Monday, December 22, 2014

Riske Business: Great Performances of 2014

by Adam Riske
Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, F-Heads!

This week Patrick and I discuss some of our favorite performances from the movies this year. If you notice any glaring omissions, it’s either because a) we’re saving our comments for our top 10 lists or b) we might not agree with you. Either way, here are more than 20 performances worth noticing and seeking out. Do you have a performance we missed that you want to give some attention? Let us know in the comments.

Adam: My first pick would be Edward Norton in Birdman. Michael Keaton is getting the lion’s share of the praise for his performance in Birdman, but I was more impressed by his co-stars -- namely Emma Stone and especially Edward Norton. Norton used to be one of my favorite actors back in the late '90s and early 2000s before he went off and did a lot of peculiar projects that didn't really raise his game. In Birdman, he seems energized and owns every scene he is in. His is the performance that fits the tempo of the movie the best.

Patrick: Edward Norton is easily my favorite thing about Birdman; from the minute he comes on screen, the movie gets better.  Everyone in the movie is good because it's that kind of a movie -- a show-offy performance ACTOR'S movie -- but no one is better than Norton.
I'll get away from the arthouse and turn to the grindhouse for my first pick, which is possibly my favorite performance in any movie this year: Alexandra Essoe in Starry Eyes. I don't really want to get into why her performance is so good because it would require spoiling things about the movie (which is available on iTunes and VOD right now, so you have no excuse for not seeing it), so I'll just say that I can't think of another actor this year who WENT FOR IT the way Essoe does. What is asked of her in the film is not easy, but she does slowly mounting hysteria in a way that's unsettling and completely haunting. Watching the film a second time reveals depths I didn't pick up on the first time, mostly because I couldn't without knowing where the movie was going. It's a very different performance on a second viewing -- one that's actually better because you see just how carefully calculated it is. Starry Eyes is still my pick for best horror movie of the year; there are a lot of reasons for that (it's beautifully directed and the score is one of the year's best), but Essoe's performance is chief among them.

Adam: Starry Eyes is surely a bizarre and disturbing experience. The performance by Alexandra Essoe is very impressive – daring, sad and creepy as hell. Good pick.

Next, I’ll go with Carrie Coon in Gone Girl. I was unfamiliar with her before seeing Gone Girl and she ended up stealing many scenes of the movie for me. I think her character (and more so the performance) are crucial for negotiating how we feel about the Ben Affleck character. She likes him and cares about him, so we like him and care about him. She’s totally natural and always a breath of fresh air when she appears onscreen. I hope this is a break for her and we see Carrie Coon in more movies soon. Shit rhymes, yo.

Patrick: Carrie Coon gave my favorite performance in Gone Girl; like you said, she humanizes the movie and makes it about more than just a bunch of selfish, sociopathic assholes. Kim Dickens deserves a mention too, because she was really great in a part that didn’t even give her much to do on the page – she was just “the cop,” but turned the part into someone that we both really like and really respect. I still feel icky about Gone Girl’s gender politics (and am still not convinced by the people who say it’s “about” misogyny instead of just misogynistic), but the fact that the only two genuinely sympathetic people in the movie are both women helps a little.

Next I’ll go with Hilary Swank in The Homesman. I know you didn’t love the movie, and I’ll admit that seeing Hilary Swank’s name as one of the stars of a movie these days does little to excite me about seeing it (not because she isn’t talented, but because her performances are always VERY SERIOUS and because she has mostly terrible taste in projects), but I really loved what she did in the movie. Her usual edgeless seriousness and touch of superiority is put to good use here, and I would argue she’s doing some really interesting things that I won’t be too specific about here. Mary Bee Cuddy is very, very lonely and suffering from depression, but we don’t realize that right away. It’s unusual to see that kind of thing represented in a Western, and that’s one of the things that I liked about the movie. It’s a Western that feels like no other Western. It’s been at least 10 years since I saw something and thought “Hilary Swank was really good in that.”

