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

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Bridge of Spies (2015)

★★★★★

Bridge of Spies PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Silence dominates the opening moments of Bridge of Spies. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is the target, tailed by a swarm of men wearing fedoras. The possible KGB operative remains stony-faced — his dirty nails suggesting foul play — as he retrieves a silver coin which, after much tinkering and magnifying, opens to reveal a tiny folded message. It’s the late-1950s and the Cold War is at its peak. The US is feeling the after-effects of the Rosenbergs. McCarthyism is rife. Trials and conspiracies dominate the landscape. Director Steven Spielberg even insists upon showing us the construction of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing chaos in Germany. It’s that kind of movie.

Back in the US, a country scarred mentally rather than physically by rising tensions, we meet lawyer James Donovan. Donovan is clearly a smart man, and we don’t simply know this because he’s being played by Tom Hanks; we also see him outwit a fellow professional during a metaphor-heavy conversation about bowling pins and tornadoes. He has a way with words, and reverberates a diplomacy that wholly fits his occupation. For this reason Donovan ends up defending Abel in court, a job his superior suggests will be straightforward given guilt is unequivocal. Simply put, “It’s a patriotic duty”. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose”, quips Donovan. It’s also that kind of movie.

See, Donovan is a beacon of ethical clarity in a murky world, and that’s why we endorse him with so much fondness. He relentlessly holds injustice to account in the name of his client despite the subsequent threat faced by himself and his family. It is right to defend a potentially wrong man, but is it feasible to do so under such conditions? Perhaps not, yet the upstanding advocate defends anyway. On the topic of family, Spielberg’s admiration and respect for children once again shines through during a talk between Donovan and his son — the latter, though young, hurdles naivety by understanding war is a possibility, and has intelligently worked out the potential radius of an atom bomb in preparation.

Bridge of Spies isn’t a boots-on-the-ground war film though. Rather, it is one that pits apparently important men around tables as they discuss the probability of battle without ever having to actively engage themselves. If anything, events on screen are propelled by a “war of information,” and we get lots of just that via high-stakes-cum-low-key rounds of dialogue. Donovan is at the centre of it all and often finds himself in no man’s land, devoid of support. He faces a grouchy judge in his quest for fairness, and a grouchy US too: locals stare at him with contempt when they realise he is the one defending the Soviet and Donovan unjustly becomes a rash on the domestic landscape.

That’s not how we see it though. Hanks offers more than just A-list reliability; he negotiates political wrinkles and unfair judgement with everyman aplomb. When two Americans face prosecution and trade deals are optioned, Hanks irons out any narrative complications with charm and a coherent tongue. There is nobody better at playing this type of role. On the opposing side, Mark Rylance affords Abel true mystery. The uncouth detachment that the infiltrator purveys could just be an act — he is a foreign agent, after all. But there is a constant kindness to Abel’s words, embodied by his “standing man” speech that reveals itself to be a masterclass in subtlety, beautifully delivered by Rylance.

A rustic production design blankets the movie in a 50s sheen. People use typewriters, wear grey trench coats, and smoke cigars. Yet there is an unavoidable modern truth at the fore too. “This Russian spy came here to threaten our way of life,” barks one particularly cheesed off American lawman, a statement that could easily be reshaped and applied to the climate of cultural blame within which we currently reside. Matt Charman and the Coen brothers’ screenwriting examines what borders mean in conjunction with matters of law (and, by proxy, matters of humanity). This forms another sturdy basis from which we can empathise with the characters on screen (Donovan, for instance, believes Abel has the right to a proper trial even though he isn’t an American citizen).

Spielberg harks back to Road to Perdition with his use of heavy rainfall, dripping umbrellas, and general murkiness. But also, oddly, bouts of light humour and fleeting courtroom trips recall Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. The Coen brothers’ screenplay inflections are those moments of dry comedy, generously spread throughout to loosen the dramatic belt while still giving room to the film’s weighty subject matter. Upon arrival in Germany for tetchy negotiations, Donovan takes up residence in a dingy apartment as his partners, conveniently unable to assist on the ground, are cosied up in the local Hilton hotel.

The gags are a treat, but the imminent possibility of peril seldom retreats. In fact, it grows stronger when we reach East Berlin; a shot from inside a train passing over the Berlin Wall highlights the difference between the fairly controlled west and the decimated east, forming a potential ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture for Donovan should he slip up and fuel the war bid. It is not as tense as, say, Sicario, but the threat of war does teeter on a knife edge and you can just about see each sway amongst the chilly mist.

Thomas Newman contributes a beautiful score that inspires and haunts as it reflects the changing landscapes: homely US, arctic Germany. In typical Spielbergian fashion, Newman’s score also tugs at our heartstrings, either through its grandiose scope (Saving Private Ryan occasionally springs to mind) or, as is the case towards the film’s conclusion, a simple piano melody. It almost goes without saying in 2015 but Spielberg himself is on fine form as he juggles a whole host of characters — Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch, and many more ably support — and a potentially tricky script with sure-fire handiness.

It’s not excessively complex filmmaking, nor is it in any way underfed. There is a clear start point, a clear end point (a lovely one at that), and an admirable confidence in the material. Bridge of Spies is a wonderful, eloquent piece of cinema, delivered by a directorial giant unafraid to promote the practice of principles, and actors who clearly cherish the process. It’s the kind of film that makes going to the pictures worthwhile. It’s that kind of movie.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox

April Fools 2014: Consumed by Film

Check out my list of five loveable idiots, plucked straight from cinema’s comedy museum! You know, those endearing folks who are a bit worse for wear in the common sense department? And thanks again to Cara for welcoming me into her terrific April Fools series.

