Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Top 20 Films of 2016

20. Christine (Antonio Campos)

A portrait of a troubled, depressed woman that never resorts to easy answers or explanations. Director Antonio Campos and actress Rebecca Hall, playing the titular character, are both brave enough to allow Christine to remain occasionally abrasive and unlikable. She's a genuinely troubled person and not a perfect victim. This deeper play for truth instead of sympathy (or a a pat explanation as to why she's depressed) lends the film a lasting power. Oh yeah, and Rebecca Hall gives the performance of the year.

19. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

May have spoken too soon with that performance of the year talk, as Sonia Braga is phenomenal as the lead in Aquarius. She plays Clara, a 65 year old widow fighting against a group of real estate developers trying to buy her apartment. She refuses to sell, but instead of a straightforward story of one woman battling a broken system (though that's in there), Aquarius presents a story of the past, of history and of memory. Unfolding at a leisurely pace, Aquarius is the story of a woman navigating her place in a changing world while still remembering the past.

18. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)

A filmmaker visiting from out of town meets a young artist and they get to talking. Coffee follows, then dinner and drinks and a party before the night winds down. Then the film resets back to the beginning and we get the whole thing again. Small variations create ripples throughout the second version of the story, as honest candor is revealed to be the clearer path to human connection than sweet talk or flattery. Right Now, Wrong Then is a small film in terms of plot, but its straightforward dual story contains a world of human interaction. A warm, funny and sincere film, one that's honest without being cynical and sentimental without being saccharine. Perhaps the best film yet from prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo.

17. SPL 2: A Time for Consequences aka Kill Zone 2 (Cheang Pou-soi)

A brutal martial arts epic starring Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. Whaddya need, a road map?

This sequel (in name only) to 2005's SPL was the best action film of 2016 and it wasn't even close. A must watch for anyone who loves action movies but who's bored by digital cities getting leveled and giant blue lasers shooting into the sky.

16. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)

A profound and inventive piece of cinema, director Kristen Johnson presents an auto-biography constructed almost entirely out of footage she shot for various documentary projects over the years. What starts out as sort of a wry look at how the sausage gets made, slowly reveals deeper levels. This is a film about films, imagery about images showing the interplay between the people in front of and behind the camera and how this interplay affects everyone involved. This is a film which will only continue to grow in reputation in years to come.

15. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

An efficient and un-pretentious crime film about two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks and the two lawmen who're after them (played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). The script is smart and detailed in all the right ways; the plausible details of the robberies and interactions between the two pairs of men are highlights here and director David Mackenzie slowly ratchets up the tension leading into the big third act showdown. As far as the performances, Foster and Bridges are playing very well to type but Pine and Birmingham are both very pleasant surprises here. I'm already looking forward to the next appearance of Scuzzy Loser Chris Pine.

14. The Neon Demon (Nicholas Winding Refn)

Maybe the best looking film of the year, Nichols Winding Refn's The Neon Demon is a plot-less neon horror nightmare set in the world of fashion modeling. A lot of critics got hung up on trying to piece together what this film had to say about the fashion industry, but they were missing the forest for the trees. This is a fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood turning into the Big Bad Wolf, and while it may not have much to say beyond that it sure looks great in the meantime.

13. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

A zen comedy about identity starring a bunch of affable jocks in their first week of college. Charming and decidedly low-stakes, this is a Richard Linklater film through and through and all the better for it.

12. Tower (Keith Maitland)

I was skeptical of the premise for this film (an animated documentary about the infamous University of Texas tower shooting) as it seemed a little too cute for such a serious topic. But Tower is a smart film and, most importantly, a humane film. There's no free publicity given to the killer himself and no attempt to explain his actions, instead Tower presents stories of bravery as regular people were forced into a horrific situation. 

11. Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier)

A kaleidoscopic exploration of a grief wracked family, Louder Than Bombs draws its power from the way it restlessly changes time periods, styles and points of view between a father and his two sons. This is a film that avoids easy answers while honestly grappling with uncomfortable truths, asking us to interrogate memories and dreams in search of some kind of meaning. Unfairly overlooked on its release, Louder Than Bombs is a film that I hope more people watch in the coming years.

10. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

An ode to mindfulness and creativity told through the story of a simple working-class life in a simple working-class town. Profound in its subtlety.

09. Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick eschews character and narrative entirely in delivering this essay film about the history of life on Earth. Brad Pitt's narration is more functional than profound, but the powerful imagery, which causes you to see various landscapes and lifeforms on Earth in entirely new ways, like an alien visitor, is constantly breathtaking. Voyage of Time finds an almost unparalleled beauty in the natural world, in things both large and small.

08. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (Oz Perkins)

Abstract imagery and beautifully written, looping narration make this one of the most distinctive films of the year. Slowly builds a sense of fatalistic dread until it hits a soul shredding climax. 

07. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)

This movie pulls of a few neat tricks: the production design for the aliens and their ships feels genuinely otherworldly, the cinematography and deliberate pacing combine for a dark, moody tone, the script crafts an actual science fiction story about communication that doesn't come down to a third act fight scene and the performance of Amy Adams grounds a story that packs a genuine emotional wallop. Arrival is the 2016 version of Mad Max: Fury Road, in that it showcases what's possible when talented people work in the world of big budget genre filmmaking while being allowed to stay true to their creativity.

06. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

Kelly Reichardt finds profundity in spare Montana landscapes and three small stories of women navigating the modern world. By keeping the focus razor sharp on the lives of the three leads, Certain Women is able to chart a vast emotional landscape with only the barest of plotting. A quietly beautiful film in the best possible ways. Reichardt continues to make her case to be considered one of the greatest living American filmmakers.

05. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Much has been written about Moonlight by people smarter than me, so I'll just say that I was moved not only by its unrequited love story and search for identity but by the deliberate and restrained nature of its storytelling. That a Wong Kar-Wai inspired gay arthouse love story was able to find a large audience and mainstream critical acclaim was an undeniable highlight in the world of film in 2016.

04. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

I'm a little disappointed, but not really surprised, that this film got savaged by critics. Late period Terrence Malick films are pretty much the dictionary definition of Not For Everyone, and this film continues the almost entirely plot-free stream of consciousness style of filmmaking seen in To The Wonder. That's a film that I liked a lot, but Knight of Cups has the advantage of having a justification for its stylistic eccentricities. The film is a visual representation of the protagonist dreaming, sometimes literally but always metaphorically. The film is framed around the story of a sleeping prince and Rick, being the stand in for that prince, spends the entire film "asleep" and trying to wake up into the life he really wants (which is really just the same search for transcendence that every Malick character undergoes). So Rick goes off on his spiritual quest, trying to shock himself awake, and Malick takes us on a beautiful two hour journey through mansions, strip clubs, night clubs, concerts and the streets of Los Angeles. This quest, far from being the empty perfume commercial that critics have snarked about, has an emotional through line that persists through the film's dream logic and elliptical storytelling. Part of what makes the emotions of the film work is how accurate it is as a portrait of depression and grief; Rick isn't just some bored rich guy but a man still grappling with his brother's suicide and locked into a catatonic state of depression. The entire film is essentially Rick's repeated failed attempts to self-medicate his emotional and spiritual pain with physical pleasure. But those pleasure are always fleeting. Unfortunately for Rick, though, he's hooked and the city of Los Angeles is his dealer.

03. The Witch (Robert Eggers)

A puritan family battles sin and temptation while trying to adhere to their strict religious beliefs. That's scary enough, in a "am I going to Hell?" kind of way. But what if the devil you feared was not only literally, physically real but was lurking in the dark, unexplored woods outside your home? Director Robert Eggers created the most horrifying movie of the year by bringing the spiritual fears of the Puritan settlers to life, and everything from the period dialect to the costumes and the production design makes the world of this film feel terrifying real.

02. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese interrogates faith and spiritual hubris in beautifully fog-shrouded feudal Japan. An intense slow burn of a film that asks a multitude of difficult questions and leaves you to puzzle over the answers.

01. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook)

The Handmaiden is not only the best film of 2016, but it might be the most movie of 2016. This is pure maximalism, a constantly twisting plot, exquisite cinematography and the most beautiful costuming and production design of the year. Also outsized are the emotions; under this beautiful surface is a story of two women pitted against each other by controlling men, who instead fall in love and turn the tables. The Handmaiden is the exquisitely produced period lesbian adventure melodrama that everyone needs in their life.

