Monday, January 26, 2015

2014 Year End Report: Top Ten Leading Actresses Performances

For as much talk as there was about how weak this year was in this category – I actually think it was a strong year – you just had to search a little harder.

Runners-Up: Emily Foxler in Coherence had the most complex role in the film, and she really takes over in the final minutes Alexa Havins & Alexia Rasmussen in Proxy anchored their two separate halves in this disturbing film, creating two completely different, but completely disturbed characters. Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure is great as a woman whose life is turned completely upside down by a cowardly act by her husband. Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac Volume I gets the movie off to a good start, and then anchors the lighter, more fun first volume with her excellent work. Elisabeth Moss in The One I Love has a lot of fun in this inventive romantic comedy/drama. Emmanuelle Segnier in Venus in Fur owns the screen in Roman Polanski’s latest – sexy, smart, funny and strong in equal measure. Hilary Swank in The Homesman is great, in her best role in years, whose shocking act in the second act comes out of nowhere – yet makes complete sense in retrospect. Tessa Thompson in Dear White People should be a star making performance – she’s smart, funny, sexy and handles the screenplays sudden twists very well.  Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida is quiet and observant, who displays a lot, by staying still. Robin Wright in The Congress creates a wonderful, complex character in the midst of this mess of a movie.

Top Ten
10. Jenny Slate in Obvious Child
Jenny Slate carries Obvious Child, one of the most indie comedies of the year. She plays an immature, Brooklyn based 20-something, who works at a book store (for the time being), does the occasional stand up set, for free, and has just broken up with her boyfriend. Looking for some rebound sex, she finds it, than finds herself pregnant. She decides to get an abortion –and never changes her mind. Trying to make a character this immature likable – especially since abortion is still largely taboo in American movies (especially comedies) – would have been hard – but Slate does it with room to spare. Her performance here is warm, funny and extremely sympathetic. And she does learn something from the experience – the difference between the quality of her standup at the beginning and the end is huge – I could never see the woman with the act she goes on with early making it big – it’s an average routine, well delivered. By the end, she is a potential star in the making. So is Slate.

9. Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac
For the third time in recent years, Gainsbourg is given a lead role in a Lars von Trier – and knocks it out of the park. It’s not her best work – that would be Antichrist, but it’s a step up from Melancholia (where Gainsbourg is great, in not that well written of a role). In Nymphomaniac, she has a difficult role – she plays a woman who has spent her life having a lot of sex – who is recounting her story, judging herself, and trying to figure out what to do next – all the while, she has to contend with Stellan Skarsgaard’s ever weird listener. She has more notes to play than Stacy Martin, who plays the Young Joe, because Gainsbourgh covers more ground – more partners, more strange sex act. As with everything she has done for Trier, Gainsbourg throws herself into with gusto – and pretty much carries the film. There are a lot of strange curves in the film – lots of places where the film could fly off the rails, but Gainsbourgh keeps things on course. It’s another great performance by Gainsbourg for Trier – one of the best director-actor combos in recent years.

8. Reese Witherspoon in Wild
Witherspoon’s performance in Wild is a return to form for her – a return to the edgier roles she used to play before she got lost in a thousand romantic comedies. As a Cheryl Strayed, a woman reeling from the death of her beloved mother, who spiraled down into drug use and promiscuity, ruining her marriage – who decides the only way back to her life is to hike 1,000 of the PCT; Witherspoon delivers her best performance in years. Cheryl is not a perfect woman – she is at times not even all that sympathetic, as she really has no one to blame but herself for how screwed up her life has become – and Witherspoon doesn’t shy away from those aspects of the character. Yet, she also does make us like this woman – admire her determination and drive, as she is able to get back on track. The best moments in the performance are the quietest ones. This is a great performance, which will hopefully be a sign of a next stage in Witherspoon’s career.

7. Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights
One of the most under rated performances of the year is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s great work in Beyond the Lights. She plays a Rihanna-like singer, who we first see in an over the top sexual musical video, who is struggling with her new found fame. Everyone thinks she should be happy – she has everything she has worked for – but she`s miserable – because she realizes that to the industry she is little more than a piece of meat. Through the film, she will rediscover who she wants to be, and becoming the artist she wants to be. In many ways, the film is clichéd – but it works because of Mbatha-Raw’s amazing performance. She can sing, and her best moments are often musical ones, but there is a lot else to this performance. This performance should have made her into a star – she’s going to be one anyway. This is a great performance in a movie far too few people saw. She was fine in Belle earlier this year­

6. Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night/ The Immigrant
Since winning an Oscar back in 2007 for her breakthrough role in La Vie En Rose, Marion Cotillard has continued to deliver one quality performance after another. This year featured two of her best to date. Premiering at the 2013 Cannes Festival, and making its way to theaters a year later, James Gray’s The Immigrant is a heartbreaking and beautiful movie – in which Cotillard delivers a breathtaking performance as a woman who wants to live an honest life, and instead slowly slips into prostitution. She is perhaps even better in the Dardenne Brothers Two Days, One Night – which premiered at this year’s Cannes – in which she plays a factory worker who has the weekend to try and convince her co-workers to vote to keep her employed, at the price of them not getting their own bonuses. It is, again, a heartbreaking role – one that essentially puts Cotillard through the same humiliating scene over and over again, with slight changes. The best work may be at the end, which you could take however you want – and which Cotillard doesn’t strain to give import to. Both are excellent performances, for excellent directors, by Cotillard, who continues to be one of my favorite working actresses.

5. Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
In Her, Scarlett Johansson played the disembodied voice of a computer operating system trying to learn all she can about humanity. In Under the Skin, she again plays a non-human character who is confused about humanity. Yet, while there is that superficial similarity between the performances, they really couldn’t be more different. Here, she plays an character who cruises the streets of Scotland, picking up young men for what we assume is sex – although eventually we will see what see is really doing to them. These scenes were shot on the fly – with Johansson knowing what is going on, but the men not. Later, the movie will move into a more traditional narrative, and Johansson will change her performance. Much of the time, she seems to be a blank slate – a woman who is observing everything, but only understanding a little. That may sound like she isn’t doing very much – but it’s actually quite difficult to pull off. She holds our attention, often by doing little. It is a great performance by an actress who seems to be entering the most interesting phase of her career.

4. Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is about two vampires who have been observing humanity for centuries. The male, played by Tom Hiddleson, has become jaded and cynical – and really hates humanity for everything they have screwed up. And then there is Tilda Swinton, who plays his partner, deeply in love with him, but who couldn’t be more different. She loves humanity, because of all the things they have created. It’s easier to be jaded about people – harder to love them. Swinton is, once again, stunningly beautiful and ambiguous in the role – she seems to reinvent herself with each turn, and here she anchors a movie that could have gone off into cynicism, and brings it back to a very human place. She’s the beautiful heart of the movie. Swinton always picks the most interesting roles, in the most interesting films, by the most interesting filmmakers. Here, she delivers one of her best performances – in what could just be Jarmusch’s best film. It isn’t a performance that knocks you flat immediately – like Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, or even this year’s Snowpiercer. Instead, like the movie itself, it grows in your mind for days, weeks and months after watching.

3. Anne Dorval in Mommy
Dorval is probably best known for playing another bad mommy in a Xavier Dolan film – her great work in her breakthrough, I Killed My Mother. But her performance in Mommy is much better – much less of a monster, and more of an understandable woman who both loves and hates her son, and has no idea how to raise him. Dorval is a middle aged woman struggling just to make ends meet – her son is off in a hospital getting treatment, but he cannot stay there much longer. What follows is a complex mother-son relationship, where the two push each other’s buttons, test each other, and try desperately to make it all work. There is nothing subtle about Mommy – or Dorval’s work in it, even if there are some great moments that are quieter than the rest of the performance (like her final scene with Suzanne Clement – which is stunning in its simplicity). For the most part though, Dorval holds nothing back – making her character a flawed, yet understandable woman, who does things we may not approve of, but that make complete sense.

2. Luminita Gheorghiu in Child’s Pose
As an upper class woman who wants to control her every aspect of her son’s life, Luminita Gheorghiu delivers one of the best, most unsung performances of the year. When the movie opens, her adult son has told her that he needs her space from her – that he wants to live his own life, and there is nothing she can do to stop that. Then he gets into an accident, killing a poor child, and she’s jumps back into his life – controlling his every interaction with the police, hiring a lawyer, trying to bribe a witness who could be a problem for him. But she also uses it to weasel her way back into every other aspect of his life as well – including a superb scene between her and her son’s girlfriend, which is truly disturbing. She is a woman who has put blinders on to all those around her – she cannot pretend to care about her maid’s problems for example. Her constant presence has essentially ensured that her son will always remain a child. And yet, Gheorghiu is not a one note monster – it’s actually a remarkably subtle performance – and one that deserves to be seen by far more people than have seen it so far.

1. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
The role of Amazing Amy is one of the best female roles in American movies in recent years – hell it’s one of the best period, which is why every actress in Hollywood seemed to be up for the role at one point or another. Fincher surprised many by picking Pike – but she ended up picking the perfect actress for it. Pike is stunningly beautiful – who is able to do convey a lot in the early scenes of the movie, without really doing much. She plays these scenes well – superficially she looks like a sympathetic victim, but if you look a little closer, you see that she’s really a blank slate (something that comes through on a second viewing more – or if you’re looking for it because you know what is coming). In the second half, where it becomes clear that she is the “villain” of the movie, and she goes full psychopath she is even better – and it’s because she never goes over the top with Amy, no matter what her behavior looks like. She is always in control, always thinking, always plotting. Her righteous anger at Nick is fully justified in her mind – and she plays that wonderfully well. She is logical to a fault – cold to a certain degree, but she doesn’t see herself that way. She is, to some a feminist icon, because her frustration is more universal than people want to admit. But she is a calm, cool, psychopath – that beautiful face masking deeper, darker thoughts. This is a brilliant performance by Pike – a star making one, for an actress who has been doing solid work for nearly a decade, and only now getting the role to show just how good she can be.

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