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DAVID ROONEY Last year when we talked about the best performances of 2020, I seem to recall we were bemoaning watching them at home instead of on the giant screens for which they were intended. Though there’s definitely a case to be made for appreciating finely detailed acting in a more intimate format, I often found myself slipping into Norma Desmond mode, griping about “pictures that got small.”
So it was a tonic to get back into theaters this year, even if for me most of them have been press screenings or festival premieres at Cannes and Venice. I relished every chance I got to sit masked in the dark and soak up a dazzling star turn or superlative ensemble.
In the latter camp, I’d place Jane Campion’s masterful psychosexual Western, The Power of the Dog, at the top of the heap, with all four leads delivering knockout work. I’ve often found Benedict Cumberbatch a little distant, but it was a revelation to see him as tortured man’s man Phil Burbank, percolating with hate and resentment and yet oddly sexy. His sibling dynamic with Jesse Plemons’ George, so gentle even in the face of his brother’s cruelty, was utterly compelling, as was Phil’s vicious cat-and-mouse game with George’s new wife, Rose, played with porcelain fragility by Kirsten Dunst. But nothing prepared me for the showdown between Phil and Rose’s brainy, seemingly weak son Peter, played in one of the year’s most astonishing breakout turns by Kodi Smit-McPhee.
LOVIA GYARKYE After months of colonizing different corners of my apartment, hunching over my laptop and further deteriorating my already questionable posture, I too was glad to experience movies on the big screen this year. (These are memories I’ll cherish as I go back to requesting links.)
Like you, David, I’m especially glad I saw Campion’s spellbinding film in a theater. Smit-McPhee’s ability to transform from a shy boy mercilessly mocked by Cumberbatch’s character to a confident young man sauntering among the ranch hands is impressive. But it’s how Smit-McPhee embodies that shift — the penetrating eye contact with Phil, the chilling precision with which Peter performs his experiments, his calm in the face of bullying — that transfixed me.
Cumberbatch, too, is thrilling, and his psychologically terrorizing relationship with Dunst’s Rose gave me more anxiety than sitting masked in a theater with dozens of other people, some clearing their throats a little too emphatically. And Dunst creates a fascinating portrait of insecurity — of being tortured by the knowledge that you’re not just unwelcome but abhorred.
SHERI LINDEN It’s indeed been a stellar year for ensemble work. (Add my name to the list of newly converted Benedict Cumberbatch fans. As a classics scholar turned mud-caked rancher, he drops his voice to an unexpectedly sensuous rumble, and I’ve rarely seen wordless close-ups so frighteningly alive with paradox.) The Humans, a chamber piece for six voices, unfolds in circumstances that are far more prosaic than those of The Power of the Dog — a family’s Thanksgiving gathering — and yet the film pulses with metaphysical mysteries. Having been deeply moved by the play (a three-year aeon ago!), I approached the movie with curiosity and a bit of trepidation. But Stephen Karam has transferred his work to the screen powerfully. His actors (Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, June Squibb) are keenly attuned to the silences, syncopation and contrapuntal nuances of the screenplay’s language. Every awkward conversational exchange rings true, the voices variously halting, soothing, argumentative, overlapping and overheard. As the story’s cared-about but dissed and misunderstood parental units, Jenkins and Houdyshell (reprising her Tony-winning turn) are unforgettable in their quiet dignity, outrage and vulnerability.
ROONEY Another chamber piece, Fran Kranz’s Mass, grouped together four actors at the top of their respective games. The drama’s tense encounter between the parents of a school shooter and those of one of his victims could easily have been airless and stagey. But the wrenching work of Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs intensified the emotional gut punch, particularly in moments when the grieving parents found compassion beneath their anger.
An ensemble of a more playful kind made the tawdry Twitter tale Zola a blast. I could have watched Taylour Paige’s coolly self-possessed title character shoot side-eye at Riley Keough’s unscrupulous trickster Stefani for days. Keough is fearless; the dangerously ditzy Stefani makes her American Honey character seem classy. Colman Domingo’s menacing pimp and Nicholas Braun as Stefani’s dupe of a boyfriend complete this uneasy quartet on a trippy ride through the Florida flesh trade.
Meanwhile, the three principal women in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter floored me. Olivia Colman shows yet again that her gifts are limitless as Leda, a divorced academic whose ambivalence about motherhood is explored via her strange attraction to Nina, a young mother vacationing on the same Greek island, played with touching, instinctual empathy by Dakota Johnson. The brilliant casting of Jessie Buckley as the young Leda in troubled flashbacks is just one more sign of Gyllenhaal’s confidence behind the camera.
