Well, technically I phrase it why it’s “impressive, fun, and a complete disaster,” but chiefly it’s about the complete disaster part. And the film’s weird obsession with slow-motion cleavage shots. It’s like Joss Whedon suddenly turned into Michael Bay.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Amanda: Get On Up
Rachel: Gone Girl
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!
Like industrial machinery puncturing the dead of night, like the oddity of hearing a baby cry in the house where you have none, like being sure of the rats in the walls, Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin evokes our most primal reactions. That the film itself seems to trap those reactions under glass only to run tests on them makes the effect all the more disturbing.
Call it industrial, call it art house or avant garde, call it horror, I don’t much care.
I also know that no climax turns on a musical cue quite like that of Under the Skin, throwing the entire meaning of the film for a loop, inverting the roles of victimizer and victim by suddenly assigning the musical theme of our alien sexual predator to another: the more familiar sexual predator of our own world. And when our alien’s true identity is finally revealed, it changes motivations, but does it change any outcomes?
No musical cue on film has sparked so much discussion in my filmgoing life…well, ever.
Yet even without that twist, Levi would win this. Her score is one of the most challenging, surreal, otherworldly, and creepy I’ve ever heard. It marries methodical pulses and bump-in-the-night knocks to teeming infestations of strings and background noise, yet manages to find beautiful soundscapes hidden in these combinations. As a reflection of the film’s hideous, largely unfeeling yet very natural beauty, it does as much for Under the Skin as any design or technical element does for any film this year.
The logic used to choose this year’s Oscar nominations is…what’s the right word? Unfathomable. There’s the odd technical category in which I agree with them completely, but the nominations are riddled with head-scratching decisions.
Selma, for instance, is nominated for Best Picture without being nominated in any other category but Best Original Song, “Glory” by Common and John Legend. The Academy must be really big Common fans.
All 20 nominees in the acting categories are Caucasian. I’m not of the opinion that nominations in an awards show should be subject to any quota for minority nomination. I am of the opinion, however, that there’s no way the 20 best performances this year include zero roles performed by other ethnicities.
To paraphrase a friend’s reaction, it’s almost as if the Academy is saying, “We gave you 12 Years a Slave and Lupita last year, leave us alone,” and chucking Selma into the Best Picture category just to dissuade criticism of how whitewashed the Oscars are this year.
In each category, I’ll be naming a film or person who deserved a nomination this year, who the Academy overlooked. I won’t focus it on minorities – I have my own rankings for our awards, which we’ll present before the Oscars, and I’m just taking the first person off each board who wasn’t nominated by the Academy. But I look at those boards and then I look at the Oscar nominations, and I see a big difference.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Nominated: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Forgotten: Actually, we’re all good here
One of the most controversial choices I make today is going to be agreeing with the Oscars wholeheartedly. I don’t believe The LEGO Movie is enough of something to earn a place alongside the awe-inspiring texture of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the gracefully epic How to Train Your Dragon 2, or the surprisingly rousing and emotional Big Hero 6. I’m not as high on The Boxtrolls, but I would still choose it over LEGO. I have not seen the Irish animated film Song of the Sea, but even if I had to take it out, I’d only replace it with The Book of Life.
BEST FILM EDITING
Nominated: American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Whiplash
My two favorite awards at the Oscars are always Editing and Cinematography. I’m weird like that. The oversight of Kirk Baxter’s work in Gone Girl is surprising, but like much of what David Fincher does when he’s not de-aging Brad Pitt, the finished product itself may be too audacious for the Academy to process. Gone Girl‘s narrative game of shells is handled with greater editing precision than any other film this year. It is perfectly cut, creating rhythm and tension from a story that could have easily been a complete mess in the hands of a lesser editor. I can understand and forgive most oversights on technical awards, but this one is nothing short of astonishing.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Mr. Turner
There’s one film here that should walk away with this, and it rhymes with “A Man To Arrest For Smell” (work with me here). That said, there is a nomination missing, and it’s from a film I would not expect most members in the Academy to have even heard of. That would be Indonesian martial arts epic The Raid 2. Imagine if Stanley Kubrick had been in charge of designing the sets for a gang epic, half of it taking place in majestic hotels redder than blood and tiered dance clubs of glass, the other half erupting into the slums, snowy back alleys, and dismantled housing projects of Jakarta. Does it even snow in Jakarta? I don’t know, but it does in one scene in The Raid 2, and it’s not because of Jakarta, it’s because of the sheer operatic power it holds in that moment, to take your breath away, to make you feel profound loss.
The production design in The Raid 2 isn’t just nice to look at, it is emotionally evocative: unsettling, touching, beautiful, and glum each in turn. It can evoke emptiness in its richest moments, fear in its most overpoweringly banal form, and the threadbare desperation of a moment. It’s rare that you come across a martial arts film in which you could take away all the fight scenes and still have a deeply compelling drama in a fully realized world left over.
Nominated: American Sniper, Birdman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Unbroken, Whiplash
I know everybody came here for Best Sound, but I’m combining Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, since the split between these categories is largely vestigial, and every year only serves to double the nomination count across four movies. A fifth (Hobbit for Editing, Whiplash for Mixing) is always included just to maintain the illusion that these categories don’t overlap in most of their qualifications. Anyway, who cares about all that? Where the hell is Fury? I’ll admit, I’m normally the one tossing a non-war film into the mix for Sound. I’m tempted to do that with Gone Girl‘s thick, white-noise silences or Under the Skin‘s candid, on-the-street backgrounds. But this year, Fury is one of the few films to create so much through so many sound cues. Half the film takes place inside a tank, and we need to hear not just what war sounds like, but what war sounds like when you’re behind inches of armor with barely enough space to turn your head. Fury crafts this beautifully, and I’m disappointed to see one of the year’s best films with zero nominations in any category whatsoever.
