Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014 Year End Report: Top Ten Best Leading Actor Performances

As is usual, this was an extremely hard list to narrow down to 10. In a lesser year, any of the runners-up could have very easily found their way into the top 10 – but there just wasn’t room.

Runners-Up: Perhaps in a different, less stacked year, I could have found some room for these performances in the top 10 – but this year really was too strong for that: Macon Blair in Blue Ruin was a quiet performance in a revenge film, by turns funny and heartfelt and violent. Nicolas Cage in Joe showed what he can do that few others can – an occurrence that happens rarely. Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood anchored one of the very best films of the year. Bradley Cooper in American Sniper is very good, in a very tricky, very quiet role. Jessie Eisenberg in The Double delivered two performances for the price of one – and each played off of his very different strengths. Brendan Gleeson in Calvary anchored an emotional story of a good Priest, struggling to do the right thing. Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy had a great dual role that is really two incomplete characters that become one during the course of the movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man. Michael Keaton in Birdman is asked to do a lot – changing from insanity to depressed over and over again, and he mainly nails it. John Lithgow & Alfred Molina in Love is Strange are both equally excellent as a longtime couple who hit hard times. Guy Pearce in The Rover holds his cards close to the vest in the best way possible. Joaquin Phoenix in The Immigrant is impossible to get a read on, since his character struggles with his own morality. Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip is like the darkest future of his breakthrough role – as Max Fischer in Rushmore. Dan Stevens in The Guest is wickedly charming, with cold dead eyes, who is sexy and scary at the same time – until he becomes just downright scary. Miles Teller in Whiplash somehow manages not to be run over by J.K. Simmons, as a would-be drummer, who is more of an asshole then we first realize.

Top 10
10. Tom Hardy in Locke and The Drop
Tom Hardy gave two very different, but equally brilliant performances this year. His work in Locke has won him a few critics prizes – and it is a great performance, as he has to anchor the entire movie while sitting alone inside his car, just talking to various people on the phone, as his whole world comes crashing down around him. His character here has morals – he knows he violated them, but he’s willing to take responsibility for it. His work in The Drop is less acclaimed, but no less brilliant. He plays a man we think is loyal and kind – perhaps a little bit slow. He also lives by a code – or at least we think he does. When the twist ending in The Drop comes, it doesn’t feel like a cheat, even though it makes us re-evaluate everything we think we know about the character. No one ever sees him coming. Hardy has quickly turned himself into one of the best working actors right now – and these two performances show us precisely why that is.

9. Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner
Timothy Spall has been an excellent character actor for a few decades now – and in this, his fifth collaboration with Mike Leigh, he gets the role that will probably define his career. He plays the title character – the British genius painter, in his later years – when he’s already famous, rich and celebrated – and follows him to his death. Throughout the film, we will see Turner behave in ugly ways, and kind ways – he goes from a man of his time, to be older and passé. He is capable of seeing the beauty in the world, even while he behaves horribly. He grunts many of his responses, is inarticulate when talking about his own work – and often seems to be doing nothing, but in reality he is intently listening. Spall’s performance is at once somewhat over the top – with all those grunts – and subtle in many ways. He doesn’t shy away from making Turner seem ugly and petty – but also shows his other side. It’s a remarkably complex piece of work – deserving of its prize at Cannes back in May.

8. Ben Affleck in Gone Girl
I’m not quite sure why I seem to be the only one who thinks that Affleck’s performance in Gone Girl is the equal to that of Rosamund Pike’s. Perhaps it’s because Affleck makes the performance look so effortless – that he never seems to be doing anything – because his character is completely clueless as to what is going on, who he is married to, and why everyone seems to think he is such an asshole. It is a role tailor made for Affleck’s skill set – it mirrors his own life in some superficial ways, and Affleck gets that, and plays the role perfectly. Affleck has always been at his best the less he tries to do – like in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, where Malick cast him for his physicality more than anything else. Here, he brilliantly plays a man who quite simply has no idea what the fuck is going on –and what he’s gotten himself into. It is one of the most underrated performances of the year.

7. Steve Carrel in Foxcatcher
Steve Carrel becomes the embodiment of rich, entitlement in Foxcatcher. From the beginning, he uses his slumped shoulders and flat, pinched, nasal voice to suggest a damaged man. Because he is rich, his increasingly erratic behavior is passed off as merely eccentric. Everyone wants his money, so they simply don’t challenge him on anything. But his mental issues go far deeper than simple eccentricity – he’s a dangerous man from the beginning, and his snapping is inevitable, even if when it comes it seems somewhat anti-climactic. Carrel doesn’t overplay his characters mental illness – he stays in control of his character without going over the top. He is chilling from the beginning as this man who will destroy everything that he loves. He wants what he wants – and he intends to get it. And if he chooses to destroy it, so be it. He paid for it after all.