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand were simmering vessels of treacherous ambition in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and unexpectedly moving. But Joel Coen’s arrestingly austere retelling has not a single weak link in the cast, with remarkable work from Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassell and the mercurially brilliant Kathryn Hunter as all three witches.
And I loved the four leads playing a vividly inhabited family in Sian Hader’s CODA. The bonds uniting them felt like the result of a lifetime’s proximity, with all the fondness and friction that entails. Emilia Jones gives the drama an aching center as the daughter torn between loyalty to the deaf parents and brother who need her and her own need for self-discovery. As her non-hearing family, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant give exquisitely layered performances. (And if you want to reduce me to a puddle of tears, just have a character sing “Both Sides Now.”)
GYARKYE What about the leads who essentially carried their films solo? One of the most mesmerizing was Kristen Stewart in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer. As strange as it was to see Stewart tackle such a left-field role, it was also exhilarating to watch her Diana navigating this claustrophobic Christmas weekend with the royals, the actress’ head tilts and listless stares revealing how profoundly trapped the character feels. A high point is that hallucinatory moment when Diana desperately snaps off the pearl necklace Charles gifted her and eats the balls that have fallen in her soup. Diana’s paranoia, rage, fear and desperation are completely palpable and terrifying.
ROONEY Agreed. I was glued to her every feverish move. Another star turn no one saw coming was Alana Haim’s in Licorice Pizza. Though she has to share the spotlight with the less interesting Cooper Hoffman, Haim is incandescent, her prickly detachment and sneaky warmth keeping you glued even through the more questionable vignettes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s San Fernando Valley time capsule.
More under the radar, but equally impressive, was Clayne Crawford, bleeding vulnerability as a man flailing as he tries to save his fractured marriage in Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers. Other male leads that stood out included Dev Patel, finally given a role that capitalizes on both his dashing magnetism and his capacity for brooding solemnity, in David Lowery’s beguiling revisionist Arthurian fantasy, The Green Knight. Oscar Isaac proved once and for all that he’s the heir to the young Pacino, his dark charisma at its most mysterious in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. And what a joy to see undervalued character actor Tim Blake Nelson show his range as a humble, Scripture-quoting farmer with secrets in Potsy Ponciroli’s tightly crafted Western, Old Henry.
GYARKYE I was also a fan of Patel’s charming, kind of goofy Sir Gawain. The actor’s ability to conjure a character who’s equally frustrating in his stupidity and totally relatable in his desperation to prove himself reflects a firm grasp on the complexity of this figure, as well as a range I hope he’ll continue to flex.
Another performance that caught my eye was Clifton Collins Jr.’s in Jockey. As Jackson, a jockey afflicted with injuries that spell the end of his career, he’s the soul of this straightforward but poignant drama. Collins wears his character’s denial, and eventual disappointment in recognizing that he will have to give up what once gave him purpose, with wrenching conviction. You can see it in his eyes as he searches the doctor’s face for hope after a morbid diagnosis and when he’s reminiscing with his horse trainer, played by Molly Parker.
LINDEN Going back to Oscar Isaac for a second — David, I’m with you. That Isaac, with his movie-star beauty and soulful gaze, could hold the dark center of a film was no surprise, but, as you say, his work in The Card Counter confirms his place in the pantheon. Though I found the film too schematic, Isaac’s intensity and restraint were commanding.
And Lovia, I agree that Collins is extraordinary, but for me it’s his chemistry with Parker that pushes this story of longings, setbacks and triumphs into the realm of immortality, infusing the film’s workplace verisimilitude and edge with ineffable soul. As horse-racing long-timers eyeing potential breakthroughs in middle age, these great character actors give tender, vibrant life to a scene of drunken celebration that’s the film’s high point.
The couple that most got under my skin, though, was the duo at the center of Finnish drama Compartment Number 6, played with gloriously unpredictable messiness by Seidi Harla and Yuriy Borisov. That these mismatched travelers, brought into temporary intimacy as fellow passengers on a long-distance railroad trip, initially clash is thoroughly believable. It’s the way they engage in a risk-taking emotional dance, endlessly advancing and retreating, that makes this remarkable film breathtaking.
ROONEY Every year, I hope the Academy and other awards bodies will recognize actors working in a language other than English, which happens not often enough. International films yielded some of my favorite performances of 2021, among them Penélope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, a knotty melodrama that its star navigates with grit and infinite humanity.
