Movie Bummys 2015: Best Performances of 2014

It’s that time of year again, the time when no one but me is talking about last year!

You’ll be able to tell more about my preferences for performances in who I left out rather than who I actually included. Some people are missing because I simply haven’t had the chance to see their movies yet, such as Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Robert Duvall in The Judge, and Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. Others are missing because their fields were just too crowded: sorry, Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Macon Blair (Blue Ruin), and Chris Evans (Snowpiercer). And still others- well, I just thought their performances were overrated: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), and Meryl Streep (Into the Woods).

[Disclaimer: Links are to clips of the performance, but there’s profanity in some of them.]

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Supporting Actress

Laura Dern, Wild

Laura Dern deserves an award for the scene in that link alone. In a movie in which Reese Witherspoon takes up 98% of the screen time, Dern steals all of her scenes as Cheryl Strayed’s mother, Bobbi. Dern has a thirty-six-year-long career, but Wild might have her most nuanced role yet as her daughter’s first source of strength.

Rene Russo, Nightcrawler

Maybe the industry never got past seeing Russo as a model, but it’s clear after Nightcrawler that Hollywood has underused this talented woman. She has a tough, thankless job as an ambitious anchorwoman at a local TV news station who seizes upon the lurid videos provided by Gyllenhaal’s Bloom as her ticket to winning sweeps. It’s not about compromising morals, it’s about revealing her character’s complete disregard for them, and Russo does so impressively.

Emma Stone, Birdman

Emma Stone has an intense likability; you can try to resist her, but you will fail. So maybe the most amazing thing about her performance is that, at first, you don’t like her. You eventually come around to her as the layers peel away, but she adopts such a negative persona from the start of Birdman that she almost pulls off making you dislike her, which is quite a feat.

Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer

If you weren’t convinced Tilda Swinton was a chameleon before seeing Snowpiercer, there’s no denying it after. Bong Joon-Ho’s brilliant dystopic film was made all the more inscrutable with the inclusion of Swinton’s asexual Mason, who espouses many of the movie’s themes in her (his?) strange brogue. But the quality of the performance isn’t in how unrecognizable she is in the role, it’s in how complete of a character he (she?) is in spite of his strangeness.

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood (winner)

Richard Linklater has mentioned in interviews that Boyhood is as much the parents’ stories as Ellar’s; Arquette’s performance makes the argument that it’s more her story than the boy’s. Sure, we watch Ellar grow from age 6 to 18, and he certainly changes, but he’s a passive character. Through the lens of his childhood, we watch Arquette’s character (only credited as Mom) as life falls apart around her and as she picks the pieces up and puts it back together. We see Arquette through her lowest points until she’s reached a point where she’s got everything together. And the boldness of Arquette’s performance is that the last we’re left of it is when she realizes that having everything together isn’t enough.

Honorable Mentions:

Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Agata Kulesza, Ida

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Supporting Actor

Nicholas Brendon, Coherence

Brendon’s had a rough go of it since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but he brings a veteran sensibility to his role as the troubled Mike in the mind-bending sci-fi film Coherence. He never loses Brendon’s fun-loving exterior, but as the effects of the comet passing overhead deepen, we see the demons at work on his psyche. The combustion of his past mistakes is the fulcrum of the movie, and Brendon is more than up to the task.

Zac Efron, Neighbors

I never would have thought Zac Efron would appear on a Bummys list, but here we are. The thing is, in a movie with Seth Rogen, Hannibal Buress, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Jerrod Carmichael, Efron is the funniest one. He’s also got the most meaningful arc; in a comedy that’s rife with lessons about maturation and moving on, his storyline both entertains the most and resonates the most after the movie ends.

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Richard Linklater is the best thing to ever happen to Ethan Hawke’s career. He’s been very effective in a lot of other projects, but he’s just so consistently uncool. In Linklater movies, his uncoolness is somehow very cool, and Boyhood is the most complete example of this phenomenon.

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Believe me, I myself was shocked when Simmons didn’t come out as the winner of this Bummy. I fully expected him to, since I’ve unequivocally loved his terrifying portrayal of a jazz teacher since I saw it last spring. Rest assured that his presence among the nominees isn’t a slight in the slightest, as his performance was so laudable that he was only a hairsbreadth away from the top slot…

Edward Norton, Birdman (winner)

…which fully belongs to Norton. Simmons was brilliant, but Norton’s turn in Birdman as pretentious actor, Mike, might be his best ever, and from a performer who could easily compete with DiCaprio for the title of best of his generation, that’s saying something. Mike is pretentious, yes, and the comedy of his arrogance is wonderful and essential to the movie’s moments of lightness. But he’s also more insightful than you’d give him credit for at first. He sees through other characters’ facades even while maintaining his own, and it’s his example that drives Keaton’s Riggan to insane heights of ambition. Birdman, which is a great movie, would be far lesser without Norton’s welcome presence.

