Talking Movies

January 14, 2016

Top Performances of 2015

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films list, here are the Top Performances of 2015. 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

Kristen Stewart (Sils Maria) Who knew Stewart had it in her to stop biting her lip and actually act again? As Juliette Binoche’s foil she displayed an unsuspected flair for comedy alongside an argumentative intelligence.

Suzanne Clement (Mommy) Clement as the neighbour across the way was the heart of Xavier Dolan’s movie. She recovered from her own trauma by helping troubled Steve, and stood in for us; bearing tearful witness to events.

Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) Waterston made an unexpected breakthrough as Doc’s ex-girlfriend. She had few scenes, but the memorable mix of warmth and wisdom in the opening convincingly set Doc on his quest.

Runners Up:

Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) Davis broke out from indies with panache, grabbing a blockbuster role where she wasn’t just random NASA tech, but instead shared many archly comic moments with Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Julie Walters (Brooklyn) There was great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s and Walters provided most of it as the landlady with a waspish putdown for every tenant and every occasion.

Lea Seydoux (The Lobster) All the qualities attributed to her in Spectre, and entirely absent there, were on display here where she was icy cold, forceful, implacable, and without vanity as a sharp-suited rebel leader.

Also Placed:

Elizabeth Debicki (UNCLE) It was only in retrospect I realised she wasn’t actually a great villain. Debicki had used her commanding presence to temporarily conjure the impression of greatness from a threadbare part.

Chloe Grace Moretz (Sils Maria) Moretz was a hoot as a misbehaving starlet doing a play to gain prestige. She pulled off an uncanny balancing act between elements of Jennifer Lawrence and Lindsay Lohan’s personae.

Elisabeth Moss (Listen Up Philip) Moss, as the long-suffering photographer girlfriend of novelist Philip, confidently took over the film for an unexpected segment tracing her own independent story of artistic development.

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Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman) Norton was transparently playing with his own persona, and having the time of his life doing it, but the hilarity of his preening self-regard was balanced by his self-awareness of his failings.

Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) Del Toro cut lines to make stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro troublingly mysterious, an inspired move as he slowly revealed himself to be a man without limits; breaking the law to do the right thing.

Colin Firth (Kingsman) Firth was effectively playing The Avengers’ Mr Steed, and clearly loving it. His A Single Man tour de force of dry heartbreak now has a stellar contrast on his show-reel: his amazing kill-crazy rampage.

Ewan McGregor (Son of a Gun) McGregor rediscovered his charisma as an armed robber in a post-Moulin Rouge! best. Charming, but ruthless on a dime, he combined both qualities in a deliriously jump-started interrogation.

Runners Up:

Jeff Daniels (The Martian, Steve Jobs) Daniels’ Newsroom-based resurgence saw him verbally duel with Sean Bean and Michael Fassbender with much gravitas, but he also displayed his considerable comic abilities in both roles.

Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice, Sicario) Brolin played law-men fond of crossing the line, but Graver’s dirty warrior sought cynical order rather than law-abiding chaos, while Bigfoot suffered from incommunicable psychic pain.

Benedict Wong (The Martian) Wong was wonderful as Bruce, the ever-harried Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks; his hang-dog expression always one step away from total defeat.

Michael Pena (Ant-Man) Ant-Man sans Edgar Wright’s visual panache plodded like hell for the first act and a half, save his showpiece narration, but Pena’s hysterically distracted inept nice guy criminal kept it going.

Also Placed:

Sean Harris (MI5, Macbeth) The wiry, soft-spoken Harris was scary in MI5 by virtue of his villain’s cunning and utter indifference to casualties, and, as Macduff, he set about revenge with an unnerving feel of unfussy control.

Jonathan Pryce (Listen Up Philip) Pryce let rip as the elder statesman novelist: self-preening, condescending, and supportive to his protégé; hiding his guilt behind anger to his daughter; and denying to himself his own sadness.

Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs) Rogen’s shambling, slightly bewildered Steve Wozniak was a man on a mission, and always bound to fail, but his live-action Fozzie Bear helped humanise Fassbender’s Jobs tremendously.

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Best Actress

Emily Blunt (Sicario) Blunt is assured as an FBI ‘thumper’ who joins a taskforce to hurt drug cartels. Mission-creep gives her doubts, but she’s too dogged for her own good, staying to find the task-force’s true purpose, becoming a Creon to Del Toro’s Antigone – devotion to the law is the right thing.

Rooney Mara (Carol) Mara is terrific as the ingénue who is seduced by Carol and her high society, but has both cruelly taken away from her, and then sets about making her own way in the world. Rooney uses the most subtle facial expressions to chart her transformation from ingénue to equal.

Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) Gerwig shines as the somewhat ridiculous, casually abrasive Brooke, who stumbles through life from one disaster to the next with little self-pity and can charm and/or guilt-trip people into bailing out her last/buying into her next madcap venture.

