Thursday, December 17, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Lead Actress Performances

1. Liv Ullmann - Scenes from a Marriage

There's a scene early in Ingmar Bergman's movie where the camera stays on Liv Ullmann's face for minutes on end, as she's mostly silent. It's one of the great shots in cinema not because of its visual invention, it's a rather mundanely framed shot, but because of the extraordinary nature of Liv Ullmann. Bergman loved faces, and Ullmann's is expressive, but obviously hiding many things under the surface. We can tell immediately that things are wrong in this outwardly happy marriage. As the movie goes on, Ullmann's performance grows and deepens as her character matures. It's my favorite performance I've ever seen from an actress and I think really can be felt by seeing the movie better than it can be explained with words.

2. Meryl Streep - Sophie's Choice

Almost an afterthought because it's the best performance from our best actress, but still. This is extraordinary work from Streep. She takes us through the trauma of the titular choice (as a concentration camp prisoner she's made by an SS officer to choose which one of her two children will be allowed to live) to the recovery and attempt at life years later. The accent is wonderful, allegedly even speaking Polish accented German, but I obviously can't verify that. But it's what's going on underneath that elevates this performance into the realm of must see and all-time great.

3. Marion Cotillard - La Vie en Rose

Marion Cotillard's star making performance in La Vie en Rose is one of the times I was totally bowled over by the all encompassing brilliance of an actors work. The movie as a whole is just good, but every frame is worth watching for Cotillard, who takes us through the life of legendary singer Edith Piaf. She goes through seemingly every emotion possible, and takes us pretty much through the entire adult life of the great singer. It's a life filled performance in every possible way, and even with Cotillard's Oscar win, I think this performance is underrated.

4. Q'Orianka Kilcher - The New World

Although she has continued to act, we haven't really seen Q'Orianka Kilcher since The New World, and that's a shame because she gave one of the great performances in Terrence Malick's lyrical take on the Pocahontas story. Kilcher is staggering in the growth she shows on screen, starting out as a curious teenager connecting with Colin Farrell's John Smith, they end up sharing their language and hearts with each other before Pocahontas grows up to marry Christian Bale's John Rolfe and eventually become a young mother and aristocrat in England. That Kilcher was just 14 or 15 when she did this work makes it even more amazing. I wrote when I first saw it of Kilcher's "startling depth" and I haven't stopped feeling that way.

5. Ingrid Bergman - Notorious

I could've easily gone with Bergman's great turn in Casablanca, but her better work is in this Hitchcock masterpiece. As the drunken beauty with a checkered past and Nazi family ties, Bergman is extraordinary. She believably falls for Cary Grant, and we sit frustrated as he pushes her away on assignment to infiltrate Claude Rains' uranium enriching former Nazi. She goes along against her better judgment, while Grant resents her for playing her part well and doing what he told her to. We see her internal conflict as she gets subtly poisoned and more wearied each time she and Grant meet. Though Grant's character is the one of action, his work and the success of the movie overall wouldn't happen without Bergman as the centerpiece.

6. Brigitte Mira - Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

The newest (to me) performance on the list, Mira's work as the 60-ish German woman, Emmi, falling in love with 35-ish young Moroccan Ali really blew me away. To see her in the beginning, a conservative widowed cleaning lady, probably given up on life sexually only to be awoken by the connection she immediately shares with the strapping Ali, it's really terrific work from the actress. And then as writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder doesn't just give us a simple love story, but adds the complexity of the racism against the couple, the shock of the age difference, and the difficult reality they face if they want to stay together. When Emmi breaks down at the restaurant and says she wishes it were just the two of them in the world, we feel the desperation of this woman who had given up but now has a chance at real, true, unfiltered happiness and struggles against the world who doesn't approve of her life and desires. It's great and unforgettable work from Mira.

7. Bibi Andersson - Persona

Hard to separate this performance from that of her co-star Liv Ullmann, as in my mind they're playing the same character, but Bibi Andersson was always the less renowned of Ingmar Bergman's great leading ladies and her work in Persona is really tremendous. Watching Alma go from sort of wide eyed and happy, to euphorically sexy, confused, vindictive, and so much in between is really one of the great joys of Bergman's masterpiece of a movie. It's a two hander, and if one side falls down in such a situation the whole movie is ruined, somehow Andersson not only doesn't fall down, she transcends and elevates. Her ethereal beauty can't overshadow the brilliance of her performance.

