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You don’t give Oscars to performances like these. They’re too
small, or they’re too weird, or they would lose their meaning if pumped up by
an awards-crazy -season. Maybe they’re even willfully one-dimensional — a punch
line, perhaps. But movies need them as much as they need the names above the
title, and here are some of the most memorable from 2004.

J.K. Simmons (The Ladykillers, Spider-Man 2, Hidalgo). On
TV’s Law and Order he brings grave authority to a recurring role as the
prosecution team’s psychiatric expert, but in movies he’s proved to be a topnotch
comic character actor. 2004 was a banner year for him, between his campy Buffalo
Bill pop-up in Hidalgo, his digestively challenged, civil rights–obsessed
bomb expert in The Ladykillers and, most notably, his letter-perfect
J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man 2, which is a gem of old-movie-style screwball
newsman crankiness.

Kelly MacDonald (Finding Neverland). When you’re
-making a movie about the creation of a -theatrical icon like Peter Pan, whoever’s
playing the green guy had better give you an idea of the transcendent qualities
of the character. This fantastic Scots waif does exactly that with boyish brio,
charm and, in an especially charged version of the clap-for-Tinkerbell scene,
a deeply felt generosity.

Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan (Coffee and Cigarettes). The
jewel of Jim Jarmusch’s otherwise spotty chat flick was watching these talented
Brits skewer celebrity egos by hilariously taking turns poisoning each other’s
tea. A short film that not only makes one realize that great actors rarely get
to feed off one another in movies anymore, but would have earned an admission
price on its own.

Steve Carell (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy). Anybody
who can stand to the side in a group of braying oddball chauvinists that includes
the gonzo Will Ferrell and steal not just snickers but tear-inducing laughter
— here, as a sweetly brain-damaged weatherman — is an actor to treasure. And
the comedy gods have been listening: Next year this Daily Show alum will
star in his own tailor-made comedy vehicle.

Fenella Woolgar (Bright Young Things, Stage Beauty,
Vera Drake
). In three different movies, this exciting British newcomer gave
us brilliant bite-size portraits of English privilege, as Evelyn Waugh’s euphoria-hungry
party girl Agatha in the Vile Bodies adaptation Bright Young Things,
a teasing yet vengeful aristocrat in Stage Beauty, and a pregnant rich
girl’s condescendingly obliging friend in Vera Drake. Here’s hoping we
get larger servings of her in the future.

Brad Bird (The Incredibles). While The Polar
Express
painstakingly rendered humans only to make them seem neither lifelike
nor abstract — not anything, really — The Incredibles gave us cartoon-human
heaven: a terrifically absurd German-Japanese clothier (and tough-love therapist)
to superheroes called Edna “E” Mode, voiced with “dahlink”-drenched
ferocity by her male creator. Let’s hope Edna is the tie-in toy of choice this
holiday, because the image of schoolchildren everywhere doing Lotte Lenya is
magical.

Sharon Warren (Ray). The flashback that explains
everything in a person’s life is a device ripe for misuse in a film biography,
and Ray Charles considered his mother a saint, but Warren doesn’t play someone
with a halo and wings, just a woman making hard choices. To leech every drop
of self-pity in her blind boy, she stands still while her son calls for her
after falling. In a scene of wrenching duality, Warren’s words fiercely demand
that young Ray help himself while her face betrays the pain of a mother ignoring
the basic urge to run to a child in need.

M.C. Gainey (Sideways). The naked guy. Brave, raucously
funny, terrifying. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean. If not, I
really shouldn’t elaborate.

Orlando Tobon and Jaime Osorio Gómez (Maria
Full of Grace
). Like bookends, the father figures who facilitate and ultimately
resolve a young Colombian woman’s desperate quest for betterment are this movie’s
quietly powerful villain and savior. Gomez’s queasily attentive drug dealer
serenely handing pellet after pellet to his comely new mule, then caressing
her stomach to arrange his precious cargo, is eerie enough to feel like the
molestation it really is. And when Maria’s predicament becomes nearly untenable
at journey’s end, Tobon brings authoritative melancholy and comfort to the role
of Don Fernando, an activist for the Colombian community in Queens, which is
what Tobon is in real life.