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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Glenn’s Indie Movie-Wank – Part 3: Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer”

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This is a story of boy meets girl, a stern, wry narrator informs us before the credits of Marc Webb’s self-styled “anti-romantic comedy”, (500) Days of Summer. The narrator goes on to warn us (not in so may words) that if we’re expecting a love story, we’ll be sobbing as hard as Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) after he gets dumped by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). This film doesn’t bury the lead; after a brief sequence on day 1 (when the two first meet), we jump forward to more than a year later (somewhere in the 380s), as Summer declares her love for pancakes and the relationship’s imminent demise. It makes sense in the scene.

This film revels in quirk and hipster sensibility almost as much as Juno (albeit less annoyingly so), and spins its relationship tale with as disjointed a timeline as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 500 Days makes a suitable companion piece to the latter film; both come from music video directors bringing some of their usual stylistic flourishes, and both use unconventional storytelling and a nonlinear timeline to offer their perspectives on love via exploration of a failed relationship.

But that’s where the similarities end… For a film in which the male romantic lead spends the majority of the time brooding and sobbing, 500 Days is remarkably uplifting and funny. The film takes place largely from Tom’s perspective, and at times, inside his head. It is a film about expectations. Summer, whose parents split up when she was a child, doesn’t expect anything from a relationship, and doesn’t really even want one. Tom, having internalized the lessons of a childhood of romantic songs and movies (and a total misread of the ending of The Graduate), doesn’t think he’ll be truly happy until he finds “the one”. Unfortunately, he only has the vaguest idea of what “the one” will be.

In the opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) ponders why he falls in love with any woman who shows him the slightest bit of attention (in that case, the enigmatic Clementine, played by Kate Winslet). Tom is a character that could easily end up in the same boat as Joel, even after the emotional smackdown that he experiences in 500 Days. While neither Kate Winslet nor Zooey Deschanel are true examples of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in their respective films, their men seem bent on regarding them as such. They are each warned to manage their expectations as they begin the relationship, and they each pay a steep emotional price for failing to do so.

500_days_of_summer_movie_image_joeseph_gordon_levit_and_zooey_deschanel

The performances are quite adept. Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again proves his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “3rd Rock from the Sun”.

But even as Gordon-Levitt continues to prove as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding, it is Zooey Deschanel that 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.

It is a lot easier to hate Chloe Moretz, a 12-year-old actress who may inadvertantly end up typecasting herself. In Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel “Kick-Ass”, Moretz will play Hit Girl, a precocious, sword-wielding assassin. Here, she plays an equally unrealistic youngster in the form of Tom’s sister Rachel, who spends the entire film feeding him uncannily adept relationship advice in-between soccer matches. Despite Moretz’s solid performance, this character is the film’s biggest misfire. She could easily have been written out of the film without losing anything but doddering exposition. Perhaps I could have tolerated either an unrealistically savvy child or prolific movie trailer narration, but the inclusion of both nearly causes the film to collapse under the weight of its own cleverness.

And indeed, all of the characters occasionally feel overwritten. Summer intones with uncanny frequency how much she “loves” a particular band or food or [anything but Tom], and Tom’s job as a greeting card writer often seems like merely a clever setpiece for unrealistic emotional dialogue (consult your local Hallmark dealer for further examples). But somehow, the result is immensely enjoyable. This film is equal parts fable and reality, but it has a lot of insight to offer about love and relationships. (500) Days of Summer has earned its place alongside Eternal Sunshine and Forgetting Sarah Marshall in the “broken hearts” section of my pantheon of cinematic romances.

If you see this film, it will almost certainly speak to you on some level. If you don’t see yourself in one of these characters, then you might just see someone you know.

Or knew.

Or loved.