The Favourite is an historical black comedy/drama directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The film is set in England in the early 18th century and follows the power struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they jockey for the attention and adoration of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).
It may seem a bit too on the nose that my favorite movie from 2018 is called The Favourite – but here we are! This film has so much going for it, and all of its spectacular areas of filmmaking combined to create the best movie of the year. The ringleader is Yorgos Lanthimos, a Greek director that has mastered his own vision and voice in filmmaking, producing a uniquely idiosyncratic blend of black comedy and drama (seee.g., Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer). I personally enjoy Lanthimos’s distinctive style of filmmaking, and in The Favourite, he is definitely at his peak. Although Lanthimos did not write the script, his customary deadpan vision (built on a sense of ridiculousness and uneasiness) undoubtedly permeates the film. In a year filled with some great dark comedies (such The Death of Stalin and Thoroughbreds), Lanthimos’s The Favourite indisputably stands out as the finest.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the movie is the team Lanthimos assembled to execute his eccentric vision. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara wrote the screenplay, and my goodness, it was stellar. The dialogue is snappy and razor sharp in its ability to take hold of a scene. I knew the film was going to be fantastic in an early scene depicting Abigail riding in a packed carriage, which featured one creepy individual staring at her while pleasuring himself – it was so shockingly hilarious, and it definitely set the tone for many other great scenes/lines. One of my favorite scenes from the entire year featured a completely out-of-place dance medley from Joe Alwyn and Rachel Weisz as they utilized modern dance moves in the middle of a fairly stuffy 18th-century ball – it was sidesplitting!
The movie’s cinematography is also outstanding, and the unique way in which Robbie Ryan shot the film added to the film’s comical nature. Ryan’s style here featured lots of experimental shots with a fish-eye lens, which added a wonderful layer of surrealism to the landscape within the castle. Further, Ryan’s propensity to switch views/perspectives with sharp panning was exquisite.
In terms of acting, The Favourite features a forceful trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Colman’s portrayal of Queen Anne is flawless and perfectly captures the character’s proclivities for being both childishly needy and wickedly sinister. Queen Anne is an emotional rollercoaster, but we see that some of it is of her own doing – she propagates the battle between Sarah and Abigail for her affection, which ultimately leads to more depression for her character. Colman absolutely nailed her performance as Queen Anne.
Although Colman was impressive, I was even more taken with Stone’s and Weisz’s performances. Under Queen Anne’s roof, Weisz’s Sarah is Queen Anne’s established confidante and advisor, as well as her trusted lover, while Stone’s Abigail is the newcomer to the royal inner circle. These distinct roles have distinct personality traits associated with them, and each actress performs extraordinarily – Stone and Weisz were built for their respective characters. Abigail appears unassuming at first, but we quickly learn that she has an almost innate ability to balance that sense of innocence with disturbing cunningness – Stone thrives in this role, tapping into her comedic roots to bring Abigail’s amusingly menacing personality to life. On the other hand, Sarah finds herself having to desperately protect her position from Abigail, resorting to psychological mind games out of uncompromising devotion to Queen Anne. Weisz chillingly emotes steeliness in this role, and her portrayal of Sarah’s endless loyalty to Queen Anne is shrewdly memorable.
Another fantastic performance in The Favourite was Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who opposes some of Queen Anne’s economic policies. Harley is the embodiment of pretentiousness, and Hoult’s portrayal of the scheming politician was magnificent – it was an underrated part of the movie, and I was disappointed that Hoult wasn’t in greater contention for a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. The Favourite is ratedR for strong sexual content, nudity, and language.
The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
WINNER: Emma Stone (The Favourite)
The Favourite is a film, set in England in the early 18th century, that follows the struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they jockey for the attention and adoration of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Spoiler alert: You are going to hear a lot from me about The Favourite over the next couple of weeks in the lead-up to the Oscars – it was truly a pitch-perfect movie. And for all of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s stylistic vision and Deborah Davis’s and Tony McNamara’s snappy script, what makes this film truly sing is its three-headed monster of a cast – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz. Both Stone and Weisz received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (beyond deservedly so), and their performances were my two favorite on the year – Stone breaks the tie in my mind, which is why she’s pegged as my pick in this category (although I would be perfectly okay with either actress taking home the gold). While Weisz’s Sarah is the established figure in Queen Anne’s inner circle, Abigail is the newcomer – Stone was born to embody this role within the film’s dynamic, as she adeptly navigates the precise contrast between Abigail’s simultaneous innocence and cunningness. Stone has always thrived with comedic material, and in The Favourite, that experience is too obvious to ignore – she is simply at her very best!
2. Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)
As mentioned above, if Rachel Weisz finds herself giving an acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress on Oscars night, I will not be displeased in the least – her performance as Sarah Churchill in The Favourite is just as flawless as Stone’s. While Stone’s Abigail is the rookie in the castle, Weisz’s Sarah is Queen Anne’s recognized confidante and advisor, as well as her trusted lover. When Abigail comes along and tries to steal Sarah’s cushy position right out from under her, Sarah resorts to psychological mind games out of uncompromising devotion to Queen Anne in an effort to retake her number-one spot (*Ludacris voice*) from Abigail. These characteristics are vastly different than Abigail’s, and Weisz (a seasoned actress with prior experience mastering the art of Yorgos Lanthimos’s idiosyncratic vision – i.e., The Lobster) is the perfect person to take on the challenge. Weisz emotes steeliness in a manner that sends chills up your spine, and her ability to effectively portray Sarah’s undying commitment to Queen Anne with shrewd resolve highlights a performance to be remembered.
3. Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Set in Harlem in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the complicated love story of its two African-American leads, Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), as Tish (newly pregnant) and her family fight to prove Fonny’s innocence after he is arrested and wrongfully charged with sexual assault. I had very high hopes for this movie, but Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to Moonlight did not quite hit the mark for me. Notwithstanding that fact, it is undeniable that Beale Street was chock-full of supreme acting performances – Layne and James were splendid as the two protagonist lovers, Teyonah Parris is stunning as Tish’s sister Ernestine, and Brian Tyree Henry is brilliant in his limited screen time as Fonny’s friend Danny. However, it is patently obvious that King steals the show as Tish’s mother Sharon. In a career that spans nearly 30 years (commencing with a staggering performance in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood), King has made her mark as one of the better actresses in Hollywood, and in this film, she accomplishes her greatest feat. Sharon is supportive of her daughter’s pregnancy and relationship with Fonny, but as that relationship is progressively threatened by Fonny’s arrest, King’s Sharon masters her position as a mother fighting for her family. In the scene where Sharon travels to Puerto Rico to question Fonny’s accuser, King’s acting prowess is on full display. She is determined, yet apprehensive, throughout the scene, desperate to prove Fonny’s innocence, but as the confrontation unravels, King captures the heartbreaking emotion of the scene with great ease and undeniable resonance.
4. Marina de Tavira (Roma)
In Roma, a film set in the early 1970s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City that follows Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in domestic worker, Marina de Tavira plays Sofía, the mother of the family that employs Cleo. Early in the film, the patriarch of the family, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) leaves the family as his marriage to Sofía crumbles. Throughout the remainder of the film, she struggles to keep it together as she battles her heartbreak and loneliness (including a powerful scene where she gets angry with her kids as she desperately instructs them to write letters to their father about how much they love him and miss him). Although Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is most definitely a film about Cleo, Sofía’s character arc marvelously adds to the substance of Cleo’s journey, epitomized by this quote from Sofía to Cleo: “No matter what they tell you—women, we are always alone.” Marina de Tavira handles this delicate role – one that requires a wide range of emotions, from pure bliss to unbridled misery – with dexterity and immense vulnerability. She is definitely a major part of the reason Roma is such a great film.
5. Amy Adams (Vice)
In Adam McKay’s film Vice, Amy Adams plays the role of former First Lady Lynne Cheney, the wife of the lead character, former Vice President Dick Cheney. As I have waxed about on this blog many times before, Amy Adams is one of my very favorite actresses in the industry, and I am not confident I have ever seen a performance by her that wasn’t laced with quality of the highest order – in Vice, that adage rings true once more. The film is clearly about Bale’s Dick Cheney, but Lynne plays a crucial role just beneath the surface. When Dick gets kicked out of Yale and begins to lead a drunken life as a lineman, it is Lynne that gives him an ultimatum that then shapes the remainder of his career. And after one of Dick’s heart attacks, it is Lynne that hits the campaign trail in an effort to secure Dick the U.S. House of Representatives seat for Wyoming. Lynne is ambitious in her own right, and Adams portrays that unmerciful desire masterfully. Bale turns in the most transformative performance in the film, but Adams also plays an important part in keeping the Vice boat afloat at all times.