8. Kim Novak - Vertigo

Sometimes overshadowed by the extraordinary work from co-star Jimmy Stewart, and by her iconic director as well, Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo is really one of the sadly under appreciated great pieces of work from an actress. So much more than the icy blonde Hitchcock presents her as, in the dual performance as Judy and Madeleine, Novak adds startling depth and nuance to the character that isn't there on the page. Her yearning for the love and approval of the man she unexpectedly falls in love with, as he tragically falls into madness, is the best work Hitch ever got from an actress, despite their contentious working relationship.

9. Kate Winslet - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This was a performance it actually took me a while to appreciate. I connected so heavily to Jim Carrey's Joel that I overlooked Kate Winslet's performance as Clementine. But the more I've watched this masterpiece of a movie the more intrigued I am by Winslet's character. Her free spirit, intelligence, beauty, all the things that made Joel fall for her, but also Winslet's ability to flawlessly portray Clem's confusion, spitefulness, and other qualities that made her a bit of an enigma. Winslet, of course, is one of our great actresses. And although she has a wide breadth of great characters, and this isn't her showiest work, I think it's her best.

10. Julie Delpy - Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight

Okay, definitely cheating on this one but I love Julie Delpy's creation of Celine too much to choose which movie she was best in. The performances are all so specific to this character at these certain times in her life. The romantic Celine in Before Sunrise, the more cynical Celine years later in Before Sunset, and the struggling against the trappings of normal life Celine in Before Midnight. Delpy, working opposite Ethan Hawke, has come up with a fascinating look into the complex mind and heart of a character who grows and changes and develops in wonderful ways. Unprecedented in its return to its characters (co-written by Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater) every 9 years, I hope we get to see Delpy continue this development, as Celine is one of the great characters in cinema, and Delpy's performances are the big reason why.

Don't forget to check out Clint's blog, Guy with a Movie Blog,with his top 10 Lead Actress Performances too.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Top 50 movies: 36-40

36. Blowup
Year: 1966
Country: England
Language: English
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

The first English language movie from Michelangelo Antonioni, Blowup is a hell of a good time at the movies. The Hitchcockian tale of a photographer who may or may not have accidentally photographed a murder, and the ensuing 24 or so hours after he did it. Antonioni doesn't give us any easy answers, and never answers the question of what "really" happened. But he doesn't need to, because that's not what he's after.

I think he's after a couple of things. 1.) He shows his main character, Thomas, bored with the mundanity of his fashion shoots and longing to be artistically motivated again. Antonioni had not really been going through a dry spell as an artist, but I think all artists feel bored and feel a need to reconnect or rechallenge themselves again. But to what end? Thomas almost becomes stuck in his project, not sure of how to get out (or if he even wants to) 2.) Antonioni is commenting on the nature of reality and perception. The famous ending scene with the mimes playing tennis as Thomas watches is a perfect distillation of Antonioni's asking of the question "what is reality? How is it different from perception? IS it different?" Few thrillers have ever challenged us to ask such deep questions before.

37. Wall-E
Year: 2008
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Andrew Stanton

Wall-E is one of the most lovable characters we've ever had. He's right up there with Winnie-the-Pooh and Wallace and Gromit. The mostly silent love story he has with EVE is one of the great ones in cinema history. From how he is immediately enamored of her, she thinks he's adorable, the way they dance in space, to the way Wall-E adorably says "E-va" since he can't say EVE. The fact that they're animated robots doesn't lessen their impact in the slightest. When EVE has to rebuild Wall-E near the end, the emotional longing and hope and love we can feel from her is as extraordinary as anything a real actor could've given us. And though the second half of the movie is indeed inferior to the first, as most people recognize, I love the logical extension that writer/director Andrew Stanton takes for our laziness and reliability on machines. That Stanton also tackles ecology, consumerism, and the future of the human race in the middle of his mostly silent love story is further proof of the genius of this movie, Pixar's best.

38. Don't Look Now
Year: 1973
Country: England, mostly filmed in Italy
Language: English
Director: Nicolas Roeg

As I recently wrote a bit about this movie again when I put it on my top horror movies list, I won't write too much more. Just to say that mood and atmosphere are the best friend of the horror movie, yet too many filmmakers think it's blood or gore or stupid jump scares. Nicolas Roeg, working from an adaptation of the novella by Daphne du Maurier, creates a movie that oozes with death and fear and a surprising amount of emotion. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as the grief stricken couple trying to hold things together after the death of their daughter, are both absolutely superb. But it's the forbidding mood of the movie (despite, if I remember correctly, only a body count of 2) that always sticks with me. And, of course, the image of a little girl in a red rain coat.

