Time to determine who is the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner of the 2010s. Again, in trying to determine the best of the best, I have decided to only focus on the men who actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. So it doesn’t matter if you think Robert De Niro was robbed for Silver Linings Playbook–that debate is for another day. As the decade goes on and new winners are announced, I’ll update the rankings so we can continue to judge. That is, after all, what the internet is for, right?
9. Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies (2015)
Rylance was mostly absent during award season and wasn’t even a lock for a nomination, so his win is one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to his role as an imprisoned Soviet Spy. Rylance is barely in the movie. Usually, when an actor wins for a short performance they at least get a big moment–like Beatrice Straight reacting to her husband’s infidelity in Network or Anthony Hopkins oozing menace in The Silence of the Lambs. There’s none of that here. To be fair, Rylance gives an exceptionally lived-in performance, but watching Abel scratch at his ear is not exactly compelling cinema. He’s a great understated actor but there’s not enough here to merit an Oscar.
Should have won in 2015: Rylance’s win most likely means Academy voters were reluctant to vote for Sylvester Stallone for Creed. But in what could be interpreted as a “death to Netflix” gesture, the Academy nominated Rylance instead of the SAG Award-winner for the category: Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Elba deserved the win.
8. Christopher Plummer, Beginners (2011)
I hated this movie. Thankfully, Christopher Plummer was its only redeeming quality as Hal Fields, an elderly man who rocks his son’s world with two announcements: that he has terminal cancer, and that he has decided to come out of the closet. Plummer turns in a sweet, heartbreaking performance, but in the end the movie is only really asking him to be an adorable old man. He does it well, but it dooms his performance to the lower ranks of the decade. The movie desperately wants to be about his son’s character, not him, so he keeps getting relegated to the sidelines. In that sense, Hal’s journey only matters in terms of how it affects his son.
Should have won in 2011: You could make the case that Plummer’s strong award season was recognition for his career. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong–but he didn’t exactly have stiff competition, anyway. It was just a weak year for supporting actors.
7. Christian Bale, The Fighter (2010)
I can’t watch Christian Bale in a movie without constantly thinking that I’m watching him perform. He just always seems to be trying so hard. To be fair, he succeeds more often than not, but his performance as the bad-boy brother in the already-overpraised The Fighter just felt like more of the same to me. In fact, I would argue that his placement on the list has more to do with a general sense that he deserved recognition for saving the Batman franchise than anything else. His competition (John Hawkes, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Geoffrey Rush) all felt more natural in their roles to me. But in the end, they didn’t win, so here we are.
Should have won in 2010: Mark Ruffalo gave a perfectly ruffled performance in The Kids Are All Right.
6. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (2012)
I haven’t seen Django Unchained. I refuse to because over the years I’ve developed an intolerance for Quentin Tarantino. So how did I know where to put Christoph Waltz on this list? I watched a bunch of clips from the movie on YouTube. Being honest, I still think I would have given the Oscar to Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook. But I liked what I saw of Waltz’s performance. I feel comfortable placing him here–even if I have no plans to see Django in its entirety anytime soon.
Should have won in 2012: 2012 was a packed year for Best Supporting Actor, but like I said: I’d have gone with Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook.
5. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2016)
Mahershala Ali only appears in the first segment of Moonlight, a movie divided into three acts following the life of its principal character, but Ali sets the tone for the entire movie. His Juan is a complex dude: a drug dealer who notices a struggling child and takes him under his wing to offer him some peace. He teaches him to swim, offers him shelter from his drug-addicted mother (who happens to buy her drugs from Juan), and perhaps most importantly tells him a story about his childhood that gives us the movie’s title and central theme. Ali inhabits him with a natural instinct and an understated ease. He never oversells and yet you always feel the full impact of what Juan is going through. It’s a masterful balance.
Should have won in 2016: Some worried that Ali’s sudden departure from the plot would hurt his chances (indeed, Ali lost some key award indicators on the way to the Oscars). And the performance does feel slight compared to the others on this list, but in a weak year for supporting actors, I can’t point to anything that deserved it more.
4. Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Most of my problems with Three Billboards (and I have a lot) come from the script. Sam Rockwell really commits to the role of a dimwitted racist cop with an anger management problem, so it isn’t necessarily his fault that his character doesn’t make sense (as written, the character is a mess of nonsensical contradictions and oversimplifications). Like Francis McDormand, he does the best he can to make it work, tearing into the role and playing it with gusto.
Should have won in 2017: Richards Jenkins’ lonely, depressed neighbor in The Shape of Water was much more compelling.
3. Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
As with Matthew McConaughey, no one was more surprised than me that Jared Leto won an Oscar–let alone that he deserved it. While McConaughey was busy filling Dallas Buyers Club with blustery, eff-the-world energy, Leto was quietly giving it a heart and a soul. It’s exactly what Dallas Buyers Club needed–and the purest definition of what a supporting role should do. McConaughey fought the man while Leto embodied what the struggle was about in the first place. His messy, drug-addicted drag queen gave the AIDS epidemic a face and a context without becoming overly preachy or saccharine. Rayon wasn’t a saint, but Leto made you love him despite his rough edges. And he broke your heart.
Should have won in 2013: Leto’s performance as Rayon has become controversial over time as one of many examples of Hollywood casting a cisgender, heterosexual actor to play what is at minimum a genderfluid character. I don’t want to delve into that debate here, so suffice it to say that although trans representation definitely matters, I think Leto gave one hell of a performance. He deserved it.
2. Mahershala Ali, Green Book (2018)
You can argue with the politics behind the movie and how it is only willing to grapple with the gay, black man at its center through the lens of a white man. You can argue that Ali is the film’s co-lead, although I think the fact that this movie only looks at his character through another point of view makes the supporting category a better fit. So say what you will about the movie, at the end of the day Mahershala Ali is spectacular as Dr. Don Shirley, a concert pianist who chooses to go on a tour through the deep south in 1962. Ali makes Shirley a determined, dignified man with fussy characteristics that feel like natural tics. Shirley could have easily felt like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, but he does not. It’s a remarkably confident, natural performance that is also markedly different from the one that won Ali his first Oscar in Moonlight.
Should have won in 2018: I would love to make a case for Richard E. Grant, who was wonderful and heartbreaking in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the truth is I’m still impressed by what Ali achieved.
1. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash (2014)
This dude is absolutely terrifying. And not in that supervillain way we saw in the top 3 in the 2000s–although Simmons’ brutal teacher, Fletcher, is headed in that direction. He doesn’t try to coax the best out of his elite music students (save that crap for Dangerous Minds). No, this guys beats it out of them. Verbal and psychological abuse will also do just fine. Any other actor would have lost the double-edged sword at the heart of Whiplash: true genius and true talent require a vicious work ethic. It requires sacrifice and single-minded dedication. It requires you to be pushed beyond the limit you thought you couldn’t overcome. As much as you want to hate Fletcher, you can’t help but wonder if he has a point when he says that the two most damaging words in the English language are “good job.” Whiplash would have been nothing without J.K. Simmons, which clearly makes him the best.
Should have won in 2014: It was definitely Simmons’ year.
Now just for fun, let’s look at how the ranking would look with the people who should have won:
8. Christopher Plummer, Beginners (2011)
7. Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right (2010)
6. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2016)
5. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
4. Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation (2015)
3. Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water (2017)
2. Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
1. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash (2014)