For those keeping their chins tucked for some non-tech categories, here’s your release. I admit, the acting categories do bring a bit of ease for critical dissection. After all, the Academy so often indulges in performances that are so emotionally bare on the surface that there’s no need to search for subtleties. We’ll deny the impulse to oversimplify, though, since there’s some rather fine work to be sussed through in these categories, and since just being chosen is its own reward, we have a nicely diversified pair of dream ballots to join them.
Four of the nominees here are delivering some of the sharpest, brightest work of their careers. That’s no terrible thing, especially with a lineup this meaty. The only one I can’t speak to is Robert Duvall, nominated for The Judge, which I had the good sense to avoid in theaters and have little desire to remedy in the aftermath of his nomination here. The critical masses have largely spoken for me, placing his work as reminiscent of the events that led to Alan Arkin’s Argo nod or Nick Nolte’s Warrior appearance. He’s here, he showed up to work, and given his age, he may not have another opportunity to pop up here. That’s a pretty morbid reason to nominate someone, though.
J.K. Simmons is the closest behind Duvall in age, though thankfully by a whole 24 years. That’s plenty of time for him to surge back into the conversation after this year, but it’s been some time coming for Simmons to get as rollicking and juicy a role as he gets in Whiplash. As a seething, cruelly teasing, merciless jazz band conductor, he practically gets to amp up his riotous J. Jonah Jameson shtick to monstrous levels. It’s quite likely the performance he’ll be remembered for, and there’s no shaming a character actor who finally gets his big break. He’s got this locked up.
That means it’ll be at least another year and, indeed, another struggle to be back in power here. It’s a bit of a shame J.K. Simmons has been the steamroller here for the bulk of the season, allowing only a handful of regional critics to appreciate the other contenders. Closest behind him has implicitly been Edward Norton for his hysterical self-parody in the infinitely self-aware Birdman. It’s not merely indulgent replication of his own offscreen persona that dazzles, though, as his presence feels the most hearty onscreen, injecting life and unpredictable energy into the film as his character does for the play.
Pretty far from the podium is Mark Ruffalo, who had to muscle his way into this category more than even Duvall. The struggle pays off in his nomination as well as his performance in Foxcatcher, refusing to succumb to the simplistic ideology that this is the sweet guy who’s doomed to die. His complex feelings of brotherhood towards Mark and his reluctant feelings of submission to John du Pont are so tender and gut-twisting that you cringe as he’s succumbs to a tormentor emotionally long before he does physically. In an ideal world, he’d have more of a shot.
The youngest nominee of the bunch, ironically enough, is the one who ages the most across his film’s screentime. Some may not that Ethan Hawke has the gift of time on his side that makes his work less admirable, but that feeling doesn’t remotely occur to us during the film. We see his young charisma slowly transition to weathered submission to a domestic position, not for the bad, but simply because that’s how time and age affect your goals and disposition. It’s marvelous work that’s been sadly overlooked for any potential regional critics award.
Will Win: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Should Win: Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
- Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
- Takeo Chii, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
- Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
- Jake Lacy, Obvious Child
- Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Runners-Up: Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler; Ethan Hawke, Boyhood; Gene Jones, The Sacrament; Ben Mendelsohn, Starred Up; Noah Murray, The Babadook
I have no documentary “performers” present this year, but two of my choices here stretch the idea of performance in technologically or emotionally progressive ways. Toby Kebbell is a fierce livewire of a misguided villain in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, like Scar, but with more shame, anger and confusion. Takeo Chii’s bamboo cutter in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, meanwhile, comes about unsuspecting villainy through desperation and equally misguided devotion to the daughter whose life he’s unsuspectingly incinerating. Another confusing case of twisted maybe-villainy, Josh Brolin amps up his gruff police detective’s sinister sneers to unexpectedly self-destructive degrees, without ever giving the conventionally amped up, shouty performance you might’ve expected, and coming off as genuinely heart-rending as a result. After so many a-holes, it’s nice to know there are some nice guys here as well. I’ve spoken my praise for Ruffalo’s unknowingly destructive tenderness, but he’s nowhere close to the genial niceness that is Jake Lacy in Obvious Child, a genuinely kind, grateful, occasionally embarrassed human being who deals with coming to grips with a big decision he knows isn’t his to make. Maybe he and Ruffalo should mentor an anger management session with their fellow dream nominees. Just don’t invite J.K. Simmons to wreck it.
