perfthe-grand-budapest-hotel-ralph-fiennesRalph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes plays a first for Wes Anderson: a man who is good at what he does. As Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel, Fiennes is energetic, cheerful, profane, poetic and, above all else, efficient. He is an anomaly in Anderson’s universe of screw-ups and has-beens, a man defined by his devotion to his job and all the culture that it represents. Of course, in lesser hands, the role could have been something of a cipher, a glowing symbol of a finer past that no longer exists. But with Fiennes, Gustave is fully human, a man who delights in reciting poetry to his staff over their meals and does not apologize for his penchant for the sexual favors of elderly widows. The actor plays him as someone with a deep satisfaction and pride in his job, not only as the thing that defines him but as the thing that he feels should define everyone around him. Fiennes give Gustave the perpetual air of dignity that you might expect from the star of prestige pictures like The English Patient and Schindler’s List, but there’s a physicality and sheer panache to the concierge that deflates any Merchant-Ivory pretensions. Well, that and his sheer love of the word “fuck.” – Nathan Kamal

barkhammarMira Barkhammar in We are the Best!

This was a good year for women in movies. Elisabeth Moss made the transition from TV to film with two brilliant roles, one where she was the only good thing in a shit movie (The One I Love) and another where she was great among equals (Listen Up Philip), and Patricia Arquette, in Boyhood, delivered the most believable portrait of a single mom in recent memory. This was also a good year for child actors. The kid who played Arquette’s son, Ellar Coltrane, managed to hold together a convincing performance over the course of a 12 year movie shoot. There’s some perfect synergy, then, in the fact that the single best performance of 2014 should have come from a female child. In Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! two thirteen year old girls, Bobo and Klara, are living in 1982 Stockholm and feeling out of place. Not precisely mature enough to be on the search for identity, the two are instead on an aimless search for fun when they come to the realization that punk music is the best outlet for their outsider creativity. Mira Barkhammar, as Bobo, isn’t as pretty as her best friend Klara (Mira Grosin), and there’s some unspoken rivalry at work in the way Klara forces Bobo into the background job of their band’s drummer. Although Moodysson masterfully avoids judgment – the film functions best as a hilarious short story about everyday childhood – Barkhammar emerges as the emotional core of the film. She is a remarkably gifted child actress; her openness in portraying a young girl’s confusing mix of hopefulness and self-doubt stands out even in a year filled with great and far more established actresses. – Alex Peterson

haderBill Hader in The Skeleton Twins

During his guest appearance on IFC’s parody talk show “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” Bill Hader claimed that he wasn’t really a movie star, he simply appeared in movies with movie stars. That could be changing after his tremendous leap forward in The Skeleton Twins. Hader plays Milo, a gay man whose attempted suicide reunites him with his equally self-destructive sister, Maggie (Kristen Wiig). As children the two were inseparable, but the suicide of their father shattered their young lives, sending them both down gloomy paths. But when Maggie coaxes the failed actor Milo to move back home from L.A., the two rekindle the heartwarming silliness they once had, even if they know their levity is only good for keeping the darkness temporarily at bay.

Hader’s most iconic “SNL” role was Stefon, “Weekend Update”’s flamboyant night life guide. It would’ve been easy (though a huge mistake) to channel a bit of that character here, but Hader never resorts to caricature with Milo. Instead, as Milo reconnects with the male teacher who statutorily raped him years earlier, Hader captures the essence of human longing, the desire to be loved even if it’s only by selfish, manipulative people. His playful interactions with Wiig are effortless due to their years together on “SNL,” but that doesn’t make the volatility of their highs and lows any less powerful. While Wiig has played disenchanted characters before, this is Hader’s first foray into dramatic acting and it’s one that stays with you long after the credits roll. He achieves the perfect blend of zany and wistful while cheering up Maggie with a show-stopping lip synch of Starship’s cheesy “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. Hader’s performance embodies how, even in dark days, there’s always room for a little laughter. – Josh Goller

coltraneEllar Coltrane in Boyhood

Richard Linklater could only carry his marvelous conceit – filming Boyhood with the same actors over the span of 12 years – so far because the people on the other side of the camera could live up to the challenge. Thankfully his cast, featuring mainstays Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, turned in strong, lived-in performances. But Linklater took a gamble on his young star, Ellar Coltrane, an unknown who at seven-years-old was tasked with the dozen year assignment of embodying the film’s main character, Mason.

The gamble paid off. Coltrane quietly inhabits Mason through his childhood years up until he is on the cusp of manhood. Coltrane could have simply walked through his scenes and allowed sheer aging to do the rest for him, but his performance does much more than that. Working only with a once-a-year shooting schedule (which usually went for just four days), Coltrane makes his character both a marvel and a typical boy. He is extraordinary, yet ordinary, and simply watching as Mason navigates the perils and thrills of his childhood and teenage years is exhilarating. We’ve all been there, feeling and losing the childhood magic. Coltrane, as Mason, gives it back to us.

