Top 20 Performances in Film in 2014
Dec 18, 2014
This was a good year for actors to explore what it's like to be human, or what it's like to be a woman, or what it's like to have a tempestuous relationship with your mother, or what it's like to be an actor. From the humanity of Scarlett Johansson (who's on here twice!) to the ferocity of young Antoine-Olivier Pilon, 2014 was packed with incredible performances. To boil it all down, this year was about performativity; the personas we create and embody and showcase to the world around us. And here are the very best. By Kyle Turner
Under the Skin
There's a funny balance in what Ms. Johansson does in her role as an ostensible alien in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin: at once, it's kind of artificial, each mannerism feeling very practiced and each phrase and line feeling kind of rehearsed; but at the same time, it's tempered and human, even humane. It's sensitive and reveals that she is trying to fine tune the imperfect performance of living.
You have to be careful when you're talking about Pike's revelatory performance in Gone Girl. As Amy Dunne, she is able to channel into the minutest aspects of weaponized femininity possible. She's calculating, challenging, and the smartest woman in the room. But she's vulnerable, coy, and delicate. These paradoxes are important. In 2002, Ms. Pike played a character in the James Bond film Die Another Day called Miranda Frost, but it's here where Pike shows off her icy perfection.
Though she's only on screen for a few minutes, Thurman's scene is easily one of the most memorable in Lars von Trier's five and a half hour sexual odyssey, arguably because the ferocity of her performance is the peak of the film's emotional power. That's not a disservice to von Trier's film as a whole, but a compliment in terms of how Thurman and von Trier maps out emotionality within the film. Thurman is a lioness on screen, unapologetic and powerful.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Like many actors in youth oriented franchises, even her Twilight counterpart Robert Pattinson, Ms. Stewart has been doing her best to distance herself from the perception that she can only do young adult kinds of roles. So she plunges herself into the world of Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria, certainly one of the most complex films he's made in recent memory. But, to be reductive, it's him doing All About Eve. But Stewart is outstanding here because she's able to use the low key, almost mundane acting style that's often used against her as criticism as a strength. She's subtle, against convention, and, in the film's best moments, heartbreaking.
Eisenberg is like a more talented Michael Cera, able to be more flexible with his nebbish persona than Cera. And here, he exercises that, taking aspects of the quiet awkwardness of The Squid and the Whale and the pompous jerk quality of The Social Network and having the two battle against one another in Richard Ayoade's adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella. Incredibly evocative by itself, the film is both anchored by its stylism and by Eisenberg's performance, which is, at its end, astonishingly real.
Antoine-Olivier Pilon is young, but in Xavier Dolan's Mommy, he proves he has the gravitas of any actor twice, or even three times his age. Playing a young man with ADHD and other behavioral issues, he throws himself into the role, diving head first into an emotionally torrid and sumptuous role. It's a stunning performance that will undoubtedly be a breakthrough for him. Rather than play the character one note, just as a "boy with issues," there's something behind every action that makes the character seem fully fleshed out and realized. In the final moments of the film, he gut punches you in the heart.
The One I Love
As the wife in a marriage that is petering out, Moss plays her character with reason and hope. It's not as if she wants the marriage to be as rocky as it is. There's that push and pull there and a distinctive sensitivity to it. When the duality of her personality kicks in, Moss is able to create singular personalities for each, but blur them enough to make the role(s) incredibly compelling and, even more, humane.
Edge of Tomorrow
As a fan of Ms. Blunt since her days in The Devil Wears Prada, the hope is that her role as a badass soldier in Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow will launch her to the fame she deserves. Here, as Sergeant Vrataski, she's unfeeling, strong, autonomous, intelligent. It's almost surprising she hasn't taken on a role like this before, given that her past work allowed her to use her scathing wit to her advantage. Her wit is her weapon, and it's on display here as well. But Blunt's role also represents this kind of iconic, mythological version of the soldier, something she herself is not entirely keen on. The strength behind the performance, though, is stunning.
Mr. Spall's turn as the renowned painter JMW Turner will perhaps be most remembered for its grunts and hacks of phlegm. But Mr. Turner is one of Mike Leigh's best films, an actual portrait of a man putting together these disparate parts of Turner's life into one impossibly beautiful and cohesive work. There's an odd lucidity in the performance which at times feels masked by Turner's attitude, but when one is able to witness that kind of vulnerability and transparency, it makes for some of the film's best moments.
As Doc Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix is... funny. Why the ellipsis? Because Phoenix's reputation as such a serious actor rarely allows him to play with other genres, at least on a surface level understanding of his work. With mutton chops, a joint, and sunglasses, he is able to fall adrift in a confusing, labyrinthine plot and have that represent being adrift in life. Seems a little saccharine, perhaps, but Phoenix makes it convincing, hilarious, and even heartfelt.
