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JON FROSCH Here we go again! One thing I’ve come to appreciate about the epic slog known as Awards Season is the opportunity to champion — and occasionally straight-up bully people into watching — things that are not “in the conversation.”
So many performances seem almost algorithmically rigged to seduce the Academy (hammy, hair/makeup/accent-heavy portrayals of real people, like Jessica Chastain’s Oscar-winning take on Tammy Faye Messner last year). Consequently, the months leading up to the Academy Awards can feel like a trudge toward the inevitable. It’s frustrating to see less showy, more interesting turns languish in remote corners of the streaming world or specialty market.
That’s where we come in! Not to glorify critics, who have their own blind spots and biases and, as anyone who’s spent time on Film Twitter knows, can be downright insufferable. But shining a light on great work that’s escaped wider notice is one of the more gratifying and, dare I say, useful parts of our job.
DAVID ROONEY Oscar-worthiness is a barometer by which performances are judged, often for the wrong reasons. As soon as folks saw Damien Chazelle’s Babylon and caught Margot Robbie’s wired Jazz Age wild-child act, the whisper campaign began about how she had to be in the Oscar conversation. But should doing a lot of acting automatically qualify someone for a slot? I’d rather see prizes for more nuanced work, like Danielle Deadwyler’s Mamie Till in Till. I was less swept away than many by Everything Everywhere All at Once but have no issue with Michelle Yeoh being lauded for her multifaceted work — as kinetic as it is emotional. Just seeing the veteran star in a long overdue American leading role was a reward in itself.
FROSCH Some people are “in the conversation” because they deserve to be, and Deadwyler and Yeoh are two of them. Also Brendan Fraser, bringing out the courtly charm and wit of a character Darren Aronofsky seems determined to make us recoil from in The Whale. And Colin Farrell, proving that, given the right oddball role — and wounded, donkey-loving Padraic in Martin McDonagh’s tragicomic study of male pathology, The Banshees of Inisherin, certainly qualifies — he’s among our best.
Then there’s Cate Blanchett. She sometimes defaults to a kind of grandness that can make her performances collectively feel a bit homogenous. But when Blanchett connects, there are few in her league. Lydia Tár, the revered, then disgraced, conductor in Todd Field’s dazzlingly dense and immersive drama, is a towering creation — one of those sublime cases of alchemy between actor and role. Lydia’s contradictions are infuriating. But, as played by Blanchett, they’re also uncomfortably coherent, if that makes sense. We understand Lydia — and get caught up in her frightening swirl of power and human weakness — perhaps more than we want to admit.
LOVIA GYARKYE Blanchett is electric in Tár. I can’t think of a better description of her performance than “uncomfortably coherent.” The portrayal feels almost conspiratorial, as if performer and character are scheming to unnerve an already apprehensive viewer. That heightens the experience of witnessing Lydia tumble as she loses both her status and self-control. Watching it all unfold feels like a steady inhale followed by a rapid, relentless exhale.
ROONEY Blanchett can be too theatrical for my taste — I wasn’t a fan of her Oscar-winning Blanche DuBois riff in Blue Jasmine — but I was transfixed by every second of her forensic work here. I also love how Blanchett’s magisterial pyrotechnics are offset by scrupulously contained turns from Nina Hoss, as Lydia’s patient wife and colleague, whose loyalty dissolves when she’s treated with disrespect; and Noémie Merlant as the assistant who observes and archives each transgression.
FROSCH So we all agree Blanchett deserves every prize handed to her. What about the lower-profile work that’s destined to elude the Academy’s limited radar? I’m thinking of A Love Song‘s Dale Dickey, a character actor best known for playing fearsome trailer-park types, giving a gentle sigh of a lead performance as a Colorado widow reconnecting with a childhood sweetheart (Wes Studi)? Or Aubrey Plaza, channeling her tensely coiled deadpan into a riveting portrayal of a woman caught in a vicious cycle of economic precarity and bad decisions in Emily the Criminal?
