The Mid-Year Highs and Lows Part One: Favorite Performances

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Laura_Dern_and_Shailene_Woodley

By: Robert Hamer and Joey Magidson

This year, I’m going to be doing things a little bit differently than I normally do when it comes to my Best of the First Half piece. Basically, not only is it split up into four pieces to be spaced out this week by category, I’m also working with our very own Robert Hamer. Robert is going to be shipping off soon, so this is kind of a farewell article for him as well. What better way to send him off right than by giving him some free reign to talk about what he loved and loathed so far this year, right? Eseentially, instead of what I normally did in years past, he and I will be more or less having a long conversation about our selections. I hope you enjoy!

Joey's_Mid-Year_Favorite_Performances
Joey’s Picks
Robert's_Mid-Year_Favorite_Performances
Robert’s picks

Robert: Wow, four women from you and three from me? Don’t get me wrong, I will always support us expanding our spotlight on amazing work from actresses, it’s just that I rarely see it pan out that way. Interestingly, this is the most feminine lineup of favorite mid-year performances that you’ve published in at least three years. Do you think this has been just a really good year for women on the big screen, or do you think there’s something more going on?

Joey: It’s funny, when I normally sit down to do the acting portion of this piece each year, I usually have a decent pool of actors and actresses that I cull from and usually wind up 3:2 in favor of the gentlemen I think, but this year I have to say there weren’t a whole heaping load of performances that I felt had to be cited. A few stood out to me, like Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars, but as much as anything, part of the reason for the focus on the females had to do with the lack of male performances worth making a fuss over. I’m quite fond of Anton Yelchin’s turn in 5 to 7 and liked how Mark Ruffalo plays against type in Begin Again, but if I were to move down a list of just men, I’d be stretching to include the likes of Nicolas Cage in Joe, Kevin Costner in Draft Day, Michael Fassbender in Frank, and Tom Hardy in Locke. Strong performances all around, but they don’t measure up to Woodley or ladies like Ashley Bell in Love & Air Sex, Felicity Jones in Breathe In, Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, Zoe Kazan in The Pretty One, Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, or Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant. It was basically just a matter of the quality being on one side of the fence, as it were. Looking at your performances, I think some readers might be surprised to see someone like Rose Byrne on your list. Fairly or unfairly, you’ve developed a reputation for being partial to slightly less, I want to say…“broad” films. Believe me, I’m very fond of Neighbors and her performance, so I’d hardly question it, but I guess I’d be interested in reading about how you narrowed down your list and found her to be on par with someone like Cotillard, for example?

Rose_ByrneRobert: Let me just get one thing out of the way: no one (so far) has been on par with Marion Cotillard in my eyes. I don’t want to sell my other four picks short, though; Rose Byrne’s comedic achievements in Neighbors are almost impossible to overstate. She was, in my eyes, one of the only things that distinguished that film from what I’ve seen already from the Apatow Gang, a brand of comedy that I’m becoming increasingly bored with. Mac Radner is more or less every character Seth Rogen’s ever played, but his seemingly more mature wife discovering her own anarchic and youthful desires and the surprisingly dark turns Byrne takes them added an unexpected but welcome comic edge. Sure, one could attribute that to the role itself, and it’s true that this is arguably the most interesting female character conceived for a mainstream comedy in at least a couple of years (which says a lot about the state of modern comedy). But Byrne herself takes that opportunity and makes the most of it, pulling off the now-common semi-improvisational rambling style of joke delivery with excellent timing and on-the-fly inventiveness better than anyone around her, and by a pretty wide margin. And honestly, has Rogen ever had a more natural screen partner? My tastes may skew away from what’s considered widely appealing in film, but I have been and continue to be vocal about recognizing great comedic work. Rose Byrne’s performance in Neighbors is the kind that absolutely demands, well, it’s probably too much to hope for full-on awards recognition, so at least offers that will get her on that path.

It looks like you were also impressed with women exploring dark desires of their own, Johansson and Martin especially. Come to think of it, they sort of play similar characters, don’t they? Both use their own sex appeal as a weapon. Both have a detached, almost scientific way of looking at their situations, no matter how strange or even dangerous they often appear to us. Both sorely underestimate the sometimes dangerous volatility of human desire. Both of them want to explore those passions as soon as they get a real taste of them. And both of the actresses were under the eye of highly singular, divisive filmmakers generating suspense from manipulating the male gaze…though Jonathan Glazer was more successful at it than Lars von Trier.

Joey: That was something that I noticed when I saw them side by side. Much as it appears that emotion was a common thread among my favorite films of the year so far, sexual empowerment and the exploration of their own sexuality seems to be one of the main threads of my performances. Everything you said about Johansson and Martin is exactly right, with Kazan also experiencing a sexual coming of age in her film as well. Focusing in on the two you mentioned though, I found watching both of their journeys to be fascinating. Johansson’s unnamed alien begins by using her sexuality/skin (or just her costume, as it were) as bait, literally as a weapon. She entraps men with the promise of an orgasm and delivers something decidedly horrific instead. Martin’s Joe in turn just uses men as a tool. If she could remove the penis from the rest of her partner and just go to town on that, she would. Seeing how both of them begin to change over the course of their films was one of the best parts of both (but like you said Under the Skin is far more effective than either volume of Nymphomaniac).

