The Best Performances of 2014

 

Selma courthouse protest

A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars. We found all those minority actors that went missing!

We usually center these awards on the blog around the Oscars. It gives our contributing writers across the year time to catch up. We’ll bleed a little bit past the Oscars this year, but the Academy Awards seem like so much less in a year where they don’t recognize a single actor of a minority ethnicity in 20 nominations. Combined with oversights for films like Belle, Get On Up, and most notably Selma, which was nominated for Best Film despite not being nominated in any other category but Best Song, and our decisions came out a lot different than the Academy’s.

The goal of this exercise wasn’t to do that, it was just to poll our contributing writers for their own choices in the acting awards. It’s hard to avoid noticing, however, that the majority of choices in a year when the Academy ignores them belong to actors of minority ethnicities.

We did briefly discuss getting rid of gender in these categories, but due to the nature of which movies get made – about 45% still don’t even include two women talking to each other – we quickly found the supporting categories dominated by women and the leading categories dominated by men. This isn’t a judgment on the quality of either gender in these categories; it’s a reflection of how Hollywood makes more films led by men. Because of that, we left the gender splits intact, at least this year.

All of our selections were made blind from each other. We were asked not to discuss them beforehand. Selecting for us today are:

S.L. Fevre, contributing writer;
Eden O’Nuallain, editor;
Cleopatra Parnell, contributing writer, music videos;
Amanda Smith, contributing writer, music;
Rachel Ann Taylor, contributing writer, film;
Vanessa Tottle, creative director;
and myself, Gabriel Valdez, the lead writer.

Let’s get started with our choices for best supporting actress:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
SL: Emma Stone, Birdman
Eden: Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Cleopatra: Oprah Winfrey, Selma
Amanda: Carmen Ejogo, Selma
Rachel: Rene Russo, Nightcrawler
Vanessa: Carmen Ejogo, Selma
Gabe: Carmen Ejogo, Selma

WINNER
Carmen Ejogo, Selma

Emma Stone is a breakout in Birdman. I’m pretty pleased to see Mireille Enos here, too. Sabotage was, er, sabotaged by its studio, but as a drug-addicted bounty hunter, Mireille Enos played as far afield from her lead in The Killing as you could ask. Oprah Winfrey is exceptional in Selma. We sometimes forget, due to her long career as a talk show host, that the woman can act. Rene Russo is, to me, one of the biggest Oscar oversights this year. Her morning news producer out for the bloodiest story in Nightcrawler is the role of her career. At least the British Academy Awards recognized her for it.

Ultimately, however, Carmen Ejogo is the actor whose duty it is to anchor those around her, both in mastering the beautiful language in Selma and as the foil to David Oyelowo’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King feels all the emotions that Martin can’t allow himself to display and, in many ways, she’s the beating heart of the film – taking care of him, taking care of his business when he can’t, abiding his transgressions, and often being the stronger hero of the film. She felt more real to me than anyone else.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
SL: Henry G. Sanders, Selma
Eden: Edward Norton, Birdman
Cleopatra: Toby Kebbel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Amanda: Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Rachel: Shia LaBeouf, Fury
Vanessa: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Gabe: Robert Pattinson, The Rover

WINNER
7-way Tie
(the following clip features Henry G. Sanders)

Well, I’m glad we sorted that out.

Henry G. Sanders, as the survivor to a grandson shot dead in Selma, gives us one of the most heartwrenching scenes of the year. Edward Norton gives us one of the most fun roles, and he’s one of the few actors who could portray a character so method that he has no idea what personality he’ll take in the next scene. Toby Kebbel did the motion-capture for Koba, one of the chimpanzees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and you can see even through the visual effects just how incredible a performance he gives. Nelsan Ellis plays best friend to James Brown in Get On Up, Shia LaBeouf makes you cry in Fury, J.K. Simmons will probably win the Oscar for his demanding music instructor in Whiplash, and I’ve written extensively about Robert Pattinson’s hero worshipper of questionable intelligence in Australian postapocalypse film The Rover.

BEST ACTOR
SL: David Oyelowo, Selma
Eden: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Cleopatra: Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up
Amanda: Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up
Rachel: Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
Vanessa: David Oyelowo, Selma
Gabe: Guy Pearce, The Rover

WINNERS
Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up
& David Oyelowo, Selma

Jake Gyllenhaal is terrifying in Nightcrawler, a film unique in how it follows all the beats of a rags-to-riches comedy but confronts you with its terrifying realities. The acting moment of the year that’s seared into my mind belong to Guy Pearce in The Rover. One of the most interesting things, however, is that 5 of our 7 spots went to minority actors. You may want me to shut up about the Oscars not recognizing a single one, but it’s kind of a big deal, especially when you consider that the Academy is 93% white.

Regardless, Oscar Isaac gives an old fashioned crime thriller performance halfway between Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino in A Most Violent Year. It’s restrained but holds incredible power. Chadwick Boseman is marvelous as soul singer James Brown in Get On Up. Between this and his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman has shown incredible range and capability to emulate real-life figures. David Oyelowo, of course, gives us a stunning portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead of offering up an icon, he delivers someone real, someone you can imagine sitting opposite, who you can watch think and struggle with decisions. It dismantles the notion of King as an unattainable legend and re-establishes his success as the product of intelligence and perseverance, strengths that – unlike myth – we can all share and strive toward.

BEST ACTRESS
SL: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Eden: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Cleopatra: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Amanda: Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive
Rachel: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Vanessa: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Gabe: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

WINNERS
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
& Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle

I did not see this coming. I was convinced we were going to tilt Johansson – lord knows enough of us love Under the Skin and her portrayal of a sociopath who learns her own identity crisis. Belle has been making the rounds recently, though. I have a half-dozen messages in my inbox about it, and it looks like I probably should have taken heed. Apparently, Mbatha-Raw is utterly captivating in the period romance that deals with race politics and the power of art to break barriers. I know Amanda’s big on Only Lovers Left Alive, so I’m happy to see Tilda Swinton mentioned for an acting style that closes the gap with performance art.

BEST ENSEMBLE
SL: Selma
Eden: Birdman
Cleopatra: Selma
Amanda: Get On Up
Rachel: Gone Girl
Vanessa: Selma
Gabe: Selma

WINNER
Selma

One for Birdman, which boasts as terrific and hilarious a cast as you can get. One for Get On Up, which is a severely underrated experiment in musical biography. One for Gone Girl and its clever use of casting and audience expectations in dictating how its audience approaches its story.

And four for Selma, which demonstrates that successful social activism does not result from the willpower of a single man, but rather is the sum of intelligent and studied men and women who discuss and trust each other, who temper each other’s harshest reactions and cooperate toward a goal. Selma becomes a synergy not just of cast, but of characters, and defines history as a group of allies who converge on a moment rather than as the myth of one man in isolation. It makes activism feel accessible, and the use of this ensemble refuses to cordon history off as myth, instead arguing that understanding it at a ground level is our responsibility. It asks us to recognize civil disobedience as a tool rather than an artifact, and its ensemble is perfectly assembled and directed to realize this.

Thank you to our writers for joining us on this exercise. We’ll be choosing the best screenplays, directors, and films of 2014 soon!

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One thought on “The Best Performances of 2014”

  1. Great post! I would argue that Mbatha-Raw was more impressive in “Beyond the Lights” (having seen both of her 2014 films) and am looking forward to her future work.

    Like

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