Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actress

Having already construed a list of the best male performances (which you can read here), as I agonise over who to include in my female selection I think it is fair to say 2015 was the year of the actress. Sure, the guys were great, but the depth of superb performances from the women of film was quite astonishing.

And that depth incorporated numerous genres too, from summer blockbusters to low-key dramas. It’s clear that Hollywood still has a significant way to go in terms of achieving true diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it, but until then at least those who have been given an opportunity are waving that equality flag by way of their respective bodies of work.

It will be the same format as before: five leading performances and five supporting performances. As always, this list is based on UK release dates.

Leading Roles

5. Marion Cotillard — Macbeth

Forgive my lack of knowledge on Shakespeare’s famous play; there is a scene towards of the end of Justin Kurzel’s visceral silver screen adaptation that pits Marion Cotillard front and centre, the camera unwilling to manoeuvre too far from her sorrowful face as the actress hauntingly laments the preceding brutality that her character helped concoct. By many accounts, Lady Macbeth’s role in proceedings is not as prominent as it ought to be, but that scene is the stand out moment and Cotillard, arguably, the stand out performer.

Macbeth - Cotillard & Fassbender

4. Rooney Mara — Carol

It is fairly common knowledge on the awards circuit that Rooney Mara — backed by Harvey Weinstein — has been campaigning as a supporting actress, but those who have seen Carol will know her role in the film is a leading one. She spends as much time on-screen as her classy counterpart Cate Blanchett who, for my money, Mara actually outshines. Therese, young and therefore still unravelling her place in 1950s New York, is the more relatable of the two and Mara plays the shop assistant with such generosity and innocence it is practically impossible not to get wrapped up in her story.

Carol - Rooney Mara

3. Emily Blunt — Sicario

Violent cartels, corporate bureaucracy and untamed revenge dominate Sicario, and Emily Blunt’s capable FBI agent gets caught up in it all. She is our eyes and ears throughout, unfairly treated by the macho lot supposedly on her side yet unwavering in her quest for answers and, ultimately, justice. Blunt had a very good 2014 playing Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow; Kate Macer shares Vrataski’s endurance, but she also bears a genuine vulnerability that only serves to enhance her humane traits in an inhumane world.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

2. Felicity Jones — The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar at the start of the year but it could easily have been Felicity Jones clutching the iconic trophy and charmingly stumbling her way through a speech. Unlike her co-star Eddie Redmayne’s overtly physical portrayal of Stephen Hawking, Jones’ appearance as wife Jane is imbued in subtlety and inner anguish. While you would expect to be naturally drawn to Redmayne’s face, it is actually Jones who commands your attention — her expressions vary by scene, telling a story and rendering words irrelevant in the process.

The Theory of Everything - Jones

1. Saoirse Ronan — Brooklyn

Speaking of facial expressions, there was nobody better in 2015 at relaying meaning through eye movement than Saoirse Ronan. The supporting cast, the screenplay, the setting, the direction — it is all there and it is all very good. But Brooklyn is Ronan’s movie and she rinses every emotional fibre out of every second she has on-screen. In Eilis, Nick Hornby’s screenplay funds a beautiful character; Ronan gives her depth and richness. How often have we bore witness to failed romantic endeavours on film? To false partnerships fuelled by an over-eagerness to retread well-worn paths? Brooklyn avoids that trap by focusing not just on its protagonist’s relationship status, but on Eilis’ actual life too. It’s all about the Irish immigrant and as such the film rests entirely on Ronan’s shoulders. Her acting muscles more than support the weight.

Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan

Supporting Roles

5. Rebecca Ferguson — Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

Unknown quantity Rebecca Ferguson sprung onto the scene towards the end of a blockbuster heavy summer, and in Rogue Nation she seems to be relishing every minute. Affording the action genre some much-needed female flair alongside the likes of Daisy Ridley and Charlize Theron (it pained me to leave Theron off the previous list), Ferguson exchanges wit and brawn with Tom Cruise and more than holds her own. She has been cast — alongside Emily Blunt, no less — in the highly anticipated Girl on the Train adaptation, and with justification.

Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation - Rebecca Ferguson

4. Jessica Chastain — Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro’s Victorian splendour-piece divided opinion upon release. I liked it, and a lot of that had to do with Jessica Chastain’s chilly turn as plotting sister Lucille (come on, even her name denotes bad news). She maintains an eerie distance throughout the movie, seemingly ambivalent to the romance between her brother (Tom Hiddleston) and his muse, played by Mia Wasikowska. Of course when the you-know-what inevitably hits the fan, Chastain unleashes a furore that has you grinning and then grimacing.

Crimson Peak - Jessica Chastain

3. Kate Winslet — Steve Jobs

In an interview with Wittertainment captain Simon Mayo, Kate Winslet revealed just how dense Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay was, though admitted her co-star Michael Fassbender had the toughest challenge given his ever-present showing. As Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ personal adviser of sorts, Winslet’s words often carry a practicality born out of fondness for the ideas man. She is only person throughout the film whose appearance normalises Jobs; as he is knocking back all other individuals with undisguised hostility, you still find yourself invested his relationship with Hoffman and a lot of that is down to Winslet’s receptive allure.

Steve Jobs - Kate Winslet

2. Alicia Vikander — Ex Machina

A number of test sessions act as a segmented pivot from which Ex Machina’s ideas are spun and examined, interviews designed to analyse an android’s capacity for humanness. The android in question is Ava, played with uncanny stoicism by Alicia Vikander: she somehow looks like both a robot and a human, and somehow acts with both an artificial and authentic inclination too (“She moves with odd mechanical smoothness and glides with inhuman grace”). Vikander draws us in under a guise of mystery and does not relent until it is too late. We’ve been had — brilliantly.

Ex Machina - Alicia Vikander 3

1. Fiona Glascott — Brooklyn

I think any supporting player worth their salt should seek to achieve two things: remain present and effective in auxiliary scenes, and inject the overall story or main character with added substance. The second of those is especially important, and it’s something that Fiona Glascott does poignantly. She plays Eilis’ older sister who remains in Ireland while her sibling traverses the Atlantic. The pair share a few quietly moving moments pre-trip and although Glascott does not figure an awful lot thereafter (apart from a dinner scene bursting with suppressed grief), her presence constantly lingers over the movie. It appears the actress won’t be formally recognised at the Oscars, which is a shame. We’ll always have John Crowley’s film though, and that is indelible.

Brooklyn - Fiona Glascott

Images credit: Collider, The Telegraph

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight PicturesLionsgate, Paramount PicturesStudioCanal, Universal StudiosThe Weinstein Company

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Steve Jobs (2015)

★★★★

Steve Jobs PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); November 13th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels

That it has taken the combined efforts of a handful of cinema’s specialists to create a portrait of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, he himself a specialist in complexity, is somewhat fitting. Others have tried and subsequently missed the mark. Perhaps films such as Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs lacked the raw materials to match the man, languishing instead in a pit of shallow personification. Shallowness is certainly not a characteristic that Danny Boyle’s pseudo-biopic (it’s more of a triple snapshot than a life journey) can be accused of. For his direction supports a piercing Aaron Sorkin script, the screenwriter’s words delivered with panache by an in form Michael Fassbender.

Steve Jobs stalks two primary areas of its protagonist’s life: technology and family. Most of us are aware of his technological feats, but here we see the visionary fear familial commitment, something Sorkin demonstrates early on. Backstage before the 1984 Apple Macintosh launch — the first of three elongated launch sequences; the 1988 NeXT Computer and 1998 iMac unveilings are the others — we watch as Jobs coldly interacts with his young daughter Lisa (played by Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine depending on the era) and her mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

Brennan is disgusted at Jobs’ lack of humanity, that his daughter is living on benefits as his business thrives. The conversation switches to an earlier Apple product, the Lisa, and Jobs maintains his unflappable detachment by stressing that there is no titular connection between said machine and his child: “Nothing was named after you. It’s a coincidence”. We don’t believe the revelation, but emotional compromise isn’t how his mind functions. For a man whose existence is sustained via precision and calculation, coincidence doesn’t seem to fit. Perhaps that is why Jobs distances himself from his offspring; he cannot deal in uncertainty.

