Our picks for the best performances run the gamut from the brief-but-memorable (Uma Thurman’s one scene in Nymphomaniac) to work that anchors virtually every frame (Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin). Time figures into them in interesting ways, too, from work that covers the titular two days and one night of Two Days, One Night, to Boyhood, on which Patricia Arquette worked for 12 years. But all these performances are united by a sense of urgency, whether it be to keep a job, pass as human, or keep Mr. Babadook away.
Scarlett Johansson, Under The Skin
Early in her career, in films like The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World, Scarlett Johansson was praised for her simplicity and directness—she seemed to have remarkably few acting tics. Lately, however, she’s leapt to another level via a series of roles that require her to be more than human (Lucy), or less (Her), or in the case of Under The Skin, other than human. Johansson’s unnamed femme fatale is Under The Skin’s point-of-view character, but while virtually everything is seen through her eyes, the window to her soul stays firmly shut for nearly a full hour, in order to convey the sense that this creature’s consciousness is entirely and truly alien. There’s an unnerving moment early on in which Johansson (who’s sometimes interacting with non-actors who have no idea who she is, or even that they’re being filmed) really turns on the charm, trying to persuade a young man to get into her van; when the guy steps away, she instantly goes blank, as if she were a robot that had been remotely switched off. A less confident actor would have opted to telegraph what the alien is feeling, especially once her/its existential crisis kicks in. Johansson shrewdly, defiantly reveals nothing.
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Son, The Kid With A Bike) have so consistently delivered one excellent film after another by taking a similar approach, and often a similar cast and crew, to each that it’s tempting to be a bit nervous when any new element gets introduced. With Two Days, One Night, they worked for the first time with a genuine, world-class movie star, one who’s been in a superhero movie and everything. Part of the brilliance of Marion Cotillard’s work in the film, however, is how little she sticks out in the Dardennes’ working-class milieu playing a solar-panel factory worker who, following a leave of absence after a nervous breakdown from which she still hasn’t fully recovered, is given the weekend to convince her fellow employees to give up their annual bonuses so she can keep her job. Her work here is simultaneously understated and intense, conveying how much this job means to her future and her family’s well-being, while struggling against her nature to make others see that as well. What could have been a clash of sensibilities turns out to be a meeting of simpatico artists.
Jenny Slate, Obvious Child
Jenny Slate and Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre have expressed a great fondness for conventional romantic comedies like You’ve Got Mail on this very site, but Obvious Child nevertheless feels like the antidote to the glossy romances of Meg Ryan and Katherine Heigl. As comedian Donna Stern in Obvious Child, Slate is filthy, joyously profane, and utterly uninhibited, both in her stage act and offstage. After a particularly harrowing break-up, Donna rebounds with a lovely young man who could not be more different than her and her cynical group of friends. But when their one-night stand leads to an unexpected pregnancy, she’s forced to re-examine her life and her life choices. That might sound like the premise for an after-school special, but Obvious Child benefits from a richly detailed sense of time and place, and it supports Slate with a terrific cast highlighted by Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman as her two best friends. There’s a verisimilitude and naked candor to Obvious Child that sets it apart from conventional romantic comedies, as well as an aversion to formula. And much of the credit belongs to Slate, who invests her whole soul into making Donna a potty-mouthed charmer.
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
From the moment David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller Gone Girl was confirmed, speculation abounded about who would play the role of Amy, the titular missing wife. Big Hollywood names like Rachel McAdams, Charlize Theron, and Reese Witherspoon (who ended up co-producing the film) were all batted around, but Fincher proved the speculators wrong with a seemingly out-of-nowhere choice in relatively low-profile British actor Rosamund Pike. Turned out Fincher knew what he was doing, because Pike is a revelation as the conniving, unpredictable Amy Elliott-Dunne, arguably the richest, most nuanced female role of 2014. Pike gets at the deeply damaged soul that has rotted Amy from the inside, letting just enough of the character’s vulnerability peek through to keep her from being a one-dimensional monster, all while maintaining the chilly pragmatism that defines Amy—and makes her so dangerous. It’s a role many people could have played, but Pike makes Amy her own: a creature born of Flynn’s pen, but brought to rich, terrifying life in Pike’s hands.
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Almost all of Jennifer Kent’s brutal, moving horror film The Babadook takes place in one haunted house, where haggard widow Amelia lives with her socially maladjusted 6-year-old son Sam—along with the top-hatted picture-book monster they “can’t get rid of.” Though The Babadook has impressive special effects for such a low-budget movie, none of them would be as effective without Essie Davis’ reactions as Amelia. Davis isn’t just playing the terror of the moment; she’s playing the deeper fears of a woman who’s stuck night after night in the same drab rooms with the same irritating kid. Too many horror protagonists are grating or whiny, but a big part of what makes The Babadook so effective is that it’s easy to feel every bit of Amelia’s anxiety as she’s troubled by monsters, both supernatural and domestic.
