Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Movie Review: Happy End

Happy End **** / *****
Directed by: Michael Haneke.
Written by: Michael Haneke.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Anne Laurent), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges Laurent), Mathieu Kassovitz (Thomas Laurent), Fantine Harduin (Eve Laurent), Franz Rogowski (Pierre Laurent), Laura Verlinden (Anaïs), Aurélia Petit (Nathalie), Toby Jones (Lawrence Bradshaw), Hassam Ghancy (Rachid), Nabiha Akkari (Jamila). 
Austrian director Michael Haneke may bristle at the suggestion that his latest film – Happy End – is a kind of “greatest hits” package of his career – but it’s certainly easy to see why many critics have said something along those lines. There are elements here of films like Benny’s Video, Amour, Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon. I say this not as a criticism of the film – like some have – but rather an acknowledgment that Haneke is still addressing his pet themes, and doing it all in one, strange package. While Happy End doesn’t join the ranks of his masterworks (including The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, Amour and his best film, Cache) – the suggestion that it’s somehow a bad film from the filmmaker is silly. He is still trying to, and succeeding in, provoking a response from his audience – and technically, the film is quite different from what he has done before – simpler, more pared down and without the beauty that often accompanies his images. He has made a film for the Snapchat generation, and done so using the same kind of style – and odd for a 75 year old, he does it without coming across as embarrassingly out of touch (something the much younger Jason Reitman wasn’t able to do in Men, Women and Children).
The film revolves around the wealthy Laurent family who runs a construction business is Calais. The company has seen better days financially – and to top it off, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who now runs it, has to deal with the fallout of an accident that killed one of her workers, which may have been caused by the negligence of her son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who she put in charge of the site. Her father, George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) used to run the company, but is now 85, and started to lose his mind to dementia – and his determined to die before that happens. His son, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), is one his second wife – the painfully shy and quiet Anais (Laura Verlinden) – and they have an infant son, although he is cheating on his wife with an older woman – who we meet through her lengthy chats with him on Facebook – which are kinky to say the least. All of these people are already fairly messed up – and that’s before Eve (Fantine Harduin) re-enters their lives. She is Thomas’ 13-year-old daughter from her first marriage, who hasn’t been around in recent years. She has been living with her mother – who we see in the film’s opening scenes, in videos that Eve herself shoots on her phone. First, it’s just her mother going through her bedtime routine – but then it becomes darker, as she stumbles around, and Eve admits, in voiceover, to poisoning her mother with pills. Whether she meant to just make her sick, or kill her the film never states – but she does end up in a coma, and Eve comes to live with Thomas.
Happy End is a film that refuses to draw the lines between the dots that Haneke is placing throughout the film – you are left in the audience to do that, even more than in Haneke’s other films. None of these characters are innocent – but they are all completely self-involved. Their motivations are often obscured in the film (like, for instance, why Huppert’s Anne is marrying a British banker, played by the short, balding Toby Jones).
The film jumps around a lot – it’s not quite a series of vignettes like previous Haneke films Code Unknown or 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, but it feels like that at times. All the characters are interesting, but the best performances belong to the youngest and oldest of the cast members. The great Trintgnant, now in his late 80s, plays a character very much like his one in Amour (we don’t realize just how much until late in the film). The film examines how someone like him can deal with the things he has done – and he is now looking for someone to essentially do the same thing for him. In Harduin, Haneke has made a real discovery, as Eve is the most complex character in the film. At first, you may feel that she is essentially a female version of the main character from Benny’s Video – a little psychopath, using technology as a way to keep a distance from the things she has done. But as the film progresses, it gets messier than that – she becomes a more complex character, whose motivations are not so clear cut. She would likely fit in with the kids in The White Ribbon, or even the son in Cache, who know the sins of their parents, and punish them for those sins.
Happy End has a fairly blunt visual look for a Haneke film – he almost shot it like a TV movie in many respects, from the aspect ratio, to the lighting. There are a few of his great long takes, he is going for something more direct this time. It works for this film, even if I hope he goes from something more akin to some of his other work in the future. Not everything in the film works as well as it should – Haneke’s ultimate point here seems to be that we are all so self-obsessed we do not see the larger suffering in the world, and to make his point, he uses the current refugee crisis. This comes to a head in a climaxing scene – but it doesn’t really work that well. Haneke’s point is stronger when it’s more focused in Happy End – after all, the individual Laurent family members are not just blind to the suffering in the wider world – they’re blind to the suffering within their own family.
Ultimately, if Happy End is a disappointment from Haneke it’s only because we’ve become accustomed to him making masterpieces more often than not over the past 20 years. Happy End isn’t that, but even lesser Haneke is better than most filmmakers at their very best.