And Léa Seydoux, who gives my favorite performance of the year as a single mother dealing with an ailing father and a new lover in Mia Hansen-Love’s quietly magnificent One Fine Morning. There’s such rich intuitiveness in her work here that it’s easy to overlook Seydoux’s flawless control over her movie-star magnetism. This isn’t like when — pardon the shade — a Julia Roberts or Nicole Kidman de-glam to play regular people but just can’t dim their wattage enough; Seydoux disappears into the character of a middle-class Parisian woman trying to hang on — and eke out a measure of happiness — among the ordinary emotional and logistical trials of everyday life.
Seydoux’s performance has two things awards bodies (critics groups excepted) tend not to love: subtlety and subtitles. The latter aversion is a particular shame, as hers is one of several superb turns by French actresses this year: Anaïs Demoustier and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, captivating as unlikely lovers in the breathless rom-com Anaïs in Love; Lucie Zhang, bracing in her bluntness and affecting in her vulnerability as a French-Chinese woman navigating work, family, real estate and heartbreak in Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District; Anamaria Vartolomei, the no-nonsense lead of the blistering abortion odyssey Happening; and Return to Seoul’s Park Ji-Min, whose performance as a mercurial French adoptee exploring her Korean roots builds to one of the year’s most unexpected crescendos of feeling.
GYARKYE I have to echo your praise for Demoustier and Bruni Tedeschi in Anaïs in Love. What a seductive pair those two make as they circle each other before surrendering to the emotional waves of their inevitable affair.
Sticking with non-English-language movies, I loved both lead actresses in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, the Sacred Bonds and Alice Diop’s Saint Omer. In the former, Achouackh Abakar Souleymane plays a single mother in Chad who goes on a harrowing quest to help her 15-year-old daughter (Rihane Khalil Alio) get an abortion. The two performances unfurl slowly, beautifully, as mother and daughter come to rely on each other.
In Saint Omer, a searing courtroom drama based on a real case of a French woman who committed infanticide, Guslagie Malanda’s arresting turn as the accused is remarkable. Watch the way she uses subtle gestures to lead and mislead us — a shifting gaze, an erect stance and, in a moment I still think about, a smile at once wary and sinister.
ROONEY Awards bodies undervaluing non-English-language acting is one of my pet peeves — don’t get me started on Chastain’s Tammy Faye being judged by the Academy as superior to Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers.
Jon, I also loved Park Ji-Min’s flinty work in Return to Seoul, a film that takes one unpredictable turn after another and a performance that does the same. It’s one of the most riveting and unsentimental explorations of cultural roots and identity in recent memory. Another knockout was Vicky Krieps, balancing brittle edges with sorrow, desire and suppressed rage as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Corsage. Ditto the divine Tang Wei, channeling seductive neo-noir currents and the emotional churn of Sirkian melodrama in Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave.
And I couldn’t agree more on Seydoux in One Fine Morning. There’s a real art to finding drama in the quotidian; she makes it look effortless as she digs into her anxious character, who’s struggling to be a dutiful daughter without losing sight of her own needs. It seems inconceivable that the same actress played the glamazon slinking around the operating tables of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future.
These are the kind of performances destined to be overlooked because, again, the films remain under the radar or the actors’ work doesn’t conform to the far showier template of what’s considered award-worthy.
GYARKYE Speaking of overlooked, this was a very fruitful year for Black women on the big screen. A recent news release about how Juanita Moore, the fifth Black performer to be nominated for an Oscar (for 1959’s Imitation of Life), is set to receive a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame refreshed my memory of the Academy’s embarrassing record when it comes to Black actors. That history made me appreciate the complexities of this year’s performances, which collectively create a more dimensional portrait of Black women.
We’ve already talked about Deadwyler, who gives us a sturdy emotional center as we move through the familiarly painful beats of Till. Maternal instincts also drive the central character in Nikyatu Jusu’s riveting Nanny: a Senegalese woman who supports her son back home by working as a nanny in New York. Anna Diop is stellar in the role, flaunting both the dramatic chops needed to nail the film’s horror overtones and a comedic edge in lighter moments.