Favorite Performances:
Rebecca Hall in Christine
Sofia Braga in Aquarius
Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden
Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship
Amy Adams in Arrival
Adam Driver in Paterson
Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Tadanobu Asano in Silence
Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

Favorite Cinematographers:
Natasha Braier for The Neon Demon
Rodrigo Prieto for Silence
Emmanuel Lubezki for Knight of Cups
Chung-hoon Chung for The Handmaiden
Bradford Young for Arrival

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Movie Review: Gone to Earth

Rating: 8/10

Michael Powell frequently made films that pitted his characters against a harsh, but beautiful, natural world. The nuns of Black Narcissus had to contend with living in the remote Himalayas, the simple fishermen in The Edge Of The World were forced to come to terms with their way of life dying out due to their remote surroundings and in I Know Where I'm Going!, English social climber Joan Webster found her well laid plans perpetually delayed by an angry sea. Gone to Earth has a similarly specific sense of place, but here Powell (working again with Emeric Pressburger) sets up the civilized world, rather than the natural world, as the harsh and unyielding force.

Hazel (Jennifer Jones) is a young gypsy woman living with her father in the English countryside in the late 1800's. She keeps a book of spells and charms with her and cares deeply for her pet fox (named, appropriately, Foxy). Unfortunately for Hazel, she attracts the attention of an English nobleman named John Reddin (David Farrar) who desires to take Hazel for his own. Reddin, like many an English noble, hunts foxes for sport. Hazel, of course, finds this abhorrent and wants nothing to do with him.

She does agree to marry, though, for the sake of moving out of her father's house. Hazel swears to the mountain to marry the first man who asks her. So, of course, she does get asked for her hand in marriage: the local reverend, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), asks for her hand and she fulfills her vow and agrees. Even after going through with this marriage, Reddin continues his pursuit of Hazel, even though she clearly despises him and everything he stands for.

This curious love triangle sits at the heart of the film. Hazel is a woman who lives in harmony with the natural world around her and both of her suitors are seeking to change her (to trap her) in their own way. The minister is actually kind to Hazel, but he still seeks to domesticate her and, notably, to convert her to Christianity. The nobleman, on the other hand, initially tries to tempt her with material pleasures (telling her that she can have a new dress from London every week were she to live with him). Both views are, of course, at odds with what Hazel actually wants as both men are at odds with the natural world. The minister wants to civilize nature while the noble seeks to crush it under his heel.

This tragic melodrama makes Gone to Earth a powerful and touching film and an underrated entry in the Archers canon. As played by Jennifer Jones, Hazel is not a drab sufferer of injustices but a proud, vibrant woman who seeks only to live her life in peace and happiness with the world around her. But "the world's a big spring trap with us in it," as Hazel herself says and no matter how hard she tries she can't escape that trap.

It would be impossible to write about a Powell & Pressburger film without raving about the cinematography and Gone to Earth boasts some of their most beautiful Technicolor work. The interiors are often glowing and orange by fireplace and the forests shrouded in mist. The colors and compositions effectively make the world appear as Hazel sees it: enchanting and wondrous. The wider shots also establish the diminutive nature of man against nature, with people often framed under sprawling tree branches, skies and rolling green hills.

Hazel's mother once told her that the only thing that comes from marriage is "tears and torment" and the men in the film prove her right. It's unfortunate that Gone to Earth isn't more widely available, as it stands as a beautifully shot and powerfully told fairy tale of a woman, who only wants to keep to herself and live at peace with nature, trapped by marriage and crushed by civilization.

Gone to Earth is available on a region free Korean DVD and a region locked British DVD. It has also, as of this writing, been posted in its entirety on YouTube.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Redemption of Fu Manchu

So odious is the picture of Chinese people presented by the character of Fu Manchu that the US government asked Hollywood to stop making Fu Manchu films before and during World War 2. Every stereotype of the "Yellow Peril" is personified in this one character, his knowledge of exotic ancient secrets, association with opium and criminal elements, and evil designs on the West.
As the villain of over 20 pulp novels, Fu Manchu remains something of a pop culture fixture, despite the character's troubled past and terrible reputation. Still, it should be possible to redeem Fu Manchu as the original evil mastermind while discarding the racist elements.
With that said, the novel itself is explicitly and undeniably racist, containing numerous completely un-ironic references to the “Yellow Peril”, and the protagonist even mocks those who might dismiss such a threat: "The 'Yellow Peril'!" "You scoff, sir, and so do others. We take the proffered right hand of friendship nor inquire if the hidden left holds a knife!"
Still the character of Fu-Manchu is evocative, "Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, ... one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."
He could very well be considered one of the early prototypes of both the arch-nemesis character in action-adventure fiction, the mad scientist character and of the super villain character. The racism of the text overshadows all of this, and the “yellow peril” racism firmly attached to the character filters through popular culture in various forms, which can still be seen today. In comics for example, Detective Comics featured an unapologetic Fu Manchu before Batman ever showed up:

Marvel got into the act with the Atlas Era Yellow Claw:
who was, interestingly enough, opposed by the Chinese American detective Jimmy Woo, a rare positive non stereotypical asian character. Because China was allied with America during World War 2, Chinese characters could sometimes escape unscathed as the most vile racism was heaped on the Imperial Japanese. Here’s an example from Captain Marvel 29. These are the Japanese villains that are teaming up with Mr. Mind:
Here are the Chinese soldiers that Captain Marvel interacts with from the same issue:

Marvel seems to have avoided the bright yellow skin and absurdly stereotypical speech patterns normal with such a villain with the Mandarin, who otherwise stuck to the ethnicity, world domination and fiendish arch genius tropes. In more recent times, the Mandarin has kept his “Yellow Peril” name while dropping the Fu Manchu type clothing and facial hair.
The redemption of the Fu Manchu character was begun in a real way by Dennis O’neil in his landmark work on Batman. The character of Ra’s al Ghul embodies many of the characteristics of Fu Manchu, world domination, criminal mastermind, seeming immortality, without the overt racism.
Ra’s al Ghul is still an ethnocentric character, as his “foreignness” assumes a white audience. Whereas Fu Manchu was explicitly associated with China (although he employed all manner of Eastern/non-white people), al ghul is of somewhat ambiguous ethnicity. His foreignness is made clear by his dress, speech patterns and his clearly non-white followers. He is meant to be middle eastern to some extent, but his skin tone is usually very light. Birth of the Demon establishes an origin for him in the middle east sometime during the Crusades, but a definite place of birth is never stated.
Further qualities of Fu Manchu that Ra's al ghul borrowed was the love triangle of sorts between his daughter/subservient Talia al ghul and the hero. Talia is torn between her loyalty to her father and his organization and her love for Batman, just as Kara is torn between her love for Dr. Petrie and her enslavement to Fu Manchu in the original novel.
Things come full circle in Batman Begins, when Ra's al ghul is portrayed by the thoroughly Anglo-Saxon Liam Neeson.

The al ghul of the Nolan films has all the hallmarks of the comic version in a white man. The interesting part of O’neil’s updating of the Fu Manchu character is that the complete removal of all ethnic markers doesn’t completely change the character. A white Fu Manchu would never work, but a white Ra’s al ghul works fine. In Neeson’s Anglo Ra's alghul then, we see the redemption of the Fu Manchu archetype. He is an “other”, a mastermind, a possessor of secret knowledge, but not a racist character.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Captain Britain tells it like it is. One of Jamie Delano's few forays into the world of super-heroes. Art by the ever skilled Alan Davis.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Best Films and Performances of 2013

First, Two Bad Films I'd Like To Briefly Mock

Man of Steel (Zach Snyder)

I'm an unabashed fan of Superman and the old fashioned and fantastical elements of the character are precisely the things that make him interesting. With that, any attempt to make Superman modern and realistic is inherently misguided and this mars Man of Steel right out of the gate. Even beyond that, Snyder’s film is an overly long and overly serious work of disaster porn that fails at every turn. It's sad news for the Big Blue Boy Scout that this is the direction Warner Brothers apparently wants to go with the character.

The Counselor (Ridley Scott)

It turns out Cormac McCarthy is about as good at writing screenplays as Tommy Wiseau. The Counselor wastes a great cast by filling their mouths with unending dialogue that reaches for profundity and instead lands at hilarity. Though at times an interesting failure, due to some compelling action set pieces staged by director Ridley Scott, The Counselor is an experiment in storytelling that completely and utterly backfires.

Favorite Films of 2013

17.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)

Director David Lowery has crafted a poor man’s Badlands but that’s still a pretty rich man in my book. Buoyed by good performances from Casey Affleck, Ben Foster and Rooney Mara.

16.  Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green)

Hopefully this means David Gordon Green has given up on making dumb stoner comedies with his friends as Prince Avalanche seems to mark a return to form. Well acted by Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, the film is a charmingly low key and melancholy little comedy about two guys working on a rural highway with nothing to do but talk back and forth about their lives.

15.  Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)

It's Michael Bay! While I couldn’t possibly care less about his Giant Robot Movies, Pain & Gain is a darkly funny and gleefully violent satire about the American Dream that is a hell of a lot fun to watch. The Rock’s performance as a haplessly naive criminal is a highlight as well.

14. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)

I don’t care too much for coming of age stories but The Spectacular Now works precisely because it sidesteps all the cliches and stereotypes normally found in those types of films. It also helps that the film is grounded by two great lead performances from Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller.

13.  Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Polley has shown herself to be an adept and versatile chronicler of romantic relationships; in particular the ways in which they crumble apart and then ripple outwards to affect others. Much better than a documentary about one’s own family has a right to be (please don’t try that at home, anyone, ever) Stories We Tell explores the various meanings we attach to familial lineage while also commenting on the documentary form itself and the nature of storytelling.

12.  Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

Greta Gerwig plays another Greta Gerwig style character, i.e. a woman-child struggling to grow up. It’s a good thing she has the presence, the charm and the vulnerability to make these types of characters feel real and lived in instead of cliched. Frances Ha looks great in black and white while alternating between being both hilarious and sad. As an aspiring creative person of sorts it definitely cut a little close to home, but the film speaks more broadly to anyone who feels like they haven’t figured out what to do with their life even though everyone else apparently has.

11.  Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn)

An ultra violent and leisurely paced neon tinged nightmare about guilt and retribution. Many joked that this was Refn’s and Gosling’s unofficial sequel to Drive but it has much more in common with the director’s earlier film, Valhalla Rising, in its eschewing of plot and character in favor of tone. Gosling and his co-lead Vithaya Pansringarm aren't asked to do much other than glower and hurt people but Kristen Scott Thomas gives a memorable performance as a horrifying momager running a Bangkok drug ring.

10.  Blue Is The Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)

The best comic book adaptation of the year! As I mentioned before, I don’t normally care for coming of age stories but Blue is so honest and so well acted it immediately won me over. Kechiche chooses to focus his camera squarely on his lead actress’ face throughout most of the film and we watch her weep and yell and scream and dance and be nervous and have sex and get angry and on and on as her character discovers not just a sexual identity but comes into her own as an adult.

9.  Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

What happens to a beautiful love story when the honeymoon phase ends and the whispering of sweet nothings is replaced by arguments about who has to pick up the kids from soccer practice? Before Midnight shows us a couple of young romantics who aren’t quite so young anymore as the cracks begin to show in their relationship. As this is a Before film, they naturally, beautifully, wonderfully, wander around and talk it out. Here’s to hoping Linklater, Hawke and Delpy keep giving us new installments in this series as long as they are able.

8.  The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

Dark, sad and completely engrossing, The Hunt shows a community of people morphing from loving neighbors to vicious monsters due to fast spreading rumors and an off the cuff remark springing from a child’s imagination. Mads Mikkelson’s lead performance makes the film all the more heartbreaking as he refuses to lose control or give into bitterness and despair.

7.  Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

A beautiful mood piece. The plot of Shane Carruth’s second film ostensibly involves worms with mind control powers but it’s really just an excuse to ask questions about the nature of human existence, love and the inter-connectedness of all living things.

6.  To The Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Another beautiful mood piece, To The Wonder is a rumination on the experience of falling in and out of love. Malick has clearly entered the ‘for-fans-only’ phase of his career but I’ll gladly drink that Kool-Aid all day.

5.  The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese comes roaring back in vintage form; Wolf of Wall Street contains a plethora of slow motion, long tracking shots, montages and, in the tradition of the best Scorsese films, people behaving badly and going completely unpunished. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter use comedy to draw us into the world of bullshit artist Jordan Belfort and, though it seems fun at first, the closing shot of the film shows that the joke was on us the whole time.

4.  Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

A tour de force of sound and image and a visceral cinematic experience. Sure, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, but cinema is a visual medium and the film would have still worked even if Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were speaking Esperanto.

