Now that the halfway mark has hit between the dawn of a hopeful 2014 and the inevitable exasperated gasp of relief that another year of harrowing grief is finally over, we're inclined to look back on the past six months of cinematic glory. First, we set our sights to the best performances of the year, both leading and supporting. The thespian achievements that made us laugh, cry, wince (in the good way, not the Adam Levine in Begin Again way), and cheer. Here's a quick list of some of the most impressive performances we've seen so far in 2014.
Fox Searchlight Pictures via Everett Collection
Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest HotelIt would be no surprise to anyone that Ralph Fiennes can act his way around a cerebral drama, and probably no real shock that he can handle himself in a sharp, fast-paced comedy either. But Grand Budapest is even doses of both, and Fiennes never slips up in his delivery of the rigid, obsessive Gustave H. as both a humane hero and a comic wonder.
Gina Piersanti in It Felt Like LoveThe best part of this terrific movie about struggling with your identity in adolescence is its star, Gina Piersanti, who makes the subtleties of her sad story vividly accessible.
Nicolas Cage in JoeSome of the picks on this list aren't precisely because the performances blew us away, but because of how happy we were to see the actors in question turn in something worthwhile. Cage is great in Joe, his first halfway decent movie in quite some time, serving to prove that he's still an actor who deserves critical attention.
Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive Sharing screentime and immaculate chemistry with Tom Hiddleston, who too is wonderful in the picture, Swinton manages an unfathomable energy without detracting from the film's focal point of the duo's romantic partnership. Shining so bright through the dark and dusky sheaths of Only Lovers, Swinton is the best part of what is plausibly the very best movie of 2014.
A24 via Everett Collection
Tom Hardy in LockeIf you liked Locke whatsoever, you'd have to credit that to Hardy's performance. As the only actor onscreen toggling his attentions between a steering wheel, a cell phone, and his own inner demons, the man gets truly theatrical in a way you don't often get to see on the big screen.
Mira Grosin in We Are the Best!One of the youngest individuals on the list is one third of the headlining trio in We Are the Best!, a sweet, fun, earnest film about Swedish schoolgirls reaching for (and just about finding) a new identity in punk rock music. Although each member of the band is a treat, the plucky and acerbic Grosin stands out as a particularly special performer.
Tom Cruise in Edge of TomorrowIn the vein of the Nic Cage/Joe qualification, we chose Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow performance stricly because of how long it's been since we've seen the once beloved and presently bemoaned movie star provide genuine thrills... it's been even longer since he's provided genuine laughter, which he does in no small doses in Edge of Tomorrow. The reason Cruise works so well in the sci-fi picture? He's playing a jackass — the sort of character at which he proved himself a master back in the '80s but has shied away from in recent years. Stick to the jerks, Cruise. Maverick, Charlie Babbitt, Tom "Morrow" Edgerson... you're good at 'em.
Jenny Slate in Obvious ChildThe most impressive part of Slate's turn as the early-life-crisis-stricken Donna in Obvious Child: her stand-up comedy routines are a genuine pleasure to watch (no mean feat for any movie). Slate's fresh turn on the wacky gal we often see in stand-up comedies is bolstered by her agency and palpable identity; this isn't just someone we're forced to see through a hard time, this is a human being who we're truly rooting for. We can give thanks to the script, certainly, but also to the naturally funny and engaging Slate.
Jesse Eisenberg in The DoubleEisenberg gets a rare gift in The Double: a chance to bank on the sort of work that made him famous in the first place, and to try out a brand new bag on the viewing public. The always neurotic performer ups the ante on his nervous shtick as Simon James, but breaks loose with a dickish confidence that tops even Mark Zuckerberg's hubris as James Simon.
Agata Kulesza in IdaThanks to Kulesza, Ida winds up a shockingly charming, funny, and (less surprisingly) very sad film. A look at the post-Holocaust years through the eyes of a long-internally-suffering Jewish woman (Kulesza) and her neice doesn't seem like a ground particularly fertile for anything "upbeat," but the sharp and spry performance of Kulesza makes for a uniquely inviting portrait of a somber, bizarre world.
Ken Watanabe in GodzillaWatanabe delivers what is hands down the weirdest performance in any blockbuster we've seen this year, or plausibly in recent years. The actor channels Jeff Goldblum-level "out there"-ness as a scientist who comes face to face with the titular monster after a lifetime devoted to research on the subject. Most of Watanabe's screentime is spent staring off into nowhere, a choice emblematic of unmistakable lunacy residing in the mind of this obsessed professor. We can feel his pain... but it's pure joy to watch.
Nat Wolff in Palo Alto Likely more recognizable for his supporting turn in The Fault in Our Stars, Wolff is a powerhouse in another ennui-soaked high school drama: Palo Alto, which is far more cynical (and terrific) than the aforementioned feature. Wolff plays a teen succumbing to loneliness, self-loathing, and substance abuse in the nihilistic tornado that is his upper class existence. At once the clown and the beacon of tragedy, Wolff really knocks it out of the park in Gia Coppola's debut.
