One of the surprises of this year has to be Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler and the exceptional lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. This has to be his best since Brokeback Mountain, perhaps Zodiac. He borrows a bit from his Zodiac performance, in fact, and you can imagine where his obsession to find the killer might lead him. You could watch Zodiac and Nightcrawler and have a pretty good time, actually. After I saw Nightcrawler I thought about the Jake Gyllenhaal character quite a bit. The more I thought about it the more I wondered what his primary motivation was.
With Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin or any other out of sorts psychopath in a film you know what their motivator is. You know what they want and why they’re doing what they’re doing. But in Nightcrawler, that is not the case. It seems to be partly that 1) Gyllenhaal’s character merely fills a narrative need to slam our now disgusting media coverage. It does that so well that by the end of the movie you’re thinking: this is really our lives now. It’s uncomfortable watching news footage after seeing the movie. You begin to wonder what’s real, what’s manufactured for ratings. Or, 2) Gyllenhaal just likes playing God. He is a serial killer but he’s doing it in a way that is considered somewhat acceptable.
But it’s hard to complain about such a satisfying film and performance. If it were me, he’d likely make my top five of the year.
Best Actor still seems down to three very strong performances in three films that are sure to be Best Picture contenders. The leader of the pack started out as Michael Keaton in Birdman. In fact, he might emerge the winner out of sheer love for the film and the performances. We have found our critics darling and this is the one. I fully expect it to do very well with the major critics who start voting at the end of this month. Keaton plays a former superhero who is putting it all the line to find some kind of meaning in life. The film simply would not work without Keaton, and the other ensemble cast, for that matter. But Keaton is the thing I keep coming back to when I think about that movie. Vulnerable, occasionally bitter, bursting with humility, he is the heart and soul of the film and worthy of a Best Actor win.
On the other hand, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Like Keaton, his performance anchors The Imitation Game. It’s heartbreaking at times, but most surprisingly complex. He plays a hero but he also plays a man who is prickly and would prefer to work alone or with computers. The Imitation Game has the Weinstein Co. pushing it, and they don’t generally waste their time with a movie they don’t think can take it all the way – and this one most certainly can. Already it’s a hit on the festival circuit and is that one movie you can sit anyone down in front of and they’re have a similar experience. What it lacks is that it feels traditional in a year where there is such exciting filmmaking. Sound familiar? Echoes of 2010 dance in our heads. But the thing is, people go to the movies to be entertained, moved and to not have to do much work. The people loved The King’s Speech and they will love The Imitation Game. Believe me.
Finally, the biggest threat in the race right now is Eddie Redmayne’s beautiful embodiment of Stephen Hawking. Sure, he’ll get flack for an “Oscar-baity” role playing a disabled man but he absolutely delivers. He is the most likable of the three and it is the most accomplished performance. That makes him a huge threat with the actor-dominated Academy. Redmayne is captivating when he can speak and up to the point where he can’t. He never stops being Stephen Hawking, which is perhaps the most remarkable thing about his work here.
The argument for Keaton is that the two British heroes will cancel each other out, and indeed, that might prove true. Add Timothy Spall into the mix and you have three British heroes battling for Best Actor.
The fourth in the race, despite how pundits want to spin it, is Steve Carell for his bizarre turn in Foxcatcher. Carell has been kind of quiet but believe me, once he gets out there and starts talking to people, there isn’t a nicer guy in town. The juxtaposition of nice guy and monster is going to count for a lot — Carell will be featured on 60 Minutes in the first of many specials that will likely impact the race. His sad desperation as a lonely, crazy filthy rich man is unforgettable, ice cold though it may be.
That fifth slot has a lot of potential contenders as the Oscars are about nothing if they’re not about meditating on, celebration of the male protagonist or male antagonist. And they are:
Timothy Spall who becomes the painter, William Turner. This is such a grand portrait of an artist, and one of the truest films about art itself. Spall won Best Actor in Cannes for a reason. The film isn’t getting much publicity now, as it isn’t exactly the kind of film that sets the bloggers on fire but if we’re talking about skill, about talent and about performance, you don’t get much better than Spall in this role.
Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar – no one is really sure where Interstellar will land, whether voters can even tolerate it much less love it. But by most accounts McConaughey is on fire. It helps that he just won Best Actor and is back with another great performance. He could indeed be the fifth contender here, depending on what the actors overall think of Interstellar. Indeed, Nolan (and Cuaron) offer them a place at the table for the effects-driven future of Hollywood. Are they already to embrace the form that will eventually make actors second to the visual effects? Or are they just going to reject it outright. It’s hard to tell but McConaughey is fantastic in the part.
Ralph Fiennes is so great in the Grand Budapest Hotel, but alas, this performance is going to have a hard time breaking through with these other more muscular roles. Fiennes’ anchors the film, of course, because he’s a brilliant but ignored actor.
Miles Teller in Whiplash is a star in the making. Ben Affleck gives one of his best performances in Gone Girl as he allows himself the chance to play both the goofy charming guy and the creepy husband on the run. Elle Coltrane holds down Boyhood with a performance ranging from young kid all the way into the adulthood. It’s fascinating to watch him grow up, how his personality evolves. If Boyhood is really the Best Picture frontrunner there is a good chance Coltrane could be considered for a nod.
Oscar Isaac just broke through with A Most Violent Year. The film overall would have to be popular with the voters for Isaac to get in. He proves with this performance that he’s more than capable of leading man status.
But I just can’t shake Gyllenhaal’s performance. Those dark eyes. That weird smile. The odd way he walks and talks. Though I haven’t fully figured it out yet I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it.
Still to come, Jack O’Connell in Unbroken, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, David Oyelowo in Selma, Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler. So many men, so little acting slots.