Additionally, I love Interstellar. Love it. Like, Interstellar and I are thinking of moving in together and getting a puppy just as a test run to see if we want to have little Matthew McConaugheys running around crying all the time. But the one nomination Interstellar does not deserve is sound, not when 10% of the dialogue is drowned out by Hans Zimmer beating the everloving tar out of a pipe organ. I recognize it was a directorial choice, and I won’t say it was the wrong choice, but sound is Interstellar‘s pianissimo, not it’s forte.
Can’t disagree with anything here. If it’s just about fidelity, you look for a place to include The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but I’d like to see this award continue trending more toward the artistic use of visual effects, and not just how many you can have moving on-screen at once. Which is why I’m ecstatic to see no Transformers nomination.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominated: Patricia Arquette – Boyhood, Laura Dern – Wild, Keira Knightley – Imitation Game, Emma Stone – Birdman, Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
Rene Russo in Nightcrawler and Carrie Coon in Gone Girl both deserve more acclaim than they’re getting for what they did this year, but the disinclusion of Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King in Selma is very puzzling. She holds two of the most powerful scenes on film this year. In Selma, she isn’t just tasked with portraying her character, she also has the responsibility of communicating and then reacting to the emotions that Martin Luther King must restrain. Every moment she’s on-screen, she’s portraying two characters: Mrs. King and her husband. She creates the shape and space for David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King, and – with the possible exception of my next two choices – there is no joint performance this year in which two actors better realize a give-and-take relationship.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominated: Robert Duvall – The Judge, Ethan Hawke – Boyhood, Edward Norton – Birdman, Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher, J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
There are some actors I’m very happy to see nominated – you cannot be unhappy that J.K. Simmons is finally nominated for an Oscar. But the best supporting role this year, and not just a nomination missing, is the best performance this year, period. It belongs to Robert Pattinson in an overlooked Australian film called The Rover. He gives us an immature man whose faculties are very questionable, who starts as the enemy to Guy Pearce’s unnamed kidnapper, yet who quickly comes to idolize his captor and seek to impress him through greater and greater violence.
Pattinson plays a blank slate who doesn’t belong in this world, who would have been gentle and allowed himself to be weak if he’d only seen kindness, yet who is taught to see the world instead through a lens of brutality and so suffers his injuries like some dog kicked and used by his master, and all the more loyal for it. It is an awesome and staggering performance from an actor I never expected could deliver it.
Nominated: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper – American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch – Imitation Game, Michael Keaton – Birdman, Eddie Redmayne – Theory of Everything
I’m drawing from the top of my list, and that means Guy Pearce in The Rover. There’s a scene in which he’s captured by the authorities, fully expecting and seemingly wanting the release of finally being punished for his crimes. There is a look in his eyes that defines desperation. When the unlikely event of his rescue comes to pass, we don’t focus on that rescue. We hear it. But we focus on this dirty man in a chair coming to realize that he won’t be sent to jail, that he’ll be thrown back into the world and have to continue his journey in it. And those eyes…they communicate such disappointment, such a resignation to that reality. Few actors could play a protagonist so terrible, so ruthless, and yet so human.
There are many nominations I’d replace with others, not just one for each category, but here, I really do have to point out the inexplicable lack of a nomination for the #2 actor of the year on my list, David Oyelowo. We nominate not just for performance – which Oyelowo would deserve on that merit alone – but for the moment in time those performances arrive, for what those performances have to teach us. Oyelowo’s role as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma deserves to be here for the quality of his performance, but it doubly deserves to be here for when it arrives and what it reminds us about our country.
I’d also kick a third nominee out in favor of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Nominated: Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones – Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore – Still Alice, Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild
These are fine. I’m glad to see Marion Cotillard nominated again. I didn’t expect the Academy to give Under the Skin the time of day, and I was right. I’m not exactly shocked that an experimental Scottish film about an alien in the skin of a woman seducing and consuming men didn’t warrant a nomination, but Johansson delivers a brilliant performance as a predator who gradually learns to identify with her prey. Under the Skin is many things: a film that asks complex questions about identity, that embodies the relationship between urbanization and nature, and that – most astonishingly – tricks you into inhabiting the perspective of a serial rapist. It is not every actor who could anchor so many questions or communicate a worldview of sociopathy in this disturbingly plainspoken a way.
Nominated: Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida, Mr. Turner, Unbroken
These are all phenomenal choices, but there’s a glaring exception here. Again, I don’t expect most of the Academy to even know what The Raid 2 is, let alone know about how Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono are changing how we shoot movies. Like I wrote above for its production design, you could take away every martial arts setpiece and still have a complete, beautiful looking narrative. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick in the production design also carry over to the dramatic cinematography.
What Flannery and Subhono do on top of this, however, is nothing less than completely change how martial arts movies are shot. No longer are we watching complex martial arts sequences shot from a series of static angles and crane shots. No longer are we watching long form choreography filmed from a handheld shakycam. Now, we weave in and out in extended shots that are comparable to the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose unbroken one-takes created the tension behind Children of Men, Gravity, and this year’s nominated Birdman.
