Tag Archives: Reese Witherspoon

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.

Trailers of the Week — What Else Would It Be?

Inherent Vice

by Gabriel Valdez

First off, there were so many good trailers from Australia and New Zealand this past week that there will be a special edition of Trailers of the Week tomorrow, focusing exclusively on movies made Down Under.

Now, for the most obvious Trailer of the Week in our brief history:

INHERENT VICE
Debut Trailer

Where to even start on Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70s crime comedy? Joaquin Phoenix is unrecognizable, and we haven’t exactly ever seen him as a pratfalling comedian before this.

Last year’s American Hustle played up the East Coast glitz and glam of the 70s. Inherent Vice looks like it’s playing up the seedier, Hollywood habits of the decade. What astounds me about Anderson are those little touches that cheap 70s movies have – when Phoenix clambers to his feet in a stairwell, the sound is horrible. His shoes clap the floor with every step. And it’s not that Anderson lets this detail pass – it’s that this is a detail he consciously seeks out in the first place.

I can picture him in the editing bay, insisting, “No, Joaquin’s shoes need to be louder, louder even than the dialogue, louder even than the gunshot!” I assume that’s how PT Anderson talks. It’s the attention to detail Anderson’s taken to both drama and horror; I’m excited to see him tackle a period comedy from a period Hollywood has chosen to forget.

BLACKHAT
Debut Trailer

Michael Mann was unstoppable a decade ago. He’d added The Insider, Ali, Collateral, and the movie adaptation of Miami Vice to a resume that already boasted Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, and Heat.

And then he disappeared. Well, not really. He’s still been producing. But as a director, the only movie he’s helmed since 2006 is Public Enemies, the middling Johnny Depp-as-John Dillinger film you probably forgot about.

So it’s big news when Mann returns to directing, confident again in his grainy-yet-sumptuous digital video style that feels like a brand of hard-boiled, 80s crime television that never actually existed. The cast? Chris Hemsworth, who has yet to prove himself outside of Thor; Viola Davis, who has proven herself in so many roles I wouldn’t blink twice if she was recast as Thor; and Wei Tang, an Ang Lee alum who showed her dramatic chops in Lust, Caution.

THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
U.S. Trailer #1

The style of this film still enchants me, and that soundtrack is so evocative it can send chills up your spine inside a few seconds flat, let alone two minutes.

If we hadn’t declared an earlier clip Trailer of the Week a month ago, this would probably be up top, but I like to vary it up.

JUPITER ASCENDING
U.S. Trailer #3

This was intended to come out last year, but the Wachowskis delayed it so they could perfect the effects work (or the studio got cold feet, depending on which reporter you believe).

Either way, it looks like those extra months payed off. When Jupiter Ascending trailered last summer, it had awe-inspiring vistas and moments of spectacle, but the person-to-person action (especially Channing Tatum’s anti-grav boots) just didn’t look right. That appears to have been fixed in this most recent-trailer.

There’s not enough good sci-fi out today, especially featuring women. Mila Kunis wouldn’t normally be my first choice to anchor an effects-heavy sci-fi epic, but that was once true of Keanu Reeves as well. The truth is, the Wachowskis need lead actors with comic ability and easygoing charm to make their occasionally too self-serious mix of anime and opera influences more palatable.

I just hope she’s not always the damsel in distress and, like Keanu, gets to kick a little ass by the end of the movie as well. Maybe she takes the place of Sean Bean when he inevitably buys it.

LAGGIES
U.K. Trailer #1

I’m just going to harp about the cast here: Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Sam Rockwell. They could all read the phonebook together, and I’d pay to go see that. I’m actually not a huge fan of the premise, but you can’t buy the kind of comedic timing Knightley and Rockwell possess.

We sometimes lament the days when Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn would command the silver screen, or when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks teamed together for a romantic comedy. We still have those kinds of talents, and this is a pair that can pull it off. My favorite comedic duo of the year already contains Rockwell (that’s Rockwell and Olivia Wilde in the one-less-cameo away from being perfect Better Living Through Chemistry), and if you’re looking for the reason Pirates worked so well, I hope you’re not thinking it’s Orlando Bloom’s timing with Johnny Depp that did it. It was Knightley’s, and any time you have two comedic powerhouses like these two joining together, it’s a must-watch.

I’ve now said that in approximately six different ways. I’m excited for Laggies.

THE GOOD LIE
Debut Trailer

This is the kind of heartwarming I’m wary of, but I also have a weird kind of faith in Reese Witherspoon. I don’t know why, since I’ve never actually liked her in any of her roles, but at the same time I trust her reputation as a cutthroat exec who only does projects she feels are worth her time.

So I have faith in her, but don’t get me wrong – if the two of us were trapped in the Andes after a plane crash, I wouldn’t willingly fall asleep for fear I’d never wake up again. I mean, I had to sit through Sweet Home, Alabama one whole time. How do you trust after that?

Anyway, this movie could be something honest and heartfelt, helping to educate and expand viewpoints, or it could be “watch the white person save the foreign people” feelgood schlock. There’s no way to tell at this point.

Worst Trailer of the Week:
THE SCAREHOUSE
Debut Trailer

“Slutcam games!” Girls in lingerie! Torturing naked women! Good job, Gavin Michael Booth, you’ve made Hostel for Dummies, and Hostel already was Hostel for Dummies.

This column has a rule – we’ll never rag on indie or amateur films for looking cheap or lacking the budget for effects or award-winning actors. Some of my favorite films are amateur, made for a nickel, and contain whatever friends and family the director could scrounge up.

That’s why Worst Trailer of the Week is never an indie film. But this week, in the words of Denzel, “I’ll make an exception.”

Look, I get exploitation, I like a lot of self-aware exploitation films that understand their genre – warts and all. I even like some exploitation films that don’t understand their genre at all, much for the same reason people slow down to look at car wrecks.

But The Scarehouse? This is one more bolt in the framework of posing women as victims and sluts and getting off on watching them helpless and tortured. We get enough of that in the damn real world; I hardly think we need this tripe to reinforce it.