Adam: Despite not being a fan of The Homesman, I do agree with you that Hilary Swank is very good. P.S. You Love Her.

My next pick is Steve Coogan in Alan Partridge. I don't have too much to say about it other than I find the comic creation he came up with to be consistently hilarious. It's a tight rope to create a full-blown comic character like an Austin Powers or an Alan Partridge and when it works, the comedian can look brilliant. When it doesn't (The Love Guru), they look terrible. Luckily, in this case it's the former and not the latter. I don't think there's a comic actor who makes me laugh as much as Steve Coogan right now and this is close to (if not) the funniest he's ever been in a movie. "She's a drunk and a racist. I'll tolerate one but not both."
Patrick: I still haven't seen Alan Partridge! My Australian brother Brad Lange requested an "I'll Watch Anything" for it, so I'm going to get to it very soon. I like Steve Coogan, though sometimes I feel he -- like a lot of other comedians -- is asked to only do one thing. But then I've seen him do more dramatic stuff and he's very good in it, so never mind anything I say.

Is it too soon to talk about Jake Gyllenhaal? It's too soon. Let's wait.

Next I'll mention Frank Grillo in The Purge: Anarchy. He's been good in every movie in which he's appeared, but until now has mostly had supporting character roles. This is really the first chance he's had to carry a movie, and boy does he. Even people that didn't like the movie (and I know you're among them) have to admit that Grillo was a total badass and one of the year's great action heroes. That dude needs his own movie right away. Marvel should make him the next Punisher and hire Joe Lynch to direct it. It will be my new favorite movie.

Adam: Frank Grillo! I love that guy. He seemingly came out of nowhere and became one of the best character actors in movies. His send-off scene in The Grey is one for the ages. I am dubious about a remake of The Raid, but knowing Frank Grillo is in it makes me at least a little bit hopeful.

For my next pick I'll stay on the action beat: Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow. I've always liked her as an actress but this is the movie where it came into focus that I am a pretty big Emily Blunt guy. I love how she plays a tough soldier without it ever seeming to call attention to itself. Despite not being the brawniest figure, I never doubted she was this ultimate warrior. Plus, she does it in a non-fussy way and not "look I'm a woman...AND AN ACTION STAR.” I want Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt to continue making action movies together until the end of time. This girl makes push-ups look good.

Patrick: Emily Blunt is really great in Live Die Tomorrow. There's a ton to like in that movie, including Doug Liman's very smart direction and Tom Cruise commenting on his own iconography, but I really think it's Emily Blunt that ties it all together -- she is the movie's soul. Great call.

Adam: Those are the only ones I make.

Patrick: I'll mention two actresses who acquitted themselves well in comedies (but I'll count them as one, because no way am I giving up one of my picks for Seth MacFarlane): Charlize Theron in A Million Ways to Die in the West and Rose Byrne in Neighbors. Both movies are pretty majorly flawed, but I have nothing bad to say about these actresses' work. Theron makes the best of a bad situation and finds real warmth in a role that's thinly written. She even convinces us we should like the Seth MacFarlane character because she likes the Seth MacFarlane character (though I still don't think I liked the Seth MacFarlane character). Rose Byrne is even better; she ends up stealing the movie from both Seth Rogen  (one of my favorite comic actors working today) and Zac Efron's abs (Doug's favorite abs working today).

Neighbors is a pretty bro-centric comedy -- that, in its defense, is often about being a bro-centric comedy -- but Rose Byrne is the best thing about it because she doesn't capitulate to all the bro-ness. She doesn't get laughs by being vulgar or trying to be "one of the guys" (a sexist critique leveled against any female comedy that goes for laughs by being dirty, because only boys can be dirty). The little song she sings to herself about hating other women in the neighborhood is the funniest thing in the entire movie.