There’s a sequence that demands performers and cameramen run through a muddy prison yard the consistency of pudding, complete with complex, timed choreography and opportunities for the cameras to not just witness, but to weave inside and through the choreography itself. A later fight scene involves three people in a narrow hallway. While there are edits, they are very specifically at the easiest points. The hardest choreography is not achieved through edits, but through a hidden choreography for the camera. It becomes a four-person choreography that demands precise staging so that the camera can weave in and out of actors’ full speed movements, still able to land on precise shots that can evoke the emotion of more classical, dramatic cinematography. There are rare steps taken in the technical elements of film that open whole new ways of shooting movies, that create brand new visual grammar for how we understand the language of an entire genre. This is one of those steps.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Maleficent, Mr. Turner
While the fidelity of the visual effects in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies shouldn’t earn it a nomination in that category because of how they are used, the costume design in this third Hobbit deserves nothing less than our awe. You feel that, knowing this was their last hurrah in Middle-earth, designers Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, and Richard Taylor went whole hog, creating an array of costumes that is the film’s true standout. From the gold leaves of the beautiful elven armor, each a complex reproduction of the last, to the individualized armor pieces that change from one orc to the next, from the fur and filigree of the dwarves’ armors to the tatters of the humans, the costuming here does more to realize the world of Middle-earth in this entry than any other technical element. The franchise has won this before, and perhaps the Academy felt like they needed to create territory for other nominees, but if The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies deserves to be nominated for anything, it’s in this category.
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Nominated: Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy
Only three nominees, so I may not bump any of these out (Guardians of the Galaxy should win this walking away), but it’s hard to see The Hobbit ignored in this category, for many of the same reasons I list right above in the Costume Design section. If you gave the category a fifth nomination, I’d be hard pressed to ignore the work of Judy Chin’s crew on Noah.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Interstellar, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything
You can always tempt me with a Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross team-up, as in Gone Girl, but the finest score this year belongs to Mica Levi and her wild experimentation on Under the Skin. There’s absolutely nothing like it, and its combination of mechanical regularity and teeming natural architectures is stunningly disturbing. Her score is also the most thematically important, turning the film’s key moment in a way no other musical cue does this year. It’s rare that I can hear a piece of music and feel as if my body’s temperature has dropped to freezing, but that’s the effect this music has.
I make fun of it, but out of what’s nominated, I’d like to see Hans Zimmer’s How to Beat a Pipe Organ for Dummies get Interstellar the win.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominated: American Sniper, Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
I’ll get flak for this one, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes possesses an incredible screenplay that riffs on Pierre Boulle’s original novel, the Charlton Heston film, Biblical allegories, and contains plain, old-fashioned, incredible adventure writing. It is structural perfection, it is stylistically strong, it builds a world, entirely new cultures, and it is both patient and daring in how it gets to the places it’s going. The film’s best moments don’t involve its action scenes (although these are good, too); they involve characters trying their best to bridge differences, communicate, and avert a disaster they should know all too well is coming anyway. Strip the modern visuals and the central allegory about war and you have a brilliant 1950s historical epic. Toss on the war allegory and you’re suddenly discussing too many regions of the world where cultures seek to violently eradicate those different from them.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominated: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler
David Ayer’s screenplay for Fury deserves recognition as the finest balancing act of the year. The idea of using World War 2 to examine and break down the inner mechanics of how patriarchy trains violence – toward women, toward “the other,” as a way of functioning in the world – is mind-blowing. I have never seen anything like what David Ayer does here and it requires him to balance on the edge of a knife. He instills an honest admiration and respect for the heroism of soldiers while also using the training of their mindset to define the tragedy of something that is a modern, everyday, cultural problem: too many think they’re soldiers in cultural, gender-based, and religious battles that demand us-or-them victory conditions. We enable greater, everyday violence toward those with less as a rule of our culture. It is a remarkably difficult message to convey in the trappings of a war film, especially in terms of this particular war.
What Paul Webb does in Selma also deserves recognition. He creates poetry that discusses race in a way that connects 1965 to 2015. He writes characters not as celebrities or icons, but as people burdened by the responsibility of living up to the titles they’re given. As much as anything else, he deserves credit for finding a way to communicate the words of King without being able to use any of the words of King, since Dreamworks and Warner Bros. have licensed the film rights to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches for a Steven Spielberg biopic that will probably never get made. It’s just one of the many nomination oversights for Selma that baffle me.
Nominated: Alejandro Inarritu – Birdman, Richard Linklater – Boyhood, Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher, Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel, Morten Tyldum – Imitation Game
I’m completely lost as to how this doesn’t get nominated. Until Selma came out, the year’s been a three-way race between Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), and Gareth Evans (The Raid 2). The three Davids – Fincher (Gone Girl), Ayer (Fury), and Michod (The Rover) are in the conversation with a few of the Oscar nominees, and Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) keeps hanging around because she turned one of the most godawful scripts of the year into compelling drama, which isn’t easy.
And then Ava DuVernay came along, and then there was that moment early in Selma, when the conversation just stopped. There was no conversation to be had: Ava DuVernay is the best director of the year. And then there was that moment midway through Selma, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and you realized why. Her grasp of one of the most impossible moments in American history to translate, her ability to take the incomprehensible and help you begin to understand the texture and emotion of that moment, her ability to connect what happened 50 years ago to what is happening today…she is the director all other directors should be looking to this year. I cannot fathom what reason the Oscars have to overlook it.
Nominated: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
It’s really nice to see comedies like Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel recognized. I’m incredibly glad Whiplash found its way here. American Sniper I’ve mostly avoided because there is a great deal of controversy surrounding just how much has been changed to patriotize the figure at its center.
So what’s missing? The Academy gives what feels like a very cursory nod to Selma, having forgotten it in every other category but Best Original Song. I almost want to list it here again. While I’d feel pretty warm and content in my snark, it would defeat the spirit of this exercise.
