The Best Performances of the Decade So Far: Part II

Tilda Swinton
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Jessica Valenti’s article for The Atlantic is an interesting piece of supplementary reading when viewing Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Valenti’s article is an open acknowledgement of contemporary mores regarding motherhood along with loss of agency in becoming a mom. In Ramsay’s film we see a a heightened domestic Western of sorts, constantly imposing the oppositional forces that prevent mother and son from ever bonding. And it’s in Tilda Swinton’s performance that you see a very complicated depiction of the testimonials found in Valenti’s article. Motherhood, like so much else, is an experience sold as a product, something that contemporary media promotes as a life-affirming and positive experience. Except when it’s not. Swinton’s portrayal of Eva is that of a woman with agency and who cares profoundly for her children. But what if you don’t like your child? Taboo as it may seem, it’s a genuine concern worth addressing for its Gordian complexities. Swinton gets at the heart of the experiences found in Valenti’s article, illustrating how a smart woman cannot reconcile the inherent falsehoods found in an experience sold to her as jubilant.

Joaquin Phoenix
I’m Still Here (2010), The Master (2012), Her (2013), Inherent Vice (2014)

If, at the start of the new decade, one were to hazard a guess as to who would be the most prolific actor of the next five years, one would likely not predict Joaquin Phoenix. We were witnessing the self-destruction of the actor, who after a Late Show interview, seemed to have embraced a level of profound peculiarity that would derail his career entirely. And so came the truth with the release of Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here. By no means a good film it remains one of those rare films anchored by a performance that blurs the lines between reality and fiction. A scathing commentary on contemporary audiences’ dependence on celebrity news and tabloid journalism, I’m Still Here predicts and confirms a cynical future of media consumption. It’s a film that threatens to be all statement and no consequence if it weren’t for the lengths of Phoenix’ performance. It may be his most profound work as an actor, who extends the commentary and conversation to his performance in Spike Jonze’s Her – this time playing the sort of person who actively consumes the media and technology that I’m Still Here decries. As Theodore, Phoenix predicts a not-too-distant future marked by our emotional attachment with technology.  It’s like holding up a mirror to our own dependence on technology, where we live within the confines of our bubble, earbuds plugged in, and iPhone in hand. It’s a performance of emotional rawness and unflattering dependence, but Phoenix manages to instill a great deal of empathy out of someone so difficult to like.

But it’s in his collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson that we see the actor truly surprise. As if possessed, Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master is a performance of unbridled carnality, the Id realized. At times barely decipherable, Phoenix’ drawl reels you in within the confines of Anderson’s vivid frames, until he unleashes his full-blooded tenacity over an unsuspecting audience. He’s spontaneous and unpredictable and at times he leaves you confused.  It may be because the character himself is so confused, unsure of exactly where he is or where to go. That sense of disarray, that immediate and dense fog of confusion is felt through all of Phoenix’ animalistic tendencies throughout The Master and once again in Inherent Vice. Though it’s in Vice where that fog of confusion has more to do with Phoenix’ Doc Sportello smoking one too many joints and less to do with the trauma of a returning war vet. In both cases, however, he captures the strain, the fear, the unease, and the insecurity of not knowing what to do next. It’s that quality, that ability to ground all his characters (as peculiar as they may be) on universal terms that makes him such an appealing actor.

Michelle Williams
Take This Waltz (2011)

Michelle Williams’ Margot finds comfort in her husband’s blandness. He writes cookbooks that only use chicken. No matter how much you dress it up, it’ll always taste the same. That’s the sort of bluntness that can be found in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, so it takes an actor of considerable talent to suggest and accomplish this film’s profound overtures. It’s what Michelle Williams finds in this character that makes the film so erudite and resonate. And a lot of it has to do with her expressing a character through her flaws. In a lot of ways, Margot is still in that awkward stage of quasi-adulthood, where maturity hasn’t quite settled in - where the pangs of routine feel like a compromise after the rapturous promise of youth. Williams and Polley makes many conscious decisions to invite the audience to fill in the blanks, purposefully opening the void of ambiguity. This is a notably effective device and elevates Williams’ performance to something close to a spectacle, witnessing an actress essentially achieve a coming of age into adulthood as we watch her on an amusement park ride as The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” plays. When the ride and song is over, the blistering effect on Williams’ disposition ages her in an instant. No actor offers a more soul-crushing moment in a split second.

