Tag Archives: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

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.

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!