You can probably guess it’s going to come down to Interstellar, Under the Skin, and something out of left field – Fury, Nightcrawler, The Raid 2, or The Rover. Those are six very deserving films, and I hate to be so boring, but it really is all about Interstellar and Under the Skin.
This is what I’ve been wrestling with when figuring out the best film of the year. Interstellar is a movie that emotionally communicates to me in a way no other film does. It makes me feel like a little kid, makes me feel like I’m going on a space adventure, but it talks about so much more along the way. Its tension and emotion are unparalleled for me as far as film experiences go. Of all the films this year, it will easily be the one I watch the most in my life.
Under the Skin speaks about important issues of identity, and it goes to terrifying places intellectually that I’ve never been taken before. On a level of experiencing and understanding the unfeeling nature of sociopathy, of being tricked into inhabiting it for two hours, of being asked to experience the world both as predator and victim, it leaves me disgusted and aghast and yet – seeing how its real, understanding all the better how that mindset operates – it makes it so very much more terrifying.
So it becomes comparing apples to oranges, or comparing apples to the guy in that shady Buick parked halfway down the block all day. Do I choose the film that makes me feel best about the world, or the one that makes me feel worst? Truth be told, that answer’s going to change day by day. It’s going to change by the successes I have and by the suffering I see in the world. I might tell you Interstellar is one of the best adventures ever put to film one day, and I might insist Under the Skin is going to change your life the next.
I hope you’ll understand that I won’t choose, that I prefer to leave it a two-way tie. Film is about the stories we need to keep on going, and the stories we need to see to better help others keep on going. To me, it’s an odd poetry that my top two films this year come down to the opposite ends of science-fiction. It might be frustrating to you, it might feel like a cop-out, but to me it feels fitting. It feels as if each film becomes more important by not winning out over the other, that one film can be the emotional heart and the other can be the intellectual reality into which that idealization walks every day thinking it can make a difference. I feel like choosing one would be denying reality, and choosing the other would be denying possibility.
Criticism isn’t just about ranking and choosing what’s best and what isn’t. It’s about finding the films that speak to you and using them to speak to others. The best films teach critics new words, new translations, whole new ways to communicate what’s inside them, to be memoir writers who point out new possibilities through the windows art gives us. These are the films that teach me the most, that make me feel like I can communicate so much more completely.
So go see Interstellar. It’s one of the best adventures ever put to film.
And go see Under the Skin. It’s going to change your life.
Oscar season is upon us, and that means one thing – everyone’s opinion is about to change. When many of the best films of the year are held until the holiday season, top 10 lists will completely transform by January. Earlier movies will be seen a second or third time and will climb or fall down lists accordingly. As was the case with my top two films of 2013, The Place Beyond the Pines and The Grandmaster, I’ll even catch up with smaller or foreign films on DVD.
On the cusp of Oscar season, let’s do an experiment. I’ll list my top 10 films today and we’ll check back in with the list come January:
10. How to Train Your Dragon 2
The list is rounded out with big-budget fare that’s more ambitious than the average summer blockbuster. How to Train Your Dragon 2 might be the best American animated film since Pixar’s sadly passed golden age, but it’s not just about kids and their dragons. It possesses an epic visual streak rare in animation and speaks to the dispossessed of our society – children of broken families, the disabled, and war veterans alike.
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is our best (non-Batman) superhero film in a cinematic era overrun with them. Like many blockbusters of the last two years, it’s incredibly socially-minded, using comic book tropes to deliver a sharp critique on the oxymoron of a marriage between the Pentagon’s mandate for freedom and the rise of private military contractors.
8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
For all its visual effects wizardry, this boasts one of the best-told stories of the year. It also challenges Noah for number of Bible references, posing original sin, Cain-and-Abel, and Jesus conceits against the backdrop of civil war in what’s effectively a third-world country. It’s rare that you could take away an action movie’s bigger setpieces and still be left with one of the best films of the year.
Noah is just on the outside of the top tier looking in. I’m big on its style and message, which were enough to make me forgive its unwieldy stretches on first viewing. I’m still a huge fan of its screenplay, which conflates various cultures’ flood myths, the entirety of the Old Testament, and a very meta approach to film narrative into a single story. That’s no easy feat. Darren Aronofsky’s “story of creation” is the best three-and-a-half minutes on film this year, and reveals that the film is better viewed as a postapocalypse fever dream than a direct religious adaptation. It tackles so much that I’m still putting it above much tighter films, but its unevenness can’t help but detract when we’ve had so many off-kilter masterpieces this year.
I just recently wrote on this film and, if you read on Monday how personally it struck me, you’ll accept my apology if I’d rather not write more on it for the time being.
5. Gone Girl
I don’t know if this is Gone Girl the movie so much as it’s David Fincher the movie. Rarely has a film been so precisely directed. You get the feeling that if there were a fleck of dust out of place on set, it would be moved into position before the camera rolled. It’s an accomplishment to be sure, and Gone Girl says a lot with a wry smile.
It’s a perfect film, essentially, but it knows it a little too much. It’s still pretty secure in the top 10, and I suspect it may move up once I see it again, but is it as important as some of the other films here? No. ‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘good,’ but it can add a certain weight to a film. Gone Girl is an artistic triumph, but it’s also like looking at a date who’s a little too perfect. Like its protagonists when they meet, there’s no messiness there, and you get the sense their personality is a put-on. It’s intriguing and you might see where it goes, but really you’re looking for someone who’s more willing to make a mistake or embarrass themselves.
