Briefing

2023 Oscars: 12 contenders who could earn surprise nominations

Awards season is at its peak — here are the curveballs that could make things even more interesting

The 2023 Oscar nominations are days away, and while pundits believe they have a decent sense of what the field will look like, the Academy loves throwing curveballs. So who are those contenders on the outskirts of the race who could surprise everyone this year? Let's take a look at some possibilities: 

Andrea Riseborough for Best Actress

Even close followers of the Oscar race would be forgiven for not realizing until recently that Andrea Riseborough even has a film in contention. But just in time for Oscar voting, celebrity after celebrity started raving about her performance in the obscure indie movie To Leslie, which sure looked like a coordinated push for a film that didn't have much of a marketing budget to participate in the race before now. 

Our projected Best Actress nominees remain Cate Blanchett (Tár), Viola Davis (The Woman King), Danielle Deadwyler (Till), Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans), and Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once). Given the last-minute nature of her campaign, Riseborough sneaking in would be among the biggest Oscar shockers in recent memory. But she did appear to amass support in the actors' branch, the Academy's largest, at a crucial time just as voting was about to open, so it's not off the table. 

Ana de Armas for Best Actress

A more realistic possibility is that Ana de Armas is nominated for Best Actress for Blonde despite Netflix's Marilyn Monroe film being one of 2022's most controversial movies.

Blonde was flat-out panned by many critics for being exploitative, but de Armas' performance was still widely praised, and she has managed to snag nominations at the Golden Globe Awards (where Colin Farrell notably praised her work in his speech), the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the British Academy Film Awards. The latter two ceremonies share voters with the Academy, and both notably left out Michelle Williams. 

It's not every year that the star of a film with a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes is nominated for Best Actress, but it may happen in 2023, and at this point, it wouldn't even be that surprising. 

Emma Thompson for Best Actress

A more out-of-left-field Best Actress pick would be Emma Thompson for her Hulu dramedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. She was left out at the SAG Awards but has the benefit of being nominated at both the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, the latter of which shares voters with the Academy Awards. 

Adam Sandler for Best Actor

The conventional wisdom is that Brendan Fraser (The Whale), Austin Butler (Elvis), Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin), and Bill Nighy (Living) will all be nominated for Best Actor, leaving the fifth spot somewhat up for grabs. So who will snag it?

We're predicting it will be Paul Mescal for Aftersun, though some pundits are going with Tom Cruise for Top Gun: Maverick. But a dark horse is Adam Sandler for the Netflix basketball film Hustle. He has never been nominated for an Oscar but was considered one of the biggest snubs in 2020 after being left out for Uncut Gems, so some voters could feel compelled to set that wrong right. Most importantly, Sandler actually was nominated at the SAG Awards for Hustle. That ceremony doesn't always forecast the Oscars exactly, but there's overlap between the voting bodies, and actors make up the biggest branch of the Academy. 

Plus, Sandler has been quite visible during this year's awards race — such as by participating in Variety's Actors on Actors series and The Hollywood Reporter's actors roundtable with the likes of Fraser and Butler — and Netflix has a great track record of racking up nominations for its films. Enter Sandman! 

Gabriel LaBelle for Best Actor

If Academy voters are enthusiastic about The Fabelmans, an alternate dark horse Best Actor pick is 20-year-old Gabriel LaBelle, who plays the analogue of Steven Spielberg in the director's semi-autobiographical film. 

It's an uphill battle for the actor especially because he's so young and not an established name in the industry, and he was snubbed at most of the major precursors. But LaBelle was at least the recipient of a Critics' Choice Award for Best Young Performer and a National Board of Review award for Breakthrough Performance. 

His biggest asset, though, is that he stars in one of the Best Picture frontrunners, so it's easy to imagine voters backing the star of the film they plan to award the top prize, particularly if they aren't quite sure who should get that last Best Actor spot. Besides, the Academy tends to love performances as real people, and while The Fabelmans isn't a biopic, LaBelle is essentially playing Spielberg, a Hollywood titan. 

Dolly De Leon for Best Supporting Actress

We have Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), Hong Chau (The Whale), Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin), Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All At Once), and Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All at Once) predicted for Best Supporting Actress nods. But one of them could easily be swapped out for Dolly De Leon for Triangle of Sadness.

The Palme d'Or-winning film has some buzz in the Best Picture race after it was also nominated at the Golden Globes, and De Leon received a somewhat unexpected supporting actress nod there. She was also nominated at the British Academy Film Awards, though she was left out at the SAG Awards. But especially if Triangle of Sadness makes its way into Best Picture, De Leon could easily follow.

Janelle Monáe for Best Supporting Actress

An even bigger, but not impossible, surprise would be Janelle Monáe getting a Best Supporting Actress nod for Glass Onion. Critics identified her as the stand out of the Knives Out sequel, which has the possibility of getting into the Best Picture field, and she has a challenging role that requires her to (spoiler alert!) play two characters. 

Monáe wasn't nominated at the SAG Awards, but she did earn a nod at the Critics' Choice Awards, and she made BAFTA's longlist of potential nominees. She was also named Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review, and she has the benefit of starring in a film being pushed by Netflix via its mighty campaign machine. 

