The 2016 Oscar nominees are all exceptional actors who gave incredible performances this year in their respective films. However, not all Oscar worthy actors always play Oscar worthy characters, and not every great character or film can be nominated for an Oscar.
If you're interested in an artist's craft the way that I am, you might be wondering what performances opened doors for these actors in order for them to be where they are today – in contention to take home a trophy from the mac-daddy of them all (awards show wise). In case you wanted to be further wowed by these performers, here are some excellent, yet seemingly underrated past performances by the 2016 Oscar nominees.
1. Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau)
2011's The Adjustment Bureau is a sci-fi romance film that follows the lives of a politician, David (Damon) and a ballerina, Elise (Emily Blunt) who desperately want to be together despite their fates being actively rerouted in separate directions.
Both Damon and Blunt bring unparalleled charm and chemistry to a love story with an engrossing and fascinating plot, the result of which is a satisfying romance that will certainly wake the butterflies in your stomach.
Other (more well known and regarded) Damon movies include The Talented Mr. Ripley, Good Will Hunting, The Departed, the Bourne trilogy, Invictus... suffice it to say he's had a long and decorated career. Will he win his 2nd Oscar this year for his portrayal of Astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian? Who knows.
2. Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)
Saoirse Ronan is a talented young actress who (at only 21 years old) received her 2nd Oscar nomination for her portrayal an of Irish immigrant from the 1950s in Brooklyn. You may recognize her from The Lovely Bones, Grand Budapest Hotel, Atonement or The Host, but the film I most associate her with is 2011's Hanna.
15-year-old Ronan played 13-year-old Hanna; a genetically engineered assassin on a desperate mission to escape Cate Blanchett's evil clutches. Hanna achieves an interesting yet expert balance of an action/survival movie and a coming-of-age-story, which was made possible by Ronan's wide-eyed and physical performance.
3. Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn)
Although Redmayne's performance as eager film student, Colin Clark in 2011's My Week with Marilyn didn't earn him a nomination from the Academy, it certainly helped to put him on their radar.
In the movie, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) invites an employee of the film that she is working on to witness her tortured inner world, which is in stark contrast to what her fame must have looked like to others.
While critics and audiences were primarily concerned with Williams's portrayal of the film industry icon, Redmayne subtly gave a heartwarming performance that added a human element to the film and helped to highlight the better moments of Williams's performance.
Redmayne won an Oscar last year for his work on The Theory of Everything as Stephen Hawking. You may also recognize him from Les Miserables. This year he starred in The Danish Girl where he plays a transgender woman who, with the help of his wife (Alicia Vikander), strives to live her truth – no matter the cost.
4. Jennifer Lawrence (The Burning Plain)
The Burning Plain (2008) is a film from Lawrence's youth that is often overlooked in favor of her Oscar nominated work in Winter's Bone. The Burning Plain is an ensemble piece starring Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger which tells the story of three women's lives in two different time lines that are permanently intertwined. Lawrence's performance is subdued but emotionally complex, a welcome extension of her two esteemed costars.
Lawrence herself won an Oscar in 2013 for Silver Linings Playbook and was nominated for American Hustle the following year. This year's nomination for Joy makes her the youngest actress to have four (Lawrence is 25 years old).
5. Tom Hardy (Legend)
I had planned to commend Hardy's work in Warrior here, but then I remembered that he played a set of identical twin gangsters in this year's Legend and figured I should honor that award-worthy performance instead.
It didn't take long for me as an audience member to forget that the two leads were played by one actor. Hardy surrenders himself completely to his characters and honors them both in a unique way.
Hardy was nominated in the supporting actor category this year for his role in The Revenant where he plays Leonardo DiCaprio's antagonist. The Revenant earned 12 nominations from the academy, while Hardy's other film, Mad Max: Fury Road, where he plays a "road warrior" alongside Charlize Theron in a bleak/dystopian future, is nominated for 10.
6. Cate Blanchett (Notes on Scandal)
Cate Blanchett will be competing for her 3rd Oscar this year thanks to her finely tuned emotional work in Carol, the story of a forbidden love by two women (the other played by Rooney Mara) in a time when homosexuality was treated as a mental illness in most circles.
Blanchett has previously taken home the coveted trophy for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in 2004's The Aviator, which I maintain is some of the greatest character work of all time, and again in 2014 for her role as emotionally unstable addict and disgraced socialite, Jasmine in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.
Her career is littered with performances that should be studied as the gold standard in drama schools around the world (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Elizabeth: The Golden Age come to mind), but I would recommend you watch Notes on Scandal, which although still impressive, is not as well known as the others (I think due to it's provocative subject matter). Notes on Scandal centers on a closeted lesbian school teacher (Judy Dench) who developes a crush on the new art teacher, Sheba (Blanchett), only to learn that Sheba is having an affair with a 15-year-old student.
7. Mark Ruffalo (What Doesn't Kill You)
Mark Ruffalo, who is nominated this year as a supporting actor for his role as a dedicated investigative journalist in Spotlight, starred in the movie What Doesn't Kill You, opposite Ethan Hawke in 2008. It's a gritty drama in the same vein as Gone Baby Gone or The Departed and centers around two childhood friends from South Boston who turn to a life of crime. Ruffalo carries the movie with his powerful performance.