Oscar Isaac
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

There was a time during Inside Llewyn Davis’ casting where Joel and Ethan Coen considered abandoning the project entirely. Many auditioned for the titular role of Llewyn Davis, including Bright Eyes leading man Conor Oberest and Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers, but it wasn’t until Oscar Isaac auditioned did the project come to fruition. It’s a testament to the actor, who up until this leading part was relegated to side roles in smaller films, playing the ethnic deadbeat in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. So seeing this relative unknown step into the spotlight, the Coens’ spotlight, was a watershed moment for the actor and the viewer.

When Isaac’s angelic voice is amplified by the microphone of The Lighthouse Bar you gather the sense that you are viewing an artist at his most comfortable. It simply must be Isaac, as no one else could possibly realize this role with the same measure of downtrodden cynicism and tender lyricism. Clutching his guitar in one hand and holding the seams of his coat in the other, we see a man trudging through the obstacles of life. When Isaac must confront the reality of his situation, he gives an exasperated sigh before confessing that  he is "so fucking tired”. You hear of moments that must be earned, where filmmakers and actors must convincingly suggest an idea that perhaps may seem atypical of its characters or worldview. After all, Llewyn Davis is a talented singer and performer – why would he give it all up? Oscar Isaac convinces you during that sequence and it levels you, rocking your worldview down to its foundation. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman
The Master (2012)

A great actor’s work lives on well beyond them. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performances were defined by his elegance within the inelegant – he was not a conventional leading man but what he lacked in star appeal he made up for in visceral tenacity. He embodied his parts and as trite as it may sound, he genuinely made you lose sight of him as an actor. His role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was his last fully realized piece of acting, a performance about just that: performing. As Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman lays forth a philosophy that must be embraced by himself and his followers. The Cause bares the similarities of the Church of Scientology, and like any designed worldview, requires a steadfast group of believers to realize its mission. Hoffman is convincing as Dodd, but it’s the moments where you see the character formulate the tenets of his philosophy that are most fascinating. A character notes that Dodd is making it up as he goes along and you conceivably see that in action, as Hoffman’s swells up, balloons like a blowfish, and reddens as his worldview is questioned. He’s a character who has designed a worldview and must maintain it at all cost, lest he regresses. No one was better able to violently explode quite like Hoffman, where the anguish of internalization boiled over so succinctly, so pristinely, and so amusingly. 

Suzanne Clément
Laurence Anyways (2012)

In an interview with Film Comment, Xavier Dolan speaks on two different films: those you watch and those you feel. You cannot forget a Dolan film as they make such an immediate and lasting impression, lodging themselves indefinitely within the cinematic memory banks. And while his images may penetrate, it’s typically the actors, most notably Suzanne Clément and the aforementioned Anne Dorval, who offer the most searing and unforgettable moments.

In a film centered on a young man’s transition into a woman, it’s the relationship she has with her best friend, Fred (Suzanne Clément) that resonates. The two are in love, though they’re raw from the numerous battles they’ve had between each other. Loud and confrontational, Fred is another character in Dolan’s gallery of women seeking, perhaps futility, for a measure of normative happiness. Her volatile outburst in a coffee shop, in a display of earned histrionics, feeds into the character’s tumultuous relationship with its titular character – why can’t you just be what I want you to be? The nuance in Clément’s performance isn’t merely her cognizance of how silly a demand that is, but in how she acknowledges that she needs to reconcile that problem within herself. The figurative transformation of Laurence meets the metaphorical one found in Fred and it’s to Clément’s credit that she realizes that change with such palpable intensity. This is a film you feel and the most critical component to that can be found in Clément.

