Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Noteworthy Performances of 2014

Here are some of the actors responsible for the great movie moments of 2014:

Actor - Leading

Alex Brendemühl, as the inquisitive and quietly menacing German expatriate who calls himself Dr. Helmut Gregor but is actually the notorious Nazi Josef Mengele, in "The German Doctor"; Rob Brydon, a master of impersonation and improvisation and a true comic genius, opposite Steve Coogan in the fall-down-funny "The Trip to Italy"; Nicolas Cage, plumbing depths of the human soul as a hot-tempered ex-con struggling to control his violent impulses amid the muck of the Deep South, in "Joe"; Bradley Cooper, finally shedding the Sexiest-Man-Alive trappings and delivering an emotionally connected performance, as American sharpshooter Chris Kyle, in "American Sniper"; Billy Crudup, as the good brother (to Clive Owen's rotter) who's spent a lifetime internalizing resentments and seeking approval from a father (James Caan) who can never provide it, in "Blood Ties"; Jesse Eisenberg, painting a memorable portrait of the collateral damage from an act of youthful idealism, as an environmental activist in "Night Moves"; Jake Gyllenhaal, as Lou Bloom, a hollow-eyed and affectless being of unknown origin who corners the L.A. morning-news market for lurid crime and accident video, in the hypnotic "Nightcrawler"; Bill Hader, with a breakout performance as a suicidal struggling actor and the twin brother of Kristen Wiig's equally suicidal dental hygienist, in "The Skeleton Twins"; Tom Hardy, as a construction foreman who sacrifices his career and marriage to do what he perceives as the right thing, in "Locke"; and, proving that quietude is far more powerful than volubility, as a barkeep at a Brooklyn mob bar in "The Drop"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose final lead performance, as German spymaster Gunter Bachmann in "A Most Wanted Man," heavy and shambling yet tinged with elegiac grace, leaves us wanting more; Oscar Isaac, commanding the screen with the intensity of the most iconic actors of the last generation, as an immigrant striving to succeed without sacrificing his integrity, in "A Most Violent Year"; Michael Keaton, as Michael Keaton, in "Birdman"; Kevin Kline, in a risky, turn-on-a-dime performance with shifts in voice modality and stream-of-consciousness connections, as an honest, witty, tortured, self-deprecating drunk, in "My Old Lady"; Johannes Bah Kuhnke, conveying the shame and insecurity in his masculinity of the craven Tomas before finally tearing down his wall of self-deceit, in "Force Majeure"; Pierre Niney, as a fashion icon who both suffers the indignity of his partner's infidelities and commits some of his own, in the frank and knowing "Yves Saint Laurent"; Eddie Redmayne, whose deeply felt embodiment of Stephen Hawking provides ultimate proof of the power of acting to overcome constraints and confinements and bring us into the interior life of a fellow human being, in "The Theory of Everything"; Jeremy Renner, driven to the edge not by paranoia but by well-grounded fear and dread of a government intent on destroying him, in the effectively enraging "Kill the Messenger"; and Timothy Spall, in a performance unlike any other on film, as a British painter who communicates primarily through wheeze, rale, eructation and porcine grunt, in "Mr. Turner."