8. Rachel McAdams (State of Play)
McAdams picked up her first nomination this year for her work in Spotlight (starring alongside Mark Ruffalo). In an ensemble film stuffed to the gills with talent, McAdam's shines as real life investigative journalist Sascha Pfieffer.
Let me preface my recommendation of State of Play with Rachel McAdams does not only play reporters. She's actually a very versatile actress who I associate first and foremost with the comedy genre thanks to her performance as the uber-quotable clique leader, Regina George, in the Tina Fey classic, Mean Girls (2004). She's also known by many as the queen of the romantic lead after The Notebook, The Vow and About Time. In 2015 she played a small but important role in the boxing drama, Southpaw as Jake Gyllenhaal's wife and surprised me with her ability to be a character actress and with her grittiness in the 2nd season of True Detective.
In State of Play (2009), like in Spotlight, she plays a journalist and is challenged to hold her own in an impressive ensemble, this one consisting of Ben Affleck, Robin Wright, Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren and Jason Bateman. Again, her performance shines through as she is given the room within her character to show both range and depth.
9. Christian Bale (Harsh Times)
Harsh Times is about an ex-Army Ranger who begins to slip back to his old life of petty crime on the streets of Los Angeles. It's in the same vein as Denzel Washington's Training Day, yet for some reason didn't receive the same critical acclaim.
Bale is an actor who will do anything for his craft. He takes his roles very seriously and it pays off in his characters. At this point, he's most recognizable as Batman, but he also starred in The Fighter (for which he won an Oscar), American Hustle, The Machinist and American Psycho. This year he's been nominated in the supporting actor category for The Big Short.
10. Michael Fassbender (Prometheus)
No, Prometheus was not a great film. Could it have been? Absolutely! It had all the pieces – a great cast (Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce) as well as a masterful sci-fi director in Ridley Scott. That's not to say that Prometheus didn't have a few redeeming qualities. I mean, the costumes were cool... and most importantly, Fassbender was great. He played an advanced robot that creeped me out more than than the homicidal aliens for some reason.
Fessbender was nominated previously for his work as a rapist slave owner in 2014's Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave and starred alongside Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards (2009).
11. Rooney Mara (Side Effects)
Rooney Mara, sister of Kate Mara and previous Oscar nominee for Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is nominated this year for her starring role alongside Cate Blanchett in the LGBT romance, Carol.
Side Effects (2013) is a psychological thriller about a happily married young woman whose prescription medication has an unexpected and unfortunate side effect. It's a fascinating story and is – for the most part – well acted (aside from the sometimes terrible Catherine Zeta-Jones). As a performer, Mara seems to hold her cards close to her chest, which is perfect for creating the air uncertainty around both the character and the film as a whole. Side Effects also stars Channing Tatum and Jude Law.
12. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)
Ex Machina is a compelling and thought-provoking sci-fi flick about a narcissist (Oscar Isaac) who creates a robot with artificial intelligence and enlists one of his employees (Domhnall Gleeson) to test the validity of her "humanity".
Vikander, in a star making year where she starred in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and was nominated for her supporting role in The Danish Girl, plays the robot (Ava) who very desperately would like to be a human. Her performance is enchanting and uncomfortably realistic. I look forward to great things from Vikander in the future.
13. Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape)
DiCaprio has been working in the industry since 1989. He was considered a teen heartthrob by many thanks to Growing Pains and Titanic. He is famous for having 6 Oscar nominations, but no wins despite multiple impressive performances. Everyone seems to be pulling for him this year, and I am too... because I realize that him winning will be the only way to get people to shut up about it. Not to say that he doesn't deserve it for The Revenant, I'm just ready for the whole "but they owe it to him" thing to be over (so that maybe we can start arguing that they owe it to Glenn Close or Annette Bening).
Anyway, in 1994 DiCaprio received his first academy award nomination for the film What's Eating Gilbert Grape, in which he played Gilbert's (Johnny Depp) developmentally delayed little brother, Arnie. It really is an impressive performance, especially by such a young actor. Although my favorite DiCaprio performance remains The Aviator, this one is a close second.
14. Brie Larson (Short Term 12)
Larson seems to be the clear front-runner for the lead actress award thanks to her role as 'Ma' in Room, the story of a woman who has spent 8 years locked in a shed after being abducted at 17.
Although this is Larson's first nomination, she isn't exactly new to the Hollywood. She starred alongside Kat Dennings as Bob Saget's daughters in the short-lived family sitcom Raising Dad. As a teenager she starred in Hoot alongside Luke Wilson and Logan Lerman, The United States of Tara with Toni Collette, Tanner Hall with Rooney Mara, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with Michael Cera, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza and Alison Pill, 21 Jump Street as Jonah Hill's love interest, The Spectacular Now as Miles Teller's love interest, and this year as Amy Schumer's little sister in Trainwreck (along with other, less relevant titles).
Aside from Room, most would argue that Larson's best role is as Grace, the supervisor of a children's residential treatment facility whose similarities to one of the foster kids forces her to reflect on her own difficult childhood in the movie Short Term 12, which is now available on Netflix.