Thursday, January 5, 2017

Noteworthy Performances of 2016

Here (in chronological order and either quoted verbatim or paraphrased) is what I wrote about some of the actors who created great movie moments in 2016:

Individual Actors and Actresses

"A hilarious leading turn by Teodor Corban as a constable out of whose mouth you never know what vulgar and bigoted aphorism will emanate next, in Radu Jude's Wallachian epic 'Aferim!'"

"Most of the laughs in Marlon Wayans' spoof  'Fifty Shades of Black' come from comic Jenny Zigrino as Hannah's big-ho roommate, Kateesha."

"The breakout star of the Coen Brothers' 'Hail, Caesar!' is young Alden Ehrenreich as screen cowboy Hobie Doyle, hilariously miscast in a drawing-room comedy despite the studio chief's comment that he's 'not sure Hobie knows how to speak.' Ehrenreich's struggles culminate in polite clashes with effete director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) that are worth the price of admission."

"Kristen Wiig scores most of the laughs in 'Zoolander No. 2' as fashion empress Alexanya Atoz, whose appearance, manner of speaking and method of movement are all fresh and funny."

"'Hello, My Name is Doris' follows in the path of last year’s lovely 'I’ll See You in My Dreams.' Here’s another wise, perceptive and thoroughly winning film about a woman of a certain age, elevated by a nomination-worthy performance from a beloved actress who gives all of herself to the role. Sally Field and director Michael Showalter pull off a number of balancing acts here: keeping us rooting for Doris to find joy (even if none of her hilarious daydreams comes to pass) while making us acknowledge the creepiness of which we’re all capable in the heat of a crush; making Doris sympathetic but not pitiful, eccentric but not daft; and having John and the others behave toward Doris in believable ways."

"In '10 Cloverfield Lane,' John Goodman shows a malevolent streak for maybe the first time since 'Sea of Love,' and terrifies, but in the next moment dances ass-out while his jukebox plays, and delights."

"Trey Edward Shults announces himself as a major talent with his intense and accomplished debut film 'Krisha,' about a chain-smoking, middle-aged trainwreck of a woman battling alcohol addiction and mental illness and losing. Shults' real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild, plays Krisha (isn't there something hideously perfect about that name that seems to doom the woman who bears it to failure?), and it's a performance without vanity. This is brutal, ugly, right-up-against-the-mirror stuff, à la Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes."

"'The Clan,' Pablo Trapero's dramatization of the true story of Arquímedes Puccio, Argentine government minister turned head of a family kidnap-for-ransom syndicate, is notable primarily for Guillermo Francella's riveting performance as the patriarch."

"As the conniving and mendacious Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale announces she’s a real, cast-able actress, not just a pretty face. She scores most of the big laughs in Whit Stillman's breezy Jane Austen adaptation 'Love & Friendship.'"

"In Stéphane Brizé’s naturalistic, brilliantly perceptive 'The Measure of a Man,' Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a laid-off factory worker, takes a job in security at a large supermarket. Lindon won Best Actor at Cannes last year, a savvy and sophisticated choice. Not in recent memory has a performance been so un-showy or an actor so seemingly unaware of the presence of the camera."

"In Benoît Jacquot's sudsy class-struggle melodrama 'Diary of a Chambermaid,' Clotilde Mollet is delicious as the lady of the house, who delights in working Léa Seydoux's Célestine to the bone."

"Bryan Cranston (my choice among last year’s Best Actor nominees for 'Trumbo') cements his status as one of our most important working actors as a Customs agent who's offered retirement but instead volunteers to go undercover as a money launderer to get close to Pablo Escobar, in 'The Infiltrator.' The movie belongs to Cranston, who has us on his side from the jump with an alive performance that brings out the wry comedy in the well-paced script."

"The first ten minutes of 'Bad Moms' are as unpromising as any of the movie year. Then Kathryn Hahn walks into the movie and walks away with it, affirming her status as one of those performers whose mere presence significantly enhances any picture she graces. Her wild-child character doesn't require flexing the acting muscles she showed off in 'Afternoon Delight,' but she bears the burden of taking a big pile of Movieland Bullshit and elevating it to a level of hilarity."

