- Holy Motors
- Zero Dark Thirty
- The Master
- The Invisible War
- Frances Ha
- Django Unchained
- A Late Quartet
No one was less conflicted at the news that Joaquin Phoenix had gone off the deep end and ended his movie career when he made a parody of himself in I’m Still Here. Imagine my surprise, then, when Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master made him the most bewitching man on 2012’s screens in a controlled and perfectly engineered movie about a wayward soul completely committed to staying off the beaten path. Phoenix’s awkward bearing and haunted eyes have never been used to better effect, his delivery solid in every shot and his animal energy a terror to be reckoned with when it is unleashed (try as I might I cannot remove the plumbing in my bathroom that quickly).
The fact that Michael Haneke’s Amour provides such an unflinching and harrowing look at the ravages of old age and disease is not much of a surprise, as the greatest living filmmaker has been captivating audiences with the darker side of life for years by this point. What makes it shocking is the film’s tenderness, and the performances by the two leads go the full extent of showing both the good and the bad. As the woman suffering a stroke and slowly descending from peaceful age into a hellfire of illness, Emmanuelle Riva shows all the superb and captivating talent that she had when she lit up the screens in Hiroshima, Mon Amour 53 years earlier. The physical work she pulls off in portraying her situation is incredibly powerful, but she has just as much impact when she thumbs through a photo album and remarks on the beauty of a long life. It’s the performance of a lifetime from a lifetime of incredible performances.
All the contenders in this category are wonderfully blustery types, and all the more power to them for the weight they bring to the films they inhabit. The most exciting new performer of the year is the one who really caught my attention, however, and oddly enough in one of the year’s biggest misfires. Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is an overstated mess, a lifeless examination of violent men unable to commit violence, written by a scribe who can’t find much else for them to do in the meantime. What saves it from complete worthlessness is Scoot McNairy as the hopeless thug who can’t get it together. He somehow manages to twitch and writhe without ever overplaying his discomfort; when he shares the screen with lead Brad Pitt he completely blows his world-famous co-star right off the screen. Add that to his equally sturdy performance in Argo, as the member of the team who always doubts Ben Affleck’s ability to evacuate him safely from Iran, and you have what I hope is the makings of a character-actor superstar.
Four Oscar nominations (and hopefully more in the future) are an indication that Amy Adams has benefited from the good fortune of career options, compounded with a consistency of quality in her work. In The Master, her little woman behind Philip Seymour Hoffman’s big-talking religious cult leader is a deceptive icon, the ideal placid wife on the outside who hides a firestorm of a commanding personality within. She’s not a nag or a shrew, rather she’s a magnetic force from which Hoffman can never stray; even when giving him a nerve-cleansing handjob you can see that he is as empowered by her as he is terrified. She plays the role with a quiet grace, adding an edge of darkness that she has never before displayed.
While I always hoped that a woman would finally win an Academy Award for Best Director, it never occurred to me that the filmmaker behind Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker would be the one to do it. Not one to rest upon her laurels, however, Kathryn Bigelow outdid herself when she took a sharp turn from the high-octane intensity of the magnificent The Hurt Locker to create the more cerebral, equally perfectly plotted Zero Dark Thirty. Its outline follows the search for and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, but the process it pursues, in which no event is treated with emotionally manipulative bombast and circumstantial luck is never misinterpreted as morally righteous inevitability, shows the director at her most controlled and confident.