Adam: Rose Byrne. All day long. She's a bright spot in any movie for me. Even when she plays the world's worst musician in the Insidious movies. I will not see her in everything though. Because Annie.
My next pick is straight out of crazy town, and that's Antonio Banderas in The Expendables 3. This is another case where I've been sleeping on a certain actor (not literally...ok, maybe literally) and all of a sudden realize how great they are in the right role. Banderas works so well in The Expendables 3, I think, because he really embraces the misfit quality that being an Expendable would probably be. While everyone else is trying to act super fucking cool all the time, Banderas is super fucking cool because he's willing to be a sensitive, needy lunatic.

Patrick: Yes! Excellent call. Antonio Banderas was just about the only thing worth watching in that movie. He made every scene he was in better. He was funny in that shot-out-of-a-cannon way, but then even brings the pathos when necessary. Like Charlize Theron in AMWTDITW, Banderas almost makes you think The Expendables are guys worth giving a shit about. ALMOST.

Time for Jake Gyllenhaal yet? JG? No? Ok.

I'll throw some love to Don Johnson in Cold in July, a cool and stylish neo-noir that just the slightest bit hollow. Johnson is playing third banana (I do not understand that expression) to Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard, but Johnson gives the performance of the film. After spending the '80s as the Coolest Motherfucker on Earth and then the '90s as the Used-to-Be-the-Coolest-Motherfucker-on-Earth (I did not watch Nash Bridges, so he was The Marlboro Man for the entirety of the 1990s as far as I was concerned), I love the new character actor phase of Johnson's career. He's so likable without sanding away any of the characters' rough edges. I was digging the movie enough until Johnson showed up, but from the moment his Jim Bob Luke shows up on screen, Cold in July jumps to another level.

Adam: I too liked Don Johnson in Cold in July (and the movie for that matter). I don't really remember much about it but I'm glad to see DJ in the KC (Kevin Costner) phase of his career where he is having fun being Don Johnson onscreen. He is very charismatic and relaxed.

Next I’ll go with Jenny Slate is Obvious Child which might seem like an Obvious Choice. The thing I appreciate so much about this performance (which I love and find very funny despite all of the butthole/vagina humor, which is a little gross) is that she's owning playing a somewhat unlikeable lead in a romantic comedy. The last stand-up scene where she talks about her upcoming abortion (in front of the father who doesn't know he's the father) is really tactless but played as if it's a personal breakthrough. I have to think that was intentional and that it's a great choice of presenting the character as she is. It's a brave performance.
Patrick: Jenny Slate is great in OC. I like when I watch a movie and get to see someone turn into a movie star in the course of its running time.

Since I mentioned Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes, it's only fair to bring up Essie Davis in The Babadook. It's another great performance in a genre movie (this year was full of them, including Don Johnson in Cold in July and Macon Blair in Blue Ruin), which is so nice to see -- it means that this year's crop of genre films were character pieces and not just concept-based. Essie Davis is SO GOOD in The Babadook; like Essoe, she has to maintain a kind of hysteria that she doesn't want to let out. Also like Essoe, it's a hysteria that's informed by real pain. She's not a kook for the sake of being a kook. I think if you were to take away Davis' performance (or replaced it with someone else), it would cut the quality of The Babadook by more than half.

Adam: I think what helps too with Essie Davis is that we don't (as an audience) have a ton of history with her as an actress. It allows her to disappear into the role. She's very good in The Babadook, as is the little kid (Noah Wiseman).

My next pick is a combo: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Justin Long in Tusk. In both cases, I think they do a great job in their pre-(how do I put this) disabled performances, making vivid personalities for their characters but it is the physicality and discomfort that is obvious in these performances that makes me want to recognize them. I think sometimes we (collectively as moviegoers) undervalue performances that are mostly dependent on non-verbal acting.

Patrick: I can't support Eddie Redmayne in any endeavor. It doesn't matter if he's really good as Stephen Hawking or not. He has the single most punchable face of anyone in Hollywood.

I found Justin Long insufferably smug and irritating for the first half of Tusk -- which I get is the point -- but I'll certainly give him credit for committing to the bit.

