Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beyond the Oscars: The Other Great Performances of 2015

With the announcement of the Oscar nominees last week, we're now in the thick of awards season with many deserving and gifted actors making the rounds of red carpets and talk shows. Still, I can't help feeling that the actors listed here were also worthy of a little awards love this season:

John Cusack for Love and Mercy

Paul Dano has picked up a few award nods for playing the younger incarnation of  Brian Wilson in this touching biopic of the troubled musical genius behind the Beach Boys. But the equally great John Cusack - who plays Wilson in middle age - has been inexplicably shut out. I have a strictly non-scientific theory for this oversight: to the untrained eye, Dano seems more convincing because he bears a strong physical resemblance to Wilson. Cusack, on the other hand, not only bears no resemblance to Wilson whatsoever, but doesn't alter his appearance one iota to convince us otherwise. Still, his delicate portrayal of Wilson as a gentle, confused soul searching for redemption is way out of his usual range and comfort zone, and all the more astonishing for that fact. If Dano deserves the recognition (he does), Cusack deserves it equally.

Kristen Wiig for Welcome to Me

Since Bridesmaids, Wiig has acted in a number of fair-to-mediocre indie dramas where you can tell she's in "serious actress mode" by the way she mumbles her lines in an offhand way, almost as if she were embarrassed to be playing it straight. Thankfully this dark, absurdist comedy lets Wiig merge her talent for creating memorably eccentric characters with some solid direction from Shira Piven, resulting in a film that veers from painfully funny to painfully sad without hitting a false note in the process. Wiig plays a bipolar woman who wins a huge lottery jackpot at the same time she goes off her meds; she uses her winnings to bankroll a one-woman TV show so awful that people can't take their eyes off it. Hilarity ensues, then - as her unmedicated illness escalates - her fortunes turn darker. Wiig plays every point on that spectrum with uncomfortable emotional sincerity, never once winking at the audience or going for an easy laugh at her character's expense.

Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber in Pawn Sacrifice

Edward Zwick's  portrait of chess genius Bobby Fischer starts out in conventional, formulaic biopic territory, but it gradually builds into something dark and shattering, largely due to Tobey Maguire's electrifying performance as Fischer. The film presents Fischer as a dangerously unstable young man whose madness is indulged and passed off as eccentricity in the interests of furthering Cold War propaganda around his match with Russian chess champion Boris Spassky. Maguire plays Fischer with a palpable edge of danger, marching to his own impenetrable internal logic. He's brilliantly balanced by the understated gravitas of Liev Schreiber's Spassky, whose seriousness and confidence are conveyed with impressive economy.  (The friend with whom I saw Pawn Sacrifice grew up in Russia during the time of the Fischer/Spassky match; she raved about how perfectly Schreiber captured Spassky.)

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman in 5 Flights Up

5 Flights Up is a deceptively slight film about an aging couple's quest to sell the walk-up Brooklyn apartment that's become unmanageable for them. Its unexpected emotional heft is all in the wonderful performances of Keaton and Freeman. These well-seasoned screen veterans slip into the roles of a long-married couple with ease, finding the unforced rhythms of a shared history - bickering, private jokes and all - in a way that feel authentic and is pure pleasure to watch.

Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back

Including Silverman on this list is a bit of a cheat, since she actually did receive a SAG nomination. But she should have had even more, and she likely didn't get them because I Smile Back isn't nearly good enough in its entirety to deserve Silverman's fearless, compassionate performance. The filmmakers are more interested in putting her drug-and-drink addicted housewife through the mill of degradation and humiliation than in showing her some empathy or helping us understand the demons that drive her. Miraculously, Silverman brings an unexpected dimension of soulful sweetness to the character, even as she Really Goes There in more than one debased scene.  That Silverman is a fearlessly foul-mouthed, eager-to-offend comic in real life may have helped her with the more shocking aspects of the role. But the heart-stopping fragility she shows us is a revelation.

Jason Segel in The End of the Tour

I'll be honest - I've never read David Foster Wallace's literary masterwork Infinite Jest, nor did I know much about him going into this film. But I was hugely impressed at how completely Jason Segel disappeared into his portrayal of the deeply gifted, deeply troubled writer. The screenplay was adapted from transcripts of Wallace's five-day interview with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg); it plays like an extended college bull session with your smartest friend who is idealistic, vulnerable, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes profoundly wise. Segel's performance is so good that I was honestly disappointed to see the film end. (And I'm determined to read Infinite Jest this year.)

Bel Powley in A Royal Night Out

Powley got lots of attention this year for her performance in Diary of a Teenage Girl, but her portrayal of a teen-aged Princess Margaret in this supremely silly little film has the pixilated innocence of a classic screwball comedienne at work. A fictionalized story of England's royal princesses enjoying a incognito night out among the commoners on VE Day,  A Royal Night Out treads a fine line between gentle nostalgia and tastelessness. But thanks to Powley's daffy, doe-eyed charms, even the young princess' brief, unwitting visit to a brothel seems as sweet and inconsequential as the bubbles in a glass of pink champagne.

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