2009 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Marcia Gay Harden – Brooke Cavendar, Whip It

Marcia Gay Harden in "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It (review), was an adept entry in the sporting genre (in this case, roller derby), made even more effective by some impressive casting and rich characters. The great Marcia Gay Harden plays Brooke Cavendar, an overbearing mother who puts constant pressure on her daughter, Bliss (Ellen Page), to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball. Bliss, meanwhile, would rather throw elbows and knock out teeth on the derby track. Brooke is an apt parallel to overeager football dads, but Harden’s performance is far more layered than such a stock character would normally require. Even as she steadfastly refuses to consider her Bliss’ wish to continue with roller derby, her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing shines through. She is stubborn, imperfect, but utterly well-meaning, and Harden’s strong performance contributes to making this one of the most engaging relationships in the film.

#4: Diane Kruger – Bridget von Hammersmark, Inglourious Basterds

Diane Kruger in "Inglourious Basterds"

As I said in my review, I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses, and German actress Diane Kruger was no exception. As she knocks back champagne and disarms an entire tavern of soldiers with a single laugh or smile, she harkens back to a time in which celebrity meant something altogether different for an actress from what it means today. And as her true role becomes apparent, she portrays her fictitious vintage film-starlet-cum-saboteur with exactly the right blend of elegance and ruthlessness.

#3: Rinko Kikuchi – Bang Bang, The Brothers Bloom

Rinko Kikuchi in "The Brothers Bloom"

Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi first came onto my radar with her fantastic performance as a deaf student (and nearly the only interesting character) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. She returns in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom as another less-than-verbose character… We are told that the brothers’ sidekick and demolitions expert, Bang Bang, speaks about three words of English, and indeed, this is about all we hear from her during the film. Nonetheless, Kikuchi’s brilliance at physical comedy and remarkable range of facial expressions make her one of the most memorable and hilarious characters in the film. If there’s one thing Javier Bardem showed in No Country for Old Men, it’s that a character with very little dialogue can still be quite compelling. With her performance in this film, Kikuchi has proven this true once again, and further proven that such a character doesn’t have to be a daunting psychopath.

#2: Kristen Stewart – Em Lewin, Adventureland

Kristen Stewart in "Adventureland"

Kristen Stewart is either a brilliant actress or a one-time fluke. Here’s what I had to say about her eight months ago when I first saw Adventureland:

As much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without [Jesse] Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

As Dave Chen from /Film points out, there is a “massive gulf between her on-screen charisma, and her off-screen persona”. Since Adventureland, all I’ve really seen from Stewart is a considerable foray into celebrity, and an understandable, if unremarkable return to her principal moneymaker. At this point, I must reserve judgment on whether she’ll prove a strong actress after she has left the Twilight franchise behind… Nonetheless, this is one of the most brilliant performances I’ve seen this year, and I have absolutely no qualms about praising it.

#1: Vera Farmiga – Alex Goran, Up in the Air

Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

“Just think of me as yourself, but with a vagina,” says Alex to Ryan (George Clooney), with whom she has just shared a casual hotel fling. In my original review, I said that it is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She is almost a total mystery – we know that she lives a similar life to Ryan, spending much of her time flying around the country, but we don’t really know much else. And yet, Farmiga’s performance and chemistry with Clooney completely make this romance work. While we don’t learn much about her profession, we do learn a great deal about her as a person. This character is somewhat of a mirror, acting as both a female version of Ryan and an older version of his colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick). But in her interactions with the two, she offers some remarkable insights. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Alex and Natalie swapping their respective versions of the ideal man. Farmiga’s monologue in this scene is just fantastic. Even as she is saying some pretty provocative things (e.g. “Please, let him earn more money than I do”), her delivery includes all the hesitation and reflection that comes with such a deeply personal question as one’s ideal match. On the surface, this scene simply highlights the difference in perspective between women in their 20s and 30s, but it also provides a mountain of subtext for the film’s central romance between Alex and Ryan that gives the film immeasurable rewatch value.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Alia Shawkat as Pash in Whip It
  • Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem in Whip It
  • Lorna Raver as Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me to Hell
  • Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette in Public Enemies

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” – A brilliant and timely character piece

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. He spends his life in airports and hotels, brandishing an impressive collection of Executive Gold Club Cards as he bounces from one bastion of transient hospitality to the next.