The other thing I noticed in their performances besides what you said was that they both do a lot of acting without talking. There’s dialogue in both films, but the use of their facial expressions and literally their bodies is where a lot of the heavy lifting comes from. They’re both beautiful, obviously, but the use of their beauty as an acting tool was truly impressive to me. In regard to Byrne, you can certainly hold out hope for a Golden Globe nomination… hey, when you look at your top films of the year and then at the performances you cited that were contained within, how essential were they to the film’s success in your eyes?

Robert: Oh, is it even possible for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to be that cool? Every reason Neighbors is worth watching is related in some way to her as far as I’m concerned. I luckily didn’t see too many other movies so far this year with the same dubious distinction. Honestly, the only one in my top ten that I would say depends mostly on its key performance to succeed is Gloria. Not that Sebastián Lelio’s film isn’t a delightful character study on its own, but as is usually the case with character studies, they’re only as worth watching as the person it’s centered on. I don’t think there’s a single scene in Gloria without Paulina García, and her vivacity and often funny personality is incorporated into the director’s own approach. The film engages with her surroundings with the same passionate but hurried interest that she does, and those delicate little moments are mesmerizing to us because of what they mean to her (I should give credit as well to her also-great onscreen lover Sergio Hernández). It’s a testament to Lelio and García first-rate synergy, but still, I can hardly imagine the movie at all if she didn’t deliver in spades. The Immigrant and Blue Ruin both have excellent leads, but their films don’t lean on them quite as much, and both very likely would have still made my top ten even if the acting was only, say, serviceable. Ignoring Cotillard, the former still boasts amazing visuals, sweeping operatic vision, a refreshing sense of specificity over trying to make some be-all-end-all Grand Statement of an Era, and a deeply involving, tragic story of unrequited desire and battered hope. The latter is still nail-bitingly tense and ingeniously plotted even without Macon Blair’s (hopefully) breakout performance. It’s not just for those top five performances, either. I would say the same of Swinton and Hiddleston’s relaxed, low key but deeply involving and unusually sexy portrayal of a long-term couple in Only Lovers Left Alive. Their chemistry was one of the highlights of that movie, but thankfully not the only one. Tom Cruise’s fun overturning of his screen persona and Emily Blunt’s utterly convincing embodiment of a kickass warrior woman is not the only reason Edge of Tomorrow was the best popcorn movie of the first half of the summer.

Then there’s Under the Skin, which I would actually cite as an example of a film that not only doesn’t rely on a great performance to succeed, but doesn’t have one. With all due respect to Scarlett Johansson’s admirable commitment to Glazer’s intent, I so didn’t see this as an actor’s showcase at all or even her best work. I know that’s basically the opposite of what your review says, which is weird since it’s also one of only two movies that appear on both of our top ten films lists.

Scarlett_JohanssonJoey: Ironic, because I feel the opposite way about Gloria. Without García, that movie would have been a wasteland to me. Back to ScarJo though. Well, I’m open to it not being her career-best work, considering last year she had Don Jon and Her to pair with Lost in Translation as being in competition for her top tier output, but I was just incredibly struck by her presence in the film. You could have still had an engaging experience had a vapid pretty face been in the role (I won’t name names, but just insert a random hot chick who can’t act here), but there was something about her that elevated things. It’s hard to put my finger on it, honestly, but just as sometimes you’ll be struck by one performance more than another without a fully coherent reason why one excellent performance is slightly better than another one, but you just have that feeling. It’s kind of a lame answer, I know, but hey…it’s my list, so buzz off! I kid, I kid. Now, to expand a bit from the five we’ve cited, I want to hear/read a bit about the performances that exceeded your expectations or underwhelmed you. They don’t have to have been top five worthy, but did you see a supporting performance of note that you’d like to shout out or a performance you formerly had high hopes for that left you wanting more. I certainly have a few I can think of, so I’m curious about yours, if you’d be so kind?

Robert: I always have a hard time with a question like this since it depends almost entirely on some perceived mass consensus to answer. I could argue, for example, that Sebastian Stan’s portrayal of Bucky Barnes was disappointingly callow for a villain who was otherwise built up very well as a credible threat in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that’s not really a retort to the relative opinions of others, especially since that seems to be how most people reacted to him anyway. I do my best to tune that noise out since the hype surrounding a performance shouldn’t factor into how I personally evaluate it.

