10. James Franco, Spring Breakers
Everyone but Franco agrees: the guy is too busy. This year alone, he appeared in eight or 10 movies, directed three more and, it wouldn’t surprise us, negotiated the Iran nuclear treaty. He was Hugh Hefner in Lovelace, a gang lord in Homefront, Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic buddy in This Is the End; less fabulously, he starred in Oz the Great and Powerful. Profligacy is not always the handmaid of quality. But sometimes Franco connects with a role and aces it, as in Harmony Korine’s satire or exploitation of spring-break amorality. “Bikinis and big booties, y’all,” he proclaims as a Tampa gangsta-drugsta known as Alien (real name: Al). “That’s what life is about.” Sporting elaborate cornrows, and front teeth studded with more grillwork than a ’58 Plymouth, Franco’s Alien is a man in love with his stuff: his gun-bedecked walls, his bed “that’s an art-piece,” his constantly-running loop of the 1983 Florida crime classic Scarface. Alien may be too blotto to realize how the Pacino character ended up, but Franco has an infectious good time playing a hot-rodder on the road to perdition.
9. Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis in August: Osage County
In this pedestrian filming of Tracy Letts’s every-prize-winning play about a raucous Oklahoma family, Meryl Streep plays the matriarch Vi at a pitch so high it can be appreciated only by bats. Most of the other actors go for subtlety over showboating, especially the trio cast as Vi’s daughters: Roberts, Nicholson and Lewis. As youngest daughter Karen, Lewis sails on the flighty charm of a practiced saleswoman. Nicholson, as the dutiful middle-child Ivy, is the ignored heroine of the brood, and gives full emotional value through glances and silences — up to and including her big blow-up scene. (Practically every character gets one.) Roberts is the eldest, Barbara, a victim who uncomfortably returns to the scene of the crime and tries not to acknowledge how much she may have in common with her hated mother. It’s Roberts’ deepest, strongest, liveliest film work; and in the battle of Best Actress Oscar laureates, Streep’s showboating loses to Roberts’ sharp stares and remembered pain.
8. Michael Shannon in The Iceman
Marty (the ubiquitous James Franco), a minor entrepreneur of teen porn, opens his door to find Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), has come to kill him. When he sees Marty clasping his hands, Kuklinski instructs him to pray to God to save him. Silence from above. “I think God’s busy,” Kuklinski whispers. Blam! Israeli-born director Ariel Vromen’s biopic of Kuklinski, who after his 1986 arrest claimed to have committed more than 100 murders, is a B-movie and proud of it. Intimate and creepy, it revels in the fine performances of Chris Evans as the Iceman’s partner in crime and Winona Ryder as the wife Kuklinski weirdly truly loves. But Shannon is the big story here. Indie films’ favorite neurotic in Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter, he rarely raises his voice here. Doesn’t need to; if looks could kill, everyone in the movie would be dead. Everyone watching, too.
7. Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color
This year’s Cannes jury, chaired by Steven Spielberg, awarded the first-place Palme d’Or to Abdellatif Kechiche, director of this coming-of-age coming-out story, and his two stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Later, the leading actresses accused Kechiche of abusing them by demanding countless retakes of their most intimate displays of lovemaking — notably in one seven-minute scene that earned the movie an NC-17 rating in the U.S. Whatever the director’s methods of filming, his adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel is, first and last, a passion poem to the torrential emotional resources of his 19-year-old star. As Adèle, the candy-gobbling school girl who finds liberating passion with the slightly older Emma (Seydoux), Exarchopoulos exposes her nerve endings even more than her sturdy body. Often photographed in extreme closeup, her giant brown eyes and pert nose running at the slightest provocation, she takes Adèle on a journey of discovery, ecstasy and loss. Her gift — so ferocious, it’s almost a curse — is to be able to telegraph each of Adèle’s emotions on her face, instantly and in the boldest shades: the blue, the red and the black.
6. Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks
Movies, Jimmy Stewart said, are “pieces of time.” And occasionally, an actor finds a perfect minute or two that define a performance, a character and a film. This year Hanks located two of those privileged moments, which raised honorable performances to the empyrean of artistry and humanity. As Richard Phillips, the stalwart cargo-ship captain kidnapped by young Somali pirates, he has a brief final scene in which the strength he has shown after an hour at knifepoint deserts him and he collapses into tears. In Saving Mr. Banks he is Walt Disney, trying to persuade author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him make a film of her Mary Poppins novel. He tells Travers of his Midwestern youth, the gentility of his manner colliding with and enriching the poignancy of his anecdote. Nearly 30 years a movie star, Hanks has become a master of weaving this quiet magic. As these scenes prove, the man is still in his acting prime.
