Overlooked Film Performances of 2013
Dec 31, 2013
Throughout the year, many stellar performances go underseen, are overlooked, or are otherwise underrated. In this piece, cinema writer John Oursler spotlights several of 2013's overlooked performances.
With The Hunt, director Thomas Vinterberg has crafted a thrilling inversion of filmic depictions of pedophilia by showing early and clearly that the act did not occur. In a small town in Denmark, Mads Mikkelsen’s Lucas is a schoolteacher whose best friend’s daughter accidentally, confusedly, insinuates sexual improprieties. The audience is aware of the facts, so the narrative isn’t in search of clearing up any ambiguity, but rather dissecting the process wherein an insular community turns on its own. Mikkelsen deservedly won the Best Actor prize at Cannes in 2012 for his trickily dynamic performance.
Mary Margaret O’Hara
Museum Hours is a quiet movie about quiet people, but just because there isn’t capital A-acting on display doesn’t mean that the acting is any less invigorating. Jem Cohen enlisted singer Mary Margaret O’Hara to play Anne, an amiable but melancholy middle-aged woman who travels to Vienna when a distant cousin falls ill. Short on money but long on time, she befriends a local guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Johann, and the two forge a quick friendship based on nothing more than casual conversations and life observations. O’Hara has an ease with dialogue that makes her feel like a woman you might know in real life, and it’s this relatability that gets to your heart and doesn’t let go. There are a few scenes where she gets to croon, and those beautiful moments punctuate an already astounding film.
It’s not an easy task to take a Nazi-indoctrinated youth and make them a complex, empathetic character, but that’s exactly the commendable work done by Saskia Rosendahl in Cate Shortland’s Lore. Rosendahl plays the title protagonist, the eldest child of an SS officer who must lead her younger siblings across war-torn Germany on foot after her parents have been carted off by the authorities. Lore is forced to face the unfavorability of her views through encounters with strangers she meets on the journey, notably a Jewish straggler who helps the group to safety. Shortland brings to life a rare portrait of WWII, but it’s Rosendahl’s complex performance that makes the film the triumph it is.
For Park chan-wook’s English language debut, Stoker, he enlisted the help of one of cinema’s great actors, herself often overlooked for being so. In the role of anxiety-inducing mother Evelyn Stoker, Kidman delivers her signature icy queen with emphasis. She creeps around as one of the film’s villains, sinking her teeth into a great role the likes of which doesn’t come along often.
It’s a shame that so few people saw Xavier Dolan’s epic transgender romance Laurence Anyways, in which Suzanne Clement gives one of the year’s best performances. She plays Fred, a woman whose longtime boyfriend (Laurence) begins an unexpected female transition. The film is ostensibly about Laurence’s journey, but Dolan smartly unfolds this vis-à-vis Laurence’s fiery relationship, to show not only how invaluable Laurence is to the people around her, but what it’s like when a loved one goes through a difficult time. Clement is both tender and tough in the role, often providing a voice for the audience who may be wondering how they’d react under similar circumstances.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Ben Foster has made a name for himself by flying under the radar and putting in a string of good performances, usually in films in which he’s the clear highlight. David Lowery’s Sundance hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints didn’t gain much traction when it was released in theaters this fall, but Foster deservedly gained good notices for his quiet role as a Patrick Wheeler, a small town police officer involved in an unlikely romance. Maybe it’s the uniform, or the beard, but the character evinces protective warmth that Foster nurtures with his subtle performance.
Kill Your Darlings
Another one of the year’s great queer romances comes courtesy of Dane DeHaan in Kill Your Darlings, a fascinating investigation into the origins of the beat movement of the ‘50s. DeHaan gets maybe the juiciest role as Lucien Carr, a Columbia University wannabe-poet who befriends and inspires a group of village Bohemians in Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster, again), and Alan Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). The film offers an inspired ensemble all at the top of their game, but DeHaan stands out as the behind-the-curtain catalyst for a now-famous artistic movement.
In Il Futuro, Rutger Hauer’s wonderfully out-of-left-field performance is the kind that should bring about career resurgence. It won’t, of course, since no one saw the film. But you should, because it’s a curious coming of age tale deceptively spun with fantastical elements. Hauer’s shadowy shut-in Maciste shows up to complicate a get-rich scheme perpetrated by a mysterious girl whose parents have recently died. His character doesn’t appear until the film’s final act, but his presence sets off a series of fascinating events.
Berberian Sound Studio
Berberian Sound Studio is primarily an exercise in aesthetics, sound design specifically. Jones stars as Gilderoy, a freelance “foley artist” specializing in the recreation of sound for a giallo type Italian production company. The film is a nervy thriller that makes a point of getting under your skin as a recreation itself of the type of film it seeks to produce. In his career, Jones has often been bridesmaid to more famous actors playing similar roles, and though this film is decidedly one of a kind, it grossed less than $50k at the box office.
