You’re lucky if you’re a white male. You get to sit down each time in a movie theater and watch yet another man work through his problems, chase down his goal, implode, explode, seduce, say nothing, say everything, save the world, save humanity, paint his masterpiece, survive a POW camp, become an unlikely saint, drift in and out of reality and life. But if you’re a woman, or any person of color, you get to sit down and watch white men (mostly) do all of these things while applauding from the sidelines. I don’t know what that feels like for other people but for me, this year, when I sat down and there was some guy yet again, I wanted to scream. Really? This? Again? For every Gone Girl and Wild and Obvious Child, there are five times as many boys, men, birdmen and foxcatchers.
However we found ourselves here, we are here. That meant you really had to scrounge around for good films about women but films about men? They were everywhere. This year produced a multitude of memorable male performances, with the top three to win the most unforgettable so far – Michael Keaton in Birdman, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in a year that also showcased the work of Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner, Jake Gyllenhaal as the Nightcrawler, Steve Carell as the Foxcatcher, Thomas Hardy in Locke, Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year, Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood, Miles Teller in Whiplash, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, David Oyelowo in Selma, Jack O’Connell in Unbroken, Bill Murray in St. Vincent, Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice, John Lithgow in Love is Strange, Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler, Brad Pitt in Fury, and Ralph Fiennes in the Grand Budapest Hotel.
1. Michael Keaton in Birdman
He doesn’t have a disability and he isn’t saving the world. He isn’t a world famous hero, nor a sociopath. He’s a last man standing, a real actor trying to squeeze out a bit of dignity in a world gone rotten. Birdman the film is a pleasure to watch, bravura directing, a well-rehearsed cast with actors hitting the exact right notes. But Birdman is mostly style – breathtaking, dazzling style but style nonetheless. What gives it its depth, its meaning beyond the dazzle is Keaton’s performance. It is so moving, so surprising in its vulnerability, one is taken aback by it.
Part of this is due to the camera coming in close and intimate with Keaton’s inner world, where it doesn’t so much with other characters who come off as cartoon-like. If Birdman himself is dwelling in a world of magical realism, where he may have super powers, and maybe can fly, he is surrounded by other action figures who represent various aspects of what might be called his life. It is only Keaton’s face where we can find any truth, any reality.
I will admit to being unprepared for Keaton’s performance. I will also admit to not thinking he had it in him. I’d seen him in every movie up to now and he’s always been Michael Keaton to me. But he’s transformed here. So much despair and desperation in a simple look, giving us so much emotion that he doesn’t share with the other characters on the screen. We’re watching him sink into failure while rising to the exact kind of success he doesn’t want: unearned celebrity via viral kitsch.
His character has more in common with Jennifer Aniston in Cake than almost any other character we saw on screen this year. He doesn’t really want to live anymore because there isn’t much to live for. He finds some kind of connection with his daughter, still trusts his ex-wife and has an active sex life with his mistress. But does he have any real love? What he seems to yearn for is what he sold out years ago: an authenticity in art. Maybe it seems like a joke, saying it out loud, but for this character it means everything.
Keaton’s stands out because he’s doing the harder job – he hasn’t an easy mask to hide behind because he’s playing someone who isn’t as clearly defined as, say, Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing. Those performances are beyond reproach but it’s Keaton’s that has stayed with me all of these months later.
At the same time, the real life Keaton is far too humble to really do much of the dog and pony show although he’s showing up here and there. He doesn’t have youth on his side anymore, and it’s been a long time since he was the headliner. Oh, but the beauty in his command of his face. The beauty is how he disperses emotion. His fearlessness in showing fear. It doesn’t get better than that. Birdman succeeds, ultimately, because of Keaton’s central performance.
2. David Oyelowo, Selma – Oyelowo’s screen presence was obvious from his early work, especially his small part in Lincoln, but also with director Ava DuVernay in Middle of Nowhere. He’s been working for decades in Hollywood, a cop here, a guard there. His slow trajectory to greatness is earned. As Martin Luther King, Jr., Oyelowo commands the screen with a palpable charisma, without ever letting the role devolve into a one dimensional portrait of a hero. His is the next generation of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, and indeed, the two films could be watched back to back. He lends so much humanity to the icon you can’t take your eyes off him.
3. Eddie Redmayne in Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game – it’s nearly impossible to choose between the two of them. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons Keaton stands out so much this year. Redmayne embodies Hawking so that you forget you’re watching an actor at some point. He conveys emotion and wit without moving a muscle. By the end of the film, you’ve fallen in love. Cumberbatch is also great, managing to balance his obsession and prickly personality a passion to invent, to solve puzzles, to progress within a culture that opposes progress. We don’t see him wrestle with his sexuality because that isn’t part of the film, but does it have to be?
5. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher – Carrel disappears into John DuPont, though weirdly enough, he’s not that far off the character he plays in The Office, except not funny. He’s the guy who never makes the best joke. He’s the guy people feel sorry for and dread his presence. He’s the loser who doesn’t fit in. It’s a breathtaking work and an unlikable character.
6. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner – Spall inhabits and embodies the artist. Perhaps he’s Turner-like but that’s really less important than what he’s trying o convey which is, the art does not necessarily make the artist and a commitment to art often comes at the expense of everything else. The beautiful paintings he makes sharply contrast the slug of a human he was. The sense of nature, light and God contradict his pragmatic approach to life – no connections, moving through women. Only Mike Leigh can get these kinds of performances out of his actors.
7. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler – in the tradition of other charismatic psychopaths, Louis Bloom is less like Travis Bickle and more like Rupert Pupkin as he seems to accidentally find himself talking his way into people’s lives which eventually turns into threatening behavior all hidden behind a goofy veneer. So many of this generation are not familiar with De Niro’s incarnation of Pupkin but truly, Nightcrawler should be watched alongside it. Both films are more about an average Joe breaking the rules to achieve something people take lifetimes to accomplish. Why shouldn’t they have it too? They enter a world of crime and dwell in their own world of fantasy.
8. Bill Murray, St. Vincent. I know that the movie isn’t in with the cool crowd – probably because it has some strong female characters or because it’s schmaltzy but whatever the reason, Murray quietly delivered the performance of his career. Were it not for Cumberbatch, Weinstein Co. could easily push Murray into the race. St. Vincent got to me. Sure, it’s old school but I loved all of the characters. For the first time, Murray really digs into character acting in a way he hasn’t quite before. His is one of the most underrated performances this year.
9. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice – the director/actor relationship between Paul Thomas Anderson and Phoenix is fascinating to watch, especially if you put The Master and Inherent Vice side by side. Phoenix is probably most like Anderson of all of the actors who have played the leads in his films. Here, Phoenix is silly where in the Master he was morose. In both films he’s haunted by love.
10. Ben Affleck, Gone Girl – while Affleck is more concerned with directing these days, his performance is deceptively simple in Gone Girl. He’s playing a guy whose mask is being a nice guy. He is able to fool people, women especially, with his charm. In the hands of a lesser actor the satire might have been lost – play it too seriously and the whole thing collapses. Play it too comedically and the creepiness is lost. He hits just the right note, while allowing Rosamund Pike to steal the movie.