What I actually found in common with the ‘best’ performances I’ve seen in movies since my earlier, iffier list in July is that these actors who play their characters as either scary or scared. I thought that was gonna make my list repetitive but it’s a pretty general conflict within a character anyway. Also, as much I loved a few performances released this year, this list mainly focus on my self-education (Although I didn’t major nor specialize, I took film classes in college, I’m not one of those) about films from the beginning of ever (but really 1947) up to the past year, for which I make a space to include an FYC or two for performances this year. again, I also wanna be a contrarian and ‘instructive’ – the more obscure and diverse a performance is, the better.
The film complements Emily Watson’s well-praised debut performance as Bess McNeil with Skarsgard, who makes the pest performance of a ‘crippld’ man since Jimmy Stewart. He finds the balance of sincerity and good intention despite the manipulative nature of what he says, and this the centre of the misogyny that other bloggers have accused von Trier about in this film. Thing is, he airs his requests to Bess with neither overt meanness nor longing. His disability is also reflected before and after it literally sets him in the film’s plot. Let me explain. Skarsgard’s performance makes his character, Jan Nyman, very jaded and justly so. He treats the Bess’ Calvinist enclave with disgust but as an outsider, is aware that he cannot change it, letting everyone else do the moralizing. He tries to give Bess the redemption he deserves and doesn’t oversell it, showing us his awareness of the reality of his loss.
Liv Ullman, Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)
It’s a hard task stealing the show from Ingrid Bergman, and we almost think it wouldn’t happen with the woman’s piano skills. Eventually this film becomes Ullman’s, playing Bergman’s daughter. I thought she was in her twenties when she took on this role, and her braids and glasses might have had something to do with that. But Ullmann in her forties captures the youthful vulnerability of someone well, half her age. A character who hasn’t learned how to be an adult because of her mother’s tampering and image of superiority. What follows is an unforgettable primal scream, revealing that anything a mother can do to love her child might be engendering the opposite message. The film ends with her trying to get her mother back, but in just as repetitive as she’s learned. Never had a peace-offering been so poisonous, as Ullmann carefully hides a rage that we can still see.
Ryan Reynolds, Buried (Rodrigo Cortes, 2010)
The success of this film has been partly attributed to Reynolds’ comic timing, which yes, adds a flexibility to the role in a horror/thriller film. Other critics have also talked about how he conveys Paul Conroy’s lack of intelligence, but lack of sunlight and mobility, I can assume, with take away 1 or 61 of anyone’s IQ points. However, he also exhibits a physicality, a difficult attribute to convey in a claustrophobic film.We follow his every little move, like trying to get a signal from a Blackberry set in Arabic or working flashlights. He also bring is the emotional heft the film needs, outstandingly connecting with the offscreen characters. And yes, I admit, a reason Reynolds is on this list is because he renders the best reading of the sentence ‘You stupid fucking cunt!’ in the history of cinema.
Any Ryan, Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)
Supporting actress schmupporting actress – Amy Ryan takes the reins in this movie. Ryan’s character is faced by many hurdles, the missing daughter who probably hasn’t been fed by her captors (really the latter is fine), the good cops and the bad cops who are convinced she’s involved in the crime despite her unbreakable shell. She’s also intelligent enough to add levels of moral judgment about her character, saying things that she believes is right but making the words clear enough to question her. She gets the ending she wants and becomes a scary form of human being impervious to change even in times of almost complete disaster. I try my best not to be one of those bloggers who have grievances when it comes to the choices the Academy makes, and who am I to judge Tilda Swinton’s performance that I’ve yet to see. Nonetheless, Team Amy.
Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Blankness hasn’t been this scary in a woman or in any character until this film arrived. We might also wanna thank Polanski in this aspect of her performance, but she looks capably fashionable even as she’s as we say mentally breaking through the seams. That and the raving beauty is humble enough to look plain in comparison the her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). Not only do we see the rabbit head inside her purse and the unkept conditions of her and her sister’s apartment after the latter’s vacation do the vacuous stares make sense. Her bravery’s also commendable as she takes on the dream rape scenes, as she approaches them not with tears but with defenselessness and startled reactions, conveying how her character struggles against her body. She portrays a young woman with grievances against societal pressures about her sister’s boyfriend and her own oblivious boyfriend, but sadly didn’t learn how to scream out.
