Cinemagoers in 2014 were given the opportunity to be captivated by tyrannical drum instructors, troubled Olympians, and ersatz superheroes.
Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang
(Sony Pictures Classics)
In the pulse-pounding tale of drum student Andrew (Miles Teller) striving for excellence at his craft, his instructor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), is consumed by him. This makes for an especially knotty relationship, wound around legacy and ambition, competition and consumption. As director Damien Chazelle stages it, this relationship is both hackneyed and innovative, a saga of fathers and sons and bullies and victims, but also a gorgeous ode to drumming, as art, as mastery and invention, as utterly thrilling experience.
As Fletcher appears to set trap after trap for Andrew, to taunt and intimidate and twist his student’s desire, he seems the ultimate bad teacher, even as he describes himself otherwise. Your first impression of Fletcher is that of a myopic despot, so sure of his own vision that he can’t imagine another even exists. However, Whiplash allows that Fletcher might mean well, that he feels remorse over mistakes he might have made. But it also focuses, again and again, on the brutality of his methods, the classroom full of cowering young men (all men), the averted glances, the uncertainty of their own abilities and judgments, the abject fear. Simmons maintains this terror-inducing environment throughout Whiplash, and the result his own kind of brilliant. Cynthia Fuchs
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Judy Greer, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval
(Twentieth Century Fox)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Fusing the performance styles of Roddy McDowall, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton into one role would be difficult enough; layering unique special effects on top of it seems to be an almost insurmountable acting task. Fortunately, and miraculously, Andy Serkis makes it look effortless, and like he’s been walking, talking and living as Caesar for years. Even more remarkable is how, in the years that have elapsed between Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar has aged considerably more years than Serkis, but the physicality of his performance in the latter betrays an older, wise, more cautious elder statesman than the impetuous, angry rebel of the earlier picture. Though the role’s verbal needs are still small in comparison to most other leads’, Caesar’s spoken vocabulary has grown considerably, and Serkis’s voice is more raw than ever, possibly indicating some form of vocal cord atrophy. The humans haven’t been around; why would he need to use speak? Really, everything Caesar needs to say can be said by his eyes, and Serkis has perhaps the most accessible eyes in the industry outside of Charlie Hunnam: oscillating from rage to love to hope to cold indifference, sometimes all in the same scene, Serkis’s eyes tell you everything you need to know about Caesar before he does or says anything at all. With his performance, Serkis, and the digital wizards at Weta, have effectively assassinated and buried the uncanny valley. Kevin Brettauer
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
(Open Road Films)
Many assessments of Jake Gyllenhaal’s recent career cite 2010’s Prince of Persia as a flop or disappointment that resulted in him choosing or becoming resigned to starring in “smaller” films. The truth, the actor told Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Lee in October, is that he simply “want[ed] to go at character a different way.” As Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal’s different way is to play the character as a stealth actor.
Bloom is a desperate man, cutting through fences and lying and stealing his way to a meager existence. His encounter with a news videographer precipitates his newfound identity as a stringer who will stop at nothing to get the most sensational footage. Gyllenhaal channels a lifetime of pretending to be other people into a nocturnal creature that no one can pin down. The most outstanding feature of his acting here is that his various deceptions affect the supporting characters and the audience in a similar manner. Each time Bloom appears to have gone too far or let a negotiation get away from him, we’re shocked by the subsequent realization that he’s always calling the shots. Bloom is Gyllenhaal’s master class in modulation and manipulation. Thomas Britt
Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
As a husband coming to terms with the fact that he failed his family by unconsciously choosing to follow his survival instincts over his paternal responsibilities, Johannes Kuhnke gave perhaps the most deliciously emasculated performance of the year. His character has to comply with obligations it seems he wasn’t even supposed to know he had, and Kuhnke plays this with pretend cockiness, we see his character make up a performance as he goes along. Watching him nod and smile as his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) complains to strangers about his behavior is so painful, it might even make Michael Haneke cringe. Kuhnke is unafraid to look deep into his character and take him to unexpected places, devoid of vanity and self-consciousness. Jose Solís
Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall
(Sony Pictures Classics)
An actor is guaranteed to face a particular form of physical transformation when preparing for and shooting a biographical sports-drama. Foxcatcher has a few such roles, with star Steve Carell rendered unrecognizable, despite playing the film’s least athletic character. And while Carell and co-star Channing Tatum ably enter into the emotional crucible of the film’s central relationship, it is Mark Ruffalo that faces the totality of this true story’s physical and mental struggles.
Ruffalo plays Dave Schultz, the better adjusted older brother of Mark Schultz (Tatum). Both winners of Olympic gold medals, the Schultz brothers are drawn into the strange world of John Eleuthère du Pont (Carell), a rich and mentally ill man who is collecting members of a wrestling team. Ruffalo is playing a man much younger and more muscular than himself, and during wrestling and training sequences he more than convinces on both fronts. However, it is a scene of comparatively tight, talking head-style framing that best captures Ruffalo’s immersion into the character. He’s asked to praise the team leader in a du Pont-funded propaganda video. It’s a scene of great unease, and one loses count of the number of conflicting thoughts and transitions reflected in Ruffalo’s voice and face. He creates a portrait of a man suddenly aware of the depth of his responsibility to his brother, the sickness of the very man he’s being asked to extol, and the consequences of having to carry these conflicting burdens toward an inevitable confrontation. Thomas Britt