"Meera Menon's 'Equity' will be remembered as a showcase for Anna Gunn, who delivers with a versatile performance that calls on her to show both formidable power and vulnerability, both self-doubt and, when Naomi’s new mega-deal hits a stumbling block, the fortitude to turn it around. On her first major film, Menon sticks mostly to two-shots and close-ups, exposing Gunn to intense scrutiny in a way that parallels her character’s."

"Jeff Bridges, who just gets better with age, deserves an Oscar for his work in David Mackenzie's 'Hell or High Water' - he owns the picture."

"Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz's 'Hands of Stone' is an uncommonly good boxing movie featuring Robert De Niro's best performance in recent years as the trainer Ray Arcel, who takes Roberto Duran from the streets of Panama all the way to Madison Square Garden and the world welterweight title."

"The fine actress Margo Martindale deserves a showpiece role, and John Krasinski, directing his first major motion picture, 'The Hollars,' gives her one as Sally Hollar, the matriarch of a family of troubled men. Martindale is a treasure, and easily the best thing about 'The Hollars,' her quiet yet forceful line readings an antidote to its sometimes manic activity."

"Andrea Arnold achieves grandeur with the 162-minute road epic 'American Honey,' featuring a career-best Shia LaBeouf and magnetic newcomer Sasha Lane, about life at the margins of America and the daily decision whether to sell oneself (and if so, for how much)."

"Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass give a master class in acting in the black-and-white, mumblecore Netflix original 'Blue Jay.' It's like a great short story that builds to a shattering climax."

One of the performances that has most stuck with me this year is the Native American actress Lily Gladstone's almost self-effacing portrayal of a Montana ranch hand with a crush on a visiting school law teacher played by Kristen Stewart, in Kelly Reichardt's "Certain Women." "This unhurried adaptation of stories by Maile Meloy delivers painterly beauty, poignancy and deep truths," and I'm delighted to see that Gladstone has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

"Mick Jackson's 'Denial,' the true story of a Holocaust denier's UK libel lawsuit against a Jewish Studies professor from Queens, is enhanced especially by the performance of a love-to-hate-him Timothy Spall."

"In 'Masterminds,' Kate McKinnon steals the show as Zach Galifianakis' ex, Jandice, a totally original comic character who's smarter and more interesting than everyone else onscreen."

"Director Antonio Campos - who placed seventh on my 2013 top-ten list with the brooding 'Simon Killer' - again explores the dark side of life in the un-sensationalistic 'Christine,' with the gifted Rebecca Hall in peak form as Christine Chubbuck, an on-air personality for a Sarasota, Florida network news affiliate who committed suicide on live television in 1974. Hall should be remembered come nomination time."

"Isabelle Huppert gives a formidable performance as the co-founder of a successful video game company about to launch a new title that depicts the rape and murder of women with orgiastic brio. As 'Elle' opens, she is assaulted and raped by a masked intruder at her Paris home. Paul Verhoeven's film holds your interest throughout with its almost inhuman detachment, sardonic humor and plethora of shocks - and, of course, Huppert, who may finally receive due recognition in the States."

"Kenneth Lonergan's 'Manchester by the Sea' merits recommendation on the strength of first-rate work by lead Casey Affleck. This isn't his most searing performance - for that, I'd look back to Scott Cooper's 2013 'Out of the Furnace' - but if it's the one that gets him Oscar's attention, I'll be leading the cheers."

"Kathy Bates steals 'Bad Santa 2' as Willie's junkyard dog of a mother, Sunny. So foul-mouthed she makes Willie sound like a choir boy, Sunny is one of the great comic creations of the movie year."

"Only Helen Mirren as a barely repressed diva ('Maybe I should play all the parts. It so happens I do know all the lines') keeps 'Collateral Beauty' from a spot among the year's worst."

"In a season that threatens to inundate us with Affirmative Action Oscars, Denzel Washington richly merits accolades for his work as resentful garbageman and too-early-for-his-time baseball player Troy Maxson, in 'Fences.' Washington's solidity fleshes out the seminal August Wilson character. Veteran Wilson player Stephen McKinley Henderson deserves a special shout-out as Troy's jovial but wise friend Bono."

"Theodore Melfi's 'Hidden Figures,' a worthwhile look at the African-American women who contributed mightily to NASA's signal achievements with their work in mathematics and computer science, is elevated immeasurably by the winning, abundantly human performances of Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer, and especially Taraji P. Henson."