I considered it a personal achievement to have finished watching the film the past year, since Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh puts heart in what could be a cold, detached and stern female protagonist in Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger are known for their magical Technicolor visuals in their films, but the most delightful image it has is watching Kerr light up when she reminisces, romanticizing the decaying past that she was happy and content with. There’s also a bit of pain in her eyes as the film transforms her from context a to b, with the knowledge that her life in the British Isles won’t be the same. She’s not, however, necessarily a helpless young female, as she considers herself a mother and leader to the other nuns in the Indian mission, specifically looking out for Sister Ruth, sincerely caring about hers and everyone else’s health. And she’s got a little sense of humour as well, brought on by Mr. Dean.
Tatsuya Nakadai, Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)
Hey look, another double role! But really the titular Kagemusha gets invaded by his alter ego, Shingen Takeda, the medieval Japanese war lord whose life is surprisingly more precarious than the lower class man who’s supposed to impersonate him. Nakadai evinces the haunted feeling of being followed by the ghost – only appearing once in a dream – of a supposedly great man, who’s also chagrined by the warlord’s son. He somehow convinces us of a closer connection between the two disparate characters, of the integrity that has to be preserved in the old ways that oppress Kagemusha. When the thief becomes the warlord, he doesn’t put a dumb show. He even shows warmth while bonding with the warlord’s grandson. The actor perfectly captures the composed, arrogant ways of a noble man and the dishevelled thief who he was in the film’s beginning and end.
Joan Allen, The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
Ang Lee’s more subtle than other directors who have made films about the suburbs. It is then a gift to have Joan Allen’s as Elena in his film to keep the trajectory from quietness to histrionics more interesting, like the different movements of mood within a real person within two days’ time. To a pastor, she talks about her daughter Wendy’s (Christina Ricci) freedom with such adult control. Her performance has many great moments, like the what-the-eff moment when she smells a different ‘aftershave’ from Elena’s husband Ben (Kevin Kline) as she tries hard to calm herself and the absolute fury as she throws her husband’s car keys to Allison Janney, vindictively including themselves to a ‘key party’ – look it up, kids. This movie reintroduced and made me love someone revered as ‘the greatest American actress after Meryl.’
Johnny Depp, Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
When you start talking about a film, writing ‘Remember when Johnny Depp was still good?’ It’s totally ok to do that. Anyway, Depp, obviously a superstar by the early 90’s, in this film is given not one but two supporting roles as Bon Bon and Lieutenant Victor, and arguably Victor is two roles in itself, the compassionate stud of Reinaldo Arenas’ (Javier Bardem) fantasy and the homophobic oppressor in the film’s reality. The two bit parts are symbolic of the opinion of homosexuality in Cuba – either as a counter-revolutionary sore or an underground movement to be preserved. Depp uses subservience and camp, and embracing his characters as mirror images of the conflict within Arenas himself as well as the latter’s conflicts against authority. I also couldn’t recognize who Bon Bon was until I took a good look at her for 13 seconds, a feat in itself for an actor who’s in costume for more than half his career.
Christian Bale , Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko, 2002)
I’m probably the only monstrous human beings who see flaws within Christian Bale’s acting, the way he gets angry and yells like a hound and all. He does that here in this movie too, mind you. It’s refreshing nonetheless, that he spends 99% of the film being his most ordinary. That, however, doesn’t mean he’s not interesting as we watch him effortlessly confess his desires to make love to his coworker/extramarital love interest with sadness and other emotions and nuances I can’t put into words. He approaches lust and therefore sin with such gentleness and no violence, creating a character contemplating the sorrow of limitations. One of the film’s plots cover his character temporarily staying with his music producer of a mother (Frances McDormand) and her rocker boyfriend-of-the-year (Alessandro Nivola), giving us the impression that he’s always had to be the adult in whatever household he’s in, and it consistently shows.