Actress- Leading

Jennifer Aniston, walking the fine line between brittle and wry as an attorney who loses her son in a car crash that leaves her in chronic pain, mining genuine laughs from the gallows humor of "Cake"; Nina Arianda, fearless and game as a gum-popping, threat-hurtling Queens collection agent turned getaway driver, in the Italian rice ball "Rob the Mob"; Juliette Binoche, in yet another feeling performance as an ace war photographer unable to give up the thrill and purpose of her work for a more stable home life, in "1,000 Times Good Night"; Elle Fanning, showing again the remarkable ability to convey all of a young woman's pain and need and hope, as Amy, the daughter of heroin-addicted jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes), in "Low Down"; Paulina Garcia, as a wry and implacable divorcée of 58, looking for new love through her endearingly oversized glasses, in the Chilean charmer "Gloria"; Luminita Gheroghiu, dominant as a well-connected Bucharest architect who'll do, say or pay anything to keep her adult son from jail time for a drunk-driving homicide, in "Child's Pose"; Regina Hall, who gives the best female comic performance of the year as Kevin Hart's snarky, self-centered and unabashedly sexual girlfriend in the often riotously funny "About Last Night"; Isabelle Huppert, in a superb and fully committed performance as a recovering stroke victim who allows herself to become a con man's latest victim, in the financial-domination story "Abuse of Weakness"; Felicity Jones, showing the strain on Jane Hawking, but also her intelligence, fortitude and perseverance, in a performance equally integral to the portrait of a marriage that is "The Theory of Everything"; Anna Kendrick, so winning, funny and true as an overgrown party girl in Joe Swanberg's mumblecore masterpiece "Happy Christmas" that the screen fairly shimmers with her incandescence; Nicole Kidman, so often aloof and unknowable on film, conveying the heartbreaking and helpless sense of displacement and inability to trust of a perpetual amnesiac, in "Before I Go to Sleep"; Lisa Loven Kongsli, in a compelling and layered performance as Ebba, infuriated and sent into a tailspin by hubby Tomas' reaction to an oncoming avalanche, in "Force Majeure"; Shirley MacLaine, in a very funny performance as Elsa, whose speech is a web of lies and fibs, each offered instantaneously, without thought or remorse, in "Elsa & Fred"; Leslie Mann, in a bold and risk-taking comic performance that teeters on the edge of desperation without falling over, as a frumpy and cheated-on Connecticut housewife who gets revenge, in "The Other Woman"; Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, herself developmentally challenged, whose guileless and enchanting performance conveys a young woman's longing for love, in the sweet and sensitive "Gabrielle"; Julianne Moore, as the daughter of a Hollywood legend, at once a demanding diva and a profoundly needy and insecure actress, in "Maps to the Stars"; and, as a Columbia linguistics professor struck with early-onset Alzheimer's, predictably perfect, tackling her steep decline with matter-of-factness and a total lack of self-pity, in "Still Alice"; Susan Sarandon, as the alcoholic police chief of a sleepy Canadian burg, letting the years show in her face, her body, her carriage, in the procedural/religious thriller mash-up "The Calling"; Jasmine Trinca, as a registered student who minors in helping terminally ill people kill themselves, in Valeria Golino's impressive directorial debut, "Miele" ("Honey"); Reese Witherspoon, appealingly relatable and un-fussy as hiker Cheryl Strayed, who effects her own escape from the prison of her memory, in the deeply human "Wild"; and Shailene Woodley, who finally delivers a performance - strong and dignified yet restrained and subtle, and not without humor - that lives up to the hype, in the tearjerker "The Fault in Our Stars."

Actor - Supporting

Erich Bergen as keyboardist Bob Gaudio and Christopher Walken as Frankie Valli's guardian-angel Mafioso Gyp DeCarlo, in the witty and well-made "Jersey Boys"; Josh Brolin, as an LAPD detective with actorly aspirations, browbeaten at home and glad of any chance to take it out on Joaquin Phoenix; and Martin Short, funny again as a dentist hopped up on gobs of cocaine, in "Inherent Vice"; Albert Brooks, who commands such authority as Oscar Isaac's soft-spoken but straight-talking consigliere, he scores big laughs without breaking the suspenseful spell of "A Most Violent Year"; James Gandolfini, who in his last major role imparts to Cousin Marv the wisdom and resignation that both come with time, the last barely flickering embers of a once big-shot's pride, in "The Drop"; John Goodman, by now a national treasure, hilarious as a speechifying loan shark who teaches Mark Wahlberg the value of "fuck you" money, in "The Gambler"; Richard E. Grant, a marvel of put-upon sycophancy, sentenced to a life putting out Jude Law's fires, in "Dom Hemingway"; Dustin Hoffman, perfect in a five-minute dose as a restaurant owner who just wants Jon Favreau to cook the old standbys, in "Chef"; Don Johnson, stripped of all vanity and very funny as a flamboyant Texas gumshoe, in "Cold in July"; Gene Jones, as the smiling, insidious "Father" of a Jonestown-esque intentional community, in "The Sacrament"; Frank Langella, whose hilarious and no-nonsense performance as the fictional owner of the NFL's Cleveland Browns steals "Draft Day"; Nate Parker, giving a master class in maturity and quiet power that makes those around him seem undergraduate at best, in "About Alex"; Chris Pine, perfection as Cinderella's "charming, not sincere" prince, in "Into the Woods"; Om Puri, the Indian legend whose mischievous flicker in his eye lights up his war of wills with Helen Mirren, in "The Hundred-Foot Journey"; and Mark Strong, superb as a psychiatrist who takes both a personal and professional interest in Nicole Kidman, never giving away whether he's a good guy or a baddie, in "Before I Go to Sleep."