A very different matriarch is played by Gabrielle Union in Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection. The character — based on Bratton’s mother, who rejected him for being gay — doesn’t have any obvious redemptive qualities, but Union gives her a gentleness that makes her impenetrable hate that much harder to bear.
Viola Davis as Nanisca, the Agojie leader in The Woman King, offers us another compellingly prickly figure — although with her badass fight scenes, she’s much easier to root for. Her relationship with Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi, a recruit with a tongue as sharp as her blade, gives both actresses a chance to stretch — and while I wasn’t a fan of the cheesy turn the narrative eventually takes, I enjoyed the verbal tussling between the two women.
FROSCH It’s definitely been a stronger acting year for women than men. That said, I loved Jeremy Pope in The Inspection. Rather than going for naturalism — the intuitive approach — Pope, whose background is in theater, gives his characterization the legibility of a stage performance. Gay, Black marine Ellis is an open wound of emotional and sexual yearning, and that choice to play it all so close to the surface works beautifully, collapsing the distance between us and the protagonist as he navigates hostile spaces — whether it’s his homophobic mom’s apartment or boot camp.
Equally wonderful is Raúl Castillo, always the low-key MVP of whatever he’s in (Team Richie forever!). As Ellis’ drill sergeant and the object of his affection, he gives a performance that’s “supporting” in the truest sense of the word — and one that might be easy to overlook were it not for its aching sincerity.
ROONEY I’m thrilled when an actor I first saw on the stage makes an impressive transition to a major film role, and Jeremy Pope nails it. A more internalized performance that stayed with me was Paul Mescal’s in Aftersun. It’s shattering watching this young father try to keep a lid on his melancholia and make happy vacation memories with his 11-year-old daughter (Frankie Corio, what a find). Mescal aces the difficult task of revealing in his physicality and tender gaze both the disappointments of his life up to that point and the uncertainties of his future.
The same quality distinguishes Brian Tyree Henry’s exceptionally sensitive work opposite Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway. Both are terrific, but it’s Henry’s cautious openness as a New Orleans mechanic haunted by tragedy that provides the film’s wellspring of feeling.
Jon, you mentioned Farrell in Banshees, which I fully endorse, but let’s also praise his poignant work as a near-future father yearning to restore his family’s harmony in Kogonada’s After Yang. One performance is shaped by emotional transparency while the other is beautifully restrained.
FROSCH Amen on Mescal and Henry; both convey so much with such economy. And while Taylor Russell is getting most of the plaudits for her exquisitely sensitive portrayal in Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous and gory cannibal road movie Bones and All, co-star Timothée Chalamet reminded us why he’s the best actor of his generation. We may be at a point where we’re taking for granted how good he is. His work here is eccentric — each line reading laced with offbeat musicality — but unlike many of his peers, he never gets lost in the weirdness; he always grounds the character in something human. And following Call Me by Your Name and Little Women, Bones and All confirms Chalamet as a great romantic lead: He has a rare ability to make earnestness sexy and to build authentic chemistry with his screen partner because he’s plugged into them rather than wrapped up in his own actoriness.
GYARKYE Cosigning the love for Brian Tyree Henry — when will we get a film that’s just 120 minutes of him? — and Jeremy Pope.
But back to the women! Tilda Swinton proves she’s better than all of us with her dual performance in The Eternal Daughter, slithering with convincing ease between the roles of mother and daughter. Of course, the makeup and Ed Rutherford’s camerawork are key to the magic, but it’s Swinton’s subtle physical cues — a straightened posture versus a slightly hunched one — as well as a handful of penetrating facial expressions (the furrowed brow of a worried daughter, the stare of a knowing mother) that help distinguish each character.
We’re talking a lot about individual feats of acting, but did you have any favorite ensembles?
