2010 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Keira Knightley – Ruth, Never Let Me Go

Still from "Never Let Me Go"
Spoiler warning: In order to discuss this performance, I must reveal the premise of this film, which some might consider a spoiler.
Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go was an absolutely haunting experience. The alternate-world tale of three friends who grow up to be harvested for their organs, this film doesn’t feel overtly like science fiction, but instead relies on a triumvirate of strong performances to convey the somber and limited lives these three must experience. Keira Knightley gives easily her strongest performance in years, conveying every bit of the jealousy, longing, and regret that this tragic character demanded. While the film’s love triangle was one of its weakest aspects, Ruth’s relationship with Kathy (Carey Mulligan) worked masterfully, and owes just much to Knightley’s supporting turn as to Mulligan’s strong lead.

#4: Delphine Chanéac – Dren, Splice

Still from "Splice"

Dren, the human-animal hybrid from Splice, certainly owes some of its effectiveness to makeup and visual effects, but I must nonetheless applaud this utterly fearless portrayal from French model/actress Delphine Chanéac. This creature must convey a huge range of emotions and instincts through expressions, tics, and growls, often during some pretty harrowing and horrific sequences. Like the residents of the uncanny valley, Dren seems irrevocably human, and yet even when her animal parts aren’t visible, she just seems…wrong. Chanéac lends just the right amount of humanity and intelligence while never failing to remind the audience, whether through a jerk of the head or a high-pitched whine, that this character is not and cannot be human. As a bioethical thought experiment, this film’s ideas are effective. With this performance, the film approaches disturbing near-realism.

#3: Chloë Grace Moretz – Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl, Kick-Ass

Still from "Kick-Ass"

As I said in the second FilmWonk podcast, I found Chloe Moretz’s performance as the psychopathic superheroine Hit-Girl to be downright unsettling. Not when she was hopping down a hallway dispatching gangsters with the same eerie speed and dexterity as Prequel Yoda, but when she was having sweet father-daughter moments with an utterly ridiculous Nicolas Cage. Through no fault or will of her own, Hit-Girl has been saddled with an upbringing not unlike that of a Rwandan child soldier, and the cringe-inducing warmth of these family scenes lends nicely to the film’s pitch-black satirical tone. Hopefully, Moretz won’t get saddled with the child-actor typecasting curse, as this is the second film in which she’s played a wildly unrealistic child prodigy. Physically and emotionally, this performance is nothing short of mind-boggling in its scope and commitment to the role, and firmly cements her as one of the finest young actresses working today.

#2: Amy Adams – Charlene Fleming, The Fighter

Still from "The Fighter"

Oh, what to say about Amy Adams? This is a fantastic performance in a mostly impressive filmography, made even more so by what a radical departure it is from her usual “sweet girl” persona. Charlene is, and I mean this with the utmost respect, a tough bitch. Her strong, confident demeanor proved a fascinating counterpoint to Mark Wahlberg’s understated performance of an overshadowed character, and the chemistry between the two was undeniable. But even outside the romance, Charlene is a fascinating character, and Adams gives just the right balance of confidence and vulnerability to what could have been a very one-note love interest.

#1: Jacki Weaver – Janine Cody, Animal Kingdom

Still from "Animal Kingdom"

Not since Heath Ledger’s Joker have I seen such an delightfully creepy villain as this. Jacki Weaver’s appearance as the Aussie gangster matriarch Janine Cody quite deliberately evokes a lioness dutifully guarding her cubs, but at the same time, Weaver’s intensity muddles the metaphor a bit as she seems poised to devour any family member that gets in her way. This performance is utterly magnificent, from her every little interaction with her sons and grandson to her dismissive taunts to law enforcement (“but I’m not afraid of you, sweetie!”). As I said in the podcast, this film is a slow burn, but it’s Weaver, the standout in a cast of strong performances, that makes this film such a compelling watch.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Dale Dickey as Merab in Winter’s Bone
  • Rebecca Hall as Claire Keesey in The Town
  • Michelle Williams as Dolores in Shutter Island
  • Mia Wasikowska as Joni in The Kids Are All Right
  • Rooney Mara as Erica Albright in The Social Network

