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The Year’s Best Performances, SAG and Globe Deadline Looms

I was planning on counting down the year’s best performances until I looked at the calendar.  The deadline to vote for the SAG Awards is the end of the day today.  There is just too little time to write about all of the performances I wanted to write about.

It is with endless amounts of frustration that I can’t write about the great performance of Rooney Mara before the deadline for both the Globes and the SAGs. But here are a few performances that might get forgotten, for SAG voting consideration:

Rooney Mara in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — since I can’t say anything yet — I will have to leave it to David Denby,

“You can’t take your eyes off Rooney Mara as the notorious Lisbeth Salander, in the American movie version of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (opening December 21st). Slender, sheathed in black leather, with short ebony hair standing up in a tuft, her fingers poking out of black woollen gloves as they skitter across a laptop keyboard, Mara (who played Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend at the beginning of “The Social Network”) cuts through scene after scene like a swift, dark blade. Salander is a twenty-four-year-old hacker with many piercings, of herself and of others. She’s both antisocial and intensely sexual—vulnerable and often abused but overequipped to take revenge. She lives in an aura of violence. Salander obviously accounts for a big part of the success of Larsson’s crime novels—both men and women are turned on by her—and Mara makes every scene that she appears in jump. She strips off and climbs right onto Daniel Craig, as Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative journalist who takes Salander on as a partner, and whom she makes her lover. Craig looks a little surprised. In this movie, he is modest, quiet, even rather recessive. It’s Mara’s shot at stardom, and he lets her have it.”

There is so much more to her performance but we’ll have to wait to talk about it.

Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – in one of his least showy yet most fully realized performances to date, Oldman plays George Smiley with his whole body.  His face tells the story his words never will.  His shoulders, his hands, the way he wears his coat – he’s seen so much.  There are brief moments where he lets emotion escape but somehow, though he’s doing anything but chewing scenery, he’s the most compelling character on the screen.  Oldman in this film has a gravitational pull — which, in the end, is unexpectedly moving. Like Christopher Plummer, Oldman is way, way, WAY overdue. He’s never even been NOMINATED for an Oscar before.  Try that one on for size. Not for Sid and Nancy, not for JFK, not for The Contender – he’s never been acknowledged in lead or supporting.  And this year, in a role that is far less extreme than other male performances it might be hard for him to get in.  But here’s to hoping actors know good acting when they see it.

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin – there haven’t been many actresses willing to go to the dark side like Swinton has here.  She dives right into the uncomfortable territory of mother guilt/shame and an inability to connect. Mothers like this are shunned by society as most loathsome creatures — which is perhaps why it was a film only two moms — Lynne Ramsay and Swinton herself — had the desire and courage to bring to the screen.  We need to talk about a lot of things and we don’t.  We leave it to corporations to mostly tell us what kinds of mothers we’re supposed to be.  Film and TV portray them this year as almost completely absent.  Men have taken over fathering in the majority of films. And if you’re looking for any strong mothers, or mothers at all, in animated films? Except for Arthur Christmas (one of the best animated films this year), you won’t find many there either.  Mothers in film can be only one thing: good, nurturing, giving, kind, supportive. Why? because mothers, thanks to Freud, as the reason given for why most of us are either healthy (good mom) or fucked up (bad mom).  Ramsey and Swinton explore this territory without fear.  No, it isn’t a movie just anyone can like or get.  Most are put off by it, particularly with Ramsey’s style of filmmaking — a man doing the same would likely be celebrated as a great auteur, but a woman doing it? It’s just too easy to write off.  So you’ll say, why is always about women? Why can’t it be just about filmmaking?  It is about both of those things. When it’s a woman dwelling in a male dominant field it immediately becomes political.  There might be a day when it can just be about filmmaking but this isn’t that day.  Tilda Swinton turns in yet another unforgettable, disturbing performance here.

Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs – although seeing it in Telluride I knew it was going to be a tough sell.  She’s not a warm fuzzy character. She’s not sexual in any way. She’s not even particularly likable.  Her co-star, Janet McTeer IS all of those things because her character is allowed to be.  Close’s character isn’t. That’s the whole point.  So maybe it’s an uncomfortable few hours with her, there is no doubt that it is a well studied, deeply rendered turn in a film that struggles for attention with a very small budget.  Close also adapted the screenplay and co-wrote the song.  She comes as close to directing it as she possibly can without actually directing it.  It is one of the standout works of the year but she’s not likable it doesn’t seem to be getting any attention lately. Hopefully the industry, the professionals, will be able to recognize the difficulty in what Close did with Albert Nobbs.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Judi Dench in J. Edgar – the critics, except the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute, seemed to have turned their nose up at J. Edgar in general, and have forgotten one of the best things DiCaprio has ever done.  While it takes some getting used, his J. Edgar makeup and his accent, by the time the film gets closer to the middle, DiCaprio’s complex, somewhat sympathetic Hoover emerges.  J. Edgar is a love story but it’s also a story told from the perspective of a mostly unreliable narrator, someone who is deluding himself about many things, his sexuality among them.  The public wants the J. Edgar they’ve always had — the rat bastard who dressed up in women’s clothes [allegedly] and was so rotten inside he had to practically ruin the world because of it.  But the J. Edgar Eastwood gives us, the pained suffering man who has never really been able to find the truth about  himself then sought to find out the truth about other people, the things THEY were hiding because he was hiding so much himself.  The scene between J. Edgar and his mother  where she wants to teach him to “dance with women”  is, simply, the best acting in any film all year.   To overlook DiCaprio for this, to overlook Dench for this, would be a shame.

Michael Fassbender in Shame – it probably goes without saying that Fassbender’s is among the performances of the year.  Many of the critics have dismissed the film entirely, missing, I think, the point entirely.  For men, their sexuality is their own secret.  Mostly, our society is unprepared to deal with the sexual power of the human male but if you watch Project Nim and you know that our degree of DNA separation is but 5% different from our chimp cousins, when you see the difference between your cat or horse with their sex drive and without you’ll start to know the “plight” of men who are given the task of populating the planet with very few “acceptable” outlets to do so – with more to tease and taunt them every day.  But of course, here in America we really don’t talk about it unless we’re joking about it.  And Steve McQueen wants to talk about it.  The way sexuality has been stuffed into the darkness and isolation of internet porn and paid escorts spills out into easily exposed “scandals” of otherwise trustworthy politicians.  “Keep it in your pants,” people say.  And you know most men are thinking wow, I’m glad no one knows where my sexuality goes. It’s all very interesting and it’s definitely the thing we can’t really talk about because most of us, men especially, are forced to live the way society dictates: monogamous relationships.  Well, what if you can’t have one of those? What if you can’t even lead that kind of double life?  Fassbender’s Brandon has everything every American male should want: good looks, money, girls dying to sleep with him.  And yet … and yet … he’s become numb to real feeling because of every other way there is to access his sexuality on a daily, hourly basis.  But that isn’t satisfying either because the other part of him needs what we all need: love and intimacy.  I’ve never seen a filmmaker really talk about what I think is an ongoing dilemma in modern American society.  What will become of it? It’s hard to say.

Woody Harrelson in Rampart – he plays a bad cop well, but he plays a self-deluded bad cop brilliantly.  In Rampart Harrelson is really the last to know that he’s a liar, bad in bed, corrupt, manipulative. He wants to be a good man, an admired husband, cop and father.  He just can’t.  Harrelson plays every note, in complete control of his instrument.  It’s a disturbing antagonist he plays, the polar opposite of our treasured male figures — Brad Pitt in Moneyball, George Clooney in The Descendants, Michael Shannon in Take Shelter — it’s always a good year for actors, of course, but these actors really do take it to a different level.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for The Help.  It becomes so tiresome to have to defend this film and its performances because it wasn’t PC enough for whitey.  Ms. David quietly gives the best performance of her career — playing both the subservient maid and revealing all that is churning within her. No easy feat, to be sure.  It would be easy to have fallen into a stereotype, but Davis leads a cast that became one of the highest grossing films of the year.   No, she isn’t Sandra Bullock, but her long career and her lack of wins up to now ought to be considered.

Although it goes without saying that Meryl Streep will be nominated for The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn, Jessica Chastain for either Tree of Life or The Help — these are the strongest performances, and most lauded so far.  But here’s to hoping they also remember Charlize Theron in Young Adult for playing against type, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

How about you, readers? What is your “for your consideration?”