La La Land is a romantic comedy musical written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The film is set in Los Angeles and follows aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, and dedicated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who plays in dingy bars in order to scrape by. The two meet and fall in love, but, as success mounts, the dreams they worked so hard to maintain threaten to rip them apart.
This past fall, I wrote about how much I was looking forward to seeing La La Land, and my main motivation was the director, Damien Chazelle. In 2014, Chazelle burst onto the scene with his Best Picture-nominated Whiplash, which ranked as my No. 1 film from the entire year. On the strength of my love for Whiplash, I could not wait for La La Land—and thanks to Chazelle’s genius, it did not disappoint. La La Land is incredibly romantic and charming, and, just like in Whiplash, Chazelle’s love for jazz reigns supreme.
With a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, Chazelle has cemented himself as one of the best filmmakers in the game. Although I did not find this film as enthralling and emotionally disarming as Whiplash, I still found La La Land to be a delightfully astounding piece of cinema. I mean, Chazelle shut down a major Los Angeles highway in the heat of summer in order to shoot one of the most memorable opening scenes of all time—it takes a certain degree of brilliance to make that happen and Chazelle nailed it!
One of the critiques I have heard regarding La La Land is that although it is a wonderful film, it does not pack the same timeless punch as Hollywood’s most momentous musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain. Although I somewhat concur in that observation, it does not make La La Land any less amazing. As a modern musical, it is definitely one of the best I have seen—the characters are charismatic, the story is enchanting, and the music is memorable. In fact, after seeing this film in the theater, I listened to the soundtrack over and over and over again. The two standout tracks are the songs up for Best Original Song: “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” These two numbers are definitely the best, but I also greatly enjoyed “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” which, as you could expect, is the soundtrack to the two main characters’ love; it is a beautiful piano instrumental that evokes the utmost emotional connection to Sebastian and Mia’s relationship. Needless to say, Justin Hurwitz’s composition makes this film that much more amazing.
The blend of Chazelle’s storytelling genius and Hurwitz’s melodic prowess would not be complete without performers to bring their vision to life—thankfully, the filmmakers had the ever-charming Ryan Gosling and the hilarious girl-next-door Emma Stone at their disposal. I loved these two actors together in Crazy, Stupid, Love (their chemistry was also undeniable in Gangster Squad, although that movie sucked), and in La La Land, they again just flat out fit together. Both Sebastian and Mia are dreamers in their own ways—Sebastian, a devoted but struggling jazz musician, dreams of owning his own club dedicated to this nostalgic genre, and Mia, a devoted but struggling actress, dreams of making it big in Hollywood. Life continues throwing the two curves, but they always hold tight to their desires, which ultimately places their devotion to each other in doubt. Both Gosling and Stone portray the intricacies of their characters with magnetism, and you cannot help but become emotionally invested in their relationship. Although the two flourish as both singers and dancers in all of the film’s traditional musical scenes (such as the catchy number “A Lovely Night,” set amongst the Los Angeles night sky), one of my favorite scenes was when Mia requested a performance of A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” by an 80s cover band at a Hollywood pool party—that band just so happened to feature the true-to-his-art Sebastian playing synthesizer. The scene gave me more than enough laughs to last the entire movie, and it was truly representative of Gosling and Stone’s dynamic on-screen chemistry. La La Land is rated PG-13 for some language.
Time to go up…cause it’s TUESDAY! More importantly, the conclusion to my “Fall Preview 2016” is finally here. Over the past few days, I have shared with you my five Honorable Mentions and No. 10 – No. 6 on the list of my most anticipated fall film releases. But now it is on to the big reveal. So, without further ado, I give you films No. 5 – No. 1 on my Fall Preview 2016 list. Enjoy!
No. 5 – La La Land
La La Land is a film set in Los Angeles where aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, while dedicated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) plays in dingy bars in order to scrape by. The two meet and fall in love, but, as success mounts, the dreams they worked so hard to maintain threaten to rip them apart.
I have been awaiting the release of La La Land for quite some time because of the man sitting in the director’s chair: Damien Chazelle. In 2014, Chazelle broke out with his critically acclaimed debut Whiplash, one of the best movies I have seen in years (Whiplash ranked No. 1 on my list of Top 15 Films of 2014). Considering Chazelle’s masterful filmmaking in Whiplash, it was impossible for me not to be excited for his sophomore effort. La La Land finds itself in the No. 5 slot on my list on the strength of Chazelle’s previous film, so I truly hope that it does not fall flat due to failing to meet expectations. However, rumors are that La La Land is just as good as Whiplash, garnering an immense amount of Oscar support months in advance of its release. If this thing turns out to be as good as it is being hyped up to be, Damien Chazelle will cement himself as one of the very elite filmmakers in the business today.