Movie Review: Hostiles

Hostiles *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Scott Cooper.
Written by: Scott Cooper based on a story by Donald E. Stewart.
Starring: Christian Bale (Captain Joseph J. Blocker), Rosamund Pike (Rosalie Quaid), Wes Studi (Yellow Hawk), Ben Foster (Sergeant Charles Wills), Stephen Lang (Colonel Abraham Biggs), Timothée Chalamet (Private Philippe DeJardin), Jesse Plemons (Lieutenant Rudy Kidder), Rory Cochrane (Master Sergeant Thomas Metz), Jonathan Majors (Corporal Henry Woodson), Adam Beach (Black Hawk), Q'orianka Kilcher (Elk Woman), Peter Mullan (Lieutenant Colonel Ross McCowan), Robyn Malcolm (Minnie McGowan), Paul Anderson (Corporal Tommy Thomas), Scott Wilson (Cyrus Lounde), Bill Camp (Jeremiah Wilks), John Benjamin Hickey (Captain Royce Tolan), Scott Shepherd (Wesley Quaid), Ryan Bingham (Sergeant Malloy).
Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a Western that has so much going for it that ultimately it is able to make up for some of it’s rather glaring flaws. It isn’t a classically structured Western, but rather one that aims to depict the brutality of America at that time in all its harshness. This, it undeniably does, but the film also plods along at a rather slow pace, and at times it feels like little more than a parade of misery. And while it’s laudable that the really wants to give humanity to the Native Americans, it suffers because the Native characters are thinly written, especially when compared to the roles for the white actors in the film. The film is about the slow realization of the main character – Captain Joseph Blocker – that Natives are humans to, and deserve that humanity. If only the film had been able to do more with its Natives characters, it could have been great.
The film takes place in 1892, and opens with a massacre of a white family on their homestead at the hands of the Comanche – who want to steal their horses. To do this, they kill the husband, two daughters, and an infant son – leaving only the mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alive – and only because they cannot find her. The film than flashes to a group of Army men, taunting and tormenting their latest Native captive. These two scenes make it clear that there is no love lost between these two sides, and brutality is going both ways. Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) is then given his final assignment before retirement. He is to escort chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family – who have been prisoners for 7 years – back to his homeland in Montana, where he can die in peace. It has become clear at this point that the White Man has won the “war” against the natives, so a little harmless PR stunt like this won’t hurt anything. Blocker is deadest against it – so much so that he risks a court martial to try and fight it. Eventually, he gives in, because he has no choice. But he isn’t happy about it – and once out of the army base, he demeans the Chief and his son (Adam Beach) by putting them in chains. Eventually, they will come across Rosalie, still staying in her burnt out shell of a house, with the bodies of her family – clearly suffering from PTSD. They take her along with them, and she slowly comes out of her shock – but the danger of those Comanche is always there.
The first half of the film is really where it is at its best – the journey from the base, to the point where they have to deal with the Comanche that killed the Quaid family. From there – about the half way point, things become a little more scattershot, and less effective. The film introduces a killer (Ben Foster), who had previously served with Blocker, and who they are tasked with bringing back to another base to stand trial. Foster doesn’t understand why he is being tried for murder, when all the army does is murder people. There are also side trips to deal with brutal fur trappers, and a final showdown with some people who arrive out of nowhere.
To be fair to the movie, it handles these things fairly well. Bale is great in his role, and he is able to show his slow dawning change in him in how he views Yellow Hawk, and other natives – from the man practically shaking with racist rage in the opening scenes, to someone who really does fully respect them, and is willing to back that up. Rosamund Pike is also quite good (even if her “recovery” seems rather quick – especially after the incident with the fur traders). The film looks utterly gorgeous as well. While the film has a slow pace, perhaps too slow given its runtime, it does make the eruptions of violence hit harder.
Yet, I cannot help but think that much of the energy in the second half, devoted to these side trips, could have been better served rounding out the Native characters. Wes Studi is a great actor, and he has undeniable screen presence in Hostiles – but the film doesn’t really give him anything to do except have screen presence. Talented actors like Adam Beach and Q'orianka Kilcher – are given even less to do. If you’re going to make a film about the relationship between the White Man and Natives, it would help if both sides are given fully realized characters to play.
Still, while that’s an undeniably flaw, it doesn’t sink Hostiles – which really is a fine, modern day Western, which wants to help correct the mythmaking of old Hollywood films. The film was directed by Scott Cooper – who has made four solid films now (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace and Black Mass are the others), but hasn’t yet made a great one. He may well get there one day – but for now, it’s been interesting watching him try.

Movie Review: Den of Thieves

Den of Thieves ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Christian Gudegast.

