We have arrived at the breakdown of actors and actresses in my review of the year, and this year more than ever there seem to be great performances on this list that have been in the service of less than stellar films. When you look at the big award nominations, the acting awards and the best picture nominations aren’t normally too far removed from each other, but in my list this year at most fifteen of these performances will be in films that feature in the final top 40.
Of course, there’s no reason why good actors shouldn’t appear in average, or even bad, films but in most cases on this list it’s the actors being let down by their scripts. I can’t think of many instances of great scripts being played out by bad actors, so clearly it’s easier to get your film funded with a decent name or two attached than it is to get the script right first. There isn’t as much talk as there used to be about actors’ salaries these days, but few of the names on this list will be commanding top dollar anyway (although two at almost opposite ends of the list will be in Star Wars next year – what odds one of them reappearing for that in twelve months?).
Anyway, usual rules apply: all lengths of performance are considered equally and there is no distinction between actor and actress here. For the record, I have 14 men and 11 women on this year’s list, but in the top 10 it’s 6-4 the other way. And only one person per film; there are two or three instances where this rule has excluded great efforts, but I will endeavour to give them an honourable mention as I go. So here’s my fourth annual list of my favourite 25 performances of the year. In the end I couldn’t pick between Leo and Matthew in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but if this list ran to 26 one of them would probably have been on it. Them’s the breaks.
25. Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Part of what I love about Oscar Isaac is his chameleon-like ability to blend in completely with his surroundings. I wonder how many people would associate him with his role in Drive having seen this? He’s also shown his versatility in The Two Faces Of January in 2014, proving that he’s got charm to spare, but exasperation was his best mood this year. Not only does he fit in perfectly with the ranks of other downtrodden Coen leads, but his musical skills are also brought beautifully to the fore. Someone get this man a moody musical.
24. Uma Thurman – Nymphomaniac, Part 1
She may be on screen for only a few minutes, but Uma Thurman is the best thing in Lars Von Trier’s patience tester (although at least this was one four hour epic we got an interval in this year). I’m sure there’s some wish fulfilment of some embittered soul somewhere in that performance, but Thurman lights up the screen in a thoroughly entertaining cameo. Also, I don’t have awards for least best acting, but if I did a strong contender would be someone in this film whose name rhymes with Friar LeSmurf.
23. Haluk Bilginer – Winter Sleep
By contrast, this three hour and ten minute latest from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is intermission free, and consists greatly of people talking calmly to each other in dark rooms. You need someone who’s going to keep your attention for that to work, and Bilginer’s sheer magnetism does just that, even allowing for his world-weariness that lays over the top. A mention must also go to his on-screen wife Melisa Sözen who has a couple of very powerful scenes in the last half hour.
22. Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
To think that there were the usual silly doubts when the Hunger Games franchise began that Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t right for Katniss; too old, dyeing her hair, wrong star sign, that sort of thing. While the casting is generally stellar this just wouldn’t have worked as a franchise without Lawrence, and to her credit she’s given the same level of committed performance in both her blockbuster roles this year that she has to her more serious endeavours. It’s great to see someone who, in behind the scenes footage, clearly has such a love for her craft and that passion is on screen for all to see.
21. Brendan Gleeson – Calvary
Gleeson has now teamed up twice with John Michael McDonogh and the results have been great both times. While Brendan Gleeson was sardonic and dismissive in The Guard, here he’s required to give a different level of performance and in both films Gleeson’s performance has crucially underpinned the overall tone. McDonogh isn’t afraid to deal with weighty themes and what humour there is happens to be dry as a bone and black as a starless night but, for all his sins and those of his church, you still find yourself rooting for this non-stereotypical priest. It would be remiss of me not to mention Kelly Reilly as his daughter who’s also putting in a performance as good as anything she’s done.
20. Pierre Deladonchamps – Stranger By The Lake
I could make cheap jokes about Deladonchamps’ performance being stripped bare – and if you want cheap jokes, you’ve normally come to the right place – but Stranger By The Lake pulls off the difficult balancing act of being both a taut Hitckcockian thriller and an honest assessment of male frailty and psychology. Leave your modesty at the door and you’ll be firmly gripped (stop it) by a performance which is one of the most unhindered of the year, regardless of the state of dress of many of the participants.
19. Jack O’Connell – Starred Up
It’s been a great year for Jack O’Connell but his best role may also have been his first, the British prison drama which skipped around the clichés to feel fresh and relevant. O’Connell has a set of facial expressions well suited to defiance and a demeanour to match, but he’s shown in all of his performances this year that he can do subtle in spades and his fractious relationship with estranged father Ben Mendelssohn gives both actors plenty to work with. With two Hollywood roles under his belt this year already, expect O’Connell to be a star of the future.
18. Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
It’s difficult to pick a winner from the performance stakes in Boyhood, but possibly thanks to his experience in the Before trilogy it was Ethan Hawke that most caught my eye. Over the twelve year span of the film his character goes through as much of an evolution as anyone, from cocksure and unreliable to steady and dependable, but he does so in believable steps; that can have been no easy feat considering the nature of the filming process. The four leads are all great, so apologies to Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and especially Patricia Arquette that I only pick one performance per film.
17. Berenice Bejo – The Past
I’ve become a real fan of Asghar Farhadi’s work over the past few years, and while The Past didn’t quite hit the heights of A Separation or About Elly, it wasn’t far off at all. This was the first time he’s worked with such an international cast but this felt comfortably and with deep familiarity a Farhadi film, and Bejo proved that she’s not just a silent face with a performance the polar opposite of her appearance in The Artist. For some reason this film seemed to slip below the awards radar, but Bejo’s performance is up there with anything in Farhadi’s back catalogue.
16. Juliette Binoche – Camille Claudel 1915
I struggled greatly with parts of this biopic of the troubled artist, but that shouldn’t take away from Juliette Binoche’s work as the titular artist. Many of my problems with the film relate to later stretches when the film becomes dry and airless while searching for resolution, but coincidentally this is also when Binoche happens to be off screen. It would be easy to overdo the theatricality of a role dealing with mental illness, but to Binoche’s great credit she’s far more astute than that. A shame, then, that the film isn’t quite the equal of what she brings to it.
15. Bill Murray – St. Vincent
The biggest problem with St. Vincent as a film is that it doesn’t have any gear shifts: it has a consistent, level tone despite the extreme ups and downs endured by its characters when it would be better suited with an ability to swing more closely to the comedic and dramatic aspects of its script. That’s highlighted in Bill Murray’s performance, which defines irascible but also asks a lot of Murray with a huge back story and physical afflictions as the story progresses. It’s nice to see Melissa McCarthy dialling back her performance to something simple and honest, but everyone else is in Bill Murray’s shadow here.
14. Tom Hardy – Locke
While there was a certain amount of fun from playing guess the phone voice (I’d repeatedly convinced myself that Andrew Scott was actually Chris O’Dowd), Steven Knight’s film is little more than a conceit which doesn’t necessarily serve Tom Hardy’s performance as well as it might. I’m also prepared to overlook the fact that I wasn’t 100% sold by Hardy’s accent, which is generally reliable but no more, in light of how much emotion he generates with so little acting backlift. He was also the best thing in Dennis Lehane scripted drama The Drop later in the year, mildly memorable for being James Gandolfini’s last film.
13. Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Belle
I got into a debate on Bums On Seats, the community radio show I lend my voice to, about the merits of Belle; I turned out to be the lone positive voice. I’m not going to claim that it was a masterpiece but I stand by its merits, and one of its many was the performance of relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw (hitherto known only to me as Martha’s sister Tish from the third modern season of Doctor Who). There’s plenty of solid support around but Mbatha-Raw carries the dramatic weight of the film and deftly handles both period romance and the film’s dalliances with weightier issues.
12. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
I think that The Imitation Game as a film has a lot of problems, but the acting isn’t one of them. The likes of Mark Strong and Charles Dance do what Mark Strong and Charles Dance generally do best, but the stand-outs are Keira Knightley – even if she is saddled with the poshest accent in acting history – and Benedict Cumberbatch. The man with the most mocked name in showbusiness puts yet another spin on his collection of damaged geniuses and without him, the film would have been a hollow shell. I just hope he manages to get the right balance of Hollywood and Britain moving forward, as both Star Trek and Marvel have already got their claws into him for big franchise roles.
11. Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Seriously, why did no one think to put Ralph Fiennes and Wes Anderson together earlier? Delivering some of the most delicious dialogue from any script this year, Fiennes spews out quotable lines with effortless elegance but his performance ranges through a variety of emotions. Ipswich’s finest export since Cardinal Wolsey has been meticulous and sharply calibrated in both his acting and directing for two decades, but he’s achieved most of his best work in dramatic roles. In Bruges might be the closest he’s come to anything like this before, and that’s still a mile off (and no-one who’s ever seen him opposite Uma Thurman in The Avengers will ever forget his discomfort), but he was such a total fit for the Anderson universe that we can but pray it’s not their only collaboration.
10. Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
There’s a myth about the curse of the Bond girl, when in reality for every woman who’s proven herself as a love interest opposite Bond but then gone onto anonymity there’s just as many for whom it’s been but a footnote on an impressive CV. Evidence would suggest Rosamund Pike is likely to fall into the latter category, but her role in Pierce Brosnan’s swansong may have come slightly too early in her career; she’s matured in smaller roles in the likes of Made In Dagenham and The World’s End, but I suspect her role as the object of Ben Affleck’s attention in David Fincher’s trashy delight will one day be seen as career defining. Somehow, despite being cast in a role where she’s consigned to flashbacks before the main narrative has even started, she walks in and waltzes off with the whole film.
9. Ben Whishaw – Lilting
Lilting is very much a film of actors and performances rather than strong direction, but I have a lot of time for any film prepared to cast Peter Bowles. Ben Whishaw has been quietly going around his business for a few years now, and having impressed greatly in Cloud Atlas and nabbed a role to pay the bills for a few years yet as Bond’s new Q he’s now started to find leading roles that show off his talents. Here he played the troubled man attempting to dealing with the grieving mother of his deceased parter beautifully, an understated role that still demanded Whishaw to have a lot going on just beneath the surface. He capped a good year with a voice turn as a positively perfect Paddington.
8. Kristen Wiig – The Skeleton Twins
Here’s a trivia question for your next film quiz: what connects Morwenna Banks, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Jimmy Fallon, Christopher Guest, Randy Quaid, Chris Rock and Pamela Stevenson? They’re all alumni of the American comedy institution Saturday Night Live, and while you might at first think of the likes of Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy when you think of SNL, the latest generation are showing they are equally adept at both comedy and drama. The former SNL pairing of Wiig and Bill Hader are by turns heartbreaking and charismatic here, but it’s Wiig as the sister who seems stuck in a cycle of perpetually making poor life choices that makes the greatest impression.
7. Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
I’ve seen two Dardennes brothers films now and for some reason neither has quite gelled with me in the way they seem to have taken others. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I find myself drawn to the deficiencies in their social realism, rather than being taken in by the performances and storytelling. Nonetheless, former Movie Evangelist Performance Of The Year winner and current Movie Evangelist ideal woman Marion Cotillard defies both any shortcomings in Two Days, One Night’s script and also rises above my slightly awkward attempts at stalkerish flattery with yet another winning performance that the rest of the film is constructed around.
6. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
I have a lot of time for Jake Gyllenhaal, ever since he, Dennis Quaid and Emmy Rossum made The Day After Tomorrow far more watchable than it had any right to be. Why someone who has Donnie Darko, Zodiac, Source Code, Prisoners and Brokeback Mountain on his CV isn’t thought of as one of the best actors of his generation continues to mystify me, but with a mesmeric performance as the manipulative, greasy Leo Bloom Gyllenhaal is getting due attention for the first time since his partnership with Heath Ledger all those years ago. While he was slightly overshadowed even then, here Gyllenhaal dominates ever scene he’s in, which I think is just about all of them.
5. Joaquim Phoenix – Her
I have a strange and unhealthy fascination with Space Camp, the Eighties Space Shuttle film that’s a reductive mix of Apollo 13 and The Goonies which features a young Phoenix alongside Steven Spielberg’s wife and Marty McFly’s mum. It’s as an adult that the former Leaf Phoenix has impressed, from Gladiator through Walk The Line to The Master, yet in Her it’s ironically a childlike innocence that makes his performance so heartfelt and convincing. Never for one moment do we as an audience doubt or question his commitment to Scarlett Johansson’s AI, all the more impressive an achievement given that Johansson recorded her performance after the fact (it was Samantha Morton on set playing opposite Phoenix). I’m already looking forward to Phoenix’s reunion with Paul Thomas Anderson next month in Inherent Vice.
4. Essie Davis – The Babadook
The only woman who ever made a name for herself in a horror movie might have been Linda Blair. The director who drew out her most famous performance then this year rated The Babadook as the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, and that’s due large part to the anchoring performance given by Essie Davis in the lead role. Selling both the concept and her own gradual mental disintegration, Davis is as key to the success of The Babadook’s icy grip as the reedy-voiced monster. Up to now, the biggest credit Davis had received was probably in the two dire Matrix sequels, but hopefully her performance here will be a stepping stone to more lead roles.
3. Scarlett Johansson – Under The Skin
Easy to play an emotionless alien struggling to come to terms with the human condition? I’m sorry, I’ll have none of that. The contrast in the opening scenes where we see the original form taken over by Johansson show the contrast clearly, and I’ve been saving up the word fearless for this point in the countdown as Scarlett commits herself to the role with gusto. That’s even before that you consider she was actually out in a wig, cruising the streets of Glasgow with an impeccable English accent, and Under The Skin wouldn’t be featuring at the top of quite so many end of year lists without her. I’ve not always been a fan of Scarlett – The Prestige was my favourite film of the Noughties despite her rather than because of her – but consider me a convert off the back of this.
2. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave
If you’re looking to hand out acting recognition for Steve McQueen’s devastating Best Picture winner, it’s difficult to know where to really start. But you should finish either with Michael Fassbender’s horrific plantation owner, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s dignified slave enduring a sort of reverse emancipation or Lupita Nyong’o’s gut-wrenching performance that earned her an Oscar, a job in Star Wars and a role as the Face Of Lancôme. In researching this list I watched two brief, thirty second clips of this Mexican-Kenyan actress’ performance and I was nearly in tears again, almost a full year after having last seen the film in full. I’m planning to watch the film again at some point this week, so will be off to bulk buy soft tissues shortly after completing this post.
1. Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
But there was one performance this year that edged out all the others, a performance that bore the weight beautifully of the two and a half hour film constructed around it and one which will define the image of one of our nation’s greatest painters in the mind of a generation. I would absolutely love it if the award Spall picked up for this at Cannes turned out not to be the biggest prize that he’ll store in his trophy cabinet for this performance, but whatever the outcome of awards season Spall grabbed his chance in the limelight with both hands and created a character that felt as truly human as anyone we’ve seen on screen this year.
His Turner isn’t a misunderstood genius, merely an honest, humble man with an exceptional talent and an intolerance for family. Spall has long been a staple of both Mike Leigh films and British television and film in general, and his career as a character actor seemed in hindsight to be building to this moment. His characters aren’t always capturing huge amounts of screen time but so often it’s Spall’s performances that are the most memorable of the works he’s in. Given full rein to interpret Joseph Mallard William Turner his tics and mannerisms, his gutteral grunts and frustrated groanings might be what play out in the award season clips, but this is a full bodied performance that sees Spall at his very best and made Mr. Turner one of the best British films of the year. Timothy Spall, I salute you and am delighted to declare your performance my favourite of cinema in 2014.
The Top 25 Performances Of 2013 WINNER – Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
The Top 25 Performances Of 2012 WINNER – Marion Cotillard, Rust And Bone
The Top 25 Performances Of 2011 WINNER – Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
It’s time once again to consider the on-screen talent, those men and women who inhabit creations of writers and directors so effectively as to transport us into their world. Once again, I’ve made no distinction between men and women, or between lead and supporting roles (although I have picked out ten notable performances from younger actors), these are just the 25 performances I felt did most to enhance the films in which they appeared.
The one notable separation does come down the line of the sexes: in the past two years, men have made more appearances than women, winning 15-10 in 2011 and 17-8 last year. This was offset by the top performance being female in both cases. Sadly this year, the boys make it a hat-trick of wins with a 15-10 win, and as you’ll see once you’ve got to the bottom, they’ve taken three of the top five spots as well, including the number one. Here’s hoping that, next year, there are enough decent female roles to give the fairer sex a chance of winning this list for once.
25. Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion
We’ll start with the only person to appear on all three of my best performance lists, one of this country’s finest actresses who dipped her first toe into the blockbuster pool this year. Not surprising, given that Tom Cruise has shown a consistent career pattern for matching himself up with high calibre opposition in the acting stakes, and Riseborough acquits herself beautifully as the wife who turns out to be more than meets the eye; she’s the standout in a cast of fine actors delivering so-so performances.
24. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Whatever you think of the politics, and to my mind the most generous view is that ZDT fudges the issue somewhat, the solid iron core of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest is Jessica Chastain’s hypnotic performance. Determination shines through, but there’s never an opportunity to descend into histrionics; instead, Chastain has a controlled urgency and steel that will carry the film through. Would have been interesting to see how this panned out had Bin Laden not been killed during the film’s development, thus creating an entirely different ending.
23. Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back
You want easygoing charisma, but with someone who can deliver heart as well? Sam Rockwell’s your man, baby. With Steve Carell playing against type and most of the rest of the cast delivering solid work, the standouts are the park workers who take Liam James’ Duncan to their hearts. While both Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film’s creators, deliver noteworthy performances in support it’s Rockwell who’s the main man, in every sense.
22. Simon Pegg, The World’s End
One of the most notable facts of the Cornetto trilogy is how much the actors appearing in multiple films have been able to vary their characters between films. The reluctant heroism of Shaun Riley and the relentless orderliness of Nicholas Angel have here been replaced by a Simon Pegg that’s scruffy, unkempt, fairly loathsome and somewhere past redeemable, but Pegg still manages to find enough greasy charm to keep him at the heart of this apocalypse in waiting, and by the end you’re rooting for him despite yourself.
21. Will Forte, Nebraska
It’s the two older members of the family, Bruce Dern and June Spirgg, that are so far getting all of the awards attention, but you only need to go back and watch MacGruber – Will Forte’s ill-advised Saturday Night Live sketch upgraded to the big screen – to realise what a stretch David Grant could have been. Instead, Forte imbues his devoted sun with a world-weariness but a commitment to his family and gives Dern and Sprigg the chance to walk away with the bigger moments. Hopefully this won’t be a one off for Forte now he’s proven he can do it.
20. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Enough Said
While James Gandolfini has been taken from us too soon, and his performance here is a fitting close to a great career, the biggest achievement of Enough Said is to get me to like Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I don’t know what it’s been about her performances in the likes of Seinfeld (and admittedly I haven’t seen Veep), but here she’s charming and affable, despite her character’s more misguided choices at various junctures. Might be time for me to revisit some of her earlier work.
19. Robert Redford, All Is Lost
When you’ve got one actor in your film with just a handful of lines, you’d better make sure he’s worth looking at. You’d probably struggle to do better than J.C. Chandor did in getting Robert Redford on board, strong enough to be able to build his performance from tiny gestures and small actions. Oh, and getting to bellow the f-word once near the end. But I could stare into the weathered crags of Redford’s face all day.
18. Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Once again, stealing away the true honours from underneath Chris Hemsworth’s necessarily more showy performance as James Hunt, Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda is the – if you’ll pardon the pun – driving force of Ron Howard’s typically emotional but surprisingly effective look at when Formula One was a bit more interesting. It’s to Bruhl’s credit that your sympathies don’t all sit with Hunt, and he manages to retain his bristly edges while having the more interesting relationship. (And was it just me, or did you not recognise Olivia Wilde as Hemsworth’s wife?)
17. Matthew McConaughey, Mud
2014 looks like being another peak in the Matthew McConaughey Career Renaissance™, from Dallas Buyers Club to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But the last few years haven’t been so bad either, and McConaughey follows up last year’s deliciously evil turn in Killer Joe with this more amenable, but still layered, turn in Jeff Nichols Twain-like exploration of the characters around the Mississippi river. He’s backed up by a great cast, with everyone from Michael Shannon to Reese Witherspoon turning in decent work and the young actors (saluted in that top 10) both excellent. Yet McConaughey still manages to steal the show.
16. Ben Kingsley, Iron Man Three
On the off-chance you’ve not yet seen Iron Man Three or been spoiled by reading the internet, I won’t blow the game here, but Ben Kingsley’s performance was one of the most unexpected delights of a mixed summer of blockbusters. While everyone was keen to see the pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Black reunited, and it didn’t disappoint, it was Sir Ben who helped elevate this to the position of the best movie yet to come out of the Avengers franchises.
15. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Given the heightened sense of reality that exists in this, as much as any of Tarantino’s epics over the years, it’s no surprise that the actors really get to go to town. In a wider field than five, it would have been easily conceivable to see the names of both Leo and Samuel L. Jackson nominated alongside eventual Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. All three performances are remarkable, but for me it’s DiCaprio, continuing his run of films I actually like him in (stretching back to 2010’s Shutter Island), his was the most memorable role for my money.
14. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
While I didn’t completely fall for the charms of Frances Ha, with neither enough knowledge of the French New Wave or the subsequent films which inspired this, Frances herself still had an undeniable charm, even among the anarchy of her disintegrating life. Gerwig has graduated from the mumblecore but still retains an element of fragility, but this is a Frances who would like to put her life back on track – if only she could work out which track.
13. Kristin Scott Thomas, Only God Forgives
Thanks to the vagaries of distribution, I probably see more French films in a year than I do British films. That said, I probably see more French films with Kristin Scott Thomas in a year than I do British films. While both she and the films are normally well worth watching, it’s been great to see Kristin out of her comfort zone this year, and sinking her teeth into the role with such relish. Her memorable shrew dominates the film, and while Ryan Gosling elevates brooding to an art form, it’s Scott Thomas that most will remember of the English speaking actors when the credits roll.
12. Jude Law, Side Effects
It’s been a year when people have been willing to set aside their preconceptions, most famously when Mark Kermode admitted Gravity should be seen in 3D. I will hold my hands up and say that I would have put money on going my entire life without seeing Jude Law in one of these lists. Thankfully putting the dodgy Australian accent of Contagion behind him, his latest collaboration with Steven Soderbergh sees him filling out the kind of role that Cary Grant or James Stewart would have taken six decades ago. Law is magnetic as he seeks to claw back his life, and Rooney Mara’s also worth a mention.
11. Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Welcome to the blog of seemingly the only person in the universe who didn’t enjoy Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine. There are plenty of performances of note in the film, from Andrew Dice Clay to Bobby Cannavale, but in the midst of them Blanchett felt too earnest, too actorly for me (and I know many would say I’m missing the point, that that’s what she was supposed to be, but it didn’t engage with me). The one performance which really did is Sally Hawkins’ more naturalistic turn as Jasmine’s sister Ginger. I was surprised to discover Hawkins is two years younger than me, but I mean that as a compliment.
10. Brie Larson, Short Term 12
More top quality performances than you can shake a stick at in Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, although I do wish Cretton hadn’t quite wrapped everything up with such neat bows at the end. That doesn’t detract from any of the performances, but Larson takes her opportunity to showcase her talents. While I appreciate what he was going for in Don Jon with the silent sister, when you see what Larson’s capable of here it’s a crying shame that she didn’t get more to do there.
9. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
We may never truly know the extent of the challenge Sandra Bullock faced here, but with the acting constrained to hitherto unseen levels by the technical demands of making the space environment realistic, it’s to the testament of Bullock that she still manages to deliver a gripping performance within the confines of Alfonso Cuaron’s technological bubble. She’s well complemented by George Clooney, but Bullock proves that her The Blind Side Oscar was no fluke. (We’ll overlook The Heat and the possible proof that her Razzie was no fluke either.)
8. Hugh Jackman, Prisoners
His most memorable turn might have been as Jean Valjean in award-bothering warblefest Les Misérables, but Jackman managed to channel the same amount of raw power into the unlikely named Keller Dover. Denis Villeneuve put together a cast of wall to wall quality and most of the adults – including Jake Gyllenhall, Maria Bello, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo – deserve a mention, but Jackman takes the honours. Special mention also for looking the most buffed of anyone ever in The Wolverine, in what’s been a good year for Jackman.
7. Michael Douglas, Behind The Candelabra
I’m old enough to just about remember Liberace appearing on our TV screens, and also just about old enough to witness my elderly relatives being utterly charmed by him. Michael Douglas captures perfectly the effervescence of Liberace’s public persona, but also carries off a compelling portrayal of the man out of the limelight. Matt Damon and Rob Lowe give variously solid and entertaining support, but this is Douglas’ show.
6. John Hawkes, The Sessions
When portraying a disabled real-life figure, the actor often has to go to extreme lengths to capture that, and John Hawkes risked permanent disfigurement in his attempts to portray poet and journalist Mark O’Brien. If that wasn’t enough, all O’Brien’s looking for is to see if his atrophied body is capable of having sex. Hawkes succeeds in making O’Brien sympathetic, his humanity shining through despite Hawkes’ performance being so limited by the restrictions of the physical disability he was portraying. In another year, this would have won a hatful of awards.
5. Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
She’s on screen for barely ten minutes, but her performance dominates the film, almost unbalancing the first half, and wipes away any doubts that anyone might have had about Hathaway being a proper actress. In all the debates about whether or not Russell Crowe could sing (he can, he just doesn’t have the stage vibrato of the likes of Jackman), the one performance that took all the credit was Hathaway’s. We should all be thankful that the definitive I Dreamed A Dream is no longer Susan Boyle’s.
4. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
In the terms of the old footballing cliché, it’s a performance of two halves, Saint. The majority of Hanks’ performance is the defiant captain, attempting to keep his crew calm and to react as best he can to the invasion of Somali pirates. It’s all decent enough, but Hanks can do this stuff in his sleep. It’s the last fifteen minutes where Hanks truly reminds us why he’s already the holder of two Academy Awards, with a performance that quite literally took my breath away. It’s also testament to Paul Greengrass’ continuing ability to match big spectacle with quality performances, but it wouldn’t have worked without Hanks in the title role.
3. James McAvoy, Filth
Ever since he came to prominence on TV’s Shameless, James McAvoy has been looking for a showcase for his vast talents, and in Filth he may just have found it. Let loose to be as abhorrent as possible, McAvoy is a magnetic screen presence, always looking to up the shock factor and as comfortable with the black humour as the even bleaker drama. Also memorable in the slightly disappointing Trance, hopefully McAvoy will get a chance to add more layers to his young Charles Xavier this year in Days Of Future Past.
2. Adele Exarchopolous, Blue Is The Warmest Colour
You have to feel slightly sorry for Lea Seydoux, giving an astonishing performance but still managing to be slightly overshadowed by Adele Exarchopolous’s incredible portrayal of the twists and turns of young love. To be stripped bare physically is one thing, but the naked emotion that Adele shows in her relationship with Emma is the all-consuming heart of the film. I still maintain the same points could have been said in less than three hours, but if Exarchopoulos doesn’t get some recognition for this come awards season, then something is seriously wrong.
1. Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
So, for the first time my performance of the year is won by a man, but there is a suspicion of cheating here. It’s difficult to believe that Steven Spielberg didn’t hop in a souped-up Delorean and head back to the 1860s, bringing back with him possibly the most revered American president with him. That Daniel Day Lewis is a great actor would never have been in question, but that Spielberg pursued him for almost a decade shows just how essential his performance is to the success of Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic.
It doesn’t feel enough to even say that Daniel Day Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln; Lewis inhabits every fibre and pore of Lincoln, and his usual meticulous preparation and method (no-one was allowed to talk to him in their natural accent on set, all having to effect their character when talking to him), but it results in a performance that was without equal over the course of the year. From acting in 20 films, he’s had five Academy Award nominations and three wins and he must surely qualify as the finest actor of his generation. Daniel Day Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln IS my top performance of 2013.