5. Bérénice Bejo in The Past
American audiences know her only as perky Peppy Miller in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Artist, directed by her husband Michel Hazanavicius. Now they can see the Buenos Aires-born Bejo as a prime dramatic actress in Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi’s followup to his own Academy Award winner (for best foreign language feature), A Separation. After the separation comes the divorce: Marie (Bejo) is about to officially end her marriage to her Iranian husband (Ali Mosaffa), who has come from Teheran to suburban Paris to sign the papers. He finds Marie juggling the demands of her live-in lover (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet) and enough animosities among the three children in her home to ignite a Syria-level civil war. Marie, whatever her skills as matriarch and referee, is clearly out of her depth here, but not Bejo. She took the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her grave, volcanic, aching and beautiful performance — an Anna Magnani for our era.
4. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
McConaughey famously lost 38 pounds from his already trim frame to play Ron Woodroof, the Texas electrician, rodeo rider and homophobe who contracted AIDS, then helped gay men endure the plague by selling them medications not yet approved by the FDA. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s excellent biopic (a lot of them this year), the erstwhile rom-com dreamboat is committed and terrific, as he is in this year’s Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street. But Leto shares, and almost seizes, the film’s emotional center, as the drag queen Rayon. Thirteen years after his scalding signature turn as the junkie son in Requiem for a Dream, Leto captures the sweet intensity and almost saintly good humor of a glamorous, poignant and downright divoon creature — a blithe Camille who may surrender her health but never her panache.
3. Judi Dench in Philomena
In so many films she seems to have stepped down from a throne or out of a refrigerator. Cool as Freon, she is a Queen or dictator in sensible shoes — notably as the ruthless M in seven James Bond films, including the last, Skyfall, in which she was the dominant mother figure to both James Bond and the crazed villain Silva (Javier Bardem). But at 78, Judi Dench provides another revelation in Stephen Frears’ Philomena, the true-life social exposé and quasi-comedy about an Irish woman who, when young, was forced by Catholic nuns to give up her infant son to an American couple and, 50 years later, determines to discover what happened to him. The humor comes from her clashes of class with journalist Martin Sixsmith (co-author Steve Coogan), the human pain from Philomena’s enduring love for her stolen child. The lady’s persistent, sometimes nattering good nature shows a welcome sunny side to Dame Judi. The old regal glower has turned to radiance.
2. Amy Adams in American Hustle
So often, she does splendid work in movies where she gets upstaged by another actress: by Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, Melissa Leo in The Fighter, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, plus Miss Piggy in The Muppets and the voice of Scarlett Johansson in her. We bless the work of her rivals in all those films, while calling attention to someone whose emotional and artistic investment in her roles may be taken for granted. Is it that her name is so plain, and her good looks those of the girl who placed second in the Prom Queen vote? This year, she aced Lois Lane in Man of Steel and the best-friend role in her. As Sydney in Hustle, Adams carries the first half of the film by sporting couture with V-necklines and employing an accent that swerves from faux-Brit to Arizona crisp. Sydney is a bland blond whose iron will and malleable personality transformed her into a vixen — the very trick Adams so often performs on herself. No question that Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner have showier roles and put on a great show in them. Amid their fabulous bombast, Adams creates a woman who is her own fiction, and then emptying herself of affectation. It’s another spectacularly subtle portrait in her gallery of modern American women: the Amy Adams family.
1. Robert Redford in All Is Lost
He has no name (only, in the closing credits, “Our Man”) or known past. Except for a farewell message intoned at the beginning, he barely speaks. And he has no one to speak to; his is the only face we see in J.C. Chandor’s engrossing, stripped-to-the-essence parable of survival. Yet we know all we need to know about the weathered fellow stranded in the Indian Ocean on his disabled 37-foot yacht, frantically applying his sailing skills to staying alive totally on his own, because he is played by — he is — Redford. Watching it, we are reminded of the self-sufficiency of the Redford character; he embraced solitude on the slopes (Downhill Racer), in the mountains (Jeremiah Johnson) or on a ranch (The Horse Whisperer). One of the smartest films he has ever made, a ripe mix of Hollywood thrills and Sundance-style independence, is also the actor’s one-man show. It may be his testament.