Having said that, there are times when I feel that kind of dissent with such a critical narrative is unavoidable, and boy did I encounter that with the central performance in David Gordon Green’s “comeback film” (wasn’t that supposed to be Prince Avalanche?) Joe, a sort of hypermasculine Winter’s Bone meets Mud…which is about as obnoxious as it sounds. In a way, I almost understand why reviewers would be so effusive in their praise of Nicolas Cage here. Who can blame anyone for desperately wanting him to return to the good old days of the late 80’s and early 90’s when he was one of the most interesting actors of his generation? Seeing headlines like “Cage’s Best In Years!” is a kind of loaded encouragement directed at him as much as anything. But let’s be real, here: it’s only his best work in years because nearly everything he’s done since Matchstick Men has been embarrassing, and when you don’t compare what he does in Joe to his recent output, it’s hardly a masterclass in acting. Reeling back his manic tics and Cage-isms – which, when properly used, has led to some of his best performances – to inhabit yet another Brooding Tough White Guy with calculated, put-upon “restraint” doesn’t strike me as a step forward. Even in the method details I wasn’t impressed. His drawl is a lot more convincing than maybe what he had in Con Air, but it was still wobbly, especially compared to the authentic supporting cast surrounding him (as well as Tye Sheridan, who does deserve every word of praise directed at him and just barely missed my own top five). I have a sinking feeling that we’re going to see a lot of actors in a slump attempt their own McConaissance in the wake of Dallas Buyers Club, and we as film writers should at least try to be a little more discerning lest we play into every desired media narrative no matter how middling the attempt actually is.

When it comes to underrated performances, I wish Joaquin Phoenix was getting a little more credit as Ewa’s maddeningly complex protector/tormentor in The Immigrant. His ability to keep us invested in him despite his frequently ugly and sometimes even self-sabotaging behavior is a real credit to what an amazing actor he is. That he isn’t the best performance in the film is not because he falls short in any way, but because Cotillard is just that terrific. Still, I feel like the Phoenix/Gray team is the most undervalued director-actor collaboration in contemporary cinema, and this is only the most recent of a lot of great results stemming from the both of them working together.

While we’re on the subject of performances that seem to be overshadowed by the celebration of their co-star, am I the only one who feels like Laura Dern is the best performer in The Fault in Our Stars? Hers was the sole performance in that ensemble that I saw as an unqualified success, as she was the only one who consistently and believably engaged with the story as a glimpse into the state of being terminally ill at a young age. Dern interacts with her daughter in a kind of jittery, keyed-up cheerfulness that would come off annoying if it weren’t for how she uses that aggressive positivity as a mask for her dread that any given day might be her little girl’s last, while also developing Frannie as a whole person beyond “just” Hazel’s mother. The way she always looks like she’s about to cry right before forcing a smile, or her increasingly wearied attempts to break down Hazel’s cynicism toward support groups and “Make friends! Have fun!!!” affected me far more than the film’s more overt attempts to work my tear ducts.

I wish I could say that I understand why she hasn’t been singled out more due to being overshadowed by an even better performance, but I am sorry Joey, I just cannot go there with Shailene Woodley (and please superfans, re-read this before angrily dismissing me as a “hater”). Her performance is endearing and I liked how there’s a cautiousness underlining her unexpected romance with Gus without hiding how hard she’s falling for him, but I found her downright lousy at actually portraying her affliction. Unless a scene called specific attention to it, I had a hard time believing Hazel was even dealing with a light head cold, let alone a metastasized lung tumor that was actively debilitating her everyday life (compare that to Oasis, a movie with two leads who never sugarcoated or downplayed their disabilities while still developing a genuinely tragic romance between them). Especially in a film that promises honesty from the opening narration, how someone could argue her performance as anything more than a mixed bag is baffling to me. Was she really so adorable that you didn’t mind her lack of even trying to realistically convey any kind of physical infirmity?

Nicolas_CageJoey: In short, yes. I’ll expand on that briefly, but doubling back, I have to say that while I agree with you that Nicolas Cage in Joe is hardly Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, it’s still a solid performance. Undoubtedly, it looks better because it’s not any number of questionable projects from the past decade or so, but I found him to be effective in the role. I couldn’t agree more about Laura Dern and Joaquin Phoenix though, especially Dern. I might prefer Woodley, but Dern has an incredibly difficult role to pull off and part of her success is that it’s not showy. The look in her eyes most of the time says it all, and it’s almost enough to bring me to tears just thinking about it. What I’ll say about Woodley that might work as a compromise of sorts is that her performance is very good on its own but aided in my eyes by the screenplay, while Dern is doing something above and beyond what’s on the page. With Woodley though, I was thoroughly won over in a way that superseded perhaps even the logic of it all. Could she have looked sicker? Sure, but I will say that in the book one particular character has a lot more happen to them in terms of their illness, and it didn’t make anything more effective to me. The movie did enough to have you aware of the condition but not have it completely consume everything. Perhaps another movie would have gone that route, but this one didn’t and I was just fine with that.

I think we’ll wrap it up for this topic in our series on the highlights and lowlights of the first half of the year. Fear not though, we’ll be returning next to hand out and haggle over some mid-year awards, so look forward to that!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!