It’s performance time again. For the second year, I’ve picked out the two dozen and a bit best performances of the year. The qualification for this list is as follows: new releases or film festival films in 2012 (excluding some of the films I saw at London film festivals that I hope will get some form of reasonable distribution next year). I also make no distinction between actor or actress, and supporting or lead performance, and only one performance per film. This means that the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams miss out for The Master (so guess who doesn’t), but I’ve tried to spread the love as widely as possible by doing this, rather than allowing a small number of films to dominate. I will try to mention other worthy performances for each film as I go, but in the quite likely event I forget, I’m sure you’ll know who they are.
These, then, are the top performances of the year in my eyes. There are a few honourable mentions: as well as Amy Adams, the likes of Richard Jenkins, Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Keira Knightley, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Mark Duplass and Ralph Fiennes did sterling work across a number of different films, no single performance of theirs quite stood out enough for me to make the list. Without further ado, here’s the top bits of acting from 2012.
25. Tommy Lee Jones – Hope Springs
Giving grumpy old men a slightly better name, Jones has the thankless task in Hope Springs of being the bad guy in Meryl Streep’s loveless marriage, so has to be unsympathetic enough to move the plot forward but not so much that you don’t want the pair to reconcile later. To pull this off, while still managing to be satisfyingly grouchy, is a real achievement and while the plot gears that Hope Springs works through are generally both unsurprising and somewhat unsatisfying, Tommy Lee Jones does at least help that gear change to pass with the minimum of grinding. (In every sense, thankfully.)
24. Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts Of The Southern Wild
They say never work with children or animals, even more of a challenge when neither beast nor child in question has appeared on screen previously. Making it look easier than I’m sure it is, top Scrabble name Quevenzhané Wallis steals the film from the rest of her co-stars with a fierce performance. (Before you all write in, I know you couldn’t actually play her name in Scrabble, unless it turns out that a quvenzhané is a type of French toothbrush for fish or something.) Anyway, it will be interesting to see if Little Miss Wallis has caught the acting bug from this, as based on her performance here, there’s little she should fear to tackle.
23. Channing Tatum – 21 Jump Street
We discovered two things this year about Channing Tatum: he’s apparently quite good at comedy, as seen in 21 Jump St, and he’s also very good at stripping, as seen in Magic Mike. This may have somewhat obscured the fact that in everything he was in last year, he’s been quite good at acting (to the extent it’s rumoured he’s been written back into the GI Joe sequel after having been killed off early on originally). I’ll be totally honest, seeing him strip wasn’t really my cup of tea but any time he wants to do any more acting, I’ll be queuing up.
22. Denis Lavant – Holy Motors
It’s difficult to know whether Holy Motors is a great acting challenge or actually not much of a challenge at all. Given the almost total free rein, it would be easy to think that Denis Lavant really couldn’t go wrong, as how would you know if he did? Could all just be another comment on the artifice of performance or something. But it’s the sheer range of characters that he creates here that stands out, playing the more gentle emotions as well as the more obvious shock and humour. But everything, from fighting to accordion playing to licking a giant cyberalien’s private bits is done with the utmost conviction.
21. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Looper
The main problem with casting a younger version of someone as familiar as Bruce Willis is that we all know what a young Bruce Willis looks like; think just slightly younger than Moonlighting and you’re about there. Sure, there’s a bit of prosthetic work that’s gone in to bridging the more obvious differences, but Gordon-Levitt does such a good job of portraying what you’d imagine the younger version of Bruce’s character to be, it almost makes you wish they’d stuck the fake nose on Bruce Willis to see if he could have done such a convincing job.
20. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard – A Royal Affair
It’s another fine acting line, and the one that Mikkel Folsgaard is treading here is the one which requires him to show both madness and an angry authority. In a film where the quieter performances of Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander could be overshadowed, Folsgaard has just enough fun with the role of King Christian to keep you entertained early on, but exudes enough menace later to make him a credible threat to the other characters.
19. Darren Beaumont – Frank
Frank picked up a Raindance nomination at the British Independent Film Awards earlier this year, and Darren Beaumont’s performance as the titular character was a fantastic character study, so much so that I hadn’t realised I was sat two seats away from him while I watched the film at the Cambridge Film Festival earlier this year. The film itself is a dark vision and an acquired taste, but Beaumont’s fearless turn at its centre is one of the key ingredients (along with Richard Heslop’s writing and direction) that makes it work so well.
17. Aksel Hennie – Headhunters
The next acting combination to be pulled off on this list is to range from sleazy and confident (the mirror image of Nicolaj Coster-Waldau’s driven Clas) to the petrified, on the run weasel that his actions drive him to be. It’s also another combination that doesn’t easily provoke sympathy, but somehow Rennie pulls it off, despite being a thoroughly contemptible character from the start.
16. Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
It was Heath Ledger that previously stole all of the plaudits for The Dark Knight, for being seen to extend his range to levels not thought previously possible. While Anne Hathaway doesn’t quite undergo the same level of transformation, she absolutely nails her portrayal of Selina Kyle in a way that fits perfectly into the Nolan Bat-verse and stands comparison favourably with the other better screen Catwomen as much as Ledger did. Thankfully Halle Berry’s interpretation is now a distant memory, which I’m sure you’re already thanking me for dredging up.
15. Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Every single department of Skyfall was honed to a point where it felt like a high quality regular movie, rather than the 22nd sequel in a franchise creaking under the weight of its own history. That extended comfortably to the acting, where Judi Dench finally got the chance to show off her skills on an extended basis, but the biggest risks were taken in the bad guy department. Javier Bardem has now carved out two iconic bad guy roles, so let’s hope his natural flair for them doesn’t leave him too typecast in Hollywood-type product.
14. Brit Marling – Sound Of My Voice
Following last year’s Another Earth, another high concept drama with sci-fi undertones featuring Brit Marling, and in this case she was a key reason for its success. Rather than the passive centre of Another Earth, Marling’s Maggie sits on the periphery here, only to gradually dominate proceedings and it’s the ambiguity of her performance that gives the drama much of its power.
13. Willem Dafoe – The Hunter
This quiet Australian drama had an absolute rock in its foundations, with a riveting central character study from Willem Dafoe. Sympathetic but absolutely not warm or fluffy, Dafoe’s brusque hunter serves to keep proceedings just about interesting throughout, and while the movie can’t sustain its success on the strength of a single performance, Defoe gives it a pretty good go.
12. Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Charlize Theron had a pretty good year, although her other main performance in Snow White And The Hunstyawn was somewhat wasted on the material. Not such an issue here as Jason Reitman’s direction and Diablo Cody’s spiky script allowed Theron’s misguided misanthrope to beat a path through all the human kindness and two-faced bitching around her. It’s all the more satisfying that Theron manages to achieve humanity without her character achieving any real redemption.
11. Tom Hardy – Lawless
His most talked about – and impersonated – performance might have been behind a mask in Nolan’s summer blockbuster, but this performance in John Hillcoat’s twentieth century Western was the absolute antithesis, Hardy maintaining power and threat despite mumbling his way through most of his lines. His character’s through line in the narrative and eventual fate are also one of the highlights of a slightly underwhelming script.
