Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actor

A rubbish film can bear great performances, but a great film can’t really bear rubbish performances. The actor, in many ways, is the bread and butter of motion picture creation. It is his or her job to take the prescribed raw materials (a screenplay, a set, a prop) and recalibrate those errant parts through personal experience and analytical understanding into a final, visceral product that audiences can — hopefully — relate to or engage with.

2015 was another tiptop year on the acting front, across the board. Mainstream movies, under the radar indie flicks, big budget creations, genre pieces — you name it and there was at least one performance of note. Now that said year has ended and we are hammering down the motorway towards awards season, I think it is worth reflecting on some of those excellent portrayals.

These are my top ten male performances of 2015 (five leading and five supporting). If you so desire, you can check out my celebration of the work done by a few fantastic females here.

Leading Roles

5. Jake Gyllenhaal — Southpaw

A film and lead performance indicative (at least to an extent) of the first sentence in this feature, perennial powerhouse Jake Gyllenhaal elevates Antoine Fuqua’s riches-to-rags-to-riches boxing tale beyond convention. The actor has never really had a bad patch to bounce back from — unlike, say, Matthew McConaughey — but his work in recent years has been McConaissance-esque in quality. In Southpaw he plays a devastated boxer, matching a chiselled physique with a nuanced emotional exterior. It’s a shame his name has dropped out of the Oscar race, because this showing genuinely is a knockout.

Southpaw - Jake Gyllenhaal

4. Matt Damon — The Martian

It is always a pleasure to sit back and watch smart people do smart things, and Mark Watney fulfils that criteria. The Mars-stranded botanist was originally conceived on the pages of Andy Weir’s novel, and while books by nature offer readers a blank canvas to visualise content as they so please, it is tough to imagine anyone other than Matt Damon as Watney. He purveys a resilience that endears, a wit that encourages laughter, and an occasional serious streak that demands wholesale sympathy. Good thing too, given Damon spends the majority of the two and a half hours on-screen by himself.

The Martian - Matt Damon

3. Michael Fassbender — Steve Jobs

Giving a personal face to an Aaron Sorkin screenplay seems difficult enough, but turning the notoriously hard-headed Steve Jobs into someone we can somewhat relate to is something else entirely. Michael Fassbender does just that as a specific version of the Apple genius — the showman — taking us on a journey through three product launches and three personality evolutions. There is a magnetism to the way he interacts with those around him as well as an initial, purposeful iciness that naturally melts into generous acceptance. Between this and his headline role in Macbeth, Fassbender’s had a strong year.

Steve Jobs - Michael Fassbender

2. Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Transformative performances are in vogue in the world of Eddie Redmayne and it’s clear to see why: he is very good at them. Redmayne is back among the awards chatter having opened 2016 as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, but his early 2015 portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything is the superior of the two. The actor is exposed for all to see as the physicist, with very little to fall back on. His co-star Felicity Jones brings beautiful subtlety to Jane Hawking, the inverse of Redmayne’s painstakingly physical delivery. He won the Best Actor Oscar early in the year, and justifiably so.

The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne

1. Oscar Isaac — A Most Violent Year

While Redmayne and co. celebrated the industry recognition afforded to them via golden statuette, Oscar Isaac found himself devoid of even an invite to acting table. Criminally overlooked as struggling businessman Abel Morales, in A Most Violent Year Isaac — and I mean this with absolute sincerity — nears an Al-Pacino-in-The-Godfather level of performance. J.C. Chandor’s script is cool and careful, affording Isaac a platform to excel from. Abel’s aura is built upon composure and a need to maintain moral correctness, but shots are occasionally fired and with real menace. Isaac ensures we never dislike him though, which is saying something given the murky presence of vehicle hijackings and loan sharks. It’s not a showy performance, simply an utterly engrossing one indicative of a genuine movie star.

