Sunday, June 12, 2016

My 10 Favourite Performances of 2014.

I realised after I posted my favourite performances of 2015 list that I've been severely lax at doing these of recent years. So, I'm making up for lost time and completing the backlog now!

10. Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
It's a mark of a versatile actress who can tackle roles from ditzy housewife, a single-minded C.I.A. agent, and a daughter nursing abandonment issues at father gone into space. Jessica does her Juilliard credentials proud in A Most Violent Year as the daughter of a gangster who, whilst appearing placid and law-abiding, isn't afraid to bare her teeth when her family is threatened. Her borderline elegant/common wardrobe, brassy Brooklyn accent and Lady Macbeth-style tete a tete's with husband Oscar Isaac are just some of the signals that Anna Morales is not a woman to be crossed. It's miles away from her performance as an altogether more serene matriarch in Terrence Malick's borefest, but Ms. Chastain shows in A Most Violent Year that she's yet to give a bad performance.


09. Simon Bird, The Inbetweeners 2 
The four leads are all comedy gold as their hapless characters take on Australia, but Bird gets extra kudos because he walked the line between believable and pathetic most convincingly. Whilst I do find Jay and Neil absolutely hilarious, and to some extent, recognise their traits in people, they are essentially caricatures. Will's brand of nerdy-misfit who wants to transcend the social box he's been shoehorned into is something I can sympathise with all too well, and it's the mark of an astute performer that they can seize such a loserish role and slowly transform him into something of a winner in his own way. Bird's line-readings in the scene where he tries to ingratiate himself with a bunch of insufferable Gap Year poshos is both embarrassing and relatable. 

Also, the shit-on-his-face scene. Ahahahahaha.

08.  Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
As intelligent crossword solver Joan Clarke, Keira Knightley plays Alan Turing's trump card, confidant, and potential love interest. Joan's love for Alan Turing is unrequited on account of Turing's sexuality, and Knightley's poignant performance renders The Imitation Game an emotional watch as well as a cerebral one.

We view Alan, otherwise so aloof and focused, through her gaze as more than  a puzzle-solving machine (it's clear pretty early on that she has an intellectual crush on Alan) and it is really in the employment of Keira as a foil that Alan becomes a full-bodied person, rather than Cumberbatch's turn. The scene in which Cumberbatch's Turing breaks off their engagement and comes out to her, but she says she wants to marry him anyway, is really very moving indeed; I tore up when she said, 'We love each other in our own way'.

I used to be a Keira Knightley basher, deeming her more of a looker than an actor. With my re-assessment of her spirited, charming performance as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, as well as that excellent stylised turn in Anna Karenina and now this, oh, how I am eating my words. 

07. Bae Doona, A Girl at My Door 
This underrated South Korean gem has to take the prize for 'Softest 18 rated movie Emma has seen'. It was rated 18 for one scene, which, without giving too much away, really wasn't that traumatic at all, especially given what was shown in the 15-rated and altogether more gritty Precious.

Aaaaaanyway, BBFC foibles aside, Bae Doona's turn as hard-drinking police officer Young-Nam who rescues abused schoolgirl Do-Hee from bullying schoolmates, and later, an alcoholic stepfather who treats her like a punchbag when he's had a few, is a fantastic blend of empathy, girl power, and, as Do-Hee grows attached to the police officer, frustration. The rapport Doona has with Kim Sae-ron is sweet and we are never in doubt that the policewoman's intentions with the girl are completely innocent, even when the disgruntled stepfather and backwards townspeople try to spin her sexuality and caring for the girl as dirty.  Doona's performance illustrates the sad fact of life that when one tries to be a good person, others will try to spin it into something seedy. But Doona instils her character with real backbone. Not for nothing is she a policewoman; she won't take unfounded rumours lying down.

As a sidenote, due to the limited budget of the film, the leads Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron waived their acting fees. I think that's really commendable, and they did well; despite a few soapy elements, A Girl at My Door was an unexpectedly strong movie.

06. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Marion Cotillard's raw depiction of a unstable woman who has the humiliating task of knocking on her co-workers' doors, begging them to forgo their bonuses so se can keep her job, makes for painful watching at times. But the protagonists' honesty and intensity is so convincing, it draws you in like a magnet. 

Sandra's journey through visiting her neighbours who receive her request with yeses, nos, or 'get the f_ck outs' has her yo-yoing between despair, to hope, back down to wanting to give up, before deliverance is dangled tantalisingly in front of her. It's a difficult voyage at the best of times, but factor in Sandra has recently had a depressive turn, and things seem 100 times more difficult. 

