The Most Important Actor of 2014

Under the Skin cap

by Gabriel Valdez

The Oscars award the best performance of the year. They don’t take into account the sum total of an actor’s work across that year. What if you took every project an actor worked on, and used that to judge the best actors of 2014?

This year, we have to recognize the 2014 that Scarlett Johansson had. She led the action movies Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Lucy. She displayed incredible range going from a restaurant hostess in the foodie comedy Chef to an alien sociopath in the experimental horror Under the Skin.

Years ago, I had dismissed Johansson as nothing more than a “show horse,” an actor who’s trotted out to look good and not say much. It’s the same way I look at, say, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) now – an actor with limited talent who is nonetheless charming when he’s not asked to do much.

Either Johansson evolved or I was wrong – probably a little bit of both. She was the best thing about Captain America and expanded her Iron Man and Avengers role into a more complex, layered character. Even the Captain doesn’t develop in his film – he’s the same at the end as he is in the beginning. It’s his ethical constancy we admire (and, the film suggests, that all sides in government have lost). It’s Johansson’s Black Widow who’s asked to develop and change over the course of the film. She has to do this without ever taking center stage from Captain America (Chris Evans). That’s a demanding task and, at the same time, she even goes toe-to-toe against the film’s titular villain. It should’ve been called Captain America & Black Widow, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.

This Season's Underslung Grenade Launcher

Lucy isn’t what I’d call a good film – it’s very average – but Johansson is very good in the role, bringing a confused humanity to bear in a character who becomes a demigod. She also proved that her $40 million action movie could beat a more established star’s big budget extravaganza. The two opened the same weekend, but Lucy earned twice as much as The Rock’s Hercules on less than half the budget, adding one more nail in the coffin to the idea that women can’t launch films or lead action movies.

Chef is a joyous comedy that features Johansson at her charming best. She infuses her character with far more nuance than the role demands, and she adds some of the film’s best comedic timing to her scenes with co-star Jon Favreau.

Under the Skin is the most challenging film here, a mature psychosexual thriller in which Johansson plays an alien in the skin of a human. She picks up hitchhikers and others who won’t be missed from the Scottish countryside. In order to film this, hidden cameras followed an unrecognizable Johansson as she prowled the streets of Edinburgh in a nondescript van, talking strangers into the van while completely in character. Most of the later film is scripted, but it’s in these early, improvised moments that Johansson communicates a master manipulator to whom conscience is an incomprehensible notion.

Under the Skin dark center

It’s a deeply disturbing role – she is a sociopath and sexual predator every bit as disturbing as what Anthony Hopkins does to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, except she’s more single-minded. When she arrives at a moment of horror that isn’t of her own making – some swimmers drowning as their lonely child cries on the shore – she communicates a terrifying and inhuman depth of dispassion.

Johansson deserved an Oscar nomination for it, although Under the Skin is the type of film the Oscars wouldn’t recognize in a million years. If her action roles are her calling card as a box office heavyweight and Chef keeps up her indie viability, Under the Skin is the role that reminds us she’s one of the best actors working today, someone who is far more than the show horse I once pegged her as, a high caliber talent just as capable of unsettling and disturbing an audience as she is of charming them.

Does Johansson give the best performance in a single role from last year? The Academy awarded a superb Julianne Moore performance. When we took a poll of seven writers on my website, Johansson barely lost out to the similarly un-nominated Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle. Look at her entire body of work for 2014, however, and it’s hard to deny that Johansson is the Most Important Actor of the Year.

When I asked the six other critics who joined me in our End of Year Awards for best acting and best films, we came up with the following ranking for actors across multiple projects. Here’s the top 10, and the others who earned multiple votes. Obviously, this is very Western-centric. Most of us haven’t had a chance to enjoy very many non-English films from 2014, so please take these rankings with a grain of salt. The world is full of a lot of performances we haven’t seen yet:

1. Scarlett Johansson. We were all in agreement here.

2. Martin Freeman, for his roles in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, BBC’s Sherlock, and FX’s Fargo. Benedict Cumberbatch gets all the fame and glory on Sherlock – what people overlook is that Freeman’s the real gem of the show.

3. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for her roles in Belle and Beyond the Lights. This group voted her performance in Belle as the best performance by an actress this year.

Interstellar Jessica Chastain

4. Jessica Chastain, for her roles in A Most Violent Year, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Interstellar, and Miss Julie. Only four films in a year is an off-year for Chastain, who would’ve walked away with this in her six-film 2011.

5. Viola Davis, for her roles in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Get on Up, and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. She’s taking part in a sea change on television where minority actors are getting the leads Hollywood refuses them.

6. Matthew McConaughey, for his roles in Interstellar and HBO’s True Detective. Sure, it’s only two projects, but you can’t get much better than these two.

7. Reese Witherspoon, for her roles in Devil’s Knot, The Good Lie, Inherent Vice, and Wild. For launching four films, it’s been an absurdly quiet year for Witherspoon, with little recognition for the amount of work she’s done.

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

8. David Oyelowo, for roles in A Most Violent Year and Selma, as well as a brief part in Interstellar. Selma is obviously the standout role. The other two are supporting, but he’s just that good in Selma.

9. Willem Dafoe, for roles in A Most Wanted Man, Bad Country, The Fault in Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, John Wick, Nymphomaniac, and Pasolini. Too bad we don’t give out a workaholic award.

10. Kevin Hart, for his roles in About Last Night, Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too, and Top Five.

Mockingjay Jennifer Lawrence 2

Others who got multiple votes included:

Benedict Cumberbatch, for his roles in The Imitation Game, BBC’s Sherlock, and his motion capture performances in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Common, for his roles in Every Secret Thing, X/Y, Selma, and AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

Michael Ealy, for his roles in About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too, and Fox’s Almost Human.

Mireille Enos, for roles in The Captive, If I Stay, Sabotage, and AMC’s/Netflix’s The Killing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for being the only watchable actor in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and – more importantly – for creating and hosting Pivot TV’s game changing HitRECord on TV.

Chloe Grace-Moretz, for roles in The Equalizer, If I Stay, and Laggies.

Eva Green, for her roles in 300: Rise of an Empire, The Salvation, White Bird in a Blizzard, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and despite her role in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Shia LaBeouf, for his roles in Fury and Nymphomaniac, as well as his Crispin Glover-level performance art that both inhabits and trolls method acting and our obsession with celebrities and their lifestyle.

Jennifer Lawrence, for her roles in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Serena, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. In my eyes, she won this in 2013, but while she was good in 2014, her roles didn’t seem as crucial.

Logan Lerman, for roles in Fury and Noah that both find a young man who wants to co-exist with the world being taught to dominate it instead.

Andy Serkis, for his motion capture roles as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, his uncredited work as Godzilla in Godzilla, as well as behind the scenes motion capture consulting and second unit director work on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Emma Stone, for her roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Birdman, and Magic in the Moonlight.

Shailene Woodley, for her roles in Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and White Bird in a Blizzard.

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