An esteemed concierge, an unlikely killer, a small-town priest, a historic artist. 2014 was filled with dynamic, captivating performances from seasoned veterans and new-comers alike. To celebrate such a great year at the movies, we polled over a dozen of our contributing writers and editors to produce this aggregated alphabetized list that represents the sharp opinions of everyone here at The Focus Pull. At the end of the article, we’ll rank three of the very best performances that stand above the rest.
in Winter Sleep
The gentle owner (Haluk Bilginer) of a rural Anatolian hotel contends with a rocky marriage, domestic disagreements, and bureaucratic disputes in this Palme d’Or-winning masterwork from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia). Watching subtle shifts in character in Winter Sleep’s sprawling, 20-minute long dialogue pieces is to witness a virtuoso conduct a symphony on the best night of the tour. Complex human emotion penetrates every interaction in the film. Bilginer’s hotel owner begins as the most sympathetic character and is broken down from there to reveal his true arrogance. Bilginer plays the character with naturalism beyond belief, externalizing intimate, internal thoughts through careful line delivery and a fully committed physical performance. —Taylor Sinople
in Blue Ruin
In one of the most surprising films of 2014, Macon Blair faces insurmountable odds in a true-to-life revenge story. Unlike many other violent revenge films, Blue Ruin takes a hardline stance that its protagonist is a profoundly tormented, yet utterly “normal” person. Although Blair is not given much of a back-story, he is able to convey fully realized emotions through a heartbreaking stare or nervous twitch, fully inhabiting his character’s past. An incompetent hero, Blair is frustratingly unable to make the slightest improvements to his situation, but his odd brand of pathetic charisma evokes an immense sense of empathy. Wild desperation and decades of pain are plainly evident in Blair’s performance, and it is his portrayal that elevates the film from relatively standard Hollywood schlock to a devastating story of loss and anger. —Jordan Brooks
Brendan Gleeson delivers one of this year’s best performances as an aging, weary Irish priest with a death knell ringing permanently in the back of his head. As Father James, Gleeson is appropriately droll and cynical as the script requires, but brings his own brand of likeability and understated charm to the role. His oft-furrowed brow, scruffy beard, and jowly frown (or smile, when afforded in this fairly dark film) give the unconventional priest a sense of real-world placement as he reacts to the darkness and sin of the community around him. Gleeson seems drawn to roles about somewhat downcast, aging, and unsure characters with unusual or unconventional moral compasses and his role in Calvary is nothing short of brilliant. —Jakob Johnson
Tom Hardy plays the titular character in Locke, a one-man show that takes place in real time, inside his luxury sedan, over the course of the film’s 85-minute runtime. We watch him try to keep his life together as it slowly falls apart. In the wrong hands, that could be an interminable amount of time to spend in the car with some strange man. As Ivan Locke, Tom Hardy is much more than just an anonymous stranger. He’s calm in the face of danger. He’s charming when he should be blunt. He’s a man faced with impossible choices, ones we might even want to look down on him for. He makes Locke a genuine, sympathetic man who is bound and determined to do the right thing. Above all, he’s someone you won’t regret taking the trip with. —Thomas McCallum
Birdman’s Riggan Thomson, the Hollywood superhero has-been who attempts his comeback by writing and directing a Broadway play, is a transformative performance by Keaton. As things continually go wrong before the big opening night and his avian alter ego exerts a stronger and stronger grip on his mentality, his representation of Riggan’s dark and twisted view of reality garners sympathy from the audience through actions that would make Beetlejuice cringe. —Chris Porazzo
in Starred Up
In Starred Up, Jack O’Connell delivers an underseen performance that is sure to be looked back on and praised as his star continues to inevitably rise. His turn as Eric Love, a young offender promoted to an adult prison facility because of his violent tendencies, strikes a raw and moving balance between anger and remorse that is never entirely rebellious, nor cooperative. In a film with such sparse scripting and a refreshing lack of sentimental moments O’Connell and his co-stars are tasked with much of the heavy lifting, and the results are positively gripping. —Zack Miller
in Inherent Vice
Lithuanian avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas once said, “For an artist to be normal is a disaster.” Perhaps, then, it was his staged mockumentary breakdown for I’m Still Here that transformed Joaquin Phoenix from a safe, Oscar-minded actor into one who takes serious risks in difficult movies. Inherent Vice is—for better or for worse—the hardest film to pin down of Phoenix’s career thus far. The truly bizarre tone, which asks the audience to laugh in the face of extremely dark circumstances, is fleshed out by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Doc Sportello. Phoenix jumps between lowbrow humor, action sequences, and pained nostalgia in the space of mere seconds. Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay called for a risk-taker to play its main role; it called for someone who can convey pain through his humor; it called for someone who can play a detective with the same sensitivity as an ex-lover; it called for someone you couldn’t trust. After seeing Joaquin Phoenix as Doc, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else pulling off this demanding role with such ease. —Marcus Michelen