It's hard for me to pick one person out of the ensemble from Cheap Thrills, because everyone is incredible in very different ways. I guess I'll spotlight David Koechner, who gives a performance unlike anything we've seen him do before -- or maybe it's a lot like what we've seen him do before, only in a very different, much darker context. He's his usual weirdo self, but there's something else informing his eccentricity. Maybe it's that he can afford to be weird. Or maybe it's something...else. That movie goes to some depraved places, and only works as well as it does because we believe Koechner as a guy willing to take us there. That movie has some of my favorite acting of the year.
Adam: I guess I'll be returning that Eddie Redmayne bedspread I bought you and Erika for Christmas. I even had it embroidered so it says "Sleep Miserables." #I'mTheOnlyOneWhoLikesTusk

I agree with you that Cheap Thrills has several great performances. I preferred Pat Healy and Ethan Embry in that movie over Sara Paxton and David Koechner, but I can't argue with your pick. It's solid.

My next choice is going to steal your thunder, I'm afraid. You got the movie Life Partners on my radar and I'm happy that you did because HOLY HELL is Leighton Meester fantastic in that movie. Besides being ridiculously watchable because of how beautiful she is, I thought she did a great job at anchoring a light comedy. It was a real surprise since (as you mentioned in your review) I was not a viewer of Gossip Girl and I'm not even sure if I'd seen Meester in any movies except That's My Boy before seeing her in Life Partners.  I'm looking forward to seeing the next movie she's in.

Patrick: I'm glad you liked Life Partners. That was a pleasant surprise for me, as was Leighton Meester (I can type the words in her name but they will never make sense to me). Everyone in that movie was good, but doing the things we've already seen them do. Because I hadn't seen Leighton Meester do anything before (except, as you have reminded me, fuck her brother in That's My Boy), she really caught me off guard.

There are so many other performances I want to single out, but we've probably gone on too long already.

Adam: Yes, we have. We’re at 3,000 words. This column is becoming the Nymphomaniac of Riske Business pieces.

Patrick: And yet how can I forget to mention Macon Blair in Blue Ruin? Or Gene Jones in The Sacrament? Lisa Loven Congsli in Force Majeure? Dan Stevens in The Guest? Elisabeth Moss in Listen Up Phillip AND The One I Love? Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice? Laura Dern in Wild? Baby Swanberg in Happy Christmas? There are too many good ones to name.

Adam: Also….Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars, Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy, Perdita Weeks in As Above, So Below, Andy Garcia in At Middleton, James Gandolfini in The Drop, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins and Melanie Lynskey in Happy Christmas.

Patrick: But wait! I never got to talk about Jake G.! Jake Gyllenhaal gave three of the best performances of the year -- two in Enemy and (especially) one in Nightcrawler, which is my favorite male performance in 2014. I really think Lou Bloom is an all-timer, and though it seems like it's just a voice and an affect and a dramatic weight loss, there is a ton going on inside that character. Gyllenhaal is the goods.
Adam: I completely agree. I’ll have more to say about my favorite of both Taylor Swift and Kirsten Dunst’s ex-boyfriends next week!


  1. Great run-down, guys. I'd like to give a shout-out to Bradley Cooper's voice work in Guardians of the Galaxy. Rocket gets most of the best lines, but Cooper gives the lil' raccoon a tortured soul that makes him more than just an outrageous bit of comic relief.

  2. Not much to say - you guys pretty much nailed it all here! Great, well thought out write up and much love for acknowledging Alex Essoe from "Starry Eyes". Gyllenhaal is no doubt number one this year.

    Only person I would add is David Long in my favorite, micro budget, overlooked horror movie of the year - "Pieces of Talent." It is one of the creepiest performances I have ever seen and is perfectly balanced by Kristi Ray's remarkable subtlety.

    1. It is directly from the website. I actually think they are showing it for free on there right now. I initially saw it on Vimeo.

