At this point I have a tendency of wondering if we're really at the halfway point of this year already. It's true that often times this period of the year is marked by a stunt of intellectual cinematic properties and an abundance of blockbuster diversions. This year, however, it seems like things are just heating up exponentially with a rush of quality cinema. The past two weeks alone have offered not just one, but two films that may qualify the best of the year. But if I'm to be perfectly honest, the last thing I feel like doing at this point is putting the films to task in an effort to rank them. I leave the placing of favorites as a year end routine.
What's more, we're still waiting on plenty of films that seem ever so slightly outside our reach and prove to dramatically change the order of anyone's lists at this time. In just two weeks time we'll finally be able to take in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises", putting an end to suffocating fanboy hype and finally giving us a chance to judge it on its own humble merits. I'm waiting in eager anticipation to see how Yorgos Lanthimos' "Alps" turns out, since that's the real ticket premiere of this month, at least from where I'm looking. And we know that Venice, Telluride, and Toronto are just around the corner with more to bring to the table.
However, since we do have plenty of films to draw from in at least some aspect, it's a fine opportunity to talk for a moment about the performances of this first half of the year. Quite often the Oscars have a way of overlooking these early pitchers, and it's worth it to give them a vital boost so that we don't forget them. I ended up biting off a little more than I could chew in compiling this list, and I found myself to be leaving out plenty of performances that really are amongst the best of this year, all in the effort of narrowing it down to ten. So I'd like to give a moment of acknowledgment to all those that didn't make the cut.
I wish I could just fill the list with all the core performances from "Magic Mike", but Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn are just as worthy of mention as the one that made the list. The cast of "Mirror Mirror" surely had a blast with the ridiculous characters, mainly prickly Julia Roberts and self-defacing Armie Hammer. I felt remiss in leaving out the insightful honesty of Sarah Silverman's performance in "Take This Waltz", Paul Rudd's hilariously denial in "Wanderlust", Rachel Weisz's shattering facial pivets in "The Deep Blue Sea", Josh Brolin's pitch perfect Tommy Lee Jones impersonation in "Men in Black 3", Michael Fassbender's context transcending work in "Prometheus", and Bruce Willis' career best and self-parody work in "Moonrise Kingdom". In the end, it came down to ten performances from ten separate films.
10. Channing Tatum ("21 Jump Street")
I may need to take Tatum's performance in "Magic Mike" in one more time for it to fully register, and it's needless to say that I loved him in that film. For the sake of this list, however, I couldn't help but be won over by his work in the revival of "21 Jump Street". Jonah Hill may have come from more of a comedic background, but Tatum truly felt like a revelation then as he does now. It's not just the sense of self-parody at play, like he's doing a skillfully comic twist on his usual action hero schtick, but he has so much exuberance and expression in his face, and it genuinely comes through on an emotional level. It's what brought us to finally notice his talent, and Tatum doesn't seem to be turning back around to his pre-2012 days.
9. Kara Hayward ("Moonrise Kingdom")
Wes Anderson quite rarely gives his lot a chance to really excel in terms of performance, instead having his usual brand say everything about nearly every character. Part of what makes "Moonrise Kingdom" such a different thing is that the actors are, to be plain, acting. My brother was most interested in newcomer Jared Gilman, but I took so much more fascination with his screen partner Kara Hayward. With the face of Emma Watson and ten times the acting ability, Hayward strikes through the Wes-ness of Suzy to find chords of distrust, anger, and hatred despite familial bonds. She's a peculiar thing, but confident and commanding in all of her moments. She makes her character more than just a pretty girl.
8. Jennifer Aniston ("Wanderlust")
"Wanderlust" seemed to come and go without much of a hair raised, but in all the quality cinema that's come in between then and now, it has not at all diminished in my eyes as an uplifting and hilarious mainstream comedy. The performances are very good, particular from leads Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. The latter in particular was so wonderfully gung-ho, ridiculous, but nevertheless honest in her performance as a woman who's still trying to find something she wants to do. There are some genuinely tricky complications that happen along the way, and she doesn't overlook them as comedic trifles, but comes at them from a simple point of character, and finds the humor though that.
