Monday, February 18, 2013

Best of 2012, Part 3: Acting

Once more into the breach, dear friends...(as an aside, I don't think a year goes by in which I don't reference Henry V while blogging. Weird.) Today's post is a doozy, so I'm just going to throw myself into it. Today we're talking about acting; arguably the easiest element of cinema for the joe-average moviegoer to appreciate and evaluate. So I'm gonna get around to appreciating.
Note-I'll try to include youtube clips where I can, but too many of these movies haven't made it to DVD yet, so clips are kind of scarce.

Best Actor
5. Logan Lerman-The Perks of Being a Wallflower
You can tell it's been an incredible year for lead performances when Lerman's vulnerable, heart-breaking, star-making turn can only manage #5 on this list. This performance is nothing less than a revelation: the kid from Percy Jackson plumbs startling emotional depths to bring us the most fragile, dogged portrayal of teen angst in years.
(It's a short scene, but whatevs:

4. Matthias Schoenaerts-Rust and Bone
Here's a brutal portrayal of masculinity at its worst--bruised, broken, thrashing like a wounded animal. Schoenaerts plays his role with corrupted sensitivity, bringing the same manic physicality to everyday life that he brings to the boxing scenes.
(Not a good clip, but it's the only one w/ subtitles, so...

3. Tom Holland-The Impossible
How utterly ridiculous is it that this performance comes from a 15-year old? It's not the big emotional moments or the physical demands required by this survivor tale that sell me on the role. Rather, it's the little, terribly honest moments Holland adds as a kid thrown into a world stranger and more terrible than he can imagine. Consider the scene where his mother starts vomiting trash she swallowed during the tsunami: it's not that he looks away that's important, but the way that he almost hypnotically looks back again.
(not a great clip [as usual]--

2. Daniel Day-Lewis-Lincoln
It's become somewhat cliche to compliment Daniel Day-Lewis on his performances or his now-famous dedication to the Method, but sometimes cliches work because they're true. As always, Daniel Day-Lewis becomes completely invisible, morphing seamlessly into whatever he needs to play, and he does it with heart, wit, and a subtle but unquenchable lust for life.
(another bad clip:

1. Joaquin Phoenix-The Master
Without Phoenix, The Master would not have been a very good movie. Plain and simple. What Phoenix does with the character--the bizarre physical movements, the constantly involving psychoses, enigmas upon enigmas--makes for mesmerizing cinema. Freddie Quell (his character) seems more animal than man, but is prone to bursts of devastating humanity. Really, I can't even begin to imagine how Phoenix found it in himself to create something this gloriously bonkers.
(I've posted this scene already in my 'best scenes' list, but it really doesn't get any better than this, so...

Honorable mention: Bradley Cooper's neurotic, self-destructive romantic anti-lead in Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actress
5. Marion Cotillard-Rust and Bone
The depressive Yin to Matthias Schoenaert's fiery Yang, Cotillard plays a recently disabled whale trainer who struggles to cope with reconciling the person in the mirror with the person she wants to become. She provides one of the most interesting cinematic evolutions this year, as she progresses from self-loathing to desperate to finally finding some form of self-acceptance.
(This needs some context: in this clip, the character's going through the routine she used to do with the whales:

4. Jessica Chastain-Zero Dark Thirty
In Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain is given a character with the emotional depth of a teaspoon--really, she's more bulldog than human. Given this totally blank slate, Chastain conjures a personality out of midair, crafting an inexperienced young woman whose experiences and obsessions harden her to the point of inhumanity.
(no clip, sorry)

3. Quvenzhane Wallis-Beasts of the Southern Wild
This year's movies were a showcase for strong women, and Quvenzhane Wallis's Hushpuppy could go toe-to-toe with any of them. Bringing an impossibly strong presence to the film (particularly for someone who was six years old [good grief]), Wallis carries the entire film on her tiny dignified shoulders. I don't think any closeup this year hit me more than pint-sized Hushpuppy waiting on the bridge to confront the Aurochs. In that moment, the audience has no choice to accept that this girl--both the character and the actress--possess singular forces with which they shape the world around them.
(no clip, but here's a featurette:

2. Jennifer Lawrence-Silver Linings Playbook
Really, Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany should have been something of a one-dimensional cliche; she is, after all, the love interest whose primary roll is to be both crazier and more mellow than her counterpart. The fact that Lawrence takes this template and turns it into something precise, deeply felt, and achingly human is nothing more than a minor miracle.

