Finding the single best moment in Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is impossible as you have two actors playing the same person. Then there’s Elizabeth Banks. Add Paul Giamatti and you have one of the best ensemble performances of the year. Banks glides confidently through the film in a way we’ve never seen before.
This is a woman who began her career in sports until an injury shifted her focus from sports to acting, eventually, and later, directing. What power she contains emanates from her throughout Love & Mercy because her Melinda is the anchor and touchstone that ultimately saves Brian Wilson (John Cusack) from horrific circumstances. Her finest moment is a tossup between the scene where we first meet her — shiny nails, a clipboard and tight skirt, she puts Wilson immediately at ease and changes his life. Probably the scene that seals the deal is when she’s being confronted by Paul Giamatti on the other side of a door. As he’s threatening and insulting her she whips the door open and stares him down. Banks strength is balanced by the portrayals of Brian Wilson’s vulnerability and crippling mental illness, embodied by two brilliant performances – Cusack’s struggle to come up and out from behind the oppressive drugs and controlling forces, along with Paul Dano’s bright young genius on the rise. In Dano’s performance, we see the Brian Wilson who was consumed by musical gifts that lured him in different directions, some of them good, some of them not so good. Both actors capture that sweetness in Wilson, and, underneath it all, a man worth saving. All three actors give best-of-the year performances in Love & Mercy.
Alicia Vikander has two standout performances this year that are completely different. Ex Machina is the film a lot of people have stopped talking about but I suspect it will be among the few that has longterm staying power. Vikander as Ava was such a defining role it was hard to imagine her doing anything else, but she does just that in the Danish Girl, where she plays a free spirit conflicted in many directions – as an artist, as a confidante, as a wife. The juxtaposition of these two performances showcases just how versatile Vikander is, surprisingly so. It’s not often an actress rises to prominence with that kind of beauty and that kind of talent and versatility. She’s so good in The Danish Girl, in fact, that she almost steals the movie. In Ex Machina, Vikander plays an AI whose goal is to seduce Domhnall Gleeson (also turning in three great supporting performances this year — in Ex Machina, Brooklyn, and The Revenant).
Ian McKellen has one of those faces that has been shaped by life experience in all of its variations but more than that, as a seasoned actor he’s learned to use his body and face as an instrument. This is no more apparent than it is in Mr. Holmes, where McKellen plays the famous detective at various stages of advancing age. Only the best of actors can speak volumes with the simplest of facial expressions and with an actor like McKellen, it’s apparent from the outset you are in the presence of a master. There are many moments in Mr. Holmes that reveal McKellen’s abilities but none so much as his scenes with Laura Linney, who plays the housekeeper whose son develops an important bond with Mr. Holmes. The two characters are put off at first, not really understanding much about each other. Each time Holmes is asked to use his “powers of perception,” the film comes alive. The best of these moments is when Holmes employs his skills with Laura Linney. The relationship between the two evolves and eventually softens. Linney gives him so much to play off – the best moments, quiet though they be, exist between these two pros.
The Martian is a deceptively simple ride for its actors who mostly breeze through the film on the crest of great dialogue and Ridley Scott’s freed up direction. It’s Matt Damon’s show all the way. Never has an actor been more suited to a role than this. Somehow, though potential death and disaster are imminent, the film never feels, as Gravity did, that this is a life and death struggle. Instead, it feels like a science problem. How do you solve problems? You poke at them. You just start, as the film so brilliantly says. If you miss the science element of The Martian you really miss what the whole film is about. The best acting moments come towards the end when Jessica Chastain and her crew are finally returning to Mars to pick up Mark Watney (“botanist”). The wonderful chemistry between the cast is palpable. It’s easy to believe they’ve been housed together for years now. Ridley Scott keeps it light because it could very well turn into a nightmare of epic proportions if it were a different kind of movie. But the focus is always on “working the problem,” focusing on sciencing their way to survival which, incidentally, is the only way we’re going to avoid mass extinction. Commander Lewis (Chastain) knows they’re coming in too fast. Watney hides his fear from his crewmates as he cries to himself — one of the few serious moments in an otherwise pleasurable cinematic experience. Kate Mara is perfectly cast as the tech geek who keeps working the math. Commander Lewis makes a few crucial decisions that justify her position and finally, at last, rescues Watney, who “Iron Mans” his way to her. It’s borderline hokey, that scene where they meet up, but it works. It works because it’s in the hands of two actors who know what they’re doing. In the end, what makes The Martian works so well is the combination of a perfectly written screenplay, with a director who seems be having a blast with in that screenplay. But also much credit is owed the ensemble with Damon at the obvious center, doing what actors do best – collaborating, being generous with each other. There is the sense that everybody liked being there. And so do we.
The relationship between Sylvester Stallone as Rocky and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed represent the heart and soul of Ryan Coogler’s new film, with its implausible plot and inexplicable greatness And thus, we arrive at the magic of movie making. You can’t explain it. You can’t plan it. Sometimes it just happens like that. The movie just works, despite all the odds stacked against it. What makes Creed work is, simply, the actors. The relationship between the father figure, Rocky, and his new son, Donny. Even though Adonis could have gone on to fame and glory he makes sure to always give thanks back to his father’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) for rescuing him from foster care hell. It’s those gentle, sensitive scenes between Rocky and Donny, though, coupled with the dazzling fight scenes, that make Creed one of the best films of the year. There are just too many great moments to single out any one scene, but — and it’s a spoiler — there probably isn’t a more touching scene than the final one, on the famous steps, where Donny helps the champ make it up the stairs once again. Yes, it’s sentimental. Yes, it’s a boxing movie in the great tradition of boxing movies, but it’s also quietly revolutionary, at least for white gen pop movie-going audiences, to see a young black man with so much emotional complexity as Coogler gives Jordan. Creed is one moment built on another – put it all together and it’s magic.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Clouds of Sils Maria is that rare film this year that revolves entirely around its female characters. Though it’s mostly slipped out of the current conversation, it’s worth remembering how Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche collaborated as the older actress and her younger assistant. Their best moments are when they are reading the script as fictional characters within a fictional framework because the dialogue they’re reading reveals what their relationship really is, or certainly explores the subtext. But perhaps my favorite moment in the film comes when they’re hiking and Binoche’s character is, as usual, completely wrapped up in herself. Maria and Valentine are talking about a scene in the script within a script that will eventually lead to Valentine’s vaporous exit. There is really no other film involving such a close relationship between two female characters in this year’s Oscar race, except Carol, and Clouds of Sils Maria does its intimacy without a love story.
Tom Hanks / Mark Rylance
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies centers around Tom Hanks, a man of character keeping calm amid the growing fear and hysteria of Cold War tensions. Hanks performance, though subtle, is, like Ian McKellen’s, an example of what a really great actor can do. Hanks must keep almost everything he thinks and feels closely guarded. He has to play subtle ploys with wary people and delicate circumstances in order to right the potential wrongs in the treatment of a US spy and a KGB operative. Any actor could go to school on Hanks’ masterful work here. The moment that lingers most happens at the end. Will his friend and prisoner (a brilliant Mark Rylance) be welcomed with a hug, or will he be swiftly and ominnously put in the back seat — a sign that he’s probably in peril. We know that he does make it in real life but the movie doesn’t give us the same definitive conclusion. Two American lives saved, but one KGB operative maybe sacrificed. The film does not paint America as the hero and the Soviet Union as the villain, but it does show in one powerful scene how differently we (hopefully) treat our prisoners. The interplay between Hanks and Rylance is chilling, memorable and among the best moments in any film this year.