New blood is vital to the film industry – young storytellers with no fear of failure and young actors with the energy and spark to try anything. Young people are great for the arts because they do not know any better. Certain things should not work and sometimes probably should not even be attempted, but if you are starting at the bottom and there is nowhere to go but up, taking the biggest risk you can is really the only plan.
That having been said, this list of performers is almost all seasoned veterans. As I wrote Tuesday in the Best & Worst feature, when established actors take chances, there is little more invigorating. Two of the actors I mentioned in that piece top this list. Acting is often associated with vanity and beauty and all their related issues, but that is not what I associate with art. Art is ugly, dangerous, and confrontational. It should scream out for recognition from its core, not its surface. The following performances cry out for attention because they come from places of pain and truth, usually buried deep inside but unearthed by these fantastic performers.
Before we move on to the list, here are five more performances worth checking out: Katherine Waterston in Inherent Vice; Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher; Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Mia Wasikowska in Tracks; and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
10. Chris O’Dowd in Calvary
Of all the lost souls Father James encounters over the course of Calvary, Jack Brennan, played by Chris O’Dowd, seems both the most lost and the most in need of being found again. O’Dowd embodies this contradiction with grace and subtlety. Many of you will know him only from his comedy work, in particular as Kristen Wiig’s love interest in Bridesmaids, but this performance is about a thousand miles removed from anything like that. Here, O’Dowd brilliantly captures the soul of a desperate man in search of anything to repair the damage done to his life.
9. Michael Keaton in Birdman
There is certainly a meta-cinematic angle at play in Michael Keaton’s performance in Birdman, with Keaton, a former megastar for playing Batman in the early 1990s, playing a washed-up former superhero-movie star. That reading of the film exists and is fun to ponder, but it does a disservice to the edgy, complex character Keaton creates in Birdman. He is not Riggan Thompson, but he understands him on a level none of us could hope to. That some may be unable to distinguish the two is a credit to Keaton’s performance.
8. Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure
Forgive the play on words, but Lisa Loven Kongsli’s performance in Force Majeure is a tour de force. I have already written a bit about her work in the film (here), but it bears repeating. Kongsli is a relatively untested film actress with only a handful of features to her name, but she is the beating heart and wounded soul of Ruben Östlund’s black comedy. Her contribution is nothing short of a miracle, and though there are flashier roles on this list, Kongsli is the one who does the most with the least. While the rest of her family’s world spins out of control, she is the one left to sort out the pieces, and as she does, Kongsli invests the character with sharp wit, cool calculation, and deep empathy.
7. Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Julianne Moore is among the most reliable actresses working in the business today. Even when the films around her are lacking, she devotes herself fully to her craft. Still Alice is a film worthy of that devotion, and Moore does not disappoint. She plays a brilliant woman struck in her prime by early-onset Alzheimer’s. We see her at her best and at her worst as the disease ravages her mind, and through it all, Moore gives us the full picture of a woman who loses everything she held dear but only rarely has the faculties to realize it. It is devastating, immaculate work of the kind we have come to expect from Moore but should treasure none the less.
6. Brendan Gleeson in Calvary
With every performance, Brendan Gleeson just gets better and better, such that I hasten to call Calvary his career-topping work because he is capable of magnificence every time he appears on screen. It is enough, then, to say this is his best so far. He plays Father James, a Catholic priest in a town without faith. The locals try to beat him down and bring him to their level, but they cannot. His large build commands attention wherever he is in the frame, so even as the townspeople try to belittle him, it is bred into his DNA that he will stand tall. Gleeson is expert at using his body as part of the character, imposing his will simply by being imposing, though the town continues to slip from him.
5. Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man
It is impossible to discuss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work in A Most Wanted Man without feeling the pangs of sadness at the knowledge we will never see him lead a film again. Though the despair will linger, we have the work, and his final starring turn is among the best work he ever did. As a German intelligence officer tasked with preventing terrorist attacks, Hoffman has the walk, the talk, and the weary energy of a man who has been at this too long but who does not know what else to do. The character is built in silence, as Hoffman slumps his shoulders, shuffles his feet, and scrunches up his face to clue us in to who this man was and is. It is a masterclass in subtlety and understatement, and when he finally does erupt, we remember what made Hoffman so great, and we feel sad once more.
4. Michael Fassbender in Frank
With Hoffman gone, the title for “best actor of his generation” is up for grabs, and if I am on the nominating committee, Michael Fassbender gets my vote with no runner-up. From Shame to Hunger to 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender has proved time and again that he can grasp the soul of pain and reflect it back to us through film. How refreshing, then, to see him pull a complete 180-degree turn from anything he has done before. As Frank, the leader singer of the best band you will never hear of, Fassbender drips pure joy and manic energy. With his face covered nearly every minute he is on screen, Fassbender conveys everything he needs to with his body and his voice. Even behind a mask, the character is nothing less than fully present, and that is thanks to Fassbender’s tremendous talent.
3. Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner
This may well be the definitive portrait of the artist as an old man. JMW Turner has reached the pinnacle of his profession, then watches it all fade into nothing. As Turner, Spall captures essence of the highs and the lows, the successes and indignities, as he takes us on a 25-year journey through the character’s life. What makes it all the more remarkable is that Turner, while notoriously prickly, is the least expressive character in the film. He communicates by grunts, grumbles, and grimaces, yet through Spall, the audience experiences the full range of emotions of a man whose surface rarely changes but whose feelings run as deep as anyone’s.
2. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler
No one transformed himself more for a role this year than Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. As Louis Bloom, the logical result of a gold-star, self-esteem culture manifested in human form, Gyllenhaal is unrecognizable. He is a gaunt, angular, predator of the night, preying on the pain of others with no moral compass to guide him through the darkness. He is not evil. He is worse. He is a sociopath who sees the world as his inheritance. His persistence and self-belief are his weapons, and he wields them expertly.
From 2013’s Prisoners to Enemy earlier in 2014 to Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal has taken on the kinds of roles other actors in his position would shun. At this point in his career, he could do anything he wants. In choosing these parts, Gyllenhaal is reaffirming a commitment to craft over commerce, and that will always be commendable.
1. Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac
Though she has been acting for 30 years, you may not be familiar with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and that is okay. If pressed to name the most popular films she has appeared in, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams and Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep would probably top the list. As much as she might deserve to be, she will never be one of the most famous actors in Hollywood. However, she is one of the most adventurous, passionate actors you will ever see on screen.
I have written before about her collaborations with director Lars von Trier. He makes dense, angry, challenging films about dense, angry, challenging people. In von Trier, Gainsbourg has found an ideal partner, and together, they have stretched the perception of what is possible in film acting. As a sex addict whose addiction has finally gotten the best of her in Nymphomaniac, Gainsbourg elevates her performance to the level of art, then transcends that. She is a walking, talking totem to pain, misery, and disappointment, all of which ooze out of every pore. When we talk about performances that scream out from their cores, this is what we mean. This is the best performance of the year.
Check back tomorrow as Last Cinema Standing's Year in Review concludes with the Top 10 Films of the Year.