Ginger & Rosa
Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa is not a great coming of age film, but it does feature a magnificent lead performance from Elle Fanning. She plays Ginger, a teenager in ‘60s London whose philandering academic father (Alessandro Nivola) begins a conspicuously inappropriate relationship with her best friend, Rosa. The film is all over the place, as it tries to analogue the threat of atomic destruction with a girl’s coming of age (OK, maybe it’s not so far off?), but Fanning’s effortless ability to show very realistic emotion makes the film worth a visit.
A film based around the genesis of a philosophical principle is a hard sell, even for one as famous as Hannah Arendt’s ‘Banality of Evil’ thesis. Legendary German actress Barbara Sukows portrays Arendt in Margarethe von Trotta’s film, and it’s thanks to her stoic and surprisingly funny performance that Hannah feels more like an enthralling puzzle than a by-the-numbers biopic. von Trotta smartly focuses on the period just before Arendt’s observation of Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial and the subsequent fallout from her controversial report, and in so doing retains a focus that likely would have been lost in a more expansive portrait.
Like Matthew McConaughey, it seems that Jude Law, famously beautiful actor and leading man, has made a concerted effort to pick meatier roles in an attempt hone his acting chops. He’s been fantastic in a number of recent films, including Contagion and Anna Karenina, but in his newest (and perhaps last?) collaboration with Soderbergh, Law is the best he’s been. He plays Dr. Jonathan Banks, an antihero psychiatrist taken on a Hitchcockian mystery by a conning patient (Rooney Mara).
Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur
Beyond the Hills
Cristian Mungiu’s masterful Beyond the Hills is as austere as they come, a Bressonian drama set in the chilly confines of a Romanian Orthodox convent. The film’s co-leads, Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichiţa (Cosmina Stratan) had no previous acting experience, making their nuanced Cannes-winning performances even more impressive. As in Mungiu’s lauded 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Beyond centers on a longstanding friendship. Voichita and Alina are best friends since a shared childhood at a nearby orphanage. They separated as adults when Voichita went to Germany to procure a better life for them and, in the interim, Alina joined the church. Mungiu picks up action when Voichita returns to a now devout friend who barely resembles the person she once knew. The film is a damning critique of the church’s views on homosexuality (the girls were lovers) and a woman’s subjugated position within the religious hierarchy. In Mungian fashion, Beyond builds slowly to a shocking climax.
Ulrich Seidl’s misanthropic Paradise trilogy might lure you into buying its art-house pretensions, but wise viewers will quickly equip themselves against its obvious motives. Love is the first and best film in the trilogy, about a German hausfrau, Teresa (Tiesel), who takes a sex tourism holiday in Kenya. She’s an unlikable character from the outset, but Tiesel squeezes every bit of empathy from a mostly one-dimensional role by forcing you to question whether Teresa is an empathetic product of an ageist environment or just an exploitative, entitled foreigner. Seidl likely wrote the role with this dichotomy in mind, but Tiesel’s layered performance makes the film an interesting academic venture.
Olivia Wilde is one of those beautiful women who you just know is better than the parts she’s been offered. She’s got that Jennifer Aniston charisma without feeling disingenuous (Sorry, Jen), but hasn’t really been able to show it until now. In Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies she finally gets to shine, and her stripped-down tomboy Kate facilitates Wilde’s considerable talent, and is in stark contrast to her rote pretty-girl girlfriend roles. She is a girlfriend here, actually, but she’s an actual character and not just a trophy. It’s exciting to see her handle the material with such grace, and makes you excited for what she’s got coming up.
Julia Louis Dreyfus
James Gandolfini’s uncharacteristically tender turn in Nicole Holofcener’s adult rom-com Enough Said dominated the film’s dialogue (and made it a box office hit) after the actor’s unexpected death earlier this year. He’s wonderful in the film, but so is Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a rare dramatic role that sees her broadening the scope of her many talents. Like all of Holofcener’s laid-back character studies, Enough Said is easy to like, but it doesn’t rest on JLD doing her best Elaine Benes impersonation. Her character, Eva, is a middle-aged single woman cautiously approaching a new relationship, and as in life, there’s much to laugh at and some things to cry at. She proves equally adept at both, and it’s time we saw more of her on the big screen.
Some Velvet Morning
This is probably the biggest surprise on the list, as the only thing I knew about Alice Eve before watching Neil Labute’s newest film is that she gained the ire (and objectification, obviously) of fanboys everywhere for her strip in this year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness. Some Velvet Morning has her spewing Neil Labute’s most biting dialogue in a decade, and she’s onscreen during the entirety of the film’s 90 minute run time. With co-star Stanley Tucci, Eve verbally spars and runs the emotional gamut in a performance that is truly a breakthrough.