In late 2011/early 2012, I did a lot of cool things here that I missed out on in the early months of this year. One of those was an assortment of Top Five lists, not just of films but of all sorts of things relating to films. I thought it was fun, anyway.
Best Performances by a Lead Actor
5) Hugh Jackman, Prisoners
Prisoners is the kind of film where everyone on screen is giving a tour-de-force performance, but it’s Jackman who stands out as the anguished father of a kidnapped child. It’s a big performance, but it always feels anchored in real emotion. The point of the film revolves around whether or not you would take the actions he does, so his actions need to feel realistic. Jackman shows chops that he rarely gets to use, and reminds us all that he’s not just Wolverine.
4) Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
As if we needed further proof that DiCaprio was one of the best actors working today. He can sometimes get lost in a sea of tics and too-specific details, but here he’s just having fun. Even in his fourth-wall-breaking narration, he brings a ton of energy to the role, and with it the movie itself.
3) Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
This is an obvious choice, I know, but there’s a reason for that. Ejiofor gives an incredibly soulful, sad performance. Since Steve McQueen’s direction is so deliberately dispassionate, it’s on him to give the role the emotion that it requires. He does more than that, though. His character isn’t a very emotional person, and his circumstances require him to conceal them more often than not. Ejiofor lets us understand how he’s feeling without betraying the character’s necessities. It’s a hard job, but he pulls it off
2) Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Llewyn Davis could very easily be an unlikeable character. He’s certainly written with that possibility. A lesser performer might have given into their instincts and played Llewyn as constantly sarcastic and cruel. Isaac succeeds because he never lets us forget that we’re watching a person, not just a character. He brings out the depth that was already there, and adds new layers of his own.
1) Robert Redford, All Is Lost
When you’re literally the only actor in a movie, there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. You need to take the audience on an emotional journey, but only your emotions are going to be traced. Redford is a skilled actor, a master of the craft, and he’s too smart to go big with his performance. Rather, his face is stone, rarely betraying his feelings. This plays into the movie’s theme of the death of Redford’s generation, the kinds of people who Tony Soprano would call “the strong, silent type.” It’s also bravely realistic. When you’re on your own, just doing some sort of task, your face is probably going to be blank. There’s no reason to over-emote because no one can receive those emotions. It could so easily have failed, but Redford’s sheer talent carries him and the movie throughout.
Best Performances by a Leading Actress
5) Rooney Mara, Side Effects
So, it’s hard to talk about this performance without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that she both makes the twist at the end surprising and satisfying.
4) Scarlett Johansson, Her
Johansson’s performance is entirely voice-over, but it’s still good enough to land in my top 5. Why? Well, it goes back to her first scene in the film. The premise of her character is understandably difficult to swallow, but right away she gives Samantha a sarcastic and sweet sense of humor which makes her easy to connect with. You’d be friends with Samantha, so there’s no skepticism when Theodore begins to fall for her. You can feel her in the room with him, just like he does. She totally sells the strange concept. This would be an acting accomplishment even if she did appear on screen. The fact that she doesn’t makes her performance truly special.
3) Brie Larson, Short Term 12
This is a movie that runs on honesty, and Larson’s performance is nothing but that. Short Term 12 has a documentary feel that would be ruined by any false performance notes. Larson’s character runs a gamut of emotions, but she never once breaks into melodrama or drops into monotony. She plays a very closed-off character, but much like Ejiofor she hides without shutting down completely. Her performance is a marvel, and while watching it you can tell that this actress is something special.
2) Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Comedic performances often get overlooked by lists like this, because there’s some sort of misconception that drama is more difficult than comedy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A good comedic performance is much harder than a good dramatic one. But from Gerwig’s performance in Frances Ha, you’d never be able to tell. She’s funny and sweet right off the bat, so that when things start to go bad for her you’re on her side. Not everyone will like Frances. Some people will dismiss her problems as meaningless and over-dramatized. Gerwig challenges that by turning Frances into a whole person, one who is the sum of her victories and not her defeats. And yeah, she’s really really funny. That’s just a bonus.
1) Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
It’s funny that my choices for best actor and actress are so similar in their performances. Like Redford in All Is Lost, Exarchopoulos is absolutely the focal point of Blue is the Warmest Color. There’s hardly a frame without her in it. Director Abdellatif Kechiche shows us every inch of her life, sparing no detail. We see her awake, in school, in moments both private and public, and even asleep. It’s a complete character study, and Exarchopoulos gives us every detail that Kechiche wants us to see. Few screen characters are given as much detail as Adele is in this film. Exarchopoulos has an answer for every character question that the film throws at her. It’s a bravura performance, especially from a newcomer, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Best Performances by a Supporting Actor
5) Will Forte, Nebraska
Forte is best known for more outlandish characters on Saturday Night Live, so it’s briefly off-putting to see him play such an understated character. Forte makes it work, though, against all odds. It’s a small performance in a small movie, but he plays off the other characters so well that he enhances both himself and them. It’s one of the most surprising performances of the year.
4) Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Making “bad guys” sympathetic has long been a way for great actors to show off their ability. But what about non-actors? Abdi had never acted before, but he brings such desperation and humanity to his role as the captain of a band of Somali pirates that you wonder if the role was intended to have as much depth as he gives it. The ending of the movie seems to subvert the ideas that he brings to it, which is unfortunate. But despite that, he’s a standout in both the film and the year.
3) John Gallagher, Jr., Short Term 12
How many boyfriend/girlfriend archetypes are there in film? You see them repeated constantly. Either they’re fun, quirky, and a perfect match for the protagonist, or they’re long-suffering, bitter, and something from which the protagonist must escape. Gallagher, Jr. defies stereotype, much like the woman playing his girlfriend. He’s so in love with Larson’s character, but he’s not willing to give and get nothing in return. In a lot of other movies, this sort of thing would be seen as selfish. But the movie is about Larson learning to open up, and it doesn’t let her or Gallagher, Jr. off the hook. His character doesn’t get a fraction of the focus that Larson’s does, but he still imbues it with depth and life.
2) Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Is this the best comedic performance of the year? I’d be hard-pressed to find a better one. It’s almost insane how wrapped up he gets in this character. He makes it okay to laugh at such a horrid person, without ever making him sympathetic. It’s a tightrope walk, and he never falls.
1) Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
I covered this extensively in my review, so I’ll keep it brief. Fassbender takes what for all the world should have been a one-dimensional villain and makes him a human. He’s not sympathetic, and his actions are unquestionably evil, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not a person. It’s such a tough line, but Fassbender’s so good that he nails the role. It’s one of the best performances of the year, lead or supporting.
Best Performances by a Supporting Actress
5) Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
One of the only good things about the movie. Lawrence is the only actor who I felt was truly absorbed in their character. Christian Bale is still Christian Bale, even under that makeup and with that belly. Bradley Cooper is still Bradley Cooper under those ridiculous curls. But Lawrence is her character, body and soul. She’s the highlight of an otherwise bland and forgettable movie. I’d pay to see a cut of all her scenes and nothing else.
4) Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
It’s hard to stand out in a movie with such laser-focus on one person, but Mulligan does. It’s hard to make a character sympathetic when you spend most of your time saying mean things to the protagonist, but Mulligan does. I could go on. This is probably my favorite Mulligan performance to date, because she takes a character with a highly subjective point of view and makes it seem like the only honest one. She hates Llewyn, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care for him. It’s a dichotomous role, but a completely whole performance.
3) Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
Did you know that she’s Australian? I know, right! She does that accent so well, you’d never guess. But that’s not the only reason she makes my list. Robbie takes the archetype of the blonde bimbo (sensing a theme with these lists?) and turns it into a real person. Part of this is how she’s written, to be sure, but it’s a testament to Robbie’s acting ability that she takes a character who is seen by the protagonist as shallow and one-dimensional – in a film exclusively from the protagonist’s perspective, no less – and makes her understandable, substantial, and above all authentic.
2) Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color
It’s impossible not to mention Seydoux on this list. Since the film is from Adele’s perspective, Seydoux’s character has to change as Adele’s view of her does. A person who is initially a mere subject of lust and desire slowly expands and deepens, as Adele realizes that the woman who she gave up her life for has little in common with her. When their relationship goes sour, Seydoux gets her anger across without becoming hateable, at least in my opinion. I saw a lot of people online who were furious with Seydoux’s character for how she treats Adele, but I thought she was being reasonable in the wake of Adele’s actions. She makes the character controversial, and surely that’s the mark of a great performance.
1) Lupita Nyongo, 12 Years a Slave
Is there really anything more that needs to be said here? So, so good.
Best Scenes or Moments
5) Solomon’s punishments, 12 Years a Slave
This is technically a cheat, since it’s two scenes, but they’re both phenomenal. The first is the long take of Solomon struggling to keep himself alive after being hung from a tree. It’s horrifying in two ways. First because of the situation itself, but second because of how McQueen shows life going on around him. People work, children play, and no one pays him any heed. This is just part of life for them. The second scene comes later, when Solomon is forced to whip Patsey. By this point in the film, the horror has been stripped away, and you feel sad more than anything. Solomon is broken, and McQueen has broken you.
4) Alvin in the ruined house, Prince Avalanche
This is a film about lonely men, and no scene better exemplifies that than this one. Alvin (Paul Rudd) goes off on his own, and finds a woman looking through the wreckage of her burned-down house. David Gordon Green gives the scene a strange surrealist quality with his cuts. After talking to the woman, Alvin mimes a typical “Dad comes home from work” scene in the ruins of the house. It’s sad and somewhat pathetic, yes, but it’s also sweet.
3) Jordan and Donnie take the Lemmons, The Wolf of Wall Street
This is the funniest scene of the year, so I can’t give too much away. It shows DiCaprio’s incredible (and heretofore unseen, I think) gift for physical comedy. The fact that Scorsese spends so much time on it makes it even funnier. The longer it goes on, the funnier it gets.
