Thursday, December 29, 2016

25 Best Acting Performances of 2014

  1. Ralph Fiennes, Grand Budapest Hotel: The centerpiece of Wes Anderson’s best received film to date is a sublime comic creation and one of those unique characters whose iconic stature should be remembered for years if there’s any justice. He’s unapologetically shameless in the lengths he’ll go to to please a client and his emotional core develops as the film goes on through his relationship with Zero. It’s a high-water mark for Fiennes as well who, just the other day, The Film Experience was asking to resounding choruses how it could possible be that 20 years have passed with an Oscar nomination for this uber-talented actor.  .
  2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl: Pike reconciles both ends of the dichotomy of a woman in love by playing the extremes-- sugary/sweet and vengeful/bitter- with delicious wickedness. Just like Fiennes’ performance, Pike’s work here is indisputably a game changer.
  3. Julianne Moore, Still Alice: While Moore’s Oscar win is a recognition of her great career as well, there’s little doubt that she at least deserved to be in the conversation for her thoroughly researched role of a woman in Alzheimer’s. Without Moore making the character so engaging, this film would have been a snoozefest designed to win someone an Oscar. With Moore at center, her acutely-felt awareness of her degradation gives the movie the feel of a psychological thriller.
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch, Imitation Game: In his portrayal of severely anti-social mathematician Alan Turing, Cumberbatch allows us to empathize with someone who is nearly devoid of feelings. And he was a lot of fun to watch on the awards circuit.
  5. Reese Witherspoon, Wild: It would be dismissive of the last decade to call this film Witherspoon’s graduation from a rom-com-centered ingenue to a grown-up, but it’s fair to say she has never had a role so demanding and the way she makes so many solo scenes engaging says a lot about her capabilities.
  6. Brendan Gleeson, Calvary:Gleeson stars as a priest in a small Irish town, whose congregation has regressed so far morally that when he receives a death threat, he has no idea who it’s from. His pensiveness and jaded interaction with the townsfolk carries the movie’s somber aura.
  7. JK Simmons, Whiplash: Simmons deservedly won a best supporting actor here for his intensity and the sheer uniqueness of his creation. The “what makes this character tick” question is just enigmatic enough that the film’s twists have enough room to surprise us.
  8. Miles Teller, Whiplash: By contrast, Simmons owes plenty of his Oscar to the quality of his scene partner. Andrew’s descent into artistic obsession is filtered through a timid teenager wrestling with being comfortable in his own skin. Teller portrays both parts of the character with the adeptness of someone twice his age.
  9. Ed Norton,Birdman: Looking back nearly two years after seeing the film, I can barely remember any of the performances. It was such an ensemble film that none of the  performances really were able to escape the conformity of the group effort and the acting felt oversahdowed by the razzle of the camera tricks anyway. The sole exceptions were Norton and the one-scene wonder of the critic (was it Lindsey Duncan? I’ll have to double check the credits). The temperamental actor is a standard but not one who would initially turn down sex with Emma Stone or punch someone else in his underwear. There were a lot of odd specificities that powered this film.
  10. Keira Knightley, Imitation Game: I know it would be reductive to call a brilliant thinker like Joan Clark “plucky,” but that really is the first word to come to mind when thinking of Knightley’s portrayal. It’s why you can understand how Clark could deftly navigate her way through a boy’s club or convince a gay man to abandon his better judgement and propose to her. It’s been a great year for Knightley and she got her long-overdue second nomination here.
  11. Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes: As I started watching this film, I was thinking of how refreshing it would be to see Waltz play someone other than a maniacal villain. Boy, was I wrong….
  12. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl: Coon and Affleck nail down the easygoing ebb and flow of siblings so well that they seem more natural together than Casey and Ben did on the press tour for “Gone Baby Gone.” Coon also nails certain moments of revulsion, whether at her brother or his wife.
