2. Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street
The best work of his career by a wide margin. He’s never been more charismatic, funnier, or taken more risks. As in Django, he looks like he’s having more fun here than usual. He’s looser, braver, and stranger in The Wolf of Wall Street than in any of his other work. Part of what made this picture so spectacular is that everybody involved clearly just “went for it.” He and Scorsese have been great together before, but this feels like the culmination of many years of collaboration and trust. It may not be DeNiro in Raging Bull (nothing is), but it’s pretty damn special. Staying on Raging Bull, there’s a through-line connecting the two films in the way that they both center around a frank and uncompromising portrayal of a multidimensional human being that most people would find morally repugnant. It is no small feat to pull off performances like these. The breadth and scope of DiCaprio’s performance in Wolf cannot be overstated. He’s just spectacular in this and he never gets boring for the entire three hour run-time. He’s in almost every scene and his figure looms in the few that he’s not. It’s a classic performance in a classic film.
3. Michael Fassbender: 12 Years A Slave
A textbook performance. Best Supporting Actor was the only Oscar outcome I really had an issue with. Leto did fine work in Dallas Buyers Club, but I thought Fassbender was miles ahead of him. From the first moment he’s onscreen in that profile close shot the tension onscreen increases exponentially. From a narrative standpoint, supporting characters are meant to introduce a variable to the main storyline that wasn’t present prior to their entrance. Nobody did that more effectively or more importantly than Fassbender did. In the hands of a lessor actor, this role could have been something of a “mustache twirler,” but Fassbender absolutely nails the complexity of this character, a professional dehumanizer who clearly hates himself and attempts to hide behind religion and booze. His every move is threatening, unpredictable, but Fassbender’s brilliance here is in how he doesn’t ever fully boil over, even in the enthralling “whipping sequence.” I really feel that with all the praise heaped at this film, Fassbender’s performance was somehow overlooked and subsequently under-praised. McQueen himself appears to feel the same way, highlighting his performance specifically in so many of his award acceptance speeches. Actors and filmmakers will be studying this performance for a long time to come.
4. Michael B. Jordan: Fruitvale Station
The biggest Oscar snub by far in my opinion. He’s been at it since he was young and was great on The Wire as a teenager but this is an incredibly mature and accomplished performance for someone his age. There was no more full picture of a single character than Jordan painted for us in Fruitvale Station. This film reminded me a bit of classic neo-realism like Bicycle Thieves, showing us a single day in the life of a completely ordinary citizen simply living his life that day and all that entails. Fruitvale is not about a shooting, it’s about a young man who’s life was taken abruptly and unexpectedly. What the film does best is show us Oscar Grant’s humanity, which is channeled through and personified to the smallest detail by Michael B. Jordan in a nuanced, understated and moving performance. The academy seemed to only have enough room in their collective hearts for one “black film” this year, which is a real shame, because I actually thought this one was better than the one they chose.
5. Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle
Lawrence manages to deliver a performance that’s equal parts hilarious, sexy, and maddeningly ridiculous. She’s even better here than she was in Silver Linings. The only thing funnier than “the microwave scene” in 2013 was the “quallude sequence” in The Wolf of Wall Street. “Don’t put metal in the science oven” is now my favorite David Russell line. This is one of those supporting performances that you want to be a bigger part, but its part of why she’s so compelling is that when she’s on screen she dominates and when she’s not you miss her presence. Her manner and her energy remind me a bit of Gena Rowlands, and I do not make that comparison lightly. She’s just a natural with a presence and maturity way beyond her years. When you watch her she comes across as a twenty-year veteran, not someone in their early twenties, and her trophies already accumulated are a testament to that. I would pay money to watch her fold laundry for two hours. She’d get an Oscar nomination for that too.