Lola Kirke (Mistress America) Kirke impressively held her own against Gerwig as the perceptive, quiet Tracy; an aspiring writer who got carried away by Brooke’s mad enthusiasm, but never quite lost sight of the ridiculousness of her venture; and played disappointment exceptionally well.

Runners Up:

Cate Blanchett (Carol) Blanchett was rather good as the socialite whose charming facade masks despair, exhaustion, desire, and a recklessness that at times comes very close to making her dangerous to herself and others. But Carol’s fiery decision to be herself gave her less a meaty arc than Mara.

Rebecca Ferguson (MI5) Was Ilsa Faust a properly defined femme fatale or not? Does it matter when Ferguson gave a performance of such rare mystery and ambiguity? In never quite being able to count on her there was a mix of Han Solo roguery with a more enigmatic quality; even after all explanations.

Emma Stone (Irrational Man, Birdman) Stone delivered an amazing rant in Birdman as well as sparking off Edward Norton, and then displayed her full range with a quiet performance as a student enamoured with her professor in Irrational Man; articulating outraged conscience with great sincerity.

Also Placed:

Juliette Binoche (Sils Maria) Binoche was fully committed to her role as an actress over-analysing to death taking the other part in a two-hander play that made her, and her failed attempts to keep a straight face and seriously engage with  her while she PA defended comic-book movies was a particular joy.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) Monroe gave a strong performance, especially in playing early scenes with a dreamy quality which allowed an ambiguity later about her character hallucinating as PTSD before it became clear ‘It’ was very real and needed a Ripey response Monroe was well capable of giving.

 Steve-Jobs

Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Macbeth, Steve Jobs) Fassbender’s low-key delivery gave us a weary warrior who lost his mind from one damn killing too many, while his irrepressible warmth allowed Jobs say horrible things but remain charismatic till the belated quasi-apology “I’m poorly made.”

Michael Keaton (Birdman) Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback with a transparent riff on his own persona. His comic timing was superb, his lack of vanity Oscar-worthy (cough), and he outdid Edward Norton (Greatest Actor of His Generation TM) in artistic and emotional angst.

David Oyewelo (Selma) Oyelowo gave a fiery performance as MLK, whipping up a mass demonstration for a Voting Rights Act. He oozed charisma in three speeches, but was extremely vulnerable in King’s guilt and self-doubt over deaths caused by his rhetoric and leadership, and shame at his infidelities.

Matt Damon (The Martian) Damon’s best studio lead since The Adjustment Bureau was powered by Drew Goddard’s hilarious screenplay. As a one-man show on Mars his sequences were a never-ending vlog of riffs and one-liners, and Damon delivered with immense charm and comic timing.

Runners Up:

Jason Schwartzman (Listen Up Philip) Schwartzman was on familiar Bored to Death turf but he made Philip intriguing. A hugely narcissistic novelist, lacking in empathy, and casually abrasive, but also talented, capable of being hurt to a devastating degree, and perhaps too emotionally guarded because of that.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) Keanu made one hell of a comeback as a civilised hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, larger underworld, and the small town he retired too. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick too.

Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice, Irrational Man) Phoenix shambled endearingly as the perma-stoned PI straight man to a merry-go-round of lunatics, while his self-loathing philosophy professor embracing Dostoyevskyean freedom saw him deliver a truly amazing expression: guilt, fear, relief, and panic.

Also Placed:

Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) A Pacino quality came off Isaac’s performance as oil entrepreneur Abel Morales. Early, subtle Pacino. Abel would not be bullied, would not break the law, and would not accept dirty deeds on his behalf. Isaac played this principled soul with a quiet, dignified stillness.

Tom Cruise (MI5) His implausible early escape up a pole got a few laughs at my screening. I believed Cruise could do it, he’s a fitness nut. Also in other ways, but plane stunt nuts is good; and there’s a self-deprecating quality to Cruise, absent from his 90s heyday, that makes him very winning.

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November 4, 2015

Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan’s shy emigrant makes a new life for herself in 1950s Brooklyn before being tempted by new opportunities suddenly presenting themselves in hometown Enniscorthy.

