Sunday, February 26, 2012

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Actor in a Leading Role

And the nominees are...

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
For taking broad strokes and giving them shading, texture and depth. More than charming mincing. The film's success (and it is successful in its goals) rests completely on Dujardin's shoulders. The reductive claim that his is the easiest of this year's lauded performances is ludicrous. What Jean Dujardin can convey with his face, without the benefit of dialogue is wondrous.

Michael Fassbender in Shame
Brandon is often written as blankly as the art direction that surrounds him. Fassbender digs into this character's tortured, ambiguously unpleasant backstory with fierce intensity. The moments of rage (particularly toward Sissy, but especially toward himself) are brilliant. Even more brilliant are the quieter moments (the date with Marianne) where its clear that this man may be incapable of being at peace. A stirring and accomplished performance through and through.

Ryan Gosling in Drive
As the unnamed driver, Gosling ramps up his charisma and the ferocity, while remaining relatively quiet and playing the character's cards close to the vest. The performances that look the easiest are often the trickier ones to nail as well as Gosling does it here. Not many actors could have sold the driver's tactical silence without seeming blank (paging Taylor Lautner). Gosling doesn't lean too heavily on the stylization of the film, but simply uses it to enhance the driver's intrigue. A great turn by a performer who is quickly becoming the gold standard in acting for his generation.

Ewan McGregor in Beginners
McGregor, who has had a career full of great turns, has not (for my money) been as good in years as he is here. So much of what is set up for his character here could have led to facile and trite indie-by-numbers character beats. McGregor instead imbues Oliver with specificity and a certain warmth that's slightly world-weary. He sells the character quirks while simultaneously remembering to infuse them with the character backstory. Very subtle and interesting work.

Brad Pitt – Moneyball
The star turn is an undervalued commodity in Hollywood, often taken for granted when they're as skillfully delivered as Brad Pitt's performance in Moneyball. He does some of his best work here (and it's not even his best performance this year!). Would that he could find more roles that suit his charisma and charm and allow him to fashion such an interesting character creation as he does here. Billy Beane has no huge arc to speak of. The team loses, his opinion of the sport does not markedly change (he approaches it as a tactician even before he meets up with Jonah Hill). And (not to go there, because this is about celebrating great acting), but as far as crying scenes go, he blows George Clooney out of the park. And with less tears.

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Actress in a Leading Role

And the nominees are...

Viola Davis in The Help
Neither clumsy pacing nor on-the-nose dialogue will stop Viola Davis. Where the urge may have been present in other actors to play Aibileen as a simple woman with simple, modest goals, Davis turns the part on its head with her watchfulness, soul and complexity. Through silence and an unending register of conflicting emotions, Davis spins gold out of a role that, while not totally thankless as some have reductively called it, certainly would give no script reader to expect all that Davis gives here. Bonus points for “I told him I drank too much coffee.”

Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
An actress who has always been gifted, even if she has been adrift in roles that either don't suit her or don't utilize her talents, Dunst works marvels here as Justine. What's even more marvelous? I'm not even sure she's given much to work with on paper. Still, I love the choices she makes. Though she morphs tragically from apprehension to near complete catatonia/nihilism (only VonTrier...), she remains the most recognizably human character in this piece. Even in the film's earliest moments (the maneuvering of the limousine, for instance) she makes it interesting and modulated as we watch her play a woman playing at being happy. I hope this marks an exciting new phase in the career of an actress I've always been intrigued and impressed by, but no more so than here.

 Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Watchful, reactive, without a hugely recognizable external arc. None of these elements inherently make for good drama, but man Olsen knocks it out of the park here. In one of the year's most terrifying films, she takes much of the credit for the eery pall of impending doom that envelopes Martha Marcy May Marlene. She is quiet, but still recognizably womanly and damaged. Bonus points for the film's opening scene where Olsen gives us an incredible, almost unspoken etching of a woman troubled beyond the telling of it—a promise she makes good on for the rest of the movie.

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Swinton lands her third consecutive Pretentious Film Award nomination (I'm sure she's proud) for yet another one of her searing, indelible cinematic marks. Largely a silent, watchful performance, Swinton plays a woman whose situation we can't help but empathize with (and we do). But, she doesn't garner empathy for Eva by making her perfect or even likeable most of the time. The difference between Eva before the incident and after is not that of a woman who is whole versus one who is broken, respectively. It is that of a woman who knows the truth, even if it is self-fulfilling prophecy (how much of Kevin's proclivities are her fault?) and one who has the truth horribly confirmed from her. It is fascinating to watch a character empty out before your eyes. It is even more fascinating the way Swinton makes interesting watching a woman who has already emptied out.

