Tuesday, January 15, 2019

2018 Year End Report: Best Actor

A very good year this year for this category – with great performances coming from all sorts of films. Some fine work that didn’t make my top 10 include: Christian Bale in Vice is brilliant as Dick Cheney – pretty much saving the movie from its smug core. Steve Buscemi in The Death of Stalin who did his best film work in years, playing a smart, conniving hilarious, profane, Brooklyn Khrushchev. Jacob Cedergren in The Guilty is pretty much the only face we see for the entire runtime of the film, and he anchors this intense thriller brilliantly. John Cho in Searching does an excellent job anchoring this film this thriller in a real emotional reality. Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting anchors the film with a fine performance, and gets to show off his verbal dexterity to boot. Dogu Demirkol in The Wild Pear Tree is excellent as the angry, young asshole who is so confident at the beginning of the film, and becomes slowly disillusioned. Clint Eastwood in The Mule is both having a blast, and digs a little deeper into that famed persona in what well could be his acting swansong. Paul Giamatti in Private Life plays what is undeniably the “Paul Giamatti” role here – but he does it so well, you don’t care. Daniel Gimenez Cacho in Zama had a very difficult job, anchoring Martel’s very difficult film, and making a real character out of the title role. Ryan Gosling in First Man was so quiet and understated, he almost appears to be sleeping at times, but that’s all to better understand Armstrong. Lucas Hedges in Ben is Back is in top form, helping to elevate the movie, as a teenager struggling with addiction. John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind gives a performance like only he could – perhaps he’s playing a version of Orson Welles, but he makes it his own. Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk is wonderful as both the romantic lead, and the tragic figure of injustice. Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete has the central role, and has to be the emotional anchor, in Haigh’s American road movie – and does so wonderfully well. Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun coasts on that old Redford charm – but what charm, and a perfect swan song for a legend.
10. Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
So, yes, the 60-year-old Willem Dafoe is about 25 years too old to play Vincent Van Gogh, who died in his mid-30s, but it pretty much becomes a non-issue immediately in Julian Schnabel’s film about the last months of Van Gogh’s life. Dafoe is brilliant as the man who was confident in his art, and how to pursue it, and an absolute mess in every other aspect of his life – having troubled relationships with everyone around him, and struggling with his own mental illness that no one – not even himself – truly understood. Dafoe has gone through a renaissance in the last few years – he should have won an Oscar for The Florida Project last year, and this is another performance that reaches close to his career highs of Platoon, The Last Temptation of Christ and Shadow of the Vampire.
9. Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You
Sorry to Bother You is such a strange movie, one where every frame is full of visual jokes, and the dialogue just keeps flying at you, often with multiple meanings in each line. It truly is a crazed, crazy film. Which is why Stanfield is so great in the film, because no matter what writer/director Boots Riley is up to on a scene to scene basis, Stanfield is keeping the film grounded and relatable. His character is basically a sellout – a man who will do anything to get ahead, and yet he makes the character so real, that he is also the audience surrogate into the craziness going on around him. He gets what he deserves to a certain extent – his character isn’t a hero – but because we relate to him so much, it hurts when it gets there. That’s the genius of this performance.
8. Nicolas Cage in Mandy
Nicolas Cage really has no one but himself to blame that he has become a punchline to many. His financial problems have pretty much made it mandatory that he take on any and every role he can get, and when directors cast him now, they want the BIG Nicolas Cage, that is so instantly meme-able. It can sometimes be easy to not remember just how damn good Cage can be in the right movie – even when he goes over the top. Mandy begins at over-the-top and then just keeps going and going and going – I cannot think of another actor other than Cage who could possibly keep up with this movie, constantly deliver how big the gets – and still make you feel this character’s pain and torment. Cage is a legend – and Mandy is another reason why. Make fun of him if you want – no one else can do what he does (for better or worse).
7. Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting
Hamilton breakout star Daveed Diggs, shows just how multitalented he is, co-writing and starring in Blindspotting, and giving one of the most memorable performances of the year. As an Oakland man, trying to rebuild his life after getting out of jail – and serving the final days of his probation – Diggs has to confront a rapidly gentrifying Oakland, and keep his white friend in check, all while dealing with the underlying, subtle racism that surrounds him. His entire performance is great – the screenplay gives him a lot of language to deal with, which he does brilliantly – but it’s the unconventional end of the film that really allows Diggs an opportunity to show just how great he is. Diggs is making the best of his shot.