As the washed up former superhero and now director, star, and adapter of a stage version of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Keaton's Riggan Thomson is really in search of one thing: love and validation. And though Birdman the film is heavily flawed because of its rather rote ideological objectives, Keaton's performance is nonetheless laced with meaning and honesty. It's the kind of honesty that exists in the film where no one else is nearly as frank in their emotions as they should be, but it's a process and a journey that Riggan experiences and goes through, and one well worth the trip.
Maps to the Stars
It's a strange role, but it was outstanding enough to garner Julianne Moore a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. She plays an aging actress haunted by the ghost of her mother, who was once an ingénue in Hollywood. Desperation is all over her face. She sings a song by Paul Leka, Gary DeCarlo, and Dale Frashuer when she learns she won a role at the expense of someone else's misfortune. She's slightly crazed, but Moore is entirely captivating.
Listen Up Philip
Charlize Theron did it in Jason Reitman's Young Adult, and now Jason Schwartzman has. What exactly? Made a deeply, deeply unlikable, unsympathetic character interesting and, yes, sympathetic. Though it's hard to be in the headspace of someone as misanthropic and small as Philip, one begins to understand the motivations behind that attitude. There's a sharp sting to everything Philip says, and one comes to understand why Philip is so self-destructive.
Melanie Lynskey, who might be best known from her outstanding role in Heavenly Creatures and the single reason why anyone would ever want to watch Two and a Half Men, plays Kelly with a particular honesty and sensitivity that's incredibly crucial to not making the character reductively "harpy". What separates her from such underwritten, regressive roles is that the concern and worry she has feels incredibly human as opposed to artificial and contrived. Her initial distrust of Jenny is what makes her subsequent comradely with her so resonant. It's a gentle suggestion of support, without weighing down the film in sappiness.
Choosing Steve Carell in Foxcatcher seems like a boring and obvious choice, but the reason he's on the list is because of the lack of irony in the role. You could almost call it the return of Michael Scott. For, as Carell has said in interviews, he played John du Pont, the predatory and unhinged millionaire that serves as the primary villain in Bennett Miller's film, approached playing the character much in the same way as he approaches his more blatantly comedic roles. The thing he points out is that the characters themselves don't realize they're funny. So, donning a prosthetic nose and doffing any sense of self-awareness, Carell inhabits this hawk like predator, gazing at his wrestlers, mastering each mannerism, and stopping just short of humanizing the character enough so that he can remain a mystery.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Technology has come a long way since the days that Serkis was donning a grey suit to play Gollum/Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the best silent films in ages, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes asks a lot of its audience in terms of the suspension of disbelief, and much of it is successful due to Serkis's performance as Caesar, the patriarch of the apes. At times, that the performance is motion capture is completely forgotten, and totally irrelevant. It's as impressive as any conventionally human performance because imbued in the character is just that: humanity.
Frankly, the scene in which Scarlet Johansson as Lucy calls her mother on the phone to say goodbye is some of the best acting of the decade. At first, very little registers on her face. But as the scene proceeds, with Lucy describing the sensations she's feeling, it becomes much sadder. She's losing all that is human inside her. It's a mixture of heartbreaking and possibly empowering, but it's certainly the best scene in Luc Besson's action epic and a testament to Johansson's ability to make any film she's in a master class piece of work.
J.K. Simmons hurls profanities and obscenities like Jo Jones allegedly threw a cymbal at the head of the legendary Charlie Parker. So, while it's an invigorating performance, certainly, with Simmons as the mentor from hell, the actor elevates it from being totally one note by stripping the character of self-awareness. He honestly feels that the way to create an artistic master is to torture them into being one. It informs the film's overall themes and questions of whether the means justify the ends. It isn't necessarily a nuanced performance in the most conventional of terms, but it's thrilling nonetheless to see that kind of monster in human form, killing his darlings.
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan
If it weren't for the ending of the film, What If (otherwise known as The F Word in Canada) would probably be my favorite film of the year, and maybe the best romantic comedy in several years. Anyways, Radcliffe and Kazan have a natural chemistry together that's sweet, but more winsome than anything else. But that's a good thing. In the lines on their faces you can read the restraint they must show and the concessions they must make to each other and, more importantly, to themselves.
Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne
We Are the Best!
"Hate the sport!" the young actresses bellow amateurishly into a microphone. A wonderfully tender and touching moment. The adolescent trio are punky little spirits, or puckish rather, and it's their refreshing and childish honesty that makes the film as beautifully sweet as it is.