Linklater’s best films have always straddled the line between art and reality. Boyhood may be his grandest experiment of all, one that works miraculously, mainly due to an ingredient called Ellar Coltrane. – David Harris

Jake-GyllenhaalJake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal is all bug eyes and bony elbows as Louis Bloom, Nightcrawler’s titular antihero, a parasitic corporate climber and amateur videographer who stalks LA crime scenes for the best and bloodiest footage, which he then sells to local news for a hefty profit. Bloom’s sallow skin and jilted mannerisms suggest he’s something of a feral creature, but Gyllenhaal’s performance is rooted in the character’s deeply human pathologies. Ambitious to the point of being parasitic, Bloom is a walking, talking Power Point presentation, spouting the sort of platitudes and rhetoric one might hear at a business venture seminar. But his words have a way of burrowing into your skull, and his gaze, constantly fixated and always calculating, pierces you, sizing you up. We see the effect this has on the other characters—his boss (Rene Russo) and his partner (Riz Ahmed) are some of the poor souls caught in his web—but as the audience, we’re implicated in a different, far more subversive way. In a late-capitalist culture that rewards ambition and celebrates success of seemingly any sort, Louis Bloom is either the best of us or the worst. Gyllenhaal’s performance is masterful because he doesn’t bother deciding for himself, nor does he have to; as Bloom, he’s completely in the moment, and of the moment. – Drew Hunt

neeson1Liam Neeson in Non-Stop

Contrary to his firmly cemented positions as, a) ubiquitous badass and, b) the object of affection for Key & Peele’s valets, Liam Neeson remains the unlikeliest of mainstream action stars. He lacks the otherworldly, killing-machine physique of his predecessors, instead relying on an earthy approachability that can hide his destructiveness – something his now-regular collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra quite effectively mines in Non-Stop. Neeson’s alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks expresses a seasoned skepticism that searches for every possible solution instead of overreaction and violence, underlined by hints of his lingering inebriation. “Alcoholic law enforcer” is practically its own sub-genre of Neeson Action Heroes (see: A Walk Among the Tombstones), but his performance here suggests that the reluctance to take action is based as much in hiding his intoxication as it is in keeping order. Neeson plays Marks at his angriest not when threats are made, but when his alcoholism is brought up. Try as he might, he can’t entirely avoid beat-downs, but Collet-Serra and Neeson treat the dispatching of opponents with melancholy, not celebration. Marks’ first fight, in the close confines of an airplane bathroom, ends with Neeson sitting in extended silence, coming to grips with the corpse he’s just created. As Non-Stop ventures into implausibility, the leading man’s fight to keep himself and the situation under control takes precedence over fighting bad guys. Neeson’s screen presence has become boiled down to a meme, that of a man with “a particular set of skills,” but in Non-Stop he’s just a man, struggling to hide his warts. Neeson’s most compelling quality as an action hero is his reluctance to be one, and this year, it was used to its fullest effect. – Andy Barksdale

listen-up-philip-elisabeth-mossElisabeth Moss in Listen Up Philip

It’s not immediately apparent from the fey NYC writer’s world setting, or the petulant, affected characters presented within it, but Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip is a film about masculinity. The authors it depicts – principal among them Jason Schwartzman’s Philip Lewis Friedman – imagine themselves as gallant, quasi-mythical figures, even as their fearfulness, self-loathing and repellent behavior consistently undercut their macho self-regard. This air of testosterone, and all its attendant power plays, foolish gestures and conniving subterfuge, creates a stifling atmosphere of impotent striving and neurotic delusion, mirrored by Ross Perry’s close-up camerawork. The necessary break comes about halfway through the film, in a series of scenes centered on Philip’s estranged girlfriend Ashley. Played with reserved elegance by Elisabeth Moss, Ashley is a person who exists outside the world the rest of the characters inhabit, and the focus placed upon her in this section elevates the film from a catalog of masculine bad behavior to a fully conceived story on the dangers of ego. Moss makes the most of this focus, delivering a performance that delivers varying levels of rage, disgust, joy and sadness, stimulated by Philip’s impulsive entrances and exits from her otherwise ordered life. She’s the film’s voice of reason, the balanced straight man who brings it all into focus, and turns what could have been an overly didactic character, who might have been used only for counterpoint, into the story’s secondary axis. – Jesse Cataldo

