Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

The Most Important Actor of 2014

Under the Skin cap

by Gabriel Valdez

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

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

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

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

This Season's Underslung Grenade Launcher

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

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

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

Under the Skin dark center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interstellar Jessica Chastain

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

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

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

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

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

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

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

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

Mockingjay Jennifer Lawrence 2

Others who got multiple votes included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Vintage Keanu — “John Wick”

John Wick Keanu

by Gabriel Valdez

No one knows if the Russian mob will ever recover from this last month. First Denzel, now Keanu: their habit for angering our best action stars has cost them dearly. Never before have I seen so many secret gun cabinets, gangsters shot in totally legitimate business establishments, and henchmen hit by cars drifting sideways.

In October alone, the Russian mafia has been chased out of New York City twice now, first in The Equalizer and now in John Wick. At least it’s spurred business – the aluminum bat and tire iron industries are booming, while body shops are seeing record business from the number of SUVs driven into walls or off four-story drops. Rent on storage space has skyrocketed since so many empty warehouses and shipping yards have succumbed to awesome, slow-motion explosions.

Keanu Reeves has always been the sort of action hero who can heartlessly shoot a man in the face and turn around to save a kitten in a tree without breaking our suspension of disbelief. John Wick doesn’t take things that far – instead, Keanu’s titular Wick is briefly partnered with a charming puppy, the last gift from his late wife. When the Russian mob boss’s son breaks into Wick’s house to steal his vintage car, the puppy gets in the way and…well, now Wick is out for revenge. Turns out Wick was once a top assassin, and that’s unfortunate for the Russians.

John Wick Puppy Love

It sounds schmaltzy because it is, but Keanu plays it honestly. You can connect to his anger because he feels as if the universe has unjustly taken away what he loved most, and haven’t we all been in that place, willing to lash out at any target that presents itself?

John Wick itself is part of a 90s breed of movie I think of as gothic action, not as much for its gothic style (although this was popular) as its fatalistic worldview. These movies rely on their central actors and prioritize style over everything else. To them, the city at night is the ultimate human achievement, filled with unfeeling architecture, enough bright neon to make aging protagonists feel behind the times, and so much murder and mood that their own bloody story is just one of many. The over-the-top The Boondock Saints, a glammed out The Crow, or Keanu’s own heated, hazy debut to many Americans, Point Break, all fall into this category. These films have too short an attention span and are too aware of themselves to be noir – even the subtitles in John Wick announce themselves with colorful highlights and spill across the screen at odd angles.

Wick is exactly what you expect from the genre: simple premise, solid enough acting, and a heaping dose of cynical self-loathing. You came for the action, though, and the fight choreography is brilliant, taking advantage of Keanu’s matter-of-fact grace to create fights that are by turn balletic and brutal. The standout sequence involves Wick fighting his way through various floors of a Russian dance club. Each floor has its own mood lighting, music, and obstacles: a red-hued floor playing pop; a blue toned floor with private pools, serene new age music, and lots of glass to break; and finally a strobing dancefloor filled with unwitting civilians and dubstep. Wick fights his way through every lighting set-up and musical background as if he’s progressing through a video game (and assassins even exchange tokens for access), so you just sit back and enjoy the ride.

John Wick Adrianne Palicki

I’m tempted to say actors like Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki are brilliant as rival assassins, but they really aren’t. They’re good, sure, but it’s more that they’re excellent stylistic fits. They understand how to strut into a fight scene and chew the scenery. Palicki, in particular, enjoys the film’s best one-on-one fight versus Keanu.

The main weakness in Wick is that it doesn’t go far enough. You keep expecting it to throw in the kitchen sink, and it teases you with characters who nearly break the movie when they begin to bait each other just for the sake of upping the ante. Just as it’s doing this, however, Wick pulls back and gives you exactly the clichéd climax you’d expect. That’s fine, but for a while, I really believed Wick was about to be far madder than what results.

The action scenes are great, the black comedy is superb, and the style reminds you that action movies once took place in dark cities during nights teeming with possibility, instead of in superspy offices and sleek corporate headquarters. John Wick and Keanu himself are refreshingly vintage. It’s rated R for violence and language, but more specifically because 99% of the movie’s population gets shot in the face at some point.

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 John Wick have more than one woman in it?

Yes, Wick’s wife (Bridget Moynahan), a rival assassin named Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), and a bartender named Addy (the underused Bridget Regan).

2. Do they talk to each other?

Nope.

3. About something other than a man?

Nope.

(There are additional women used as eye candy in the background for the pool scene, but there are men used as eye candy in this scene, too, and the movie gets over it pretty quickly in order to squeeze in a few more guys getting shot in the face.)

Ultimately, you’ve got to hold John Wick accountable for not prioritizing its women as much as its men. Palicki is a good step in the right direction: her malevolent Perkins is treated as the biggest single threat to Wick and when they inevitably fight, they go punch for punch. It is a brutal fight scene, but so are all the others. In a movie about fight scenes, I’m glad they feature her as Wick’s equal and let her beat Keanu up a bit, rather than finding a cop-out (as many movies do) to have a dangerous woman whose only threat is her cinematic sexiness. To Perkins, feminine wiles are slower than shooting a guy in the face. Palicki is good looking, sure, but so is Keanu, and the lithe silhouette he strikes is for more obsessed over than hers.

The movie doesn’t objectify women in any real way and although Wick’s angry about the loss of his wife, he’s really getting vengeance for his super-adorable puppy. I can get behind that. The movie momentarily wants to say something about cycles of violence, but it quickly backs off this in order for more guys to – you’ll never guess – get shot in the face.

Films as stylistic as these only make their worlds seem more fully realized when they cast women in equal proportion to men. John Wick misses an easy opportunity to give viewers more room to breathe inside its cinematic world.