FilmOpinion

The Top Ten Best Film Performances (Male and Female) Of 2014

Beau Salant ‘18 and James Canellos ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writers

2014 was truly a spectacular year for actors and actresses, with many performances featured in the year’s films rightfully joining the list of cinema’s greatest. So Emertainment Monthly is looking back and ranking our choices for the year’s best performances.

NOTE: We have yet to see a few of the year’s films with acclaimed performances, notably “Selma” and “Cake,” and therefore must omit performances from those films.

MALE

10. Joaquin Phoenix – Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Pictures.
Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Pictures.

Phoenix has been on a roll as of late, showing off his sheer talent and acting ability in recent films such as “The Master” and “Her.” Although his performance in “Inherent Vice” may not match those two, Phoenix still gets to show off his ability to play funny and crazy at the same time, while still managing to keep his character realistic and believable.

9. Bill Hader – The Skeleton Twins

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in Skeleton Twins. Photo Credit: Reed Morano/Sundance Institute.
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins. Photo Credit: Reed Morano/Sundance Institute.

Hader proved that he’s capable of more than just celebrity impressions and Stefon in the 2014 indie hit The Skeleton Twins in which he plays a depressed, failed actor who attempts suicide, only to rediscover the value of his life thanks to his sister (fellow SNL alum Kristen Wiig). Hader shows off his dramatic side but doesn’t shy away from the humor as well, proving that sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.

8. Tom Hardy – Locke

Tom Hardy in Locke. Photo Credit: A24 Films.
Tom Hardy in Locke. Photo Credit: A24 Films.

It’s hard enough as an actor to carry a normal film, let alone carry one about a man driving alone on the highway for 90 minutes. In this one-man-show Hardy plays reliable and successful construction manager Ivan Locke, a man whose whole life is on the verge of collapsing like a building without the proper foundation. Throughout the course of the car ride we hear the exchanges Locke has with various people in his life on the eve of two major events simultaneously happening. Hardy, known best for his tough personas, has never been more riveting than as this vulnerable family man trying his best to make the most decent decisions. Even if it means him losing his job, his family and possibly his sanity.

7. Edward Norton – Birdman

Emma Stone and Edward Norton in Birdman. Photo Credit: Alison Rosa/Twentieth Century Fox.
Emma Stone and Edward Norton in Birdman. Photo Credit: Alison Rosa/Twentieth Century Fox.

Norton, who has been quiet as of late, made his much-anticipated return to high-profile roles and films this year in Birdman and the result was brilliant. Norton’s turn as cockily egocentric yet broodingly self-conscious actor Mike Shiner was a standout performance in the film. Critics praised Norton for the depth that he found in the character as well as his willingness to “go there” and portray the character, flaws and all, with complete honesty. Oscar voters are taking note too, as Norton is widely tipped to pick up an Academy Award nomination for the role.

6. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.

Perhaps no performance this year, male or female, will be more complex than Cumberbatch’s turn as the genius breaker of the Nazi code Alan Turing. Cumberbatch took a very gentle approach to the character, delicately allowing every little tick in Turing’s behavior (and trust us, there were plenty) to find the light of day slowly and cautiously. Turing, who essentially led the allies to a victory in World War II only to be prosecuted years later for his homosexuality, was a man of many secrets and complexities, and we see all of those in Cumberbatch’s work in this film. He builds layers and layers onto Turing, delivering riveting acting work in the process.

5. Michael Keaton – Birdman

Michael Keaton in Birdman. Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox.
Michael Keaton in Birdman. Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox.

Keaton enjoyed a massive career resurgence in 2014 thanks to his performance as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor, once famous for starring in an immensely popular superhero film franchise, who attempts to revive his career on the Broadway stage in Birdman. The character, eerily similar to the real-life Keaton, allowed him to stretch his acting abilities to new ends that many people were unaware of and allowed him to deliver a truly powerhouse performance that has put him front and center in the awards race this year.

4. Oscar Isaac – A Most Violent Year

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year. Photo Credit: A24.
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year. Photo Credit: A24.

Isaac’s bravura performance as a well-meaning business owner who sometimes finds himself resorting to questionable tactics has cemented him as one of the upcoming greatest actors of his generation. His incredible recitation of long monologues mixed with some fantastic chase sequences makes this a multi-dimensional performance that the actor pulls off flawlessly.

3. Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Tony Revolori  and Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Fiennes, previously known for his incredibly dramatic turns in films such as Schindler’s List and The English Patient, made a complete 180-degree turn this year in Wes Anderson’s farcical comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fiennes gives a comedic performance for the ages as M. Gustave. One of the most quotable characters of the year, Fiennes as Gustave frequently rattles off comically-long and over-the-top monologues containing some of the most ridiculously heinous dialogue delivered with hilarious seriousness. Truly a masterwork of comedic acting.

2. J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. Photo Credit: Daniel McFadden/Sony Pictures Classics.
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. Photo Credit: Daniel McFadden/Sony Pictures Classics.

Simmons is the king of “Oh hey, it’s that guy!” comments, having becoming one of American cinema’s most recognizable character actors over the past few years, appearing in small but critical roles in numerous popular films. In Whiplash, he finally got the chance to shine in a major role as Terrence Fletcher, the hardcore jazz instructor, whose teaching methods verge on torture, who brings out the best in Miles Teller’s Andrew Neyman (an ambitious jazz drumming student) with the only price being Neyman’s social life and mental health. Simmons is electric in the role, genuinely terrifying in some scenes, and even in his calmer scenes is always hiding the pent up rage that he could release at any moment. Simmons truly accomplishes something special, and the Academy has likely noticed, as Simmons is the frontrunner to take home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

1. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films.

Although the previously mentioned performances are truly spectacular, none of them can top Gyllenhaal’s truly masterful work as Lou Bloom, a sociopath willing to do anything it takes to succeed in Nightcrawler. When he stumbles upon the underground world of video newsmaking, Lou starts filming crime scenes to sell footage of to news stations and eventually commits crimes himself to do so. The audience watches in awe as Gyllenhaal rips Lou apart, layer by layer, as we slowly see this man become more and more insane, more and more willing to do whatever it takes to film the perfect crime. Gyllenhaal’s performance forces us to embrace the dark side of the American dream: the audience roots for him to succeed even though he’s doing despicable things to do so. Gyllenhaal’s ability to portray a man who does horrible things yet still gets the viewer to like and root for him proves that he is truly a master of the craft, and has given the greatest performance by a male actor in 2014.

FEMALE

10. Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Photo Credit: Liam Daniel/Focus Features.
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Photo Credit: Liam Daniel/Focus Features.

Although most of the acclaim went to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything really is Jones’ film as it tells Jane Hawking’s story. We see her run the emotional gauntlet in this film, as she gets to play everything from joy to determination to anger to devastation. While it may be easy to praise Redmayne’s outwardly physical transformation, Jones was not afforded the opportunity to transform on the outside and instead had to internalize everything, making her performance all the more impressive. And she did it all beautifully.

9. Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Disney.
Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Disney.

Saying that Streep is great in a film is commonplace at this point, but she truly excelled in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim beloved musical Into the Woods. As the Witch who sets the story in motion with her spells and magic, Streep wears many masks as she gets to play the villain in one scene, a mother figure in the next and a lonely spinster in another. Plus, she gets to belt out famous Sondheim tunes like “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight,” and she does so phenomenally. Yes, “Into the Woods” is one of the greatest recent performances from arguably cinema’s greatest living actress.

8. Rene Russo – Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler. Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler. Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films.

Russo’s return to film acting after a brief hiatus was a great one. In Nightcrawler, she plays Nina, an aging television news producer who desperately needs to bring in high ratings to keep her job, and the footage brought to her by Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom allows her this. But when Lou begins to demand sexual favors in return for his footage, Nina life (and Russo’s performance) gets very dark very fast. Russo’s deep complexions and embittered actions make it clear that Nina had to do many unmentionable things to get to where she is now, and that she is not happy that Lou is forcing her to give up what is left of her dignity. The role of Nina took her to many dark and sick places, and Russo remained brilliantly committed the entire time.

7. Patricia Arquette – Boyhood

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood. Photo Credit: IFC Films.
Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood. Photo Credit: IFC Films.

It was 12 years in the making, and Arquette truly delivered the performance of a lifetime in Boyhood. As the mother of the film’s main character, Arquette’s Olivia Evans continuously makes sacrifices for her children, often giving up her own happiness to make a better life for her kids. This takes an emotional toll on her, which Arquette portrays beautifully and with raw honesty unlike many other “mother” performances in film. We get to see Arquette age on screen, returning in yearly intervals, each time portraying the character stronger and more assured than the time before, as the character has aged and grown as well. It’s a truly developed and complex performance by an longtime hard-working actress who looks to be finally getting the awards recognition she deserves.

6. Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year

Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year. Photo Credit: A24.
Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year. Photo Credit: A24.

The old saying goes that a man is only as strong as the woman behind him, and in A Most Violent Year Chastain embodies this and proves it true. As the devoted wife and business partner of Oscar Isaac’s Abel, Chastain’s Anna Morales is the descendent of a man known for shady business practices, and does not shy away from them herself. She fears nothing, is intimidated by nobody, will do anything to protect her family and will always stand by her man. The Lady Macbeth-ian character allows Chastain to bring her all to a role worthy of her talents, and she infuses Anna with a burning heat that never cools down throughout A Most Violent Year.

5. Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. Photo Credit: Sundance Selects.
Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. Photo Credit: Sundance Selects.

In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard plays a simple character with complex depth. She plays Sandra, a woman recovering from depression who returns to work to find that her coworkers have elected to lay her off so they may receive a bonus salary. Sandra is able to convince her manager to hold a new vote, and has only one weekend (two days and one night) to convince her colleagues one by one to vote in her favor. Cotillard fabulously portrays a frail woman who slowly becomes stronger with each encounter. Her performance is all the more special when you consider that the character is on the verge of slipping back into depression for the duration of the film, something Cotillard does not shy away from. Perhaps most impressively, Cotillard is a master of subtlety here – in one scene in which she is on the phone with a colleague, she does more with one smile than most actresses do with a five-page long monologue.

4. Julianne Moore – Still Alice

Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Photo Credit: Linda Kallerus/Sony Pictures Classics.
Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Photo Credit: Linda Kallerus/Sony Pictures Classics.

Moore delivers what may become the landmark portrayal of Alzheimer’s on film in Still Alice. Portraying the harrowing effects of the disease from the point of view of a person suffering from it (rather than somebody watching another person suffer from it), she strikes an emotional chord that rings throughout the film. Through her portrayal, Moore shows the before and after of an Alzheimer’s patient brilliantly, as by the end of the film she has subliminally become a massively different person due to the disease.

3. Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight.
Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight.

In Wild, Witherspoon gives an absolutely fearless, all-guns-blazing performance as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides to cleanse herself of her troubled past and start her life over by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. Witherspoon pulls out all of the stops in this massively physical yet harrowingly emotional portrayal of a broken woman who with (literally) every step is mending wounds she has accumulated over the years. Witherspoon captures struggle and persistence so perfectly that it provides for one of the most satisfying film endings of the year, and one of the year’s best performances.

2. Essie Davis – The Babadook

Essie Davis in The Babadook. Photo Credit: Causeway Films.
Essie Davis in The Babadook. Photo Credit: Causeway Films.

Not since Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby has an actress given such a harrowing, intense and terrifying performance in a horror film. Like Farrow, Davis plays a mother on the verge of having a nervous breakdown due to the stress brought on her by her child. Davis’ main antagonist though is the titular “babadook” as well as herself as she confronts the creatures ever growing control over her household. Rarely is exhaustion and intensity merged so well together and Davis has a natural ability of capturing both in the same scene. Davis also wonderfully portrays one of the film’s many themes which is the way we grieve and handle loss, as Davis plays a character who has not yet recovered from the death of her husband and spends the majority of the film coming to terms with it.

1. Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox.
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox.

Spoilers abound! Pike gives the best performance by a female actor this year as the maniacally twisted but “amazing” Amy Dunne in the David Fincher hit Gone Girl. In a performance and role that has sparked much writing and debate over gender roles and feminism, Pike delves deep into the mind of one of the greatest femme fatales in modern cinema, an ode to the great ones of the golden age played by Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Faye Dunaway and Isabella Rossellini. Pike essentially plays two characters in the film: the laid-back, non-psychopathic, “cool girl” Amy and the disappeared, maniacal Amy who does as she pleases to other people and plays by her own rules, with her own ethics and sense of justice. But what makes Pike’s performance truly spectacular is that she creates a screen villain who we know is doing horrible things but plans these horrible things so perfectly and meticulously that we can’t help but respect her. It’s a brilliant weaved together performance that will undoubtedly join the ranks of great screen villains, and undoubtedly the greatest performance of the year.

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