Saturday, February 22, 2014

Best of 2013, part 3: Acting

Once more into the breach, dear friends (hey there, Henry V! I was wondering when you'd show up). It's a funny thing, acting--it's the most visible and easily praised aspect of movies by average-joe viewers like us, and yet I find it more difficult to say something compelling about acting than just about anything else. Want me to talk about sound editing? I'll do it and I'll like it. Get me to talk about movie stars and crying scenes and such though, and suddenly I clam up like a big clammy clam. So we're gonna try anyway and see what happens, but I apologize if my use of adverbs gets a little...irresponsible. That happens sometimes.
Note--I'll try to include youtube clips of the performances where I can, but no guarantees.

Check it out after the jump!

Best Actor
5. Leonardo Dicaprio-The Wolf of Wall Street
It may not be the most subtle performance of the year, but I'm just so excited to see Leo leave the Dead Wives Club all his characters have been in since 2006 and try to embrace the boyish charm that made him a star in the first place. This is a physically committed, go-big-or-go-home star performance upon which the success of the whole film lies.

4. Ethan Hawke-Before Midnight
Poor Mr. Hawke never gets as much credit as his co-writers and co-lead for making this series as special as it is, and I'm here to change that. The kicked-puppy sheepishness he brings to some scenes gets undercut by the cock of the walk arrogance which he so effortlessly conveys in others. This is a complicated, contradictory, messy human being, and Hawke never tries to make him anything less.

3. Tom Hanks-Captain Phillips
Not that we should frame everything in terms of awards, but man is it a shame that Tom Hanks missed the Oscar nomination for this one. I say this because what he shows us here is so different than anything we've ever seen from him. Hanks is normally charming, a little cocky, but always a good man--the embodiment of a distinctly American conception of strength and decency. And I'm not saying that he doesn't play off of that in Captain Phillips. But what he does (perhaps for the first time) is let all of that fall away, and reveals the shuddering little boy that's been underneath the whole time. Essentially, Hanks takes the on-screen persona he's been crafting since the 1980s and shows us all that it's been a sham this whole time. And that takes guts.
(I already used this scene in the 'best scenes of the year' section, but it really gets at what I'm saying, so here it comes again:

2. Chiwetel Ejiofor-12 Years a Slave
Considering everything happening around it, this is a surprisingly quiet performance. And it would have to be, really--as an educated free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, this character's life depends on his ability to stay quiet, keep his head down, and not let on how much he's thinking. The greatness of this performance comes from the very fine line between looking like you're not thinking and pretending to look like you're not thinking. Ejiofor's mind is constantly at work, even while his body and face stay as blank as possible. This duality--action underneath passivity--makes for compelling viewing.
(Surprisingly, there aren't many clips on youtube that feature Ejiofor as much as his supporting players, but here's what I came up with:

1. Oscar Isaac-Inside Llewyn Davis
Man, this movie keeps sneaking up on me, and now going looking for clips I remember just how much I love it (again), and this performance makes the whole thing possible. There's a whole ocean of rage and anger and sadness tossing around inside this guy, covered up by cynicism and sarcasm and a hard shell, and every now and again it all springs up like some bitter wellspring. And all of this while his singing voice feels like someone pouring honey into your ear ( a good way). Yeah, clearly I'm over the moon about all of this.

Honorable mention: Michael B. Jordan makes a complicated, rough-around-the-edges character in Fruitvale Station, even when the film itself is trying to whitewash him.

Best Actress
5. Greta Gerwig-Frances Ha
It's not easy being this inept. Certainly it's not easy being this inept and also being this funny, but Gerwig brings effortless comedy and sympathy to a character who could have easily been grating or one-note. Particular points to her physical commitment: her character is a dancer--albeit not a very good one--and her body remembers that, even when she's not flapping around a stage.

4. Emma Thompson-Saving Mr. Banks
It would have been so easy for me to hate this movie (and I'm not saying I liked it), but Emma Thompson's grumpy-cat charisma kept me coming back for more. No one does stiff upper lip like Thompson, and she'd be a contender even if that were all she was up to, but Thompson never forgets to flesh out the turbulent inner life of this character, trying to explain how someone who wrote something as sunny as Mary Poppins could be this relentlessly dour.

3. Brie Larson-Short Term 12
Y'know, sometimes it feels like I'm going to run out of adjectives or fun ways to say the performance was good, which is ok, because I'm pretty sure neither this character nor Ms. Larson would want me to lay the praise on thick for her. Simply put--she gets it done. Like her character, she does exactly what she needs to, when she needs to do it, and we're all a little better for it.

2. Julie Delpy-Before Midnight
Like her co-lead, Delpy has had the opportunity to work on and develop this character since 1995's Before Sunrise, and it shows--her attention to detail, the crazy little buzz behind her eyes that shows that all of her neuroses are never really put to rest, the morbid glee with which she assumes people are attacking her. Rather than attempting to make Celine (her character) lovable, Delpy chooses instead to make her honest. It can't have been an easy choice to make, but it was the right one.