Actress - Supporting

Tess Amorim, as a blind gay high school student's kind and accommodating best friend, at once kvetch and yenta, in the funny and sweet-spirited "The Way He Looks"; Jennifer Aniston and Isla Fisher, scoring several big laughs as, respectively, the trophy wife and wise-beyond-her-years girlfriend of a self-dealing Detroit developer (Tim Robbins), in the Elmore Leonard adaptation "Life of Crime"; Patricia Arquette, whose comeback performance as a smart and determined single mother is the best thing about "Boyhood"; Sarah Baker, who has one or two hilarious scenes as the rep of a faith-based charity, opposite Reese Witherspoon's employment agent, in "The Good Lie"; Adriana Barraza, as Jennifer Aniston's indispensable maid and caretaker, giving life to a common relationship too infrequently depicted on film, in "Cake"; Jillian Bell, who creates a fresh comic character as the nosy roommate of Jonah Hill's girlfriend who shoots down his protestations that he really is 19, in "22 Jump Street"; Glenn Close, as Joe Albany's tough but equally forgiving mother, in "Low Down"; Marion Cotillard, as Clive Owen's ex and the mother of his children, who wants more than anything to stop hooking and live a respectable life, in "Blood Ties"; Rosemarie DeWitt, of whose work in "Men, Women & Children" (and 2012's "Your Sister's Sister") I wrote with great specificity here: http://www.jordanonfilm.com/2014/10/men-women-children.html; Mireille Enos, injecting a bit of context, as Chloe Grace Moretz's ex-rocker mom, into "If I Stay"; and, conveying the mental and emotional withdrawal from life of a mother whose daughter was abducted, in "The Captive"; Kathryn Hahn, brilliant in 2013's "Afternoon Delight," stealing two more movies, "Bad Words" and "This is Where I Leave You"; Catherine Keener, as Mark Ruffalo's ex-wife, who considers his invitation to join him in the shower for about half a second before walking on by, in "Begin Again"; Ellie Kemper, as the voice of the circle of girlfriends who emphatically disapprove of Keira Knightley's vacation from life, in "Laggies"; Stephanie Kurtzuba, as a social services clerk who processes Jamie Foxx's adoption papers, stealing a few tchotchkes (and a few musical numbers) along the way, in "Annie"; Jessica Lange, who grounds Madame Raquin in a mother's undying love for her son, never allowing her to devolve into spite and sadism, in the film of Émile Zola's Thérѐse Raquin called "In Secret"; Melanie Lynskey, who, as a wife and mother coping with the incursion of her husband's sister into their household, walks a fine line through the impeccably observed comedy of manners in "Happy Christmas"; Sienna Miller, who as Chris Kyle's wife Taya elucidates Clint Eastwood's theme of the damage war inflicts on its participants even when they make it back home, in "American Sniper"; Miranda Richardson, in an amusing portrayal of the catch-as-catch-can Lady Ashford, in "Belle"; Rene Russo, better than ever as the desperate producer of L.A.'s lowest-rated morning-news TV show, upon whom Jake Gyllenhaal's gruesome footage works an aphrodisiacal effect, in "Nightcrawler"; Susan Sarandon, hilarious as Melissa McCarthy's alcoholic grandma, for whom any moment of the day or night can only be improved by imbibing massive quantities of booze, and who slurs out a savage toast that's impossible to turn away from, in "Tammy"; and vulnerable and risk-taking as a high-aspiring mother balancing concern for her daughter's welfare with opportunism born of necessity, in "The Last of Robin Hood"; and Meryl Streep, fully committed and hysterically funny as the intensely purposeful witch, the ne plus ultra of cinematic crones, in "Into the Woods."

Child Actors

Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, consummately professional as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (with the beanstalk) in "Into the Woods"; Nemo Schiffman, who gives a performance of great naturalness and fearlessness, allowing his boundless energy to express itself in highly effeminate behaviors, as Catherine Deneuve's grandson, in "On My Way"; Tye Sheridan, best of 2013 in "Mud," again showing unlimited promise and no trace of self-awareness as a boy in need of a job and a male role model, in "Joe"; and Clara and Vincent Wettergren, real-life siblings, as the children of an ostensibly happily married Swedish couple, in "Force Majeure."

Best Cast

"The Judge": Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio

Duvall teases out the surprising layers of Judge Joseph Palmer, a proud and jealous guardian of his reputation and legacy, with the certitude of a man whose word has always been law; even in his angriest exchanges with son Hank (Downey), the power of his performance stems from its restraint. D'Onofrio declines to make Glen, a onetime pitching prodigy sidelined by a car crash Hank caused, the cliché brother nursing old resentments. There's a lovely scene in which Hank and the judge are going at it, and at the end we see Glen leaning against the screen door, watching them silently, processing his feelings for his brother and wondering whether he's learned any new tricks on dealing with Dad (he hasn't). Farmiga also shines as Samantha, Hank's high school sweetheart. In a lesser picture, she'd have spent her life waiting for Hank to come back to Indiana and sweep her away. Not Sam: "I love Carlinville," she tells him, and Farmiga can almost make you believe it. Her scenes with Downey are cute and sexy and funny - sharply written, with the integrity of the characters paramount to standard romantic tropes. 

Downey is the glue that holds "The Judge" together. The role of Hank Palmer showcases his best qualities: the glib, cocksure smart ass; the sensitive son who's spent a lot of years overcompensating for the lack of a kind word or a loving touch; the attorney who still respects his father enough to invest himself in clearing his name. In one scene, Downey rummages through some old boxes containing items from his childhood. He finds a ratty old Metallica t-shirt with pink sleeves, puts it on, and bikes through town, taking his hands off the handlebars and letting the air hit his face. It's a moment of freedom Downey hasn't had a chance to experience trapped in all those comic-book iron works. Feels like catching up with a long-lost friend.

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