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

Terminator Genisys (2015)


Terminator Genisys PosterDirector: Alan Taylor

Release Date: July 1st, 2015 (US); July 2nd, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Arnold Schwarzenegger

Every once in a while, Terminator Genisys springs a countdown clock on us. Bad things will happen, we’re told, when it hits zero. If you are in any way familiar with how films work, you will know that countdowns often hit zero at the end of movies, and that is true again here. Suddenly those bad things look more appealing. For an hour and a half, Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor’s reboot is robotic in all the wrong ways. It’s frustrating, because the final act somewhat harkens back to the great action of past instalments. But by then it’s too late — time’s up.

In getting under way, we retread a backstory recognisable to viewers who have visited the franchise before. It goes on for ages, but Kyle Reese’s (Jai Courtney) words are at least visually supplemented by some advanced Star Wars-meets-Transformers combat. We’re then introduced to future John Connor (or current, semantics pending), played fairly well by Jason Clarke. Trying his best to conclude the exposition heavy prelude, Connor makes a big deal out of why it should be Reese he sends back in time to stop an evil Terminator, as opposed to any other schmuck. But his interrogation follows a scene in which the pair cement their infallible trust and comradeship. Why wouldn’t it be Reese?

This unnecessary friction exemplifies what soon becomes a full on screenplay pandemic — the creation of narrative falsehoods and conveniences lazily employed in order to move the plot forward (or sideways, or backwards, depending on which time zone or dreamscape we’re lost in). And it’s not just us who are confused. The characters do their fair share of head-scratching too: “That’s the kind of guy your son was… is… will be. Jesus!” bellows Reese as he attempts to tell Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) about her son who both has, and has not, been born yet.

The story is all over the place but it essentially boils down to Sarah, Reese and classic Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) trying to save the world. Co-writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier seem hell-bent on expunging the franchise’s mythology entirely, though their efforts ultimately produce a convoluted product. The former had better luck penning the evasive Shutter Island, but the layers of plot are excessive here and the film misses seemingly obvious details as a result. For example, there are four different Skynet bots at large: two Arnies — one good, one bad — a T-1000 policeman whose existence in 1984 is never fully explained (though his sword-like arm is at least a nifty nod to Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and John Connor, sort of. Maybe.

Caught up in the myriad of goings-on are infrequent thematic throwbacks to classic Terminator lore; the increasingly intrusive threat posed by machines, humanity’s greed for untested technological advancement. However not enough time is afforded to any of this meaty material. It is possible that scenes containing Dayo Okeniyi’s Genisys-creating Danny Dyson, son of Judgment Day’s Miles Dyson who also appears, were cut. As things stand his lack of on screen engagement is quite embarrassing. We never really find out about the character’s mindset, or his motives for developing the technology. Apparently the answer to everything is ‘sequel’.

Resultantly, the Genisys program presents itself as nothing more than an iffy iCloud. “This is the world now. Plugged in. Logged on.” That’s as incisive as it gets. The dumbing down of this once prescient franchise is something we probably should have expected given Paramount’s willingness to trade middle act surprises for better marketing traction. If you’ve seen the trailer — and we all have, it has been everywhere — the John Connor revelation is no longer a shocker. Connor is involved in a shocking moment though: his declaration that it probably won’t matter if Sarah Connor dies essentially undermines the entire franchise. If Jurassic World was overly respectful towards its elders, Terminator Genisys couldn’t really give a toss.

Taylor’s direction puts more emphasis on comedy than before. The move is misjudged, but not without merit. You get the sense the film is trying to be too Marvel-esque, too witty, when both The Terminator and Judgment Day both succeeded by being rooted in apocalyptic reality. Snappy lines detract from weighty stakes. It can be quite funny — Clarke and Schwarzenegger have amusing chemistry — but the missed gags do occasionally stick out like a mechanical limb. These characters, unlike the Avengers, haven’t yet earned the right to be funny in a life or death situation.

Unfortunately, the characters simply don’t get by via their iconography. Arnie does because it’s the same actor playing the same role, and he’s actually good fun. The others wear iconic names but they carry unrecognisable attributes. We’re told this is a different Sarah Connor and it’s true. Just not a better one. She is too outgoing, too friendly, too accessible. Though Emilia Clarke makes a decent stab at invoking the steely-eyed persistence of Linda Hamilton, the character is generic. Very little of everything and nothing in particular.