Part of Whiplash’s success was due to wonderful performances from its cast: J.K. Simmons delivered an Oscar-winning performance that will forever be one of my all-time favorites, and Miles Teller portrayed a determined, yet wildly intense jazz student with absolute precision. I am optimistic about La La Land’s potential because Chazelle has again assembled a top-notch cast. The aforementioned Simmons is back in a supporting role, but the film’s leads have a history of on-screen chemistry, which gives the film an extra boost. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone previously starred together in a romantic capacity in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and their relationships in these films were incredibly real and believable—I cannot wait to watch them interact again here. La La Land is set for a theatrical release on December 2, 2016.
Director: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
Starring: Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys, The Big Short), Emma Stone (Aloha, Birdman), and J.K. Simmons (Zootopia, Whiplash)
No. 4 – Passengers
Passengers follows the spaceship, Starship Avalon, on its 120-year voyage to a distant colony planet known as “Homestead II.” The Starship Avalon, transporting 5,259 people, has a malfunction in two of its sleep chambers. As a result, two hibernation pods open prematurely and the two people (Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence) that awoke are stranded on the spaceship, still 90 years from their destination. The two soon discover that the malfunction that caused them to be awoken prematurely is not the only problem afflicting the huge spaceship.
Passengers is one of those movies that has blockbuster hit written all over it. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are arguably two of the most “big time” actors currently in the business, and their collaboration here is sure to drive up ticket sales this Christmas. And rightfully so—Lawrence is a three-time Oscar-nominated actress and Pratt has ascended to mainstream stardom with performances in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. Notwithstanding the hype that this duo has and will to continue to garner in the lead up to the film’s release, I truly believe this pairing will make waves via pure acting ability, too. Lawrence is easily one of the top three or four actresses in Hollywood, and here I expect her to combine her proficient dramatic/comedic acting skills (see Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) with her knack for adventure (see The Hunger Games). And although he has not garnered any award-worthy praise yet, Chris Pratt is definitely one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. I expect the same sharp wit from Pratt that we have grown accustomed to seeing (see Guardians of the Galaxy), and that is never a bad thing.
As far as the filmmaking, Passengers has plenty going for it. Manning the director’s chair is Morten Tyldum, the filmmaker behind the Norwegian hit Headhunters and the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game. Headhunters is absolutely incredible and, although I was not a massive fan of The Imitation Game, I simply cannot deny the stunning meticulousness with which Tyldum crafted the film; thus, I feel comfortable with him leading Passengers, a big-budget sci-fi thriller. The fact that Jon Spaihts penned the screenplay only adds to my excitement, as he wrote the screenplay for 2012’s Prometheus, one of my favorite science-fiction films in recent memory. Passengers is set for a theatrical release on December 21, 2016.
Director: Morten Tyldum (Midnight Special, Mud)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men Apocalypse, Joy), Chris Pratt (The Magnificent Seven, Jurassic World), and Michael Sheen (Nocturnal Animals, Far from the Madding Crowd)
No. 3 – Silence
Set in the 17th century, Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) and propagate Christianity.
Without a doubt, Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors of all time. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas, Gangs of New York to The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has been lighting up the silver screen for decades with remarkable, high-quality films. Clearly, it is not hard to see why Silence finds itself in the top three of my list of most anticipated films this fall. In Silence, we have what can only be described as Scorsese’s true “passion project”—he began developing the film in 1990! Very few people—let alone filmmakers—could retain an interest in something for over 20 years, but that is what sets Martin Scorsese apart. The man is a cinematic visionary, and he has never once let me down with a project—I do not expect him to start now.
Aside from his filmmaking skills in general, Scorsese’s movies work on so many levels because of his ability to always get the most out of his actors. From Robert De Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese has worked with the best actors in the business, and those stars always seem to shine their brightest while working at Scorsese’s direction. With that said, I cannot wait to see what this iconic filmmaker has done with the pieces that he has assembled (i.e., Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson). Garfield and Driver are two of the most polished up-and-comers in Hollywood, and both of their careers have produced a number of outstanding performances—I am hopeful that they both deliver their best ones to date in Silence. What I am most excited for from a casting standpoint, however, is Liam Neeson. The Oscar-nominated actor had a supporting role in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and knocked his limited time on the screen out of the park—I cannot wait to see the two reunite with Neeson in a starring role. It goes without saying: I expect big things! Silence is set for a theatrical release on December 23, 2016.
