Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review - The Lead Performances of the Year

Best Lead Actor

10 – Deon Lotz (Beauty)

Watching Deon Lotz in Beauty is an uncomfortable experience. We are observing a voyeur as he fixes his gaze on the beautiful young man he has become obsessed with, and that obsession gradually overcomes him until it bursts out of François in a shocking scene towards the end. Lotz gives an understated performance that suggests the internal turmoil François is experiencing as he fights emotions and desires that he has long repressed. It's a skilfully judged and ultimately shattering piece of acting.

9 – Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone)

Marion Cotillard had the showier role in Jacques Audiard's Rust & Bone, but the performance that really impressed me came from her lesser-known co-star. Ali is a tough character to like at first – he's a deadbeat dad who scrapes a living from shady security work and bare-knuckle boxing – but through his relationship with Cotillard's disabled Stéphanie he reveals other aspects to his character. Schoenaerts is tough and tender, and his forceful presence anchors a movie that often seems on the verge of splitting in two.

8 – Liam Neeson (The Grey)

Liam Neeson has spent the last couple of years wasting his talent on witless action movies and blockbusters, but he reminded us what a fine actor he is in one of the year's biggest surprises. The Grey begins as a survival thriller, following a group of plane crash survivors as they are menaced by a pack of wolves, but as the film takes on more existential overtones Neeson's performance comes to the fore. He bears deep emotional scars as a man pining for his absent wife, and when the supporting players leave the stage, Neeson's turn only grows in stature, reaching its zenith in the poetic and moving finale.

7 – Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi)

Much of Ang Lee's Life of Pi unfolds with just one man on screen, so it was essential that the director found an actor capable of holding the audience's attention for the duration. The unknown Suraj Sharma steps up to the task magnificently, perfectly expressing the wide range of emotions that Pi experiences during the course of his bizarre ocean odyssey. It's a testament to the visual effects team, of course, that Pi's relationship with the tiger Richard Parker feels so real, but most of the credit must go to the charming actor who plays the role with such a sense of truth.

6 – Melvil Poupaud (Laurence Anyways)

Louis Garrel was lined up to play the title role in Xavier Dolan's third film but pulled out at the 11th hour, which is a blessing for the film as it's impossible now to imagine anyone but Melvil Poupaud in the part. The strength of Poupaud's lead performance – as he portrays Laurence's transition from awkward cross-dresser to confident older woman – is so vital to the film, as it keeps his style-conscious, shallow director grounded in a sense of emotional reality.  

5 – Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis)

Eyebrows were raised when David Cronenberg cast Robert Pattinson in his adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel, but surely we should know better than to second-guess this great director by now. Pattinson's work here is the cinematic revelation of the year. His unsettlingly blank performance – he first appears like a ghost or a vampire – is perfect for the emotionally dead Eric Packer. As the film progresses, he gradually seems to become more human, blood flows into his veins, his old life falls apart and he steps towards an unknown future.

4 – Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

How can I separate them? Freddie needs Lancaster like Lancaster needs Freddie, and the ying/yang nature of their relationship generated some of the year's most astonishing scenes. Phoenix's astounding animalistic performance couldn't be more different from Hoffman's calmly manipulative approach, but watching their torturous, antagonistic love story play out on screen is a mesmerising experience. I loved seeing Phoenix manically run from the scene of the crime early on in the film, and I was fascinated in those brief moments when Hoffman allowed Dodd's mask to slip, but it was in their scenes together than the movie came to life. The processing scene, in particular, is dynamite.

3 – Denis Lavant (Holy Motors)

Denis Lavant didn't just turn in one of the year's best screen performances in Holy Motors, he turned in several of them, as a variety of distinctive characters whom Monsieur Oscar transforms himself into during the course of this film. An old lady begging for change in the street, a flower-eating leprechaun who kidnaps a model, a dying man, an assassin hired to kill his own doppelganger – the manner in which Lavant immerses himself into each of these roles is thrilling to behold. Holy Motors acts as a kind of summation or apotheosis of Lavant's long collaboration with Leos Carax. It's the performance, or performances, of a lifetime.

2 – Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour)

At the heart of Michael Haneke's Amour there are two titanic performances from legends of French cinema. Jean-Louis Trintignant is the husband who has to watch as his wife deteriorates following a stroke, and as we watch him care for her, doing whatever he can to make her comfortable, we bear witness to an inspiring and heartbreaking act of pure love. Trintignant's Georges closes ranks around his wife, even excluding his own family, and devotes himself entirely to her. He can be a harsh, cantankerous character at times, but what shines through in the actor's performance is his humanity, and the quiet devastation that he hides from his ailing wife's eyes.

1 – Thomas Doret (The Kid With a Bike)

No male character made a deeper emotional impact on me in the past year than Cyril, the 11 year-old protagonist in the Dardenne brothers' latest masterpiece. As with most of the lead characters in the Dardennes' films, however, it was by no means love at first sight. Cyril is headstrong and volatile, occasionally violent, and he's a nightmare for the authority figures who try to keep him under control. But all he really is underneath the feisty façade is a little boy looking for a parent to love him, and we come to care deeply for Cyril in a way that we rarely do for movie characters. There's never a moment in Doret's performance that feels contrived or false; he simply makes Cyril a living, breathing character before our eyes, and our heart breaks for him.