“When I swipe my card”, Ryan informs us in the opening voiceover, “the system prompts her to say…”
“Pleasure to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” the clerk cheerfully announces.

Ryan is clearly in love with the road, in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the temporary trappings that come with it. The film’s treatment of air travel falls somewhere between Catch Me If You Can and Fight Club, and Ryan meets no shortage of single-serving friends along the way. One of these is Alex (Vera Farmiga), an enigmatic career gal who is on the road as often as Ryan. They bond after a brief hotel fling, and resolve to meet up the next chance they get.

And yet, those chances may soon come to an end, as Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a brash, young coworker, proposes to slash the company’s travel budget and switch to firing people via videoconferencing. Facing the end of his life on the road, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take her along to show her the reality of his business. And that reality is a dubious one.

“Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world has sat where you’re sitting,” intones Ryan as he fires a man named Steve (Zach Galifianakis, in a great cameo), “And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

This is a line we hear several times, and Clooney’s brilliant, tongue-in-cheek delivery leaves the audience constantly wondering whether or not he believes his own rhetoric. Indeed, his true motivation is one of the film’s central questions…

When Ryan isn’t passing out pinkslips, he makes appearances as a motivational speaker, advising people how to avoid connections in their lives. His message is clear – “moving is living”. He has a silver tongue, and would clearly say anything to convince Natalie why he should stay on the road. And yet as the film goes on, his firing scenes are peppered with what seem to be moments of genuine humanity. During one such scene, in which he fires a white-collar fifty-something named Bob (J.K. Simmons), Ryan gives a touching speech about what Bob needs to do in order to be admired by his kids.

And this may be the most provocative thing about Ryan. Whether or not he believes in his rhetoric, it has exactly the intended effect. Ryan has his own reasons for wanting to stay on the road (including a coveted number of frequent flier miles), but he constantly tries to impress upon Natalie how important and personal the moment of firing is. To hear him describe it, it sounds almost noble. They are the priests, administering the last rites to the doomed before they pass into oblivion, all the while assuring them that there is something bright and beautiful on the other side. “We are here to make limbo tolerable”, declares Ryan, and he is soundly mocked for it by Natalie.

The film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan. It is implied that he has had a multitude of one-night stands, and yet the very first one we see – Alex – is the one that might just turn serious. The film grants him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shies away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity so well that the character is incredibly effective, especially in the interplay with his young colleague.

Still from Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air"

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.

It is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She comes right out and tells Ryan to just think of her as “[himself], but with a vagina”, and assures him that she’s not a girl he needs to worry about. The character seems a bit facile at the beginning, but Vera Farmiga gives a fantastic performance. And as her relationship with Ryan develops, the character seems more and more plausible. And while it’s fairly easy to see where the story is going with this character, she does treat us to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Ryan and Alex share their views on love and marriage.

The script for Up in the Air, adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a novel by Walter Kirn, contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. The performances are also something to see. In addition to the three strong leads, Jason Bateman gives a impressive turn as Bingham’s boss – he’s a ruthless company shark with just a bit of a humorous streak to him, seemingly channeling Stephen Root in No Country for Old Men. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen from Bateman, and I was quite impressed.

We also see dozens of people being fired in this film, and most of them were quite convincingly played by real people who’ve lost their jobs during the recession. The film even includes an end-credits song that was seemingly performed on spec on the director’s answering machine. This could easily have come off as pandering to an audience in economic turmoil, but it just lends so well to the relevance and immediacy of this film.

While Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking, it has a much more somber tone. It retains the same darkly comedic style (and presents another fantastic soundtrack) while covering a lot more ground. It takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. And it is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10