Director: Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo)
Starring: Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge, 99 Homes), Liam Neeson (A Monster Calls, Non-Stop), and Adam Driver (Paterson, Midnight Special)
No. 2 – The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train follows Rachel Watson (Emma Blunt), an alcoholic who divorced her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) after she caught him cheating on her. Rachel takes the train to work daily. She fantasizes about the relationship of her neighbors, Scott and Megan Hipwell (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), during her commute. That all changes when she witnesses something from the train window and Megan is found to be missing, presumed dead.
Back in 2014, the number one movie on this very list was Gone Girl, the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. Two years later (albeit in the number two spot), here I am writing about The Girl on the Train. Now I know, they are two separate movies with two separate premises. But it is hard not to want to compare them in some form: They are both mystery thrillers with similar themes derived from books that took the world by storm. Gone Girl was one of the best movies I saw in 2014, and it definitely lived up to the hype for me—I sure hope The Girl on the Train does this year, too.
Aside from the attention the film is getting due to its source material’s acclaim, I have been awaiting the release of The Girl on the Train because of Emily Blunt. For those that have read my reviews in the past for Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, and Sicario, what I am about to say is old news: Emily Blunt is one of my top two favorite actresses currently in the movie business, and I have gotten to the point where I will watch anything she makes. This is not (just) because of some love affair with her on a purely shallow basis; rather, I believe she has developed into one of the premier female talents in Hollywood. On the strength of my fandom for Blunt, I am more than ready to plop down in a seat at my local theater this Friday to see what I hope turns out to be a thrilling ride (on a train, of course). The Girl on the Train is set for a theatrical release on October 7, 2016.
Director: Tate Taylor (Get On Up, The Help)
Starring: Emily Blunt (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Sicario), Rebecca Ferguson (Florence Foster Jenkins, Missions: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven, Hardcore Henry), Justin Theroux (Zoolander 2, Wanderlust), and Luke Evans (High-Rise, Furious 7)
No. 1 – Arrival
Arrival follows an elite team that is put together to investigate when multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe. Mankind teeters on the verge of global war as everyone scrambles for answers—and to find them, team members Louise Banks (Amy Adams), Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) will take a chance that could threaten their lives, and, quite possibly, humanity.
Science-fiction is nowhere near the top of my list of favorite film genres. Don’t get me wrong, I do like them—but if I had to pick a range of 4-5 types of movies to watch on a Friday night, science-fiction would not be one of them. But Arrival is peak alien sci-fi…so how can it rank so high on this list? The answer is simple: Denis Villeneuve. Although I still have not seen Villeneuve’s Maelstrom (the winner of the International Federation of Film Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival) or Incendies (the Oscar-nominated foreign language film), I still view the French-Canadian filmmaker to be one of the best in the business—this is because of Prisoners and Sicario. While in Prisoners Villeneuve crafted a film that was emotionally complex and disturbing at times, yet all the while encapsulating, he truly blew me away with last year’s Sicario, a tightly wound drug cartel thriller that put Villeneuve’s brazen filmmaking on full display for the world to see. Needless to say, his involvement with Arrival makes it a no-brainer for me to be so interested!
In Prisoners, Villeneuve truly directed his balls off in getting the most from his actors (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Terrence Howard absolutely killed it), and in Sicario, the very same was true (Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro delivered unbelievably outstanding performances). Here, I am anxious to see what Villeneuve does with another stellar cast. Amy Adams is one of my favorite actresses (and by far one of the best in the business), Jeremy Renner always does a great job, and Forest Whitaker is a veteran in the game who still treats every performance as if it is his last. The talent is there from both an acting and directorial standpoint—I am confident that the two will intersect beautifully and Arrival will meet all of its undeniably high expectations. Arrival is set for a theatrical release on November 11, 2016.
