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Judging by the critics’ awards announced so far, this year’s Oscar nominees for the four acting categories will be drawn from a relatively limited pool. Yet 2017 was abundant in terrific performances, and Academy voters should ensure they check out the actors listed here.
There was less than a month to go before shooting began on The Florida Project when director Sean Baker cast then 23-year-old non-actor Bria Vinaite as the wildly irresponsible mom Halley. The tattooed, neon-haired Bedford-Stuyvesant Instagrammer and designer of weed-friendly clothing proved a natural.
An unemployed stripper dwelling in a low-rent Kissimmee motel, Halley is a feisty, feckless selfie baby incapable of taking care of herself, let alone her impudent six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). In need of mothering herself, Hailey resorts to selling knocked-off designer perfume and prostitution to make ends meet, entertaining her johns while Moonee is in the bath. Vinaite let the camera right in—hers is a disarmingly intimate portrayal of a lost soul.
Seventeen years ago, Bill Pullman recalled Gary Cooper and Randolph Scot when he played the lean, laconic, and romantic ramrod hero of TNT’s The Virginian, which he directed himself. As the title character of the new Western The Ballad of Lefty Brown, Pullman portrays a less reassuring cowboy: Lefty is a self-deprecating old timer, lacking in confidence and leadership skills, who is nonplussed when his boss Johnson (Peter Fonda), the governor elect, asks him to run his ranch in his absence. When their treacherous friend Reece (Jim Caviezel) has Johnson assassinated, the hapless Lefty has to find it within himself to avenge the killing and restore order.
Pullman is formidable. Shifty-eyed and nervous, Lefty flinches and creaks. He’s a coot not cut out for ruthless or noble deeds. His mind turns slowly, but somehow he galvanizes his weary bones into action. If there’s any justice in the Hollywood territory, he’ll be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.
The Chilean trans actor Daniela Vega gives a scintillating performance as the pre-op trans waitress and aspiring singer Marina in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. Following the death of her middle-aged partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes) from an aneurysm, Marina faces a humiliating struggle to show how much she loved him.
Because the dying Orlando was badly bruised falling downstairs before Marina could get him to hospital, the police treat her with suspicion. Orlando’s ex-wife bans Marina from the funeral, and his son threatens to evict Marina from the flat she shared with Orlando. The mother, the menacing son and other abusive family members regard her as a pervert. Marina draws on reserves of mental strength in finding a way of saying farewell to Orlando privately and maintaining her female dignity in standing up to the bigots. Vega’s facial expressions and body language under such duress are mesmerising.
Keoghan is 25 but he can pass for 13. He played the sacrificial schoolboy in Dunkirk, but he had a much more demanding role as the boy who terrorizes Steven (Colin Farrell) and Anna Martin (Nicole Kidman) and their kids in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (If, on one level, he represents the return of the repressed, he strongly echoes the little boy whom Kidman’s grieving New Yorker wants to marry in Birth.) The key to Keoghan’s performance is his initial neediness and plausibility, which give only a faint indication that he will turn into a monster.
Noah Baumbach’s trenchant comedy-drama The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) scrutinizes the lives of a disgruntled ageing sculptor Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and the three adult children damaged by his egocentrism and neglectful parenting. Adam Sandler plays Danny, Harold’s eldest, who stumbles along aimlessly, except in his close relationship with his teenage daughter (Grace Van Patten); Elizabeth Marvel is the socially awkward daughter, Jean; and Ben Stiller is their successful but uptight younger half-brother, Matthew.
Marvel, who has less screen time than Sandler or Stiller, is revelatory here. After Harold has been admitted to hospital with a life-threatening brain injury, the siblings mooch around in a nearby wood, where Jean reveals that as a child she was sexually abused by a friend of Harold’s. Nervous hugs are exchanged—Jean flinching at even her brothers’ proximity—and then the three take out their anger on the abuser’s car when he’s visiting. It’s a minor catharsis only for Jean, who’s borderline neurasthenic. Marvel doesn’t sentimentalize her or turn to pathos. Jean is fated to remain one of the walking wounded.
As Hap Jackson, 1940s tenant farmer and preacher in the Mississippi Delta, Rob Morgan verbalizes, more than any other character in Dee Rees’s Mudbound, the legacy of the antebellum past. In his deep, gravelly voice, literate, deep-thinking Hap—one of the film’s six narrators—ruefully speaks an interior monologue about his respect for the earth that feeds his family: it’s the same earth that comprises the land he yearns to own but never will.
A loving father and husband, Hap expresses his undimmed desire for his stoical wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and his perplexity over the inability of his son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) to re-adjust to farm life after serving with a US Army tank unit in Europe during World War II. Hap breaks his leg, is bedridden, gets up and gets on. He is some kind of a man.
Any woman disgusted by a man who sleeps with her once and then unilaterally decides the relationship is over would do well to study Elisabeth Moss in The Square. Moss plays Anne, an American journalist who interviews and then has sex with a Swedish museum curator, Christian (Claes Bang)—he is so vain he won’t let her dispose of the used condom for fear that Anne wants to steal his semen.
When Christian ignores Anne’s calls, she waylays him in the museum and denounces him as a man who wanted to make no connection with her beyond the sexual, and who used his professional power to get laid. Anne is raw, demanding, and un-prettified in the sex scene, and risks complete humiliation—and gets it—in the confrontation. Moss is at her bravest in a role that is stunningly of the moment.
Jones brought his trademark weirdness to The Florida Project (as motel manager Bobby’s son) and to Get Out (as Rose’s obnoxious brother), but it was as the advertising manager Red Welby in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that he really stood out. Having enabled Mildred (Frances McDormand) to rent the billboards, Red incurs the wrath of Sam Rockwell’s macho cop Dixon and eventually takes a mother of a beating. Red splutters and mumbles when Dixon lands in the same hospital room as him, but then staggers over to give him an orange juice. It’s a sweet and touching performance.