Written by: Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring.
Starring: Gerard Butler (Nick Flanagan), Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson (Levi Enson), Pablo Schreiber (Ray Merrimen), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Donnie), Evan Jones (Bosco), Cooper Andrews (Mack), Maurice Compte (Benny 'Borracho' Megalob), Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau (Tony Z Zapata), Dawn Olivieri (Debbie O'Brien), Lewis Tan (Actor), Mo McRae (Gus Henderson), Meadow Williams (Holly), Brian Van Holt (Murph), Max Holloway (Bas).
If you’re going to steal, you may as well steal from the best. Den of Thieves is a L.A. set bank robbery film that desperately wants to be Michael Mann’s Heat, but of course cannot be, because nothing can be that great. It’s a film that flashes back and forth between the crooks and the cops, drawing parallels between the two of them, wanting to put them all on the same, morally dubious footing. The problem is that writer/director Christian Gudegast is no Michael Mann (no shame in that, no one is) –and he isn’t a William Friedkin either (To Live and Die in L.A. is another key influence here). Unlike those two directors, Gudegast cannot pull off the tricky balancing act between cops and criminals like they did, and he gets bogged down in a twisty, turny plot that wants to (and admittedly does) succeed in pulling the rug out from under us. Mann and Friedkin didn’t need to do that, because their films had some much else going for it. You almost wish that Gudegast had abandoned some of his delusions of grandeur here, and made what he clearly really wanted to – a pure heist movie. That’s where the movie is at its best. It’s when it strains to be serious, that the film feels like the 140 minute film that it is.
The film opens with a robbery by a professional crew, basically wearing paramilitary gear, as the rob an armored truck making an early morning donut stop. They don’t want the money inside the truck – they hadn’t picked any up yet, it’s empty – they want to truck itself. Things don’t go precisely as planned, and they end up killing a half dozen cops or so, but they get out. The crew is led by Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), along with Lieutenant Levi (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and his driver, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) – among others. Because of all the dead cops, the crime draws the attention of the Major Crimes unit, led by Nick (Gerard Butler), whose crew of cops is basically a criminal gang itself – they seemingly operate with no barriers at all, have lots of money, and if they feel like it, will kidnap and beat-up suspects. Eventually it becomes clear that Nick knows Merriman is planning something, and Merriman knows he knows, and the two basically engage in a dick measuring context to see who will back down first.
There is a lot I liked about Den of Thieves. The robbery sequences are well handled, and the various shootouts work better than most of their kind. The performances are, for the most part, quite good. Pablo Schreiber is particular is excellent as Merriman, and with this alongside Straight Outta Compton and Ingrid Goes West, I’m willing to say now that O’Shea Jackson Jr. is a better actor than his father. Even Gerard Butler, an actor I don’t normally like, and 50 Cent – who can come across as emotionless – basically work here. While the film is way too long, it’s never boring.
I do think the film strains too much for seriousness, that doesn’t make much sense. You could jettison everything involving Butler’s wife and kids (which plays like Butler and company doing a juvenile version of the scenes in Heat, where Pacino and his wife’s marriage collapses, and he takes his TV) and not lose a thing. Likewise, you could lose a scene involving 50 Cent taking his daughter’s prom date to the garage for a taking to (you don’t see that daughter before than scene, or after) which is Gudegast basically trying to outdo a similar scene in Bad Boys II. Whenever the film strays too far from its main narrative it becomes more than a little awkward and stilted.
There is much to like about Den of Thieves, but I don’t think the film ever completely comes together. It’s trying too hard to do too much, and as a result, it doesn’t do any of it particularly well. This is Gudegast’s debut film, and if nothing else, it proves he has good taste in influences. Now, he needs to do something more with them, other than simply try and copy them.

