Talking Movies

January 17, 2014

Top Performances of 2013

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2013. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Ellen Page (The East) Page is extremely menacing as the forceful Izzy, so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but almost mythological in her convictions and actions as lieutenant of eco-terrorists The East.

Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) Acting plaudits mysteriously went to Jessica Chastain’s petulant heroine, but it was Ehle’s humane turn as the wiser, more plausible agent that gave the film its emotional grounding.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (White House Down) Giving it EVERYTHING, she’s so ferociously committed, especially in scenes of betrayal and redemption, that her dignity makes all the nonsense around her plausible.

Runners Up:

Melanie Laurent (Now You See Me) To an extent Laurent is playing French Agent Mulder. She wants the criminals she’s hunting to employ real magicks – and her willingness stands in for the audience perfectly.

Elizabeth Debicki (Gatsby) Short-shrifted by Baz ,who deleted her final scene, the Aussie newcomer stood out as Jordan Baker, her drawling accent, flapper look, and careless air redeeming part of the film’s mess.

Lola Creton (Something in the Air) As the most sensible of all the young socialist revolutionaries we meet in early 1970s France she’s later sadly abandoned by the script, but has impressed enough to be missed…

Also Placed:

Rila Fukushima (Wolverine) As the petite samurai who teams up with Logan she’s instantly adorable as a warrior with a softer side.

Gal Gadot (Fast 6) Gadot is there for her looks, but she manages to inject an unexpected undercurrent of sadness to her part.

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Best Supporting Actor

James Franco (Spring Breakers) Franco’s turn as bling-adorned terrible rapper Alien, constantly muttering “for real” and “spring break forever”, was a terrific use of charisma to glamorise a seedy criminal.

Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) A Fassbendering Kingsley showed great range as he found very surprising comedy in The Mandarin, despite having a traumatising scene where he tested the President live on TV.

Sam Shepard (Mud) His mysterious neighbour was a tour de force as he brought to life a character who keeps to himself yet has acquired over his life insight, wisdom, and ruthlessness he employs to guard a select few.

Jacob Lofland (Mud) Neckbone rode a motorbike and pilot a motorboat but he was a contemporary Tom Sawyer and newcomer Lofland was wonderfully naturalistic as the more cautious of the two teenagers.

Runners Up:

Keith Carradine (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Carradine puts his now considerable gravitas into his toughened by life mentor who has been hurt by his charges but is still deeply invested in assuring their happiness.

Rob Lowe (Behind the Candelabra) He was hysterically funny as a plastic surgeon whose eyes never seemed to quite fully open after a facelift and who seemed barely conscious at times as he pushed pills.

Samuel L Jackson (Django) An almost unrecognisable Jackson was sensational as the house slave Stephen, in the best acting performance he’s given in years he was racist beyond belief because it secured his status.

William H Macy (The Sessions) His priest was vital to the success of the film, as he counselled its crippled hero he mixed sincere but inept attempts at being matey with a forgiving theological approach.

Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Foster gave an unshowy performance as the taciturn face of the law, but it was a performance that didn’t seek to conceal a far sweeter note than his usual hard man.

Also Placed:

Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) Clarke was on fine form as the torturer par excellence who burns out from the job.

Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) His radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens was a very funny slice of TLJ with extra intelligence.

David Schwimmer (The Iceman) He was unrecognisable as the inept Jewish mobster trying to pass himself off as being Italian.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Escape Plan) Arnie freaked out – in German! I want to see newly cuddly Arnie speak German more often.

Jim Carrey (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) Carrey is wonderfully callous and rude as an obnoxious David Blaine type.

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Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) Essaying a comic Blanche DuBois  she was able to shift from gorgeous and intelligent to haggard and schizophrenic within a scene by dint of sheer facial expressiveness. More extraordinarily she was also able to retain audience sympathy despite being vicious.

Brie Larson (Short Term 12) Larson is terrific as chief counsellor Grace, enigmatic even to her live-in boyfriend, she’s an unknowable figure who reveals little of herself for most of the film, and can switch from companionable and warm to commanding and cold in a second when needed.

Jennifer Lawrence (Catching Fire) Lawrence nuanced her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of her surrogate little sister, slain District 11 tribute Rue, was devastating and her final gesture in the Quarter Quell iconic.

Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed) Sullenness has never been so loveable. A sub-plot that’s dispensable puts a lot of pressure on a slight plot, and it’s hard to think anyone else could’ve pulled off this role. Plaza makes her intern both understandably saddened by her life and internally driven.

Runners Up:

Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) Gerwig was wonderfully convincing as the immature but winning graduate who hasn’t been as successful as her peers and desperately bluffs while she flails about trying to be an adult.