Charlize Theron in Young Adult
In a category of roles that contains a downtrodden maid, the mother of a serial killer, the traumatized survivor of a cult and a recently jilted bride facing the end of the world, Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary is, believe it or not, the most damaged. I love the way Theron (and Reitman) don't easily show us the roots of Mavis's jaded and poisonous core. Theron taps into the comedienne we've seen only shades of before (her interviews, “Arrested Development”) and births a compelling, specific and funny creation. The control she has over her voice, the most important part of this performance, is something to behold. Bonus points for “I love your sweat-errr...”

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Supporting Actor

 And the nominees are...
Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Arguably a cartoonish portrayal of a villain, but never atonal as the movie itself operates on a certain level of hyper-reality from first frame. Extremely well cast in his almost otherworldly androgynous beauty, he is a formidable scene partner for Tilda Swinton. Bonus points for his final scene. He absolutely nails it by not trying to humanize Kevin in any obvious or cloying ways.

Christopher Plummer in Beginners
One of the best portrayals of a man in the winter of his life. Much of the film's success can be attributed to his humanity, his register and the way he takes what could have easily been a larger, more outwardly showy role (even in this film) and anchors it in a deep well of years of emotion. Bonus points for the way he asks about house music.

Patton Oswalt – Young Adult
Plays a needy, desperate man without any of the usual, predictable beats. In a character study full of ugly people and even uglier behavior, Oswalt understands the temptation to play the film's ethical compass. He instead opts for the more difficult, but much more interesting route of showing Matt's moralizing as the result of a man with clear vulnerabilities and limitations. Bonus points for the scene in the woods. He gets the best out of Theron and himself in these scenes.

Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life
Malick's film, accomplished as it is, contains not so much characters, but markers and guideposts for larger concepts. Pitt manages to eke out an accomplished, career-best performance as the stern yet emotional Mr. O'Brien. His age and wear, something most roles try to suppress, are his greatest asset here as he employs them to a past his prime, unwilling to face it, flawed yet loving patriarch. Bonus points for the lighter scene. The way he asks for a kiss from his son is both character-deepening and fascinating.

Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris
Plays not just Gil's (Owen Wilson) idea of Ernest Hemingway, but what many perceived him to be. Stoll's Hemingway is thinly written, but masterfully elevated. Every line-reading, mouthfuls they may indeed be, seem to roll out of him effortlessly with gruff humor and fierce intensity, unmatched by any of the imaginary figures in this piece. Bonus points for the eyes. So expressive, never relenting, never ceasing to pass judgment, even in silence.

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Supporting Actress

And the nominees are...

Nicole Beharie in Shame
She's reticent, but the only character in this ode to wounded and damaged souls who knows who she is. Beharie adeptly shows us the precise moment Marianne bristles and decides she's out, but plays it with authenticity and unfussy reserve. Bonus points for the date scene, easily the best in the film.

Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids
In a sea of broad, often serviceably dismounted comedy, Byrne has the most difficult task, which incidentally looks like the least difficult task; playing humor subtly, on character as the least showy part of a gifted ensemble. An inspired, hilarious take on fermented, well-intentioned bitchery. Bonus points for the bridal shop scene. Some of her best bits and her character doesn't even have the benefit of the food-poisoning comedy to play with.

Jessica Chastain in The Help
For doing the most with the role that, of her slew of performances this year, arguably asks the least of her. On paper, Celia Foote could easily read as nothing more than “wall to wall white carpet with gold trim” and a Big Dramatic Moment™ . Chastain elevates this character beyond the vocal tics, mannered acting and scenery chewing that a lesser actor may have employed. She has it all down—the walk, the timbre in the voice, the facial expression. Bonus points for the conflicted “Thank you for telling me?” and “I really need a maid,” two of the best line-readings in the entire film.

Carey Mulligan in Shame
Not to sound reductive, but Mulligan could not have chose a role like this soon enough. Though a previous Pretentious Film Awards nominee (one I stand by), I have to admit to being impressed by the formal, superbly polished performative elements of much of her previous work while still desiring more. As Sissy in Shame, Mulligan delivers one of the best “Where did that come from?” performances in recent memory, digging down deep and conveying the longing, selfishness and pain of an emotionally fragmented young woman with heartbreaking realism. Bonus Points for: “New York, New York.” A fascinating scene of a character unobtrusively, yet clearly collapse.

Sarah Paulson in Martha Marcy May Marlene
A believable sibling dynamic is one of the most difficult things to convey. Sarah Paulson's Lucy conveys a certain exasperation and marmish exterior that is part who she is and part who she becomes when she's around Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). I love how her voice and her attitude shifts perceptibly when she's talking to Martha versus when she's talking to Ted (Hugh Dancy). In a film justifiably lauded (though not enough) for its tremendous lead performance, Paulson is an example of a truly supporting performance in every sense of the word. Bonus points for “Can you get your feet off the counter?” Nothing about the delivery begs for attention, but it's such a great bit of character detail.