2017 Year End Report: Best Actress

Another year where best actress really was an embarrassment of riches – I could easily make the case for anyone in my top 10 for the year’s best, and any number of runners up higher in a different year.
Runners-Up: Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game handles Sorkin’s dialogue like a pro, and carries the whole movie on her back.  Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman was the perfect Wonder Woman – full of strength and sincerity and humor - the superhero we need right now. Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled keeps herself in control in her role, even as everything gets brilliantly overheated, which makes it more disturbing. Jennifer Lawrence in mother! Basically plays a symbol more than character – and does so brilliantly. Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion is excellent as Emily Dickinson, in a costume drama that doesn’t romanticize the period, or her life. Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus is wonderful as a young woman drifting in her life, not sure what she wants to do next. Debra Winger in The Lovers is excellent, as always, as a wife who is having an affair, and cannot tell her husband about it – before she starts having an affair with her husband.
10. Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper
There are few actors working today who command your attention so fully, while doing nothing, than Kristen Stewart. She spends much of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper staring at her iPhone, as texts message from, well, someone, come in an horrify her. Yet, just try to look away, as she travels around Paris horrified, or tries on clothes she cannot afford, all the while, grieving for her brother. This is a performance I cannot imagine another actress of Stewart’s age giving – it’s quiet, and subtle and brilliant, and relies on her screen presence, which she carries effortlessly. I never get tired of watching Stewart.
9. Meryl Streep in The Post
One of the greatest actresses in history, Streep does have a tendency at times to suck all the air out of a movie and keep it for herself – which is why in many of her recent movies (from The Devil Wears Prada to Julie & Julia to The Iron Lady to Florence Foster Jenkins) are average overall, but great showcases for her. It’s good to see her in something like The Post, where she goes more understated in her performances, playing a powerful woman, who needs to fully except that power, in a world full of men – none of whom really believe in her. Streep makes Kay Graham sympathetic and vulnerable – and that only increases her power. Streep is always good, but she rarely has material this good, or a director this good – and it shows in just how great she is here.
8. Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins has long been one of the more interesting actresses’ working- I still cannot believe she didn’t get nominated for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky – and she’s always a bright shining light in any of her films. Here, director Guillermo Del Toro takes away one of her greatest assets – her voice – and she somehow delivers an even more endearing performance. It’s not easy to play a romance next to a sea creature – but Hawkins does it – not only that, she makes you believe it, and believe that she could enlist so many others to help her. It’s a physical performance yes, but it’s a deeply felt one as well. Hawkins has always been great – let’s hope more people realize it going forward.
7. Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Tonya Harding is the kind of juicy roles that actresses would kill for – and its Robbie’s good luck that this movie wasn’t made years ago, when Amy Adams would have been perfect. Still, it’s hard to think that Adams could have been much better than Robbie is here, who captures the dual sides of Harding brilliantly – she is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who just wanted a chance. Had she actually won gold – with no knee bashing – it would be one of the most inspirational sports stories of all time. Here, Robbie is hilarious, but she also does a great job of making Harding sympathetic, and yet also making you understand why everyone hated her so much. Robbie has been a star since her brilliant work in The Wolf of Wall Street – but here, she finds the perfect role for her. The role is a high wire act – and she pulls it off brilliantly.
6. Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth
The key to Florence Pugh’s performance in Lady Macbeth, is that in the first half of the film, she makes you like this woman – makes you feel sorry for her. She is a young woman, sold into marriage, with an older, rough man who doesn’t even like her, let alone love her, and placed on a cold farm, where she’s supposed to stay inside all the time. Her affair with a worker is almost feminist – her freeing herself from bondage. And then, in the second half, she does one monstrous thing after another, and you slowly realize what kind of performance you’ve been rooting for. Newcomer Pugh has to show all of this under a carefully benign expression most of the time – she cannot speak up, or else she will get in trouble. This is one of the great breakthrough performances of the year – I just wish more people realized it.
5. Saorise Ronan in Lady Bird
Saorise Ronan is one of the best actresses working today – and has been since her breakout role in Atonement, a decade ago. While I won’t say her work in Lady Bird is the best of her career so far (her work in Brooklyn is one of the very best performances of the decade), it does show another side of her – and just how much range she has. As the title character, she is a high school senior, stuck in Sacramento, thinking the entire world is against her. She can be bratty and entitled – but that’s just par for the course in being a teenager. She is also hard hearted, but open and honest (most of the time), clashes with her mother, but ultimately sees her as more than an enemy. It’s also a hilarious performance, which Ronan absolutely rips into. I’m starting to think there is nothing Ronan cannot do.
4. Garance Marillier in Raw
French newcomer Garance Marillier delivers the best performance of the year that will be nominated for no awards, since it was delivered in a foreign language horror film – and a damn bloody one at that. Marillier’s performance is a unique coming-of-age sort, as she has to deal with being on her own for the first time, peer pressure, sex, etc. Oh, and the fact that the vegetarian now hungers for raw meat – particularly human. Marillier has a sweet and open face – which she uses to great effect in the early scenes in the movie, making you feel for her, and win you over. And then, she rips into the scenes later, when she has gone off the deep end – and in the film’s most memorable moment, stares directly into the camera, challenging the audience, confronting them, daring them to still like her. It’s a great performance in a genre that often spawns them – but rarely gets the credit for it.
3. Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project
It’s hard when it comes to child performances to determine just how much is the actor themselves, and how much credit the director should get for drawing that performance out of them – and then editing it in a way to make it look the way it does. But then again, couldn’t the same be said for pretty much any performance? What I do know is that as Moonee, Brooklynn Prince absolutely stole my heart in the film – acting precisely like a child, and showing the audience how a child does navigate that world, which is full of pain and poverty. The ending is a heartbreaker – both because it’s a world that Moonee may never know, and because you cannot help but wonder just what this bright, hilarious child is going to go through once the film ends. Typically, I do stay away from child performances in these sorts of lists – but once in a great while, one nails it. The best thing I can say about Prince’s work here is that for a child this young, the only performance I have ever seen that is better is Brigitte Fossey’s, all the back in 1952’s Forbidden Games. It’s an all timer.
2. Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread
Alma is the character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread who fascinates me the most – mainly because even at the end of the movie, she is an enigma. While Day-Lewis’ Reynolds is easier to peg from the start, and Manville’s Cyril, snaps into focus as we get to know her – Krieps plays Alma as a character who keeps everything close to her chest, not letting the audience, or those around her, completely in on her actions. She is immediately alluring, and continues to fascinate throughout the film – remaining still and quiet, never really letting things slip. This makes it all the more fascinating that she, in effect, narrates the story. There are some performances (like #1 in this category) that immediately grab you by the throat and won’t let go. Then there are ones like this that creep up on you slowly, but stay with you forever.
1. Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
I cannot help but wonder why it’s taken the brilliant Frances McDormand 21 years to find another role close to as rich and wonderful as her Oscar winning role in Fargo (I say close, because that really is one of the best written roles of all time. She has undeniably done great work in the intervening years, but finally in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, she finds another lead role truly worthy of her talents. Here she plays the bitter and angry mother of a murdered daughter, who wants justice for her child, or else she will (literally) burn the whole damn place to the ground to try and get it. The first half of the film, you feel her righteous anger, you cheer on her profane rants and insults – and she is clearly a hero. The second half of the film deepens this character though – makes her more flawed, and complicated – perhaps not the hero we envisioned. McDormand rips into the role and relishes every delicious line. She truly is one of the greats.

