Runners-Up: Riz Ahmed in Nightcrawler makes a good foil for Gyllenhaal- trying desperately to play the conscience for a character that has none. Neil Patrick Harris in Gone Girl is excellently creepy as a man who could only exist in the deranged world of the movie. Vlad Ivanov in Child’s Pose has one stunning scene – in which he adds another sleazy bad guy to his resume. Gene Jones in The Sacrament is another character actor finally given a chance to shine – this time as a cult leader. Ben Mendolsohn in Starred Up is great as a horrible father in prison, who tries to be a little bit better when his son gets sent to the same prison. Gary Poulter in Joe is convincing in the extreme as a drunken, abusive father in David Gordon Green’s dark drama. Matthias Schoenaerts in The Drop is excellent as the type of character who could seemingly do anything at any point – which makes him all the scarier. Martin Short in Inherent Vice doesn’t have much time, but is great when he is there – showing a way directors to use him in the future. Stellan Skarsgaard in Nymphomaniac is as damaged as the heroine in Lars von Trier’s epic, but doesn’t realize that until after he has doomed himself.
Top Ten10. Patrick d'Assumçao in Stranger by the Lake
As the sad sack man, who sits alone, by himself watching the gay men on the pickup beach, Patrick d'Assumçao is the quiet heart of the film. He says he isn’t gay, he just likes to watch the water – but there are other places he could go. But here, he’s not by himself. He befriends the lead character, who will become involved with another man on the beach who may or may not be a murderer – but the love story of the film is between the main character and d'Assumçao – they share a deeper, emotional connection that the other characters – who are just after sex – simply do not. This is a quiet performance, one that never spells anything out – we don’t see him in his normal life, just what he’s like on that beach – yearning for a connection of some kind. It is a quiet study in loneliness that is heartbreaking.
9. James Gandolfini in The DropThe final performance of James Gandolfini’s career is one of his best in movies. His character here is kind of the flip side of his work as Tony Soprano – Soprano really was a big time gangster, while his performance here is as a man who wants to be a big time gangster. He once was someone – but he got scared, backed down and sold out – and now spends his days regretting it. He sets everything in motion in The Drop – but it isn’t a particularly great plan, and it’s destined to come crashing down around him. His character here really is rather pathetic – a petty man willing to do anything to be a big shot, except the actual work. This is a quiet, understated performance by Gandolfini – there is weariness in his bones here, as he goes down the path of no return. Along with his even better work in last year’s Enough Said, The Drop is a sad reminder of just how great an actor we lost, far too soon. He was finally getting the film roles to match his TV roles when he sadly died. One of the great, underrated performances of the year.
8. Martin Savage in Mr. TurnerMartin Savage is excellent as Turner’s rival Haydon, who pretty much despises Turner, and has that feeling reciprocated, and yet isn’t too proud to ask for money – or to try and pay it back. Savage does the nearly impossible in the film, which is really only a handful of scenes, in that he suggests a completely different movie, centered on him, that is playing out off-screen that would be just as interesting as the one we are seeing. Haydon has the temperament of a genius, but unlike Turner, he is not universally loved – basically because he is a loose cannon, who refuses to kneel down in front of the establishment. Savage may not be in the movie very much – but he is one of the most memorable supporting characters in a film full of them.
7. Jonathan Pryce in Listen Up PhilipJonathan Pryce plays a thinly veiled version of Philip Roth in Listen Up Philip – a brilliant writer, now later in life, who made his name in the 1960s and 1970s, and has continued living his life much like his self-involved characters have done. He has alienated everyone in his life – blaming them for everything of course. He even hates his own daughter, who wants to connect with him, but he cannot be bothered. She’s just another bloodsucker, leeching off his greatness. When he meets the title character, he sees himself as a younger man – and takes it upon himself to teach him everything he knows about being a writer – which is basically to be the biggest asshole you can. If you’re great enough, you can get away with it. Pryce plays a monster in the film – but it’s a sad, pathetic monster.
6. Tyler Perry in Gone GirlTyler Perry takes a lot of shots for his movies (in the course of one week this year, I heard his films mocked in Chris Rock’s Top Five and Justin Simien’s Dear White People) – and most of them are well deserved, as his films are easy, simple minded and just plain dull – and he directs them as if he’s going through the motions. Yet no one should really be surprised that Perry is capable of being a great actor – especially in a role like the one he plays in Gone Girl, which pretty much a fast ball down the middle of the plate. Perry nails the role – he is charming and cynical, and yet he isn’t as sleazy as most defense lawyers in movies usually are – he is, in fact, the most normal person in the movie, who gets to say the film’s single best line that most of the audience is probably thinking at the same time. If I were to make a list of the actors I would cast here, Perry would never have sprung to mind for me – but after seeing his perfect performance, I cannot imagine anyone else here. Yes, Tyler Perry is great in a movie – that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but it is.