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
So much of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is in the 12-year lapse of time that lets the film’s kid characters, Mason and Samantha, grow up onscreen. And among the adult cast, Ethan Hawke gets the splashier role as Mason’s estranged father, forever trying to repair their relationship with drop-in parenting and amiable slackery. But Patricia Arquette pulls the harder duty as Mason’s mom Olivia, the figure trying to keep some continuity in her kids’ lives, in spite of their irresponsible father and her disastrous relationships with alcoholic men. Olivia is repeatedly relegated to the background, as parents often are in kids’ lives, but Arquette still manages to convey a sense of inner life: her devotion to her kids, her desire for a better situation, and especially the need that leads her to connect first with a sensitive but immature man, then with his opposite in the form of mature but painfully controlling lovers. Her end-of-film breakdown over the thought of her kids growing up and moving on is excruciating: By that time, viewers have spent enough time with Mason and Samantha to sympathize with their readiness to begin their adult lives, but also enough time with Arquette’s character to sympathize with her frustrations over her life setbacks, and her loneliness at the prospect of her children moving away.
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Before Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) can become a nun at a remote outpost in 1960 Poland—at the same convent where she’s stayed since she was abandoned as a child—her Mother Superior demands the young woman go out and learn something about her family. The first thing she learns: Her real name is Ida. The second: She’s Jewish. It falls on Agata Kulesza, as Anna’s only living relative, Aunt Wanda, to give her the tough news, and she doesn’t deliver it with much restraint. In this odd-couple pairing, Anna is the downy innocent and Wanda is her rueful, cynical, hard-drinking counterpart. Standing in sharp contrast to the austere trappings of Pawel Pawlikowski’s direction—the black-and-white “Academy ratio” photography, the affected framing of characters toward the bottom of the screen, the grim revelations of Nazi atrocities—Kulesza gives Ida its spark of comic and dramatic life, playing a woman ruined first by Nazi Occupation and later by her role as an operative in the Communist Party. Wanda finds herself again over the course of Ida, and Kulesza’s face reflects the torment of a nation that has been known suffering and meted it out.
Uma Thurman, Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is all about self-indulgence: carnal self-indulgence on the part of its heroine, Joe, who’ll fuck anything that moves, and creative self-indulgence on the part of its director, who delivered a film that runs five hours in his preferred cut. Self-indulgence always carries a price, however, and the price other people pay for Joe’s erotic adventures is personified by one Mrs. H, played by Uma Thurman with a fiery, woman-scorned intensity that’s both darkly funny and painful to watch. Dragging her three young sons to Joe’s apartment so they can see what their father’s been up to lately (including a special tour of “the whoring bed”), Mrs. H hurls one bitterly sarcastic grenade after another; her unexpected intrusion injects real, terrible emotion into a film that up until that point had been coldly theoretical. And since Mrs. H, in her abject despair, has chosen to cast away all dignity, Thurman correspondingly strips herself of vanity, turning in a concentrated single-scene performance that’s essentially (and literally, at the end) one long primal scream. It’s ugly, horrible, mesmerizing.
Teyonah Parris, Dear White People
Justin Simien’s writer-director debut is stylish and precise—he acknowledges Stanley Kubrick as a beloved influence—but chilly and rigid. (After all, he acknowledges Stanley Kubrick as a beloved influence.) So it’s up to his cast to infuse his calculated exploration of identity politics with enough life to make them sympathetic and human, instead of obvious mouthpieces for viewpoints. Many of the cast members are standouts, but Teyonah Parris particularly seizes the moment with her portrayal of Coco, an aspiring reality star out to sell herself as whatever character or perspective she thinks will make her famous. Actual reality stars usually come across as egocentric and show-offy, but Parris makes Coco into a deeper, and more pained character: a fragile woman trying to be a ruthlessly calculating one, because she knows ruthlessness will get her further than fragility. She brings an agonized, childish need to Coco, but also a much more adult weariness. She hasn’t even successfully sold out yet, but she’s already feeling the burden of compromise—and the further burden of making the conscious decision to keep pushing, stripping away the less salable parts of her personality until she’s successfully made herself into a product. Parris doesn’t have much screen time compared to some of her co-stars, but she makes every moment count, just like her character would.
Elisabeth Moss, Listen Up Philip
Listen Up Philip is about a writer who’s a monumental asshole, and about the older, more established asshole who mentors him. But it’s also about the younger asshole’s ex-girlfriend Ashley, who tries to treat her breakup with Philip as an opportunity to make a fresh start on her life as a promising young New Yorker. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry structures Listen Up Philip like a novel, jumping between characters and jumping around in time, which means Ashley gets a large section of the movie all to herself. Moss uses that time to bring a lighter, sweeter flavor to an otherwise overpoweringly bitter film, playing Ashley as an intelligent woman who’s still recovering from having poured all of herself into an unfulfilling relationship. In a story about selfish jerks, Ashley’s selfishness comes off as far more heroic, especially with Moss playing her as a can-do kind of gal.
Tomorrow: 2014’s best acting: The men.