Ensemble Casts

"In the Danish Oscar nominee 'A War,' director Tobias Lindholm reunites with 'A Hijacking' co-lead Pilou Asbæk, who plays Claus Pedersen, a company commander on the ground in Afghanistan. After one of his men is killed while on a patrol, Claus undertakes regular patrols, even though commanders typically leave that duty to subordinates. Meanwhile, back home, his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny, first-rate) has her hands full with a daughter and two sons, the older of whom has begun acting out at school. (The child actors are terrific.) When Claus makes a decision in the heat of battle that saves a soldier’s life, his men exalt him as a hero, but the brass second-guess him and bring him home to face trial for the murder of Afghan civilians. The proceedings pit Søren Malling (the other co-lead of 'A Hijacking') as Claus’ attorney against Charlotte Munck as the formidable judge advocate prosecuting him. Both actors are superb."

"In Luca Guadagnino’s devious and decadent 'A Bigger Splash,' Tilda Swinton is Marianne Lane, an iconic rock star giving her vocal cords the month off during a getaway to the (volcanic, natch) Italian island of Pantelleria with doc-filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Enter – to the consternation of all – Marianne’s lustful-for-life ex-producer and lover Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), with a smoldering young beauty on his arm: his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whose visage conceals as many secrets as Harry’s logorrhea bares. She brings a thinly veiled contempt for Marianne to the party and sets about seducing Paul while Harry, who introduced Marianne to Paul, attempts to re-replace him. The melodrama is juicy, and the juice is pulpy. I’ve not always been the president of the Tilda Swinton fan club, but she’s arresting here; you can’t take your eyes off her. Fiennes shows a new side and excels in a part that could easily have gone over the top. Johnson continues to evince promise and, as for Schoenaerts, suffice it to say I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers. (Then again, why else would he be there?)"

"What a nice surprise 'The Family Fang' proves to be, with Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett as Caleb and Camille Fang, performance artists renowned for their elaborately constructed pranks, which involved their daughter and son throughout their youth. Now grown up, Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman) are, respectively, an actress on the downslope of her career and an author trying to recreate the success of his first novel. The performances are uniformly strong. Walken is as committed to his character as Caleb is to the sanctity of his art, whatever the personal cost. Kidman, so often aloof and otherworldly, finds in this low-budget film the freedom to be ordinary. It’s emancipating. And Bateman – whose work in Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift” was some of the best of last year – again took my breath away with the honesty, patience and quietude of his reactions and line readings. I only warmed to him lately, but he’s making himself into a compelling film actor."

For more on the cast of "Joshy," see

"Another film of finely observed moments is Ira Sachs’ 'Little Men.' Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear are the married couple Kathy and Brian Jardine, she a successful psychotherapist, he a community-theater actor whose father dies as the movie opens, leaving Brian and his sister their childhood home in Brooklyn. She lets Brian and Kathy move in in exchange for market rent from the adjacent space downstairs, where Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia), a close friend of their late father, has for many years been allowed to pay much less for her old-fashioned dress shop. Brian and Kathy’s son Jake (Theo Taplitz), a sweet and artistic introvert, makes fast friends with Leonor’s extroverted son Tony (Michael Barbieri). As Brian and Kathy slowly but surely insist on a rent raise from Leonor, how will the boys’ relationship be affected? 'Little Men' is wise to the primacy of money and to the elaborate dance we do (and at times stop doing) to pretend otherwise. Its five central characters are drawn with dimension, each given important moments, and impeccably realized by the first-rate cast. Seek this one out."

"What a delightful surprise is the sleeper 'Morris from America,' with the comedian Craig Robinson as a soccer coach who takes a remunerative position in Heidelberg and brings his 13-year-old son Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas) with him. We're with Morris as he takes German lessons with Inka (Carla Juri), develops a crush on hot-and-cold Katrin (Lina Keller), and practices his rap routine for the youth center talent show. The genial Robinson shows a hitherto hidden dramatic side and knocks his toughest scene out of the park. Christmas, Juri and Keller also shine. I didn't recognize the film as a work of director Chad Hartigan (2013's gem 'This is Martin Bonner'), but I should have: extreme close-ups, penetrating silences, rich and deep insights. Seek out 'Morris from America.'"

