The Best Performances of the Decade So Far: Part I

In preparation for my upcoming Best Films of the Decade So Far list, I thought it important to highlight many of the performances of the last five years. While some may bemoan a lack of creativity in contemporary filmmaking, a subsequent correlation can be made that the overall quality of screen acting has improved - arguably a result of filmmakers relying more heavily on their actors to elevate the gravity of their material. This is also a reflection of certain film performances and the actors in general - consider this an effort on my behalf to spread citations among the many noteworthy performances of the past five years. 

Masaharu Fukuyama
Like Father Like Son (2013)

In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s touching portrait of child-rearing, Masaharu Fukuyama realizes the gamut of emotions associated with fatherhood. The clinical coolness of Kore-eda’s framing is given heightened warmth though Fukuyama’s performance despite the character’s unflattering selfishness. As Ryota, Fukuyama fathers a son not of his own blood following a clerical mistake at a hospital. This mistake reconciles much of the differences Ryota has with his illegitimate son, therefore justifying a switch with the family involved with the mix-up. Concerns of nature versus nurture and the presumed privilege that comes with wealth are all among the Big Themes that could’ve overwhelmed Like Father Like Son, but it’s in Fukuyama’s performance that we see a measure of restraint and calm. This is a performance of affected calibration, where Fukuyama provokes a cerebral approach to something of such immense emotional consequence.            

Lola Créton
Goodbye First Love (2011)

Practically speaking, films that explore many years at a time can’t go the Boyhood route. There’s a reason why that’s a special case. But Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love is a special case in itself, and it’s a success because of Lola Créton’s expressive and mature performance. She begins the film as a high school student in the late nineties where she breaks up with her boyfriend. Hansen-Løve tracks her development, from college student to professional, where the lingering memory of that first love just can’t be shaken. Créton convincingly matures from adolescent to a young woman as the film expands. Hansen-Løve conveys the transgressions in time as you would expect - people writing dates, shots of calendars, etc. And efforts are made to transform Créton as well; largely highlighted by the physical changes to her hair and attire. But Créton’s subtly is in her movement, her self-imposed exile, and her reticence, making the resulting maturity so remarkably persuasive. As contemporary film acting moves toward grandiose gestures, it’s something special to see an actress convey so much with merely a passing glance.

Jessica Chastain
Take Shelter (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The single-mindedness of Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is part of a long lineage of male characters, harkening back to Gene Hackman’s obsessive cop in The French Connection to Jake Gyleenhaal’s cartoonist-cum-detective in Zodiac. Yet it’s in that gender shift when Chastain uncovers the most nuance; where sexuality is compartmentalized and frivolous; where professional aggression is a necessity and where fucking is deemed “unbecoming”. Everything that Chastain does in Zero Dark Thirty aligns itself with a history of male characters yet becomes a subversive achievement for the mere fact that she’s a strong woman taking on this kind of role. She gets that same measure of complexity out of her Samantha character in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. She’s in a supporting role, a mother and housewife. Yet what she gets out of this character subverts everything one would expect out of a domestic role. She’s self-sufficient, motivated and motivating, and sympathetic. She leads her family out of crisis. Two roles, one of domestic sensibility, the other of professional mentality, yet both are equally subversive performances from an actress daring to embody strong female characters.

Brie Larson
Short Term 12 (2013)

Like Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, Brie Larson’s Grace is a character study in internalization. She’s the point of authority for a foster care system yet ultimately operates under the scrutiny of a bureaucracy. Her staff is a meager group, and as seen at the beginning of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, she must correct the fashion faux pas of a new hire. She’s 25 and is aware of what that age suggests - with over a dozen “at-risk” youth sheltered in her facility, she’s cognizant that any crack in her demeanor will be exploited. It’s an incredibly difficult part to convey, to maintain a warm environment for children who need it the most while convincingly maintaining her authoritative presence. Yet Brie Larson projects the foibles and complexities of Grace while addressing a separate milieu of questions (the ever-present concerns of life-and-work balance when working for a nonprofit are delivered with unimpeachable authenticity). It’s the tender moments she has with the kids that are especially convincing - an actress with the capacities of internalization and externalization when confronted with a role of oppositional dichotomies. And she nails it.

Anders Danielsen Lie
Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Anders Danielsen Lie is Anders in Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st. He has returned to Oslo for a job interview. He’s a drug user, or should I say he was one, and is still rehabbing his addiction - scoring this job would be a major step toward his recovery. That interview scene is located at the center of Trier’s film, with the film encompassing the day. I’ll never forget that interview scene and it’s because of Lie’s performance. It an exhibition of polite discretion, boiling over into defeated anguish. Where the film goes from there is a painful comment on the social confinement users find themselves in. Lie demonstrates a keen awareness of the verisimilitude of his character’s situation, acknowledging the social traps that Anders accepts, only after having been so flippantly dismissed for his past transgressions. The high is all that Anders has to retreat to after the crushing lows of his rehab, and it’s Lie who puts that all in perspective - his woeful gaze at a water stream echoes the tormented reality of someone simply trying to move on yet is cast off as an outsider.

