2014 in Review: The Best Performances of the Year

Reese Witherspoon, Anne Dorval, Michael Keaton, and Laura Dern
give the best performances of 2014.
2014 has mommy issues galore. The best performances of the year largely come from mommies: even in death, some of the year’s best characters watch over their films like protective mommies, giving them life and feeding them each frame of the way. Anne Dorval in Mommy, Laura Dern in Wild, Julianne Moore in Still Alice all offer performances so heartbreaking that It wouldn’t surprise me if many viewers went home and hugged their mommies after the movie. For every parent there’s a child, and an Antoine Olivier Pilon, Reese Witherspoon, or Kristen Stewart to match them, so many parents probably went home and did the same. In short, 2014 is just a big group hug.

While I expect a few slaps for excluding J.K. Simmons’s terrific performance from Whiplash from this list, please note that he gets an honourable mention and made my Best Supporting Actor ballot in the Criticwire poll, there are more performances to choose from than award season lets meet the eye, especially from the early half of the year. Please note that I have not yet had a chance to see some of the year’s acclaimed performances in Into the Woods (sorry, Meryl, but your annual monopoly on this list continues nevertheless!), Cake, and Foxcatcher, while Selma, Inherent Vice, and Mr. Turner open here in January and simply haven’t pre-screened here. Thank goodness they haven’t, since it was harder than usual to whittle lists down to ten performances, although the top spots on each list were the easiest picks of all.

The Best Lead Performances of 2014:

1. Anne Dorval in Mommy

Here’s a friendly reminder to Oscar voters: you may atone for the egregious omission of Mommy from the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film by nominating Anne Dorval’s tour-de-force performance for Best Actress. Her powerhouse feat of raw emotion is one of the greatest performances this country has ever seen. Dorval’s performance as Die, the titular mommy of Xavier Dolan’s masterful film, displays astonishing range and commitment to character. From her sexy strut to her vulgar gum-mashing to her explosive passion for her wayward son, Dorval’s saucy performance is even louder than Dolan’s flamboyant visual style. She gives both the boldest and biggest performance of the year, but the subtlety of the mother’s pain is what makes the performance most effective as Die slowly and reluctantly resigns herself to the fact that her son simply doesn’t know how to let her love him. Dorval makes Die’s love for Steve so powerful, so tangible, and so painfully honest that it’s impossible not to leave the film affected by her performance. This third pairing of Dorval and Dolan is easily their best in their five remarkable years of collaboration. Here’s to many more!

Michael Keaton resists likening his role of Riggan in Birdman to his own career-trajectory, but it’s difficult to approach this satire about a down-and-out action star making a comeback without seeing it as a personal dramatic coup. Birdman is a comeback for Keaton whether he’d like us to call it that or not. This bizarre, fascinating, and ballsy performance redefines bravery simply because it puts so much of Keaton’s own legacy and persona on the line as art and life blur together in one outrageously original performance.

3. Reese Witherspoon in Wild

If anyone rivals Michael Keaton to be the comeback kid of 2014, it’s Reese Witherspoon. Back on top of the A-list with a banner year as both an actress and producer, Witherspoon hits her highest point in a career of notable successes. Witherspoon appears in virtually every frame of Wild and her deglamed performance beautifully captures the vulnerability of her character, but also the empowering, inspirational force of Cheryl Strayed’s trek as she conveys the physical, emotional, and spiritual distance that Strayed crosses in her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Her frank, unadulterated performance feels like the perfect dramatic equivalent for Strayed’s open and accessible prose.

4. Julianne Moore in Still Alice (and Maps to the Stars)

It’s impossible to choose whether Julianne Moore’s best performance of the year is in Still Alice or Maps to the Stars, but I’ll chat up her sure-to-be-Oscared work in Alice since I gushed about her performance in Maps in the Canadian film recap. Moore’s performance as Alice, an academic experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s, shows such a delicate and compassionate understanding for the disease and for the way that Alzheimer’s affects both Alice and Alice’s family. Moore is truly devastating as her endlessly expressive face finds a way to articulate Alice’s fear when she can no longer finds the words to do so. Where Moore goes terrifically unhinged in Maps, she shows laudable restraint in Alice and her skill in navigating such wildly bipolar tragicomic identities in 2014 reminds audiences why she’s one of the best actors of her generation.

5. Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

Marion Cotillard, like Julianne Moore, spoiled audiences with her double-barrelled skilled this year. Cotillard is subtly devastating in Two Days, One Night, but she’s doubly so in The Immigrant. In her heartbreaking performance as Ewa, Cotillard delicately takes control of her character, making her a wounded, yet pragmatic survivor, and turns what could have easily been a one-dimensional fallen woman/hooker character into a character of fascinatingly complex psychology. To see Cotillard stand decked-out as Lady Liberty and carry the torch with her watery eyes in a seedy burlesque is one of this fable’s finest moments for underscoring the cruel unattainability of the American Dream.

6. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Gaunt, sickly, and jittery, Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing and bug-eyed performance as this seedy nocturnal videographer is a chilling transformation. The physical mutation is only the beginning for how deeply Gyllenhaal loses himself in the world of Lou Bloom. If Howard Beale was an omen of things to come, then Lou Bloom is a scary take on the allure of instant stardom today. Where the wolfman howls at the moon, Lou unfurls his claws at midnight, just at the witching hour when YouTube hits are at their peak, and becomes a monster that seems too terrifyingly plausible to be considered satire.

7. Mia Wasikowska in Tracks

It’s a complete shame that Tracks didn’t find a bigger audience. Canadian distrib Mongrel Media gave the film a far better shake than its US-counterpart did, and Mia Wasikowska’s revelatory performance is the best so far in a very young and promising career. (Wasikowska also touts impressive and diverse performances in Maps to the Stars, Only Lovers Left Alive, and The Double this year.) Tracks asks Wasikowska, much like Wild tasks Reese Witherspoon, with carrying the film on her back and undertaking a journey both physical and emotional as she conveys Robyn’s indefatigable spirit over such a long journey. Watching Tracks, one feels as if one witnesses Wasikowska evolve as an actress as her character mature with each step.

8. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

Is this really the same actress who was so sweet and endearing in Barney’s Version and so light and bubbly in An Education? Rosamund Pike is amazing as Amy Dunne, the chameleon ice queen of 2014. Pike has the tricky task of creating a character that audiences must love and then love to hate within seconds of screen time, and she excels with every maniacal layer of Amy Dunne’s suburban sociopathic persona. From prim and poised to pouty and poisonous, Pike’s brilliantly double-edged performance makes Gone Girl one of the most compellingly debatable films of the year.

9. Essie Davis in The Babadook

It absolutely flabbergasts me that The Babadook is struggling to find a life in Canada. The Babadook is easily the best horror film in years, yet it seems likely to emerge from the dark and scary closet only to find a life on VOD in the distant future. That’s a shame because Essie Davis’s go-for-broke performance as a mother possessed by fears and insecurities deserves to be seen as much, if not even more so, than the film itself does. The rapid shifts in Amelia’s persona are far scarier than any of the thump-thump-thumps of Mr. Babadook are as the beleaguered mommy undergoes deadly mood swings and Davis contorts herself as if she were possessed by a demon itself.

10. Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive

Tilda Swinton’s performance as Eve the vampire is the epitome of coolness. Her playful and cultured vampire pumps just the right amount of blood the genre needs to bring it back to life. Swinton’s Eve, more than any other vampire in film, conveys the sense of timeless immortality that vampires are meant to enjoy as they live forever as the undead. Her performance carries centuries’ worth of cultural influences, like some hippie on an eternal high who’s pickled herself in enough magical drugs to live forever and experience all the groovy things life has to offer in some purple haze of vampire funkiness.

The Best Supporting Performances of 2014:

1. Laura Dern in Wild

If any performer rivals Anne Dorval for the title of “Best Movie Mommy of the Year,” it’s Laura Dern for her performance as Bobbi in Wild. The spirit of Dern’s performance rings throughout every frame of the film as she takes hold of Bobbi’s lust for life and defines the character by her vitality and palpable life force. Whereas Bobbi works as an underlying absence in Strayed’s memoir, Dern makes the mother an overarching presence in the film. The power of Dern’s performance is a testament to both her effusive skill and to her synergy with director Jean-Marc Vallée since she feels present in virtually every frame of Wild even though she appears mostly as fleeting memories that inject the film with Bobbi’s spirit. Her longest scenes, scattered amidst the playful shards of memory, are so precise in imparting the philosophy and strength of the mother that inspires Strayed. One couldn’t find a better way to bring such a powerful figure back to life.

2. Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year

Jessica Chastain is such a badass. She’s the cinema’s biggest chameleon since Meryl Streep and her performance as Anna Morales, the good wife/under the radar gangster queen of A Most Violent Year is one of her most impressive forms yet. The lovely, bubbly, all-American girl of Chastain’s persona is all there, but Anna also has a disarming hard edge to her tough personality. The complexity of Anna’s dark side makes her an infinitely mesmerizing character, though, since she never once seems irrational or unhinged even when she’s at her most terrifying. She’s perfectly in control, a strong survivor, and arguably a landmark character for women in gangster films. Also: that deer never saw it coming!

3. Patricia Arquette in Boyhood

The heart of Boyhood is Patricia Arquette’s beautiful and motherly relationship with co-star Ellar Coltrane. She’s the audiences guide into the film when Boyhood trains its camera on a child too young to do anything other than simply be himself, but her relationship with the young cast is tangible from the first frame and, like Witherspoon in Wild and Wasikowska in Tracks, Arquette matures throughout the journey of Boyhood. It feels as if Arquette releases her own child into the wild when Olivia sends Mason off to school, and the mix of sheer genuine pride and emotion that Arquette conveys in this scene alone proves Boyhood’s twelve-year odyssey a success.

