Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff has been interpreted in various ways: a lean, revisionist Western, a feminist parable, a minimalist wilderness tale with a deeply unsatisfying ending. Whatever the reading, its abundantly clear that the film wouldn’t work without the vital performance of Michelle Williams, who holds this tale of an embattled wagon train together. Williams’ Emily Tetherow is, at the outset, indistinguishable from the two other wives heading for Oregon territory, but their increasingly difficult journey proves a crucible through which she proves more than capable, better suited to leadership than the males heading the party. She finds a voice, preserves the group’s humanity after they capture a Cayuse Indian, challenges the dangerous, boastful nonsense of blustery guide Meek and eventually takes charge herself in an open-ended finish that’s clear enough despite an inherent air of mystery.
Williams charts this progression with amazing restraint, her steely-eyed confidence originating internally, spreading to the hard cast of her face as the situation becomes dire and finally suffusing her entire body, affecting her bearing and the way she carries herself – a transformation that culminates with the wielding of a rifle. It’s a perfectly toned performance, essential to what stands as one of cinema’s most realistic renderings of the early American West. - Jesse Cataldo
Kōji Yakusho in 13 Assassins
Takashi Miike’s lovingly constructed epic masterpiece 13 Assassins is full of excellent performances from its ensemble cast. But Kōji Yakusho not only stands out, he may have had the most difficult role in the entire film. As Shimada, the intensely withdrawn leader of the titular 13 Assassins, Yakusho was required to give a performance of immense subtlety and quiet passion; the actor had to be incredibly charismatic but also emotionally detached enough to portray a leader who could inspire his men enough to almost certainly sacrifice their lives for his adopted cause.
That Yakusho succeeded at this shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who’s followed his work. From his manic, hilarious turn as the white suited gangster in Tampopo to his oddly touching starring role in Shohei Imamura’s Palme d’Or winning The Eel, Yakusho has always been an actor with an extensive range. But 13 Assassins is notable for how much of that range it utilizes, with Miike giving Yakusho ample room to showcase the multiple facets of his performing style without it coming across as scenery chewing.
13 Assassins is undoubtedly Miike’s film, with its creative framing and insane ambition, but Yakusho brings an indescribable quality to it, partially a certain respectability but also a stoicism that lends odder Miike touches more realism. It’s the kind of performance that moves a film directly into the territory of greatness and would be worth spotlighting in any year. - Nick Hanover
Albert Brooks in Drive
Drive has a lot going for it: a stripped down, noir influenced story, exhilarating car chase scenes, a moody, strangely emotive soundtrack and an excellent source of eye candy in star Ryan Gosling, Christina Hendricks and a series of powerful, sleek automobiles. But perhaps best of all, it has the great Albert Brooks. The director/writer/star of some of Hollywood’s cleverest and bleakest comedies (Real Life, Defending Your Life, Lost in America), Brooks is an outstanding, unique performer. He can be charming or unlikeable, neurotic or canny, either a buffoon or a satirical genius. But in Drive, he’s something he’s never been before: murderously ruthless.
If there was ever a perfect coup in against-type casting, this is it. An almost archetypically Jewish comedian known for his wit and acerbic romantic comedies, Drive features Brooks as Bernie Rose, a sleek, nervy shark of a man completely willing to destroy anyone and anything in his way. A Southern California gangster who begins by sponsoring Gosling’s unnamed character as a stock car driver and then ends up as his antagonist, Brooks is uncharacteristically but utterly convincing as an intimidating villain. He doesn’t hesitate to threaten women or children; he keeps a box of ornate, deadly blades in his living room and uses them with shockingly sudden force; he has a thousand-yard stare and a hilariously foul mouth. In short, he’s the opposite of his usual persona and it works perfectly. If you’ve ever wanted to see Brooks stab a man in the throat while eating pizza, Drive is the movie for you. - Nathan Kamal
Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn
The list of not-very-good movies with amazing performances is pretty long, and unfortunately the coattail-riding memoir adaptation My Week With Marilyn is yet another entry in that – maybe it’s not a list. It’s more of a pile. Either way, the film chronicles the production of Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl through the eyes of a young assistant director who becomes quite smitten with lead actress Marilyn Monroe – just like pretty much everyone who saw Marilyn Monroe do stuff. Naturally, Monroe is the center of the film, so the actress playing her should be really, really good at it or else a viewer won’t be able to identify with the main character’s infatuation.
Luckily Michelle Williams plays Monroe, and she’s really, really good at it even if the film itself isn’t. For one thing, the Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn uses sexiness as a superpower – she can turn it on at will and use her charm and looks to cloud men’s minds with a confidence even the most despicable of pickup artists wishes he could have. But while Monroe is one of the most iconic women of the 20th century, and the film (and Williams) makes sure to introduce her as such, they soon peel away the facade to reveal the human being underneath – a flawed, compelling beauty. – Danny Djeljosevic
Ryan Gosling in Drive
Ryan Gosling has come a ways from his poster boy years as Noah in Nicholas Spark’s Notebook and even further from the over-acted, overdone Lars and the Real Girl. In 2005 Gosling started a streak. He appeared in decidedly more serious roles, beginning with the dark indie Stay and the next year’s excellent Half Nelson. These small but impacting films confirmed his tendencies for the morose and socially absurd personalities conjured in The Believer and in Murder By Numbers.
Similarly to Half Nelson and Stay Gosling carries the scenes of Drive with foreboding silence. And with Drive we get the best of both Gosling’s sides: as an incredible example of the male specimen walking around in quiet but nonetheless haute fashion barely uttering a sentence, but also as a young artist in the thrall of his craft, not just a celebrity playing a part. Doubling as mechanic and Hollywood stuntman by day, the unnamed protagonist played by Gosling in Drive makes real money as a getaway driver by night for heists that also eventually land him in trouble. With dimming ambition, Gosling’s wheelman is the unlikely cowboy in a world with barely enough room for anyone who’d commit thankless, unrecognized deeds. In some ways, what makes Gosling’s take on his character in Drive interesting is that it is a continuation of his execution of Dean in last year’s Blue Valentine. Both films exhibit Gosling’s modern expression of the Everyman, the impossibly common human with a heart too big to manage who narrowly redeems himself – not with graceful acts of heroism but with sheer personality. To watch Gosling perfect this with just a few different gestures and an enigmatic sense of verbal pause is arresting, even if it’s from behind the wheel of a stolen Chevy Impala. - Sky Madden
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