Friday, January 8, 2016

Noteworthy Performances of 2015

By chance, I came up with nine names in each of the lead categories and eight names in each of the supporting categories. I've also identified the best comic and dramatic ensemble casts of the year.

Lead Actor (in alphabetical order by last name)

Jason Bateman, whose performance as Simon in Joel Edgerton's "The Gift" marks the best work of his career by the length of several football fields. The outwardly respectable Simon has been wearing a mask, and watching Bateman pull it off layer by pitiful layer is one of the mesmerizing moviegoing experiences of 2015.

Bryan Cranston, who as Dalton Trumbo appears in almost every frame of Jay Roach's "Trumbo," and in his first major silver-screen role delivers a memorable, nomination-worthy performance.

John Cusack, as Brian Wilson two decades after the Beach Boys' heyday, in Bill Pohlad's "Love & Mercy." The chipmunk-cheeked and indefatigably sunny younger Brian played by Paul Dano gives way to a haunted, sepulchral, almost aphasic figure whom Cusack somehow draws out of erasures.

Jesse Eisenberg, as the novelist and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, in James Ponsoldt's "The End of the Tour." His lead-ins, reactions, and constant attempts to shape his interview with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) blew me away with their honesty. Eisenberg's Lipsky flirts with affectation, but only as each of us might if placed in such a unique circumstance beside someone clearly blessed with a greater gift.

Andrew Garfield, as Dennis Nash, an Orlando construction worker and single father who loses his home to foreclosure early in Ramin Bahrani's "99 Homes." Nash, his desperation fueled by his survival instinct, looks upon his circumstances almost from outside, his mouth agape, his eyes wide with incredulity and indignation. The supremely sensitive Garfield is a marvel of feral intensity.

Richard Gere, at times almost unrecognizable as George, a homeless man in New York, in Oren Moverman's patience-testing "Time Out of Mind." Gere shows a (for him) rare generosity, ceding the foreground to the talented actors who enter and exit George's world while maintaining his own dignity.

Al Pacino, in Dan Fogelman's "Danny Collins." In a movie about self-respect and slow, hard-won redemption, Pacino comes through with his best performance since "Glengarry Glen Ross." It's tough to be that larger-than-life presence, the rock star who changes the vision of the valet or the hotel clerk just by staying at their nondescript little Hilton. Pacino conveys that difficulty with rare nuance and grace.

Adam Scott delivered the year's single funniest line in an otherwise forgettable romcom called "Sleeping with Other People." But his turn as a househusband on a bizarrely unraveling playdate in Patrick Brice's "The Overnight" is the finest male comic performance of the year, a minor miracle that somehow never steps wrong. The play of moods and thoughts across his face is astonishing to behold.

Will Smith resuscitated his career as Nicky Spurgeon, a big-time con man who takes Margot Robbie's watch-booster Jess under his wing, in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's "Focus." We've always wanted to know what lurks behind Smith's sly grin. Here, he trades on that mystery, tantalizing Jess (and, by extension, us) with suggestions of vulnerabilities that may or may not exist. Fortunately, some do.

Lead Actress

Juliette Binoche, as a legendary actress forced to confront the passage of time, in Olivier Assayas’ great “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Binoche brings a lifetime’s worth of insider knowledge to the part, to say nothing of her fierce intelligence, patented sophistication and charm.

Cate Blanchett, who as Mary Mapes in James Vanderbilt’s “Truth” and Carol Aird in Todd Haynes’ “Carol” cements her enshrinement in the holy trinity of contemporary actresses. Meryl. Julianne. Cate. With one word, you know you’re getting perfection.

Sandra Bullock, who gives maybe the best performance of her Oscar-winning career, in David Gordon Green’s underrated “Our Brand is Crisis.” Bullock no longer feels the need to emote to make us root for her; she knows we already do, and it liberates her to create, in campaign manager “Calamity” Jane Bodine, one of the memorable characters of the year in film.

Regina Casé, as the maid and nanny Val, floored by her daughter’s impudent disregard for the strictures by which she has defined her existence, in Anna Muylaert’s finely observed Brazilian class-struggle comedy “The Second Mother” (“Que Horas Ela Volta?”). Casé brings great humor and vitality to Val, who in the film’s final moments at last experiences the simple joy of unfiltered self-expression.

Blythe Danner, as Carol Petersen, a widow of 20 years contemplating the possibility of new love, in Brett Haley’s warmly welcome “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” The movie’s a showcase for Danner, who enchants throughout with her idiosyncratic facial expressions and thoughtful reactions to the words and actions of those around her. We need many more films this good about life after middle age.

Margot Robbie, who wears the comedy in “Focus” as effortlessly as her sex appeal. She’s stunningly beautiful, with a freshness that distinguishes her from the throngs of L.A. 10’s, an iconic quality that portends an enduring career. Or, as my friend asked after the movie, “Where has she been all my life?”

Amy Schumer – this year’s Kristen Wiig - in “Trainwreck,” a key part of a great year for American movie comedy. It’s difficult to separate Schumer’s performance from her first-rate script, teeming with funny and well-drawn supporting characters. Her style owes much to Wendy Liebman, but it serves her character well, assuring us this emotionally stunted woman has the smarts she’ll need to get on.