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Ben Affleck’s “The Town” – One last job, done right

I’ve never entirely understood why, but Ben Affleck has always been a bit of a divisive figure. While I can certainly take issue with some of his role choices over the years, he’s always struck me on the balance as a talented performer, whose earnestness and commitment have often managed to elevate even the hammiest of roles (Armageddon?). He became a talent to watch out for behind the camera with his 2007 directorial debut (Gone Baby Gone), and with The Town, he has crafted a supremely ambitious followup.

The film, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves”, stars Affleck as Doug MacRay, a career criminal in the seedy Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. Claire (Rebecca Hall) is a bank manager who is briefly taken hostage by MacRay’s crew after they rob her bank. At the behest of his partner, Jem (Jeremy Renner), MacRay begins surveilling Claire, and they ultimately strike up a relationship (with Jem and Claire each none the wiser). Beyond this classic rom-com premise, Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm stars as FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley, who is charged with investigating the string of bank robberies.

We see a number of heist sequences in this film, and it is in these scenes that the direction absolutely shines. Each of them is slickly designed and executed, and cinematographer Robert Elswit (of many P.T. Anderson films) shoots them with a masterful sense of space and action. The editing (from Dylan Tichenor, another P.T.A. alum) also remains nice and taut even as the action ratchets up in the second half. The opening robbery sequence reminded me favorably of The Dark Knight, only a bit less cartoonish, with all the brutality intact – I cringed far more when the bank’s assistant manager was rifle-butted in the face (in a masochistic cameo by Victor Garber) than with any of the Joker’s bloodless shotgun blasts.

Much of this brutality is inflicted by Jem, and I must say, I found myself rather disappointed with his first several minutes of screen time. I had no beef with Renner’s performance, but the idea that his strong turn in last year’s The Hurt Locker would be followed up by playing that same unstable psychopath from a dozen other heist films (including Renner’s own character in S.W.A.T.) – was downright depressing. But I was wrong. This film puts an unmatched, revelatory spin on a familiar character – rather than relying on him as a firebrand to ratchet up the tension and advance the plot with poor judgment and random violence, Jem is a fully realized character with a believable backstory and connection with MacRay. In a number of splendid scenes, the dynamic between these two very nearly upstages Claire and MacRay’s romance as the film’s most fascinating relationship. It’s all the familiarity of a buddy comedy with an absolutely sinister twinge – a brutality and familial closeness that somehow feels right at home in the film’s [probably very fictitious] depiction of Boston. Affleck and Renner’s deft performances certainly back this up, but I must give credit to the screenwriting.

MacRay is plausibly depicted as a master criminal, and FBI S.A. Rawley (Hamm) is a mostly worthy adversary. When a crime drama endeavors to show both sides of an investigation, it’s always a pleasant surprise when they seem an equal match in intellect and skill. Hamm’s performance didn’t entirely work for me at the beginning of this film, but I gradually warmed to it – as the film went on, Hamm’s intensity is showcased in increasingly effective ways. In an interrogation scene, there’s a moment [also in the trailer] when he stares straight through MacRay and icily tells him he’s going to die in federal prison. The line was absolutely chilling in the trailer, but the surrounding scene had me fidgeting in my seat even more than I expected. Rawley is not a particularly well fleshed-out character, but Hamm’s performance serves him up as an effective nemesis.

While the police procedural aspect of this film was not too elaborate or detailed, it rang completely true for me. It reminded me favorably of HBO’s “The Wire” – a police drama in which the cops rely less on forensic techno-babble and more on the personal connections between criminals. Rawley and his agents know exactly who the bad guys are and what they’ve done; they just need a way to prove it. While a feature-length police procedural is a lot more limited in its complexity than five seasons of television, this film realistically sold its investigation, as well as the notion that a criminal is far more likely to fall prey to a personal connection than an errant hair follicle.

