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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Don’t sleep on these 6 performances during awards season

Clockwise from top left, Colman Domingo, Ruth Negga, Jessie Buckley, Olga Merediz, Renate Reinsve and Ben Affleck.

By Kyle Buchanan

Now that the Screen Actors Guild has issued its nominations and the Golden Globes have … well, live-tweeted … this awards season’s acting races are starting to come into focus. Still, I’d like to coax adventurous Oscar voters to look elsewhere, since so many of the best performances were overlooked by both groups. Here are five stellar turns that still deserve their due, as well as a sixth performance that ought to be doing even better than it is.

Renate Reinsve, ‘The Worst Person in the World’

Here are some things Renate Reinsve does as Julie, the lead character of “The Worst Person in the World”: She switches her college major; she flirts; she dates one guy and thinks about dating another; sometimes she dances, does drugs, writes, takes pictures; she worries, more often than she should, that she is aimless. But in this collection of small things that make up a real life, the movie’s aim proves incredibly true.

Reinsve, 34, is a Norwegian performer but looks so much like Dakota Johnson that you’ll start wondering why Johnson doesn’t get to be in romantic dramedies that are this real and appealing, or why Hollywood has stopped making them anymore. (The film, which had a small, Oscar-qualifying release last year, will be released in more U.S. theaters next month.) Maybe that’s why I treasured this one so much, although most of that credit ought to go to Reinsve for playing somebody so specific in her unfocused sprawl that you’d think you should be able to text Julie for drinks after watching her movie.

Colman Domingo, ‘Zola’

What can’t Colman Domingo make better? The 52-year-old Broadway veteran has become one of our best character actors, popping up in a host of awards season movies like “Lincoln,” “Selma” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” He can play sly — with his raised eyebrows and shady silences, he almost stole “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” from the rest of that film’s starry cast — or solid, as when he embodied the traditionalist opposite a fiery Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

“Zola” is less obvious as an Oscar contender than those films were, but Domingo’s performance in it still deserves attention. As a pimp who strings along our heroine (Taylour Paige) during a strip club road trip gone wrong, Domingo is both frightening and a live-wire hoot, sometimes toggling between those extremes in the space of a line. After proving to be a good luck charm opposite so many award-winning performances, it’s high time the Oscars let themselves be charmed by Domingo himself.

Jessie Buckley, ‘The Lost Daughter’

I’ve enjoyed getting to know the work of Irish actor Jessie Buckley in movies like “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “Wild Rose,” but at no point while watching her did I muse, “You know who she ought to play? A young Olivia Colman!” In fact, it seems like folly for director Maggie Gyllenhaal to even cast Buckley as the earlier version of Colman’s character in “The Lost Daughter”: Is there really enough space between the 32-year-old Buckley and the 47-year-old Colman that we’d buy them as distinct poles of the same person?

Somehow, it works, and that’s while Buckley is juggling several other balls besides. Not only must she convince as Colman, she has to tease out this unhappy character’s mysterious back story and sell several scenes that sound unsympathetic on paper — like flipping out on her children and contemplating adultery as a fun change of pace. Still, Buckley is so adroit and inherently gripping that you don’t question a single second. To even survive that assignment is a feat — to ace it and emerge as the stealth MVP of the movie is a whole other level entirely.

Olga Merediz, ‘In the Heights’

A spirited summer release, “In the Heights” seemed like one of the year’s first major Oscar contenders until an underwhelming box office performance consigned it to also-ran status. That quick brushoff now seems unfair, since most of the awards contenders that came months later — including “West Side Story,” a much more expensive adaptation about singing in the streets of New York — scarcely did any better.

Perhaps it’s time for another look at “In the Heights,” especially if it gets more eyes on Olga Merediz, the 65-year-old actor who originated the role of Abuela Claudia onstage. Her song “Paciencia y Fe” becomes the film’s centerpiece number, a fantasia on the immigrant experience that flits breathtakingly across several decades. Director Jon M. Chu stages the scene well — with a lot of beautiful dancing and clever, effects-aided cuts — but the vulnerable Merediz, singing her heart out, is what you remember most. (You could crop out everything but her face and not miss a beat.)

Ben Affleck, ‘The Last Duel’

Sometimes, when I look at who gets nominated for an Oscar, I want to channel Kristen Johnston’s blowzy socialite from “Sex and the City” and exclaim, “No one’s fun anymore! Whatever happened to fun?” This is what happens when people equate seriousness with worthiness: We get a full slate of earnest, po-faced nominees.

As a bulwark against that, may I continue to suggest the 49-year-old Ben Affleck for your consideration? No, not for the altogether more conventional “The Tender Bar,” which just earned him a SAG nod: Instead, please nominate him for having the time of his life in “The Last Duel,” in which his randy count throws orgies, negs Matt Damon, tells ribald jokes and beseeches Adam Driver to take his pants off. Is it all a bit anachronistic? Does the movie have him using a British accent instead of a French one? Can anyone on this planet make sense of his hair? Yes, yes and no, but what of it? Affleck’s so much fun that only a pro could pull all of that off.

Ruth Negga, ‘Passing’

Ruth Negga managed SAG and Golden Globe nominations for her work in “Passing,” but I’m still moved to include her on this list because “Passing” itself has not gotten its awards due, and I fear that puts the 40-year-old Negga in danger of being snubbed. There are few films I’ve thought more about this season than this directorial debut from actor Rebecca Hall, and absolutely no performance that has stuck with me more than Negga’s.

In “Passing,” based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Negga plays Clare, a light-skinned Black woman who’s passing as white. When she reunites with her childhood friend Irene (Tessa Thompson), an already fraught existence becomes doubly so: Clare steps out on her racist white husband (Alexander Skarsgard) to flirt with Irene in all sorts of provocative ways. Does she see Irene’s respectable life as an upstanding Black wife in Harlem and covet what she has shunned? Or does she want to entice Irene into an in-between life where the bond between them may even become romantic.

I’m still not entirely sure, because a year after watching this movie, I continue to turn Negga’s performance over to examine it from new angles. That’s what you call a gem, isn’t it?

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