7. Matthew McConaughey ("Magic Mike")
The praises for Steven Soderbergh's latest have lasted longer than those for some higher tier blockbusters, as have the power of the performances. Channing Tatum seems destined to rise exponentially upon a second viewing, but for now it's Matthew McConaughey who has the spotlight for his career affirming performance as the heavily metrosexual head of this group of strippers. This role truly demands somebody who will go all the way embracing their own masculinity. McConaughey does more than simply milk comedic high points of the film, nailing all the overtly masculine men who don't think they're at all homosexual right in the crotch.
6. Lucas Pittaway ("Snowtown")
Speaking of masculinity, "Snowtown" goes over very similar subject grounds as "Magic Mike", be it in a much darker and disturbing manner. The true story of a horrific stream of serial killings is spurred forth by Daniel Henshall's John Bunting, but we find our way into the irredeemable horror of the situation through newcomer Lucas Pittaway. He may barely ever sneak a word in, but his face is such a shattering mold. Malleable as the masculinity Bunting is trying to take advantage of, young Jamie seems to see the inescapably dreadful ending a mile away, and is incapable of stopping it. All the heartbreak and torture is right on Pittaway's face for us to sink it into our own. He's an empath of witness, but too shy to take action.
5. Elena Lyadova ("Elena")
"Elena" is an extremely clinical and matter-of-factly sort of thriller, though the term "thriller" may be a wrong term. It's a drama of family divides defined and betrayed, with worldly tendencies that are wonderfully understated. The old are in a grudge match over who shall define the future, and on one end of the argument is Elena Lyadova as Katerina, daughter on the husband's side. As far as constructing a character from the history given, Elena almost effortlessly rips the veneers of her screen partners across, and how they behave in response only feeds her resolve. She may not be the most perfect future, but she's the one that's earned it by right, and she feels ultimate entitlement for that.
4. Tom Cruise ("Rock of Ages")
How much longer is it going to be for people to recognize Tom Cruise for the amazing talents he provides? Across a long career he has proven one of the most committed of movie stars, opting recently for the mainstream than the more dramatic endeavors of his past. That's no bad thing so long as he's offered meaty and actor-dependent roles like this. As Stacey Jaxx, Cruise takes ownership of the film in spite of his character's "supporting" status. His performance raises him to the lead, with all the craziness and worldly fascination as he can bring to the fore. His face and voice go in such unison to form a man who's lost on the outside and inside.
3. Adam Driver ("Girls")
Here's a major twist for you, so long as you don't qualify it as a cheat. Perhaps not from a theatrical release, but a performance I do not have the heart to discount for such a trivial reason. A mainstay of Lena Dunham's "Girls"' first season is Adam Driver's kinda-sorta boyfriend to the lead, a somewhat emotionally abusive weirdo who serves as one of the ultimate catalysts for Hannah's growth, even if it happens to destroy both of them. Driver has such an alternately aggressive and feeble quality to him, which makes him simultaneous disturbing a match for Hannah, but also absolutely perfect for her. The way he sees the world is so specific, and Driver uses that to inform a complete person who brings his character's arc across in the most crushing of manners in the season's endgame. Of all the girls on the show, it's the man who uncovers the most heated sensitivity.
2. Michelle Williams ("Take This Waltz")
After all I said on behalf of lovely Michelle Williams' career best performance in Sarah Polley's unexpectedly absolute "Take This Waltz", it comes just barely BARELY shy of the top by no fault of her own. Williams is dealing with a character simultaneously bubbly and frigid, like she's at a crossroads between two ways of thought. Indeed she is, and there a fear at the center of that which throws all of Williams' facial ticks into freefall. It's makes her performance such an exciting and ever-absorbing essence, and it carries us across to a bittersweet ending that mixes happy and tragic in the most ambiguous of manners. Williams nails it beyond any and all possible belief...
1. Greta Gerwig ("Damsels in Distress")
But seeing as this performance will more than likely go overlooked at the tailend of the year, how can I resist the most peculiar and on-the-ever-moving-dot performance in Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress". Greta Gerwig is hardly a discovery, but she really brought everything she could to the table for this very unusual of characters. Stillman usually writes characters that don't react the way normal people would, and that dialogue really fed into what Gerwig was doing. She just took it to another level of strange, exponentially hilarious, and rather oddly entrancing. Hers is a face you cannot take your eyes away from, because her eyes are fixed almost knowingly straight at you saying, "Well, you really think you're any less crazy than I am?"
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