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners)
Starring: Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals, Big Eyes), Jeremy Renner (Captain America: Civil War, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and Forest Whitaker (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Southpaw)
Last year, three of the five Best Supporting Actress nominees were Academy Awards rookies. This year, two of them are (Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone), and two others are only receiving their second nomination ever (Laura Dern and Keira Knightley). The other nominee is Meryl Streep, the most nominated actress of all time. The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
WINNER: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Patricia Arquette gave the most surprisingly powerful performance of 2014 in Boyhood. Arquette plays the matriarchal Olivia, essentially raising her kids Samantha and Mason, Jr., all on her own. The film may be titled Boyhood (even though the first two-thirds of the movie should be called Girlhood), but Arquette gives an influential voice to women everywhere regarding “motherhood.” For Olivia, her single-parent circumstances make for an inherently uphill life struggle, and Arquette movingly portrays her character’s anxiety and heartbreak—this is most obvious in the scenes that capture the end of various failed relationships due to her partners’ physical abuse, alcoholism, and the like. In real life, Arquette had her first child at only 20-years-old, and the life experiences that flowed from that situation allowed her to give a proficient performance regarding the priority of being a parent and the many emotions that so radically change over the years. Arquette’s portrayal of Olivia was spectacular, and the vivid life that Arquette breathed into Olivia over the 12-year filming process was amazingly coherent and matter-of-fact. Arquette has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.
Emma Stone (Birdman)
In Birdman, Emma Stone plays Sam, the daughter of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a struggling film actor looking to stage a comeback on Broadway. Sam, recently out of rehab for addiction issues, acts as Thompson’s assistant. Although her attitude throughout the film is nonchalant and flagrantly detached, she is the one who truly cares for Riggan emotionally—this is why she turns out to be the sole voice of reason for Keaton’s complex character. Stone has a filmography filled with some of my favorite comedies (e.g., Superbad, Zombieland, and Crazy, Stupid, Love), but I have never really considered her a preeminent “actor.” Sure, she is fantastic in these funny roles but can she really “act”? Turns out, she can! Emma Stone is one of the best parts of Birdman, and it is that distinct voice and speech pattern that we all recognize from past performances that gives her character the invigorated audacity that it deserves. Birdman was a difficult movie for actors because of the “long-take” nature of the photography, but Stone accepted the challenge and owned her role. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly regarding the filming challenge, she said, “Every day was complicated. Every day was hard, but it also is the best feeling ever whenever you get to the end of the day.” Stone has never previously been nominated for an Academy Award.
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
In Into the Woods, Meryl Streep plays the Witch in the silver-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning musical. Desperate to reclaim her youthful appearance, the Witch tasks the Baker and his wife to find three items that are needed for a special potion that will break her horrifying curse. Streep’s character has some of the better songs from the musical (e.g., “Stay with Me” and “Last Midnight”), and she ultimately gives the best performance of the film. Not only does Streep have the most superior acting quality of the entire cast (which she utilizes marvelously here), but she also has one of the finest vocal sounds. She demonstrates tenacity by embedding gravitas and trepidation into her character, and this is manifested by Streep’s spectacularly talented vocal bravado. Meryl Streep has been previously nominated a record eighteen times in acting categories at the Oscars, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Kramer v. Kramer (1979) and for Best Actress in Sophie’s Choice (1982) and The Iron Lady (2011).
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
In The Imitation Game, Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, the real-life cryptanalyst who joined a team, led by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), tasked with breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II. I did not find The Imitation Game to be that great of a movie, and moreover, I did not find Knightley’s performance to be particularly memorable. The history of Joan Clarke as a member of Britain’s code-breaker squad during the Second World War is monumental for multiple reasons (particularly because she broke the glass ceiling in the process as the sole woman on the project), and it was a thrill to see this storied woman receive a voice on the big screen in a film that focused mostly on Turing. Other than providing the physical screen manifestation of this true-life character, Knightley did not do much else. Her emotion seemed forced throughout and her elocution of the dialogue was merely serviceable; for me, all Knightley provided was one more reason why I believe she is an overrated actress. Knightley was previously nominated for Best Actress for her role as Elizabeth Bennett in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice.
Laura Dern (Wild)
In the Reese Witherspoon-acted/produced film Wild, Laura Dern portrays the real-life Bobbi Grey, the late mother of the lead character Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). Bobbi’s death from cancer is the event that sends Strayed into a frenzy, causing her to eventually venture 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. From the commentary on Strayed’s memoir that inspired the film’s production, it seems that Bobbi was an incredibly influential and important figure in Strayed’s life, and her death truly did affect Strayed in unimaginable ways. I wish her character had gotten the screen time to account for this key role in the main character’s life. Yes, we see multiple scenes with Dern raising her children and eventually suffering from cancer, but it was something short of average for me (like the entire movie, for that matter). Dern is a talented actress (the daughter of Oscar-nominee Bruce Dern), but I do not believe she was able to make her mark on the limited time she had on screen. I found it difficult to engage with the character, and the average performance made Wild even less enjoyable than it already was. Dern was previously nominated for Best Actress for her role in Rambling Rose (1991).