10. Matthew McConaughey – Killer Joe
If I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s how to spell Matthew McConaughey without looking it up. He’s followed up last year’s entertaining but lightweight The Lincoln Lawyer with two turns this year, each as magnetic as the other, and while Magic Mike allowed him to show off to his fullest both physically and dramatically, it’s the understated menace that seeps from every pore, even – maybe especially – when he’s armed with nothing but a chicken drumstick that put McConaughey back on the map again. *goes to check McConaughey spelling one more time, just in case*
9. Dane De Haan – Chronicle
Also popping up and showing his range in Lawless, it’s this calling card as the disturbed Andrew in super-powered camcorder flick Chronicle that’s likely earned Dane De Haan the role of Harry Osborn in the Amazing Spider-Man sequel now in production. Let’s hope he can bring that same edginess and defiance to that role as he does to this one, as much of Chronicle’s success stems from De Haan’s willingness to push boundaries and keep it dark.
8. Andrea Riseborough – Shadow Dancer
I still believe Andrea Riseborough is the most undervalued actress working today, and she’s followed up fantastic work in the likes of Never Let Me Go, Resistance and Brighton Rock last year with another memorable role as the troubled IRA member forced to work as a double agent by the British. I’m intrigued to see what will come of her next role, one of the two female lead roles opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion, but I’ve no issues with her pushing her range given the talent she’s shown so far.
7. Jean-Luc Trintignant – Amour
Emanuelle Riva’s role in Michael Haneke’s dark meditation on old age and the inevitable ravages of time might have been the more physically and technically demanding, but it’s Jean-Luc Trintignant through whom the audience experiences the full weight of pain and suffering, and it’s to Haneke’s credit that he managed to tempt Trintignant out of retirement to play the male lead here. He carries the role with incredible dignity, even when faced with extreme suffering, and it’s actually testament to what can still be achieved despite advancing years.
6. Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
As I’ve already said in other posts, I’m not a huge fan of SLP, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the continuing development as an actress of Jennifer Lawrence. Deserving of the Oscar she didn’t get for Winter’s Bone, and showing she can work in the mainstream just as effectively in X-Men: First Class, it was a toss up between this and The Hunger Games for which was the better performance this year, and while this turn just edges it, the subtlety of her work in Hunger Games shouldn’t be underestimated.
5. Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Another in the up-and-coming roster of great American actresses, the good Olsen sister shone on our screen both in Josh Radnor’s self-indulgent and chewy Liberal Arts, but also in yet another great movie this year about cults and their effect. Given her ability to do both charming and distant so effectively, hopefully this is just the start of a promising career. Next up for her, also showing she’s not afraid to take a few risks, is the Spike Lee Oldboy remake.
4. Michael Fassbender – Shame
Baring his body might have gotten all the attention, but baring his soul was what really made Shame the best performance in Michael Fassbender’s career so far. He’s had one of those years when it felt like he was in everything, also cropping up in A Dangerous Method, Haywire and most memorably in Prometheus as the android in plain sight. But it was his driven, desperate turn at the beginning of the year that seared itself onto my memory.
3. Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Another good year for former Bond villain Mikkelsen, with strong performances in both A Royal Affair and this, Thomas Vinterberg’s terrifyingly plausible chiller. Even without the social relevance that other events in this country have unwittingly brought it, The Hunt would still have been completely gripping, and it couldn’t have worked without Mikkelsen’s bewildered and ultimately angry performance as the wronged school teacher. Such a shame that acting in foreign language films is so often overlooked at awards time.
2. Joaquim Phoenix – The Master
It was difficult to decide which of the performances to rate most highly in The Master, and for a film so dependent on the success of its characterisations The Master needs the highest quality of acting to succeed. Phoenix’s performance might be the most showy of the three main protagonists, but it also carries with it the biggest range and his barely controlled rage and what might be one of the most effective portrayals of inebriation on screen of inebriation I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s all try to forget about that Casey Affleck farrago now, shall we?
1. Marion Cotillard – Rust And Bone
Anyone who’d like to claim that Marion Cotillard’s performance wasn’t the best of the year frankly hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
*waits while tumbleweed blows past*
Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, time to give due credit to Cotillard’s superb turn as Stephanie, the killer whale trainer who has to turn her life around after an unfortunate accident leaves her crippled both physically and emotionally. Cotillard makes the transition to rediscovering herself compelling, her unconventional relationship with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) believable and reels out scene after scene of brilliance, embracing both the emotional highs and lows and possibly even winning new fans of Katy Perry in the process. Her more subdued turn as Miranda Tate in The Dark Knight Rises shows she continues to be Christopher Nolan’s muse, and when she’s capable of heights like this, it’s not hard to see why.
It’s the end of another year, when traditionally anyone who thinks themselves to be even the slightest bit important starts handing out awards, statuettes, globes, cubes and all manner of trinkets to the great and the good, and occasionally a few less deserving. Although cinema has been going for over a hundred years, ever since awards were first handed out a division has taken place between actors and actresses, and for most of that time awards have also been handed out for both leading and supporting roles. But who’s to say that any performance by an actress is more or less worthy than that of an actor, or indeed that a role with only ten minutes of onscreen time is more or less important than a role where the performer is in every scene?
Not me, that’s for sure. So in looking at what’s made up the best films of the year, I’ve pulled together what I believe are the best performances of the year. There are only two criteria that I’ve applied – I’ve only picked the best single performance from each performer, and I’ve only picked my favourite single performance from a single film. I’ve seen a lot of films this year, so there’s a lot of worthy performances that didn’t make the cut – these are the top 25 that left the biggest impression on me in 2011.
25. 50/50 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
There’s enough of a history of prostate cancer in my family that, even with regular testing, I might end up facing the situation encountered by JGL’s Adam in 50/50, and I’ve often wondered how I’d react. I don’t need to any longer, as Joe’s portrayal of coming to terms with news of The Big C felt pretty much spot on. There’s a number of supposedly brave decisions that an actor can take in the name of their art, and shaving your head is one of them, but it’s to this actor’s credit that the physical quirks never overpower an understated but extremely effective performance.
24. Weekend – Tom Cullen
Weekend has picked up a lot of indie attention this year for its take on relationships, and the fact that it’s a relationship between two men became almost incidental as the central story was so strong. Credit for that must go not only to Andrew Haigh’s strong writing but to the performances of the two leads, and while Chris New has the slightly more showy role, it’s Tom Cullen’s mix of ease and angst that was the slightly stronger showing. Hopefully this will be a springboard for both Cullen and New to go onto bigger and equally good things.
23. X-Men: First Class – Michael Fassbender
Looking for the next James Bond? Daniel Craig seems set on sticking in the role for a few more years, but on his showing in this year’s X-Men prequel, Fassbender has moved to the front of the queue to take over when Craig’s had enough. I’m even willing to overlook the fact that his accent was gravitating strongly back towards the Giants Causeway in the last act, so dominant was Fass’s performance, especially in the early scenes. That he not only matched Sir Ian McKellen’s performance in the role but at times even exceeded that standard is testament to someone who’s had a fantastic track record over the past few years. In the next six weeks, he’ll be in cinemas in films from Steve McQueen, Steven Soderbergh and David Cronenberg, and with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to come in the summer, 2012 looks like it could be a landmark year for him.
