For a long time I thought of Matthew McConaughey as an actor whom I liked more than he deserved. He built some good faith with Dazed and Confused and other early roles, yes, but that had all but diminished by the time Fool's Gold, Failure to Launch, and others of their ilk cemented his status as the go-to guy for bland rom-coms.
But his bit part in the sporadically funny Tropic Thunder was a bright spot, not least because it was a reminder of how effective his natural charm and charisma can be when filtered through the proper channels. McConaughey next showed signs of life in last year's The Lincoln Lawyer before hitting the 2012 trifecta: Bernie, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike.
Finally, after years of me and a lot of others hoping he'd do it, the often shirtless Texan came into his own in a series of roles that both played to and transcended his strengths. (He was also in two movies that premiered at Cannes this year -- Lee Daniels's much-derided The Paperboy and Jeff Nichols's more warmly-received Mud -- but I've yet to see either.)
No joke: McConaughey really is excellent in Magic Mike. There's a wordless melancholy to his turn that I doubt even his most ardent supporters saw coming. And sure, the role of a male stripper with delusions of grandeur may be one that's practically custom-made for him, but the same was true of Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. The Academy is also pretty into "comeback" nominations (see: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Robert Downey, Jr. in, well, Tropic Thunder), which might best explain why McConaughey actually has an outside chance of landing a nomination.
The most conspicuous acting debut of the year may have been that of Besedka Johnson, which is especially notable considering she's 85 years old. (Her co-star, the 21-year-old Dree Hemingway, is also quite good.) On paper, Starlet is nothing if not typical indie fare -- its main narrative thrust is an unlikely intergenerational friendship spurred by unresolved guilt -- but in practice Sean Baker's film is saved not only by its two main performances but also by Baker's surprisingly nuanced direction and plotting. Everything about the movie is refreshingly unexpected, Johnson most of all.
The two supporting awards have a fairly high "right place, right time" frequency, which is to say that the nomination often has as much to do with the movie as it does with the performance. (For my money, Jonah Hill was just as good if not better in 21 Jump Street as he was in Moneyball, but can you honestly see him getting nominated for the former?) This is bad news for everyone involved in Starlet, which is likely to receive close to zero year-end recognition despite being rather well-received (including by LA Weekly's own Karina Longworth) upon its release just last month. Also hurting its chances is the fact that the only octogenarians who stand a real shot at getting nominated were both in Michael Haneke's Amour. C'est la vie.