When the chips are down, the audience could completely sympathise with Sandra for sacking it all off. But Cotillard knows her character deserves better than that, and the determination and sheer force of will (ironically, force of  will was something the character she played in The Dark Knight Rises exhibited too) drive her to the next co-workers' house. Cotillard is superb; I think Two Days, One Night is her best performance to date.

05. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash 
Make no mistake about it, Whiplash is my favourite film of 2014. I bloody loved it. On the whole, I enjoy films about musicians suffering for the sake of their craft (Amadeus is in my top 10), and Whiplash is no exception to the rule. Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, is a talented drummer, but who's skills need a bit of honing. In comes the terrifying Terrence Fletcher (Simmons), an instructor who takes no prisoners. He doesn't care if Neiman dies in the process of giving the perfect concert - he's giving that perfect concert.

The love/hate dynamic between Teller and Simmons is what makes Whiplash so great; their chemistry is electrifying. It helps that writer/director Damien Chazelle generously dishes the best lines to Simmons, but his caustic, curt deliveries of them are next-level. I certainly wouldn't want him as my instructor!

04. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Just how was this masterwork of an acting turn ignored at the Oscars???? Jake Gyllenhaal's twitchy performance as petty criminal-cum-accidental-footage-filmer is my second favourite performance of his after Brokeback Mountain, though it's considerably less savoury a role. 

With an emaciated frame (presumably, Louis doesn't eat much because he can't afford to), he grafts his way into the world of filming crime scenes, but, unlike other news channel cameramen, isn't afraid to casually break a few laws to get the ideal shot. As he starts to gain clout due to the uniqueness of his work, he blackmails News Channel Chief Rene Russo into dating him and becomes yet more deplorable in his unorthodox methods of obtaining good shots.

Nightcrawler is a neo-noir with heavy satirical elements, so that, as much as you're repulsed by Bloom and his antics, Gyllenhaal imbues his character with an almost laughable sense of delusions of grandeur. In his mind, he's telling the truth when he brags 'I run a successful news business'.

03. Jonah Hill, 22 Jump Street
MY MAN JONAH, YOOOOOOO. Spoiler alert: I bloody love Jonah Hill and think he is a comedic genius. Exhibit A: The Wolf of Wall Street. Exhibit B: his self-parodying in This is the End. But most of all, most of all, the Jump Street franchise. His odd-couple pairing with Channing Tatum is sensational, and, other films may valiantly try to imitate their chemistry, but it remains one of a kind, the blueprint.

Particular acting highlights of 22 Jump Street include that unexpected moment of malaise when sexy college girl Maya who he's just bedded tells him she doesn't even know if she likes him when she's sober, to which Schmidt tries to hide how wounded he is, lying 'oh yeah, that doesn't hurt at all'. His  wondrous delivery of 'it's like a giant cube of Ice!!!' when he and Jenko visit their Chief's new digs is fantastically meta.

Then of course there's that unforgettable poetry freestyle, 'Cynthia! Cyn-thi-a! Jesus died for our sin-thi-as! Jesus cried, runaway bride. Julia Roberts! Julia Rob... hurts! Cynthia! Ooh, Cynthia. You're dead. You are dead. Bop boop beep bop bop boop bop. You're dead. That's for Cynthia... who's dead' not to mention his butting in on Ice Cube's swag when they take down the baddies. Cube says, 'We Jump Street. And we about to Jump in your ass', to which Hill coattails in with '.... right in the crack!'. It's so uncool, it's cool. My man Jonah.

02. Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars
I was surprised with just how much I loved cancer drama The Fault In Our Stars. I didn't care for the book that much, thinking it rather meandering and manipulative, and the protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster a bit pretentious with the amount she kept droning on about that ONE book over and over.

But the film was a completely different kettle of fish. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort were brilliant together, and rather than find their romance forced, which I did in the novel, I was completely sold. Woodley in particular was a revelation. Sporting very little makeup and a breathing tube attached to her face at all time, she's a far cry from the polished romantic leads I'm so used to watching, but infinitely more engaging. I loved her character's graduation from initially thinking Elgort's dreamboat a bit of a preening knob, before slowly letting her walls down around him, whilst all the while being precariously aware that time was running out for one of them.

And the pathos, oh god, the pathos. I bawled through The Fault in Our Stars like a baby. And it was because I cared so much for Hazel Grace, a character who I'd found irritating in the book. Every time she had a health scare, I sobbed. When she and Gus told each other how much they loved each other, I sobbed. Every time Hazel acted out at her parents for something slightly insensitive they said, I sobbed. Woodley's performance deserved so much more kudos; rather than escalating into histrionics, as is the convention in terminal illness weepies, she's nuanced, but still retains Hazel's playful, spunkier edge. I bought her romance with Elgort down to a T.