"An enthusiastic thumbs up for Todd Phillips' smart and funny 'War Dogs,' with a commanding Jonah Hill and a likable Miles Teller as childhood friends turned international gun runners. There's no substitute for subject matter knowledge, and the globetrotting 'War Dogs' knows procurement inside and out, knows just how these two small-timers could come to bid on and win massive government contracts. Ana de Armas as Teller's girlfriend impresses in a part somewhat more developed than the usual love interest."

"Ewan McGregor makes a strong directorial debut with the ferociously alive Philip Roth adaptation 'American Pastoral,' featuring first-rate performances by Dakota Fanning and the too-little-seen Jennifer Connelly. McGregor stars as high school football hero Swede Levov, who marries the former Miss New Jersey (Connelly) and inherits his father's (Peter Riegert in a very funny supporting turn) glove manufacturing business. Their daughter Merry (Fanning), a paralytic stutterer, takes up with anti-Vietnam War radicals and disappears the same day the town post office is bombed, killing one. Valorie Curry also impresses in an important secondary role that consistently upends expectations. This is a terrific piece of work by all involved, at each turn quieter and wiser than it had to be."

"2016 offers a second terrific boxing movie in Ben Younger's 'Bleed for This,' starring Miles Teller as Vincent "Vinny Paz" Pazienza, a fighter out of Providence who captured two world titles before a freak car accident broke his neck and left doctors unsure whether he would ever walk again. But Vinny's determined to fight again, and has legendary trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) move into his basement, where they place blankets on the floor to dampen the sound from weights and sneak in 3 a.m. workouts under his family's nose. Eckhart is unrecognizable as Rooney, as are Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal as Vinny's parents. All are excellent. Teller is an uncommonly gifted actor; I've been waiting for him to leave behind callow fare and show off his capabilities. Here, he's not just sympathetic but commanding. In certain shots, he looks older than his 29 years, giving a hint of the man he's still growing into. I look forward to witnessing his continued development."

Child Actors

"First-time writer-director Felix Thompson and young lead Charlie Plummer (a natural) announce themselves as ones to watch with 'King Jack,' about a bullied high school freshman tasked with entertaining his younger cousin over a long weekend. Most scenes unfold to quiet perfection."

"Taika Waititi’s Kiwi bush comedy 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' is the sort of movie that comes along every so often (think 'The Gods Must be Crazy') and catches you off guard, surprising and delighting with its singular sensibility. Julian Dennison plays 13-year-old Ricky Baker: self-styled thug, juvenile delinquent, fat kid. As 'Wilderpeople' opens, a child services agent transports Ricky to what she assures him is his last chance to make a foster home work before being consigned to juvie. His new foster 'aunt,' Bella, offers a love as expansive as her waistline. Then there’s her hubby, 'Uncle Hec' (Sam Neill), a stoic farmer whose first question to Ricky is, 'Are you going to help out or are you purely ornamental?' Dennison and Neill make marvelous comic foils, each walking the tightrope between antipathy and pathos. I hope Dennison finds something as special again sometime."

"A huge thumbs up for David Lowery’s 'Pete’s Dragon,' a wondrous, old-fashioned and mercifully low-tech live-action film that’s a real gift to moviegoing families this summer. Oakes Fegley is the name of the young actor who scored the lead, and he delivers an engaging performance that eschews precocity and convinces us of his special connection with the titular (and, blessedly, mostly un-anthropomorphized) dragon, Elliott."

"Disney's feel-great 'Queen of Katwe' is a marvelous family film with good messages about the equality of women in every corner of the world, the importance of long-term planning and delayed gratification, and of course never giving up on your dream. Director Mira Nair largely avoids forcing them down our throats, and when she does we don't gag because of the quality and likability of the performers, the vibrancy of the color palette, and the subtlety of William Wheeler's adapted screenplay. Highly ingratiating newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, who with her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) sells vegetables in the streets and markets of Katwe, a poor neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda."

"The relationship between Casey Affleck's Lee and his nephew Patrick, played by young Lucas Hedges, forms the heart of 'Manchester by the Sea,' and imbues the film with moments of hilarious honesty and genuine insight."

"In J.A. Bayona’s 'A Monster Calls,' Lewis MacDougall gives an uncommonly unselfconscious performance as young Conor O'Malley, who's bullied at school, whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying, and whose uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) seems to care more for material things than for him. The film culminates in a gripping and deeply moving climax that has the wonderful quality of appearing inevitable in hindsight."

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