4. The Raid 2
What the hell’s a martial arts movie doing this high? Imagine if Stanley Kubrick had ever designed the sets for a martial arts film with a gangland story told by Martin Scorsese and choreography that harkens back to the riskiest stunts of Jackie Chan’s youth. That might be a mess for a film without a motive, but The Raid 2 is a tight gangster story that reflects Indonesia’s frustration with powerful organized crime.
What’s most impressive is its cinematography. Quiet, emotional moments barely move, as if trapped in a snow globe. Yet you never see the most impressively choreographed stuntpeople – the ones holding the cameras, who weave in and out of the action with as much exacting complexity and artful nuance as the actors themselves. For martial arts films, this doesn’t just create a new way of filming fight scenes, it creates new opportunities for telling more story through them.
3. The Rover
Capturing the sensibility of a short story in a feature length film is incredibly difficult. In The Rover, it requires a narrow focus on character and something shrouded and immaculately protected in their souls. You feel compelled to learn more, to stick with disgusting characters because you need to know what it is that drives them toward a task so meaningless and without consequence. What makes it personal?
In a postapocalyptic world, following a character who couldn’t care whether you live or die, what makes his journey important at all? Something does, you get the sense of it haunting every moment Guy Pearce holds the screen like some cornered, wounded animal, vicious and feral about protecting himself yet already given up to the idea there’s no point left in living. Then there’s Robert Pattinson, playing the dull-witted boy who makes up his mind to be like Pearce’s nameless drifter, play-acting the part of wounded animal. Both are performances for the ages in as sparse and unforgiving a film as I know. It’s a film that – once it finishes – makes you thankful for stepping into the sunlight and hearing the noise of cars and seeing planes in the sky. The Rover is a masterpiece of what it’s like to be desolate not just in the world around you, but inside yourself.
And then there’s Fury. Like The Rover, it presents us with a young man (Logan Lerman) being trained to survive through developing a skill for hatred. In fact, many films this year – Nightcrawler, the villain in Maleficent, and even Lerman’s role in Noah – give us characters who demonstrate the hatred created through uniquely male pressures. These characters are taught to find strength through layers of domination, learning to abuse the “lesser” violently and sexually in order to secure a role in society. None of them communicate it like Fury, however, its metaphors stripped to the bone in as stark a depiction of war as has ever been put to the screen.
1. Under the Skin
A Scottish art film in which each artist – sound designers, composer, cinematographer – was allowed to go wild when creating their own, unique perspective of a central vision, edited into a horror film about identity and sexual consumption. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form whose job is to capture and digest human beings. She does so by luring drifters and other lonely men away from the public, tempting them with sex, and consuming them in some of the creepiest visual metaphors you’ve ever seen.
What Under the Skin does best is tricking us into viewing the narrative through the perspective of a sexual predator, and later using nontraditional means – inverted lighting schemes and Pavlovian musical cues – to coldly bring us out of it and make us consider what we’ve seen. It’s a mad, pulsating, unnerving film you don’t always know what to do with, sometimes frustrating but always captivating. What’s most impressive is that it doesn’t organize every artist’s contribution beneath a single directorial vision, which is usually better for a film – each perspective and artistic layer can still be seen in the final product. In truth, it’s the only way a film like this could have worked so well, as a rarity that can be viewed from so many different angles.
What will change by January? Probably a lot, even though I have a very hard time seeing those very top films unseated. Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to go check out one of them. Is there anything I’ve missed that you feel strongly about?
I recently came across my aborted article, and you know what? Days after the release of female celebrities’ naked photos across the internet, endearingly nicknamed “The Fappening” cause 4Chan and Reddit can go fuck themselves (I’m sure they already know how), I finally figured out why I want to see Scarlett Johansson play Hannibal Lecter.
Gabe’s been pushing for more women in protagonist roles, and he gets a little confused when something like Guardians of the Galaxy comes out. For all its awesomeness, it has a green-skinned Zoe Saldana kicking a few aliens before the guy from Parks and Rec has to save her twice. Congratulations, we got 20% of the protagonist share. That’s half what the movie gave to anthropomorphized wildlife found in your backyard at midnight.
There’s a common misconception when we talk about more movies with better parts for women. We’re not saying that this should be a requirement for EVERY SINGLE movie. Neither are we saying that there need be a quota or regulation placed on the entertainment industry. All we’re talking about is raised expectations and the changes a more aware audience can effect.
Lawrence of Arabia is implicitly about T.E. Lawrence’s homosexuality. It was made in 1962 for approximately a bazillion dollars, so it couldn’t really be about Lawrence’s sexuality in any explicit way. It had to be intimated to the audience. It achieves this in part through its all-male speaking cast.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is the best horror movie ever filmed and it doesn’t have any women in it. Since the horror in it is a fleshy Freudian conceit for men’s fear of possessing and being possessed through sex, full of snapping extendo-vagina monsters, phallic emasculations, and male pregnancy metaphors, it wouldn’t work as well if it wasn’t full of bearded, 80s uberdudes drinking, gambling, and watching porn. Besides, Mary Elizabeth Winstead came along in a prequel and proved a woman could blow shit up just as well as Kurt Russell.
The point is we aren’t saying that all movies lacking or minimizing women are terrible. We’re saying there are simply far too many of them. We are never saying that we want old ways of making movies to go away. We only want those old styles to be better balanced with new ways of writing, casting, and making movies that have thus far been resisted by a backwards entertainment industry.
I even like – hell, love – Guardians of the Galaxy. But there’s no denying they missed a big opportunity with Saldana’s character Gamora. While the men are away killing nameless henchmen by the thousands and getting a crack at the big bad, Gamora is cordoned into a one-on-one against the only other woman in a lead.