Towards the end of the film, I was sobbing every time Gus so much as looked at Hazel.

The Fault in Our Stars is a shining example of why romance will forever be my favourite genre. And Shailene Woodley was a perfect romantic heroine. 

01. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl 
'I wasn't expecting that one!' said no-one ever. Given how every time I'm filled with murderous rage, I liken myself to Amy Elliot Dunne, and how I consider Gone Girl not just a film but a self-help manual, it's no surprise that I completely idolise Rosamund Pike for her role in bringing the most calculated villainess in movie history to life. But just because she played an awesome character doesn't mean I was bound to like her acting. Playing literary heroes of mine is a double-edged sword; sometimes I can judge you much more harshly if you're bad because I don't feel you've done my beloved character justice (e.g., Emma Watson as Hermione Granger).

Director David Fincher, who is no stranger to meticulously scouting for lead actors in his films until he's satisfied (he made Rooney Mara jump through hoops for the role of Lisbeth Salander, another fierce woman who gets revenge on her terms and her terms only), was swayed in Rosamund Pike's direction, on hearing she was an only child. Whilst that surely wasn't the only ingredient that swung things in her favour, I imagine having the pride and the burden of being an only child is something that Pike knows only too well, and was able to channel into her performance. Rosamund, like her cinematic self in Gone Girl who attended Ivy League Unis, also has a distinguished educational background, having read English at Oxford. As with my #9 choice in this list (Bird attended Cambridge), experiencing Oxbridge schooling certain hasn't done these actors any harm in taking potentially dislikable roles and making them unlikely anti-heroes.

Pike herself in an interview admitted she knew what a fantastic gift had been given to her. She said,  of Amy, 'it's every aspect of being a woman. You get to express the thing that's alluring, and the thing that's repellent. You get to create a facade and you get to strip it down'. 

And oh, how she does that. At the start of the film, the Amy we witness in her diary entries is sparky, intellectual, sassy and drop-dead gorgeous. It's no surprise that Ben Affleck's Nick should be drawn to her immediately, flirting with her at a mutual friends' party, and later heading back to her place for a bit of casual cunnilingus. As she recovers from a post-orgasm high, she tells him, 'I like you a lot, Nick Dunne'. Not long after their playful sparring, they are wed.

But then trouble kicks in. Both lose their jobs in the recession and are forced to re-root to Missouri to be with Nick's dying mother. Amy feels her husband pulling away, and he even begins raising his hand to her. Things escalate and she not only doubts her husband loves her, but that he hates her, that he wants her dead.

But does she? That's what we are told in Amy's diary entries, which jars with what Nick has to say, and when the Big Reveal
of David Fincher's delicious movie reveals something altogether different. And that's when Amy's Cool Girl Monologue comes in, one of my favourite speeches in movie history. Rosamund Pike's line-reading her is superb; the bile that Amy has nursing for years all spilling out into the mother of all movie speeches. The audience realise that they've had the rug pulled out from under them.

Pre-Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike had basically played pretty air-headed blondes (Pride and Prejudice, An Education). Admittedly, some of these airheads were hiding intelligence behind their glamorous veneer, such as in Made in Dagenham. But none had the bite of Amy Elliot Dunne, a Janus-like psychopath. Some critics had their qualms about a British actress with a track record of playing 'nice girls'  taking on such a complex, un-nice, role. But actually, playing airy society girls certainly helped Pike in her performance as 'Diary Amy', full of repartee and quick retorts, whilst not being so intelligent as to threaten Affleck's Nick's sense of manliness. 

But after the Big Reveal, when we see her true colours, Pike gets to unleash a side of herself she's rarely got to exhibit in movies. The Real Amy is far more terrifying than you could have dreamed of, even more so because you were so reeled in by vulnerable wife Amy. Her extensive revenge plan at Nick was a giant 'fuck you' at the man she felt mistreated her. It takes a special kind of performer to make Amy's entitled 'how dare Nick not appreciate what a Goddess he have for a wife?' attitude something not just I, but a majority of women can root for.

I'm not saying all women would go to the extremes Amy did, but women definitely do have the capacity to create what Pike described as a 'facade' in order to make themselves more fragrant to men, and when things go to shit, we can bare our teeth like the best of them. That is what Regal Rosamund encapsulated entirely in her turn in Gone Girl

The line-reading, the looks, the body language. The manipulation. 

What an actress. What a turn. 

Take a bow, Rosamund Pike.

--

Breakdown by BBFC rating
18: 2
15: 6
12A: 2

Dudes: 4
Dames: 6

1 comment:

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