22. The Debt – Jesper Christensen
The Debt was a film of very mixed performances, but two stood out above the others, and in particular the scenes that the two of them shared. A number of confrontations in the first half between Jessica Chastain and Jesper Christensen stood out as highlights and that was to the credit of both Chastain and Christensen, the latter simmering with barely contained menace once his true nature becomes apparent. It’s a shame that Christensen didn’t get more of a prominent role in the two recent Daniel Craig Bonds, as on this evidence he could have been a much stronger villain than either of those films actually ended up with.
21. Black Swan – Natalie Portman
I’ll be returning regularly to the theme of how actors can be perceived as brave in order to stand out from the crowd, and Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning turn practically rattled off a tick list including madness, lipstick lesbianism and even some slightly-too-casual onanism. Oh, and more madness. This is one of those “practically-in-every-scene” roles that was also a career best turn in a career that’s had some pretty strong turns previously.
20. Animal Kingdom – Jacki Weaver
In a film as full of testosterone as Animal Kingdom, it takes something special for an actress to stand out, and Jacki Weaver had that special something. After a twenty year period in which she’d been seen very little on screens of any size, a late renaissance saw her take on the role as the unassuming mother figure of the family. Fantastic performances across the board from the likes of Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce and Ben Mendelsohn make Animal Kingdom a compelling watch, but it’s Weaver’s performance that rightly got awards attention this time last year.
19. 127 Hours – James Franco
I never imagined, after his frustratingly one-note performances in the Spider-Man trilogy, that James Franco would be popping up in a list like this, but 2011 was a great year for Franco. He did just well enough as the human lead in the new Apes movie, and also surprised in the Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl, but 127 Hours became his signature role. Having very little to interact with, he still managed to sustain interest throughout the running time, and it was the fault of the structure of the film itself rather than Franco’s performance that led to a little watch-checking while we waited for hour 127; when it came, the final moments continued to show the strengths of an actor who, at 33, is just now coming into his prime.
18. Tomboy – Zoé Héran
If James Franco still has a long career ahead of him, then surely Zoé Héran is also destined for great things. Tomboy was a delightful story of the innocence of youth and the coming of adolescence, carried by Héran’s winning performance at its centre as new girl Laure masquerading as new boy Michaël. It would have been easy to make the role unsympathetic in the wrong hands but Héran carries the film completely, and Tomboy doesn’t shy away from the practical realities of such a situation, but does so without becoming heavy-handed or judgemental. Here’s hoping we see more roles for Zoé in years to come.
17. Oslo, August 31st – Anders Danielsen Lie
Another actor getting a chance to shine in a film gaining recognition on a wider stage this year was Anders Danielsen Lie. Taking centre stage in Oslo, August 31st, the story of a recovering drug addict’s struggles for acceptance and his attempt to reintegrate into society after rehabilitation, Anders was barely off screen and brings both a tenderness and an understandable resentment to his screen namesake. Although it’s already been seen in this country following a showing at the London Film Festival and a limited release, it’s been added to Sundance for 2012, where surely the profile of both the film and actor can surely only rise further.
16. Bridesmaids – Melissa McCarthy
If you want to make things particularly difficult for yourself in Hollywood, try to do whatever you can to not conform to the physical stereotype. Melissa McCarthy has never been, and likely never will be, stick thin but she still manages to do glamorous pretty well in the likes of her high profile TV roles such as the hit US sitcom Mike And Molly. For Bridesmaids, she stripped that away as well, but it didn’t stop her stealing practically the whole film away from her co-stars, and nominations for everything from the Teen Choice Awards to the Screen Actors Guild for her performance are fair reward for her commitment.
15. Beginners – Christopher Plummer
There’s often a sense when it comes to awards time that certain actors reach a point in their career when they get recognition out of courtesy, or as a reward for career achievement rather than the merit of a specific role. It may come as a surprise that Christopher Plummer only got his first Oscar nomination two years ago for The Last Station, but he should pick up his second this year for Beginners. Rest assured, if you’ve not seen it, that this isn’t a career pat-on-the-back, Plummer excelling as the father finding a new lease of life in his final years.
14. True Grit – Jeff Bridges
It’s been a bit of an acting head-to-head over the past couple of years, as both Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth have been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar two years in a row. While Bridges took the first gold baldie for Crazy Heart, Firth won this year for The King’s Speech, and while it was a deserved win when comparing the two, it shouldn’t take away from the sheer joy of Bridges’ grizzly, mumbling turn in the Coen Brothers’ latest masterpiece. Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld both deserve plaudits for their performances, but Bridges took on the hardest challenge, and successfully banished any memories of John Wayne’s performance with another majestic turn.
13. The King’s Speech – Colin Firth
But, when comparing the two, Firth just edged it; possibly justice done after his astonishingly subtle performance in last year’s A Single Man was shamefully overlooked for Bridges’ theatrics. Although a speech impediment and performing a real life character are another two of the “how to bag an Oscar” checklist, Firth is spot on throughout and is well supported by Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. Following this up with another star turn in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it’s been a good year for Firth, and hopefully none of us will ever have to watch him mugging through the likes of the St. Trinian’s sequel again.
12. Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Andy Serkis
There’s one other area where the Academy goes further than segregating and actively discriminates at the moment, and when it comes to a motion-captured performance, awards voters in general still haven’t been bra ve enough to reward a performance augmented by CGI. The computer graphics might be practically flawless, but they’d be nothing without the performers wearing the dot-covered grey leotards acting on green screens, and Serkis gives what may be the best performance yet in a computer-assisted costume; yes, Caesar is even better than the previous benchmark Serkis set, and is revisiting next year, in Middle Earth’s Gollum.
11. Brighton Rock – Andrea Riseborough
One of the most undervalued performers of 2011 has been Andrea Riseborough. It doesn’t quite feel as if she’s had the luck in landing the roles that a younger contemporary such as Carey Mulligan, but Riseborough has been outstanding not once, but three times, on screen this year. She ended the year with a star turn in Welsh alternate-history drama Resistance, and started it with a brief but heart-breaking turn in Never Let Me Go. It was more heartbreak that saw her best effort of the year, and while Brighton Rock the film may not have been the sum of its parts, Riseborough was outstanding at its core. Hopefully Shadow Dancer (with Clive Owen) and Welcome To The Punch (with James McAvoy and Mark Strong) will keep her profile high next year, but she starts with Madonna’s take on the life of Wallace Simpson, which sadly looks to be another case of her performing well in a film that doesn’t showcase her talents as effectively as it should.