immigrantJoaquin Phoenix in The Immigrant

When Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno first enters The Immigrant there is something slightly off about his character. His apparent generosity—bribing a guard to let Ewa (Marion Cotillard) into the country despite prior plans to deport her—combined with his heavily annunciated manner of speaking doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s the period aspects of this 1920s-set drama creeping in, but it seems unlikely that this innocent victim’s hero would have arrived so early. Indeed, he hasn’t. James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix working together is nothing new, but where Phoenix’s tendency to mumble incomprehensibly was at its worst in Gray’s We Own The Night, he was beyond competent for Two Lovers (also Gray) and, here in The Immigrant, gives one of his (and the year’s) best performances. Gray is consciously playing with expectations and tropes of melodrama throughout the film, and the apparent excess of Phoenix’s introduction is just one part of that, an immediate misrecognition of moral virtues that sets the pattern on which the film relies. Phoenix settles into the role more naturalistically, his demeanor always seeming to give off the impression that he could be a better person than he is being, although Phoenix also allows the hint that his character is merely that good of an actor. Cotillard is equally good in the film, but watching Bruno regularly try to find the angle on everything around him is a pleasure; the strain and the overt physicality of Phoenix almost begs us to concentrate on him. To even begin to describe the ending would be to ruin an incredible scene for those who still have the film on their Netflix Instant queue (ahem), so let’s simply reiterate that this is one of Phoenix’s best performances. – Forrest Cardamenis

tracksMia Wasikowska in Tracks

A far cry from her breakout in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Mia Wasikowska’s role in Tracks marks a turning point in her career. For some time now, she has been lauded as a great-actress-in-waiting. But as the lone Robyn Davidson on walkabout in the outback, she has proved those acting chops in spades. It’s one thing to deliver a standout performance in a film but entirely another to carry that film singlehandedly.

Tracks begins with glimpses of Robyn’s humdrum life in the city, and while the reasoning behind her desire to traverse half of Australia solo isn’t immediately apparent, you can’t help but understand the impetus behind the impulse, given the ubiquitous closed-mindedness surrounding her. The majority of the subsequent film sees Robyn learning to tame wild camels for the journey and traipsing across the outback past a never-ending backdrop of red clay. Wasikowska literally melds into the landscape, taking on its dusty, sun-burnt features.

The goal of the trip is hardly the to get from point A to point B. It’s rather the emotional growth and strenuous mental task of such an undertaking. In Tracks, all dialogue is superfluous to the harsh surroundings and Wasikowska’s performance. Director John Curran is no stranger to internal dramas, but it is Wasikowska who conveys in so few words the process by which an individual reaches self-realization. – Katherine Springer

simmonsJ.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Character actor J.K. Simmons has found consistent work through his decades-long career, with musical roles on Broadway and regular appearances on film and television. But his resume can read like that of a struggling journeyman, from recurring roles on “Law & Order” and in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies to commercials for Farmer’s Insurance. His most high-profile role may be the voice of the yellow M&M, which he took over from John Goodman in the late ’90s and has voiced ever since. This year he found the role of a lifetime as incendiary jazz teacher Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. This nail-biting film about an aspiring young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) is essentially a music school horror movie, with Simmons playing Professor Freddy Krueger. The role of the cruel teacher could have easily been a one-dimensional character, but Simmons brings the utmost authority to the part, making him utterly compelling to watch without any pussyfooting attempt to make him a secret softy. His performance is so frightening that my hands are sweating just writing about it. If he doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars this year, I hope he tears the Academy apart. – Pat Padua

guguGugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle

Period films about race invariably cast people of color in roles of abject suffering, often stepping beyond the historical accuracy of racist systems to force the actors to simply portray abuse. In Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gets the chance to play the opposite as the illegitimate child of a British naval officer who grows up in the lap of luxury. But if Mbatha-Raw is spared the onus of having to portray the physical torment heaped upon black bodies throughout history, that only frees her up to contend with the subtler yet more pernicious impact that racism infects upon society.

James Baldwin once made the striking observation that spending one’s first years as a black person unaware of any difference between oneself and white kids leads to an enormous shock when the difference is made clear at a young age. I thought about that watching Mbatha-Raw, as Dido, someone who grew up consciously cloistered by her white, aristocratic family and is suddenly thrust into courtships filled with passive-aggressive references to her skin color. The buried winces that greet every half-masked insult, the scenes of abject self-loathing forced upon her by the resentment of others, and the occasional displays of self-assertion in the face of an entire system stacked against her are powerful for their dynamism, their capacity for fluctuations in power and confidence. No bit of acting this year was as heartrending as Mbatha-Raw tearing at and pounding her flesh in self-revulsion, but by the same token, none was more invigorating than her turning down a condescending, money-hungry suitor because she refused to let herself be an inferior family’s idea of a black sheep. – Jake Cole

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