Honorable Mentions:

Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

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Actress

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights

Mbatha-Raw got little to no attention for her performance as manipulated pop star Noni. We won’t get into the potential racial implications of the studio’s mishandling of the movie’s marketing. Just believe me when I say that this was the best unheralded performance from last year that you never saw.

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

If it weren’t for the role of this category’s winner, I’d say Pike had the highest degree of difficulty. Amy isn’t simply an ice queen; she’s a cold-blooded genius of a killer who is an expert at pretending to be normal. Pike hits that sweet spot between letting us see how detached Amy truly is from everyone else’s reality while remaining a convincing “cool girl”.

Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida

Trzebuchowska is a delight in Ida. She floats off the screen with ease, and yet the movie requires her to carry such strong convictions with the barest of expressions. It’s fitting that she’s quitting acting after this role; she hardly seems to belong to the same world as the movies.

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Wild is the kind of movie that tends to have a passive protagonist, with its flashbacks and its lack of a structure. But Witherspoon is anything but passive as Cheryl, fighting to accomplish all the practical tasks she needs to survive, using her charm to make friends on the trail she’s forced herself to finish as a sort of penance for letting her life fall apart after her mother passes away. Reese Witherspoon is so likable that I’d watch her in anything, but I’m thankful she’s producing movies like this so I can watch her take on complex characters.

Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin (winner)

There’s not a clear arc to Under the Skin, and while the movie has an unsettled mood that has stuck with me even months after seeing it, its nebulous structure left me a little too unsatisfied. But Johansson’s performance is another story. She inhabits the role so completely, that you begin to forget that Johansson hasn’t always been a human-seducing alien being. When she starts to exhibit confusion about her identity and doubts the more destructive aspects of her purpose, it’s like the whole movie wakes up. Johansson probably could have played any other role on this list; she’s the only one who could’ve played this one.

Honorable Mentions:

Emily Foxler, Coherence
Rosario Dawson, Top Five
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive

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Actor

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Charm isn’t a foreign concept for Bradley Cooper, and yet he’s never been charming in a movie the way that Chris Kyle is charming, in a casual, unassuming way. Cooper’s charm is more insistent, more honed, but he nails Chris Kyle’s effortless Southern charisma along with Kyle’s more repressed military demons. Regardless of your political opinions about the movie (which is far less political than either side made it out to be, but more on that next week), surely we can meet in the middle and agree that Cooper is fantastic in it.

David Oyelowo, Selma

The snub heard ‘round the world, or at least the world of people who actually care about awards shows, belonged to Selma, for receiving so little attention from the Academy when the Oscar nominations were announced at the beginning of 2015. But the most egregious failure was the Academy’s dismissal of Oyelowo’s performance, which ticked a lot of boxes for award-receiving: famous figure, plenty of “Oscar scenes”, liberal film. But his performance’s greatest asset was its depth, as Oyelowo played MLK in scenes both stirring and quieting, from the catharsis of his speeches to the disappointment of his extramarital transgressions; we saw every facet of MLK in Oyelowo- and no love from the Academy. He’ll have to content himself with a Bummy nomination.

Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice

Awards shows never understand the difficulties of comedy, but in a cynical age, pulling off pratfalls and double takes can be more impressive than, say, portraying a very physical disability (see below). Enter Joaquin Phoenix, who has been nominated and awarded by various organizations for plenty of dramatic performances; who knew he’d give the funniest performance of the year? And yet his Doc Sportello, an oft-confused and -stoned private detective caught in a web of Los Angeles crime, elicits more laughs from a raised eyebrow than Adam Sandler’s entire post-2005 career.

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

I have no problem with the Academy giving Redmayne the Best Actor award; he’s incredible in Theory, bringing a joie de vivre to a role that didn’t necessarily call for it. Even as he descends into the paralysis of ALS, there’s a light in his eyes, a playfulness that few actors would have been able to maintain at the same time as the physical necessities of playing Hawking. But it would appear that the Academy historically gives greater weight to roles that require physical transformation, as if that is more challenging than, say, comedy (see above) or intense vulnerability (see below), and I do take issue with that.

Michael Keaton, Birdman (winner)

When Keaton talks about his performance in Birdman, he seems totally nonplussed by the idea that his character, Riggan, is very similar to Keaton in real life. When the movie was released, we became so caught up in the ironic similarities between Riggan and Keaton that we forgot they’re not the same person. Keaton’s partly to blame for this; as Riggan, he fully commits to a level of navel-gazing that I’m sure he’s not used to in real life, if his unassuming persona in interviews is to be believed. Yes, he has to strip down to his underwear and walk through Times Square, but, worse than that, he has to unveil all of Riggan’s worst traits on Riggan’s quest for artistic integrity. We see Riggan at his most arrogant, his most desperate, his most contemptuous, and we thought we were watching Michael Keaton play himself- no, it’s just the greatest performance of his life.

Honorable Mentions:

Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

Past Top Performances

2013

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Best Actress: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

2012

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Best Supporting Actress: Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2011

Best Actor: Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

2010

Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Best Actress: Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Lesley Manville, Another Year

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