5. Bradley Cooper – Nightmare Alley / Licorice Pizza
Now it’d be easy to mock Cooper as someone who takes Leonardo DiCaprio’s leftovers as Leo was Guillermo’s first choice for “Nightmare Alley” and he was also rumored for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (though Anderson denies that he ever offered the part to Leo). But when you’re the second choice after one of the most prestigious male movie stars alive, then that means you’ve accomplished enough.
Cooper takes on two different roles in two different kinds of projects and he shines in them both. “Nightmare Alley” is a lead star performance but Cooper is not here just to look charismatic in this pulpy thriller. He plays a morally questionable protagonist but he has a great arc and Cooper effectively sells his character’s complex nature. His final close-up is particularly haunting. It was an unusual experience for him as they had to take a long break because of the pandemic and then went back to the project but it seemingly didn’t ruin his motivation. It also shows that Cooper is capable of going to dark places.
While he carries the whole film on his shoulders there, he’s mostly a cameo appearance in “Licorice Pizza”, but a very entertaining, extended cameo. He plays Jon Peters, a film producer and former hairdresser who used to be married to Barbra Streisand which is some kind of meta-casting on PTA’s part as Cooper was just recently in “A Star Is Born” and Peters produced the version with Streisand. And the result is extremely entertaining; he brings so much energy to his part.
4. Tilda Swinton – Memoria / The Souvenir, Part II
Another name that probably no one would get surprised to see on a list like this. Swinton is not just an excellent actress, she’s also an auteur favorite. No matter where are you from, you make a movie in English-language, you probably want to cast Swinton. So far, she has worked with names like Almodovar, Guadagnino, Boyle, Jarmusch, Tarr, Fincher, Coens, and so on.
Directors who work with Tilda usually keep coming back to her. Before brilliant “The Souvenir” films, in which Tilda plays the mother to her real-life daughter Honor Swinton Byrne’s character in an effective and memorable way, Joanna Hogg has cast her in her short film “Caprice” in 1986. The film remains of the most highly acclaimed movies of the last year.
Another highly acclaimed film of hers also premiered in Cannes but this time in the competition, was “Memoria”. English-language debut for Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some directors go off their style when they make a film in a different language but not him. It feels like an Apichatpong film through and through and Tilda fits his meditative, mysterious and haunting world like a glove. The film sets in Colombia and Swinton plays the lead. Englishwoman who lives in Medellín running a market-gardening business selling flowers who hears a sound that no one else can hear. There’s something about her screen presence that immediately grabs your attention and those projects were not different. Oh and yes, she also starred in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” this year and that was also an amusing part.
3. Adam Driver – The Last Duel / Annette
Adam Driver is another name who becomes regular on those lists. He had been in two acclaimed films this year with “The Last Duel” and “Annette” and while his other film “House of Gucci” got mostly mixed reviews, it still can be counted as a success because it’s a rare kind of adult drama that at least got a lot of attention even if it didn’t necessarily storm the box office. But one thing is for sure, Driver keeps making movies that are in the attention of cinephiles.
His role in “The Last Duel” is less showy than the rest but it’s still an effective and charismatic turn as the villain of the story. In “Annette” he’s much showier, he sings, he dances and he does so many other things. He sings almost the entire movie: “People do sing in life — I mean, burst into the song. But we don’t communicate through song. In a way, it feels more appropriate. There is something more vulnerable about it.”
Driver constantly explores new grounds as an actor which helps him to surprise his audiences with the roles he never played before. Him getting a major part in a Leos Carax film shows that he’s now getting the attention of non-American auteurs and more interesting roles might be on the road. “Annette”, judging from the audience reviews, is not for everyone. It’s a dark, surreal musical overall. But chances are, you might still admire or respect it even if you won’t end up loving it.
2. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog / Electrical Life of Louis Wain
There was a lot of Benedict this year. He’s in the new “Spider-Man” movie and one of his films “The Mauritanian” was part of an awards season but if we have to be objective, he wasn’t that good in it. It felt like a caricature but you can easily forgive him since he delivered his perhaps best film performance ever in Jane Campion’s gorgeously shot “The Power of the Dog”. There had been some kind of theatricality in Benedict’s acting and here we can see some of it but yet this time it enriches the performance. You keep wondering what’s the true nature of this man and what is he hiding inside. He plays a fascinating, complex man who is also arguably one of the most tragic figures of the cinema of recent years. The film itself is a near-masterpiece and is even more focused than the already great novel. Campion’s directorial skills are full-on display here.
Cumberbatch, however, had another role this year in “Electrical Life of Louis Wain’. Maybe it’s not a stretch for him because he’s known for playing tortured genius figures but seeing it after “The Power of the Dog” feels different this time. Here he’s a deeply sensitive man, so unlike of his “Power” character and more likable person. Once again he’s constantly interesting to watch. The film itself is a warm tribute to its subject and Cumberbatch brings enough gentleness to the story.
1. Charlotte Rampling – Benedetta / Dune
Ranked this high because that’s what the legends deserve. This year saw the premieres of her next collaboration with Francois Ozon as well as the drama “Juniper” and she’s got praised for both but two of her films got a major distribution around the world: “Dune” and “Benedetta”. The former has become almost a worldwide sensation. Yes, it should’ve done better at the box office but it’s certainly one of the most discussed films of the year and when the next chapter comes up, this will build even a bigger audience. It’s perhaps the best science fiction film of the year. And the latter is a Paul Verhoeven movie. The legendary filmmaker loves to give us highly entertaining films with unpredictable storylines with original characters told with the right dose of satire.
“Benedetta” is also a type of film she wouldn’t ever be afraid of saying “yes”. This is the woman who rose to fame with “The Night Porter” overall. In “Benedetta”, she’s everything. She’s charismatic and scary in one scene, and heartbreakingly sad in another one, and a totally confused woman in a different sequence. She even elevates the script and brings so much more to her character. Paul Verhoeven is an excellent actor’s director and no wonder he used Rampling’s incredible talents so well in his deliciously fun film which is also full of thought-provoking themes.
In “Dune”, she appears in Gom Jabbar sequence and she just makes the scene. Her voice, her eyes even behind the veil easily haunt you. You don’t have to see her face clearly to know what she feels and why she acts this way. This is just another testament to her talent that one scene is enough for her to leave a great impression. The same goes for “Benedetta”. Efira is brilliant in the lead role but there’s no way you watch and think Rampling was less impressive.
Here honorable mentions should be gone to her “Dune” co-stars: Oscar Isaac (amazing in “The Card Counter”) and Timothee Chalamet who gave a great lead performance in “Dune” and was also good in “The French Dispatch” but they didn’t appear on the list to not repeat the same films over and over again. And another reason is it made sense to honor this legend more who at the age of 75, still delivers great work in great films. She should get more recognition for that.