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Micthell, 2010)
I’ve already talked about how Nicole Kidman as Becca Corbett does everything in this film except dance and stab. I also remember about her performance is that she could have brought down her character’s meanness, and in a way she does. What she offers is a defence mechanism and even a wry intelligence to the conventional ways of sorrow, and instead her Becca is looking for an alternative, learning how to suffer and cope on her own, allowing herself to feel other emotions to heal. Like when she goes back to Manhattan and try to get her job back at Sotheby’s, even if we just see her we sense how big she feels with the city and with the happiness she’s had and missed. Or allowing herself to be close to Jason Willette (Miles Teller), treating him so close like a son or nephew, letting us feel the waters she’s treading.
I first heard about Ingmar Bergman‘s Persona in David Scott Diffrient’s essay about the shock cut, a technique mostly used in horror films. I assumed he was just talking about one of the film’s opening images – a hand pinned down by a large nail. Persona isn’t a horror film per se, but with that image of the hand comes more jarring images in its opening sequence – a phallus, an androgynous child lying down in a gurney, that child slowly coming back to life.
Sven Nyqvist’s cinematography, Bergman’s camera and editing throughout the film somehow evokes the horror psyche whole giving their audience one of the best shot films ever made. Its minimalist hospital walls where nurse Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) meets her patient, actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), thin bare trees standing on beaches where she chases Elisabet, close-ups that would change angles for every accusation she airs towards Elisabet. Amazing.
The second thing I heard about Persona before watching it Sarah Boslaugh’s write-up of Andersson, including the latter in an essential performance list. We’ll go back to the child in the gurney who wakes up and reaches for a blurry picture of Elisabet, and in a way that’s what Andersson as Alma is trying to do. Like most of Bergman’s finer works, one person reaching for another seems like an impossible journey.
It’s a misguided way for Alma to think that her catharsis might break Elisabet’s silence, but instead she just ends up doing everything for Elisabet. She finds herself wanting to become what Elisabet has been before her silence. Andersson does great work, carrying the film, going through every imaginable emotion with both vulnerability and control, amazingly handling Bergman’s analytical script. Ullmann as Elisabet only blurts a few words when Alma tries to burn her face. Yes, Andersson’s the prettier one, but Ullmann’s her stoic reactions are captivating and her internal struggles are so enigmatic that the latter can almost steal the show by just being there.
Some images in the film include a close-up of a face, half Elisabet and half Anna, or of Elisabet holding Alma, both facing the camera as if it’s a mirror, both ethereal beauties, she becoming the sister and doppelgänger that Alma has always wanted. Looking at them, it’s easy to assume their closeness, or that they’re the same person all along.
If it was only as instinctual as Helene, a disabled young woman, calling out for her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). But Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata is about Helene’s sister Eva (Liv Ullmann), who sees an opportunity in seeing Charlotte again and she has a lot to say. What drives Bergman’s characters are emotion and memory, and therefore the possible social and political ideologies behind them get more ambiguous.
In a scene where Eva takes Charlotte to her room, we find out that she is and can be beautiful, sorrowful, vain, demanding, impatient and cruel, and she is all those things throughout the film. Eva, however, takes on her mother’s attributes in parts of the film, especially when she feels in control of the situation.
What makes the film just as ambiguous, then is how similar they are despite their different appearances and chosen paths.
I wanted to discuss its political interpretation because of a certain shocker spoiler. We can’t fully talk about artistic intentions here, but when a movie, a script or a book brings up a learned woman’s stance supporting abortion, she ends up looking like a babbling shrew. I suppose my discomfort comes from the later texts that had a less complex interpretation of the issue. In this movie, its hard to map out what it means for Eva to rid of a child under Charlotte’s orders, that Charlotte’s taking away Eva’s right to become a mother, that it is never explicitly said whether Charlotte is pro-choice, when the operation is allegedly forced, or if the child is presumable conceived out-of-wedlock.
By the end of the film, Eva’s husband seems to have questioned his unadulterated worship towards her. Watching and listening in the hall whether Eva is alone or with Charlotte, he’s the stand-in for the movie’s audience. We’re asking questions too, which is another thing I love about this movie.