs and SAGs show that Winfrey would have been nominated for the supporting actress category, and while she had the screen time of a supporting performer, she really is the main female in this film, so a leading actress nomination would not have been fall-down surprising. It's some of the best work we have seen from her in recent memory, and Forest Whitaker of course, in his title role, showcases an often subtle, subdued performance that still manages to be awe-inspiring and leaves the audience astounded by his heartfelt portrayal in these pivotal moments of American history. This is a powerful film, a film that after leaving the theater I thought for sure was destined for several Oscar nominations. It's not always an easy film to watch, but it does have something to remind us of and something to teach us, punctuated by Whitaker and Winfrey's strong and deeply moving performances.
Hailee Steinfeld for Best Actress in a Leading Role - The Edge of Seventeen (2016): Nadine
While this one is still fairly recent to maybe be considered "uncommonly thought of," many people have not seen this movie and that should change right now. Next to La La Land (2016) and Jackie (2016), The Edge of Seventeen was probably my third favorite film last year, and that is largely due to Hailee Steinfeld's performance here as Nadine. Director Kelly Fremont Craig brings us a John Hughes-esque comedy drama of a girl who's best friend starts dating her older brother and the trouble and complications that ensue. While the events leading up to the main problem at hand feel a little forced and the eventual conclusion is fairly predictable, the journey to getting there makes this movie engaging and refreshing. The story in itself is not really new, but the film balances the comedy and drama admirably, knowing when it needs to be serious and when it can be joking and playful. It's a feel-good movie that still manages to make us think. It is fair to say that this movie rests entirley on Hailee Steinfeld's shoulders, because the film is about her and she is carrying the story. She is instantly identifiable and relatable for those of us who are still teenagers, those of us who were just recently teenagers, and those of us who were teenagers a long time ago. Her sarcastic wit and angst perfectly captures a typical teenager in high school, yet, Nadine still manages to feel special and unique. She describes herself as "an old soul," she jokes around with her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and she really doesn't care what anyone thinks about her. We already knew that Hailee Steinfeld could act, from her Oscar-nominated performance as Mattie Ross in the True Grit (2010) remake, but this film is really where she gets her chance to shine. There are times we laugh with Nadine and are frustrated with Nadine, but through it all she still manages to be lovable, thanks to Steinfeld's performance. Steinfeld is flawless and impeccable throughout the whole film, but her film stealer is towards the end, when she lightly breaks down in front of her brother apologizing for her behavior and how she has been feeling about herself and her life the last few years since their father's surprising death. Thankfully, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Leading Role - Musical or Comedy, but fingers were crossed for her to garner that Oscar nomination again. She very surprisingly did not receive a nomination, and even though the category was stacked, it still felt like there was a large gap where she should have been. Despite this, Hailee Steinfeld sportingly still attended the ceremony. Keep an eye out for her because she is an extremely gifted actress who is going to do even greater things, and she's only twenty years old.
John Hurt for Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Jackie (2016): The Priest
It's without a doubt that Natalie Portman is the standout in her character's Jackie, even more exemplified by her Academy Award nomination for the role. She largely makes that film what it is, a film that in my book should have been nominated for Best Picture as well (in overcrowded company, there was still room for one more film in this up to ten nominations category). One other standout in this film however, is the late John Hurt. This is not a posthumous and guilt-ridden opinion, but rather what could have been a subtle, forgettable performance transformed into some of the film's most powerful and thoughtful dialogue, told through the actor's confident and humbling realizations and perceptions. He's not on screen very much in just two or three scenes, but when he is, he steals the show. The scenes between him and Natalie Portman are arguably some of the best in the film, and why not when you have two powerhouse performers engaging in discussions after a real-life traumatic event. Simply named, "The Priest," John Hurt only had a few minutes of screen time, and again would have had some tough competition in the supporting actors category, but let's not forget Judi Dench who was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Shakespeare in Love (1998) and was only in the film five minutes. This shows you just how talented and scene-stealing some actors and actresses can be, and John Hurt is no exception. He deserved a nomination and recognition here; if you haven't seen Jackie yet, you should. Natalie Portman gives an amazing and raw performance of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and John Hurt is the frosting on the cake to a Best Picture worthy film.
Ashton Kutcher for Best Actor in a Leading Role - Jobs (2013): Steve Jobs
In the last few years, we have seen two very different Steve Jobs films. One starred Michael Fassbender (who subsequently was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role), Steve Jobs (2015), and one starred Ashton Kutcher, Jobs (2013). Today we are talking about the one probably less talked about, and that is the first to be released film, Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher. Now sure, those who are familiar with actors and their work might already say that Fassbender already out ranks Kutcher as a performer. While Fassbender's filmography and performance record might be more impressive, that does not take away from Kutcher's performance as Steve Jobs. As someone who did not know Steve Jobs personally, it is hard to say who portrayed him more successfully. While both films are very entertaining and about the same figure, they are very different films. Steve Jobs focuses mainly on three public presentations of Apple products, as well as the relationship Jobs had with his daughter, and is very dialogue heavy, and thereby dialogue driven. Jobs covers most of his life in and out of Apple from the very beginning to essentially present day (before he died), and does not focus as much on the family/daughter relationship aspect. Most people prefer the Fassbender film, and while he does deliver an outstanding performance, I argue the Jobs film is a better film, and is because of Ashton Kutcher's performance. This role surprised me at first, because while I always liked Ashton Kutcher, I had not seen him in many serious roles, other than with Kevin Costner is coast guard thriller, The Guardian (2006). Kutcher really shines here though, and gives it his all. He captures much of the embodiment that we know of Steve Jobs, from not just his mannerisms but to his passion, determination, and no-nonsense attitude. Steve Jobs is an engaging, interesting look at the man where you really have to pay attention, but Jobs encompasses the desire to dream and create. You feel the energy and imagination and drive and inspirational optimism that emanates off the screen, and the triumphs and trials that Steve Jobs had to face every day head on. Steve Jobs portrays the man passionately yet fairly grimly, and the film feels like a play; Jobs portrays the man a little more thoughtfully, and it feels like a movie. This is largely due to resting on the shoulders of Ashton Kutcher, who delivers an unexpectedly heartfelt and stimulating performance that feels real. It's honestly a shock he was not considered for a golden statue on this one.