6. Haluk Bilginer in Winter Sleep
Perhaps the most unsung of all the great performances this year – Haluk Bilgnier delivers an performance of grand self-delusion, pretension and condescension. He plays a rich man, who wanders around his beautiful mountaintop hotel, and has to deal with the locals – because he owns most of their houses as well. He thinks of himself as a great man – but he’s really an asshole, but doesn’t realize this until the very end of the movie, if at all. The showcase scenes are two very long conversations he has – one with his sister, and one with his wife, with his true nature is laid bare by the women, and he responds in petty, petulant arguments. But he is just as great in the films quieter moments as well. Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year – but it easily could have taken the Best Actor prize as well.

5. Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher
Of the three main characters in Foxcatcher, I think Tatum has the most complex role, and yet has garnered the least amount of praise or awards attention. The story of Foxcatcher is his story – the film opens and closes with Tatum by himself, getting ready to head out into the ring (at the beginning, to practice with his brother, at the end in a bitterly uninspiring moment of faux-patriotism at a mixed martial arts match). Tatum probably says less in the movie than Carrel, or even Ruffalo, even though he is the main character. He keeps everything close to the vest – he tries very hard to impress others – first his brother, and then his new mentor – but he can never find the right words. His story here is one of momentary triumph, followed by a long slide downwards. Tatum has never been asked to play a role this complex before – this subtle – and he shows just how brilliant he can be in that role. I loved all of the performances in Foxcatcher – but I think Tatum’s is the best of the bunch.

4. David Oyelowo in Selma
One of the hardest things to do as an actor is play an icon like Martin Luther King, not as an icon, but as a real, living, breathing person – and that is precisely what David Oyelowo does in Selma. He nails the “big” moments in the film – the numerous speeches and sermons in the film (that had to be written – as King’s speeches are apparently copyrighted material) – and he holds court and the screen for minutes on end with his fiery rhetoric. But he has handles the quieter, human moments – like the masterful confrontation between him and his wife, when she discovers she has cheated on her. This is quiet scene – no fireworks, no yelling – just a married couple having a quietly intense moment, including a masterful 10 second or more pause. Oyelowo doesn’t get caught in the trap of being so in awe of King that he becomes nothing but an icon. He makes King into a person, first and foremost, and delivers a stirring, stunning performance.

3. Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice
Joaquin Phoenix’s role in Inherent Vice is deceptively complex. He seems like an affable stoner when we first meet him – a P.I. lost in a constant haze of pot smoke. He is a hippie, who embodies both the promise of the 1960s – as well as the rot and cynicism that eventually sunk into the movement. The role requires a lot from Phoenix – at times, he is doing slapstick comedy, at other times he turns dark, even while he still seems to be that same affable stoner – the good guy in a story full of bad guys. Nothing is as simple as it seems in Inherent Vice – and nowhere is that more relevant than it is in Phoenix’s performance. This is the third year in a row where Phoenix has delivered one of the very best performances of the year – following his brilliant work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Spike Jonze’s Her. All three performances share some things in common – his characters are haunted by love, trying to connect to someone else. But all three performances are wildly different as well – hitting different, distinctive notes in each. This is why Phoenix may just be the most fascinating actor working in American movies today.

2. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler
Gyllenhaal has been slowly, but surely, upping his game in the last few years – giving great performances in two Denis Villeneuve performances over the past two years – as the cop full of nervous ticks in Prisoners, and in a dual role in Enemy. As great as both of those performances are, they still pale in comparison to his work in Nighcrawler. Yes, Gyllenhaal plays a psychopath in Nightcrawler – but he isn’t one that feels the need to commit violence himself – nor does he get off on the violence he sees night in and night out on the streets of LA where he works as a freelance videographer, taking true crime video – the bloodier the ever. He really represents the attitude of corporations under capitalism – morality be damned, he just wants to make money. He finds ways to get under the skin of everyone else – he speaks with a cold, calculated voice – and what he says sounds psychotic, even though it’s basically just corporate speak. His scene with Russo in a restaurant – where he blackmails/seduces the older woman – just to have even more on her, is chilling – as are his actions near the end. The films insights into the news industry are true – but obvious. What the film says about capitalism – and those who are great at it – or even better, and Gyllenhaal is a big reason why. The best work to date, by an actor I feel is getting better all the time.

1. Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson does something with Ralph Fiennes that no one has really done before – he has allowed him to be funny, and in doing so, he has actually given Fiennes his best screen role to date. His M. Gustave is much more complicated than his surfaces suggests – much like the movie itself. In some ways, he seems like a shallow, superficial character, whose action border on the criminal – someone who sleeps with old ladies as a way to get money. Yet, he is also an honorable character – he believes in something – in being civil, in treating people with respect. He has a code, and he sticks with it right to the end, even when it becomes painfully clear his way of doing things has past – perhaps even before Gustave himself came along. Fiennes delivers a performance that hits these different notes –one that can be zany and full of physical comedy one second, and then take on tragic dimensions the next. There have been quite a few great performances in Anderson movies over the years – I had long since thought no one would surpass Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums. With this performance, Fiennes does.

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