In my last post, I listed my top films for 2013. Now, a look back at a number of performances, lines of dialogue and other things I loved about last year at the cinema.
Lead Performances- There were many first-rate performances, but none as captivating as Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual man who became infected with the HIV virus in the 1990s and fought the government at every turn to bring in medication for his condition. McConaughey is the center of this film and we root for him, despite the fact that his character is a pretty mean S.O.B. How nice to see McConaughey take on serious roles over the past few years; we all knew he had great charisma, so it's a rewarding experience to see him deliver a rousing performance.
Another great acting turn was delivered by Chiwitel Ejiofor, as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave; the actor brings a fierce, but quiet determination to the role. He's simply perfect.
Judi Dench was nothing short of brilliant as the title character in Philomena, the true story of an Irish woman who had her young son taken from her some fifty years in the past. Dench is so honest and so moving in this film in a manner that befits her simple character. She has had such a wonderful career and this role is a defining one.
Bravo also to Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Bruce Dern (Nebraska); the former being the best thing (along with Jonah Hill) in this mess of a film and the latter giving a moving performance that is the highlight of a long career. A lesser actor could have really brought out the pathos in the role of Woody Grant, but Dern does a marvelous job realizing the strength and pride of his character.
One has to note the performance of Robert Redford in All is Lost as one of the three or four best from last year; this was a physically demanding role for the actor and he was up to it at every moment. Certainly his rugged image helped lend emotion to this role, but Redford turned this into a performance of minute detail; here was a man who was going through a life and death crisis, yet he kept to the work at hand.
Finally, a tip of the cap to Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) - is she ever less than excellent? (She was unfairly passed over for an Academy Award nomination) and Oscar Isaac for his natural performance as the title character in Inside Llewyn Davis. Without a strong performance from the lead, this film wouldn't have worked, despite the beautiful direction from the Coen Brothers. Isaac is definitely an actor to watch.
Supporting Performances - One need look no further than 12 Years a Slave to find two of the strongest supporting performances from last year. Lupita Nyong'o was heartbreaking as a slave who had to endure a much worse fate than her fellow captives. Michael Fassbender was unforgettable as the plantation owner who treated his slaves in a most degrading manner. In a role that could have been identified by emoting, Fassbender was a model of restraint.
Jared Leto gave the most sublime supporting performance of the year in Dallas Buyers Club, a quiet contrast to the explosiveness of Matthew McConaughey's lead. Leto's character, Rayon, a cross-dressing AIDS patient, may look pathetic, but Leto gives us a complex individual with quiet pride and a stubbornness to continue his fight. If he does win the Oscar, as expected, it will be most deserved.
Another film with two beautiful supporting performances was Nebraska; the two actors were June Squibb, as Kate (wife of Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern) and Will Forte as David (Woody's son). Squibb has perfect comedic timing - she's hilarious - and Forte gives an empathetic and natural performance, playing off Dern's slightly crazed ways. Great acting is often about listening and Forte listens beautifully in this film; it's a shame he wasn't nominated for an Oscar.
Other notable supporting performances included Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street - such energy and humor he brought to the role!), Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner (American Hustle), Colin Farrell (a gem of a performance in Saving Mr. Banks) and of course, John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis - when will the Academy notice the brilliant work of this man?).
Cinematography - Alfonso Cuaron and his director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki continue to amaze; first it was 2006's Children of Men and now it's the mind-blowing sequences of Gravity (exactly how did they achieve the P.O.V. shot from within Sandra Bullock's space helmet?). These two continue to forge new paths visually; if nothing else, Gravity is the most remarkable visual achievement in many years and takes cinema to a new level.
Other marvelous achievements in cinematography in 2013 included Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis); Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska - he actually shot grain to help achieve a more realistic black and white film look); Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave- shot with film, not digitally - haunting images, many shot just before sundown); John Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks); Hoyte van Hoytema (Her); Barry Ackroyd (Captain Phillips), Roger Deakins (Prisoners) and Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini (All is Lost).
Sequences - Just about any sequence from Nebraska featuring both Bruce Dern and Will Forte, especially the one at the railroad tracks where they search for Dern's teeth.
The impromptu dance between Amy Adams and Christian Bale at the dry cleaners in American Hustle.
The remarkable opening shot (10-11 minutes) of Gravity.
The final confrontation at the convent in Philomena.
Chiwitel Ejiofor trying to write a letter with the pigment from a blackberry in 12 Years a Slave.
The "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" sequence, beautifully edited, from Saving Mr. Banks.
The "breakup" sequence on the steps in Her.
The opening sequence of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Oscar Isaac performs "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." The photography and direction immediately put the viewer into the mood and the times of the early 1960s folk movement.
Dialogue - A few of the best lines of the year:
"Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in a pool of desperation and you're waiting for them." - Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), American Hustle
"I always wanted a brand new truck." - Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), Nebraska
"Do you mind if I look through your hard drive?" - the voice of Samantha, the operating system (Scarlett Johansson), Her
"Why would I do such work? Why would I kill people? I didn't have to. One word from me and they're all dead." - Ibrahim Sinik as himself in The Art of Killing
"Now you'll stay there until you learn the art of subtlety." - P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) speaking to a large stuffed Mickey Mouse doll she has just put in the corner of her hotel room.