Thursday, January 23, 2014

LeapBackBlog 2013 Film Awards – Part 2: Supporting Performances

Film in 2013 was fantastic. We saw tons of wonderful performances, powerfully emotional dramas, hysterical comedies, gripping thrillers, big and entertaining blockbusters, and grand technical achievements. This year was particularly difficult in narrowing down my choices for my favorite films, performances, directors, and technical accomplishments. For example, I loved Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing and Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, but neither quite made the list, and the same can be said for David O. Russell’s wonderful directing in American Hustle or Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sublime cinematography in Her (both just missing out on the list, when they would have made it in most other years). And, there are a number of good films that did not make the list either (and a few I have not yet seen). As it stands, the LeapBackBlog Film Awards are made up, through difficult deliberation, of the films that entertained me and grabbed me as something special, the performances that engaged me, and the craftsmanship that delighted me. These are my favorites of 2013.

While Rush is a great sports drama, it is a narrative that is dependent on its characters and their performances. Daniel Bruhl is exceptional as Niki Lauda, a cerebral driver who wins his races by understanding what makes his car superior (and what he can do to it to make it superior) and how to approach each race and track. Bruhl completely loses himself in the performance and role. Lauda is not necessarily a likable character, but Bruhl brings a great charisma to the character, which allows the audience to get behind him. They can see his talent and the confidence he has in himself, and that is infectious. With Rush and the character of Lauda, Bruhl finally has a performance that will serve as a breakthrough for him (which is very deserving for such a talented actor).

American Hustle has a lot of fun with its actors, allowing them to play dress up in a sense, and Bradley Cooper goes all in (with a perm and Saturday Night Fever-like wardrobe choices). But what makes his performance as FBI agent Richie DiMaso so compelling is the intense nervous energy that he exudes. Cooper’s DiMaso has grand plans and wide eyes. He thinks he is the smartest guy in the room, making all the right moves, when really he is in way over his head. Getting back to his intense energy in the role, what makes it so gripping is that the viewer never really knows where it is going to lead. Cooper is a complete wildcard, much like Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant performance. That kind of work is just so dynamic because it is never boring.

Michael Fassbender gives what I think is 2013’s best supporting performances by an actor in 12 Years a Slave as the ruthless slave master Epps. Fassbender carries such an intense and intimidating presence in the film that the viewer cannot help but feel small, weak, and scared. He is utterly evil and vile. And yet, Fassbender brings so much depth and humanity to the character. The audience can see that there is weakness in his character and that he struggles with his vices, striving to be a better man, only to be pulled down over and over by a deplorable cruelty that he cannot shake. He is a man who is ashamed and afraid, lashing out to try to hide these truths. It would be easy to just dismiss Epps as an evil man if not for the clear inner-pain that rules his life. He may even be sympathetic (if we even dare think that) – though his actions are unforgivable, making for a complex and compelling performance. Fassbender is also very good in The Counselor (what is probably 2013’s most overlooked and misunderstood film).

Choosing Tom Hiddleston in Thor: The Dark World is very unconventional, especially in such a strong year for performances and films, I know, but the man is just so joyously wonderful as Loki. Hiddleston especially gets to have fun with the character in The Dark World, playing a whole range of emotions. He is tortured with envy over the place his brother holds and full of scorn for his adopted father, and yet also has almost unconditional love for his adoptive mother. All this is kept tightly inside, while he just takes a gleeful joy in being a villain and trickster. He revels in it. And so too does the viewer. Hiddleston has created Marvel’s greatest cinematic villain and one of the best in film history (a history that has seen a couple of brilliant and game changing performances in recent years), and his work as Loki in this is his best so far.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an insane exercise in excess, moral corruption, and greed. But, it sure is fun. The actors are given license to go big with their performances, and the whole narrative and world in which these characters exist is so over the top that they all feel firmly rooted in the reality of the narrative. Jonah Hill is clearly having a blast with his character Donnie, a man with seemingly no morals or boundaries. He is just so antagonistic and a complete asshole, and yet completely compelling and entertaining. It is maybe Hill’s best work to date. Margot Robbie is also fantastic in support in the film. Hill had a good 2013, starring in This Is the End as well, playing a very douchy version of himself.

Scarlett Johansson has one of 2013’s most difficult roles, playing the voice of Samantha in Her – an operating system who is self-aware and wants to experience all that is life, including love. What makes the role so difficult is that Samantha is essentially an inanimate object, shown only as an iPod-like device or computer screen. Johansson has to do everything solely with her voice. And to this, she is excellent.  As far as anyone is concerned, watching the film, she is alive. She feels just as vital and real as any of the other characters (which includes wonderful supporting work from Amy Adams and Rooney Mara as well; on a side note, Mara had a great 2013 with phenomenal work in Her, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Side Effects). Johansson is also very good in the 2013 romantic comedy Don Jon.

Jennifer Lawrence is a whirlwind in American Hustle. She plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld (the wife of con man Irving). Lawrence mines her scenes for every bit of fun with her charismatic and attention seeking performance. She absolutely commands the screen whenever she is in a scene, playing against other wonderful actors giving great performances. It is not subtle at all, but neither is the film. She walks a very interesting line between all-consuming and done right frightening. It may be the best performance of the film, and is certainly among the year’s best. The scene in which she sings Live and Let Die is one of 2013’s most entertaining cinematic moments. Lawrence is also very good as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Carey Mulligan does not have a lot of screen time in Inside Llewyn Davis, but her character Jean sure leaves an impact. Her chemistry with Oscar Isaac (who is also brilliant in the film, and barely missed making the Leading Performance list this year, which is overcrowded with great work) is electric. Their shared scenes jump off the screen. Mulligan does a fantastic job channeling all her pent up rage towards Isaac’s Llewyn Davis. Yet she does something more, something that makes the performance special, she does not just show hatred and rage, but there is a playfulness and maybe even a secret glee to her attitude towards Davis. Yes she is incredibly frustrated with him, but it seems to come from a very caring place (something that is kept hidden away). Mulligan is very good at layering her performances, and this is one of her best.

Without question Lupita Nyong’o’s tragic and heart-wrenching performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave is 2013’s greatest breakthrough acting achievement. She plays Patsey so delicately, yet with some defiance in her. However, her mental anguish is so severe that she only wishes for death. She is a flower desperately reaching for the sun, the thing that seems the most natural and right to her, but is constantly stymied through the terror of a dark cloud that hovers above her. In a film that features many of this year’s strongest performances, Nyong’o is able to distinguish herself and standout as a star (and in a film that marks her feature debut). She delivers profound work; it certainly seems like her future is very bright.

Nebraska is a film that succeeds on its great performances, notably from Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb. She plays Woody Grant’s wife Kate, a strong-willed lady who is a bit fed up with Grant’s shenanigans. Squibb’s lively performance completely holds its own against the other great work in the film, and in many ways even might steal the film. She is a delight whenever she is onscreen. It is surprising that a woman of eighty-four would give one of 2013’s best breakthrough performances, but that is exactly what Squibb has done.

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