3.  Her (Spike Jonze)

A beautifully melancholy love story. In the best tradition of science fiction stories, Jonze depicts a plausible future to comment on the present. A lesser filmmaker might have fallen into the trap of mocking our addiction to technology or playing the premise for laughs at the protagonist's expense, but Her always remains a sympathetic and relatable film.

2.  12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

The reason why 12 Years A Slave is such a remarkable film about American slavery is that McQueen refuses to let his audience off the hook. There are (largely) no sympathetic white characters and no concessions given to the audience’s comfort. Some complained that 12 Years was a difficult film to watch, but a film about human beings enslaving each other at pain of death should be difficult to watch. McQueen clearly understands this and his long unbroken shots do a fantastic and unsettling job of portraying the unending horror and brutality of slavery.

1.  Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Bros.)

There are a number of different ways you can approach thinking about Inside Llewyn Davis. You can talk about the music, of course, or the Academy Award nominated cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel or you could discuss the film’s place in the Coen Brothers’ increasingly legendary canon. The thing that’s the most striking about this film to me, though, was the lead performance of Oscar Isaac.

Isaac gives Llewyn a hang dog world weariness that permeates every frame. He’s a melancholy loser who isn’t talented enough to succeed as a singer but too much of a fuck-up to hold down a real job. When he picks up a guitar, his guard comes down and all the hurt and longing and sadness comes out. Singing isn’t a joyous expression of the soul for Llewyn, as a supporting character suggests in the film, but instead an outlet for his weary spirit.

In his tired eyes and the way he keeps clutching at his coat to keep out the cold, Isaac makes Llewyn a sad and sympathetic character even when he’s angrily lashing out at the people around him.

Favorite Male Performances:

Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis

I raved about Isaac above but this is a beautiful, haunting and career defining performance from him. Look no further for proof than the sad and restrained way he informs John Goodman’s character, Roland Turner, about why he separated from his former singing partner (and the way Isaac lets the reason for that separation seep into his face in every other scene in the film).

Christian Bale - Out Of The Furnace

In American Hustle, Bale gives the kind of big, showy ‘movie-stars-playing-dress-up’ style of performance that the Academy eats up with a spoon. He’s much better here, in a subtle and reserved portrayal of man whose life keeps slipping further and further down into the pits of despair. No screaming matches or big monologues to be found and none needed either; the way he undersells the line, “I miss you so much” to a former lover played by Zoe Saldana will completely break your heart.

Joaquin Phoenix - Her

Part of the reason why Her never descends into stupid parody or overly broad social commentary is because of Phoenix. He plays Theodore Twombly as a melancholy and lonely man but in a subtle and sympathetic way that makes him always relatable and never pathetic. A man falling in love with an operating system could certainly be played with the sledgehammer broadness of an SNL sketch, but Phoenix plays it straight and plays it small. We root for the romance rather than laugh at it because we feel for him and genuinely want him to find happiness.

Favorite Female Performances:

Adele Exarchopoulos - Blue is the Warmest Color

Apparently the director of Blue shot b-roll of his lead actress’ face as she napped, as she ate and as she rode the train to set. Not a lot of performers could make such footage compelling but Exarchopoulos has a truly mesmerizing screen presence. As I mentioned above, so much of the film plays out in close ups of her face and she effortlessly propels the movie forward with her nonverbal acting. A favorite scene of mine is when her character enters a lesbian bar for the first time and, without saying a thing, we can see her try to figure out if this is a place where she can feel at home; she feels out the space, skittishly walking through it and furtively glancing back and forth. Her body language says more in that scene, and so many others, than a million monologues could. Which, of course, isn’t to say she can’t sell dialogue driven scenes: there’s a conversation late in the film where her character meets up for a drink with a former lover and Exarchopoulos fills her character’s every word with such longing and such profound sadness that the exchange is completely heart rending.

Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha

Gerwig can be both effortlessly hilarious and dramatic, not only in the same film but sometimes in the same scene. Like with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, she’s able to ground a character that, in lesser hands, could come off as pathetic or obnoxious.

Amy Adams - American Hustle

I didn’t care much for this movie but Adams is phenomenal in it. She is oftentimes as broad as the rest of cast but is always able to make her character feel real and grounded and vulnerable. She’s also able to compellingly play a character who is sometimes playing a character themselves, while, again, staying grounded and vulnerable and sympathetic. Adams also puts in a great turn as a supporting character in Her.