39. Chinatown
Year: 1974
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Roman Polanski
A favorite sub-genre of mine, what I call the "daylight noir", has its pinnacle here in Roman Polanski's masterpiece Chinatown. One of Jack Nicholson's best slow burn performances, as PI Jake Gittes, is actually overshadowed here by the villain Noah Cross, played by legendary director John Huston. The way he subtly digs Jake by always calling him by the wrong name. How he always already knows the things that Jake is trying to figure out. Huston's voice and arrogant manner have stuck with me from the first time I saw this movie. Though he could be an imposing figure due to his height advantage over Jake, Cross is an old man now, but still has that air of power and importance about him. He seems to contain a darkness we're not sure we want to know about, he holds secrets we're not sure we can handle, and he has a politicians unbeatable snakelike ability to always survive. He's one of the great characters, and Chinatown is one of the great movies.

40. The Empire Strikes Back
Year: 1980
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Irvin Kershner
Perhaps fitting that this should come up in this list, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens to come out next week, but the gold standard of the series is, and likely will stay being 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas stepped aside, handing over directing duties to accomplished journeyman Irvin Kershner, who crafted the most exciting, intense, emotional, and overall satisfying movie in the series. It's often pointed to as one of the best sequels ever for a reason. The entire Hoth sequence alone would make this movie remarkable, but the way Kershner handles the Dagoba section with Yoda is the best thing in the Star Wars universe. The planet is dark and dingy, Yoda is funny and wise (true credit for this goes to Frank Oz's astounding work on the puppeteering and voicing of Yoda), and the growth our hero Luke experiences has real emotional impact. So it's everything a big Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster should be, but rarely is.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Lead Actor Performances

1. Marlon Brando - On the Waterfront

The greatest male performance I've ever seen is this classic from the man often thought of as the greatest screen actor. I first saw this movie on Turner Classic Movies the week that Marlon Brando died. I knew, of course, of the famous "I coulda been a contenda" speech, but I wasn't ready for the depth and sensitivity and power of Brando's work overall. That legendary speech is heartbreaking because of Brando's reading of it. The hurt in his voice when he tells his brother (Rod Steiger) "I was your brother, Charlie, you shoulda taken care of me a little bit" is devastating. I was convinced as soon as it was over that this was the best performance I'd ever seen, and I don't doubt that these many years later.

2. Al Pacino - Dog Day Afternoon

Al Pacino has long been my favorite actor. And he has given us a huge swath of great performances, from Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies, to Tony Montana in Scarface, Lefty in Donnie Brasco, Roy in Angels in America, or even his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But his greatest on screen work, and the one that has seemingly the least amount of Al Pacino in it, is in Dog Day Afternoon. His Sonny (also Pacino's familial nickname as a youngster) is one of the great characters, but the voice, the mannerisms, the vulnerability but also the anger and confusion but with an undeniable intelligence. It's a tricky role to play and I'm not sure who could've really played it but him. In particular, the scenes of Sonny dictating his will, and his phone call with his lover (Chris Sarandon) have lost none of their power in the ensuing 40 years since they came out.

3. Denzel Washington - Malcolm X

Spike Lee has said that Denzel Washington became Malcolm X during filming of the great biopic of the controversial leader. He said Denzel would often go off script for minutes at a time with an assurance and fire that were not his own. Once he would finish a speech and Spike would call cut, he'd ask Denzel where those words came from and Denzel would say "that was Malcolm." And I believe it. As much as we know the faces and voices of movie stars like Denzel, and he changes neither of them for this performance, I never once questioned that I was watching Malcolm, not Denzel, on screen. It's a scorching performance, and Spike doesn't let Denzel down, as the movie is a masterpiece as well.

4. Robert De Niro - Raging Bull

One of the most famous transformations in cinema history is Robert De Niro's dedication to becoming legendary middle weight boxer Jake LaMotta. Getting in fighting shape, including fighting 3 real amateur fights (and winning two of them), and then stopping production to gain 60 pounds to portray the older and out of shape LaMotta, De Niro displayed a remarkable dedication that has served as inspiration for decades of subsequent actors. But De Niro does so much more than transform his body, he seemingly transforms his soul. Jake bashing his head against the concrete wall is one of the toughest things to watch that I've ever seen on screen. It makes for a tough movie to watch too, but a moving one. No one has played animalistic like De Niro did here. Few people have played a more lost soul than De Niro did here. And few people have given a better performance than De Niro did here.

