We’ve already had several Oscar-worthy performances this year. What’s unfortunate is that they’ll all be forgotten come the Oscars and the rest of Awards-season, as voters only seem to remember their last few months. Certain performances deserve a hell of a lot more, and I have a few in mind:
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Connelly, Noah
Anthony Hopkins. Russell Crowe. Ray Winstone. Emma Watson. That’s Hannibal Lecter, Maximus the Gladiator, Beowulf, and Hermione Granger all in one cast. And none of them holds a candle to Jennifer Connelly. She chooses her projects very carefully, so it’s easy to forget just how very human she can be.
Director Darren Aronofsky got the best performance in her career out of her once before, in Requiem for a Dream. You can feel Aronofsky trusts her enough to give her free emotional range in Noah. She’s smart enough to understate her role most of the time, to exert a sort of quiet power and patience over the film. It makes that one moment when her measured performance is lit on fire something special. It is a daunting and undeniable moment of pure acting, and it sets everything else – Russell Crowe’s dramatic power, the raging visual effects, Aronofsky’s pure auteur-ism – to the side.
For a moment, everything becomes meaningless aside from her. It’s a viciously human moment, and it’s a rare skill to know how to complement four such powerful actors for two hours and when to sweep them all away for five minutes. This is one of the unique gifts Connelly brings to film acting – her performances are very often in support of the films around her, yet she can overpower them at a moment’s notice. In this way, she’s one of the wisest actors we have, never showing off, yet with a fount of pent up, dramatic power always locked beneath her performances.
Best Supporting Actor: Robert Pattinson, The Rover
Playing someone who’s “slow” is a daunting task. Watch Forrest Gump all these years later and it doesn’t feel quite as acceptable as it once did. And that’s Tom Hanks. The Rover is wise to never quantify the intelligence of Robert Pattinson’s Rey. Whether he’s mentally handicapped or not isn’t particularly important to the plot. He’s slower to pick up on the reality of a situation than everyone else and this leaves him deeply impressionable. His conscience is malleable in a way the rest of ours aren’t. This makes him the only hopeful element in The Rover‘s post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Pattinson’s Rey progressively turns to violence more as a solution than a danger as the reality sinks in that there’s no one around to foster the hope that he represents. It’s a shade too real. We see it every day. It reflects a society that may already be experiencing a sort of moral post-apocalypse, whose world may’ve ended in a whimper so quiet nobody noticed. It’s a phenomenal performance on Pattinson’s part, full of personality tics and a man’s thought processes laid bare. What it has to say about the rest of us and how we treat the least among us is why his performance will last.
Best Actor: Guy Pearce, The Rover
And then there’s Pearce. Have you ever looked at a Hieronymus Bosch painting and wondered what its tormented denizens might feel? What they’d have left in them, what possible drive could keep them going through it all? It might be impossible for us to know the answer. The distance from here to there, the amount of experience a human mind would have to undergo to cope with it all…it might just be too alien.
In The Rover, this is what Guy Pearce accesses. We can understand at the most basic mechanical level how he does and says the things he does and says, but we have no way to comprehend his inner workings or private feelings. He seems so vacant of soul that his monstrousness feels droll, normal, uneventful. Maybe that’s what Bosch’s hellfiends feel – normality. Nothing special. Another day. It makes those flashes in Pearce’s eyes, those brief acknowledgments of his humanity painful, searing, unforgettable. Those flashes are subdued so quickly, shielded with such hardness, that the humanity in his performance only exists in his viewers.
We have to be human for him, even at the end when we understand…well, not everything – we just understand a moment in his life. That’s it. A moment. And it wrecks us, one moment finally understood in this world of his. And we have to walk out of the theater feeling humanity for him, feeling as if his tragedy is special in a world where tragedy is droll, normal, uneventful. That’s the beauty of Pearce’s performance – making us feel everything he won’t. It’s one of those rare performances you realize no other actor could have realized. It may be the singular masterpiece of his career.
Best Actress: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
A few years ago, I referred to Scarlett Johansson as a showhorse. Like Taylor Lautner and his abs in the Twilight franchise, I believed she was getting roles she didn’t deserve based off her looks. In movies like The Island and The Black Dahlia, I felt she was either flat or campy. She lacked the dramatic core to sustain the lead performances she was being given. It never occurred to me her performances were the result of working with a run of directors whose abilities had long ago dried up.
I was wrong about her, and this year proved it. She was the most compelling part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and she delivers one of the best performances of the year in Under the Skin, as an alien who preys on lonely drifters, luring them in with the promise of sex only to consume them. It’s a difficult performance in that the amount of silence in the film could easily trick an actor into playing the role too flat, and the subject matter could tempt an actor into playing it too campy. She does neither, playing a sexual predator, an unfeeling murderess, and a pioneer in a wilderness that’s strange to her.
Johansson communicates her own character’s alien experience while inviting viewers to see the world through sociopathic eyes, an experience that’s a bit scarring for the empathetic viewer. It’s a scary role, sexualized yet rarely sexy, unemotive yet immensely sensory. She nails her performance by simply playing it – moments of understatement or overstatement are rare. It demands a lot from an actor to simply exist as something so alien without big moments to express that difference.
Best Ensemble: The Monuments Men
There’s a lot in this movie that shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Quiet, contemplative moments in which men consider themselves and each other and make a subdued, witty comment before getting back to contemplating. Yet this is a rare cast, a group of older comedians whose youthful zeal to tell every joke has given way to the wisdom to tell the right one at the right moment. The Monuments Men wouldn’t be the film it is without the patience and nonchalance of Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean DuJardin, and Hugh Bonneville. Combined with the frenzy of George Clooney, the optimism of Matt Damon, and the tenacity of Cate Blanchett, this is a cast that lends their film an unassuming earnestness unheard of in today’s build-a-better-mousetrap school of event filmmaking.
Take a look at yesterday’s article for the technical awards. Tomorrow, I’ll tackle best screenplays, director, and film.