A Most Violent Year - Oscar Isaac

Special Mention: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher

Major props ought to go to the trio at the forefront of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, all three as worthy of a top five spot as any. Ruffalo reverberates with awkward allure, playing someone who is keenly aware that his younger sibling could be as talented a wrestler as he. As said sibling, Tatum infuses the nominal jock archetype with a sense of unyielding desperation and highly sought after humanity. And Carell swaps bumbling comedy for haunting creep, dressed in a prosthetic getup that disguises his usual cheeriness and instead promotes true horror.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Ruffalo

Supporting Roles

5. Oscar Isaac — Ex Machina

It has been a terrific year for Isaac — he’s also great in an underserved Star Wars: The Force Awakens role — one that got underway in Alex Garland’s mind-prodding Ex Machina. Like Foxcatcher, this is another outing bolstered by three capable performances (and, indeed, a whole lot more). Isaac juggles a host of familiar attributes, from a macho physicality to a technological savvy to a weariness brought on by wealth, and it is fitting therefore that we can never quite pinpoint his mindset at any given moment. The untamed beard helps too.

Ex Machina - Oscar Isaac

4. Emory Cohen — Brooklyn

You’ll do well to find a more charming male protagonist this year than Tony Fiorello. He is the ideal boyfriend, nurturing but not overly invasive, and never a sappy thanks to Emory Cohen. Aided by Nick Hornby’s wonderful screenplay, Cohen brings a commendable amiability (particularly commendable when you consider who he acts opposite — the interminably delightful Saoirse Ronan) and a retro flair akin to that of James Dean: the wavy hairdo, the cheeky grin, the enigmatic charisma. It’s all there.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

3. J.K. Simmons — Whiplash

There is very little else that can be said about J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn as a maniacal music teacher in Whiplash, but I’ll say some more anyway. Having carved out a career playing bit part supporting roles, it feels right the most critically acclaimed turn of the actor’s career is his meatiest supporting stance to date. As Terence Fletcher, Simmons strikes fear into not only the mind of Miles Teller but of viewers also, unleashing a poised (and then not-so-poised) ferocity conceived in a pair of all-knowing eyes. No rushing or dragging here.

Whiplash - J.K. Simmons

2. Benicio del Toro — Sicario

Mystery is the key to Benicio del Toro’s negotiation-avoiding brute. In my review of Sicario, I lauded his performance as follows: “Del Toro saunters on-screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.” That is to say, he’s quite good.

Sicario - Benicio del Toro

1. Mark Rylance — Bridge of Spies

Like the aforementioned J.K. Simmons, Mark Rylance has never really be one to court the cinematic limelight. He has primarily plied his trade in theatre, but there is nothing theatrical about his portrayal of potential Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Precision is key; you can’t keep your eyes off Rylance because every inclination, every stutter, every action appears to have some sort of meaning. The chemistry he shares with Tom Hanks — another would-be worthy addition to any celebratory list — breeds authenticity across a companionship that might otherwise have felt cold. Full Marks.

Bridge of Spies - Mark Rylance

Images credit: Collider, Nerdist

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight Pictures, LionsgateSony Pictures Classics, TSG EntertainmentUniversal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesThe Weinstein Company20th Century Fox

Advertisements

Brooklyn (2015)

★★★★

Brooklyn PosterDirector: John Crowley

Release Date: November 4th, 2015 (US); November 6th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson

When we first meet Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) she is about to work a shift for store owner Miss Kelly — aptly nicknamed Nettles Kelly, played with spite by Bríd Brennan — who apparently enjoys making the young Irish lass’ life a misery. So when Eilis’ local priest sets in motion a plan that’ll take her across the pond, you expect to see a burst of excitement, relief even, emanate from our protagonist. Yet the prevailing emotion is guilt, over leaving her mother and older sister, over leaving her home, even over leaving her downbeat customer service job.