1. Cate Blanchett-Blue Jasmine
But really, in the end, there wasn't much of a congress. Riffing on Vivien Leigh's inspired insanity in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanchett crafts a singularly entitled, fundamentally fractured woman who is doing her best to pretend that she isn't ripping apart at the seams. This is bold, cunning work--equal parts hilarious, horrifying, and kind of sad.

Honorable mention: Amy Acker's flawless comedic timing and nimble way with Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing

Supporting Actor

5. Keith Stanfield-Short Term 12
What a moving, lived in portrayal of abandoned hope in the foster care system. Stanfield doesn't get a lot of screen time, but the impression he makes--as foster kid about to age out of the system--is very memorable. I can still perfectly picture him avoiding his own reflection because he doesn't want to see if his past has left a scar.
(no clip, sorry)

Bradley Cooper-American Hustle
Man, who knew that Bradley Cooper would turn himself around so quickly? After last year's Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper again proves (in another David O. Russell film) that he's got more to offer than I thought. His character is all wild eyes, silly hair, and inflated sense of importance--like a frat-boy who constantly thinks he's about to get lucky.

James Franco-Spring Breakers
Yup, this movie's popping up again, and who could stop it? Particularly when James Franco is so committed to showing us his shit--just a big, toothy grin full of metal and a sickly combination of toy-store innocence and casual brutality. If the teletubbies were humans and sociopaths, they'd act like this guy.
(It's a short clip, but whatever:

Joel Edgerton-The Great Gatsby
Tom Buchanan is hardly the most interesting character in The Great Gatsby, but Edgerton latches into him and won't let go. He's a hulking boulder of a man, half-heartedly trying to daintily step around the china shop, not really caring if he actually breaks anything.

1. Ben Foster-Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Once again, Ben Foster proves that he's just about the most under-rated actor working today (as if we needed him to tell us that again after The Messenger and 3:10 to Yuma, but whatever). As always, Foster elevates whatever he's working with--in this case, he takes a mild-mannered police officer who could just be a dull source of exposition and plot advancement, and turns him into the warm, beating heart of the film. He so effortlessly conveys such an enveloping sense of warmth and kindness, it's hard not to root for him--even though he goes against the protagonist in every way.
(Naturally, there are no youtube clips here, because the performance is low-key and not the focus of the movie.)

Honorable mention: Ultimately, I kicked Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club out of my top 5 on principle. On the one hand, it's a well-done performance. On the other hand, the character, and the way the movie uses her, is such a step back that I'm not sure I want to validate it any more than it has been. Good acting is good acting, but that doesn't mean we need to encourage good acting in this particular type of film.

Supporting Actress
5. Julianne Nicholson-August: Osage County
I know, I know, I was supposed to be looking at Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and Benidict Cumberbatch and Margo Martindale and Ewen McGregor and any of the other much more famous cast members, but Nicholson's quiet portrayal of the only nice person in a den of psychotics got to me more than any other, showier performance in this movie.
(It's funny to pick this clip, because just like in the rest of the movie and in the promotion for the movie itself, Nicholson is playing the character who gets lost in the background:

4. Amy Adams-Her
It makes me so sad that no one's talking about this performance. Sure, it's hardly the showiest element of the film, but Adams brings such grounded realism and sunny warmth to the movie whenever it needs it. She acts just like the character she plays: a dependent old friend who's always there to make the day (or the scene) a little better.
(of course there's no clip)

3. Emma Watson-The Bling Ring
Who knew that Hermione had such comic chops? Her character runs around like a glamorous little sociopath, gleefully committing crimes, saying stupid, shallow things, and secretly loving it when she gets caught. Whatever she has to do for attention.
(watch as much of this as you like--or just the first 20-ish seconds:

2. Jennifer Lawrence-American Hustle
I'm sure I speak for everyone with eyes when I say that I can't wait to see where Jennifer Lawrence's career goes. In American Hustle, she's funny, she's sexy, she's vulnerable, she's obviously a hugely charismatic screen presence--and she does it all with enough hair piled on top of her head to sink a good-sized yacht.

1. Lupita Nyong'o-12 Years a Slave
It's utterly unbelievable to me that this is Ms. Nyong'o's film debut, because she holds the screen with such fire and confidence. Her performance is more than anything what I remember about this film, and the fascinating duality she brings to it--the icy pride mixed with hatred as her master calls her the best worker on the plantation, or the fierce, primal joy she finds in life even when she wants to die. It's gripping viewing, and if Hollywood has any sense they'll promptly cast her in absolutely everything.
(I used this scene the other day, but for whatever reason there aren't many clips on Youtube of this movie, so...

Honorable mention: Oprah's sassy force-of-nature housewife in The Butler

Well, that's that. Tomorrow we'll jump into the categories that I love that nevertheless mystify most of the population: the craft categories! Gird your loins, everyone.

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