Another discovery was Renate Reinsve as a woman approaching 30 and refusing to be rushed as she figures out what she wants and with whom she wants it in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World. With unerring subtlety, Reinsve peels back what on the surface can sometimes read as casual indifference to reveal a molten mess of conflicted feelings. She’s at her best with Anders Danielsen Lie as her older lover, Aksel, whose scenes toward the end of the movie — watching his future shrink as his past stretches out behind him like an ocean of regret — are shattering.
But the performance that moved me most this year was also perhaps the quietest. In Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s masterwork Drive My Car, a sprawling yet impeccably controlled meditation spun out of a Haruki Murakami story with digressions into Chekhov, Hidetoshi Nishijima plays a widowed theater director who finds understanding of his loss and numbness in an unexpected companion. The three hours of this stealth powerhouse of a movie left me completely lost in the character’s world — frequently wrecked but elsewhere strangely soothed.
LINDEN I had a similar reaction to Nishijima’s performance. The exquisite stillness of it is heartrending, beginning with that crucial moment when his character is confronted with direct evidence of his wife’s betrayal — and backs silently away. Is it a coincidence that the lead male performance that haunted me almost as much as Nishijima’s also involves a husband’s struggle to come to terms with his wife’s emotional independence? It’s one you mentioned, David: Clayne Crawford in The Killing of Two Lovers, drawing us into his character’s anguished perspective even while the question of innocence or culpability remains in constant seesawing uncertainty.
GYARKYE I have to join in the praise for Drive My Car‘s leading man. Nishijima’s portrayal is heartbreaking in part because of how closely he wears his character’s resignation — in his face, his slumped shoulders and slow gait. It shadows him and makes the brief bursts of happiness he experiences especially wrenching. It’s a stunning portrait of loneliness.
Another of my favorites this year, Passing, portrays a different kind of solitude. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star as Clare and Irene, respectively, in Rebecca Hall’s languorous but lasting film based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name. And while Thompson is solid as the stiff-lipped Irene, its Negga’s captivating turn that excited me. From the moment she appears, shooting Irene an electrifying look when she recognizes her in a hotel restaurant, the actress commands the screen. The incredibly expressive Negga deploys high-pitched giggles, intense stares and moments where she shows Clare mentally checking out to keep us on our toes. Clare, who lives a double life, is unknowable, and that’s what makes her so attractive to everyone around her. Negga absolutely nails that.
LINDEN There’s a terrible loneliness at the heart of Negga’s remarkable performance. Clare’s vivacity is at once an expression of audacity and an act of hiding. In very different ways, Negga’s character and Dunst’s tender turn in Power of the Dog reverberate with a nation’s calamitous history — Who is valued? Who decides? But it’s on an intimate, moment-to-moment level that these two performances tore my heart out.
In a much lighter vein, Ben Affleck as a man who mentors his essentially fatherless nephew in The Tender Bar is an absolute delight. Affleck hits notes he’s never attempted before, inflecting his performance with quirky flourishes that make Uncle Charlie recognizable yet one-of-a-kind in his old-school working-class gentility, and fascinating in his paradoxes.
GYARKYE Speaking of supporting performances, I want to mention Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard. Discussion of the film has focused on Will Smith for his portrayal of Venus and Serena’s mercurial father, Richard. But Ellis deserves her flowers too. She plays the sisters’ mother, Oracene Price, a hardworking, no-nonsense woman who was just as foundational to their (especially Serena’s) success as her husband. Ellis’ ability to mine much from her roles comes in handy here; she brings life and vivacity to a vaguely sketched character. Oracene is exasperated by her husband, as conveyed by Ellis’ tense body language and cutting eye rolls, and the actress’ work brings Richard’s complicated persona into focus in a way I don’t think Smith would have necessarily pulled off on his own. I loved the moment when she knocks on the door of a neighbor she suspects has called child services on her family. The determination in her eyes, the pursed lips, the steady way she levies her warning — she’s a protective mother and a woman not to be fucked with.
ROONEY She bolsters and enriches Smith’s lead performance in invaluable ways by showing the tricky navigation required to manage such a headstrong man.
And since you mentioned women not to be fucked with, let me just toss in a closing shout-out to the blissful pairing of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo as culotte-rocking girls gone wild in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. That bracing shot of comic delirium arrived before theaters had reopened, but man did it provide the mood elevator we all needed in those dark, draggy days of lockdown!
This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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