An outstanding year for film usually means an outstanding one for performances as well. First up are the lead roles that acted as our surrogates through many diverse and engaging narratives. From recovering depressives to battling mid-life crisis’s to tracking high-risk terror suspects to psychotics all these characters allowed us glimpses into their unique and distinct worlds. Some we loved, some we loved to hate, nonetheless these roles had our undivided attention.
Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain as Abel and Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year
There is a certain level of class that defines the main couple in J.C Chandor’s gripping 1980 period-piece, it helps them acknowledge that they have made it in America. From Abel’s proper straight upright posture to Anna’s expensive wardrobe, these are all the outward signs of refinement. But what lies beneath these carefully constructed surfaces, what really drives these two in their pursuits? Who are these people when push comes to shove? The actors expertly keep their audience in the dark for most of the duration of his grounded morality tale, as we are about 50% sure that these two will do the right thing at the end of the day. Even by the movie’s end we are not completely sure of who these people are, but we do know exactly what they want and what they’ll do to get it. And really, that is all we need to know.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler
On the other end of the class spectrum is Louis Bloom the character we all love to hate this year. The unabashed, psychotic and at-all-costs professional ambulance chaser accident on-the-scene photographer. Gaunt, bug-eyed, loquacious and dangerously unhinged, Bloom is the sociopath for our time. Armed with an self-education on the internet and determined to make his mark in his impulsively chosen field regardless of ethics, journalism and the law itself. “I think Lou is inspiring all of us to greatness” says news producer Nina (Rene Russo), and unfortunately she might well be right in her industry and job market as a whole.
Marine Vacth as Isabelle in Young and Beautiful
Spiteful, spoiled and enigmatic, perhaps no other character this year tests audiences with their empathy as much as Marine Vacth’s Isabelle. True to the title, Isabelle is a Paris teen trying to find a way to assert herself the only way she knows at the moment, having just lost her virginity. Posing as a mature adult for an online escort service, the teenager is able to get the most desperate of men to believe her. She creates this identity to finally have one, it is a crisis that everyone went through during this trying time right before adulthood. All depicted unblinkingly truthfully by the first-time actor.
Essie Davis as Amelia in The Babadook
It’s all about the scream, add Davis’ banshee-like screech to the list of the blood-curdling ones in horror-films. Amelia is an emotionally detached widowed mother caring for a rowdy and angst-ridden child. Her tragic past haunts her constantly, eroding her self-control and grip on reality. Though the film itself is uneven especially towards the surreal conclusion through all the arcs, twists and turns, Davis is up to the task of baring Amelia’s broken soul to the audience. A haunting rendering of psychosis that harkens back to traditional genre-defining horror films of old.
Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl
This one goes out to all the “Cool Girls”. “Amazing” Amy is certainly a very uniquely special character that is best left to be discovered for yourself in David Fincher’s twisted and darkly humorous social satire. Pike, like the Morales’, exude all the mannerisms of the elite and high-society, but who really is Amy Dunne? We can gleam from the onset that she is more than the loving-wife character that the news cycle tries to make her into, what she is exactly is far more than anyone could possibly understand. She is a mystery that never ceases to engage the audience in the numerous shifts and turns in the narrative.
Scarlett Johnansson as The Female in Under the Skin
Working not just with scripted material as her guide, Johansson as the Alien Being in Jonathan Glazer’s trippy social commentary also had to improvise on-the-spot while staying in character playing off of people unaware that they were on-camera. A tricky and risky blend of fictionalized and documentary filming style that works on the impressive strength on the actor’s ability to blend both together to form a cohesive narrative (or as cohesive as a David Lynch film is, I sound say). One that squarely centered on her stunning revelatory performance as an observer and manipulator of human behavior.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Günther Bachmann in A Most Wanted Man
It seems I’m really drawn to enigmas this year, one of the last roles for the late great character actor is the Hamburg counter-terrorism agent Bachmann. Dealing with multiple levels of wheeling and dealing as the haggard and worn-out agent tracks a high-risk terror suspect. Chain-smoking and speaking in a low gravelly German accent the beleaguered agent carefully weaves into the mechanics of the international fight against terrorism. Though tired-looking and taxed to the breaking point, make no mistake the man is determined to get the job done through any and all methods available to him. Managing relationships, both personal and international, with a calm and collected demeanor that defined Hoffman for most of his great career. A more than worthy send-off that shows what will be supremely missed on-screen.
Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson in Birdman
In a career full of understated supporting performances in big and small budgeted films, the one role that may end up defining Keaton’s career is the one where he runs around in his undies in time square. Whatever it takes for that Oscar. Keaton’s lead character in Iñárritu’s dark-comedy and entertainment industry satire, suffers from a deflation of ego and mid-life crisis that combine to tear apart the beleaguered actor. Additionally, his doubts are manifested in the form of his Birdman character that constantly taunts him at every bad turn in his stage play. Regardless of life imitating art or vise versa, Keaton has never been better in this role as a man trying to get to that ‘second act’ of his life.
Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night
The first time Sandra lets herself smile at what she just accomplished is made out to be a momentous occasion for her in the Dardenne brothers remarkably naturalistic contemporary drama. It’s probably been awhile for her as she is recovering from a recent debilitating emotional breakdown. Having just lost her job, Sandra desperately goes about pleading for her job to her co-workers. Carefully rendering just how demeaning it can be to beg from person to person for anything, Cotillard excels at portraying desperation in its most unforgiving and damaging form.
Michael Fassbender as Frank in Frank
A role where his face is nearly entirely covered by a giant blankly-looking Styrofoam head is one of the most poignant of the year, because at this point is there really anything that the enormously gifted actor can’t do? Frank is a charming little indie with its spirit firmly rooted in the artistic and creative process, with its main character of Frank (Fassbender) being the strange “out there” alternative musician. A leader who inspires all his friends to think differently and create something completely new. The eccentricities, manners and voice are all that one might accept from an independent thinker, and clearly skilled talent. Brought to the screen with a presence that only someone like Fassbender could convey through all the Styrofoam.