6. Chewitel Ejiofor: 12 Years A Slave
I find it incredible how this performance got lost in the shuffle of awards season. Were I a member of the AMPAS, he would have been my second choice for Best Actor after my #2 pick from this list, and I thought 2013 was the best Lead Actor pool in recent memory. I’m not quite sure the average viewer is aware of the physical toll this part must have taken on him, to say nothing of the mental aspects. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and this is his masterpiece. My favorite moments of his in this film are all dialogue-free: his reactions in big moments, his gracious smile, the singing of the spiritual at the funeral, and any moment in which he’s listening. He’s just got “that face” and he can communicate and do so much with it. He can do anything.
7. Jonah Hill: The Wolf of Wall Street
No one in the business is more fun to watch than Jonah Hill. People have long underrated comic actors, but it’s become very difficult to deny that this dude has got some chops. The Wolf of Wall Street would have been a completely different film with another actor in this role. The role itself would have been completely different. He demonstrates what’s so special about character actors. Donnie’s love for Jordan is oddly touching considering how despicable their behavior is. Donnie functions as somewhat of a chaser for Jordan by being so over the top, but that same quality also makes them seem more outlandish, creating the opposite effect, thereby engendering that feeling of unease so many people seemed to have felt watching Wolf. And of course; the teeth, the accent, the prosthetic, all that deli meat that he chocked on-it’s all just bloody brilliant. I can’t even begin to describe how much I loved this film.
8. Christian Bale: American Hustle
The thing I love the most about David O. Russell as a filmmaker is his ability to take extremely flawed characters and give them a narrative space to truly thrive in. I consider it his trademark as a writer and director. He takes individuals most people would condescend to and shows us why and how they’re remarkable. Christian Bale literally embodies this quality in American Hustle. He’s bald, overweight, etc., but at all times he appears to be completely comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is, which of course makes him a good con man. It’s a fine counterpoint to Bradley Cooper’s character, who has no idea who he is. We see this with their respective “hair” sequences. The film is about deception and role playing, and Bale’s character is the only one who doesn’t switch. His sincerity and relative decency in this role makes the whole thing work. Also, they shot this film in my hometown, so thumbs up for that.
There is concept in film studies called “the Magic Negro.” The magic negro is a character through which a white protagonist achieves their objective, narrative or otherwise. Its a concept as old and enduring as the feature film itself. Famous recent examples include The Green Mile, The Blind Side, The Help, Jerry Maguire, and every Whoopi Goldberg film. Despite many fine performances and some quality cinema that has come out of this vein, the magic negro as a narrative device is problematic precisely because it essentially reduces black characters to mere narrative devices. In other words, it has a dehumanizing effect. Needless to say, I would be remiss for calling myself the Mixed American Film Buff if I didn’t keep an eye out for this, and frankly, its never too hard to spot. Sadly, when you look closely, there are few roles written for black actors that don’t adhere to this trope. Continue reading
9. Oscar Isaac: Inside Llewyn Davis
First of all, I had no idea Oscar Isaac was such a fantastic singer. This isn’t meant as a mere side compliment, because the character of his voice is crucial to an understanding of the film. Isaac’s voice is rich and true, resonating throughout the story, giving us a beautiful contrast to his extended series of fuck ups, mishaps, and bad breaks we’ll call his life. The film is a character study, a portrait of an artist, and his face tells us as much as his voice does. He wears everything on it. It’s appropriate he got this role not just because he’s tremendously talented and well suited for it, but just as a Coen’s fanatic I have to say that he really reminded me of a young John Turtturro in this. It’s an excellent performance from a really underrated actor in an absolutely beautiful piece of cinema.
I recently viewed Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven for the fourth or fifth time and it was no less impactful than it was the first time I saw it. The blisteringly beautiful cinematography of Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is the hallmark of this film which remains the quintessence of style of a master filmmaker. The “little things” make all the difference in this film, like the shot of the wind blowing on the water and blades of grass. Details like Sam Sheppard reaching out for Brooke Adams’ hand in the woods. So many unforgettable moments such as the swarm of locusts descending on the farm, the imposing farmhouse designed and built by the great Jack Fisk in the distance as the migrants approach the property, and the way the camera seems to float in the stream and circle playfully around Gere and Adams. Continue reading