Silver Screen Serenade

consumed by film

Happy Friday, you beautiful people! That’s right–you’re beautiful. Know what else is beautiful? A nice list of lovable idiots. Lucky for you, I have such a list for you from Adam of Consumed by Film. That’s right, Adam took some time away from his excellent movie and TV review site (that you should certainly follow) to share his own list of April Fools. Let’s check out his picks!

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Oscars 2014 — Final Predictions

Hollywood’s favourite night of the year is once again upon us. Stars have campaigned. Odds have shortened. Dresses have been selected. Cinema trips have come thick and fast. Jared Leto’s hair has been straightened.

And, now that I’ve seen all the nominated films in all the most talked about categories, here are my final predictions for the 86th Academy Awards.

If you want to know a bit more about why I picked what/who, there are a few ponderings towards the end. For my review of each Best Picture nominee, click on the respective title.

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Matthew McConaughey

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominatedAdèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour)

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

Who should’ve been nominated: N/A

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Lupita Nyong’o

Who should’ve been nominated: Scarlett Johansson (Her)

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will winAlfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: Steve McQueen

Who should’ve been nominated: Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

Additional Quick-hits

With the exception of a few glaring errors, The Academy has more or less come up trumps this year, at least nominations-wise. Time will tell whether the industry congregation get it right on the night, but until then, let’s take a look at some of the unfortunate snubbees (in a personal snub, I’ve opted not to include my Best Foreign Language picks above as, for whatever reason, i haven’t seen enough of the nominated films).

Inside Llewyn Davis, what is going on? Only up for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing, my personal favourite film of the year has strummed a valiant strum, only to be waived by another Bud Grossman. As unlucky as Llewyn himself (irony eh?) the film should be up for a lot more.

Tom Hanks delivers the performance of a lifetime in the final moments of Captain Phillips, but his name is nowhere to be seen. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, and thought he was really good in American Hustle, but no phony wig can hide the travesty that places his performance ahead of Hanks’. Having said that, old Tom’s already won a couple, so he might not be that bothered.

Another disappointingly shunned near-masterpiece, the folks behind Blue is the Warmest Colour must feel hard done by. Adèle Exarchopoulos’ raw, enchanting portrayal is criminally ignored. The film was ineligible for a Best Foreign Language nomination, but Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film nods should’ve been calling. It’s almost as if some of those hardened Americana execs don’t fancy reading subtitles…

On to the actual bunch clambering for awards, and it seems Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor are all pretty much sown up. I’d love Leo DiCaprio to finally receive the adulation he deserves in the form of a golden statuette, but McConaughey is the favourite and a worthy winner. Barkhad Abdi surprised at the BAFTAs, but won’t here. Cate Blanchett is the definitive stick on.

Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o have been tussling for Best Supporting Actress throughout this awards season, the former having come out on top more often. Nyong’o delivers the more powerful and wholly better performance, thus should win the gong. Gravity is up for a lot, but outwith the technical categories, might only win Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón.

What then, of the top prize? Best Film. It appears to be a three-way jostle between the important 12 Years a Slave, the glitzy American Hustle, and the floaty Gravity. Apparently, some Academy members find 12 Years a Slave too tough a watch – which is absurd – and Gravity ain’t exactly at its best on a laptop screen (most voters see the films at home), therefore a shock could be on the cards which would see American Hustle hustle its way to the top. I don’t think so. For me, there’s no looking past Steve McQueen’s haunting 12 Years a Slave.

There we have it.

After a fairly lacklustre spring/summer, the arrival of that typical awards scent in late autumn summoned a plethora of very good to great films. From Captain Phillips to The Wolf of Wall Street, and many others in between, we’ve seen a mixture of high intensity drama, awe-inspiring visuals, harrowing story-telling and debaucherous eccentricity. All in all, I reckon it’s been a pretty good year.

Here’s to another!

Captain Phillips (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Paul Greengrass

Release Date: October 11th, 2013 (US); October 16th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Biography

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Having directed films such as The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93, Paul Greengrass is no stranger to generating drama and thrilling audiences. In Captain Phillips, Greengrass combines the very best elements from his previous outputs and creates a relentlessly intense and enthralling tale of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

The film tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates while steering his cargo ship across the Indian Ocean in 2009. Tom Hanks stars as the troubled captain and delivers his best performance in thirteen years. The two-time Academy Award winner’s thoroughly convincing portrayal of the jaded mariner turned distressed captive is incredible — his astounding role in the emotionally-charged final few minutes of proceedings should seal Oscar number three come March.

In addition to Hanks’ performance are the surprisingly realistic offerings from the four previously untried actors playing Somali pirates. The group are imposing and chaotic, with Barkhad Abdi standing out in particular as the leader, and the quartet’s pursuit of the American-based vessel amplifies an already danger-fuelled atmosphere struck up by eerily droning music and Phillips’ on-edge demeanour (“We’re going along the Horn of Africa, right?”).

More than simply a story of immediate survival, the film also has a political and moral backbone. We see two very contrasting lifestyles in the opening shots: one shows a worn-out family man about to leave his wife on another extended job; the other depicts a struggling community whose only means of survival is criminal activity. Greengrass infuses these extremely current issues into the main plot-line to add another real-life layer of drama to the impassioned events.

Technically magnificent and emotionally draining, Captain Phillips boasts award-worthy lead performances and is without doubt one of the very best films this year.