Tag Archives: Rene Russo

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!

The Movie That Reminds Me of the Time I Betrayed Who I Am — “Nightcrawler”

Nightcrawler lead

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s nothing wrong with this review. It describes the film, it praises what works, it delves into its meaning, and it wraps up with a larger message about how Nightcrawler can inform a viewer’s perspective.

But…to be completely honest, I think it lacks a certain artistry I seek to incorporate in my reviews. Here’s the problem with Nightcrawler for me – it hits way too close to home. I’m deeply proud of my reviews, from turning my own experiences inside out for Gravity and Fury to waxing loquacious about why American Hustle and The Monuments Men are testaments to art itself.

If there’s a quality I feel makes me unique as a critic, however, it’s empathy – not that other critics don’t have it, but other critics might not consider it the single most crucial factor of the job. When I face a truly great film about sociopathy, it can get under my skin. I have a habit of briefly adopting little nuances from main characters, of walking out of the theater like a film’s protagonist would walk out, of absorbing a character’s perspective, because it’s one of the biggest ways to truly empathize with a film.

Films about sociopathy I hold at arm’s length as a defense. Nightcrawler isn’t exactly like There Will Be Blood, an art horror centered on a sociopath. There was nothing admirable about Daniel Plainview, nothing which won you over. That’s not the case with Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom. As strange and devoid of moral fiber as he is, there’s something hauntingly childlike in him. You’ll want to care for him, listen to him, despite all your better judgments. It’s a testament to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance that I hold him at such a distance from myself.

I’ve worked jobs where I’ve had to dissociate myself from my own moral core, particularly last year. It was hell, and I changed as a person while I was in that job. I was surrounded by practiced sociopaths, whose entire livelihood was based on manipulating – their customers, their employees, each other, their families, themselves. Every morning, we met and trained in a new, precise tactic of manipulation.

It doesn’t matter how good a person you are if every day you’re trained to be otherwise; I allowed myself to begin operating in increasingly morally gray areas. I’d never cross a certain line, but that line moved from one day to the next. I quickly hit a self-destructive wall of near-constant anger about it. Thankfully, you become pretty bad at manipulating people when you’re angry all the time. The job dried up; I left. And yet it showed me a part of myself I believed I was beyond giving into. It illustrated a potential in me that I had thought I was above.

It was deeply frightening, and because Nightcrawler so specifically echoes that experience for me, I have no empathy for it. In a movie like Fury, I can understand those pressures to be a man through hate, and to teach others to be men through hate. I can empathize with the struggle of viewing the world that way because it’s a struggle that I feel I’ve faced down in myself. But Nightcrawler, that lack of empathy, that morally gray existence, that unfeeling quality of viewing others as nothing more than functions toward success or pleasure – that’s my nightmare. That’s always been what’s scared me the most.

Nightcrawler is not terrifying because of anything inside the film. It’s terrifying because of something inside me. Maybe it’s in all of us and I was just unlucky enough to glimpse it. Maybe everyone glimpses it and just doesn’t talk about it. I don’t know, I just know that I briefly, briefly recognized a capacity that’s always been there, that can always be trained, that I don’t value or like. I care so much because my adult life has been a reaction toward refuting that little bit of me, and here it was in Jake Gyllenhaal’s face, staring me down.

So my review? It gets the job done, it’s good analysis, but it lacks the one thing I try to put into everything I write and everything I do – empathy. Because I can not have empathy for this. I can never have empathy for this. I have only the sheer fright that’s driven me to be who I am instead, and that Nietzsche quote stuck in my head: “For when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

The Review

You know those rags-to-riches movies where the hero starts off from nothing and works his way to the top? He puts in more effort and longer hours than everyone else just because he wants success so badly. Now what if that hero weren’t a hero? What if we followed a sociopath instead, but he still puts in more effort and longer hours and all that dedication we’re meant to cheer ahead?

That’s the quandary we’re given in Nightcrawler. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a young man who bounces from gig to gig (mostly petty thievery) until he gets it in his head to become a freelance cameraman. He roves the L.A. streets at night to get the best shots of car crashes and shootings and sell the footage to morning news programs. He’s also a self-help addict, quoting mantras for success and even designing some choice personal ones.