in The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything is a wonderful biopic about the world-famous scientist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. The challenge for actor Eddie Redmayne is to portray a man who is so iconic, recognizable, and unique. Given two years to live when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at the age of 21, Hawking is now 72 years old. The film follows Hawking as his illness progresses, paralyzing his body, while his mind becomes one of the greatest of our time. Redmayne portrays this complex part with honesty and authenticity and, above all, an almost magical positivism. He manages to completely transform himself into Hawking by copying his movements, his mannerisms, and the way he speaks. For two hours of screen-time, Redmayne is Hawking. It is a truly breathtaking performance, which should lead to countless award nominations. —Eden van der Moere
At one of the most prestigious music schools in the United States, a talented young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) pushes himself to the limits under the ruthless instruction of an infamous conductor (J.K. Simmons). In one of the year’s standout supporting performances, Simmons is positively vicious as a jazz-room dictator that rules with fear and intensity. It’s an Oscar-ready performance, but also a shocking one. The size of Simmons’ fierceness is leveled through his character, whose techniques may draw close to abuse, but nonetheless represent the all-out, blood-on-the-drum-head sense of drive that leads to true greatness. —Taylor Sinople
in Mr. Turner
In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Timothy Spall’s performance as Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner subverts every expectation for the historical-biopic genre, resulting in one of the year’s top dramatic performances. Already established professionally and with a disordered past, Spall’s Turner moves through life emitting gravelly gurgles that provide perfect comic timing or sad reflection, depending on the situation.
There’s a terrific amount of remove and distance in Spall’s performance and in the screenplay, which Spall exploits in the process of avoiding the painfully obvious sequences of “genius” moments that afflict most historical biopics. The vocal performance is remarkable, but the dramatic extremes — Turner crying suddenly in a bordello, or reacting with gruff resignation at a daguerreotype session – provide a sense of his dramatic achievement in the film. —Adam Smith
Best of the Best
These last three picks were a cut above all the rest.
If we had awards to give, here’s who they’d go to.
As the titular enigmatic leader of The Soronprfbs, an experimental rock band, Fassbender is brilliantly physical. He concocts an amalgamation of shuffling, swaggering, and stumbling about underneath a giant papier-mâché head, resembling something between an in-his-prime Jim Morrison and the ever more prevalent affectations of Johnny Depp characters (a bit of Depp also comes through in his drawling baritone). The result never feels contrived, though, and Fassbender is as captivating in the mask as he is touching and respectful of the man behind it. —Zack Miller
Fans of Jake Gyllenhaal already know that he plays a really good hero. Flawed and vulnerable in the right places but sharp and courageous in others, Gyllenhaal taps into the human experience with each performance in ways that are underappreciated and unmatched. Playing a seedy, opportunistic cameraman for a news station in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal proves that his work as a total sociopath can be just as good as his more emotional characters. His performance in Nightcrawler is as terrifying as it is oddly inspirational, like a much less lucrative Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street). We watch as he plows through awkward social situations without a hint of self-awareness and consistently proves to his adversaries—and the audience—that he is always in control, regardless of his place in the world. Nightcrawler hinges on him, and he elevates it from above-average neo-noir to minor classic. —Josef Rodriguez
in The Grand Budapest Hotel
As esteemed concierge M. Gustave in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes is an extremely vain, arrogant, and pompous man that people just can’t help but be charmed by as he snaps between moods with a smile and some wayward profanity. Fiennes brings Gustave’s eccentricities—like a particular fondness for elderly women—to life with sharp line delivery and comedic timing reminiscent of a foul-mouthed Peter Sellers. He plays Gustave as sad; as charming; as eccentric; as cunning; most importantly, he plays M. Gustave as a man out of time, one with tangible feelings, emotions, and a life story. —Jakob Johnson