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It’s an annual complaint among Oscar-watchers and industry folk alike that the awards season is overwhelmingly geared towards prestige releases that land in the second half (or even fourth quarter) of the year, aiming to capitalize both on autumn festival buzz and Oscar voters' short memories. For every early release that stays the course all the way to the Oscar podium -- most recently, "The Hurt Locker" -- there are any number of deserving January-to-June contenders that slip through the cracks as newer, shinier, not necessarily better fare takes precedence.
With that in mind, I began a new column series last year dedicated to writing that wrong: First-Half FYC, in which I spotlight the worthiest major-category Oscar possibilities (or impossibilities) from the first six months of the U.S. release calendar. I've started a little late this year, so I'm doubling up on the categories, beginning with the Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress races: what follows is an alternative ballot of five deserving names in each category, all of them in films released before July.
True to form, the majority of the 10 names I've picked below lie far outside the current Oscar conversation: only one of them looks likely to be nominated, though he might be the surest winner of the lot. Even if I've waded into some genre territory most Academy members would never consider, there was a pleasingly deep field to choose from, proof that voters would do well to cast their minds a little further back.
I did, however, restrict myself to contenders from Oscar-eligible films, which meant rejecting three of my first choices: Juno Temple in "Kaboom," Raul Castillo in "Cold Weather" and Sergei Puskepalis in "How I Ended This Summer." Why their films aren't on the official list of 265 titles in Oscar play is something I don't care to find out, but I salute them regardless.
With that, my five January-to-June picks for Best Supporting Actor:
Bruno Ganz, "Unknown"
Jaume Collet-Serra's deliciously dim-witted entry in the Neeson-scorned genre is packed with so-wrong-it's-right pleasures, but Ganz's performance as a wily Stasi agent turned P.I. is the smartest of them: he camps it up riotously, adding multiple Germanic syllables to words like "deeeetailz" and "Leeeeipzig," but brings of wounded sense of dignity to the character where you least expect it.
Chris O'Dowd, "Bridesmaids"
Casting the not-especially-famous, not-especially-handsome Irish comic O'Dowd as Kristen Wiig's romantic foil in the comedy hit of 2011 was a masterstroke: as a gangly, out-of-place state trooper, he gamely reflects the heroine's daffiness even as he represents the feet-planted stolidity the character and film both need; if only for two hours, we all fell for him.
Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
The one name on this list likely to be nominated -- and increasingly, one suspects, a sure thing for the win. But Plummer hasn't reached the front of this race on seniority (and an Academy IOU) alone: it'd be easy to overplay both the twinkliness and the tragedy in the story of a long-closeted gay man blooming in his winter years, but it's the casual delicacy of the performance that sticks.
Jérémie Renier, "Potiche"
A second closet case of a character, though a far broader assignment than Plummer's: admittedly, the casting of stony Dardennes alumnus Renier as an unwittingly effete liberal student-turned-umbrella designer is half the joy of the performance, but under a lustrous bowl cut, the actor never overplays his hand, slotting into Francois Ozon's heightened camp universe with unpatronizing ease.
Corey Stoll, "Midnight in Paris"
The Screen Actors' Guild may not have deemed him an essential part of the ensemble, but for many others, Stoll's inspired, hilariously thick-spread impersonation of Ernest Hemingway, all quizzically steely stares and peppery vocal cadences, was the clear highlight of Woody Allen's novelty bauble, and (together with Adrien Brody's Dali) the strongest justification for its parlor-game premise.
And Best Supporting Actress:
Rose Byrne, "Bridesmaids"
Another bid for "Bridesmaids," and it's not the name the season thus far would have you expect: Melissa McCarthy may be scooping up citations for her louder schtick, but it's Byrne who is the film's secret comic weapon. It's always harder to wring laughs out of humorless characters, and Byrne plays this uptight party-planning princess to brittle, and surprisingly affecting, perfection.
Judi Dench, "Jane Eyre"
Dench's 2011 Oscar buzz evaporated with non-event turns in late-year prestige items "J. Edgar" and "My With With Marilyn." Would that the buzz had been on her warm, ever-so-slightly vinegary turn as the staunch housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax in this fine-cut Brontë adaptation: no wheels are being reinvented here, but it's the actress's most lived-in character work since her last Oscar nod.
Elle Fanning, "Super 8"
Those who didn't notice Fanning's gorgeous breakthrough in last year's "Somewhere" were surely taken a little more off-guard by the teenager's stunning centerpiece scene in J.J. Abrams' summer juggernaut: a tear-stained performance-within-a-performance that brought an out-of-the-blue emotional jolt to a proficient genre piece, but revealed a sly actorly self-awareness in an exciting new star.
Melanie Lynskey, "Win Win"
I have no issue with the wonderful Amy Ryan, who has a well-earned smattering of critics' citations for her work in Tom McCarthy's shaggily appealing actors' piece, but it's Lynskey's late arrival as an unmaliciously neglectful mother that sticks most in my mind: playing a scattered character the script doesn't much want us to like, Lynskey's hard-stare honesty gets us there anyway.
Lin Shaye, "Insidious"
Rivalling Bruno Ganz in the lively-performance-in-a-loopy-movie stakes is long-serving good sport Shaye, essentially the Zelda Rubinstein of James Wan's irresistibly silly "Poltergeist" knock-off, who pulls off the neat trick of conveying her medium character's po-faced seriousness about her role in proceedings, nudging the audience in the ribs all the way.
Agree? Disagree? Which early-bird standouts would you like to see in the awards discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments, and keep an eye out for next week's edition, when we'll be covering the screenplay categories.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.