  13. Alec Baldwin, Still Alice: Playing the significant other or other loved one trying to maintain steadiness while a loved one suffers is not always easy to do. It has won Alicia Vikander, Jennifer Connelly, Brenda Fricker and countless other women Oscars or nominations. It has been rare, however, to see a man go through a caretaker role like this. Baldwin’s approach from a masculine perspective was an interesting take: It was more externally quiet.
  14. Mark Ruffalo, Begin Again: At this point, Ruffalo has three Oscar nominations which is quite a lot for an actor who squints his way through some of his most difficult scenes. This performance, however, really hits home. Ruffalo’s character here is a wide-eyed (a character with less squinting is good news for this guy!)  dreamer inside a jaded record executive and, in this fairy-tale-like story, we are sure invested in seeing that wide-eyed dreamer reemerge. When he smiles or jaunts around the city with Keira Knightley, or figures out the logistics of a musical number, it’s electric.
  15. Chris Dowd, Calvary: This isn’t the baby-faced dreamboat from “Bridesamaids” you’ve grown to love. In a short amount of screen time, Dowd stands out among the cast of lowlives in the “Who wants to murder the priest” sweepstakes.
  16. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer: I not only love the uniquely enthusiastic regime enforcer Swinton creates here. I also love how a non-traditional-Oscar-bait role from an even less traditional film made so many dents in the Awards season.
  17. David Oyelowo, Selma-Sorry #Oscarssowhite protesters, I have to agree with the Academy. This performance had a good gravity to it, but wasn’t up there with the best of the year. I'm sure this guy will make it sooner or later though.
  18. Ben Affleck, Gone Girl: It takes two to tango and Affleck is particularly eclectic when Nick starts figuring out Amy’s game and playing by her rules.
  19. Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher: To be clear, I found this movie excruciatingly boring. Frankly, I would have been more surprised by a revelation that a multi-millionaire  volunteering to let a bunch of Olympic athletes wrestle in his house wasn’t doing it for inappropriate reasons. Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that amid all this Oscar bait, the actors are doing what they’re supposed to pretty well. In particular, Tatum blew me away as a sensitive brute enamored with darker secrets.
  20. Keira Knightley, Begin Again-I might have moved her up a couple spots if she wasn’t so overly flowery in moments. Her relationship chemistry with Adam Levine didn’t seem entirely convincing either but she more than made up for it as one half of the cinematic year’s best platonic friendship with Mark Ruffalo. Her instant girl-bonding with Ruffalo’s daughter (played by Hailee Steinfeld) was particularly adorable as well. An additional paragraph can be written about Knightley’s musical performance here.
  21. Emily Blunt, Into the Woods-Emily Blunt had a somewhat bizarre part here with her loyalty to her husband so well established in the first half and the second half being marked by---well, no spoilers. Blunt maintains the comic and fantasical tones of the film very nicely. Blunt is well-known but I think it’s still possible to call her underrated
  22. Paddy Considine, Pride-Like “Into the Woods,” this film was a big ensemble effort. There were a lot of great performances in this film, so it’s hard to single one out. Considine, though, has one of the biggest presences in the film as Dai, one of the more elderly Welsh miners facing the cultural shock of an alliance with London’s gay community. One morning, he casually announces over breakfast to his wife that he’s not just comfortable with gays but also gay, and it’s one of the film’s most out-of-nowhere moments. It’s also, in the hands of Considine (and scene partner Imelda Staunton), one of the film's most beautiful moments. 
  23. Matthew Goode, Imitation Game-The straight man to Benedict Cumberbatch’s erratic character.
  24. Anna Kendrick, Into the Woods-Kendrick sings and dances and dresses like Cinderella! What more can you want?
  25. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar-McConaughey convincingly playing a man who’s future Earth’s smartest scientist and best pilot might be a stretch. However, he makes the list for two moments: 1) The tear-ridden scene in which he learns his daughter grows up and 2) His endearing banter with a sarcastic robot.

The one I just realized I forgot to put in: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Frank
Films I did not see that might have affected my judgment: Nightcrawler, Boyhood, American Sniper, Mr Turner, A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, 2 Days One Night

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