2017 Year End Report: Best Actor

This wasn’t the best year for this category, but it got better the closer we got to the end, and some of the best performances came from the most unexpected places.
Runners-Up: Harris Dickinson in Beach Rats is a great as a young, gay man trying to pretend to exactly like his idiot friends – with fairly dire results. Colin Farrell in The Beguiled has a complicated role, where he has to be different things to each of the different women in the film – and does it brilliantly. Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger does great work, in a tired genre, as a man trying to get his life together after being disabled in the Boston Marathon bombing – he makes this man a person, not a saint. Tom Hanks in The Post makes his role as Ben Bradlee look effortless, which it couldn’t have been, since this is further outside his comfort zone than normal. Tracey Letts in The Lovers finally gets a leading role, and shows the great work he’s being doing in support for a while now translates nicely. Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour is great, in a larger than life performance as Winston Churchill on the brink of catastrophe. Adrian Titieni in Graduation is great as a father, who tries to do whatever possible to get his daughter into a school in England, even as the rest of his life unravels. Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a large, nearly silent lunk in this film – and it’s the best work of his career.
10. Andy Serkis in War for the Planet of the Apes
Andy Serkis will always be best known for his motion capture work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies – that character became so instantly iconic, and because when they came out, that sort of work was fresh and new, he essentially invented a different kind of performance. Yet, his greatest work as an actor has been in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy as Caesar. I still think his best work is in the first film – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (even if, as a film, it’s probably the weakest of the trilogy) – but here, playing Caesar as a leader of the apes, who will do anything to protect them, he delivers a stirring performance – one that fully gets the humans on the audience on his side. This is the rare blockbuster series that I think will age well – and Serkis is a major reason why.
9. Hugh Jackman in Logan
James Mangold’s Logan is basically the superhero version of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – with the hero realizing that his time has passed him, and it’s time to move on. In order to make that work, you really do need a performance like the one Jackman gives in this film. For nearly 17 years, we’ve watched as Jackman’s Wolverine has been pretty much invincible, as he hacks and slashes his way through one X-Men movie after another (sometimes to the films detriment – as he isn’t always the most interesting character). Here though, he has aged, everything hurts, and he can barely hold everything together. But then, he finds in a little girl, a reason to fight (so, okay, it’s not quite Unforgiven – Logan remains noble). Jackman has always been a charming actor, but rarely has been given the opportunity to be much more than charming. Here, he digs deep, and delivers the best performance of his career – and really, one the best the superhero genre has ever seen, in part because we’ve never quite seen a movie like this, and in part because Jackman was ready to go there.
8. James Franco in The Disaster Artist
It would have been easy for James Franco to just do an impression of the ever strange Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist – just don a fake accent and bad black wig, and mock the man who is known as the writer/director/producer/star of the worst film of all time. But Franco doesn’t do that – not entirely. Sure, Franco has a lot of fun with Wiseau and every strange thing about him, and the performance really is hilarious, and a spot on impression. But he also digs deeper into Wiseau’s humanity – showing us a dreamer, with no self-awareness. He has the resolve to see his vision through to the end – but not the talent, and he never really realizes the mistakes he’s making. Yes, it’s a softer portrait of Wiseau than the book – and perhaps softer than he deserves – but there is a part of Franco that admires Wiseau – and he brings that to the screen so that you will too.
7. Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Colin Farrell’s performance in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a study in inactivity couched in privilege. He plays a surgeon who has taken under his wing the son of a patient who died on his table (perhaps his fault, although he’ll never admit it) – only to have that young man come back at him with a threat – he needs to choose one of his family members to die, or else they all will. As one thing after another happens, to lead everyone to believe the threat is real, and unstoppable, Farrell’s surgeon does, well, nothing. He cannot fathom that he’s going to be punished, and puts all his faith in science, and then basically goes about his time. Because of Yorgos Lanthimos’ style, which requires actors to be flat and emotionless in their delivery, Farrell has to delve deeper in other ways to make this character clear. It’s not quite at the same level as his work in The Lobster last year (which was, after all, a better film) – but close. More proof of just how great Farrell is right now – and how many chances he’s taking.
6. Claes Bang in The Square
I have a few, minor quibbles with The Square – mostly that it’s too long, and doesn’t quite know where and when to end – and yet I do think that Claes Bang is pretty much perfect in its lead role. It’s the type of performance that seemingly changes from scene to scene, not because the character doesn’t make sense, but because he finds himself in one insane situation after another, never quite knowing how the hell he got there, or how the hell he can get himself out. This is a performance that ranges from hilarious to horrifying, and back again often in the same scene. The movie itself is great – but it teeters on the edge of becoming little more than a collection of strange sequences, with no through line. But Bang is that through line – he keeps the whole thing going from one horrifying set piece to another.
5. Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name
Between this and his performance in Lady Bird, this year was a great coming out party for young Chalamet. He is great in Lady Bird – playing that guy in high school we all know – but he is even better here. I particularly liked him in the first hour of this film, when he’s trying to hide his feelings for Oliver, and trying to pretend everything is normal – when it’s not. It’s a subtle performance, full of longing – and instant chemistry with Hammer. Of course, everyone will talk about that final scene – and with good reason, it’s a feat of acting to just sit there, for minutes on end, and hold the camera. Chalamet is a star in the making – and shows just how good he can be here.
4. Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Another of the great breakout performances of 2017 was Daniel Kaluuya’s work in Get Out – a performance that is subtle and sneaky in all sorts of ways. The British actor, who I basically only knew from one episode of Black Mirror, plays his character in Get Out as a man who is simply trying to be nice – trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, all the while knowing that there is something just not quite right about everything going on. He gets his bigger moment’s sure – applause lines late in the proceedings – but he’s at his very best early, when he’s trying to navigate this house, and figure out just what the hell is going on. It’s not a performance that calls attention to itself – I honestly worried he would be completely ignored this awards season – but it is a brilliant one.
3. Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky
I can think of no better sendoff for the legendary Harry Dean Stanton than Lucky – a movie custom written for Stanton, which gives the character actor a late, great leading role. In the film, he plays the title character – a 91 year old man, who still smokes every day, drinks every day, and walks around his small Texas town. He’s outlived his peers, has no family to speak of, is a lifelong atheist and afraid of death. The movie follows him on his routine for a few days – and in doing so, becomes a quietly moving film about this man. Stanton is the only actor who could have delivered this performance – and he does so in one of his best performances. Stanton will be missed of course – but I’m grateful we got this film before he died.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread
If this is indeed to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ swansong from acting, than he picked a hell of a role to go out on. His performance as Reynolds Woodcock, temperamental genius, who requires everything to be exactly perfect or else he becomes insufferable, truly is one of Day-Lewis’ great performance. He seems like a man who we know completely from the outset – he doesn’t hide his attitudes, his opinions, his wants – but he hides something far greater about himself, even in plain site (in the end, it’s still somewhat hidden). As Woodcock, Day-Lewis begins the performance as one of those toxic men we’ve heard about – the monster genius – but it’s far too complicated to leave it at that. This is one of the deepest, darkest performances of Day-Lewis’ career – and one of the best.
1. Robert Pattinson in Good Time
No one is more surprised than I am that Robert Pattinson has turned into a great actor, and more willing to take chances than many of his peers. He was horrible in the Twilight films, but the level of stardom he achieved in them has allowed him to take chances in films directed by the like of David Cronenberg and James Gray, among others. In the lead role of the Safdie brothers Good Time, he plays a would-be bank robber, who over the course of a long night, tries to rescue his brother, and himself into one bad situation after another – almost of all of which, he gets out of – mainly because black people are always there to take the film. Yes, in the film, he is white privilege personified. He is also charming and funny and despicable, and horrible – and full of a nervous energy, perfect for this film that wants desperately to be a 1970s New York crime movie – and pretty much nails it. Pattinson is quite frankly stunning in Good Time – a great performance in a great film and proof that Kristen Stewart isn’t the only one who is leaving Twilight behind, on the way to better thing.

