Last year’s Cannes Film Festival featured this year’s Oscar winning Best Actor performance thanks to the inclusion of the wonderful The Artist in competition, and though the films seem to have been chosen for their artistry and provocative subtexts more than any really commercial pointers (as always happens the year after the festival is deemed “too commercial”), there have been some seriously fine performances this year as well.
There wasn’t an Uggy this year, but there was a murdered pooch in Moonrise Kingdom, a bitey Killer Whale in Rust & Bone, and a striking performance from an armadillo in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Me and You, so we’ll have to wait and see who emerges with the best animal performance. Probably won’t come from Madagascar 3 though…so for the time being, let’s stick to the humans.
12. Caleb Landry Jones – Antiviral
In comparison to that other Cronenberg star turn from Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis, the former X-Men: First Class actor showed exactly how to turn a cool as ice, understated performance with a dark heart into an explosive one that gets under the skin of the audience. Landry Jones channeled the lost spirit of Patrick Bateman in his central turn as Syd, conveying both mental and physical deterioration with authenticity and effect, helped by Brandon Cronenberg‘s eye for shocking sequences. Definitely one to watch out for more.
11. John Cusack – The Paperboy
Though it was pretty much horrendous, The Raven did at least offer a brief glimmer of hope for Cusack as a serious actor, and his turn as psychopathic and repulsively physical convicted killer Hillary Van Wetter in Lee Daniels’ disappointing adaptation is one of the stand-out strings to the film’s bow. He is seedy, despicable and deeply unlikeable – just as you’d want him to be, in other words.
10. Garrett Hedlund – On The Road
In an otherwise uninspiring film, Hedlund’s take on iconic anti-hero Dean Moriarty was an all-too limited flash of brilliance: Hedlund clearly understands the character, and crucially balances his disarming and roguish charm with a tender under-current that is only briefly, but devastatingly glimpsed late on.
9. Chris O’Dowd – The Sapphires
It is admittedly little more than a scene-stealing stand-up act, but O’Dowd’s comic turn as Dave in this Australian Dreamgirls gives the film its over-riding charisma, and deflects from what could have been a saccharine, right-on portrait of prejudice. Instead O’Dowd lightens the mood and makes the audience’s decision to empathize with the girls a lot easier. Big things expected from the Bridesmaids and IT Crowd actor now.
8. Tom Hardy – Lawless
Bulked up for Bane, Hardy could have just played a meat-head boot-legger with a bad temper to match his physical presence, but he’s not that one-dimensional. In his earliest roles, Hardy proved to have a wonderful knack of doing very little to communicate a lot: the still river runs deep with him, as they say, and he brought that emotional depth to a character who might otherwise have been defined by violence, in someone else’s hands. As it is, in Lawless Hardy offers a picture of a caring family man, just as vulnerable in charged emotional situations as he is brutal in those which require his animal side to come out. Hardy offers Forrest Bondurant an inherent and intriguing contradiction that turns his minimalist turn into something altogether more engaging.
7. Matthias Schoenaerts – Rust & Bone
An actor after Tom Hardy’s own heart – simple, powerful and packing huge physical presence, Schoenaerts has previously shown off his abilities in earlier projects – not least the excellent Bullhead – and in Rust & Bone he continued to make a name for himself. Strong and almost silent, Schoenaerts’ Ali was a poignant picture of intense physicality, contradicted by his emotional heart and a vulnerability that is barely hinted at, but which again is realized perfectly in the third act. If he isn’t making Hollywood films inside two years, I’ll eat my hat.
6. Denis Lavant – Holy Motors
The least conventional film of the entire festival brought polarized responses from those in attendance, either dismissing it as impenetrably obtuse or roundly applauding it for its audacity in being impenetrably obtuse, and it certainly meant very little in conventional terms. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t entertainment to be had, which was mostly down to the ridiculousness of the “plot”, and even more so down to Lavant’s performance as a mysterious actor playing multiple, increasingly odd roles. Each time, Lavant is accomplished, proving himself a chameleon of epic proportions, and never robbing the film of its effect by playing anything tongue-in-cheek.
5. Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Some will inevitably only see Mikkelsen as a villain (part and parcel of being both European and a former Bond villain), but his portrait of a victim, trapped in an ever-worsening cycle of rumor, presumption and eventually alienation was one of the highlights of the festival. Accused of heinous abusive attacks on children, Mikkelsen’s Kindergarten assistant is a horrific picture of his situation, though without excess and that horror is so impactful thanks to the work the actor puts in early on establishing the character’s charm. We follow his deterioration very closely, aware of his emotional wounds, and his underlying dislike for confrontation, and the film is a hugely emotional experience thanks to the power of his performance.
4. Nicole Kidman – The Paperboy
It’s always nice to see an actor push themselves, especially into a role that audiences won’t immediately be charmed by: Kidman’s performance as “over-sexed Barbie doll” Charlotte Bless is easily the best thing about The Paperboy, and it’s certainly something of a departure for the actor. She is charming but fundamentally broken, wearing deep-seated emotional scars and stuck in a self-perpetuating vicious circle of self-destructive behavior. She is definitely a caricature – a grotesque portrait of people just like her – but Kidman encourages affection towards her, and there is a pronounced tragedy to the character thanks to that.
3. Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild
It is astonishing to think that Dwight Henry is a non-professional on the back of his power-house, emotionally raw performance as Wink in the excellent Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it seems that the professional baker is just as adept at cooking up character performances as he is cakes and buns. Hopefully we will see more of this super-charged, turbulent talent, because his Wink is genuinely affecting; conflicted and contradictory, loving and broken, he forms an impressive heart of the film’s story and it’s hard to resist his disarming, but volatile charisma.
2. Guy Pearce – Lawless
Only narrowly missing out on top-spot, Pearce’s distasteful caricature-like villain is grand enough and grotesque enough to carry off his villainous responsibilities. It is a stand-out performance in a very impressive cast, and Pearce all but steals the show: willing us to hate him thanks to his all too visible rotten core, but adding depth to the role thanks to the fundamental perverse contradiction of his intense demeanor and Pearce’s physical performance. Definitely worth a good punt for Best Supporting Actor come February.
1. James Gandolfini – Killing Them Softly
Just when you think it’s safe to assume that The Sopranos was the last we would see of the heavy-weight actor, he steals the show in Andrew Dominik’s post-gangster flick, poignantly offering a portrait of a mobster suffering an almighty hangover from the good old days. He is menacing, powerful and tragic at the same time, delivering two near-monologues with awesome and irresistible effect.
If the top four or five of this list don’t attract at least some Oscar buzz, I’d be tempted to hang up my press badge for good.