Monday, January 27, 2014

LeapBackBlog 2013 Film Awards – Part 4: Leading 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.

American Hustle is a con film, and like every con there needs to be something or someone that draws your attention away and makes you believe an untrue truth. Amy Adams serves this role in the film playing Sydney Prosser, an American who poses as the elegant British aristocrat Lady Greensley. Adams is fantastic in the role, and even has the audience questioning what is real and which emotions are true, setting up a great reveal and thus making the con work. Adams also uses a very bombastic wardrobe to grab the audience’s (and her mark’s) attention, pulling them him with her smile and a bit of skin. But it is all for show, as it is Prosser’s wit that is her best attribute. Adams had a prolific 2013, which included standout work in not only American Hustle but also in Man of Steel and Her.

Christian Bale is an actor who just disappears into his characters (and has been a frequent name to pop up on my LeapBackBlog Film Awards), often physically transforming himself to fit the character, and Irving Rosenfeld is no different. American Hustle is a film of big performances, costumes, and hairstyles, but Bales keeps Rosenfeld grounded as the film’s emotional center. He is the character the audience can connect with and relate to – he is their in. Bale has genuine compassion in his performance, an emotional honestly that the audience can latch onto even when everything else seems to be living in the excesses that make the film what it is and a lot of fun. Without Bale’s great performance, to counterbalance the other bigger performances, the film may have collapsed in on itself, as something too remote and disengaged. His is the least flashy, but maybe the best of the performances in the film.

Oscar frontrunner (and likely eventual winner) Cate Blanchett is masterful in Blue Jasmine. Her character Jasmine is a woman who is in the midst of a psychological breakdown, and thus Blanchett in a sense needs to create two characters. The first is a prominent, sophisticated woman of means who gracefully and elegantly handles herself, while the other is a woman at the end of her tether a hair-pull away from being completely lost. Blanchett takes these two characters and smashes them together to create Jasmine, a woman who is in moments magnetic and commanding, completely radiant, and then in other moments a wreck, turning to alcohol and pills to forget/escape. It is fascinating yet uncomfortable and sort of tragic to watch. This is undoubtedly a deft and clever performance (one that could not have been played better by anyone else).

Sandra Bullock gives one of the year’s most physically challenging performances in Gravity. To create a realistic feeling zero-g environment, Bullock needed to work with puppeteers for what must have been very demanding days, mentally and physically. Her performance as Dr. Ryan Stone is the best of her career to date. She is just superb, having to convey everything with just her eyes, face, voice, and breathing for large portions of the film. She, like the film itself, is utterly enthralling. The audience lives and dies with her, holding onto every emotional moment – her journey becoming their own. Even though Gravity is a film built upon and largely succeeding on its amazing visuals, all of that splendor would have been lost without Bullocks stellar work.

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, it is clear that Leonardo DiCaprio is having a blast with his character Jordan Belfort (regardless of whether or not he likes the man). DiCaprio has fully committed to the insane quality of the film and Belfort’s lifestyle, creating a performance that is maybe 2013’s most entertaining. His work is hilarious, but what makes it special is that DiCaprio still keeps the character grounded and creates a person who feels real to the audience despite the craziness that surrounds him (yes, Jordan Belfort is a real person, but it is doubtful that most audience members have heard of him, so in that way the film might as well be fiction). DiCaprio even gets the audience to get behind his character (a mostly despicable man) and root for him. How? Well, he is able to make the man resonate for the audience through emotional honesty in the performance. It is really fantastic work.

There is a real strength to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performances as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. He is a man who refuses to be beaten down, to submit to a life that is not his own. This determination both makes his life harder, as just cannot keep his head down constantly calling attention to himself, and ultimately is his saving grace, as he just will not give up until he is reunited with his family. It is impossible to imagine the struggle Northup was forced to undertake (I cannot even begin to create it on any level for myself – it is just too devastating, and I think I would not survive it), and yet Ejiofor’s brilliance brings the audience in and gives them a conduit by which they can take on the experience, and envision themselves in Northup’s place: taking on his pain, feeling his loss, and finally fighting too with his determination so that they too can feel the wave of alleviation wash over them, knowing that they are finally free again. Northup’s circumstances are heartbreaking, and through Ejiofor’s compelling work the audience experiences everything fully, but he was one of the lucky ones. What makes 12 Years a Slave all the more agonizing is that though Northup does eventually get is freedom again so many are left to toil away in dire chains of forced servitude.

Greta Gerwig is so very charming in Frances Ha, giving a performances that is utterly fun and joyful, yet still emotionally complex. Frances is a girl living in New York trying to find her way, and thus the film serves as a coming-of-age story (even though Frances is mostly an adult already). Gerwig has a fantastic nervous energy throughout. She wants so desperately to embrace life fully, but is at the same time guarded expecting failure and disappointment. This energy creates a very funny vibe to the character that is both entertaining and endearing for the audience. While there are good supporting performances in the film, Frances Ha almost exists as a one-woman show with Gerwig delivering dramatically and certainly comically at the center.

Recreating a real person is always a little tricky. Michael B. Jordan breathes life into and pays tribute to Oscar Grant (whose life was tragically taken too soon). Fruitvale Station is one of the year’s most emotionally powerful films, and Jordan’s performance is at its center, its driving force. For the film to work, Jordan needed to convey the duality of Grant’s life – a man who was a loving father and good person and a man who still found himself pulled back into the street life (no matter how hard he tried to escape) and all that comes with it (including an attitude). The film speaks to racism still being a constant issue in America, but to escape clichés and to garner a true emotional connection with its audience the film also needed to work on a human level and not just spout lofty ideals. Jordan’s performance does connect deeply with the audience, as he presents a fully fleshed out character. His performance is so good that the film incites action in the audience, as seeing Grant’s death (a man the audience has come to care about) at the hands of overwhelmed transit police officers is just too unthinkably tragic and completely avoidable.

Brie Larson is magnificent in Short Term 12 playing Grace, a caretaker at the facility for at-risk youths. It is not only a glowing breakthrough for Larson (reaffirming for those who already know her work and announcing for those who do not that she is a very talented young actress with a bright future), but also possibly 2013’s best performance (right there with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave). Larson gives a very brave performance as Grace, completely committing emotionally (which must have been very taxing) to a character that is very guarded with deep emotional wounds. Larson pulls the audience in so entirely that her emotional journey is felt fully by each viewer as well, giving the film its power. It is wonderful work that has shamefully been overlooked by many (yes, I am looking at all of you Oscar voters). Larson was also very good in supporting roles in The Spectacular Now and Don Jon in 2013.

Theodore Twombly is a character that easily could have been over simplified as being just a sad mope or a weird quirky guy. Joaquin Phoenix brings so much to the character, giving a beautifully complex performance in Her. Theodore is in some respects an everyman – someone the audience can relate to – as he is just like all of us: he is social, has hopes and fears, but is melancholy due to his somewhat recent breakup with his wife. Phoenix is able to emote so fully that the audience finds themselves right there with him emotionally (which all you can really ask from a performance): they laugh when he laughs; they feel pain when he hurts; and they feel hopefully when his future looks a little brighter. It is a subtle performance (that many seem to have overlooked) but nonetheless extraordinary.

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