Monday, January 21, 2013

LeapBackBlog 2012 Film Awards – Part 4: Leading Performances

Film in 2012 may not have been quite as strong overall as 2011, but right at the top there were a lot of good and very entertaining films. 2012 also featured many wonderful performances, particularly among men (many great performances that would have made my lists in past years were sadly left off). The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Reprising his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman for the third time, Christian Bale is again astonishing in The Dark Knight Rises (in what is easily an overlooked performance given the genre and how seamlessly and natural Bale plays the character). While in the past two films Wayne is a pillar of strength in the community, here Bale plays him as a broken man, both figuratively and literally. Even when he returns to being Batman, his heart is not really in it anymore, and Bale lets the audience see his crushed will and injured spirit while still putting on the guise of confidence and strength. This only makes his true return all the more dramatically powerful. Bale is known for his brilliant performances (films like American Psycho, Rescue Dawn, and The Fighter), and while this might not be as flashy it is equally as layered and just as strong.

Jessica Chastain had a breakout year in 2011 and has followed it up with another strong year. Playing Maya the CIA agent in the field that devotes herself totally for over a decade to finding and killing Osama bin Laden, she is brilliant in Zero Dark Thirty (and will likely win an Oscar for her work). She has the tough role of being strong even in the most emotionally crippling situations, but also must be vulnerable enough to let the audience in – and she finds the perfect balance. Chastain also captures the toll that the stress and drive takes on Maya. She has a very bright career ahead of her, as she is already among the best actress working right now.

Who knew Bradley Cooper was capable of such a good performances? Well, David O. Russell apparently. Cooper gives the best performance of his career to date in Silver Linings Playbook as Pat (which should open doors for better leading man work for him in the future and not just crappy romantic comedies). Cooper plays Pat with a mix of compassion and hostile energy. The performance seems to constantly teeter on the edge of completely exploding with nervous rage, which absolutely pulls the audience in. But, the audience also likes Pat and is behind him because they see that Pat is capable of love and really does want to get his life together. It is very strong work by Cooper (in a year with at least fifteen or so male leading performances could have made this list).  

Aside from the practical challenge of playing a character that loses both her legs below the knee, Marion Cotillard also has to play the deep depression felt by her character Stephanie in Rust and Bone. What makes the performance so compelling is Stephanie’s emotional journey back. Cotillard is phenomenal, as she perfectly captures the strength and drive of Stephanie. The audience is heartbroken and inspired all in the same dramatic arc. Cotillard is also very good in Little White Lies and The Dark Knight Rises this year.

Daniel Day-Lewis is not so much playing a character in a film as much as he seems to be channeling Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It seems silly to say that, as I have no idea what Lincoln was actually like or how he sounded when he talked, but Day-Lewis just seems so completely lost in the character that it does not even occur to me that he is not actually Lincoln. That is what he does, he just becomes his characters, and is maybe the greatest actor working right now.

Keira Knightley just seems to excel in costume period dramas, especially when working with Joe Wright. Anna Karenina is their third collaboration together. Knightley is able to bring the extreme highs and lows of Anna’s tragic relationship with Count Vronsky to life by completely giving herself over to the role. Anna thinks she is above high society and can live outside their rules, only to pay the price and lose everything. Knightley pulls the audience in with her naïve charm and strength, and breaks their heart with her fall, filled with crazed fits of jealousy and anguish. Though she gets a lot of criticism (especially among English journalists, who often try to tear down their own), she has really emerged as one of the top actresses of her generation with continued great work.

Jennifer Lawrence had a great 2012. She starred in a huge blockbuster in The Hunger Games cementing her as one of Hollywood’s biggest young female stars (probably with Emma Stone, Kristen Stewart, and Emma Watson) and she was nominated for her second Oscar in Silver Linings Playbook. She is brilliant in the film, bringing a ton of energy and strength to the role of Tiffany, a young widow also dealing with mental issues. She is electric, making ever scene better and stealing the film (which also features great work from Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro). It is my favorite female leading performance of the year.

This Is 40 takes both a realistic and comically exaggerated look at modern relationships. At its center is a fantastic performance by Leslie Mann, who plays Debbie – a mom and wife who just wants her life to be perfect and tries to control everything around her to make it so, but this leaves her feeling frustrated, disappointed, and ultimately unhappy as things fall short of her expectations. Mann, however, is great in the film because she also can see her own flaws and wants to change, it is just difficult, which brings a very relatable aspect to her performance – the relationship troubles in the film between Debbie and Pete are almost too real for a comedy (and that is thanks to the good work by Mann and Paul Rudd).

Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Master, is an absolute scoundrel. His destructive nature ruins and destroys any possible good that might come his way, yet his struggle to find a place in post-WWII America is utterly compelling because Phoenix brings so much to the character. He is an unpredictable train wreck and the audience cannot take their eyes off him, wanting to see what he will do next, but there is also an inner depression that allows the audience to feel for him as well. It is my favorite male leading performance of the year.

The character of Whip Whitaker in Flight is one of the more difficult roles of 2012 because the character is an unlikable protagonist. Denzel Washington is able to get the audience behind Whip by bringing his usual swagger and confidence to the character. He also plays Whip to have a deep sadness behind the confidence, which allows the audience to sympathize and care about him even after his self-destructive behavior. Washington is so good in the film that the audience roots for him to come out on top, when he clearly has a problem and needs help. It is very good work and among Washington’s best.

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