Sorkin temporarily counters this glacial mantra by having Jobs reel off other acts of kindness, but even those are wrapped up in a commercial blanket. Donating computers to schools for underprivileged kids (good publicity is great publicity after all), for instance. Meanwhile, only after a significant amount of pestering from Brennan does he agree to fund his own kid’s future. They somewhat bond after Lisa uses the Macintosh to doodle, a positive step born out the youngster taking an interest in something her father has created, and not vice-versa. It is a relationship that improves with time, Fassbender’s delicate touch increasingly indicating greater compassion.

There’s a shot around the halfway mark that is reminiscent of the one in Skyfall where techno-villain Raoul Silva can be seen ambling towards Bond from afar, camera frozen. Here, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, brilliantly recapturing his Newsroom malaise) adopts the role of Silva and Jobs of Bond, though it is part of an extended montage delivered with a kinetic, stylish drive. This is probably the most Danny Boyle-esque the film gets, as elsewhere the director sits back and lets Sorkin’s electric screenplay absorb us. An unrelenting barrage of words does mean the verbiage can occasionally be tough to follow, and instances of humour are rarely afforded time to breath, but it really is a wicked script.

Alwin H. Küchler’s fluid lens work invokes Dutch tilts and floats alongside Jobs, funding his unique air. People constantly fuss around him, his demands fortuitously sky high right before product launches. This takes a little suspension of disbelief — chances are he never faced such family drama prior to the Macintosh introduction — but you do eventually begin to believe the hype. The man is like a rock star, a faultless salesman, and an underhanded criminal mastermind all at once. The cult of Apple is apparent too, with staff members “oohing” and “ahhing” during practice sessions. We even see Jobs wash his feet in some sort of messianic ritual.

The inventor dips in and out of the company for various reasons as the film progresses. When he ends up back with Apple for the movie’s final third, the iMac inauguration, Jobs is at his most charismatic and humorous. Fassbender affords him a chirpier exterior, or so it seems, cracking jokes and congratulating staff members for fixing problems (this clearly mirrors an earlier scene during which he unfairly admonishes an employee). It’s worth pointing out at this point that following his performances both here and in Macbeth, Fassbender ought to start dusting off the awards circuit apparel. The Irish star captures Jobs’ imperfect allure, but it is how the actor wins our empathy that truly astounds.

The spikiness remains. Issues with his now teenage daughter arise again, and it becomes apparent that the entrepreneur’s success is directly related to his relationship with Lisa. When the latter is fractured, the former is non-existent. You get the sense Jobs has spent a career over-egging one rather than focussing on both, and he realises it too: “What you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you,” says close confidant Joanna Hoffman (a wonderful Kate Winslet), often the mediator between calm and crisis. The three time-sensitive snapshots collectively tell a succinct story and, though they are a tad repetitive, watching the layers unravel is a rewarding experience.

Daniel Pemberton delivers a technologically-infused score that sounds, oddly, like the Jaws theme sped up with light beeps replacing dense strokes. A Zimmer-like quality looms large late on, reflecting our central figure’s faux-heroic transformation. Camera filters change with each passing season, incorporating both rustic woodiness and a crisp sheen. The surrounding textures alter too — plastics make way for glass as the old oblong age evolves into a pre-Millennium new age that favours smoothness (see the difference between the rectangular Macintosh and the curved iMac).

Steve Jobs’ world makes sense to him but nobody else, and the film clearly expresses that. There are verbal jousts too with former partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), most of which highlight Jobs’ ignorance. But this is not a hatchet job. It is not a character assassination. Boyle’s picture is instead a contained examination of a convoluted man, a piece that refrains from taking sides and, in truth, never really suggests there were any sides to take in the first place.

Steve Jobs

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures