I said it in my review of the film and I'll say it again now: Elizabeth Banks is the secret MVP of The Hunger Games. Across three films, she has built a character who goes much deeper than her gonzo, attention drawing appearance. There is great humanity in Effie Trinket and of all the major characters in the story, she has perhaps the most complex relationship with Panem, in that she has benefited from her place in it and revels in part of its culture, but also has a strong attachment and affection for the victims of the Capitol's brutal dictatorship. Those mixed feelings come across in the way that she engages with the rebellion with her being grateful to be with the people she considers friends but at the same time displaying a hint of wistfulness for the life that she's left behind and all its privileges and rewards. Banks' performance is the breath of fresh air that keeps the story lively when it might otherwise have sunk beneath its somber tones, buoying it up with quick, short notes of comedy. Performances like this one rarely get rewarded, but God do they ever bring something necessary to their stories.
In the end, Patricia Arquette's performance in Boyhood is the one that provides the film with its emotional core. As the mother of the protagonist, and the most consistent adult presence in his life, she is the guiding force of a significant portion of the film, the shifts and changes in her life providing the story with a lot of its informal structure. She's an imperfect person (and the performance itself is not perfect, but the slight inconsistency in skill between the beginning of the film and the end is ultimately part of the charm; the characters grow and the actors grow along with them) and makes mistakes, but her devotion to her children and her drive to provide them with the best kind of life always shines through. When I think back on the film, the moments that really resonate with me are inevitably moments that involved Arquette, from her confession that she thought there would be "more" to the way that she listens to and validates young Mason's frustrations after he's forced by his stepfather to get a haircut to the scene at the beginning where she tries to assure her kids that even if they move their dad will still be able to find them.
Without Rene Russo's Nina, the news director with a lust for ratings, Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom would not have a place to thrive. She can't be said to create the monster - Louis is already there by the time their paths cross - but she most certainly opens the door that allows him to take his dangerous, conman game and make it legit. Playing a woman in the descending phase of her career, Russo makes Nina no nonsense but also possessed of a growing core of vulnerability; as much as she hates to admit it, she needs Louis more than he needs her, a fact which allows him to manipulate her for his own benefit, but not as much as the fact that she likes the taste of success so much that for her it can't be soured by the fact that she has to degrade herself to get there. Louis toys with her, but in the end she's an equal partner in their violent success, and her cool sensuality is a perfect pairing with Gyllenhaal's sinister eagerness.
Minister Mason is a character with a capital "C," an outwardly cartoonish symbol of corruption and evil. Yet, for all the superficial elements which help make the character so memorable, what really makes her stick is how deeply Tilda Swinton gets beneath her skin. While Swinton gets to sink her teeth into some showy moments during the points when Mason still has power on her side and gets to show how easily she can abuse it, the most revealing parts of the performance come as that power begins to slip away. Beneath the facade - one so fragile that even Mason is surprised by how quickly it falls away - is a woman marked by desperation who crumbles at the first indication that she may reap what she's sown and quickly trades defiance for supplication. Swinton is one of the most consistently interesting and excellent actors working today and her depiction of Minister Mason joins the growing pantheon of her wild and fascinating performances.
Who is Amy Dunne? In Rosamund Pike's hands she's one of the most intriguing, debated about, and resonant characters of 2014. In Gone Girl Pike delivers a performance on top of a performance, as Amy is one person presenting as another, a walking embodiment of gender as performance. As Amy, Pike delivers the year's most unapologetically prickly performance, and sells the idea that Amy is not only capable, manipulative, and ruthless enough to pull off the film's big plot, but that she's also capable of holding her darker impulses back enough to put on a mask of normalcy that fools the rest of the world. Pike has been a favorite of mine for a while now (since circa An Education) and I'm glad that she finally got a prominent role in which to show off both her ability for straight drama and her adeptness at sly comedy (the scene in which Amy watches Nick give a televised interview and it dawns across her face that she's beginning to see a viable alternative to a cloistered life in hiding with Desi is one of the year's funniest). While Amy the character has inspired varied reactions, that's only more proof of how skilled Pike's performance really is and how "real" she makes Amy seem.
As the title character in Ida, Agatha Trebuchowska has a difficult task. Not only does she have the less lively of the two central roles, but her character is one best described as "pure," which is a difficult thing for an actor to portray without coming off as merely vacuous. Ida is a sincere and openhearted young woman, a woman whose certainty about her future path falters only slightly once she learns the full scope of her family's history, but who ultimately knows who she is and reaffirms it in the end. Trebuchowska brings a diffident air to the role which masks little hints of sharpness - while Trebuchowska's co-star Agatha Kulesza is the source of the much of the film's unexpected comedy, there is a moment when Ida, realizing that she's about the witness her aunt breaking into an apartment, turns on her heel and says she'll wait outside, her tone not exactly judgmental but not accepting either, and it's such a subtle and incisive little bit of character work, something which doesn't call attention to itself but which says so much about who the character is. When you consider that Trebuchowska had no previous acting experience before this film and was discovered while sitting in a cafe, what she does here only seems more amazing.
In the underrated historical drama Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a woman who is, metaphorically speaking, without a country. Born to a wealthy, aristocratic English father and a slave in the West Indies, she occupies at once a position of incredible privilege and incredible disenfranchisement. She is an heiress and a social outcast, prohibited by her race from dining with her family when they have guests but also unable to dine with the servants because she's too high born, pursued for a wife once she inherits her fortune but also shunned and insulted by other members of society due to her race. The ground that she stands on never quite seems solid and Mbatha-Raw internalizes that sense of unrest, allowing that anxiety to underscore the polite smiles and placid facial expressions that she must call upon whenever she faces the world. Because her character does not know who she is or how she fits into the world (how could she, in the circumstances?), and only slowly pieces together an identity for herself as the film progresses, Mbatha-Raw must find a way to present her in her inherent uncertainty without reducing her to a blank, which is no easy task but one that the actress makes seem effortless and natural.
Typically there is no role more thankless than that of "the wife" in biopics exploring how great men in history came to do their great things. The Theory of Everything is different in that it is told very much from the perspective of the wife, allowing her not only to become a character in her own right, but allowing the film to dissect what it means to be the supportive spouse, to make the sacrifices that make the great man's accomplishments possible, to be the person helping to shoulder the burdens, and sometimes to be the person left behind. Felicity Jones' delicate, sensitive portrayal of Jane Wilde Hawking is the definition of quiet fortitude, a depiction that makes the character seem all the more extraordinary for how ordinary she ultimately is. She is not a woman who exists only to be "Hawkings first wife," but a fully fleshed human being who exists for her own purposes and not merely as a prop for the male lead. While credit is due to the film's director and writer for affording the character this kind of space in the narrative, it would be nothing without Jones' wonderful performance.
Has Marion Cotillard ever delivered a bad performance? If she has, I haven't seen it. In The Immigrant she is superb playing a woman who, driven from her country of origin by sectarian violence, comes to America with her sister with the simple hope of a better life. Instead she's separated from her sister, who is quarantined on Ellis Island, and brought under the thumb of a conman and pimp, any illusions she may have had that life would be "better" utterly shattered. The Immigrant is melodrama in the best possible way, a film rich in emotion and in emoting, a story in which the characters are made to suffer (and does any actor working today suffer quite as exquisitely as Cotillard in film after film?). Yet, though victimized repeatedly, Cotillard doesn't let her character be reduced to her victimhood. She gets beaten down and at times appears as though she may give up, but she always finds a way to quietly and subtly gather her strength, pull herself up, and move forward with a new plan, the light inside of her never being snuffed out - and, when you think about it, isn't that spirit of persistence and survival what the American dream is all about?
As the title character's aunt in Ida, Agatha Kulesza is a force to be reckoned with. Seemingly disinterested, at first, in connecting with the only living family member she has left, she makes a quick about face and decides to embrace her - to a point. Even as she warms to Ida's reserved but positive engagement with the world, Kulesza remains just a bit sharp-edged as she takes Ida on the journey through the family's history that Ida didn't know she was in store for. Although outwardly strong, assertive, and commanding, the character is one who has been broken by her experiences, both as a victim of the Nazis and as a powerful member of the Communist regime now in place, which has allowed and encouraged her to pursue a course of vengeance that has not soothed her soul so much as smothered it. Kulesza's performance is at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, but above all it is stirringly, achingly real.