5. Sean Penn - Dead Man Walking

Though his co-star Susan Sarandon took home the Oscar that night (while he watched Nic Cage win his category), Sean Penn's work in Dead Man Walking is the reason the movie is so special. His Matthew Poncelet is a nasty man. He's a murderer on death row and we watch as Sarandon's Sister Helen Prejean becomes his spiritual advisor towards the end of his life. Penn does something that I think is easier said than done. He plays stupid. Well, not stupid so much as aggressively ignorant. He tries to spout off to Prejean certain Bible verses he likes, only for her to counter, and then say something like "well, I'm not gonna get into a Bible quoting contest with a nun." But he reveals Matthew over the course of the movie to be worthy of our empathy. Why? Because he's a human being, and that should be good enough. Not because he's innocent, or smart, or funny, or would be someone we'd want to spend any amount of time with. But because he's a real person. When he thanks Sister Helen for loving him, I broke down bawling like I never have watching another movie.

6. Takashi Shimura - Ikiru

Takashi Shimura has his place in cinema history as one of the two favorite actors of my favorite director, Akira Kurosawa. And although he stars as the lead samurai in the more famous Seven Samurai, Shimura's best work is starring in Kurosawa's Ikiru. Shimura's Watanabe finds out he has terminal cancer and begins a journey of waking up for the final stretch of his life. He's been a nameless, faceless bureaucrat but when faced with the end of his life determines to do something meaningful, which ultimately involves getting a children's playground built. The journey that Kurosawa and Shimura take us on is incredibly affecting, as Shimura wakes up from the stupor of his life, searches for his purpose, finds it, and becomes relentless in making it happen before he succumbs to cancer. Shimura's nuanced work carries the story so beautifully, and that iconic final scene, I'll never forget that face or that performance.

7. Toshiro Mifune - Red Beard

Kurosawa's other, and more famous, collaboration was with Toshiro Mifune. Though more famous for his over-the-top work in Seven Samurai, or more iconic in Yojimbo (basically giving birth to Clint Eastwood's entire persona), I've always been more interested in the final of his 16 movies with Kurosawa, the novelic medical drama Red Beard. Mifune plays the enigmatic head doctor of a clinic in a small Japanese town. He acts as the mentor to the arrogant young doctor Yasumoto, who comes in with his fancy medical training, but none of the life experience to actually help the patients at the 18th century hospital. Mifune's gruff voice perfectly fits the cantankerous doctor, but he also adds a depth of understanding. We can feel his years of experience helping people, or simply witnessing the end of their lives when there's nothing to be done (and the sadness that brings). It's the most depth Mifune ever brought to the screen, and it's sad that the troubled production helped make it the last time he made a movie with Kurosawa.

8. Jimmy Stewart - Vertigo

I've always called this the ballsiest star performance in Hollywood history. Jimmy Stewart was the likable Everyman of his times, but Vertigo's Scotty is a different kind of role. Stewart's Everyman qualities help make his descent into obsession, madness, and misguided love all the more disturbing because it feels so real and believable. He's kind of sweet when falling in love with the mysterious Madeleine, but it all becomes more insidious as he starts to try and mold Judy into his lost love Madeleine (unaware that Judy is really the one he loves, Kim Novak giving an extraordinary performance in the roles herself). And Stewart sells every bit of it every bit of the way. The kind of time that an actors usual persona can aid in the turn of character contained in this movie. It's Stewart's best work, and one of the great performances by anyone.

9. Billy Bob Thronton - Sling Blade

One of the most imitated characters in movie history, Billy Bob Thornton's amazing work in Sling Blade is one of those like Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump that has been embedded in the public consciousness so much that I think it's become undervalued. Actually, Thornton is undervalued overall, I think. We all like him, but with the performances he's given in A Simple Plan, Bad Santa, Monster's Ball and others, he should be thought of right at the top of the list of our best talents. And Karl is his best creation. A character wholly new and unique in movies, and one of the most fascinating. Karl thinks and feels deeply, even if he doesn't quite understand or communicate intellectually the way others do. It's simply a perfect performance as a perfect character.

10. Klaus Kinski - Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Now, from all accounts Klaus Kinski was a certifiable crazy person, so maybe his mesmerizing work as a soldier falling into madness isn't as big a stretch as it might've been for other actors. But still, his work in this Werner Herzog masterpiece is amazing. Aguirre doesn't start out as the supreme officer, but through fight and ego and the general oncoming madness of the expedition as a whole, he ascends to the "throne", as it were. But he does so at the expense of everything. Ending up in one of the great final shots surrounded by chattering monkeys blabbering on about himself. It's a haunting performance of great power and often unrestrained violence. Kinski is mainly remembered for his work with Herzog, and this is his greatest performance.

Honorable mentions for:
Jack Lemmon - The Apartment
Humphrey Bogart - Casablanca
Robert Mitchum - Night of the Hunter
Jack Nicholson - The Last Detail
Tom Cruise - Born on the Fourth of July