We have arrived at the halfway point of 2013. What has the cinema offered us so far? In the first part of a multi-part retrospective, here are my favorite performances of the year so far.
Runners-up: Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness; Henry Cavill, Man of Steel; James Franco, Spring Breakers; Mia Wasikowski, Stoker; Michael Cera, This Is the End
Gosling and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance cobbled together some kind of alchemy in Blue Valentine in 2010 (with a little bit of help from Michelle Williams, in an Oscar-nominated performance.) The sharpest instinct Cianfrance exhibited with his grander, messier follow-up work was reuniting with the resourceful Gosling. In a film that ultimately bites off more than it's able to chew, the ingenious performer proves to be the best part of this ambitious triptych melodrama about fathers and sons and the overbearing consequences of ones past and upbringing. Gosling's Luke is a rebel outcast in the mold of an old school antihero-- James Dean or Marlon Brando might have played this part had Place been made in the 1950s-- and yet despite the endless look of cool and mystique so fetishistically photographed by Cianfrance, Gosling shades his Robin Hood-like character with a brimming and soulful yearning. Luke is the first part of The Place Beyond the Pines, and without spoiling anything, once he disappears, the film starts to crumble.
The ugly sting of nepotism rings a dampening effect to a budding young performer, a nearly contemptuous sneer at times. However, sometimes a performance and film is so radiant and so effortlessly lived-in that in the private sanctuary of a movie palace, you can forget the entire world outside. It needn't be necessary to know that Sumner is the offspring of Sting and Trudie Styler, and the film that surrounds her richly comic and well observed supporting turn, Frances Ha, is strong enough to make you forget nearly anything that ales. As Sophie, Frances' BFF through the scary jungle of contemporary New York ennui, Sumner is sarcastic and ironic, sardonic, but also a lovesick dreamer. To play such contradictory notes without ever falling into caricature is a testament to a hopefully inspired new artist; to turn them is something that's nearly moving is something even more special.
If Steven Soderbergh's retirement from the movies is in fact deemed true, at the very least, one can say, he went out with a hell of a year. Surely, it will be HBO's Behind the Candelabra that will be the one to net the most trophies and esteemed hosannas, but his year began with the tight and delightfully warped little noir called Side Effects that just as effectively imbued all the skills that have complemented Soderbergh's career. The first and most glaring compliment must be his work his actors, and in that regard, Jude Law's lithe and menacingly playful performance as slippery doctor who may or may not be being duped is worthy in it of itself of more acclaim than it will likely ever receive. Law, it appears, may be on the upswing with surprisingly fruitful performances in not just Side Effects, but also last fall's anemic Anna Karenina, and his performance here is easily his most awake, alert and sharply keyed in than the actor has been since his career peak period that ascended in The Talented Mr. Ripley and swayed as Gigolo Joe in A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
It was supposed to a silly little movie made in an attempt to cash in on the young adult star-crossed lovers/occult phase-- in short it was merely supposed to be a rip off of Twilight, and yet it somehow became 2013's most inexplicably ignored film critically and commercially. Richard LaGravenese's Beautiful Creatures somehow, under some set of only-in-the-movies sort of magic is a gleefully underrated and joyous oddball of a movie about the teenage romance between a mortal boy and a witch. Sounds pretty dull, but the writing, playful visuals and the potent performances that are sharp as a tick, but forever realizing what indeed this material really is make it one of the more pleasant surprises of the year. Leading actor Alden Ehrenreich is perhaps the biggest surprise of all as the lovelorn Ethan Wade, a melding together of jock and nerd boy next door, he proves a charming leading man with a hopefully fruitful career ahead of him. His performance here would blow Robert Pattinson and all the other mimics well away.
Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, has for years been somewhat trapped in the doomed muse-like role for her leading men. Sure, in films like Super 8 and Somewhere, Fanning had a captivating hold over the audience, but the characters themselves were used as little more than to serve her male co-stars. Ginger & Rosa, a blink-and-you've-missed-it independent drama released this past spring gave Fanning the sharpest character she's yet to play, and the performer took to it with the natural precision of a gifted surgeon, even acquiring a believable British accent to boot. As the rebellious young girl raised by a prim and conservative mother in the 1960s, Fanning shows incomparable diction and poise.
Whatever happened in the last two years or so in the life of Matthew McConaughey, it was apparently and abundantly worth it. For this sudden and startling period of productively in the career of the one-time nude-banjo-player is as surprising as any third act twist. Mud, Jeff Nichols' follow-up to Take Shelter, made its inauspicious premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and left the stew for nearly a year before making its way to American movie houses. The surprise (or perhaps not after the year the performer has having) was McConaughey's richly nuanced and beatifically observed performances as the titular Mud, a fugitive forever dreaming for a better life with the troubled girl whom he loves. Nichols' film takes a few missteps along the way, and concludes as an utterly contrived yarn, but McConaughey's steely gaze and reserve is unsettling, sympathetic and in sharp command.
The invaluable Bernal has made a wondrous journeyman career for himself working alongside filmmakers as varied and vibrant as Michel Gondry, Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Walter Salles and Alejandro González Inárritu and yet imbuing a rich, quiet humanity carried over every genre and tone. With Pablo Larraín's bold and enriching No, Bernal has clearly and authoritatively honed in on his gift for the title of leading man with the most humility and compassion for his projects and characters. There's never a false note in the complex and beautifully engrossing performance, nor a stance for side-swipping showboating-- every tic, manner and line reading in the service of this most superior film and while his most compelling humanistic approach to his characters may never give this exceptional performer the awards or plaudits he richly deserves, it's a novel and engrossing detail that has made Bernal one of the finest actors of his generation.
Chan-wook Park's English-language debut was a mixed bag of a film, but the biggest and most reassuring highlight was the beaut and hoot and a half of the performance that Kidman delivered. She spends the majority of the film sidelined in her own little chamber piece of play-- a sort of lost Tennessee Williams heroine, but in the final moments unleashes a giddy showcase of maternal hell that frankly the subdued hothouse of a chiller needed a bit more of. Kidman's ravenous contempt and rage all quivers to the seems in a chilling last-minute monologue that gives the chameleon actress finally something to chew on, and settles the film with a tasty bit of naughtiness.
Baz Luhrmann's lurid and colorful retelling of The Great Gatsby was supposed to the ultimate cinematic staging for the doomed star-crossed lovers Jay and Daisy, played here by Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. However it was newcomer Debicki as the supporting player Jordan Baker who ran away with the best in show honors, not because Luhrmann showcased or particularly upped the impact of the role, but because Debicki brought a stylized charm and grace to the one-note acting proceedings, adding notes and abundant flair to her side-lined character.
My favorite film so far in 2013 also featured my favorite performance from the year so far, a caveat I'm fairly certain isn't going to change much come six months from now. The two are most certainly connected as Gerwig is Frances and Frances is Gerwig, a wonderful melding of actor and character and character and film. With this, it brings a bit of sadness that Gerwig is likely unlikely not going to a favorite for a leading actress Oscar nomination come winter, and may even be but a longshot for the Indie Spirits, but in my book her joyous, witty and beguilingly profound creation is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize for its brute honesty and natural joie de vivre.
What are your favorite performances from the first six months of 2013?