Best Lead Actress

10 – Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)

Jennifer Lawrence's acclaimed performances to date have shown us a young woman determinedly standing up to whatever the world can throw at her, but Silver Linings Playbook gave her new notes to play. She plays Tiffany with an unpredictable screwball energy that enlivens the whole picture, but never loses sight of the pain the character has suffered in the past. It's a dazzling whirlwind of a performance, with Lawrence giving it a fiery, sharp-edged undertone that sets it apart from all other recent romantic comedy heroines.

9 – Charlize Theron (Young Adult)

The character Charlize Theron plays in Young Adult is a monstrous creation. Mavis Gary is cold, narcissistic, selfish, cruel and Machiavellian. Theron gives a carefully nuanced performance that shows us how truly desperate and lonely this character is for all her posturing, but she doesn't try to soften her or make her more likable for the audience. It's a smart and adventurous piece of acting from this terrific actress; a performance that can make you cringe and laugh in equal measure, often simultaneously.

8 – Cécile de France (The Kid With a Bike)

Why does Samantha take an interest in Cyril? Why does she take him in and persevere through his violent outbursts? Perhaps because she is simply a good woman who can't bear to see a young boy suffer without reaching out to help. Cécile de France's performance in this role is one of 2012's quietest but most deeply effective pieces of acting. As ever in the Dardennes' films, it feels like the actor is living the role, not just playing it, and her deepening love for the boy is evident throughout. For the simple act of opening her heart to this troubled child, Samantha is one of the year's most heroic characters.

7 – Nina Hoss (Barbara)

Barbara is a gripping exploration of paranoia and suspicion in 1980s East Germany, and director Christian Petzold is smart enough to let Nina Hoss's face tell much of the story. As the doctor with a past that hangs over her like a dark cloud, Hoss is reticent and remote, fearful of getting close to anyone or opening up in a world where revealing too much about oneself can be costly. Hoss is an intelligent, watchful presence and Petzold (in their fifth feature together) utilises her unusual beauty to brilliant effect.

6 – Nadezhda Markina (Elena)

Elena is a dutiful wife, trying to do the best she can for her family in trying circumstances. She has married into wealth but her husband frowns upon Elena supporting her own lower-class family with his money. When the situation pushes her to take a desperate action, Andrei Zvyagintsev shoots the critical moment in a single take, which is where the brilliance of Nadezhda Markina's performance comes to the fore. The variety of emotions captured by subtle changes in her face and body language in this sequence is staggering. It's a shocking rupture in the film, but Markina manages to maintain our fascination with – and sympathy for – Elena.

5 – Lola Créton (Goodbye First Love)

Goodbye First Love covers a decade in the life of its characters but Lola Créton, who plays Camille, doesn't alter much physically in that time. Nevertheless, something does change in her, something almost imperceptible that Mia Hansen-Løve's camera manages to find and draw out of her. Créton is achingly vulnerable and a slave to her tempestuous emotions, but this fine young actress charts her gradual maturation with the most subtle but resonant details. Her role requires her to suggest Camille's inner conflict without recourse to dialogue and she achieves this wondrously.

4 – Suzanne Clément (Laurence Anyways)

Laurence Anyways is a story about a man who wants to become a woman, but it's also the story of the women who loves that man, and how she copes with the changing nature of their relationship. Suzanne Clément had a small role in Xavier Dolan's debut film but this performance is a real announcement of her talent. Fred is torn by her love for Laurence and her insecurity about what that love means, and she portrays Fred's gnawing self-doubt brilliantly, exploding with pent-up rage in one extraordinary scene. Dolan's camera loves her, and she responds with a thrillingly intense performance.  

3 – Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly)

The film suggests that it's about Elly, but really it's about Sepideh, who is played by Golshifteh Farahani. She's the one who decides to play matchmaker and invite her single friend Elly on a group weekend away, and she's the one whose lies create a bewildering web of deceit when a tragic twist turns their brief vacation on its head. Sepideh is a well-meaning character but every decision she makes somehow seems to make things worse, and Farahani is particularly brilliant in the film's gripping climactic scenes, when the full moral weight of the drama is resting on her shoulders.

2 – Aggeliki Papoulia (Alps)

Aggeliki Papoulia was a standout performer in Yorgos Lanthimos' incredible breakthrough film Dogtooth, and her second collaboration with the director showcases another extraordinary piece of acting. In a film about people who play roles for a living, Papoulia has the most demanding task of all, playing the nurse who gets so deep into her surrogate life that she starts to lose sight of her own real life. She is brilliant at delivering dialogue in the flat, almost robotic register that Lanthimos demands, and when she breaks down towards the end of the film – desperately reciting the lines she has learned – it's almost like watching a machine malfunction, its sole purpose in life having been snatched away.

1 – Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

People often talk of actors being brave in their performances, but how can we talk in such a way again after watching Emmanuelle Riva in Amour? This is a performance of extraordinary courage; a woman in her 80s giving herself fully to an elderly character's slow decline towards death. Watching her in distress is all the more devastating because we see at the start of the film what a luminous presence Riva still possesses, but in the scenes of her body gradually failing her she doesn't display a hint of vanity. This is an astounding, dignified, peerless piece of work from a great actress, and it's a performance that I don't think I'll ever be able to forget.