Nina Hoss for Best Supporting Actress

One final supporting actress surprise could be Nina Hoss getting in for Tár. This won't be easy seeing as Hoss missed key precursors like the SAG Awards, but she was at least nominated at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and Independent Spirit Awards. Hoss also crucially stars opposite the frontrunner to win Best Actress, Cate Blanchett, meaning she could ride her coattails. 

Michelle Williams for Best Supporting Actress

Early in the race, most pundits assumed Michelle Williams would not only be nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Fabelmans, but actually win. So it was a shock when it was announced that Universal would campaign her in Best Actress, where we have her predicted for a nod.

But in recent days, there's been talk that voters could simply nominate her as a supporting actress anyway. Keep in mind, Universal's Best Actress push is just a suggestion, and voters can place her in whatever category they see fit. Indeed, Variety's Clayton Davis reported that "at least two branch voters tell Variety they voted for the four-time nominee in supporting actress." The Hollywood Reporter awards editor Scott Feinberg has also predicted Williams will receive a supporting, not lead, actress nomination.

It would be a similar situation to when Kate Winslet was nominated as a supporting actress for The Reader at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, only to be nominated as a lead actress at the Oscars. Lakeith Stanfield was also nominated as a supporting actor for Judas and the Black Messiah in 2021 despite being campaigned as a lead. But there's the risk that so much disagreement over what category Williams should be placed in leads to her not being nominated at all, as she was already snubbed at the BAFTAs and SAG Awards. 

Tom Hanks for Best Supporting Actor

We think Best Supporting Actor will consist of Paul Dano (The Fabelmans), Brendan Gleeson (The Banshees of Inisherin), Judd Hirsch (The Fabelmans), Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin), and Ke Huy Quan (Everything Everywhere All At Once). Banshees or Fabelmans could fail to net two nominations, though, if Eddie Redmayne instead sneaks in for The Good Nurse, which is very possible after he was nominated at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and British Academy Film Awards.

But could the biggest shock of the morning instead be a nomination for a performance that some critics actually panned? Tom Hanks really gtoes for it in his role as Colonel Tom Parker in Elvis, though reviews were divided on his use of a "fat suit" and strange accent. But Elvis star Austin Butler is already set to be nominated for Best Actor, so Hanks could ride his coattails. It could sort of be this year's equivalent of Judi Dench, an industry legend, being unexpectedly nominated for Belfast last year despite not having much buzz beforehand. 

Granted, the Academy hasn't been afraid to snub Hanks in the past like when he wasn't nominated for Captain Phillips. But voters' desire to honor him this time combined with their love of Elvis in general and admiration of such a transformative performance could overcome that. There are also signs Elvis could overperform at the Oscars after it earned a whopping nine nominations at the BAFTAs, just one shy of Everything Everywhere All at Once

This isn't even Hanks' only opportunity to surprise, though, as he also has a non-zero chance of sneaking into Best Actor for A Man Called Otto.

Brian Tyree Henry for Best Supporting Actor

If Hanks isn't the big Best Supporting Actor surprise, look out for Brian Tyree Henry for his role opposite Jennifer Lawrence in Apple's Causeway

Henry received acclaim for the performance, which is arguably the most emotional of the film, and while he wasn't nominated at the SAG Awards or the BAFTAs, he did receive a nomination at the Critics' Choice Awards and Independent Spirit Awards. Plus, don't underestimate Apple's ability to pour mountains of cash into netting nominations. The streamer won Best Picture last year, after all, and without a likely nominee for the top prize this time, Henry would be the contender for Apple to hone in on. 

Edward Berger for Best Director

The Best Director nominees are likely to be Steven Spielberg (The Fabelmans), Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin), Todd Field (Tár), and James Cameron (Avatar: The Way of Water). 

But there have been multiple instances in recent years of dark horse contenders who directed non-English language films surprisingly sneaking in, such as Drive My Car's Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Another Round's Thomas Vinterberg, and Cold War's Paweł Pawlikowski. So who could be the 2023 equivalent? The most likely possibility is Edward Berger for Netflix's German war film All Quiet on the Western Front, which has been discussed as a potential Best Picture nominee, and it led the British Academy Film Award nominations with an impressive 14 nods. 

An alternate surprise would be S.S.Rajamouli for RRR. The three-hour Indian epic recently won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and could repeat at the Oscars and potentially go further, with one of India's biggest film directors getting some Academy love for the first time. The film also seems to have impressed some industry titans, and Rajamouli has recently been spotted engaging in friendly conversations with Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, the latter of whom heaped praise on RRR and admitted he has already seen it twice. Berger has a better shot at the nomination, though, as he was nominated for Best Director at the British Academy Film Awards and Rajamouli wasn't. Alternatively, keep an eye on Decision to Leave's Park Chan-wook, who also earned a BAFTA nod. 

But everything is in play until the nominees are unveiled on Jan. 24, and at this point, the only thing we can say for certain about this year's ceremony is that Will Smith will not be there.

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