Each year’s slate of outstanding supporting actors generally contains several comical sidekicks and a bunch of worried parents. But this year, a flamboyant children’s movie villain and a masterful self-parody added some variety to the mix.
Here are our picks for the top 10 actors who stole scenes in smaller roles, ordered alphabetically.
It’s been a breakout year for Awkwafina, who appeared in two of the summer’s biggest movies — “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s Eight” — before becoming the second-ever Asian American woman to host “Saturday Night Live.” The rapper-actress plays Peik Lin Goh in the record-breaking romantic comedy, the quippy best friend to protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). But Awkwafina doesn’t let her character get sidelined, as the BFFs often are. Peik Lin instead utters many of the movie’s most uproarious lines — some of which Awkwafina improved — such as telling Rachel her future mother-in-law thinks of her as an “unrefined banana” or referring to Rachel’s boyfriend as the “Asian Bachelor.”
“Paddington 2” director Paul King created the part of Phoenix Buchanan — an arrogant, washed-up actor who turns to a life of crime — with Grant in mind. As if to prevent that perception from taking hold in real life, Grant acts the hell out of the role. Phoenix is a delightful villain who dresses up in nun, knight and businessman costumes to carry out his evil plans against Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw). Grant fully commits to the shtick, casting his ego aside in favor of sheer absurdity. He even shimmies his way through a song-and-dance number during the credits, and steals the movie as easily as he steals Paddington’s coveted pop-up book.
Last year gave us Michael Stuhlbarg’s supportive monologue to heartsick movie son Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Name.” This year’s stellar parenting scene arrived with “Eighth Grade,” in which Mark (Hamilton) tells the insecure Kayla (Elsie Fisher) how lucky he feels to be her father. “Some parents have to love their kids despite who their kids are,” he says. “Not me. I get to love you becauseof who you are.” Hamilton delivers an honest performance, capturing Mark’s confusion when Kayla lashes out and his sweetness when he boosts her confidence.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone by now that Hathaway can command an audience’s full attention. But when the movie’s ensemble cast also includes Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina and Rihanna? Whew. As narcissistic actress Daphne Kluger in “Ocean’s Eight,” Hathaway cleverly parodies the affected personality her so-called Hathahaters believe she has. She makes the most out of the flimsy plot, filling out her prima donna character with campy temper tantrums and snappy comebacks.
Henry can convey years of pain with a single facial expression, an ability he exhibits as Paper Boi on FX’s “Atlanta” and, now, in the Barry Jenkins film “If Beale Street Could Talk.” In a pivotal scene, Henry’s character, Daniel Carty, describes to his friend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) what it was like to be incarcerated. Daniel’s words point to the discrimination that black men like he and Fonny face, his disquieting tone to the anguish it has caused him. He only appears this one time in “Beale Street,” but his words return to haunt us when Fonny gets put behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
“The Hate U Give,” adapted from Angie Thomas’ young-adult novel, kicks into gear when high schooler Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) witnesses a white cop kill her friend, who is black. But the film’s defining scene arrives earlier, when her father, Maverick (Hornsby), gives his children “the talk” about how to behave in the presence of police officers. “Being black is an honor ’cause you come from greatness,” he adds in the first of many scenes to highlight his hard-earned wisdom. Hornsby portrays Mav with tenderness, and the character’s refusal to let his children forget their community’s resilience supports Starr’s evolution into an activist.
Plemons has come a long way, as the only thing his character in “Game Night” has in common with his breakout role as Landry Clarke in “Friday Night Lights” is proximity to Kyle Chandler. As Gary, the lonely cop who lives next door to the main characters, Plemons plays up the creepiness that became his forte through roles in “Breaking Bad” and “Black Mirror.” Gary isn’t a major player in “Game Night” — he’s lonely in part because he never receives an invitation. But when he does appear — such as when he suddenly turns up on his driveway, eerily stroking his dog’s fur — it’s hard to look away.
There are several emotional driving scenes in “Beautiful Boy,” but none as effective as the one in which artist Karen (Tierney) chases her drug-addicted stepson, Nic (Chalamet) after he flees their home. We see Karen’s car follow Nic’s as he makes sudden turns one after another, a sequence broken up by shots of their expressions — his panicked, hers anguished. She eventually gives up, reduced to tears. The movie largely focuses on a father’s relationship with his troubled son, but Tierney — an underrated performer who can convey intense emotions in a subdued manner, as seen on “ER” and “The Affair” — seizes this moment for herself.
Williams has also played her fair share of grief-stricken women, but “I Feel Pretty” gave her the chance to try her hand at comedy. As cosmetics company chief Avery LeClair, Williams keeps her facial expressions neutral and lets her squeaky voice, which is even higher than her “My Week With Marilyn” pitch, do the heavy lifting. She makes Avery’s mannerisms as awkward as her social interactions (she greets someone by saying, “I thought I smelled animal products!”). Even playing opposite Amy Schumer, a professional comedian, Williams winds up the most hilarious part of the whole thing.
The unsettling feeling that builds throughout “Burning” doesn’t come from the twisty-turny plot, but from the characters themselves. At first, Ben (Steven Yeun) seems to just be a charming Gangnam resident who swoops in at an inconvenient time for protagonist Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), who has just fallen for Ben’s maybe-girlfriend Haemi (Jong-seo Jun). But Jongsu’s distaste for Ben seems more warranted as the film progresses, especially when the latter reveals that he torches abandoned greenhouses for fun. Yeun skillfully captures the intriguing yet unnerving nature of a professed firebug. Even his yawns are frightening.
Honorable mentions: Olivia Colman in “The Favourite,” Richard E. Grant in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Thomasin McKenzie in “Leave No Trace,” Margot Robbie in “Mary Queen of Scots” and Letitia Wright in “Black Panther.”