Our Favorite Performances of 2012

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1. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)- There must be something about Paul Thomas Anderson that gets such raw, elemental performances for his movies.  Phoenix, after his faux crazy odyssey, gives The Master such ferocious, filthy life that he managed to beat all the other fantastic roles this year, including the great Daniel Day-Lewis (who also gave Anderson an immortal performance in There Will Be Blood).

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2. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)- Though Lincoln is an ensemble drama, it is built from the ground up around a character that needed to be reigned in and humanized.  Day-Lewis is not larger than life as our 16th president because that would’ve added layers of cheese to a movie that was already scored by John Williams.  His take on Lincoln often appears exhausted, both physically and emotionally, as he should be while overseeing the Civil War while trying to push through the 13th amendment to ban slavery and contend with family drama.

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3.  Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)- The slow, ruthless decline of Anne during Michael Haneke’s Amour is essential to the movie’s success.  From her first, silent stroke at the breakfast table to her crippled, mangled body by the end, this is a performance that required great emotional honesty without overdoing it.  She gives one of the most wrenching depictions of hopeless, helpless illness ever.

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REVIEW: Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver

Silver Linings Playbook ends on the thrillingly odd culmination of a dance competition and an NFL football game, the result of a high stakes parlay bet between an obsessive compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan (Robert De Niro) and a rival gambler who favors the Dallas Cowboys (Paul Herman).  It is a fitting conclusion given that the rest of the movie, for all its seeming narrative conformity, is a rampant, lively piece of work that does what it wants, when it wants.

Part of the reason for this is that its two main characters, two damaged, mentally unstable people played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, do that as well and director David O. Russell is just trying to keep up with them. It could also be the other way around, though.  Russell has such a lively way with camera movement and atmosphere that the constant sense of motion and organized chaos seems exhausting. For the most part the performers, especially Lawrence, are more than up to the task.  She makes Tiffany such a force of nature that the miscasting of Bradley Cooper is barely noticeable.

Like in Russell’s last movie, The Fighter, this is more of an ensemble effort than based off of a single performance.  It is about Pat Jr. (Cooper) recovering from a mental breakdown after catching his wife cheating and beating the other guy within an inch of his life, but it is also about his dad (De Niro) and mom (Jacki Weaver) coming to terms with his condition.  It forces an American family to confront mental illness, a bold thing to do in a country that increasingly resists that confrontation to its own detriment.

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REVIEW: Lincoln

Lincoln
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book) (in part)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones

Seeing movies after they have been stampeded over and analyzed by the critical mainstream can be both a blessing and a curse, as it is with Steven Spielberg’s latest historical filmmaking venture, Lincoln.  I often make it a point not to read reviews of movies I plan on writing about until after I’ve seen the movie and collected my thoughts, and this one is no exception.

That being said, there was an op-ed in the New York Times released by Northwestern history professor Kate Masur days before Lincoln was released nationally.  It was titled “In Spielberg’s Lincoln, Passive Black Characters,” and it addresses just what its title proclaims in a succinct, powerful fashion.  Masur is not a professional film critic, and her piece is not an evaluation of the whole production but merely a response to the specific part of it that her title describes.

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REVIEW: Flight

Flight
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: John Gatins (screenplay)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle and John Goodman

Denzel Washington has an uncanny knack for throwing away his lines while still allowing them to register emotionally on his face.  This tactic serves him quite well in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight because the character he portrays, the alcoholic airplane pilot Whip Whitaker, would be much too volcanic and ineffective if he was played in a straightforward way.  In Washington’s hands, he transforms into a wounded maverick lying his way out of a situation he had no control over.

Unlike many of Zemeckis’ other movies, Flight avoids many opportunities for standard character development and perseverance.  When a standard Orlando-Atlanta flight turns into a nosedive at 30,000 feet because of mechanical malfunctions, Whitaker remarkably flies the plane upside down and stabilizes it for a safe landing.  Of the 102 passengers on board, only six died when all of them should have.

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REVIEW: Arbitrage

Arbitrage
Directed by: Nicholas Jarecki
Written by: Nicholas Jarecki (screenplay)
Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth and Brit Marling

Richard Gere gives a phenomenally sly performance in Nicholas Jarecki’s equally sneaky Arbitrage, although when it’s all said and done the movie is content with simply being slick and clever.  It weaves a tale of deception and excess out of the generically named New York billionaire Robert Miller (Gere) and his various personal and financial misdealings.

By far the story’s biggest asset is its willingness to leave Miller’s social circle and directly confront issues of class and race.  Jarecki lingers on the wealthy lifestyle a little too often, but the man at the center of his movie is never a hero.  The bulk of the entertainment comes from watching Gere bring such a manipulative man to vivid life, and though it doesn’t really leave much to think about when the credits roll, it is certainly an engaging and relevant story to tell.

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REVIEW: The Master

The Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern

The latest film from mythic American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson is an ambitious, beautiful mess.  With 2007’s There Will Be Blood, he announced himself as one of the greatest working directors, altering and unhinging the film community much in the same way that that movie’s protagonist alters and unhinges himself and the landscape.

The Master is both a historical continuation and thematic sibling to that film, which concluded in 1927.  Anderson skips over The Great Depression and World War II, and picks up at the dawn of the 1950s, in a glamorous age of excess and social repression.  Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed Naval veteran, does not belong to this era.  He is too overtly sexualized and too much of an alcoholic to fit in with the tidy, polished department store where he works briefly as a portrait photographer at the beginning of the movie.

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