Let’s play the long game with this one. We’re fairly confident who’s going to win – a matter that’s all but decided in all acting categories except Best Actor – but let’s linger for a moment on those who are just here. The Robert Duvall of this batch, Meryl Streep, rarely looks like she’s going anywhere soon. In Into the Woods, she’s given the most extreme characterization, working as both an affected crone and an absolute diva queen, but there’s not that much surprising dimension to this performance. It doesn’t surprise or disarm, which is an issue with a lot of recent Streep performances. Here’s hoping that when she’s back in the Oscar conversation for Ricki and the Flash she’s got more to chew on.
But if Streep cruised in here on her own grace, Laura Dern made it in partly by proximity to on time frontrunner Reese Witherspoon’s performance in Wild. Her nod was one of the most pleasant surprises of Oscar morning, for me. There is such care, desire and regret in performance as Cheryl Strayed’s mother, even as her presence is diminished by her losing fight with cancer and being confined to flashbacks. Hers is a genuine supporting performance, and small as that may seem, there ought to be more short-time-frame work in this category like it.
The Imitation Game isn’t Joan Clarke’s story, though admittedly Keira Knightley feels as though she has as much presence here as Felicity Jones has in A Theory of Everything. The film Knightley’s in is… flawed, to say the least. One area it doesn’t falter in, though, is her performance, lending brightness, positivity and charm to an all too dour, defeated film, in spite its off-putting optimism towards the end. A little more spark in Turing’s characterization might’ve lent him the independent spirit he deserved.
If there’s a spark to Knightley’s work, then there’s a raging ball of fire beneath Emma Stone’s eyes in Birdman. You could diminish that to merely her one big, loud scene railing against Michael Keaton’s character, inhabiting the youth agitation with pretentious preoccupations of their parental figures, but there are smaller acts of rebellion that make her more than just a pithy one-liner. Like the other female characters in Birdman, she’s weakened by a lack of agency, but she shows a degree of deliberation that’s liberating by comparison.
But even Stone’s most vocal factions won’t be enough to challenge Patricia Arquette’s decade-long performance in Boyhood. It’s a chip whose currency has been growing for some time and she’s ready to cash it. A larger presence of television than film since starting production on Linklater’s 12 year project, it’s tempting to think she’s been on the periphery all this time and not simply on the set of Medium. Her work here is also gradual, but it’s as much of an emotional wallop to see her age irrevocably before us as it is to see her dealing with that. She may be the most egregious case of category fraud here, arguably a co-lead alongside Ellar Coltrane, but she deserves utmost recognition wherever she’s present.
Will Win: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Should Win: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
- Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
- Carmen Ejogo, Selma
- Elisabeth Moss, Listen Up Philip
- Rene Russo, Nightcrawler
- Uma Thurman, Nymphomaniac
Runners-Up: Viola Davis, Get On Up; Gaby Hoffman, Obvious Child; Agata Kulesza, Ida; Anna Mouglalis, Jealousy; Marisa Tomei, Love Is Strange
Without fully realizing it till now, I filled my entire ballot with embittered wives, girlfriends and other women. Well, almost, though I consider Russo’s fierce, passionate performance as a venal, do-anything-for-a-hit news producer in Nightcrawler as somebody who falls into a toxic, but intoxicating relationship. But Lou Bloom is no Philip Lewis Friedman, and Elisabeth Moss’ emotionally excavating, then somewhat sadly self-empowering breakdown in Listen Up Philip nearly steals the film completely away from him. There’s no chance of us losing sight of the male breadwinner in Selma, but Carmen Ejogo frequently brings through the stress and anxiety of managing an intimate relationship and family with the politically charismatic leader of the civil rights movement. Jessica Chastain’s A Most Violent Year lady wouldn’t be quite as tender in similar circumstances. Her character lends the most thrillingly unpredictable energy to J.C. Chandor’s American fable, an ideal mix between vampy scene-chewing and upsettingly subtle character work. She’s often exciting when onscreen, but Uma Thurman is positively venomous in her one extended scene in Nymphomaniac, etching a searing place in our minds and Joe’s, even she tries to downplay the significance of her momentary fury in her personal and sex life.