Tilda Swinton in SnowpiercerThe only actor on this list twice (unless you count Jesse Eisenberg for his dual roles in The Double) is Tilda Swinton, who proves herself as powerful a character actor as she is a leading stoic. In stark contrast to her Only Lovers heroine, Swinton's Snowpiercer character is a wicked, delusional tyrant who would be petrifying were she not so damn hilarious.
Agata Trzebuchowska in IdaYep, there is a second actor from Ida on this list, and she's also named Agata. In fact, the younger of the two stars gives what is indeed the more remarkable performance, playing almost exclusively silent as she drinks in her aunt's life of tragic hedonism from a two-foot distance. The Ida/Anna role might have been little more than a lens for the audience to view the horrors of the Holocaust, but Trzebuchowska's restrained anguish gives the story an intriguing slant. All the pangs of the post World War II world that filter through her come out the other end with a peculiar, insightful flavor.
Daniel Radcliffe in What ifSometimes all it takes for a role to stick with you is laughter. Daniel Radcliffe, who we all love, is destined for a long career in comedy. As the romantic lead of What if, Radcliffe is super-Hugh-Grant levels of dashing, debonair, self-deprecating, and f**king funny. His rapid fire delivery, affable countenance, and complete mastery of the most eclectic wordplay makes his What if turn (as a guy named Wallace, no less) more than worthy of the world's post-Potter love.
Nathan Varnson in Hide Your Smiling FacesFinally, representing one of our favorite movies of the year is Nathan Varnson, a child actor who plays a young boy dealing with the sudden death of a close friend. There are no big, showy moments in Smiling Faces. Everything Varnson showcases is largely internalized; his role is predominantly wordless, in fact. All the more reason why it stands out in our minds as one of the best of the year.
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It is the principal consensus that Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece. Not because it stayed faithful to the sentiments of its beloved predecessors, but because it dared to expand upon them. Toy Story introduced an enjoyable one-note tale of a cowboy doll clinging to his owner’s favoritism, allowing room for its follow-up films to explore the humanity of this theme in much more depth.
This is the charge that faces the Finding Nemo franchise, what with sequel movie Finding Dory newly announced — will the next chapter for the Pixar pisces just be a rehashing of the 2003 road comedy? Or will the latest venture delve more explicitly into the most interesting subject introduced in Finding Nemo: mental disability?
The superficial plot design of Finding Nemo likely spawned from road comedy staples from the days of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, but the journey beneath the sea hearkens to a more recent, much heavier entry in the genre: Rain Man. When the uptight straight man Marlin (Albert Brooks) takes up begrudgingly with flighty loner Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) on a globetrotting quest to find his lost son, we're transported to the cross country trek of Charlie and Raymond Babbitt (Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman) in Barry Levenson's Oscar-winning picture. Self-serving Charlie teamed up with his estranged brother Ray, an autistic savant, not out of compassion or fraternity but to further his own conquest for his father's inheritance. Along the way, Ray's disability provides a number of hurdles (he can't board an airplane, can't go outside when it rains, can't be touched) and opportunities (his knack for quick counting does the boys quite a few favors at the blackjack table) alike for Charlie as their travels take them to strange places (backwoods motels, doctors offices, Vegas casinos) and situations ranging from comical to emotionally resonant.
With Marlin and Dory, it's the same song: Marlin monopolizes on Dory's unique ability to read human English (and speak a bit of whale, as she'll proudly boast) as they traverse the realms of sharks, jellyfish, sea turtles, and a school of John Ratzenberger, bounding from moments of laughter and tears all the while. But beyond the surface value similarities, the relationship between Marlin and Dory is reminiscent of that of the Babbitt brothers. Impatient Marlin is at his wits' end with Dory's demanding mental state. The biggest hurdle along the way for the duo is Dory's short-term memory loss, not a mere character quirk in Finding Nemo but a bona fide disorder that prevents her from living independently (when left alone by Marlin towards the end of the film, Dory's anxieties kick up and overtake her memory altogether, leading her to forget the entire mission she and her fair-weather had just braved).
Alongside a forgiving and accepting Marlin, Dory's traumas are assauged and her memories bolstered. But we don't imagine that Finding Dory will do away completely with the trait that defined DeGeneres' fan favorite character in the first movie. What they should do, instead, is really tackle the issue, diving headfirst into a multifaceted, emotional and intellectual story about living with (and living with someone living with) mental disability. Sounds like a silly venture for a Pixar movie, maybe, but just think of the Toy Story franchise: a trilogy that expanded from "What if toys came alive when we left the room?" to a heartrending allegory about self-preservation, loss, and identity.