2017 Year End Report: Best Supporting Actor

Not the deepest category this year, but still a lot of fine work.
Runners-Up: Daniel Craig in Logan Lucky is pure, comedic gold as a brilliant/dimwitted redneck safe cracker. Peter Dinklage in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri has only a few scenes in the film, but makes the most of them – especially his final scene, which for me was a turning point in the film. Dustin Hoffman in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) delivers his best performance in years, as the aging father who can be a monster, but still inspires his now grown children – just not in the way he wishes. Jason Mitchell in Mudbound gets best in show in a terrific ensemble as a man who has to deal with the fact that he was treated better in a foreign land than he is at home. Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World is the best thing in the movie – as even capitalism personified. Ben Safdie in Good Time makes the most of his early scenes as the disabled brother who idolizes his brother too much for his own good. Bradley Whitford in Get Out is the perfect white liberal, who doesn’t know how clueless he sounds – and that’s before he turns evil. Steve Zahn in War for the Planet of the Apes as Bad Monkey, Zahn really is terrific – and if critics groups felt the need to give Serkis some noms, why didn’t they recognize him as well?

10. Jean-Louis Trintgnant in Happy End
The French acting legend reteams with Michael Haneke who directed him in a brilliant (career best?) performance in Amour back in 2012. His character here could well be seen as a version of the same character, a few years down the line, dealing with his actions in that film. At first, he seems like a typical old guy with memory loss – but as the film progresses, his desperate acts to try and find a way to die help define his character – and leads to the end of the film. Trintgnant, mow 87 years old, is doing some of the best work of his career with Haneke – and while Happy End doesn’t equal Amour, Trintgnant is nearly as good here. 