At one point Reese informs Sarah, “Me unlocking your cuffs doesn’t make you less capable,” but neither of them are all that capable to begin with. Both Clarke and Jai Courtney are given virtually impossible tasks. Courtney in particular struggles to overcome the shoddiness of his bland action man. It would be nice to see him in something other than one of these wafer-thin gun-toting roles (Suicide Squad is a dice throw at present). Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons is good as the alcoholic, downtrodden detective, rising above another of the movie’s stock personas.

Despite this plethora of misgivings, Terminator Genisys does conjure up an entertaining final thirty minutes. The action never quite reaches the pulpy, adrenaline-fuelled antics of James Cameron’s outings, but there are welcome pockets of grit. Calling upon Speed — a single-decker bus, female driver, large bridge, inability to slow down — the film switches up the intensity with visual flair. By the final scenes, we are reluctantly along for the ride and the humour subsequently works, acting as a refreshing blast of energy between the hard and heavy battles. A Bad Boys mugshot sequence is inspired.

People applauded as the credits rolled in my screening, so somebody must have done something right. Maybe this is a super-smart critique of sluggish blockbuster reboots. T-3000 John Connor talks about the Sarah he remembers, and maybe he is referring to the Sarah of Judgment Day. Maybe this film is set in an alternate reality where all the characters are diluted on purpose, and the plot points are nonsensical by design. Probably not. Terminator Genisys is as messy as its calamitous title suggests.

Terminator Genisys - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Oscars 2015 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2015

Don’t we all just love the Oscars? It’s an evening of maniacal celebration, of gratuitous back-patting, of cringe-worthy speech-making and of hosts trying to grasp the latest social trend – I’m looking at you, selfie Ellen. The folks over in Hollywood might “really like” Sally Field, but they’re not quite as fond of Selma or Nightcrawler, and goodness knows how fond they are of American Sniper (hopefully not as much as many fear).

All joking aside, Academy Awards night is a big one for the film industry. The movies nominated are, for the most part, pretty damn good too and should be heralded on a grand stage. Tonight’s ceremony is looking fairly clear-cut in most categories, but there are still a few ambiguities to be sorted.

Better get on with some predictions then. Click on the appropriate film titles for reviews.

Best Picture

American Sniper



The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game


The Theory of Everything


– Will win: Boyhood

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Interstellar

Oscars 2015 - Boyhood

Best Director

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

– Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

– Should win: Richard Linklater

– Should’ve been nominated: Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin)

Oscars 2015 - Inarritu

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

– Will win: Michael Keaton

– Should win: Eddie Redmayne

– Should’ve been nominated: David Oyelowo (Selma), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)

Oscars 2015 - Keaton

Best Actress

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)

Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Rosumand Pike (Gone Girl)

– Will win: Julianne Moore

– Should win: Rosamund Pike

– Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow)

Oscars 2015 - Moore

Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman)

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Robert Duvall (The Judge)

– Will win: J.K. Simmons

– Should win: J.K. Simmons

– Should’ve been nominated: Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Andy Serkis (DotPotA)

Oscars 2015 - Simmons

Best Supporting Actress

Emma Stone (Birdman)

Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

Laura Dern (Wild)

Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

– Will win: Patricia Arquette

– Should win: Patricia Arquette

– Should’ve been nominated: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl)

Oscars 2015 - Arquette

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything


– Will win: The Imitation Game

– Should win: Whiplash

– Should’ve been nominated: Gone Girl

Oscars 2015 - TIG

Best Original Screenplay




The Grand Budapest Hotel


– Will win: Birdman

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Guardians of the Galaxy

Oscars 2015 - Birdman

Final Thoughts

It looks as though the only real tussle – and it’s a big one – will be between Boyhood and Birdman for Best Picture. They’ll probably split the top award and Best Director between them, though Boyhood and Linklater deserve both.

Michael Keaton might yet nab Best Actor from Eddie Redmayne and despite the bookies favouring the Brit after his BAFTA triumph, I fancy the American to win in the US (cynical me).

As far as the other three acting categories go, Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette are all shoe-ins. The latter two fully deserve to win. Still Alice still hasn’t hit cinemas over here in the UK therefore I have yet to see Moore’s performance, but I just can’t look past Rosamund Pike’s stunning turn in Gone Girl. Pike should win. She won’t.

The biggest snubs of the year are probably Interstellar and Nightcrawler. David Oyelowo absolutely should be contention for Best Actor (he should probably win it, in truth) but at least Selma has top table nomination. With ten possible slots in the Best Picture category, the dismissal of Interstellar and Nightcrawler is unjustified.