4. Kristen Stewart in Still Alice

Julianne Moore’s devastating performance in Still Alice comes as no surprise given her character’s experience, but Kristen Stewart truly shows her strength when she matches Moore every step of the way as Alice’s compassionate daughter Lydia. Stewart’s proven that she can act with notable performances in The Runaways and On the Road, and her subtle, honest, and genuinely moving turn as Alice’s daughter Lydia is the best revelation of her career yet. That such a strong performance comes on the heels of Clouds of Sils Maria, in which she arguably steals many a scene from Juliette Binoche, is even more impressive.

5. Suzanne Clément in Mommy

The only actress to rival Anne Dorval for Canada’s best actor/director combo is Suzanne Clément for her own collaborations with Dolan. Clément made the list of 2012’s best performances for her fiery powder keg of a performance in Lawrence Anyways and her intense performance as Kyla, Die’s neighbour/friend and Steve’s tutor in Mommy, might be even better. The fear of her character is palpable as Kyla stutters through the awkwardness her neighbours’ quarrels (as well as her own trauma), but she attacks Kyla’s own insecurities headlong and becomes a point of necessary sanity amidst the tempestuousness of of Steve and Die’s relationship. Her performance grounds Mommy whenever the film almost seems too powerful to bear.

6. Rene Russo in Nightcrawler

Watching Rene Russo attack the role of Nina, the bloodthirsty producer of a sensationalist late-night news show, is one of the year’s biggest guilty pleasures. This performance is scene-chewing at its finest since Russo brings out the right edge of power-driven desperation in her character to feed the audience’s complicity in Lou’s rogue journalism. We love to watch such sensational footage because it gives us the kind of maniacal high on which Nina thrives. Russo is to Faye Dunaway what Gyllenhaal is to Peter Finch, and their onscreen fire merits any likeness to Network that Nightcrawler nets.

The ensemble of Birdman could easily fill this list from Naomi Watts’ tragicomic actress to Lindsay Duncan’s villainous turn as the cranky critic of Broadway, but Edward Norton’s wild performance as d-bag actor Mike Shiner. Norton is uproariously funny as the cocky actor, who injects his ego and his arrogance into electrifying performances within Birdman’s many layers. Birdman calls upon actors to negotiate the polarities of film and theatre as they rehearse a Broadway show within the long takes and close-ups of the cinematic world, and Norton’s lively performance inhabits the best of both worlds.

8. Anne Dorval in Miraculum

Don’t forget that other Anne Dorval/Xavier Dolan film of 2014 whilst making your year-end lists! Miraculum arguably boasts the best Quebecois ensemble of 2014 and Dorval’s shattering turn as a depressed suburban housewife jabs a few gut-punches as the storylines converge and the fates of characters collide. Mommy fans shouldn’t be disappointed to learn that Dolan and Dorval share nary a scene in Miraculum since anyone who watches both films will undoubtedly be gobsmacked by the sheer force of Dorval’s performances. I’ve credited several actors for offering effective one-two punches in 2014, but Dorval’s coup with Mommy and Miraculum stunned me the most.

9. Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

Please wipe the blood off your mouth, Tilda Swinton, and show us a big wolfy smile. Swinton’s turn as Mason, the deliciously over-the-top Thatcher-esque tyrant of the crazy train, is a hoot. From the moment that Swinton snarls and Mason tells the voyagers to “be a shoe,” Swinton creates a masterfully conniving baddie. She’s hilarious—just the right mix of venom and crazy sauce—but also so willing to show Mason’s pathetic weakness that a shred of humanity finds its way into the darkest and unlikeliest of places.

10. Uma Thurman in Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1

The episode with “the whoring bed” single-handedly makes Lars von Trier’s otherwise disappointing Nymphomaniac worth seeing. Uma screams and shrieks, creating a level of pain almost too uncomfortable to watch, as her scorned and humiliated Mrs. H bitch-slaps the libidinous Joe with the consequences of her actions. The thunder of the drama says in ten minutes what Nymphomaniac tries to say in two films. If every scene of Nymphomaniac’s four hours showcased Uma Thurman, it might be the best work that Von Trier has ever done.

Best Cameo:

Meryl Streep in The Homesman

There is light at the end of the tunnel and it's name is Meryl Streep.

Honourable mentions in alphabetical-ish order:  Ben Affleck, Gone Girl; Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game; Ralph Fiennes and company, The Grand Budapest Hotel; Ethan Hawke, Boyhood; Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man; Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year; the cast of Maps to the Stars; Gordon Pinsent, The Grand Seduction; Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, The F Word;  Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything;  J.K. Simmons, Whiplash; Naomi Watts, Birdman/St. Vincent.

What are your favourite performances of 2014???

Previously in the 2014 in Review series:

-The Best Canadian Films of the Year
-The Worst Films of the Year

Up next: The Top 10 Films of 2014!