Not the least troubling character in Get Out is Georgina, the robotically smiling “Stepford” maid in the Armitage household. When, standing before the protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a vestige of the past obtrudes on Georgina’s shattered consciousness, her smile curdles and a look of desperation and fright takes its place. Georgina soon returns to her placid, obliging non-self, but Chris has learned there’s something rotten among the white elite. Despite having relatively little screen time, Gabriel gave the film a jolt.
Shawn Eckardt was the friend of figure skater Tonya Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Harding’s bodyguard, who in 1994 commissioned the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. In I, Tonya, Paul Walter Hauser is brilliant as the pudgy Eckardt (who died at 40 in 2007). A childlike fantasist, still living at home with his parents, he kids himself that he is a kind of Oregonian version of the James Bond character M.
Scarcely satanic, Hauser’s Eckardt is a slit-eyed, immoral fool prone to delusions of grandeur. The movie has it that, like Harding and Gillooly, Eckardt wasn’t aware that Kerrigan would be assaulted by his “operatives”; because the attacks happens remotely, it barely impinges on his conscience. Hauser makes him comically pathetic, if not the same fat clown that Chris Farley made him on Saturday Night Live.
The Sense of an Ending, based on the Julian Barnes novel, was one of the movies that slipped through the cracks in 2017, but Emily Mortimer left an indelible impression in the pivotal role of Sarah Ford. The sixtysomething Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) recalls the long-ago weekend when, as a clueless teenager (played by Billy Howle), he visited his sort-of girlfriend Veronica (Freya Mavor) at her family home, and her enigmatic mother Sarah smiled winningly at him as she hung out the washing and saw him gazing at her from his guest-room window.
Long-gone MILFs haunt the memories and fantasies of many a middle-age man with an unresolved Oedipal crisis, but there’s nothing stereotypical about Mortimer’s unknowable Sarah. The image of her lingers in the film like a half-remembered melody.
In Darkest Hour, set in May and early June 1940, Ronald Pickup seems exactly like the fallen British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain seemed less than six months from his death from cancer: hawk-like, watchful, regretful, dismayed.
Resigned to his fate, though, he remains focused on the issue at hand: the political duel being fought by Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) that will determine if Britain will agree to negotiate from a weak position with Hitler, or fight on at whatever cost. Pickup catches Chamberlain’s essential nobility.
As King George VI in the same film, Ben Mendelsohn looks even less like the monarch than Colin Firth did in The King’s Speech. Nonetheless, Mendelsohn distinguishes “Bertie” as a peevish, shy man to whom ruling doesn’t come easy—and also with more of a rhotacism (“r/w” speech impediment) than a stammer. Darkest Hour allows him to show some mettle in rallying Churchill when the PM is at an especially low ebb. Mendelsohn has a slight chance of getting into the Best Supporting Actor competition.
Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passions ought to earn her a Best Actress Oscar nomination (though at the time of writing Frances McDormand, Sally Hawkins, Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, and Margot Robbie are the favorites to make the cut.)
What, though, of Jennifer Ehle, who plays Dickinson’s cheerful, good-natured, and devoted sister Vinnie; Jodhi May, who plays their virtuous sister-in-law Susan, a victim of adultery; and Catherine Bailey, who plays their knowing, liberated friend Vryling Buffam? Beautifully etched by the actors, these ladies don’t move the earth in genteel 19th-century Amherst, but they do make us aware of its constraints, pitfalls, and hypocrisies. Each performance is nuanced and memorable.
There’s an element of Of Mice and Men in the relationship between Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) and his mentally challenged younger brother, Nick, played by Ben Safdie, in Good Time (which Safdie co-directed with his brother Josh). Connie protects the slow, sensitive, and paranoid Nick, who’s seen struggling to answer his psychotherapist’s simple questions in the troubling opening scene.
Connie should have known better than to take Nick along on a bank job—the experience freaks him out and makes him run at precisely the wrong moment. Safdie is astonishing in the role, and since the voters of the Motion Picture Academy admire expertly portrayed handicapped characters, he might be in with an Oscar shot.
In Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, set in the mid 1950s, Juno Temple plays a comically naive Brooklyn girl who ratted to the FBI about the Mob after she fell out with her gangster husband. The role is a caricature: Allen narrowly avoided writing Carolina as a bimbo, but she is a bright woman who aspires to becoming an English teacher. At the start of the movie, she arrives at her estranged dad’s Coney Island amusement park home terrified because a contract’s been put on her life.
Wearing a permanently stunned look, Carolina tries to pick up the pieces while she’s in hiding and starts going to night school; men flock around her, of course. It says much for Temple’s growing authority as an actress that she renders Caroline poignant and philosophical; she doesn’t chastise herself for falling in love with the wrong guy when she was 20. But she’s one of those people who can’t get out of their own way: the last walk she takes in the film is haunting.
When Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva co-starred in Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), the Motion Picture Academy honored Riva with an Oscar nomination. Trintignant (who turns 87 on December 11) now plays an older version of his Amour character Georges in Haneke’s quasi-sequel Happy End. The Academy should honor Trintignant, too, because he is in fine fettle as a widowed and long-retired construction firm boss who, with nothing to live for, shows some determination in attempting to shuffle off his mortal coil. It’s fitting somehow that Georges should be the one family member to relate to his psychopathic teenage daughter (Fantine Harduin).
In Happy End’s most alarming scene, traffic rushes past George as the camera follows him wheeling his wheelchair on the dangerous side of a line of parked cars. He then irritably urges some passing immigrant men to shove him to his death. How Haneke and Trintignant pulled this off is hard to say.