Michael Shannon
Take Shelter (2011)

Michael Shannon has the rare sort of physicality that makes him look like he’s constantly on the fringe of a breakdown. A tall and domineering actor, he’s a full-body performer, gesticulating and testing the expanses of his facial features. This sort of full-blown actor tends to lend itself to hyperactive theatrics, but ultimately his performance in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is his attempt to put a lid on those tendencies. He internalizes everything from the start, with a curl of his lip demonstrating an active attempt at quelling dramatics. His soft-spoken drawl makes him the sort of reliable confidant with little room for nonsense. He cares for his wife and deaf daughter and does what he can to provide for them. Shannon’s Curtis is a simple man. But the actor and director begin peeling back some of that exterior, probing the psychological history of Curtis’ past and as such, we see that rugged surface begin to crack. With a history of mental health issues, the actor externalizes the troublesome images that linger with intensity in his mind. Something of a companion piece to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, the strains of fatherhood and adulthood weigh heavily on Curtis. Can he provide for his family when the literal and figurative storm arrives? Curtis does buckle under the stress, and most will pinpoint that moment of boiling over as the Shannon’s most intense and powerful piece of acting. But it’s the sequence toward the end, where he looks to his wife, played by Jessica Chastain, that you sense the actor imposing the greatest deal of gravity through a minor gesture – the storm approaches, but with the right partner, he can certainly weather it.

Marion Cotillard 

Rust and Bone (2012), The Immigrant (2013), Two Days One Night (2014)

The roles for women are as much a point of contention now as they’ve ever been. Particularly in American cinema, where we’re not even remotely close to a point where female roles are as diverse as male roles. And anything with a female protagonist remains a novelty – even the marketing for upcoming films, such as the new Ghostbusters film, is prefaced by the fact that it will include a female-led cast. Of the roles available to women, a great number of them revolve around their victimization. The roles that Marion Cotillard takes are not much different from this standard.

But it’s what Cotillard decides to highlight in these roles that makes them so considerable. Whether it be the paraplegic in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, the exploited Pole in James Gray’s The Immigrant, or a worker attempting to get her job back in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, the recurring narrative thread within these victimized women is their continued integrity and drive. These are strong women afflicted by pain. But whereas some films may be content with exploiting their hardships, Cotillard’s performance feeds into a redemption narrative that circumvents weakness. Like Juliette Binoche, Cotillard’s an actress with a remarkable filter for roles and notably plays against audience expectations. In Rust and Bone, her character’s sexualization is atypical for films of this type, let alone her entrance into masculine-driven arenas. When contrasted with Matthias Schoenaerts’ sizable frame, we see someone more than capable of holding her own.

Elsewhere, in films like The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night, the overwhelming narrative behind these roles play into the economic conditions of their suffering. Two Days, One Night is notable in how it need not be a role exclusive to a woman – Sandra could just as well be played by a man and its central social and economic concerns would remain intact. Making this case for The Immigrant is a little less convincing, if only because of the historical conditions that prompt its drama as exclusively feminine, but as Ewa, Cotillard identifies the character’s kinship to family and economic motivations above all and that’s what resonates most. This is an actress who reads a screenplay and convincingly shapes the material to address concerns that may not be explicitly spelled out on the page.

But most of all, it’s the expressed empathy that Cotillard manages to instill through all of her performances that makes her work so penetrating. One of the most impressive examples of acting of the past five years is in Two Days, One Night. She’s on the fence about convincing her colleagues to give up a bonus so that she can keep her job, but receives this call from a worker who expresses that she will vote in favor of keeping Sandra on. You don’t know exactly what’s being said on the other line but it’s Cotillard’s slender frame that’s expressing the diapason of emotions: anxiety, hope, and then, thankfully, joy.

Juliette Binoche
Certified Copy (2010), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

You see Juliette Binoche focus directly at the camera as she lays on some foundation in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. What’s she thinking? Is the man she’s with really her husband? Or is it an example of film’s musings on the blurred lines of artificiality and reality? Does it even matter? Since the late 80s, there’s never been a time when the actress hasn’t been considered one of the best international actors in the world. She’s worked with virtually every worthwhile international director and has even found modest success in the States, where her presence in films like Godzilla immediately demands serious consideration. She’s a serious actress with a selective filter for roles, insuring that, at the very least, you’ll receive a worthwhile performance.