Others have written about needing more female leaders portrayed in movies, and I agree. But you know what else I want to see? I want to see women playing all those powerful character roles we reserve exclusively for men. Which brings me back to Scarlett Johansson and Hannibal Lecter. I want to be terrified by a woman in the same way movies tell me I should be terrified by a man. That’s the real power on-screen.
I want to see Cate Blanchett in Training Day telling Kerry Washington that King Kong ain’t got shit on her. I want the evil general in however many Avatar sequels they’re filming to be played by Sigourney Weaver (they’re bringing her back as a new character anyway, why not the bad guy). I’m not scared of a shouty, musclebound crew cut who looks like he soaked up too much California sun, but if Sigourney lowered her voice in anger, I wouldn’t be able to look elsewhere. I want the new Star Wars villain, the inheritor of Darth Vader himself, to be a woman. And you know who could put Daniel Craig’s James Bond in his place? A terrorist mastermind Helen Mirren.
The real staying power on screen belongs to the iconic villain. Do you see kids borrowing their parents’ bathrobes to dress up as Luke Skywalker every Halloween? No, you see them spending time and money buying and making costumes so they can be Darth Vader for a day. They understand the villain represents power, and icons of power last the test of time.
Marvel’s making a Black Widow movie with Johansson. That’s a great step, and I applaud them for having it scheduled to launch shortly after their 10th movie centered on a white guy named Chris. Way to get on that.
Now make a movie where a female villain is something other than a male villain’s henchman with daddy issues. You just got wallpaper performances out of Guy Pearce, Chris Eccleston, and Lee Pace, and they’re all great actors. Meanwhile, Karen Gillan killed it in Guardians despite limited screen time.
Change up the formula. Write more heroic women, but while you’re at it, write more powerful women who want to rule the galaxy, too. That’s why I want to see Scarlett Johansson as Hannibal Lecter one day.
“Can you hear them, Jesse Eisenberg? Can you hear the silence of the lambs?”
And Jennifer Lawrence can make you put the lotion in the basket while she dances in the skins of dead men.
The big name in all the ads for Lucy is Scarlett Johansson, and for good reason. Lucy just clobbered Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s brawnier, twice-as-expensive release Hercules in theaters this weekend. I think its safe to put to rest the notion that women can’t launch action movies, and make those Black Widow and Wonder Woman spin-offs immediately.
Johansson’s isn’t the only name in Lucy you should recognize, though. Chances are you’ve seen a few of director Luc Besson’s films, from La Femme Nikita to Leon: The Professional. He’s best known for 1997’s The Fifth Element, which paired an intergalactic, cab-driving Bruce Willis with kung fu mastering, space demigod Milla Jovovich. Needless to say, it was brimming with weird. That oddness is a big reason why Fifth Element survives, however. Separate from the pack of hundreds of nearly identical 90s sci-fi movies, it doesn’t feel bound to any time or place in particular, and its cartoonish aspects are as fresh today as they were 17 years ago.
Besson brings a lot of that weirdness and cartoon sensibility to Lucy, which opens up with Johansson’s title character deciding whether or not to trust Richard, her boyfriend of a week who’s doing his best to convince her to deliver a mysterious briefcase to a gangster. When she briefly considers, Besson cuts to a mouse honing in on a baited mousetrap. When Lucy refuses, Richard forces her anyway. And when the deal goes awry and gangsters close in, Besson cuts from the tattooed henchmen to cheetahs closing in on their kill. This tongue-in-cheek sensibility eases up across the movie, but it never fully goes away – it’s an enjoyably Looney Tunes way to present an action film.
Lucy is kidnapped by the gang and forced into becoming a drug mule, a baggie of a brand new superdrug surgically implanted into her “lower tummy.” It breaks, overdosing Lucy on a drug which allows her to use increasing chunks of her mental capacity, instead of the usual 10% to which humans are limited.
This eventually means she can translate any language, read 6,000 pages in a matter of minutes, change her hair color at will, and pluck phone conversations from the air with her mind. The scientific explanations, given by Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman, are a lot of hokum, but the broad idea behind it all has some basis in theoretical possibility.
More and more science regarding the human mind is turning to the notion that our brains work at a quantum mechanical level, surpassing many of the rules of classical physics. What this means is that every consciousness is more than just information that can be downloaded, and that every individual’s consciousness has its own unique relationship to perceiving and affecting the world around us. As Freeman’s pointed out in his TV documentary show Through the Wormhole, quantum consciousness is the strongest scientific argument yet for the existence of the individual soul. Lucy plays as a very broad extension of these theoretical ideas.
Needless to say, by the time Lucy’s tracked down Prof. Norman, so have the gangsters. How do you have an action movie when, halfway through the film, the hero can put crowds of people to sleep and send gunmen flying through walls at the speed of thought? This is where most action movies would introduce some sort of superpowered nemesis to measure up to the hero. Lucy is more concerned with its character’s journey, however. The most compelling scenes involve Johansson’s moving performance as her perception of the world and life itself evolves into near-omnipotence. It’s an intriguing path, but Besson still feels as if its necessary to tack on gunfights and car chases that just don’t fit.
Lucy is a fun journey, but not necessarily a satisfying one. At least it effectively instates Johansson as a bonafide movie star in an age when there’s no such thing. While Besson’s style counts for a lot, and Johansson and Freeman sell moments lesser actors couldn’t, you’re still stuck with a film that can’t choose whether to be philosophy, comedy, or action, and isn’t complex enough to be all three.