I’m delighted that Sarah Silverman received a Golden Globe nomination for her daring, risk-taking performance in Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back.” As Laney Brooks, a wife and mother struggling with depression and substance abuse, Silverman walks an emotional high wire, finding the humor in Laney’s downward spiral and never trading in cheap pathos.

Mia Wasikowska, who brings life and breath to Sophie Barthes’ film of “Madame Bovary.” It’s hard to make us feel sympathy for a character animated only by un-nameable desires and vague ennui. That we do is credit to the gifted Wasikowska. Watch how tightly she grips her husband’s hand for their first post-nuptial kiss. It’s as if she’s willing the marriage to fulfill her.

Supporting Actor

Hugh Bonneville, who steals Paul King's movie of "Paddington" with his genuinely funny reactions and deadpans, as when he phones his insurer to raise his coverage level: "We have a guest staying with us. A bear. Yes."

Steve Carell, best of the star-studded cast of Adam McKay's "The Big Short," capturing the righteous indignation that mixes so well with the gallows humor.

Billy Crudup, magnetic as psychology professor Richard Zimbardo, in Kyle Patrick Alvarez's "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Crudup commands the screen as he did fifteen years ago in "Almost Famous" and "Jesus' Son." I haven't seen such fire in an actor's eyes in recent memory.

Benicio Del Toro, who takes Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario" to another level as a ground-level fixer motivated by a past too painful to discuss, in a performance every bit the equal of his Oscar-winning turn in "Traffic." 

John Goodman, that certifiable national treasure, who takes the already outsized "Trumbo" to another order of magnitude, as the schlockmeister Frank King. Goodman cuts through bullshit as nobody else can, leaving the audience rolling in the aisles.

Frank Langella, who alongside Glenn Close scores big laughs as the disapproving parents of a Manhattan novelist conducting an affair with a married Frenchwoman, in Victor Levin's charming debut "5 to 7."

Christopher Plummer, pitch-perfect as the hand-holding agent Frank to Al Pacino's "Danny Collins." He knows he only gets to level with Danny one time in a dozen and picks his spots with precision. An Oscar nomination wouldn't be inappropriate for Plummer's knowing and funny turn.

Michael Shannon, as the pitiless Orlando real estate mogul Rick Carver, in "99 Homes." The gifted and special Shannon makes Carver one of the seminal characters of the year in film, with a hollowed-out quality to his physical presence. You feel that if you touched him in his Armani suit, he'd evaporate; there's a hole where his soul's supposed to go. For Shannon, it should be a career definer.

Supporting Actress

Annette Bening, as Mary Sinclair, the straight-talking and initially wary manager of a New Jersey Hilton, in "Danny Collins." While rebuffing Danny's repeated dinner invitations, Bening never so much as adverts to the facile temptation to play Mary as a buttoned-up prig. She recognizes that despite the difference in their stations, it's he who wants to earn her respect.

Katie Nehra, as Mary Elizabeth Winstead's mercurial sister Lily, in Chris Messina's directorial debut "Alex of Venice." With her unfiltered and hilarious straight talk, Nehra arrives just in time to help both Alex and the movie.

Ellen Page, of whose daringly understated performance in Peter Sollett's "Freeheld" I wrote at length here:

Sarah Snook. Remember that name. Playing opposite Ethan Hawke, the Australian actress was the real find of Michael and Peter Spierig's time-travel mind-bender "Predestination," as a hermaphroditic orphan and true-confessions writer on his/her own infinite loop through the fourth dimension.

Hailee Steinfeld, the best of many wonderful things about Shari Springer Berman's and Robert Pulcini's sleeper gem "Ten Thousand Saints." Starting with her Oscar-nominated debut in "True Grit," Steinfield has slowly but surely taken over every movie she's in, just flat more interesting than anyone around her. Here, she delivers some great lines and knocks her toughest scene out of the park.

Kristen Stewart, who as Juliette Binoche's personal assistant in "Clouds of Sils Maria" holds her own with the screen legend, announcing both that she's legitimately arrived and that she plans to be around for a long time to come.

Rachel Weisz, who delivers a blistering speech (atop a massage table at a Swiss spa, no less), unburdening two lifetimes of resentment (her own, and her mother's) toward her composer father (Michael Caine), in Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth."

Kate Winslet, almost unrecognizable yet Oscar-worthy, as the factotum to Michael Fassbender's "Steve Jobs." Winslet is the heart and soul of Danny Boyle's impressionistic portrait of the Apple co-founder.

Best Comedy Ensemble (films not mentioned above)

"Spy," over "Sisters" and "The Wedding Ringer." The richness of the conceits is what's making these comedies so great, the heaping handfuls of memorable characters inhabited by gifted actors. Star Melissa McCarthy finally gets a script that gives her some quiet moments as well as those that exploit her commanding volubility and game physicality. The real joy of the movie lies in her interplay with Rose Byrne and Jude Law and Jason Statham. And then you get to scene-stealers Miranda Hart - as McCarthy's assistant, who uses the plot's warhead caper to break out of her own shell - and Peter Serafinowicz, unforgettable as McCarthy's Italian chauffeur, who hits on her with the relentlessness of a dog with a bone.

Best Drama Ensemble

"Spotlight." As Boston Globe editors, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery; as the Spotlight reporters, Brian D'Arcy James, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo; as victims' attorneys with antithetical styles, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci. This is the film for which the SAG ensemble-cast award was created.

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