2009 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

#5: Mélanie Laurent – Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds

Mélanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"

Mélanie Laurent’s character were scarcely even mentioned in the American marketing for this film, so I was quite surprised when her subplot became the most compelling one in the film. Following the deaths of her family at the hands of the SS, Shosanna bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge. As I mentioned in my original review, Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill, but Laurent ably makes this character her own, combining a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching vendetta.

Shosanna is also part of an entirely one-sided “romantic” subplot with a German soldier (Daniel Bruhl)… While his advances aren’t terribly entertaining, her constant rebuffing is occasionally comedic, but mostly downright chilling (“I suggest you try Vichy”). There is also a remarkable scene between Laurent and Christoph Waltz, in which they sit in a Parisian restaurant and eat strudel. As Shosanna faces the SS Colonel, she manages to rein in her terror until he steps out, at which point she immediately starts hyperventilating. Laurent’s performance is ruthless – like so many others in this film – but also quite vulnerable. She brings just the right balance to keep Shosanna sympathetic, even as she commits atrocities on par with the very people she wants to kill. It is a fantastic performance to round out an almost entirely strong cast (I’m lookin at you, Eli Roth), and is certainly one of the most memorable this year.

#4: Zoë Saldaña – Neytiri, Avatar


Zoë Saldaña performance capture in "Avatar"

Zoë Saldaña in "Avatar"This is a performance I really have to take James Cameron’s word on. The various forays into CG characters over the past decade have definitely started to blur the line between animation and live-action, but they were still mostly in the realm of bodily motion capture, with complex facial expressions significantly enhanced in post-production by teams of skilled animators. But while Andy Serkis’ performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings were not eligible for an acting Oscar, they were a leap forward from the likes of Jar Jar Binks, and Avatar is certainly the next such leap. According to Cameron, the characters in this film were created using performance capture techniques that recorded every nuance of the actor’s performance. Every tic of a facial muscle…every movement of the eyes… They were all made by the real actors. If this is really the case, it is entirely possible that future performances in this vein will be eligible for acting awards. And I would certainly hand one out to Zoë Saldaña.

Neytiri, the Na’vi princess, is just about the only sympathetic (or fully realized) character in this film, and Saldaña plays her with an some surprisingly animalistic ferocity (even baring her teeth and hissing a few times). While the visual spectacle of this film was enough to ensure that I was rapt with attention, it was with Saldaña’s character that I made the greatest emotional connection. She is almost certainly responsible for how well the romance played on-screen, and in light of the complex production process, achieving any believable chemistry could not have been an easy feat.

#3: Anna Kendrick – Natalie Keener, Up in the Air

Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"

From my original review:

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

This is a performance that grew on me each time I saw the film. The interplay between Natalie and her colleague Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is simply fantastic. Kendrick plays the character with both a fierce determination and a striking vulnerability, utterly immune to Ryan’s charms (and soundly mocking him for his rhetoric). As their road trip of job terminations goes on, it all becomes more and more personal for Natalie, and Kendrick’s performance completely brings this transformation to life.

#2: Charlotte Gainsbourg – She, Antichrist

Still for Lars von Trier's "Antichrist".

This is a haunting performance in a strange and thoroughly disturbing film. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the unnamed wife of a couple grieving alone in the woods. Through this unsettling and bewildering performance, Gainsbourg effectively conveys how broken and terrified this character has become. The interplay with her husband (Willem Dafoe) effectively illustrates the disjointed and counterproductive state of their present relationship. Gainsbourg’s performance is utterly fearless, and she maintains it even as her character becomes a paragon of the film’s unrelenting misogyny (“A woman crying is a woman scheming…”). Frankly, I would have a hard time recommending this film to anyone, but if I did, it would be solely because of this performance, which is one of the most effective and frightening I’ve ever seen.

#1: Zooey Deschanel – Summer Finn, (500) Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel in "500 Days of Summer"

From my original review:

Zooey Deschanel…steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.

As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective..

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender in Whip It
  • Rachel Weisz as Penelope in The Brothers Bloom
  • Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in Orphan
  • Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

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Tarantino’s World – “Inglourious Basterds”

inglourious-basterds-poster
Click to check out the trailer.

Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film Valkyrie demanded a great deal from its audience. It told the tale of a group of plotters who were willing to risk their lives and commit treason against their fatherland to bring about the end of an unrepentantly evil regime. It told their story in the guise of a thriller, despite the film’s ending being a matter of historical record. And it asked us to root for this company of heroes even knowing that their plot would fail.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest outing, Inglourious Basterds, makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while. And apart from the uniforms, World War II iconography, and an encyclopedic knowledge of 30s and 40s cinema, this film takes place largely in a fantasy world.

Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is the leader of the Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers who will sneak behind enemy lines to kill (and scalp) as many Nazis as they can. The title and trailer would have us believe this is what the film is about, but this is not an origin story. The Basterds are merely a backdrop to a broader tale of revenge. As the Basterds plot to destroy the Nazi leadership, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jewish girl, bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge for the murder of her family at the hands of the SS. Also in the mix is Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful turncoat German film starlet, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German sniper and war hero-cum-actor, and SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known colloquially as “The Jew Hunter”.

This is easily Tarantino’s most ambitious film. More than half of the dialogue is in subtitled French or German, and the labyrinthine plot is scarcely contained in the film’s 2 1/2 hour runtime. The film feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it feels complete.

The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.

Also noteworthy is Mélanie Laurent. Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill. Nonetheless, Laurent ably combines a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching desire for revenge. Denis Menochet gives a strong performance in an early interrogation scene, and Diane Kruger does a fine job as the fictitious German film starlet. If there’s one thing Cate Blanchett taught me as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator , it’s that I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses.

Which brings me…to Brad Pitt. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought that Pitt could ruin this film for me. He seemed woefully miscast as the Dirty Dozen-esque leader of the Basterds. And if Lt. Raine and the Basterds had more screen-time, that may well have been the case. But somehow, Pitt pulls it off.

He plays the character so brazenly over-the-top that it quickly becomes evident that this is not a character that is looking for anyone’s approval. Lt. Raine has come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass have fun and kill Nazis, and maybe speak some unapologetically bad Italian along the way. He is essentially a cartoon character. He has a scar across his neck from having his throat slit at some point in the past, which is never explained, but one can assume he has Chuck Norris-like longevity.

Many of the other Basterds are similarly cartoonish, although I don’t have much to say about their performances, given that they have so little screentime. Tarantino brings in such unassuming young actors as B.J. Novak (“The Office”) and Samm Levine (“Freaks and Geeks”) and invites us to watch as they graphically scalp dead Germans.

inglourious_basterds_eli_roth_mHe also brings in Eli Roth, and I must confess, I’m having a hard time figuring out why Roth is in this film. He plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz, known to the Germans as “The Bear Jew”, owing presumably to his appeal to a very specific subset of the gay community, and his propensity for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. The part was originally conceived for Adam Sandler, but rather than lament what might have been, I’ll simply speak to Roth’s performance. His delivery of dialogue, most of which he simply screams at the camera, is easily the worst in the film. He might well have ruined his scenes if not for the fact that he so looks the part of the Bear Jew. Roth may not be a strong actor, but he certainly can pull off a terrifying “bloodlust face”. And what’s more, he looks like he could kill me even without the bat. So with that in mind, I’ll simply say that Roth is a talented horror director, and he should probably stick to that from now on.

Inglourious Basterds is, like many of Tarantino’s films, an unrelenting depiction of brutality. Both the Basterds’ and Shosanna are unforgiving in their determination to wipe out the Nazis (“a Nat-see ain’t got no humanity!” barks Lt. Raine), and the parallels to the Nazis’ own brutality are almost certainly deliberate. The film does not seek to pardon anyone, but it does seem determined to simultaneously reveal both the humanity and brutality of all participants in war – and how the desire for revenge can lead people to commit previously unconscionable atrocities. And how in the end, no matter which side you’re on, all you want to do is go home, take off your uniform, and try to forget it ever happened.

“But that doesn’t sit well with me”, says Lt. Raine, as he gleefully carves a swastika into a German soldier’s forehead. “You know,” he says, turning to Private Utivich, who has just finished scalping yet another Nazi, “This might just be my masterpiece.”

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

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unused-basterds-poster
(unused poster for the film – click to read more about it)