And this guilt never truly dissipates at any point during Brooklyn, John Crowley’s richly romantic immigrant drama. A shipmate on the stomach-lurching trip to the US manifests as a friendly face full of relaxing advice: “The mistake was coming home from America in the first place”. Her caring attitude reminds us of Eilis’ older sister Rose, who is movingly played by Fiona Glascott. Glascott, along with Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, should be a main player during the upcoming awards season.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis begins work as a seller in an upmarket department store, supervised by Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré) who fits somewhere between Nettles Kelly and The Devil Wears Prada’s Anne Hathaway on the strict spectrum. Eilis quickly realises she is an errant tadpole swimming in a giant urban ocean. She’s just a normal girl after all, someone who yawns at church and rolls her eyes when discussing boys. Yves Bélanger inserts a few mirror shots of Eilis, her reflection lost and alone amongst a rabble of strangers, their faces either hidden from view or burry.

She is scared to commit, perhaps a consequence of her rough separation from Ireland — an emotional packing scene between her and Rose is subtly powerful — or maybe because she is unsure of herself in this grand new world. However everything changes after two key events: the obvious, her meeting Tony Fiorello (Cohen), and the less obvious, a reaffirming experience at a holiday dinner for the homeless (Irish immigrants who built America, who founded opportunity for millions of others though their unselfish hard graft). At times Nick Hornby’s screenplay dabbles in romantic extremes, and when one of the immigrants sings a familiar song that leaves Eilis in tears, your sentimental barometer rages.

Tony doesn’t talk much because he loves listening to Eilis’ voice. He’s like James Dean, only less rebellious, and has the perfectly poised wavy hairdo and charming, cocky grin to match. The chemistry between the two sparks with authenticity, thanks in no small part to both actors. Cohen is readymade for 50s living and the manner in which he carefully interrogates his muse is unflinchingly amiable. Ronan is also excellent, for the most part reigning in her exterior while also managing to evoke an entire range of emotions, from longing to hope, and despair to joy.

We meet Tony’s youngest brother at a Fiorello family dinner, the kid a comedic firecracker with slapstick sensibilities. Laughs arrive on fairly regular basis throughout Brooklyn and the vast majority of them are mined around the dinner table (Crowley and co. could be on to a new subgenre). As head of the boarding where Eilis stays during her time in New York, Julie Walters is frequently the pivot from which laughter swings, often humorously shutting down the film’s very own ugly sisters — they’re actually beautiful, and not related — who constantly spew mischievous mealtime jibes.

Eilis’ commitment issues are especially highlighted in the presence of Tony, though she never looks disconnected, just slightly standoffish. We will her to take the plunge, not through malice, but because the pair are clearly meant to be together. The idealistic core that shapes their relationship reflects Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne’s rapport in The Theory of Everything. It’s not physical thing, nor even an emotional one; there is a sensitive pressure surrounding Jones and Redmayne’s companionship that isn’t necessarily prevalent here. Rather, both partnerships evoke a pleasant tenderness and both are as far from saccharine as is possible.

As Eilis’ confidence grows, her happiness shoots up and her outfits become brighter. Just as she is riding the crest of an enormously positive wave, a significant event sends the water crashing. We revisit Ireland and meet another potential love interest in Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Those who have seen the trailer will know about Jim’s appearance, though upon spending some time with Tony you begin to wonder exactly how Brooklyn is going to successfully introduce a serviceable competitor for Eilis’ affections. Well it does, and the casting of the intrinsically unlikeable Domhnall Gleeson is why. Gleeson, by the way, seemingly repels poor films.

We revisit the theme of guilt born out of love and loneliness: when Eilis returns to Ireland everyone wants her to stay. To marry. To work. Distance can be both an enemy and a friend. Unfortunately the enemy consistently lingers like a spectre whereas the friend only visits fleetingly. From a tadpole in an ocean, back in Ireland Eilis looks like a misplaced New Yorker. She now has two homes and misses them both.

There is nothing flashy going on in Brooklyn, which is testament to John Crowley’s trust in the material — a solid screenplay, an unobtrusive score, a talented cast. The material, as it transpires, is delightful.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight Pictures