So for the past five years on this blog I’ve published a year end review, trying to take in as many positives of the previous twelve months as possible. For the last four of those five years, I’ve produced a run-down of what I considered the most memorable performances, but in an attempt to produce as balances an end of year review as possible, I’ve realised that one area normally overlooked by awards is those people who’ve made a consistent contribution to their craft over a number of films. So to try to redress the balance somewhat, I’m instituting two new awards this year, in the form of the Man and Woman Of The Year. I’ve gone with an actor and an actress this year for the main awards, but one of my honourable mentions in the male category isn’t an actor, and I’ll try to be open to all possibilities if this becomes a thing.
Given the enormous outpouring of bile after The Times newspaper somewhat controversially chose Nigel Farage as their Man Of The Year (and that’s a man that could be the member of Parliament for my home town by this time next year; God help us all), I realise I could be on a hiding to nothing, but you have to try these things at least once. Please bear in mind that these might be saints, or they might get their kicks shooting puppies in the park, but this is not a judgement on them as people, merely a recognition for their overall contribution to films I’ve seen in 2014. So in that spirit, please be upstanding – and be gentle – with my Man and Woman Of The Year.
Man Of The Year 2014 is Jack O’Connell
It seems almost impossible that Jack O’Connell is only 24, as it feels like he’s been around for ever. Fittingly for someone born in Derby he made his debut in a film from another East Midlands stalwart, appearing in Shane Meadows’ This Is England as Pukey Nicholls. But the first role I can really remember him grabbing my attention in was the horror thriller which also starred Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly, Eden Lake in 2008. He takes what could be a rather clichéd role as the film’s eventual villain and manages menacing without ever feeling forced, and his eventual triumph is as compelling as it is repulsive. It then felt like he might get stuck in a rut of stock British thugs and bad guys, also appearing in the Michael Caine starrer Harry Brown as a gang member and appearing in 2012’s Tower Block with Sheridan Smith as another local estate thug, but that was another role where he had to play totally unsympathetic yet ultimately comes out on top.
After building up a solid body of stage and TV work, it feels like 2014 is the year he’s finally come into his own in film. His first major role of the year was in the British prison drama Starred Up, a tense and brutal affair that traded heavily on O’Connell’s ability to do distant but remain charismatic. Eric Love is a walking explosion of pent up rage waiting to happen, but an unexpected reunion in prison with his father gives O’Connell a huge amount to explore. This was his first real lead film role and he’s magnetic for the entire run-time in this unflinching look at life on the inside.
He also then took the lead role in one of the year’s most underrated and underseen films, the Yann Demange thriller ’71 set in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Here, although he’s got top billing once again it’s the supporting cast that get to deliver much of the theatrics, and O’Connell’s requirement is to be calm and level headed after he’s separated from his unit on the wrong side of the lines. Demange maintains tension throughout, and it’s to O’Connell’s credit that you care about his plight despite being little to go on in terms of backstory.
As a sign of things to come, O’Connell also appeared as Calisto in the bigger budget 300: Rise Of An Empire, but it’s at the end of the year where he’s really begun to make a name for himself in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. Somehow, despite having a script with contributions from the Coen brothers and cinematography from Roger Deakins, Jolie has crafted something which renders a remarkable story somewhat ordinary, and it would have been a complete washout had it not been for O’Connell’s performance. As the stocky Italian-American Olympic runner who ends up in a Japanese POW camp, O’Connell proves he’s got what it takes to be an (admittedly unconventional) leading man, but he also delivers the film’s only real emotional beats in the last half hour.
Frankly, anyone who can get Angelina Jolie to deliver that classic East Midlands greeting of “ay up, me duck” in public deserves some form of recognition, but O’Connell looks to be a star in the making and 2014 is very much the year he’s arrived in earnest.
Man Of The Year Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, The Monuments Men, The Imitation Game, Unbroken)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave, Frank, X-Men: Days Of Future Past)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Interstellar)
Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up, Exodus: Gods And Kings, Black Sea)
Woman Of The Year 2014 is Scarlett Johansson
I’ve always been very much someone who could take it or leave it as far as Scarlett Johansson’s concerned. She came into my cinematic consciousness from an unconventional angle, with that infamous opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation in 2002. She’d been around for a while before that, both on TV and most notably in Ghost World from the previous year, but in the years that followed her success with roles was at best mixed. Despite working with the likes of Woody Allen (Match Point), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) and, ahem, Michael Bay (The Island), her brushes with the acting awards categories had started to recede into the distance – as well as Match Point and Lost In Translation, she received Golden Globe nominations for A Love Song For Bobby Long and The Girl With The Pearl Earring, but all were prior to 2006 – and it’s only really been this year that she’s reminded people of just how good an actress she is.
Sure, she’s been appearing in Marvel films as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow since 2008’s Iron Man 2, but it was only in this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she truly came into the role, appearing both an effective foil for Chris Evans’ previously uptight Captain American and also being able to stand her ground in the drama stakes, rather than being lost in the mêlée of The Avengers. She also proved she’s still got her action movie chops with the uneven Lucy from Luc Besson, yet for all the film’s issues believing in Johansson as a super-brained genius wasn’t one of them. And she proved that she’s got charisma to spare with a brief appearance in Jon Favreau’s food lovers’ delight Chef.
But of her two biggest successes this year, she wasn’t even on screen for one of them. Playing the voice of an AI in Her, she has a remarkable and totally convincing chemistry with her co-star Joaquim Phoenix, despite the two never being on screen together. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role, but it was only when Steven Soderbergh was brought in to help manage the film down from a two and a half hour first cut that writer / director Spike Jonze began to realise that what he’d created with Morton didn’t work; spending four months working with Johansson provided what was missing for the role, and so a proportion of the film’s success has to be credited to her for coming in at that late stage and still making it work.
If that performance was memorable, it still wasn’t her best work of 2014; that came in Jonathan Glazer’s mindworm Under The Skin. Portraying a cold and distant alien might not seem like much of an acting challenge, but almost everything Johansson does in the film grabs your attention in the right way. Driving round Glasgow in a black wig with an English accent, she became unrecognisable to the real men she was picking up, and her performance is free of clutter or mannerisms and perfectly captures how an extraterrestrial visitor might struggle to comprehend the vagaries of our very human existence.
I’ve never been Johansson’s biggest fan, but her string of consistent, high quality performances this year has put me down firmly as a fan. Here’s hoping she can now find the roles to carry that momentum forward.
Woman Of The Year Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Big Eyes)
Keira Knightley (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Begin Again, Say When, The Imitation Game)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Serena, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1)
Mia Wasikowska (Only Lovers Left Alive, Tracks, The Double, Maps To The Stars)