5. Edward Norton in BirdmanEdward Norton has a reputation for being a difficult actor – this could explain why even though in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he looked like he may become the next “great American actor”, his career somewhat stalled a little bit amid rumors and stories of his difficult behavior. Knowing all this, it is somewhat daring of Norton to take on his role in Birdman – in which he plays, you guessed it, an actor equally known for being brilliant and difficult. Like Keaton in the film, he is required to do quite a bit of dramatic work, but also a fair amount of physical comedy as well – and Norton responds by delivering the best performance in the movie, and his best performance in quite some time. Hopefully, this gets him back into some people’s good graces because even if he is difficult – he is capable of doing what few actors working today can. And Birdman is proof.
4. Josh Brolin in Inherent ViceJosh Brolin’s performance in Inherent Vice starts out very broad and comedic – and remains so for much of the movie, with scene after scene of him, with his flat top, his direct demeanor, and his anger rising up as he verbally and physically abuses the main character. But something strange happens as the movie moves along –and Brolin’s performance gets deeper as well, and his connection with Joaquin Phoenix becomes more complex than we ever expected it to be. This character, who first seemed like little more than a brilliantly realized caricature, becomes the strange, complex heart of the movie – his connection to Phoenix running deeper, and bringing to mind the complex relationship at the heart of Anderson’s last film, The Master. Brolin has struggled in the last few years to find the right roles – being miscast in films like Labor Day, or being stuck in horrible films like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. But Inherent Vice is a reminder of just how brilliant he can be – both at being broad, and impossibly subtle, at the same time. It’s one of his very best performances.
3. Ethan Hawke in BoyhoodEthan Hawke has made several films with Richard Linklater over the years – most notably, the three “Before” films with Julie Delphy, which showed how a relationship changes over time. The two have always been on the same wavelength, which is why Hawke has done his best work with Linklater. In Boyhood, both have done the best work of their career. For this role, Hawke goes from an absent father – working in Alaska and not seeing his kids for months at a time, into a somewhat irresponsible father – one who wants to be “friends” with his kids, not their parent, and finally into an actual adult (although, a friendly one). It’s a transition that feels natural in Hawke’s hands, who naturally grows slightly older, slightly chubbier, slightly calmer, and slightly more mature year by year. Hawke doesn’t do anything flashy in the role – which is precisely why it works so well, and is so brilliant. This is natural acting at its best – he never forces anything, and never hits a wrong note. Hawke has never been better.
2. Mark Ruffalo in FoxcatcherMark Ruffalo’s performance in Foxcatcher is a quiet one. He plays the third part of a bizarre love triangle, involving his brother (Channing Tatum) and his mentor (Steve Carell). After a brilliant opening scene – where Ruffalo and Tatum show you everything you need to know about the relationship between the two brothers without saying a word – he disappears for much of the movie, showing up at the spacious estate only after things have turned to shit between Tatum and Carell. It’s there where Ruffalo does his best work. His Dave Schultz is a lovable, hulking bear of a man – charming and likable, and unlike the other two characters, capable of living a normal life – with a wife and kids. But Dave isn’t entirely innocent either – he is certainly looking out for himself – a scene where he subtly sells out his brother, while seeming to support him, and antagonizing Carell, while seemingly giving into him, is brilliant. Ruffalo has always been a fine actor – but he has outdone himself here, in an almost impossibly subtle, but powerful, performance.
1. J.K. Simmons in WhiplashJ.K. Simmons has been doing great work as a character actor for more than 20 years – and very rarely been given the credit he deserves. His work in Whiplash is undeniably the best of his career – as he finally gets a role that makes the most of his immense talent. As a teacher at a prestigious music college, Simmons is terrifying in the way he is able to break down his students, and push them farther than they think they can go. He can be scary when he is yelling or throwing things at his students, but even more so in the quiet moments, when we can sense he is about to explode. Was there anything more terrifying in a film this year than him saying “That’s not my tempo”? Simmons rips into his role, and leaves the other actors struggling to keep up with him – he owns the screen, and creates one of the most interesting characters of the year in one of its great performances. A truly astonishing performance that ends up going a lot deeper than it first appears like it will.