14. Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
There is a moment in Greta Gerwig’s masterpiece where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played with an immediacy and verve quite simply unseen in coming-of-age films by the uncategorizable Saoirse Ronan, sits down on the grass in front of her house as she receives a life-altering piece of mail. There is such tangible, poignant hope in her eyes that it’s impossible not to trace it back to your own memories of leaving home for the next step in your life.
Not unlike its fiercely irresolute protagonist, “Lady Bird” seems to be in search for an identity it would be most content to adorn. But being a scrapbook-like assembly of recollections, that instantly begin to mirror our own, it never needs to settle on one. All it does, in its light-footed, yet assured reflection on that final year of high school, is offer solace in the fact that no relationship needs to be right. It just needs to be true and no one could’ve harvested the truth in Gerwig’s monumental screenplay better than Ronan.
How do you make a performance feel both wisely reflective and vividly untarnished by age? How do you time both the amusing and the heartbreaking so perfectly that their composition seems both perfected and entirely whimsical? How do you nurture both longing and contentment in such a piercingly honest and yet utterly graceful concerto? Ronan has all the answers – she is disobedient, passionate, reckless, regretful, ungovernable and faithful. Her eyes well up with affection and everything is alright with the world.
13. Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
You can always rely on David Fincher to make bold casting decisions and consequently give actors the roles of their lifetimes. Edward Norton became iconic for his frustrated worker in ‘Fight Club’ who – spoiler – conjures up an alter ego in which he looks like Brad Pitt and is the coolest person possible.
Rosamund Pike haunted millions with her rendition of Gillian Flynn’s incessantly fascinating Amy Elliott-Dunne in “Gone Girl”. Claire Foy might be the new kid on the block, but Rooney Mara played the infectious, silently dangerous Lisabeth Salander to perfection in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” – work even Steig Larsson would have been proud of.
But it would certainly have been daunting for an actor to receive the offer to play Mark Zuckerberg in Fincher’s impossibly stylish execution of Aaron Sorkin’s firecracker script. But he took the challenge head-on and played the character with a stoic irreverence and wit that hid so much more than it told – the secret to the perfect portrayal of famous real-life figure.
Eisenberg takes all of Zuckerberg’s infamous disregard for society, money and loyalty and makes it as immovable a character trait as his upper jaw. His face does not, for a moment, register any vulnerability or any semblance of it – he is stone cold man, hardened by both his immaturity and his independence from a world he could easily live without. But there are flashes of doubt, insecurity and regret that puncture the long durations of his character being the anti-hero of our generation. And in those sublime, unbelievably quiet moments, he rises above the experience of the film, which is quite an accomplishment in itself.
12. Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
Everything there is to be said about the genius of this Oscar winner has probably been said already. A shape-shifter of the most unique sort, she brings such effortless, wrenching humanity to each character she plays that they slip into our bodies and make our skins crawl and writhe in pain as she actualizes their misery or balloon in joy as she brings their triumphs to life.
In the Dardenne brothers’ protagonist in “Two Days, One Night” you can feel in her ragged breath and increasing despair the listlessness of a life that has been reduced to begging for a job in a factory where she was fired because during her leave of absence her employers realized she wasn’t needed and put her fate up to her co-workers who chose to get thousand euro bonuses over letting her keep her job.
She plays it with minimal flair, so when she eventually breaks down and burgeoning depression leaks out of her system, ever so gradually, the rather purposeless film comes to a head and beautifully collapses around her. Her worn out face begins to unravel secrets she has no time or reason to elucidate and make smaller with words. It is a rapturous performance from an actor who can be credited for some of the most rapturous film acting of all time.
11. Adam Driver – Paterson
There is not much that can be said of this astonishing, mesmerizing performance. It is great in the way an exotic delicacy is great – rare and so fresh in its texture you cannot define it in the known lingo. What works is simply the lack of strain or vanity in Driver’s plain-as-a-canvas face as he moves through the town colliding with lives so beyond his mystical, ethereal own that they all seem to revolve around in outer space, even though their existence is much closer to ours than that of Driver’s character.
In the most meta of all meta creations, Driver plays a bus driver called Paterson in the town of Paterson. But there is no awareness in Driver’s performance of the folk-like storytelling style Jamursch has chosen. He is moving through life unaware of what he is giving up on or what the road not taken looks like. So events like the loss of his poems when his wife’s dog eats up his diary bring his life and our hearts, which by that time have gotten completely in synch with Paterson’s happiness and loss, to a halt.
It is a moment of profound realization that even though we know so little of this man and have heard even less from him about himself, we have felt everything that can be felt about a bus driver in a small town of his namesake who writes beautiful, simple poems. What a miracle of the craft of acting.
10. Natalie Portman – Black Swan
When we first meet Natalie Portman’s Nina in the beginning of “Black Swan”, she’s as white a swan as there can be. In signature Aronofsky fashion, her innocence and frailty is stretched to the absolute extreme to the point where in the hands of a lesser actor, Nina would come off as painfully naïve. But Portman makes her insecurity and low self-esteem so classically graceful and honest, the perfectly built atmosphere of dread around her does not seem to stem entirely from her paranoia – much like the legendary turn by Mia Farrow in Polanski’s masterpiece “Rosemary’s Baby.”
As the paranoia begins to take full control of Nina and the visual and metaphorical subtext of the narrative becomes the text in all its gore and glory, Portman pours her guts out for us to devour with shameless ease. We pity her, we fear for her, but we never fully understand the danger she has put herself in.
This is until she transforms into the Black Swan and colors the screen with blinding red and black. It sends shivers down one’s spine as she allows Nina to touch perfection, be burned with it in the most glorious of all destructions of the soul. You will not come out unaffected.
9. Tom Hardy – Locke
It’s an impossible task to be onscreen for the entirety of a film. To be the only one onscreen and to be confined to a single location seems downright Herculean, but Tom Hardy is nothing but recklessly courageous. His bold creations, even behind his typically covered face, bring such direct, inescapable urgency to whatever film he’s in, that when his face is not covered and it is the only thing you see in the entire film, it is rewarding rather than punitive.
To craft a character in real time requires patience, wisdom and most of all, time. Hardy compresses time wisely and patiently to bring Ivan Locke to immortal life. He is tender, vulnerable, ugly, defiant, sagacious, reflective and devastated all at the same time. He makes phone calls but we couldn’t care less about what the people on the other side wish to say – Ivan’s imperfection holds our attention almost exclusively and if it is the only thing we are privy to for 85 minutes, it is pure bliss.
8. Shahab Hossieni – A Separation
Asghar Farhadi’s humanistic puzzles typically involve family conflict embroiled in society’s lack of fairness and justice. No one has brought that to the screen with such piercing anger and grit as Hossieni’s Hodjat in Farhadi’s “A Separation”. Hossieni plays the husband of the woman who files a suit against her ex-employer for being the cause of her miscarriage.
As unsure as we are of who is at fault in the situation, the sheer belief that makes Hodjat’s eyes shine with rage at his wife’s employer and his family makes us question our perception at every turn.
We walk through life ignoring how hard it is for those of us less privileged than us to survive. Hossieni’s sharp, detailed and raw analysis of a man whose life seems to have crumbled under the burden of loss makes every shift in our belief at who it is to blame for what happened hurt. There is no certainty that his wife’s employer is to blame for their misery, but their misery is certain and Hosseini makes sure it is palpable every time the camera is on him.