It is these personal connections in an environment of unforgiving criminality that the film effectively explores. Nearly every relationship, from the film’s central romance (featuring a capable performance by Hall) to the brotherhood and friendship amongst the gang feels carefully realized. While the other gang members (besides MacRay and Jem) are fairly one-note, there’s really only one character that rings false – and it is unfortunately attached to an impressive turn by Pete Postlethwaite. I swear, when the mobster known as “Fergie the Florist” first appeared on screen, I thought I’d sleepwalked into a Guy Ritchie film. Everything about this character – his appearance, accent, and demeanor – was completely jarring and more than a little cartoonish. He ultimately serves little purpose but to prod the plot along by adding an additional [unnecessary] threat to the third act. On the balance, it does more harm than good to MacRay as a character… Wouldn’t it be nice if just once, our hero goes along with one last job just because he wants to? At least the scenes with Postlethwaite aren’t a complete waste – his demeanor was effectively intimidating, and his backstory with MacRay is nearly worth the time spent on him.

While The Town doesn’t completely avoid feeling like a rehash of other works*, it is nonetheless a complex, thoughtful, and well-made heist drama. Like Affleck himself, it deserves to be judged on what it has brought to the table anew, and it does not disappoint.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

*Including a sequence which managed to quite jarringly rip off both The Shawshank Redemption and the musical score of Band of Brothers.

2008 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

Top 5 Lead Actresses:

#5: Frances McDormand – Linda Litzke, Burn After Reading

A fun and fluffy performance in a fun and fluffy movie. This film has no grand statement to make (the last scene all but confirms this), but the actors and filmmakers clearly had a great time making it. Litzke may turn over-the-top and cartoonish about halfway through the film, but McDormand completely sells it.

#4: Rebecca Hall – Vicky, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Rebecca Hall first got on my radar from a delightful British comedy called Starter for 10, and this film is her strongest performance yet. It never fails to impress me when an actor manages to emote convincingly and fake an accent. Vicky, the down-to-earth American girl, is, by a slim margin, the more sympathetic character, and she could not have been given a more nuanced, emotional performance.

#3: Lina Leandersson – Eli, Let the Right One In

Boy meets girl, girl turns out to be a vampire. This Swedish pre-adolescent romance and coming-of-age tale was easily one of the best and most effectively creepy films of 2008, and Leandersson’s understated performance is the strongest of the film. If you have any desire whatsoever to see a vampire film this year, stay far, far away from Twilight, and see this film instead.

#2: Cate Blanchett – Daisy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I hate to digress, but it must be said… Cate Blanchett is just gorgeous in this film. And the sheer range of ages that they manage to convincingly make her convey is a testament to the makeup and digital artists that made this film happen. That said, Daisy is far more than a mere technical feat… She is the emotional center of this film, and despite Brad Pitt’s genuinely good turn as a hollowly written character, it is Blanchett that makes the film’s central romance seem believable. Daisy is a breathtaking testament to life in an otherwise bleak and lifeless film.

#1: Meryl Streep – Sister Aloysius, Doubt

I once heard someone call Meryl Streep “the female Al Pacino”, who had made her recent career through over-the-top roles in films like The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, and Adaptation. This film has proven that Streep still knows how to give a brilliant performance of a more realistic character. The four central performances are essential to this film’s effectiveness, and Streep’s is easily the strongest. She never wavers in her certainty of Father Flynn’s guilt, and her unforgettable scene with Viola Davis adeptly conveys this (see Part 2: Best Supporting Actresses). The final confrontation between the two leads is well worth the wait, and Streep’s pained delivery of the final line of the film will leave you haunted as you wonder what you really believe about what has taken place.

Honorable Mentions:

Jess Weixler – Teeth (yes, really)