2) “The Moon Song” montage, Her
If you’re not on board by this point in the film, there’s no reason why this sequence shouldn’t convince you. There’s no difference between this montage and similar ones in any other romance film. You watch that and think, “Yeah, this relationship is real. Even though one of the participants has no physical form, it’s real.” The film only works because the concept is believable, and this montage is achingly beautiful.
1) “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” Inside Llewyn Davis
I mean, just watch it. Of every scene in every movie of 2013, I think that this will be the one that’s most remembered in the years to come. It’s not just funny. It’s fully connected to the themes of the film even though it feels so out of place in the context of the story. And the song is so catchy. That alone earns it the top spot.
Ambiguous? Maybe. The most interesting thing about it is how many different ways you could interpret it. Literally, there’s a clear answer. But thematically? That’s a different story.
4) Captain Phillips
I’m not a fan of how Greengrass wraps up the story, but the final scene contains maybe Hanks’ finest piece of acting ever. It’s a watershed moment for one of the best actors currently working.
3) All Is Lost
If the beautiful, Malick-esque cinematography isn’t enough, then have fun debating what the final shot actually signifies. I’ve seen people who were sure of what it meant, and didn’t even consider it vague until they heard other interpretations. The presentation is smart like that.
2) The Hunt
Much like Captain Phillips, I had mixed feelings on how the story ended. I felt that it wrapped up too easily, and let too many characters off the hook. But the very final scene negates that with one final terrifying moment, that lets us and the main character know that his problems will never truly be over.
1) This is the End
I didn’t stop laughing once during the last 25 minutes or so. They just kept ratcheting up the humor, to unpredictable degrees. It’s a crazy ending to a crazy movie.
Best Score/Best Use of Music
5) Frances Ha
2) All Is Lost
1) Inside Llewyn Davis
5) Computer Chess
It has the same fun, retro feel as the film. The kind of poster that’s destined to be hung in the dorms of many a college student.
It’s funny how a poster can be so incredibly evocative while not showing much of anything. You can just barely make out Bruce Dern’s profile, and the rest of him is covered in darkness. It’s appropriate for a film about a man who isn’t “all there.”
3) The Wolf of Wall Street
A man standing unmoved amongst total chaos. It’s an old cliche, however effective. The difference here is all in DiCaprio’s face. See how proud he looks? He’s not just steadfast in the midst of this anarchy, he’s pleased with himself for causing it. The movie is about people who revel in hedonism. This poster is great at representing that.
This poster makes such great use of negative space. Just looking at it is terrifying. You see the endless, empty expanse of space, with a tiny astronaut spinning aimlessly into it. The simple tagline is “Don’t Let Go.” Just looking at this one-sheet will make you want to hang on to something.
1) All Is Lost
This wasn’t the main poster used to advertise All Is Lost, but it’s definitely my favorite. There’s so much going on, and a clear sense of action and motion. The churning sea at the bottom, the tilted boat, the raindrops flying at an opposite angle, and Redford in the center straining to hang on. There’s a little bit of dodgy Photoshop, but it doesn’t change how singularly powerful it is.
5) Man of Steel, third trailer
Yeah, the movie was pretty disappointing. I didn’t hate it nearly as much as a lot of other people, but its structural issues and character deficiencies sunk it. This trailer is far more artful, thematically cohesive, and uplifting than the film it’s selling. I’d rather watch it a hundred times than watch the movie again.
4) Gravity, “I’ve Got You” trailer
Warner Bros. put this and two other trailers out within a few days. Each of them showed an uncut clip from the film. While the other two were shown in one single take, this one has cuts in it. The other two are true to the film’s style, but this one is still my favorite. It starts out slow, and just keeps building and building in tension. Even the music seems to be surprised at what’s going on. They could have released this and no other trailers, and I’d still be excited to see the film.
3) Inside Llewyn Davis, second trailer
All of the trailers for Inside Llewyn Davis followed a similar format. They used the same song, and just swapped out the footage. This one seemed like the most successful one to me, though. Even if it gives away one or two details that it probably shouldn’t have, it perfectly teases the film’s haunted tone and washed-out atmosphere.
2) The Wolf of Wall Street, “Black Skinhead” trailer
There was no better match of song and trailer this year than this one, at least for a song that wasn’t written for the film. Like the best teaser trailers, it shows a barrage of increasingly bizarre images of debauchery and disgusting behavior and doesn’t give us context. The first Inception teaser is another great example of this. It shows you some intriguing stuff, but tells you almost nothing about what ties them together. If that doesn’t make you want to see a film, I don’t know what does. The pounding, punishing beat of the Kanye West song keeps the momentum going. What a brilliant trailer.
1) Her, “Moon Song” trailer
This is just achingly beautiful. For the first half, the film’s central conceit seems absurd, and the trailer presents it in such a straightforward way that it seems more like an SNL skit than a romantic drama. But then it turns on a dime, and you realize that Spike Jonze and co. are not taking this story lightly, and neither should you.