9. Tracy Letts in Lady Bird
The women of Lady Bird have gotten all the (much deserved) praise for their performances, but perhaps because I am a father, I have a soft spot for Tracy Letts’ performance as Lady Bird’s dad. Letts, who has become one of my favorite character actors over the last few years, here plays a dad who really wants everyone to be happy. He tries to keep the drama down, tries to hide his own disappointment, all to help his own children. He doesn’t let them know when they hurt his feelings, and the moment he realizes his son is going out for the same job he is, there is a moment so perfect, that it made me cry. Letts continues to be one of the great actors working today, doing greatness in the background.
8. Woody Harrelson in War for the Planet of the Apes
There have been some fine performances in these new Planet of the Apes movies – but none of them have been as good as Woody Harrelson here, playing a mad, Colonel Kurtz like character, off the reservation, on his own, ruling over his own private fiefdom. He is the harshest, cruelest character in the series so far – but also one of the most pathetic, trying hard to hold onto something that is already gone. His final scenes – as he lays drunk, and realizes what precisely is going to happen, are great – and marks a high water point for Harrelson – who for a long time, has been one of the most interesting actors around.
7. Patrick Stewart in Logan
There is no doubt that having seen Patrick Stewart in a number of X-Men films over the past 17 years really does add to the power of his performance here – as the aging Professor, who has grown senile, lost control of his faculties, and could actually be quite dangerous at this point. He makes a number of mistakes in this film – mistakes that will cost other people their lives, and he is full of regrets on his life. Logan does a lot of great things – things that superhero films have never really done – but one of them is allowing us to see Stewart’s Professor X like this – and Stewart full embracing it, giving the character a brilliant, final act.
6. Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name
The only complaint I have about Armie Hammer’s performance in Call Me By Your Name is one that he has no control over – he looks too old to be a 24-year old student. But once you get beyond that, everything else about Hammer’s performance in this movie works pretty much perfectly. At first, he seems like a tall, statuesque pretty boy – a stereotypical American. But gradually, that performance deepens, and his chemistry with Chamalet is the best of any onscreen couple this year. He lets you inside a little bit in the second half, showing the pain he hide throughout the first half, until he could no longer bare it, and lets it all go. Hammer has had an interesting journey since his breakthrough in The Social Network, and his brush his franchise filmmaker. If nothing else, this film certifies just how good he can be, in the right role.
5. Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name
One of the great character actors of his generation, Stuhlbarg has been doing great work for years – and getting noticed for it since the lead role in the Coen’s A Serious Man. He is one of those actors that make me think of Roger Ebert’s old Stanton/Walsh rule that stated that any movie featuring Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmett Walsh cannot be all bad. Here, he is in fine form throughout – playing the smart, supportive and seemingly oblivious father throughout the summer his teenage son finds love. And then, late in the film, he delivers one of the great monologues in recent memory – all about love and loss and it quite simply breaks your heart. It is a brilliant monologue, delivered by Stuhlbarg at the height of his powers. Sure, it’s strange to get a nomination for one scene – but for that scene, it’s worthy.
4. Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Sam Rockwell had a difficult job in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – as he basically has to play a character with both revile and yet feel empathy for. I never agreed with the criticism that Rockwell’s character doesn’t deserve redemption – basically because I never thought the film granted him any. He is a character who is sure of himself, who is brought low – almost biblically – and has his whole view of himself shaken. He does this all while delivering a performance that is funny, humane, empathetic, and yet, yes, still hateful. It’s the best performance of Rockwell’s career – as he balances those two things perfectly.
3. Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer
This was a breakout year for Keoghan, who audiences will remember as the doomed, good hearted kid on the boat in Nolan’s Dunkirk – who volunteers to go even when he didn’t have to. Whatever the exact opposite of that is, his work in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is pretty close. Here, he plays an angry young man, who has decided to punish a surgeon (Colin Farrell) because he blames him (not incorrectly) for the death of his father. The game he invents to do that is harsh and brutal – and yet Keoghan remains fairly even keeled throughout – everything is already in motion, you cannot stop it, don’t try. This was the films best performance, in a movie where the likes of Farrell and Nicole Kidman are also at the top of their games. One of the great performances of the year, and one I wish more people talked about.
2. Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri
As the Sheriff in Three Billboards, Harrelson delivers perhaps the best performance of his career. He gets to play a lawman of principle, who really does try and keep the peace, and keep everyone happy. That he cannot entirely see the damage that may well do to those in town in undeniable, but he is playing a man everyone in town (who is white, anyway) loves, and you understand why. He is also, perhaps, the funniest character in the movie – in part because he knows what is fate is, and is past the point of caring. Every line delivery Harrelson utters in the film is just about perfect – but perhaps none more so than his various letters, which hit the right spot. His final scene is heartbreaking, and is really when the film kicks into high gear. Rockwell has won more awards – but Harrelson delivers the (slightly) better performance.
1. Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
It isn’t often when an actor like Willem Dafoe – who has been around for more than 30 years now, still gets the opportunity to surprise you – but that is what Dafoe does here. Mainly, Dafoe has made a career of playing various creeps and lowlifes (that is, after an early career as Jesus – or a Jesus like character). In The Florida Project on the other hand, he radiates goodness. I don’t know what led this man to this rundown motel in Florida – it likely wasn’t good (his son doesn’t seem overly happy with him, after all) but now that he’s here, he walks the fine line between running a business, and truly getting to know, and like the tenants. It’s a balance he goes back and forth on – sometimes more on side than the other. Dafoe clearly gets his showcase moments here – confronting the would-be pedophile for instance – but it’s in the quieter scenes, particularly his last one, where he completely wins you over. Dafoe has had a career full of ups and downs – this is clearly an up – one of the best performances in a great career.