Actresses snubbed in this category: Anne Hathaway (Interstellar) and Jessica Chastain (Interstellar)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a black comedy directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu with a screenplay by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo. The film follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), an actor with a wavering career (famous for portraying the superhero “Birdman”) who is looking to stage a comeback by directing and acting in a Broadway production. In the final days leading up to the show’s opening night, Riggan must battle himself as he attempts to reconcile his family and his career.
Despite the fact that each of writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous four feature films (Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful) was nominated for Oscars in a range of categories, Birdman is personally my first encounter with the critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker. Although none of Iñárritu’s films have won big on Oscar night, that is bound to change in just less than two weeks. In Birdman, Iñárritu has constructed one of the best original screenplays in the past few years, and this unique storyline flat out works on so many levels. It is an unparalleled, comeback-within-a-comeback story. Its lead character Riggan Thompson is making a comeback on Broadway after years of dormancy following his refusal to play the superhero “Birdman” in a fourth installment of the superhero series. All the while, actor Michael Keaton, after leaving Tim Burton’s Batman franchise in between the second and third films, has endured years without commercial or critical success and is making an acting revival of sorts in his Birdman role. Considering this casting decision and Iñárritu’s storyline, I figured Birdman would ultimately be too clever for its own good—I imagined it would be way too cheeky and a bit too heavy-handed in its attempt to be self-aware. Ultimately, I was wrong. Yes, it was cognizant of its meta-like approach, but the meticulous filmmaking style of Iñárritu and his witty script allowed the movie to hurdle high above its own cliché barriers to make the story entertaining and mesmerizing. Additionally, the comedic aspects of the script are genius. From Edward Norton and Michael Keaton’s back-and-forth during a rehearsal once Norton’s character is first hired, to the scene of Keaton walking around Times Square in nothing but his white underwear, Iñárritu understands the humor he is trying to evoke, and he does so incredibly well.
Part of the allure of Birdman is the way in which it is shot—it is absolutely masterful filmmaking. The movie appears to take place in one continuous long tracking shot. The “long take” has long (pardon the pun…I assure it was unintended) been my favorite filmmaking technique, and when one is done well, it is nothing short of exquisite. In the same vein as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the film-editing team carefully created the illusion of a single take throughout the film’s entirety—they utilized sleek, unsuspecting cuts during horizontal pans and close-up shots on the cast. The result is a film that plays out like a suspense thriller, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats as the unpredictable plot is shot “continuously.” The technique is choreographed and audacious, and it will be one of the most remembered aspects of Birdman for years to come. With its deft photographical magnetism, Lubezki will surely earn his second Oscar win for cinematography (his first was for 2013’s Gravity).
Considering the single “long-take” design for the film, each actor had to consistently be on his or her A-game. Michael Keaton was incredibly superb in his complicated role as the ego-driven, but lost-soul-like Riggan Thompson, and even though he may not win the Oscar for Best Actor (ain’t NOBODY beating Eddie Redmayne this year), it will long stand out (deservedly) as the magnum opus of Keaton’s career. The supporting performances in Birdman were also superlative. Both Emma Stone and Edward Norton received Oscar nominations for their roles as Thompson’s daughter and Thompson’s Broadway co-star, respectively, and these accolades come as no surprise. I will discuss Stone’s role in more detail later today in my “Best Supporting Actress” post, but suffice it to say, her performance as a recovering addict is cerebral, and as the sole voice of reason for Riggan Thompson, Stone plays the part of his daughter dexterously. Norton nearly steals the show with his performance as Mike Shiner, an acclaimed Broadway star that Riggan is forced to hire at the last minute, just days before the show’s premiere. Norton plays the “pompous asshole” character as scrupulously as possible, and his brilliant acting brings out the most hilarious of the film’s moments—during the show’s preview, Shiner gets drunk and tries to have actual sex with a co-star on stage! Check out Birdman. Everyone has been hyping this movie up for months, and it comes better than advertised. Birdman is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.