Between her performances in Under the Skin, Chef, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now Lucy, I feel comfortable in saying that Johansson is the most important actor – male or female – of 2014. And this comes from a critic who’d all but dismissed her 8 years ago. Lucy is rated R for violence and sexuality.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel, Noah
A lot of people hate the story in Noah. It’s too bastardized, they say. Damn straight, I say. The story of Noah doesn’t belong to the Bible. It was around long before, transmuted into a plethora of different stories across different cultures that highlight contrasting details. Noah never adopts an orphan in the Bible. This is a reference to Korean flood mythology. There are no giants in the Bible’s Noah. This is a Midrashic conceit that belongs to certain sects of Judaism. Noah doesn’t contemplate exterminating his grandchildren in the Bible. This sequence combines reflections of other Biblical books – the jettisoned baby in Exodus, the crisis of faith in Job, and most importantly the tale of Abraham in Genesis.
There are countless other details from a variety of other religions folded into Aronofsky’s retelling of Noah. It creates a Frankenstein’s monster of a myth, housing itself inside Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions alike and vibrantly socially aware of the moment in time it arrives in our world.
Feel free to hate it for not being accurate to your interpretation of Noah, but Noah was never yours to begin with. Neither is it Aronofsky’s or Handel’s, and their patchwork retelling reminds us that it’s not so much the detail in the story that’s important – those details are completely different for everybody – but it’s the common meaning those various interpretations seek to teach us that is crucial.
The narrative details aren’t sacred. They’re just as bastardized in the Bible as they are out of it. The meanings are sacred. The world’s done a horrible job of getting this through its head. We argue about the length of Noah’s ark and its width and what wood it was made from and how he fed the animals while we ignore that in all those stories, God sends down the flood because we were annihilating each other and so lost in petty bickering we ignored the needs of the helpless among us. Understand that before you come at Noah complaining it’s not accurate enough.
Devoutness of detail can often be a useless habit. Give me a new interpretation that reminds me of the old meaning any day of the week.
Best Original Screenplay: Joel Edgerton & David Michod, The Rover
We so rarely get short stories on film anymore. Our movies today sprawl, like labyrinths meant to make the biggest and most widely talked-about mark on our social calendars. Every character gets his or her own realization mid-plot, so we can check the character development box off the list and justify a dozen different character-specific posters. Even in our blockbusters, two sides aren’t enough anymore. I like my seven-sided, choatic end-battles, believe me, but there are only so many writers and filmmakers who can truly hack that.
What about the short story? What about visiting a time and place for just a moment, getting just a glimpse? What about leaving us wanting to know more? Many of our works of art have forgotten how to shield their characters from us. Characters are thrown at us with gadgets and costume changes and sidekicks for spinoffs. That’s fine…so long as we don’t forget those other movies, the ones that contain characters we should never want to see again, or that we should wish to save, or that we should pity, or that we should hate. Sometimes all at once. The Rover visits a time and place we should never want to see and delivers characters we should never want to meet. It stays long enough so that we begin to care what happens anyway, that we begin to understand why someone might be a way we never could be ourselves, and then it exits gracefully.
Like The Proposition a decade before, which also starred Guy Pearce, it crafts a haunting story from an elegant blend of poetic dialogue, stark visual, and simple structure. In a short story, every word matters. So, too, in The Rover. Every word, every shot, every cut matters, and builds to a whole at just the right moment – the second before the credits roll. It forces you to take a piece of that time and place you’d never visit back with you into the real world, to contrast the two, to be terrified at their similarities and joyous at their differences. It’s a staggering work that demands tears and silence and reverence. The Rover is a fire-and-brimstone sermon in the church of film.
My choice for this at the end of last year was Alfonso Cuaron for his pioneering work in Gravity. At least until I saw Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. But that’s another essay. This year, it’s the polar opposite of those two directors. Instead of Cuaron’s painstaking cinematic techniques, so groundbreaking they demanded new inventions, and instead of Wong Kar-Wai’s precise, artistic framing (nearly every shot is so painterly it’s worthy of its own essay), Glazer is much more hands-off. He gathered a wild array of fringe talent and let them go wild.
In various Guardian articles, and in my own interview with author Michel Faber, who wrote the novel on which the film Under the Skin is based, Glazer’s loose, guerrilla approach to filmmaking began to take shape: Conversations with passersby recorded on hidden camera. Covert microphones hidden in umbrellas picking up stray conversation on the streets of Edinburgh. An FX studio let loose to envision an alien’s digestive tract in visual metaphor. Documentarian shots of both nature and civilization. An experimental rock musician asked to score it all.
What Glazer does is invite chaos into his movie, trusting himself enough to shape it. The result is a mash of experimental techniques fused into a powerful whole. These diverse technical experiments shine through so much that you can even see how contributors’ interpretations agree and disagree. It’s rare that so loose and experimental an approach results in a film so tight and complete. The most difficult part of directing is knowing when to control chaos and knowing when to unleash it. For mastering the balance, at least for this film, Glazer does something just as impressive as inventing new technologies or framing everything with painterly perfection.
Any other year, this wouldn’t be a contest. It would be The Rover with nothing else close. But Under the Skin is the best film we’ve had in many years, the most challenging, the one that does something film is very often incapable of doing. Many films put you in someone else’s shoes. Almost none trick you into filling out the shoes of a sociopath and rapist. The film has such command of allegory, it truly makes you stop and contemplate a perspective that’s (hopefully) completely alien to you, and it transports you very uncomfortably outside of your own realm of sensation and experience.