ROONEY Banshees might have my favorite cast of the year. Martin McDonagh had already revealed Farrell and Brendan Gleeson to be Ireland’s greatest dark comedy duo with In Bruges, but he has them dig deeper in this unexpectedly affecting account of a lifelong friendship severed, gradually causing both men to turn inward with stormy implacability. The ripple effect of their falling-out is played with varying degrees of humor and gravity by the entire cast, in particular Kerry Condon as the whip-smart sister of Farrell’s Padraic and Barry Keoghan as the dim but perceptive abused son of the village policeman. But there’s not a weak link here, with everyone responding like finely tuned instruments to the jagged rhythms and flavorful musicality of McDonagh’s language.
FROSCH The stellar cast of Women Talking is also crucial to that film’s effectiveness — though to my surprise, Rooney Mara’s quietly luminous turn was my favorite (I tend not to be a Rooney Mara person) and Ben Whishaw’s tremulous take on the role of the women’s sole male ally was the one I found least persuasive (I usually love him).
One of the year’s strongest, most seamless ensembles was in James Gray’s devastating memory piece Armageddon Time. As members of a middle-class Jewish family in 1980 Queens, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins (unlikely casting, but he’s divine) and Banks Repeta conjure a vibrantly lived-in fractiousness by turns funny, moving and — in one scene of startling violence — scary.
Given his work on Succession, it’s no surprise that Strong can be a crack team player. But Hathaway, as the loving but beleaguered mother, is a revelation. She can be too big, too vivid, for supporting parts (I’m thinking of her thankless wife roles in Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters and even Brokeback Mountain). But under Gray’s steady hand, she blends, sparking off her co-stars without hogging the spotlight while harnessing that star power to give her character texture and dimension beyond what’s on the page.
ROONEY I found Strong so riveting in Armageddon Time. He’s frightening when he explodes, as you mentioned, but there’s also something quietly heartbreaking about the rigid way he carries himself around his son. He conveys the painful awareness of his own shortcomings as a father who has no idea how to talk to his kid.
GYARKYE On the topic of kids: The children in Laura Wandel’s Playground, a haunting Belgian drama about the Darwinian nature of the schoolyard, were extraordinary. Maya Vanderbeque and Günter Duret play siblings whose relationship changes as a result of the feudal dynamics of their elementary school. Vanderbeque, especially, mesmerizes in a role that requires her to balance multiple emotions and go through a slow, painful transition reflecting a loss of innocence. She handles her character’s moods — the nervousness of the first day of school, the despair at realizing that her brother is being bullied, the anxiety of helplessness and the rage of rejection — with astonishing assurance.
Did any newcomers impress you guys? I thought Kali Reis made a very auspicious debut in Catch the Fair One as a former boxer who embarks on a Taken-style journey to save her younger sister. A lot of the film didn’t work for me, but I was impressed by the restraint of Reis’ performance and the elegance of her fight scenes.
FROSCH Jack Lowden is an actor who’s worked steadily over the past 10 or so years but was not on my radar. His portrayal of English World War I vet and poet Siegfried Sassoon in Terence Davies’ piercingly lovely Benediction is witty and sad and understated — huzzah, a biopic performance that doesn’t peacock or pander!
GYARKYE And did anyone surprise you? An unexpected turn for me came from Anna Kendrick in Alice, Darling, which is getting a release at the end of the year. As a woman in an oppressive relationship, Kendrick sheds her comedic mannerisms, capturing the emotional seesaw of abuse, from delicate fragility to unsteady assurance and back again.
ROONEY I usually don’t look to MCU films for great acting but was bowled over by Angela Bassett’s scorching power in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Queen Ramonda is regally poised but also fired up with grief, pride and don’t-fuck-with-me Joan Crawford-ness. When you consider her work with Letitia Wright’s potent authority and the kickass backup of Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Dominique Thorne, even a Marvel blockbuster supports our view that 2022 was, above all, a year of mighty screen women.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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