Ladies and fellas: Top 10 performances of 2014

Sometimes a film isn’t that great all the way through, but an individual performance stands out. Sometimes a film is carried along by that performance, by an actor knocking it out the park at the top of their game. And sometimes the film is great all the way through, but it goes up another level when buoyed by a stellar lead performance.

In 2014 there were a fair few of both of these. And in the interests of balance I’ve split them out into the fellas and the ladies. Where do you stand? Any missing you’d like to have seen?

THE LADIES
Rosamund Pike as Amy – Gone Girl
Scarlet Johansson as Laura – Under the Skin
Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jessica Chastain as Murph – Interstellar
Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke – The Imitation Game

INTERSTELLAR

THE FELLAS
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – Nightcrawler
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof – Dallas Buyers Club
Iko Uwais as Rama – The Raid 2

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Gone Girl: A love letter to marriage

Phase 2 of Ben Affleck’s career just keeps impressing. It probably started with Gone Baby Gone in 2006, which he wrote and directed. Then The Town in 2010, in which he starred and directed. He followed this with Argo in 2012, again, he starred and directed. In the same year he managed to fit in critically acclaimed film, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

He’s been cast as the new Batman (so we’ll be seeing him again in 2016), but before that he’s added another thoughtful, measured and mature performance (and film) to his filmography with Gone Girl, directed by one of modern cinema’s bad boy geniuses David Fincher.

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

Gone Girl the novel – by Gillian Flynn – came out in 2012. By the end of its first year it had sold over two million copies. Flynn also wrote the screenplay for this film and her themes (and characters) are tremendously relatable to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship that’s gone somewhat awry.

The film tells the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who, upon returning home one day, finds his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has vanished in suspicious circumstances. What ensues is a police investigation and media frenzy where everyone – in the absence of Amy’s body – accuses Nick of being a sociopath and condemns him for her murder. Their initial evidence? His awkward behaviour when dealing with the media and various failings that come to light concerning his marriage vows.

As probably one of the most famous guys named Ben in modern times, Affleck is no stranger to being put under the beady eye of media scrutiny. Here he treads a masterful line, giving Nick just enough of our sympathies to believe he didn’t commit murder, but with enough occasional flashes to keep us guessing.

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Credit should also go to Fincher, who jumps between Nick’s present day predicament and flashbacks of Nick and Amy’s past; from happier times when they first met to progressively tougher times as they both lose their jobs and begin to hate each other.

Without giving too much away (but let’s say spoiler alert anyway) the film changes tack about halfway through to tell Amy’s side of the story. Now Rosamund Pike has been around for a few years, putting in good performances here and there for the most part, but never really cracked the major A-list. That should now change pretty sharply.

Her performance here is captivating – all fire and ice as she shows first one side of Amy, then the other. Without giving too much away Nick has the lion’s share of the story, yet Amy’s scenes are pivotal and are the ones that jolt you out of any comfortable place you may have felt the story was taking you as a viewer.

LIBRARY IMAGE OF GONE GIRL

You’d expect nothing less from Fincher right? He gave us the ‘head in a box’ scene in Seven years ago, and it’s fair to say it looked like he felt right at home with the script’s dark themes.

Referring to the film as a love letter to marriage is really more of a question. The writer (of the book and screenplay) said she based the story on some of her own experiences. Much has been written about these characters putting you off marriage and relationships, but I’d say it’s blackly humorous, cynical perhaps, but also remarkably well observed in some ways.

There’s quite a few comic moments, which to me suggest you shouldn’t get too hung up on the darker elements, but perhaps take it with a pinch of salt as a cautionary tale. Or the opposite, as some sort of cynical love letter.

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Ultimately, the story and characters are highly engaging (in an unsettling way) throughout. Pike and Affleck’s performances are first class and Fincher shows no signs of giving up his dark cinematic throne any time soon.

Here’s to Amazing Fucking Amy. I’d marry her in a second.

I’d probably regret it… but it’d be a thrilling ride.

Jack Reacher – Cruise brings the pain!

JACK REACHERThere’s been so much talk of Cruise not being tall enough to fulfil the role of Lee Child’s man mountain creation Reacher, that many have lost sight of the fact that he’s an incredibly versatile, dramatic action actor.

It’s no wonder Lee Child gave his seal of approval. Plus if we’re going to talk physical appearance – other than height – Cruise fits the bill. As well as being incredibly ripped (there’s a shirt off scene to prove it) he gets Reacher’s movement spot on. A hulking presence, hands loose, ready to fight – but able to talk his way out of situations if needed.

Cruise also brings an intensity and intelligence to Reacher, perhaps drawing on his ruthless hitman character from Collateral. Dialogue on Reacher’s part is kept sparse and concise, so you’ll be disappointed if you think you’re paying to see a breakneck action film with the dial ramped up to 110%. Mission Impossible this ain’t and that’s no bad thing.

One director, one shot
This largely due to Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie, whose past work includes The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun and Valkyrie. He’s also written the screenplay for forthcoming films The Wolverine and All You Need Is Kill, the latter starring Cruise.

McQuarrie’s films are intelligent and well scripted, often with great set pieces. His gun battles put you in mind of Michael Mann’s Heat in some respects. He’s primarily a writer, but his last directorial effort, The Way of the Gun starring Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe, was highly underrated. If you missed it, here’s the hilarious opening scene – not for kids!

JACK REACHERAnd so, back to the film. In terms of cast Cruise is amply – ahem – supported by Rosamund Pike’s lawyer, Helen, who mainly gets to react to most situations with wide-eyed surprise and a heaving busom. Sixty years ago that part would’ve gone to Marilyn Monroe! Perhaps I’m being unfair, Pike does well with what she has, but ultimately this is Cruise’s movie. That said, there’s a great addition of Robert Duvall in the third act. Bigger than a cameo and helps the plot along.

In terms of bad guys, McQuarrie’s choice of villain, Werner Herzog as shadowy gulag survivor The Zec, was an inspired one, if a tad underwritten. He has a suitably creepy introduction but goes a little downhill from there – his motivation for evil deeds perhaps not coming across as well as it could have done.

All in all though, McQuarrie and Cruise have confidently created a potential new action franchise. Reacher, a throwback to characters from 70s and 80s films, could perhaps be a breath of fresh air if done in a modern way. On the strength of this film, my guess is don’t be surprised if we see a sequel in the next few years. If McQuarrie stays on board – or a similar type of Director – then we’d be in for a treat.