His lack of moral codes help him get ahead quickly, and he develops an exclusive sales relationship with a struggling news producer, Nina (Rene Russo). He ingratiates himself with her crew and hires a homeless man to be his assistant. Why a struggling producer? Why a homeless man? Because he can manipulate and control them more easily.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal

It’s to Gyllenhaal’s credit that he gives us a character so good at being evil (the Iago effect, so to speak) that we can’t help but marvel at him. As writer-director Dan Gilroy has said of Lou as a character, “he understands people the way a lion understands a gazelle.” Lou maneuvers those around him into small compromises of their ethics, until he has them backed into a corner where it’s either his way or their job, or their safety, or their life.

It’s astonishing that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal can create such a misanthropic character, yet present him in a way that elicits a hint of jealousy in his audience. A part of us admires his efficacy at getting what he wants, and understands when others concede more and more to him. Appealing to that part of us is the true horror of Nightcrawler, because we understand how easy it is for anyone to negotiate his or her moral codes little by little until they’ve given too much.

Gyllenhaal is vastly overlooked as one of our best actors working today, and Lou Bloom may just be the single best screen villain since Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. While Gyllenhaal eats up the role, Gilroy provides a movie in which there is no wasted motion or excess dialogue.

Nightcrawler increasingly suggests that in an economy where you can no longer rely on employer loyalty and a solid retirement package, where you bounce from gig to gig and the next quarter is more important than long-term stability, it’s the unfeeling sociopaths who do best, the ones who prioritize material success over helping the human being next to him.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal Russo

It’s also a salient look into the news industry. 24-hour news networks (and not just one; they’re all guilty of it) regularly cut information and context from their stories, preferring instead to write and edit their own narratives. (This is one reason why I tend to support independent news over national networks.) Even when police are reporting new information, networks will hold off on it when it undermines a narrative that might earn higher ratings.

There’s a simultaneously dramatic and comic scene (and yes, for all its cynicism, Nightcrawler is deeply, darkly funny) in which news anchors riff over fresh footage of a home shooting. Their speculations run rampant as they sway wildly between stating the obvious – “that appears to be a shotgun” as we pan up to see a shotgun – and the baseless – neighbors are told to be worried whether “they’ll be next.” Even as they narrate the footage, Nina reminds her anchors over earpieces to repeat words like “terror,” “fear,” and “violent.” In many ways, Lou’s manipulation of those around him is no different from the newsroom’s manipulation of its viewers.

In essence, this is a movie about a character who doesn’t develop, but instead bends the world around himself. His successes are celebrated and the clear facts that he’s dangerous, a threat, and a liar are consciously overlooked and excused by everyone around him. His victims even begin to adopt his worldviews, repeat the mantras he’s crafted for himself, and increasingly justify his immoral actions as being part of “the right idea.”

Nightcrawler is dangerous filmmaking centered around two of the best performances of the year by Gyllenhaal and Russo.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Nightcrawler have more than one woman in it?

Yes, in additon to Russo’s Nina, it also stars Michael Hyatt as Detective Fronteiri, Ann Cusack as producer Linda, Holly Hannula as a news anchor, and Carolyn Gilroy as a production assistant. Russo and Hyatt get a lot of screen time.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They discuss news production and confront each other over legal issues.

Nightcrawler is an excellent example of a film with limited perspective (we never leave Lou Bloom’s side) that nonetheless incorporates great female characters interacting with each other as professionals. Russo has a heated scene opposite Hyatt and an insanely good scene with Cusack. Russo also orders her newsroom about, women and men included.

Considering the small size of its core cast, Nightcrawler is one of the best films I’ve seen for involving women despite following a male character exclusively. There are issues of victimization, but Bloom’s pretty equal opportunity about ruining lives. How he delineates what he wants from different people falls along sexual lines, but this has more to do with social definitions of success and mastery over others. This is where Nightcrawler is at its most bitingly satirical.

David Fincher, who has nothing to do with Nightcrawler but directed this year’s Gone Girl, is fond of saying he likes to make movies that scar. Nightcrawler is a tragedy in comic form that doesn’t just scar, it damages. It sits on a tonal knife-edge, and from an acting perspective, only Gyllenhaal could have delivered this performance.

It’s brilliant. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to visit it again.