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Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a part-time shop-girl for snobbish Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). That’s the only job in town, so she emigrates; leaving behind beloved sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and best friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins). On the boat to NYC she gets a crash-course in confidence from Americanised Georgina (Eva Birthistle). But her confidence doesn’t stand up to her demanding new boss Miss Fortini (Jessica Pare), homesickness, and the snide lodgers at the boarding-house of Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) – Patty (Emily Bett Rickards), Diana (Eve Macklin), and Sheila (Nora-Jane Noone). Fr Flood (Jim Broadbent) pays for Eilis to study accountancy at night-school, like Rose did, and soon a rejuvenated Eilis has fallen for Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen). But a return to Enniscorthy presents her with a new suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and a plum job opportunity…

Brooklyn looks amazing. Dallas Buyers Club cinematographer Yves Belanger, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, and production designer Francois Seguin combine to startling effect. It doesn’t surprise to see a sun-drenched 1950s Brooklyn, but to see endlessly maligned 1950s Ireland explode with sumptuous clothes in many vivid colours does. John Crowley directs at a measured pace, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay wrings great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s, the man-hungry new Cavan lodger Dolores (Jenn Murray), and Tony’s loudmouth younger brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo). But Brooklyn is a fundamentally dishonest film. This is a fantasy of emigration. Emory Cohen’s performance is halfway between young Marlon Brando and young Bruce Willis. Tony’s courtship of Eilis consistently rings psychologically untrue, and her return to Enniscorthy as (secretly) Mrs Fiorello makes her romance with Jim a trite rom-com set up and unbelievable.

A cousin of mine read Colm Toibin’s short novel on publication and dismissed it as only being praised because it was by Toibin. This film is so handsomely mounted it takes a while to realise how shallow and vacuous it is. Jim Farrell broke off an engagement because he thought his fiancé wasn’t serious about him. The subtext she was just serious about his money; Jim being one of the rugby set the poorer Eilis disdains. We are never offered the slightest insight into the moral gymnastics Eilis Fiorello, raised in mid-century Ireland, has in mind to allow her forget her consummated marriage so as to fall into Jim’s arms. And the contrived happy ending leaves one instead wondering about Jim. After being led on so cruelly by Mrs Fiorello what romantic future can he have? A grim, embittered bachelorhood?

We just lost 250,000 people in 4 years during the crash. That’s worse than Brooklyn’s mid-1950s, but it cheerleads emigration as being some sort of demented self-reliant individualist self-actualisation.

2.5/5

July 6, 2011

Top 5 Michael Caine Movies

I wouldn’t like to give the impression that I was mean-spiritedly making fun either of Michael Caine or of cockney accents in last week’s sketch, so as a gesture of atonement here’s a Top 5 of my favourite Michael Caine movies. I’ve picked only ones in which he’s the lead.

(5) Get Carter
“You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape”, “She was only thirteen”… A movie plundered both by Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan to sharpen their Caine impressions in The Trip, and arguably by Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig to make the last image of Casino Royale iconic. This gritty thriller, which is still director Mike Hodges’ calling card, sees Caine’s implacable London hard-man Jack Carter head north to avenge his brother’s death with a shotgun. Shot in stylish long-takes with a distancing aesthetic this is an imposing British crime movie that loomed over all that followed.

(4) Educating Rita
“There is more insight in the telephone directory…and probably more wit”. Caine’s jaded English professor helps Julie Walter’s discontented housewife better herself thru an adult education course in a sparkling adaptation of Willy Russell’s play, itself almost a spin on Pygmalion. But this Henry Higgins is on a serious downward spiral; drowning in drink and self-pity in equal measures, cheated on by his wife and despising his own volumes of poetry. Caine’s showy role encompasses glorious high verbal comedy and drunken slapstick, as well as the quiet drama of alcoholic misery. This finally won him a BAFTA.

(3) The Quiet American
“Oh, shit” .Caine’s dead-pan delivery of that line is emblematic of his quiet, measured and ultimately devastating performance in Philip Noyce’s 2002 film. This subtle work is arguably the finest adaptation of Graham Greene’s work since the 1940s. Caine plays the archetypal Greene character. His foreign correspondent boasts of simply observing the chaos of 1950s Vietnam and offering no point of view, no political allegiance. An unwelcome romantic rival (Brendan Fraser’s titular do-gooder) and pressure from London to break a story sparks a belated moral engagement with the ethics of American interference, and opposition to it…

(2) Sleuth
“Be sure and tell them it was all just a bloody game!” Joseph L Mankiewicz’s riveting adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play sees a rich aged writer invite his young wife’s lover, a cockney hairdresser, to his rural mansion for some vindictive head-games. Caine’s regional accent and film acting technique go head to head with Olivier’s RADA accent and stage acting style in a contest Caine was easily winning till a desperate Olivier produced a moustache… If you want to empirically measure Caine’s acting ability note how Sleuth’s entire structure disintegrates in the remake because Jude Law can’t act.

(1) The Italian Job
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” A truly flawless film; from Quincy Jones’ impossibly catchy original soundtrack and the glorious turn by Noel Coward as the imprisoned crime-lord masterminding proceedings, to the implausible gang apparently composed solely of gay aristocrats and cockney wide-boys and the deranged Carry On antics of Benny Hill, and on to the wonderfully staged Austin Mini car-chase and the definitive cinematic cliff-hanger, it’s impossible not to sit back with a smile pasted on your face throughout as Caine motors the whole film along with a performance of winning charm.

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