Rooney Mara (Side Effects, Aint Them Bodies Saints) Mara’s patient was compelling thru all her medicated character changes, while her domesticated outlaw gave nuanced glimpses of savagery behind the facade.

Amy Adams (Man of Steel) Adams was a fantastic Lois, abrasive, charming, romantic, and finally cinematically we got a reporter who discovered Superman’s true identity by dogged investigating!

Also Placed:

Mary-Louise Parker (RED 2) Parker had a tricky role as the overtly unnecessary element in a spy caper but she managed to pull it off with some remarkable absurdist comic timing in many of her scenes.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Mud) McConaughey confirmed his renaissance by deploying all his charm and naivety to dramatic import as the superstitious fugitive hiding out from the law and Texans, and bonding with Ellis, as, with irrepressible romanticism, he waited for his true love Juniper.

Michael Shannon (The Iceman) Shannon was chilling as the cold-blooded contract killer, not least as he displayed little conflict; a stunning scene in which he gave James Franco time to pray to God confirmed this; yet his love for his family kept you rooting for his Atlantic City property scheme to pay off.

Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra) Douglas gave his best sustained performance since Traffic in an uninhibited performance, unafraid to show the ‘vanity gone mad’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice, that created a character of insatiable appetites, misused talent, and confused religiosity.

Runners Up:

Casey Affleck (Aint Them Bodies Saints) Affleck was on fine form as an outlaw possessed of such romantic passion that his violent outbursts seemed less criminal than regrettably necessary to find true love.

Tye Sheridan (Mud) Sheridan gave a subtle turn as the teenager enduring the disintegrating marriage of his parents who reacted to the loss of his riverside life by appropriating Mud’s belief in everlasting love.

John Hawkes (The Sessions) Hawkes’ performance was showy in the sense that he physically discomforted himself to play the real-life polio victim and poet, but it only worked because he was so very funny.

Also Placed:

Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man 3) Sure he complicated Stark with some panic attacks but the real triumph was the envelope-pushing abrasiveness to a helpful kid that only Downey Jr could get away with.

Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) Goyer’s script too often merely sketched personalities but luckily once Cavill donned the suit he transformed vocally and grew into the role as a rather good Superman.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby) DiCaprio did his damndest to just ignore Baz’s shtick and play F Scott’s Gatsby, and if you’ve seen Revolutionary Road, you’ll know he can perform the novels, not bad scripts.

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

September 26, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s comeback run continues with a third straight humdinger – this time in a more tragic vein as Cate Blanchett essays a comic Blanche DuBois.

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Humbled socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) arrives in San Francisco, pleading poverty but still flying first class, to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Both women were adopted, but Ginger always felt their parents loved Jasmine more, and Jasmine continues their disapproval as she instantly disapproves of Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale); insisting that he’s no better than Ginger’s loutish ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). Chili, however, gives as good as he gets, and his constant nagging steers Jasmine into a receptionist job with punctilious dentist Dr Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg). Jasmine’s disruptive memories of her pampered life with ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), however, see her trying to recreate her previous social standing by landing bereaved diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). She also introduces Ginger to a boyfriend a step up from Chili, sound engineer Al (Louis CK). Will love triumph?

Woody Allen manages to combine fantastic comedy with a quite touching tragedy. Jasmine may appear a boozy socialite at first, with an unnerving habit of launching into intimate conversations about her life with complete strangers. Really she’s heavily medicated after a nervous breakdown and gets into those conversations because people assume she’s talking to them, when in fact she’s talking to thin air in which she sees Hal or other people. Blanchett is extraordinary in the lead, retaining our sympathy even as she delivers the most horrible lines. Blanchett is able to shift from gorgeous and intelligent to haggard and schizophrenic within a scene by dint of sheer facial expressiveness. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, in his second film with Allen after Vicky Cristina Barcelona, bathes the film in warm golden tones which make Jasmine’s sudden mental disintegrations all the more disturbing.

Jasmine’s life with Hal is patiently revealed in flashback to illuminate both the reasons for her breakdown, and just why Augie holds her so responsible for ruining Ginger’s life by trying to do her one good turn. Baldwin is on fine imperious form as the high-flying Wall Street tycoon whose fly-by-night practices Jasmine is (purposefully?) oblivious to, just as she doesn’t notice his endless affairs. But the other side of the comedy-drama tightrope being walked with such skill here is hilariously unhindered performances from Louis CK and Stuhlbarg as remarkably unsubtle suitors of the sisters. Blanchett has any number of waspish lines that are hysterically funny, and her relationship with her two nephews affords great opportunity to deploy them. Yet the comedy never undermines the dramatic substance and betrayal, infidelity, corruption, bad advice and bad luck subtly power the film.

The combination of two women’s romances and mental disintegration inevitably recalls Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this is a more ambitious and more successful film.

4/5

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