Carrie Coon should feel aggrieved to be missing out on a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as should Channing Tatum in the Best Supporting Actor – or even Best Actor – category. It has been a strong year for the actors to be fair. And a word too for Blue Ruin, one of 2014’s less well-known masterstrokes.

If you’re watching, enjoy the show!

Oscars 2015 Best Picture

Images credit: ColliderHollywood Reporter, Indiewire

Whiplash (2015)


Whiplash PosterDirector: Damien Chazelle

Release Date: October 10th, 2014 (US limited); January 16th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Towards the beginning of Whiplash, Andrew, the film’s central character, chats away to his father as they crunch on popcorn whilst taking in a film at the cinema. Astonishingly, despite this double-misdemeanour Andrew isn’t the worst human being we see throughout the one hundred minutes. He doesn’t even come close, in truth. That honour goes to the talented drummer’s insane music instructor. Terence Fletcher is the teacher whose class we all sat in tight-lipped for fear of scolding. This guy puts Matilda’s Trunchbull to shame. The problem for Andrew is that he wants to become “one of the greats”, and gaining Fletcher’s approval might just send him along that path.

A first year student at one of New York’s most prestigious music academies, it is apt that we first meet Andrew as he’s drumming away. This is also when we encounter Fletcher for the first time, who happens upon Andrew mid-session and then leaves seemingly unimpressed. The same scene more or less plays out with varying intensity across the remainder of Whiplash — a brooding Fletcher brashly critiquing Andrew’s skill — and yet the film never loses steam. This is testament to a fierce screenplay, dazzling editing and slick direction, but most significantly to the performances of both J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller.

Simmons imbues his monstrous autocrat with unflinching poise — Fletcher is like an experienced hunter aware of everything going on around him. The actor’s timing chimes with absolute precision, his sweeping hand signals in rhythm with every “not my tempo” jibe. There is real menace behind Simmons’ eyes as he acts, an authentic rage that places his character beyond the usual eccentric teacher type. Fletcher invites Andrew to join his elite studio band (the student’s previous practice band comes across as a soft, bubbly playground in comparison) and is civil towards him at first. It’s obvious the niceties aren’t going to remain a permanent factor in their relationship, but it’s still a shock when Fletcher hurls a chair at his new recruit before slicing him apart with piercing insults.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle manages all of this fury by including the occasional moment of hilarity, and these often come by way of Fletcher’s razor sharp put-downs. You could play a game of ‘most degrading insult’ bingo and never run out of source material (my favourite is “weepy willow shit sack”). Andrew is usually on the receiving end of the worst of these and Miles Teller reflects the toll the taunts take via scrunched-up facial expressions and reciprocatory anger. As the film progresses he grows paler, his hair more bedraggled and dark bags forming under tired eyes. Fletcher never breaks sweat, of course. It appears to be quite the physically demanding performance too; as Teller relentlessly hammers out sequence after sequence of drum beats, all you can think about is the searing lactic acid building up in his arms.

We are on Andrew’s side from the get-go and remain there even as he develops the dickish attitude that first spawns on screen when he severs romantic ties with directionless student Nicole, played with charm by Melissa Benoist. The abrupt conclusion to their relationship is a shame as, on the off chance we do get a spot between Benoist and Teller, their interaction is a pleasurable change of pace. Tom Cross’ impactful editing comes to the fore during a flurry of super sweet date scenes and super intense practice scenes invariably relayed in juxtaposition.

The nuances fuelling both men’s desires reverberate with uneven success. On the one hand, a surprisingly emotive speech has us questioning whether Fletcher in is it to develop world class musicians or world class music. The moment adds another, more humanistic layer to the otherwise wholly maniacal instructor. Though the matter is eventually resolved, Fletcher’s ferocity flares through and it is right that it does so. Andrew’s back-story is a tad more conventional — he’s the odd family member out — and as such the character is a bit more generic.

No matter, the two actors share an awkward-yet-sizzling chemistry that suits the personas they are playing. Fletcher costs his young counterpart a lot: relationships, family life, a social life, even blood. And still we completely believe the attraction felt by Andrew in regards to impressing his fiendish teacher. A duel between the pair towards the end of the film is utterly mesmerising, exemplifying Whiplash’s technical proficiencies as well as its superb acting in one glorious finale.

At only his second attempt Damien Chazelle has constructed a really exciting film, one that is unsurprisingly propped up by a soundtrack incorporating pulpy beats and bluesy flows. It is engrossing, focused and quite the positive mark on a promising young filmmaker’s portfolio. Hey, Damien and co? Good job.

Whiplash - Teller and Simmons

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Sony Pictures Classics