  3. Ah, great work. As I was reading, I was saying to myself, "Adam, please at least acknowledge Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars." Thankfully, I was not disappointed there. It's a movie I still greatly love anyway, but if nothing else, I think someone who doesn't care for most of the movie might at least be able to say that she's great to watch in it.

    Also, of some of the others you mentioned, mad props go to Rose Byrne in Neighbors, Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy (really, everyone in GotG), and of course, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, my favorite performance of the year.

    1. Oh, and Emily Blunt ruled in Edge of Tomorrow.

    2. If I'm being honest, I put Shailene Woodley in my "also" category because I'm on a time-out from her due to that Insurgent trailer. My goodness, can she just skip the rest of that series please? She's too good for it.

    3. Eh, I get that, but every actor makes bad choices every now and then. I would say we can't let that discount their better work. And I definitely think TFiOS is some of her better work.

    4. Fair point. But Insurgent looks so bad.

    5. Agreed. And you're definitely right that Woodley is too good for that crap.

  4. You guys did great with this list and I pretty much agree with all of these. I will throw in a few from my favorite movie of this year, Whiplash. JK Simmons is terrifying as a jazz instructor with a really fucked up method of teaching his students which actually makes them better players. He's really commited to the role and you really believe that he believes that what he's doing is the best way to get amazing performances out of these kids. I've never felt more uncomfortable during a movie and it's because he's so great at playing a monster. And if you think he's performance is one note ill direct you to a scene where he breaks down in front of his class and talks about a former student of his and how beautiful his music was. Also the scene in the jazz club where he explains why he does things the way he does is also incredible.
    Miles Teller is one of my favorite young actors and he really brought up his game in Whiplash. His characters strive for perfection is something we can all relate to in a way and the depths that he plunges to, to and achieve that are fascinating to watch. I really felt for him, and the movie and teller did a great job at putting us in his shoes. The progression from where he starts out at the beginning of the film to where he ends up at the end is heartbreaking to watch through tellers eyes. I wasn't impacted by any movie more than Whiplash this year and those performances were the key to the whole thing for me.

    1. We see eye-to-eye on this one. I feel like Miles Teller's performance is getting lost in the shuffle in the end of the year praise for J.K. Simmons. Both are great performances but Teller is the heart and soul of the movie.

  5. I just saw Mr. Turner last night, and would like to mention Timothy Spall's excellent performance. He gave life to a grumpy, miserable old man, who also happens to be a genius and sees something no one else sees. I still hold Lou Bloom as the performance of the year, but J.M.W. Turner follows close behind.

    1. Yeah, I keep hearing how good Mr. Turner is but it hasn't opened around here yet. Something to look forward to in 2015. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Great list! I'll throw in Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, maybe one of my favorite films of the year. The movie has a few flaws, but it creates a very interesting character for Gleeson, and he absolutely owns it. He hits all the right notes as a priest who genuinely cares for his congregation, but gets mostly mockery and scorn in return from them. He embodies the caring nature of a leader, but also can also convey the anger and stubborness needed to tell them off. It's a showcase.

    1. I really want to see this but haven't had a chance to yet. I think Brendan Gleeson is a terrific under rated actor.

    2. Not sure if you can get it on DVD or Blu-ray, but I know it's on VOD. I just randomly stumbled on it while browsing the on demand selection, had never heard of it, and loved it.

    3. Yea I've been hearing about it for awhile now sadly I don't have on demand so I have to wait for DVD.

  7. Yikes I was starting to think I'd missed every great performance of the year somehow but finally started connecting towards the middle. Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow really was fantastic and holy crap - Essie Davis in The Babadook - amazing. Familiar with his work on "Downton Abbey" I wasn't sure what to expect from Dan Stevens in The Guest but man, he did American-cool really well and what a fun movie.

    My favourite overall might have to be Macon Blair from Blue Ruin - such a great understated performance with so much in the eyes - give him the Oscar!

    I thought I'd seen a lot of great movies in 2014 but your conversation has made me realize I haven't seen the half of em - thanks for all the great recommendations guys!

  8. Awesome conversation...Excellent.