More often than not however, she gives you something more considerable to chew on, and its in her confrontational and piercing glare at the camera during a pivotal lunch sequence in Certified Copy that she asks you to size up everything you’ve seen at this point. Consider what you’re viewing. Understand the complexities of our everyday exchanges and comprehend the value and meaning we place on an image and dialogue. This is as much a coup d'état on Kiarostami’s part as it is Binoche, but it’s Binoche front and center in a close-up to medium close-up, that does the heavy lifting. Michael Shannon once noted the gravity of his final scene in Take Shelter and how he did not feel that he was skilled enough to effectively convey the spectrum of emotions needed for that final shot. With Binoche being the focal point for a prolonged exchange between supposed lovers, you could perhaps suggest that no actress alive would be able to pull off that scene. Between the meta aspects of the film and the genuine emotional subtext that needs to be unearthed, all without the convenience of a cut or movement from a camera, Binoche is left to her capacities as a performer to realize Kiarostami’s ambitions. And she succeeds.

While Kiarostami's challenges Binoche by making her a focal point, Oliver Assayas challenges the actress in Clouds of Sils Maria by ignoring her. It’s a commentary on how detrimental age can become to an actress, cut from the same cloth as Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes in Opening Night. But the relationship between filmmaker and actress informs conscious decisions for Assayas to neglect his lead actress. As younger actresses populate the screen, we see Binoche latch onto the fringe of the frames. During a third-act sequence that sees Binoche sitting at a table for dinner with a director and the young, pop-starlet taking on the role that she played decades prior, we see Assayas tightening the frame, slowly excluding Binoche from the shot. It takes a lot for an actor to cede control but it’s in that bravery that you discover, even on the outskirts, how the actress maintains a presence. The actress has left an indelible mark on cinema and has the sort of aggressive presence that casts a shadow on the frame even as she clings to the edges of it.       

Denis Lavant
Holy Motors (2012)

Denis Lavant’s performance in Leos Carax’ Holy Motors is the performance of the decade so far, if only because it encapsulates everything good and bad about the Performance, capital P. Years of operating on the fringes, Carax’ return as an art-house totem is in large part a comment on his detachment with contemporary cinema.  Everything is a product of formula, or rather, every film has become a product, designed by committee and calibrated for audience consumption. Convention is established, and we’re lulled into embracing cinema as a formula, digested to insure maximum complacency. The room for exploration is locked with the key long lost. What Carax and Lavant submit in Holy Motors is an exercise in this tried and true formula through cinema’s history compressed into a single film. Designed as a series of vignettes, Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar is transported by limousine, changing outfits in preparation for the upcoming scene. From an elderly beggar woman to a morose father waiting for his daughter to a sewer goon kidnapping a beautiful diva, Holy Motors is about all the performances and ticks we see in contemporary cinema culled into one compact Greatest Hits collection.

The quantity of performances that Lavant plays means little if he were not able to express the film’s intended thematic ideals within the short time frame he has with each character he plays – but he does. Whether it’s his buoyancy in leading an accordion minstrel, the tenderness he evokes over losing a loved one at their bedside or the physical dexterity of his motion capture work with a contortionist, Lavant captures the essence of cinema and performance in each one of his scenes. A (good) performer is gifted with the responsibility of piercing through the audience’s veneer, prompting a form of catharsis through shared experiences and worldviews. Everything we see in Holy Motors is tinged through the light of familiarity; the surface sights are a regular staple of a cinematic diet. But in the film’s compression and especially in Lavant’s performance we are capable of understanding how this machine of empathy operates through the means of formula and familiarity. Lavant and Carax are critical but celebratory. After all, cinema has a very profound effect on its viewers and it’s in the truly great works that actors and filmmakers live on. As Edith Scob puts on the mask she donned in Eyes Without a Face, well over forty years later, we’re reminded that her place, her home, is in the cinema. The same goes for Carax. And the same for Lavant, whose performance represents all that is cinema – for all its bad but most especially, all its good.