Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Adjust your radars: 5 actresses who deserve Oscar's attention

Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the performances of the year in Nymphomaniac.

In case you missed it, the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood Foreign Press Association released their respective nominations lists mid-week last week. Two categories stood out as being identical: best supporting actor and best actress. Aside from the baffling continued inclusion of Robert Duvall for his performance in The Judge, the supporting actor race is a tight and impressive group of the year’s clear best. The same cannot necessarily be said of the best actress nominees.

Here is what the list looks like as of now:

Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Jennifer Aniston, Cake

Throw in critical favorite Marion Cotillard for her work in Two Days, One Night (as well as The Immigrant), and you likely are looking at your six contenders for the Best Actress Oscar. The Broadcast Film Critics Association, which announced its nominees yesterday, has a field of six nominees, comprised of all of the above.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with this group. Though the quality of the cited films varies wildly, it would be hard to argue too hard against nominations for any of these women – two past winners, three would-be first-time nominees, and a multiple nominee whom some might consider due for a win. An easy argument to make is that the list is just not all that inspired. To be sure, it is a handsome list but not one that arouses excitement or convinces anyone of a desire to look outside the box.

Every year, this year included, pundits and critics wring their hands over the lack of strong or interesting female leads in film. Then, their awards predictions and citations reflect this perceived lack of choice and opportunity. This line of thinking trickles all the way to the Academy Awards, and really, it is kind of a bummer. The lack of strong female roles in Hollywood films is both well documented and worth addressing, but before we yell too loudly into the echo chamber, perhaps we should consider a few of the less heralded performances that deserve recognition.

With that in mind, Last Cinema Standing presents an alphabetical list of the best female performances of 2014 that will not get anywhere near the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac

First alphabetically and first in my heart, Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the best performances of the year – male or female – in Lars Von Trier’s devastating opus. As a sex addict recounting the downward spiral of her life, Gainsbourg shines through the despairing muck this film wallows in to deliver a performance of heart, vulnerability, and bravery.

This is the actress’ third collaboration with the prickly Danish director after 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’s Melancholia. Though incontrovertibly brilliant in each of those, her performance in Nymphomaniac may be the crowning achievement in Von Trier’s spiritually related Trilogy of Despair. However, do not hold your breath waiting for the Academy to recognize an actress’ work in one of the director’s films.

Only Emily Watson has able to crack the nominations list for 1996’s Breaking the Waves, despite career-topping work from Nicole Kidman in Dogville (2003), Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay (2005), Bjork in Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Kirsten Dunst for the aforementioned Melancholia. This will not be the year Gainsbourg breaks that streak, but in a perfect world, there would be no streak to break.

Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure

Force Majeure is the story of a marriage that begins to unravel due to the actions of the husband, but the emotional arc of the story belongs to the wife. Lisa Loven Kongsli has done only a handful of films, and I have seen none but this, but based on her performance here, I hope to see a lot more of her work in the future.

She is a lightning rod of anger, resentment, hurt, guilt, and shame who cannot help but draw others into her headspace. For a film with several unabashedly over-the-top sequences, Kongsli is always firmly in control of her character and her performance. As her marriage descends into pettiness and self-deceit, Kongsli ensures she is grounded in an emotional reality true to her journey in contrast to the film’s more impressionistic tendencies.

Elisabeth Moss in The One I Love

Little seen in theaters (it is on Netflix Instantwatch now, and I highly recommend it), Charlie McDowell’s first feature explores the ways people want what they want, even if they cannot bring themselves to say so. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are a husband and wife who go on a weekend retreat to fix their marriage. I will spoil none of what follows, but suffice it to say, some strange stuff goes on.

Moss, whom many of you will recognize as the star of Mad Men, has a tall task assigned to her in this film: stay true to the heart of the character while portraying all sides and all facets of her being. How does she see herself? How does she think her husband sees her? How does he actually see her? These questions are all answered by the nuances and subtleties of Moss’ shifting persona. Though she essentially plays only one woman, Moss must portray all sides of that woman as distinct while keeping the central character intact. She succeeds brilliantly.

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

A charmingly quirky performance in a charmingly quirky film, Jenny Slate plays a comedienne who gets unexpected news and handles it the best way she knows how. Without revealing the particulars, the plot is remarkably straightforward and carries a simple premise through to its logical conclusions. However, Slate’s portrayal is anything but simple.

Adulthood sneaks up on most of us, and for a comic who specializes in jokes about sex and bodily functions, it may not be all that welcome of an arrival. Slate is perfect as a woman confronted with growing up at a time in her life when it is neither convenient nor all that necessary. This is not a Judd Apatow-style Peter Pan narrative. This is about how average people deal with average problems when they are not ready for them. The circumstances may be ordinary, but Slate is extraordinary.

Mia Wasikowska in Tracks

I wrote about Mia Wasikowska’s performance in my glowing review of the film (which you can read here), so I will not spend too much time on this. Similar to Reese Witherspoon’s character in Wild, we are presented with a woman who chooses to put herself through immense physical turmoil in search of some greater truth – or perhaps, just because it was what needed to be done.

What still impresses about Wasikowska is how much of the film she carries on her own. We get very little backstory, which is a plus because it means we get no trite, pop psychology explanations for her decisions. Wasikowska’s portrayal is of a smart, brave woman who knows what she needs to do for herself and no one else. Her story is inspiring because she is not trying to inspire. She is trying to discover, and it is our good fortune that she invites us to discover with her.

None of these actresses’ names will be called out on Oscar nominations morning, Jan. 15, but each would be deserving. At the very least, these films are worth a watch because they are reminders of how many great actresses are doing phenomenal work in movies that so often fly below the radar. More than that, they are a call to action: We need to readjust our radars.

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