10. We Need to Talk About Kevin – Tilda Swinton
Tilda Swinton isn’t afraid of an acting challenge, but how do you follow up I Am Love, where she learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent? Aside from a third turn as Narnia’s White Witch last year, her latest cinema role was front and centre in Lynne Ramsay’s successful adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel. Swinton is magnetic throughout, taking whatever’s thrown at her – most of it symbolically red – and retaining sympathy despite the difficulty of her various situations. Such is the warmth and tenderness that she brings to the role, in the face of almost unrelenting misery, that it makes the inevitability of the outcome still very hard to take, and that’s entirely to Tilda Swinton’s credit.
9. The Fighter – Christian Bale
Sitting through most of The Fighter, as good as Christian Bale’s performance is, you can’t help but think that maybe he’s gone a little too far over the top on the mannerisms. It’s undoubtedly a strong performance, and is complemented by strong work from the likes of Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, but when put in contrast to Mark Wahlberg’s defiantly understated performance as the other brother, the titular Fighter, then it does occasionally feel too much of a good thing. Then the end credits arrive, and with them footage of the real life Ward brothers, and all of a sudden it becomes apparent that Bale’s a genius, absolutely nailing the larger than life persona of his real life counterpart. In 2012? Not much. Just a new Batman movie, that’s all.
8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tom Hardy
If you played cinematic tail-on-the-donkey with the cast list of Tinker, Tailor, listing out the names and then attempting to find a great performance by going at the list blindfolded, you couldn’t not hit on an amazing performance by probably the best cast put together in film this year. When even those getting barely more than a single scene, such as Stephen Graham or Kathy Burke, excel then you know you’re onto a winner. But if forced to pick one, then Tom Hardy just edges ahead of the rest of the cast with his stunning portrayal of the man who calls out the mole. Hardy’s been around for ten years, but has come a long way since the likes of Black Hawk Down and Star Trek: Nemesis, and will follow up his impressively muscular turn in this year’s Warrior with lead bad guy duties in next year’s Batman threequel; hopefully Hardy’s best years are still to come.
7. My Week With Marilyn – Michelle Williams
I was more than a little unsure about approaching My Week With Marilyn, not only because I’d never really have described myself as a fan of Marilyn Monroe, but because the few clips I’d seen suggested that the performances of both Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier were erring more on the side of caricature. I should have had more faith; Williams has been proving for years that she’s one of America’s finest actresses, and followed up her performance at the start of the year in Blue Valentine with this cracking showing as one of the US’s screen icons, by turns an uncanny impersonation and a sympathetic portrayal of a public life that hid more of a private tragedy. Expect Williams to make a strong showing come awards season.
6. Warrior – Nick Nolte
Another name that was being touted for a while as a major contender in the supporting categories this year was Nick Nolte, but the momentum now seems to be with Christopher Plummer. It’s a shame, for as good as Plummer was, Nolte was better. Warrior ran the risk of being a sports movie full of stereotypes, but in each case either neatly dodged them or embraced them to full effect. Nolte’s performance fell into the former category, as the recovering alcoholic father found his loyalties divided between his sons, and he painted a believable character arc without resorting to histrionics. It was almost good enough to make me forget his uncomfortable turn as Jennifer Garner’s father in Russell Brand’s Arthur remake. Almost.
5. Melancholia – Kirsten Dunst
What, then, of Kirsten Dunst, denied the opportunity to make further Spider-Man sequels? Dunst has always felt as happy in the art house as the blockbuster, so it made sense that when Penelope Cruz dropped out to make the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel, Dunst was recommended to Lars von Trier as a replacement. It’s a film of two halves, and Dunst shines in both; in the first half, her wandering mind and frustrated countenance completely at odds with the order and formality of the wedding reception, giving way to a serene presence as others try to understand events to come in the second half. It’s the ideal performance for von Trier’s art house blockbuster.
4. Drive – Ryan Gosling
If I was giving out awards for actor of the year, then there would probably be only one contender. If you consider the magnificent four-hander that he’s put out this year: the lover at the end of the doomed relationship in Blue Valentine, the smooth charmer who struggles to commit in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and the young buck looking to make a name for himself politically in The Ides Of March, but it’s the role as the almost silent stunt driver in Drive which is likely to define Ryan Gosling for years to come, a masterclass in how much can be done with so little. I received some Gosling in my stocking for Christmas this year, in the form of Lars And The Real Girl, and it’s an indication of Gosling’s supreme quality that he’s so good in all of these roles. I would fancy there’s a fair few movie buffs who had scorpion jackets in their stockings this year.
3. Take Shelter – Jessica Chastain
If Ryan Gosling has been one of the year’s hardest working actors, then Jessica Chastain has been even busier, and we’re spoiled for choice in picking a role to define her talents. While she stood out among the tone poem madness that was The Tree Of Life, and excelled as the ditzy blonde with hidden depths in The Help, it was two other roles that really showed her talents. The first was as the young Helen Mirren in The Debt, showing her class and dignity even as Jesper Christensen foraged in her unmentionables, but for me her best showing of the year is the one which has her mentioned in Supporting Actress categories as Michael Shannon’s wife in Take Shelter. Not to dismiss Shannon’s powerhouse performance, but it would have been nothing without Chastain to play off, and their scene together at the dinner table as Shannon confessed to the full extent of his problems was the most powerful two-hander of the year. Not resting on her laurels, Chastain is up next as Ralph Fiennes’ wife in Coriolanus.
2. Biutiful – Javier Bardem
I mentioned earlier the injustice of the Oscars, that Jeff Bridges should’ve been beaten by Colin Firth in last year’s Oscars; I also stand by the view that neither Bridges or Firth should actually have won the big award this year, as the best performance by far from an actor in a leading role came from Javier Bardem in Biutiful. Bardem’s portrayal of Uxbal, a man attempting to juggle too many facets of a life with few days left in it was stunning, and despite the misery and melancholy Bardem rooted the film in reality amid elements of the supernatural and turned a good film into a genuinely great one simply by the power of his performance. The fact that he’ll be a Bond baddie by this time next year fills me with more glee than I can possibly share right now.
1. Tyrannosaur – Olivia Colman
But the performance of the year was that of Olivia Colman in Paddy Considine’s directorial debut. It was a conscious departure for Colman, who was well known – in her own view, too well known – as a regular collaborator of Mitchell and Webb, in both their sketch show and Peep Show, and also for her lighter supporting roles such as the dirty-minded Doris in Hot Fuzz. But taking these as a polar opposite to Tyrannosaur, it’s difficult to know which is sublime and which ridiculous, so utterly convincing is Colman’s portrayal of the charity shop worker tested to her limit by both abusive husband Eddie Marsan and by Peter Mullan’s troublesome drunk who stumbles into her life one day.
It’s a performance that’s not only remarkable given Colman’s previous body of work, but it also stands on its own terms as an absolutely astonishing piece of work. Mullan and Marsan are no slouches, and Mullan especially delivers some of his best acting work here, but Colman, under the guiding hand of first time director Considine, is the star of the show and is absolutely mesmerising from start to finish. Like Lesley Manville’s performance in Mike Leigh’s Another Year last year, sadly this doesn’t have the profile or the momentum to get the awards attention it deserves, but don’t let that detract from what is a performance so strong and so strong in the face of her character’s adversity, that if you ever saw Olivia Colman in the street, you would be unable to suppress the need to give her a great big hug.