2017 Year End Report: Best Supporting Actress

There really was a lot of great work done in this category this year – and sadly, I think much of it has been overlooked.
Runners-Up: Mary J. Bilge in Mudbound is a tower of strength and integrity in her debut acting role – the smart, conscience at the heart of the movie. Elle Fanning in The Beguiled plays perhaps the smartest of the women in The Beguiled – or at least the one who knows how best to get what she wants. Betty Gabriel in Get Out takes a tiny role, and makes it unforgettable. Kristen Dunst in The Beguiled is great as the most repressed of the women in The Beguiled. Fatine Harduin in Happy End plays the 13 year old daughter, who is responsible for her mothers death (accidentally, or are on purpose) – and becomes part of a family she barely knows, and doesn’t much seem to care for her. Melissa Leo in Novitiate seems at times to be in her own movie here – and she goes wonderfully over-the-top in a not for all tastes, but certainly stranger performance. Tatiana Maslany in Stronger is quietly impressive, taking what could have been the boring “supportive girlfriend” role and imbibing it with something a lot more interesting. Elisabeth Moss in The Square only has a few scenes in this two and half hour sprawling satire – but you won’t forget them – a comic marvel. Ella Rumpf in Raw is full of energy and punk, as the older half of a sibling rivalry that turns bloody.
 10. Naomi Aicke in Lady Macbeth
Naomi Aicke gives one of the best performances of the year, even though her character, Anna, barely says a word. In this film, Aicke’s Anna is the maid to Florence Pugh’s Katherine – who sees almost everything going in inside this expansive house, and yet can never say a word about it. There are class dynamics at work of course, but also unspoken racial dynamics as well, as Aicke has to sit and watch in horror as to what is happening, and not say a word to protect herself. It is a devastating portrait that gives a different view of a largely ignored type of domestic servant.
9. Bria Vinaite in The Florida Project
Vinaite plays Halley, the unemployed, single mother to little Moonee in The Florida Project – and it says something about her performance that even though she does some horrible things in the movie, and isn’t a very good mother, than you still really do feel for character – and like her right up until the end of the film. Vinaite was a non-professional when director Sean Baker cast her, and she brings real humanity to her role throughout – and runs the spectrum of emotions. It is a portrait of life on the margins – and Vinaite does a brilliant job in her first ever role.
8. Allison Williams in Get Out
As Rose, the girlfriend of the main character, Williams is the character who I think most white viewers relate to the most – her parents are well-meaning, sure, but they make some boneheaded comments. But Rose is woke, right? She’s the real good white liberal we all right? Which is, of course, what makes her ultimate betrayal hurt all the more. Williams is playing off the persona she built up over the years on Girls, and is a perfect vision of millennial self-importance and ironic hipsterism. She’s also evil, and does that brilliantly as well. A great performance.
7. Natalie Portman in Song to Song
Natalie Portman’s role in Terence Malick’s Song to Song is a small one – it’s basically an interlude we witness, as Michael Fassbender’s version of Satan seduces, corrupts and destroys this Texas school teacher in a matter of about 10 minutes. Portman falls apart wonderfully in this film, and shows us everything we need to know about this woman in a just a few short minutes. Malick’s recent approach doesn’t do a lot of actors any favors – it makes them all kind of blend together, as they are cast for how they look and move more than anything else. Here though, Portman stands out and delivers one of her best performances – and certainly one of the most underrated of the year.
6. Nicole Kidman in The Killing of a Sacred Deer
There is probably no other actress with the star power of Nicole Kidman who so consistently takes risks – working on daring projects, with strange directors – and the results are usually great. Her latest is her work in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer – which stands with her best work. Lanthimos’ style requires actors to drain a lot of emotion out of their dialogue, and do a lot, with less. Kidman does so much manipulation in this film, just with her eyes, and the few words she says to her husband – played by Colin Farrell (there is also the tremendously funny and horrifically awkward hand job scene as well, but I digress). For some reason, Kidman doesn’t seem to rank as high as other actresses in terms of the admiration we have for them in terms of her risk taking, and ability to fit in any movie. That should change (and the Kidman Bracket game by Guy Lodge this year helped, I think) – as here, we have another great performance by Kidman.
5. Taliah Lennice Webster in Good Time
In her first screen role ever, Webster is asked to keep up with Robert Pattinson, delivering one of the very best performances of the year, for a huge chunk of the middle of the movie – and succeeds wonderfully. In the film, she plays Crystal, the teenager granddaughter of a woman who has unwittingly let criminal Pattinson into her home. Throughout their time together, they will run the gamut of emotions, and he manipulates her time and again, and she doesn’t quite realize she is being used – until the last moment together, when she realizes everything – and stays silent anyway, knowing what will happen if she speaks. A great performance, from an actress I want to see more from.
4. Allison Janney in I, Tonya
There are some actors and actresses, who do brilliant work on TV for years, and never get the perfect role for them to cross over to movies. Until I, Tonya Allison Janney was one of those actresses. The 6 Time Emmy Winner (and 13 time nominee) finally gets her prime movie role as LaVona- the monstrous mother of Tonya Harding. Without LaVona, Harding probably never would have been as good as she was – but she also wouldn’t have crashed and burned so spectacularly. Janney nails the complicated relationship there – supportive and yet, a woman who sacrifices for her child, and abuses her. She is also downright hilarious from beginning to end. We’ve all known for a long time than Janney is as good as any actress out there – she just finally got a movie role to match her TV work.
3. Michelle Pfeiffer in mother!
One of the great, underrated performances of 2017 is Michelle Pfeiffer in mother! as a nameless woman, who shows up with her husband (Ed Harris), and precedes to pretty much destroy the place. To keep with the movie’s Biblical themes, Pfeiffer is playing some unholy cross between Eve and the Serpent, coming along to both revel in the garden, and destroy it. Pfeiffer has often taken long breaks in her career, so it’s nice to see her reappear with something like this – it’s seductive, certainly, but it’s also a study in an extremely annoying woman who just will not listen. It’s silly that Pfeiffer doesn’t have an Oscar at home already (I mean, come on), and sadly this year won’t change that – but that doesn’t stop this from being some of the best work of her career – and one of the great performances of the year.
2. Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
Laurie Metclaf has been a favorite of mine since her days on Roseanne (one of the first TV shows I took seriously). She is always great, but much like Janney, she never really got the movie role to show it. As Lady Bird’s mother, she gets that chance. The two of them go at each other hard – never quite realizing how much they have in common, and just how much they are hurting each other, while at the same time, letting that love shine through. It’s a great performance, because it’s an honest one – this isn’t a mother knows best movie, because she makes almost as many mistakes as Lady Bird does – just like a real parent. Like Janney, we’ve known for years that Metcalf is capable of greatness – it’s just nice to see a filmmaker take notice.
1. Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread
As Cyril Woodcock, Daniel Day-Lewis’ sister, is Phantom Thread, Lesley Manville gives a masterclass in background acting through many of her scenes. She plays the woman who keeps her famous, genius brother’s schedule in tact – and basically controls everything he does, even while not letting on that is what she is doing. She sees everything, and throughout the film, you often see her in the background, observing everything – a Mrs. Danvers-like character. Yet, throughout the movie, her role gets more complex as well – and her Cyril is not the evil, domineering woman we initially think she is. At first, she is deliciously cruel as she sizes up Vicky Krieps’s Alma, but as the film goes on, she grows to respect her, and even defends her to Reynolds. She is the brains behind the brains, the one who controls everything. Manville, who has been a great actor for a long time now (one of the greatest recent Oscar injustices is that she didn’t get nominated for her heartbreaking turn in Mike Leigh’s Another Year) – but here, she takes things to another level. Perhaps the performance is too subtle, too quiet for awards season – but it will be remembered for years.