1. Emmanuelle Riva-Amour
About 1/3 into this film I realized that there was never going to be any contest for who would take the top spot here. The work Riva does in Amour is nothing short of astonishing. She begins the film as a warm, luminous presence--old, but not frail, and then allows herself to slowly denigrate to the point of being unrecognizable. The effects of two strokes are visceral, terrible things in her hands. It's almost physically painful to watch as the woman who applauded her student in the first scene slowly becomes a shivering wreck of a human who can only moan "Hurts.....Hurts..." over and over again.
(no clip. Which makes sense, since this film has hardly gotten into theaters.)

Honorable mention: Keira Knightley's woozy, passionate Anna Karenina

Best Supporting Actor
5. Michael Pena-End of Watch
End of Watch wouldn't have worked with out the two dedicated performances at its center, and Michael Pena provides the film with its unassuming heart. He's a warm, balanced presence which blunts the edges of Gyllenhaal's cockier character.

4. Tommy Lee Jones-Lincoln
As always, Jones brings his now-expected heavy-lidded skepticism and deep-voiced laconic wit to the proceedings, but for Lincoln he imbues his regular shtick with alternating periods of fire and ice, covering up a seemingly inaccessible core of vulnerability.

3. Andy Serkis-The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Of course Gollum was going to be the best part of this movie. What Serkis can do with his body and voice, even within the constrains of motion capture, is endlessly fascinating. The nuance he brings to a character whose primary motivation is "eat things while invisible" has to be seen to be believed.
(on that note, no clip)

2. Samuel L. Jackson-Django Unchained
This performance could have gone wrong in so many ways, but instead Samuel L. Jackson makes it a hilarious study in contrasts. On one hand he gives us the most offensive minstrel show since blackface went out of style, and on the other hand he makes a cold-blooded monster whose menace lies in his own silences.
(I said it's about contrast, so here's the minstrel show:
and here's the monster:

1. Michael Fassbender-Prometheus
Though the film that contains it is kind of a wreck, Fassbender's performance in Prometheus proves that a great actor can take any role and make it fascinating. Written as an anonymous, shallowly written villain, Fassbender rips his role of the page and remakes it in his own image--startling, scary, disarmingly human (for a robot). He's like a giddy Pandora, opening every box he can find without regard for the horrors that are about to spill out.

Honorable mention: Leonardo Dicaprio's foppish, preening sociopath in Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress
5. Emily Blunt-Looper
Blunt takes this stereotypical 'tough farm wife' character and weaves in notes of vulnerability, discovering the woman beneath the toughness. I don't know if any actor did quite so much with so little material as Blunt did here.
(no clip)

4. Helen Hunt-The Sessions
Helen Hunt is so good--so naturalistic, so lived-in, so warm--in The Sessions, it's almost surprising that so many people have noticed how good she is. This performance isn't "big" acting with screaming and throwing plates and other, catchier emoting, but it finds something very real, and plays it for all it's worth.

3. Anne Hathaway-Les Miserables
In complete contrast to the previous entry, this is totally a "big" acting performance with screaming and tears which is just begging for your love ("She Sings! She Dances! She Dies!"). Credit where credit is due, however, regardless of the melodramatic packaging. Though I wasn't big on Tom Hooper's version of Les Mis, I can't deny that Anne Hathaway takes "I Dreamed a Dream," rips it apart, rebuilds it, and shoots it straight into your tear-ducts.
(it seems ridiculous to post a clip here that isn't "I Dreamed a Dream," but for what it's worth...

2. Elizabeth Banks-The Hunger Games
Out of everyone in The Hunger Games, only Elizabeth Banks understood the wacky puppet burlesque required by anyone from the Capital: she's aristocratic, naive, unknowingly cold-hearted, and totally fabulous. It drives me crazy that apparently I'm the only person on Earth who noticed how freakin' amazing she is in this role.
(The way she moves the microphone, like a bloodthirsty Johnny Carson at 2:24 is worth the price of admission alone:

1. Nicole Kidman-The Paperboy
It must be said: Nicole Kidman is a trash goddess in this movie. Whatever she's doing--whether she's physically attacking other girls for the right to pee on Zac Efron, or telepathically masturbating, or rolling her eyes at puppy-eyed expressions of love--Nicole Kidman throws herself at her roll with manic aplomb. Acting this enthusiastic and inspired should probably be illegal.

Honorable mention: Amy Adam's calculating, hand-job-dispensing Lady Macbeth in The Master.

That's it for today, which, thank goodness, because that took a really long time. Any thoughts? Would anyone in their right minds give awards to movies as trashy as Prometheus and The Paperboy?
Aw hell yeah they would.

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