Matthias Schoenaerts
Rust and Bone (2012)

A more persistent performance trait over the past few years has been men exercising their physical presence on material for thematic intent. This is largely an effort in casting by directors, who clearly have a sense of what it means for an actor to dominate the space in a frame through corporeal charisma. These sorts of performances include Channing Tatum in the Jump Street franchise, as well as Ben Affleck in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Matthias Schoenaerts’ performance in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone falls in line with those performances and it’s also where his physical dynamic is at its most thematic distant. Schoenaerts plays a brute of a man named Alain opposite of Marion Cotillard’s paraplegic Stéphanie. The two performers and their characters initially function as co-dependents, requiring the other to explore each other’s carnality and emotional ambits. Yet as the film moves forward and the two realize that they must function exclusively, away from the other, it enables Schoenaerts to expound upon the animalism of his character. In a scene that challenges his physicality and serves as an emotional awakening, we see Alain pound on a sheet of ice as blood gushes from his fists. Not content being a feral beast, Schoenaerts’ performance challenges the parameters of masculinity and questions any of its boundaries.

John Hawkes
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

John Hawkes has made a notable impression over the past five years, scoring an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. And he was close to following that up with his critically-adored work in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions. But it’s his performance in Sean Durkin’s incredible Martha Marcy May Marlene where Hawkes’ best qualities as an actor are explored. His lanky frame and gaunt facial features provoke an immediate sense of concern, though he masks this with a country drawl that’s initially welcoming. A sense of unease punctuates every scene that Hawkes’ Patrick is in, where he leads a cult of runaways living in an abandoned home on the outskirts of a rural town. In a passing smile he can calibrate his intentions from noble to sinister. That smile needs to be inviting because he’s broadening his circle of influence, instilling a worldview of dangerous dependence that exploits his followers. He’s paranoia incarnate, a vile figure with unrivaled charisma, like a siren singing you to shipwreck. Hawkes never exaggerates or depends on overanxious tics to get his message across. Rather, it’s this measured, deliberate, and calming demeanor that he exudes that makes his character and performance so haunting.

Hailee Steinfeld
True Grit (2010)

A certain cadence and lyricism is required to spout dialogue in a Coen film. It’s a form of acrobatics where a performer avoids getting tongue-tied with the verbosity of their tête-à-tête. I think of actors like John Turturro in Barton Fink or William H. Macy and Frances McDormand in Fargo, performers who must conform to a very atypical kind of speech pattern and accent. Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie Ross falls in line with those totems in contemporary screen acting. Her vocal pattern is rapid; a character trait that immediately asserts its dominance over anyone challenging her. And despite her tall and gawky features, she’s physically overshadowed by the presence of her co-stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. But in a critical scene that underscores True Grit’s narrative conceit, Steinfeld prepares for her immediate journey of bringing her father’s killer to justice. Equipped with a pistol, she looks at herself in the mirror as the brim of her Stetson nearly covers her eyes. It’s big on her and despite (or perhaps in spite of) her precociousness, she may never be quite ready to fill that cowboy hat the way it should. Yet young Mattie Ross continues on. Her virtues are unbending and resolve unshakable as she must emerge out of the shadows into adulthood. Steinfeld conveys this growth so convincingly that you forget that she’s a young woman until she’s at her most vulnerable.

Anne Dorval
Mommy (2014)

When Anne Dorval starred in Xavier Dolan’s debut feature, 2009’s I Killed My Mother, one could see an actress of measured restraint only willing to give in when her character’s capacities as a mother were questioned. It was that “a-ha” moment of emotional release, that scene in films like Why Does Herr R. Run Amok or The Match Factory Girl where perpetual internalization gives way to a volcanic eruption. Dorval’s performance in Mommy is an extension of that performance, where inhibitions are left by the wayside. Her directness and emotional range are from the Gena Rowlands School of Acting, where she becomes a towering figure of maternal anxieties. Dolan’s 1:1 frame can barely contain her and it’s in sequences where she’s at her most exuberant and hopeful that the frame expands to a wide-screen format. Yet her performance is not all underscoring and histrionics - Dorval’s sweep is found in the gestures where she confronts her own solitude. It’s when the crushing confines of the box frame are at their most immediate and constricting, and when Dorval’s immense stature crumbles and folds into itself - where formal aesthetic and performance function in unison.

Anna Paquin
Margaret (2011)

Anna Paquin was 25 when she wrapped up filming for Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret in 2007. A lengthy studio debacle ensued, where Lonergan and distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures would hold off on the film’s release until 2011. In the interim, Paquin’s profile soared in the wake of HBO’s True Blood, a campy vampire jambalaya that relegated Paquin to a sex fairy rather than the dramatic period actress that her early career was founded on (The Piano, Jane Eyre, and Amistad). So it came as something of surprise to see her take on a high school role in Margaret, and an even bigger surprise to uncover that her dramatic capacities were still very much intact. The formative years as a period-piece actress made her an ideal fit for Lonergan’s dramaturgy, which bares all the compositional elements of a stage play. As Lisa, Paquin does the heavy lifting of conveying a teenager’s struggle to form a moral compass following a bus accident. Lonergan’s screenplay is an immaculate piece of writing that concerns itself with a post 9/11 New York City and the metropolis’ compromised moral compass. But it’s in Paquin’s Lisa that the crisis is afforded a human face. Paquin’s trembling anxieties is not simply something contained within her, but reflective of a whole city trying to emerge from the rubble.