6. John David Washington in BlackKklansman
John David Washington is sneakily quite good in BlacKkKlansman – so much so, that I don’t think I truly appreciated what he did the first time through the movie, despite how much I loved the movie as a whole. He is charming and funny throughout the film – he codeswitches effortlessly throughout as well. He allows the anger inside of him to slowly build, and come out only at the best times. And best of all, like his father, he has that brilliant smile – and he holds it back throughout the whole film, just to unleash it at precisely the right time. There is a lot more subtly to this performance than I realized the first time through – the second time through, I was blown away.
5. Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born
To be fair, Cooper stacks the deck for himself in this movie as a director and screenwriter, as more than the other versions of this story, his character is the most complex character in the movie, not the younger woman he falls for. But Cooper, who has become one of the best actors working, still had to deliver – and he does so here. This is a movie star performance – one where his charisma pours out in every frame, and that is necessary to keep you with him throughout the film, and understand why everyone else stays as well. It also allows him to devastate you down the stretch when he needs to. Cooper has always been a movie star who can act – and here, he delivers the best of both of those worlds into what may be his finest performance.
4. Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
Ben Foster has always been an intense actor – often brilliantly, but often he seemed to chew the scenery as much as act. In the past few years, he has grown as an actor, channeling that intensity into subtler, interior performances – none better than his work in Leave No Trace. Here, he plays a military vet, haunted by his service, and who just wants to be left alone. The only problem is he is also a single dad, raising a teenage daughter – in the forest, off the grid. When he is dragged back to society, he barely says anything, he shrinks into himself, and only allows himself to be seen by his daughter – that bond driving the whole movie. Foster is brilliant here, particularly as he plays a man who will do anything for his daughter – except the only thing she truly needs from him. It is a quiet, heartbreaking performance.
3. Ah-In Yoo in Burning
Ah-In Yoo is in every scene of Burning – the whole movie being from his point-of-view – and it is a brilliant performance. In the beginning, he’s playing a guy smitten by the new girl in his life, but never really understanding who she is. Then, he becomes jealous and jilted, when she shows up with a new guy – and becomes a petty man. Finally, he becomes a detective of sorts, trying so hard to figure out what happened, and never understanding – the more he examines, the less clearly he sees things. Ah-In Yoo is smart enough to let the other principles in the movie take over occasionally – although it’s clear we aren’t seeing them as they are, but how he sees them. In the end, he has destroyed whoever he once was, and still doesn’t really know the truth. He is one of the great, tragic character of the year – and Ah-In Yoo’s performance is one of the very best of the year.
2. Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a director’s tour-de-force, a film stripped to the bone in terms of plot mechanics and even dialogue. As such, she relies heavily on Phoenix, giving one of his very best performances, to do the heavy lifting to explain who Joe is – without ever really explaining it at all. It is a largely silent performance, with Phoenix diving into deeper and darker aspects of his psyche as the movie goes along – a man whose life has been one violent incident after another after another, for the entire time – until he decides to hit back. He is playing a version of Travis Bickle – but without the explanatory interior monologues. Phoenix has always been a risk taking actor – and in the past decade he has turned himself into perhaps our best working actor going right now (assuming Daniel Day-Lewis really is retired). That his performance here is as good as it is – and is still not as good as his work in The Master (and maybe even Inherent Vice) – tells you something.
1. Ethan Hawke in First Reformed
The best performance of the year, in any category, was Ethan Hawke’s career best work in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – and as many great performances as there were, this wasn’t even close. Playing a Priest, already reeling from loss in his own, pre-ordained life – who has been going through the motions at what is essentially a tourist church – not one he has to do much but give tours, he is knocked for a loop when he is actually called upon to do some counselling. His conversation with the man about global warming – and the morality of bringing a child into this world – would normally be the highlight of the film – but here, it just keeps going even more intense places. Hawke, trying his best to both keep it together, and do what is moral, is a classic Schrader protagonist (this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ for Scorsese, and a host of similar roles for his own directing efforts) – and Hawke makes it his own. It is a challenging performance, and one that marks the best work yet of Hawke’s increasing great career. Really, one of the very best performances of the decade.

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