Finding Dory has an opportunity to build upon the simplistic ideas that made Nemo a charming one-off feature — to make the characters worthwhile in further episodes, we'll have to see a deeper exploration of what makes them tick. Marlin is plagued with insecurity, Nemo with a physical disability, and Dory (who, as the title would indicate, is the focal character in the new movie) with a mental disability. And this disability deserves an intricate center stage treatment.
As mental impairment is a subject matter that Hollywood has tackled time and time again, Finding Dory can learn from the example of past greats. Beyond Rain Man, we have a number of other public and critical favorites that can provide example of moving and insightful ways to depict the journey of a mental disability sufferer. A constant among many of these films is the director's drive to shatter society's expectations of the spotlit figures — nobody believed much in Forrest Gump's titular hero at the beginning of the movie, but Tom Hanks' most memorable cinematic character went on to take part in, if not institute, just about every great event in American history. Ditto Radio, on a much smaller scale: Cuba Gooding, Jr. portrayed a mentally disabled young man whose spirit brought a small town football team to unity and grandieur.
Dory's limitations did not keep her from achieving victory in Nemo, but then again we didn't see the extent to which they anchor her down. Following in the footsteps of uplifting sagas like Forrest Gump and Radio, Finding Dory might look to chronicle the wowing capabilities of memory-loss victims in the same way: perhaps her indomitable zest for life will outweigh her handicap in the sequel's story, branding Dory with the sort of embrace of self-worth advertised by Hanks' and Gooding's pictures.
There are, of course, much less "whimsical" accounts of mental disability in recent cinema: the 2001 movie I Am Sam might have endeared viewers to Sean Penn's character and invited them to truly understand the complexities of his condition in an unprecedented way, the film didn't offer the fairy tale ending many might have expected, or hoped for. It might unlikely for Finding Dory to bear to the wills of bleaker realism, but not implausible. Toy Story 3, Up, and Wall-E rank as three incredibly heavy, often dark, movies. In this vein — and borrowing from the attitudes of I Am Sam, of Rain Man, of the "Flowers for Algernon" film adaptation Charly — we might look for a Finding Dory that actually sets standing limitations on Dory. She will never be able to live on her own or even remember things prior to the present hour, it's a somber state of affairs. Perhaps for a character so enamored, a story this real is what fans deserve?
We have no idea just yet what Finding Dory has in store. Maybe we'll just find ourselves in another seafaring journey filled with laughs and whimpsers. But maybe we'll see a real examination of the internal struggle of DeGeneres' character — that's how the movie can truly work wonders; Pixar does best when Pixar dives deepest.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures(2)]
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Campbell Babbitt is a screwed-up emotionally lost prize-winning New York reporter who is sent to the small New Hampshire hometown of the first civilian astronaut Christa McAuliffe to cover the local celebration leading up to her ill-fated flight aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Instead he becomes enthralled by a scandal surrounding the apparent suicide of a beloved teacher and immerses himself into the lives of his former students. But as Babbitt gradually unravels some well-kept secrets he starts to get a little too close for comfort.
WHO’S IN IT?
Steve Coogan is perfect in What Goes Up as the morally-challenged reporter Babbitt conveying a strong sense of his own human failings as he tries to get closer to the students of a recently-deceased but much-loved teacher. In so doing he must also deal with another teacher (well-played by Molly Shannon) who tries to keep the story’s sordid details out of the paper. Where the film really comes alive is with the superb supporting cast led by an all-grown-up Hilary Duff as Lucy a scheming Lolita who is rumored to have been romantically involved with the dead prof — and who now has her sights set on Babbitt. Duff’s seductive presence proves she is an actress to watch. Also standing out are Olivia Thirlby (Juno) as a sly cunning pregnant student and Josh Peck as a kid who likes to watch. Max Hoffman son of Dustin also makes a strong impression in a smaller role.
Although it could have fallen into the familiar traps of a lot of teen-oriented comedies this compelling and completely original look at the dark side of heroes crackles with moral ambiguity and a cast of characters who aren’t always as they seem. What Goes Up also successfully examines our reactions to death in subtle and larger ways that aren’t always predictable. The colorful independent personalities placed under the microscope clearly don’t have ready answers and don’t always behave the way we think they might — or should.
The solid screenplay by Bob Lawson and director Jonathan Glatzer sometimes gets sidetracked by the impending Christa McAuliffe tragedy creating an underlying sideshow that’s not really that integral to the plot. It may make the story more relatable to audiences but considering the strength of the players on hand it feels unnecessary and rather obvious.
Watching Hilary Duff sexily try to seduce Coogan is a game-changer not just for her but for the audience that grew up watching her as a role model.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Since this sleeper indie film is being self-distributed theatrical exposure in 2009's crowed summer is going to be limited so your best bet is gonna be DVD.