Post World War II Germany, Nelly Lenz, a Jewish singer thought of dead by everyone has survived the incredible sufferings of the concentration camps. Her disfigured face will be reconstructed but her life cannot be. Everything that has been taken away from her (by fate, country, loved one) cannot be returned but she tries for it anyway. Among the psychological, suspense-less suspense plotting of this Vertigo-ish film, Nina Hoss stands out. This is a film in which everything feels like a setup for that (highly admired) final moment. Nina Hoss gives it an emotional depth with such compelling restraint that no matter where you stand with the ‘plot’, you will nevertheless come out completely enamored by the strong performance. Hoss’ portrayal is fierce and layered without having hundreds of lines and thousands of overtly obvious moments. Her character gets caught in the whirlwind of her own instability and loss, the further she goes, the more complicated it gets. Her face is not hers, her life isn’t either. Neither is the country she lives in or the one person she trusts and loves the most. It is heartbreaking to see Lenz struggle in assembling the broken pieces of her life. Nina Hoss (director Christian Petzold’s regular) has never been better. Her face is used as a deceptive tool in the film but her eyes, well, they don’t fool anyone.
Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road)
She arrests your attention; how could she not? Just her look alone causes one to pause at what they are actually looking at, then realize in terror that they are in quite the situation. The shaved head, the strong and sexy stature, the casual attention to her left arm, the grease on the forehead used for war paint – and her stunning eyes. As badass as Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is by all accounts (ask Mad Max himself as well as Immortan Joe), the most arresting aspect of Theron’s performance is how she is able to utilize her eyes as well as she utilizes a firearm. Fury (pun intended), despair, pain, sadness, comfort, concern, strength, unadulterated anger; just like the nonstop action on the titular Fury Road, the eyes of Furiosa do not stop expressing what there is behind the actions and motivations of the warrior. Going even further, Theron and the film allow Furiosa to be a complete person (“Out here, everything hurts.”) that is able to work through what is given to her. Her fight with Tom Hardy’s Max is a stunning work of choreography, especially keeping in mind that Theron had to constantly keep in mind the situation of her left arm, but her actions tell an entire story in just that scene alone. Every step, every action she takes is to end the fight as quickly as possible because she is on a mission of redemption for herself and for the Wives. This is touched on again later in an iconic stroke in a role filled with them, Furiosa walks off in the desert after hearing that The Green Place, her home, has been devastated and she drops to her knees, howling in devastation herself. The way it is shot is unforgettable, but also everything in the expression of that moment for Furiosa (the realization, the walking away) is even more so. What an incredible physical performance from the Oscar-winner.
Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road)
As much praise Charlize Theorn deserves for her turn as road warrior Imperator Furiosa, the 25 year-old English actor deserves love as well, playing one of Immortal Joe’s War Boys and eager to prove himself worthy the tyrannical warlord & his fellow brothers. His transformation from lock-step loyalist to a conflicted warrior is one of the most organic and engaging character shifts I’ve seen in a long time, as Nux slowly begins to see the world for what it has become during his joyride with Furiosa, the Wives and Max.
James Spader (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
From the moment Spader was granted the role of Ultron in the upcoming Avengers film I’ve been waiting with bated breath to be entranced by his performance. Yes, while Age of Ultron is by no means a perfect movie one can only applaud Spader’s portrayal of an upgraded Tin-man from the Wizard of Oz. Having to compete with action juggernauts like Downey and Evans Spader manages to steal every scene he’s in. The sarcastic and subtle comments Ultron makes allow the viewer to be grounded in reality in a highly superficial setting and plot. Whenever motion capture is used impart of the actual actor one needs a certain level of gravitas and presence to bring said character to life. Spader does this masterfully and turns most of the characterless, one-note Marvel villains into a complex figure head. Take away your callousness for superhero movies and sit back and admire a thespian at work.
Pamela Afesi (Welcome to New York)
Pamela Afesi has a mere few short scenes in Abel Ferrara’s typically controversial Dominique Strauss-Kahn movie (even more controversial today than upon initial release at Cannes 2014) Welcome to New York. But the debut actor delivers the most indelible work of any of the film’s talented performers, including Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset – each at their very best (and that’s saying something!). Indeed, Afesi shows the kind of unguarded human empathy for her character, a role which demanded nothing short of the most respectful work, that one might expect from a debut actor, if one is to regard the many excellent performances from non-professionals throughout film history. Yet one must also consider the rarity of this, one of the standout performances of 2015 coming from someone whose previous screen experience amounts to utterly nothing. She inhabits the role of a sexual assault victim with dignity and sympathy, to the point that one may wish that this already-terrific film were different altogether, and that it were an even more terrific film with Afesi at its centre.
Paul Dano & John Cusack (Love & Mercy)
This dual performance as the genius behind the Beach Boys of the 60’s and the troubled man of the 80’s really shouldn’t work as well as it does, but in splitting up the two periods in time, we are presented a fuller picture of the man who created a masterpiece in Pet Sounds and his demons. Dano is simply phenomenal in capturing the inventiveness of Wilson, while showing us his mental issues slowly consuming him. And Cusack, in his best performance in years, breaks your heart as he becomes torn between his abusive/exploitative therapist (Paul Giamatti) and the new love in his life, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).
Ben Stiller (While We’re Young)
Ben Stiller may well be associated with out-and-out comedy as reputation would have it, but anyone who has watched him closely will recognize a certain sensitivity to his persona. Actually, scratch that, you don’t need to look closer at all, that kind of deadpan sensitivity is there for all to see. If you are going to play a role in a Noah Baumbach movie, then all out comedy might not be enough (though it certainly comes in handy), you have to bring your whimsical, drama A-game too. As the delightful Greta Gerwig proved in the tremendous Frances Ha, Baumbach’s characters demonstrate blending the laughs with the struggles – like real life I suppose. In While We’re Young, the more down-to-Earth Stiller (who co-starred with Gerwig in Baumbach’s Greenberg) plays a man whose dilemma / hang-up is a reminder of youth while perhaps forgotten in middle-age. Stiller, as we know, has the bemused, hard-done-to expressions down to perfection, so that may be a given, though it is put to appropriately good use here as he tries to discover his own place via a round trip through young adulthood, and back again.