We’ve already had several Oscar-worthy performances this year. What’s unfortunate is that they’ll all be forgotten come the Oscars and the rest of Awards-season, as voters only seem to remember their last few months. Certain performances deserve a hell of a lot more, and I have a few in mind:
Anthony Hopkins. Russell Crowe. Ray Winstone. Emma Watson. That’s Hannibal Lecter, Maximus the Gladiator, Beowulf, and Hermione Granger all in one cast. And none of them holds a candle to Jennifer Connelly. She chooses her projects very carefully, so it’s easy to forget just how very human she can be.
Director Darren Aronofsky got the best performance in her career out of her once before, in Requiem for a Dream. You can feel Aronofsky trusts her enough to give her free emotional range in Noah. She’s smart enough to understate her role most of the time, to exert a sort of quiet power and patience over the film. It makes that one moment when her measured performance is lit on fire something special. It is a daunting and undeniable moment of pure acting, and it sets everything else – Russell Crowe’s dramatic power, the raging visual effects, Aronofsky’s pure auteur-ism – to the side.
For a moment, everything becomes meaningless aside from her. It’s a viciously human moment, and it’s a rare skill to know how to complement four such powerful actors for two hours and when to sweep them all away for five minutes. This is one of the unique gifts Connelly brings to film acting – her performances are very often in support of the films around her, yet she can overpower them at a moment’s notice. In this way, she’s one of the wisest actors we have, never showing off, yet with a fount of pent up, dramatic power always locked beneath her performances.
Best Supporting Actor: Robert Pattinson, The Rover
Playing someone who’s “slow” is a daunting task. Watch Forrest Gump all these years later and it doesn’t feel quite as acceptable as it once did. And that’s Tom Hanks. The Rover is wise to never quantify the intelligence of Robert Pattinson’s Rey. Whether he’s mentally handicapped or not isn’t particularly important to the plot. He’s slower to pick up on the reality of a situation than everyone else and this leaves him deeply impressionable. His conscience is malleable in a way the rest of ours aren’t. This makes him the only hopeful element in The Rover‘s post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Pattinson’s Rey progressively turns to violence more as a solution than a danger as the reality sinks in that there’s no one around to foster the hope that he represents. It’s a shade too real. We see it every day. It reflects a society that may already be experiencing a sort of moral post-apocalypse, whose world may’ve ended in a whimper so quiet nobody noticed. It’s a phenomenal performance on Pattinson’s part, full of personality tics and a man’s thought processes laid bare. What it has to say about the rest of us and how we treat the least among us is why his performance will last.
And then there’s Pearce. Have you ever looked at a Hieronymus Bosch painting and wondered what its tormented denizens might feel? What they’d have left in them, what possible drive could keep them going through it all? It might be impossible for us to know the answer. The distance from here to there, the amount of experience a human mind would have to undergo to cope with it all…it might just be too alien.
In The Rover, this is what Guy Pearce accesses. We can understand at the most basic mechanical level how he does and says the things he does and says, but we have no way to comprehend his inner workings or private feelings. He seems so vacant of soul that his monstrousness feels droll, normal, uneventful. Maybe that’s what Bosch’s hellfiends feel – normality. Nothing special. Another day. It makes those flashes in Pearce’s eyes, those brief acknowledgments of his humanity painful, searing, unforgettable. Those flashes are subdued so quickly, shielded with such hardness, that the humanity in his performance only exists in his viewers.
We have to be human for him, even at the end when we understand…well, not everything – we just understand a moment in his life. That’s it. A moment. And it wrecks us, one moment finally understood in this world of his. And we have to walk out of the theater feeling humanity for him, feeling as if his tragedy is special in a world where tragedy is droll, normal, uneventful. That’s the beauty of Pearce’s performance – making us feel everything he won’t. It’s one of those rare performances you realize no other actor could have realized. It may be the singular masterpiece of his career.
A few years ago, I referred to Scarlett Johansson as a showhorse. Like Taylor Lautner and his abs in the Twilight franchise, I believed she was getting roles she didn’t deserve based off her looks. In movies like The Island and The Black Dahlia, I felt she was either flat or campy. She lacked the dramatic core to sustain the lead performances she was being given. It never occurred to me her performances were the result of working with a run of directors whose abilities had long ago dried up.
I was wrong about her, and this year proved it. She was the most compelling part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and she delivers one of the best performances of the year in Under the Skin, as an alien who preys on lonely drifters, luring them in with the promise of sex only to consume them. It’s a difficult performance in that the amount of silence in the film could easily trick an actor into playing the role too flat, and the subject matter could tempt an actor into playing it too campy. She does neither, playing a sexual predator, an unfeeling murderess, and a pioneer in a wilderness that’s strange to her.
Johansson communicates her own character’s alien experience while inviting viewers to see the world through sociopathic eyes, an experience that’s a bit scarring for the empathetic viewer. It’s a scary role, sexualized yet rarely sexy, unemotive yet immensely sensory. She nails her performance by simply playing it – moments of understatement or overstatement are rare. It demands a lot from an actor to simply exist as something so alien without big moments to express that difference.
There’s a lot in this movie that shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Quiet, contemplative moments in which men consider themselves and each other and make a subdued, witty comment before getting back to contemplating. Yet this is a rare cast, a group of older comedians whose youthful zeal to tell every joke has given way to the wisdom to tell the right one at the right moment. The Monuments Men wouldn’t be the film it is without the patience and nonchalance of Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean DuJardin, and Hugh Bonneville. Combined with the frenzy of George Clooney, the optimism of Matt Damon, and the tenacity of Cate Blanchett, this is a cast that lends their film an unassuming earnestness unheard of in today’s build-a-better-mousetrap school of event filmmaking.