As we dive head-first into Part Three let me tip my hat to all those that contributed once again. It was a real pleasure harassing you and playing film studies headmaster, especially so when we all get to now revel in the terrifically versatile writing on a subject we love. Personally, I could do this all day – and long may it continue. What was certainly not deliberate in the choices we made was the sheer dominance of female performers in 2015 so far – and there are many strong candidates we did not even include on this occasion. Truth is, the women have not been hard to find at all this year, and are seriously outnumbering their male counterparts at the moment. Are they just not making enough movies about men? Indeed. I make jokes because it is about fucking time. Right? Wallow in the concluding part of our Film Performances, and feel free to go look at Part One and Part Two – whether you missed them or are just simply hungry for more:
Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria)
I’m getting old, you’re getting old, Maria (Binoche) is getting old, but she’s not handling it. Poor dowdy hipster Valentine (Stewart) has to handle it for her. Valentine is Maria’s assistant, best friend, and confidante, but the relationship is one way – Maria’s ego only makes room for one. Most disturbing for Maria is the fact that young ingénue Jo-Ann (Moretz) is taking over the part that made her famous. Jo-Ann is a nod to Stewart’s own mega-celebrity, she knocked back the role of Jo-Ann and campaigned instead for Valentine (winning a Cesar). While Binoche blusters and grandstands, Cesarstew shines her light from under a bushel slowly warming scenes to the subtle cues of Olivier Assayas’ auteur direction. Valentine is complicated, Cesarstew makes her sharp-witted, but insecure, loving and loyal, seeking her own way and her own self. She is no stranger to challenging roles, but Clouds of Sils Maria represented a reboot, with the public and the cognoscenti realizing what they had forgotten about her since her sojourn from Adventureland into blockbusterland. Cesarstew and Binoche’s interplay is what transfixes blurring the lines between the fantasy of performance and the reality of their lives, making their characters a single whole combining yin and yang much as the metaphoric Majola Snake becomes part of the mountains. When Valentine suddenly disappears without explanation, we miss her like a part of ourselves is taken. Clouds Of Sils Maria received six Cesar nominations including a win for Stewart as Best Supporting Actress, making history as the first American to receive the award. Did I mention that yet? While vanity is definitely my favorite sin, I’m drawn more to Valentine, I wonder what she’ll do, I’m sure she’s out there changing the world and polishing her Cesar.
Ronit Elkabetz (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem)
The graceful, intelligent, multi-talented Ronit Elkabetz completes a trilogy of aggressively political, rigorously-formal, thoroughly-memorable titles with Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, in which she collaborates once again with her brother Shlomi both in directing and writing this forward-thinking feminist film. It’s one of those movies that one often sees described as ‘essential’, and one of those movies that wholly deserves such a label, not least for Ronit’s impassioned performance as a woman undone by zealotry, bigotry and outrageous obstinateness. She convinces entirely as a woman driven to the brink of desperation by the strictures of a system designed to demean and shame her and her sex, and the treatise against it that this pair of siblings has designed is communicated so vividly through her determined acting. Few performers can pitch a combination of rage and outrage like this so perfectly, yet it’s a balance that Ronit sustains through every minute of her extensive screen time in this essential film.
Early talk of a Supporting Actor Oscar nod are all welcome for Oscar Issac in my eyes for Ex Machina. However, excellent recent turns in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year were for whatever reason shut out (as well as the movies themselves where it mattered). I am sure it is nothing personal on the part of the Academy (they are anything but personal, right?), but I have to look at these three roles alone and wonder how Isaac’s range and talent has not been acclaimed further. In Ex Machina, Isaac plays Nathan, a super-successful CEO now living in a remote, enclosed complex that inhabits his years of work on artificial intelligence. Nathan is smart, knows what he wants, and exactly how to get it. His presence oozes importance and stature immediately. He’s a little bit deviant also, a little bit charismatic, and is portrayed by Isaac with a swagger and allure that even Alex Garland was surely not expecting when he wrote the excellent script. Isaac knows his character only too well, and inhabits it with ease, executing dialogue and actions (subtle as they are) so smoothly. Turns out he’s a nifty dancer too.
Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)
In the context and realm of films, when we think of machines, robots or artificial intelligence, we tend to think of perfection. Better than man who has gone on to create the next evolution of our path. As parents always feel towards their child, for good or ill, we want our children to achieve more than what we were capable of within our means. In more physical and tangible terms, this relates to such characters in films, especially in their natural setting of science fiction, of moving with a clear deliberance. To blink, move, talk, walk with a perfect pace in all of their movements that it is at once eerie and spellbinding. Attractive and off putting. Alluring and dangerous, all at the same time. In particular, that’s what gives Eva – played by this year’s incredibly prolific Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina – an arresting cadence in her performance as the highly advanced AI created by Oscar Isaac’s eccentric and devious creator. With her expansive background in dance for most of her life, Vikander’s movements of all through the film – especially as Eva becomes more and more human within her naturally evolving thoughts and wanders – give Eva such a breathe of life. So much so that the film’s other supporting character in Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb is put through such the lustful tailspin, that he doesn’t know if he’s suppose to let himself fall naturally in love with Eva, or if it’s by design. In his defense, Vikander performs the same ambiguous spell on the audience and the film itself. As children become their parents’ betters, Vikander lets more of a woman shine through but still upholding the same outward appearance. She may wear the same expression, but inside of her, she has leapt by such bounds that the performance the machine gives throughout becomes the most human of all. This shines through for itself as Vikander is in depth enough to show Eva her creator what it means to be both alluring and dangerous at the same time. In this case, literally.
A performance that’s sure to get lost in the shuffle as the year drags on, but to me, this is the kind of performance that makes you stand up and take notice that a star is on the rise. Before he got big with Unbroken, he plays a new recruit in the British Army who gets separated from his unit is now behind enemy lines during the early years of the Troubles and fighting to stay alive from the MRF. What makes O’Connell so damn good in this role is that we are seeing everything through his eyes: the fear of not returning home alive, the friction between two opposing sides, and how his perceptions of right and wrong in a war zone are often a dense fog, rather than a clear-cut line in the sand.
When casting for her film, Céline Sciamma decided to use actors literally taken from the streets. She wanted inexperienced actors but very experienced people. That shows and is felt not only in the film but in the performances, specially and very brightly in the central portrayal of Marieme by Karidja Touré. She not only embodies the concept of an adolescents’ painful journey into a self-assured woman but she might have gone through that herself in the film. Her performance is so pure, it transcends words and descriptions. A school girl with her sets of issues at home, at school, in her life or within herself. The comfort, solace and power she finds within her girl gang or how some developments almost break her up, yet she learns and is transformed right in front of our eyes. Whether trying out expensive clothes or dancing with her friends to Rihanna or rap, Touré performs so naturally without forcing herself to look genuine or coming across as fairly lacking. She is the emotional center of Girlhood and her character, so well-thought and presented, feels like one of us, despite not being somebody we have actually known or lived among with. Karidja Touré might just be the 2015 breakthrough.
Evelyn Vargas (From What Is Before)
One among several disturbing events in a remote Filipino barrio in the early 1970s is the death of young Lamalan; his grieving mother holds court at what appears to be an informal, impromptu wake. She has a story to tell, and a song to sing, and knowingly or not, the story her song tells is not only the grief of a mother, but of a nation. Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before is far from the filmmaker’s first to touch upon so lofty a notion – and nor is it the first to do so with such accuracy and such grace. And Evelyn Vargas’ performance as Miss Acevedo is far from the only outstanding work by an actor in a Diaz feature, but it’s certainly among the best of a brilliant bunch. Vargas is a veteran actor, though unusually not a regular in one of Diaz’s loyal ensembles – her skill shows through in this immensely compassionate, moving performance.
Given the flamboyant nature and gripping execution of the multi-chapter black comedy Wild Tales, largely thanks to writer and director Damián Szifron, there are bound to be some stand-outs where the acting is concerned. Pushing the edges of emotional boundaries, there are several great examples to be taken from this array of characters, all with some form of vengeance in mind. Almost like a stand-up comedienne given an encore, and returning to the stage to the euphoric chants of her fans, Érica Rivas has the final flourish here. A newly-wed bride, Romina, she soon realizes her groom has been unfaithful, with a guest of their very wedding party no less. She does not waste any time, asking him about this directly during their first dance. In her turmoil, Romina is bitterly sarcastic and upfront, Rivas is so electric here as you start to build both enthusiasm and anxiety. This is an actress getting every one of her teeth into a role, as the bride understandably loses her shit. Rivas literally lets her hair down, both playing along with the whole wedding reception façade, while making it clear to the guests that she is about to explode. A fitting, and terrific, conclusion to a movie running on so much adrenaline from the very first scene. I could not take my eyes off Rivas, an immaculate, gorgeous bride almost melting under the heat of this revelation (physically so with mascara-smudged panda-eyes), boiling over into unpredictable and almost-comic mayhem. Without taking anything from the rest of the impressive cast, Érica Rivas might just steal the movie, not just her own scenes.