- All Is Lost
- Dallas Buyers Club
- Those Happy Years
- Finding Vivian Maier
- Stranger By The Lake
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- Before Midnight
- The Spirit of ’45
Alright Alright Alright, he started out a poster-boy, he soon became a rom-com joke and, more recently, has had a renaissance as the star of attention-getting indies of varying degrees of quality. What’s most wonderful about Matthew McConaughey in the superb Dallas Buyers Club, however, is that he leaves behind none of these qualities while also co-opting a shocking change of physical bearing. The hickory accent and shit-eating grin have been accentuated with a mean streak of homophobic slurs and ruthless American Dream ambition in his performance as an HIV-infected mid-eighties Texan who doesn’t believe he could be afflicted by the disease since he only likes the company of ladies. McConaughey finds the heart beating beneath the swagger, beautifully developing an arc of self-discovery and compassion without ever compromising on the character’s gritty reality.
Every once in a while you see a mundane film with a performance of such quality that you couldn’t care less that it’s barely worth the celluloid it’s printed on. Saving Mr. Banks is as good an example of contrived nonsense purporting to be based on fact as I can think of from the last decade, its exploration of the difficult relationship between Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers one that strains credulity at almost every step. Where it soars, however, is in letting star Emma Thompson tear the screen up in her depiction of the frustrating author who was determined to make everyone suffer for the dream of making the flying nanny a cinematic reality. She’s deliciously prickly when coldly asking a fellow passenger about her noisy baby on a flight to Los Angeles, heartbreaking when she taps into her difficult memories about her alcoholic father and then hilarious when testing the patience of all assigned to work with her. In short, you spend the whole movie waiting for her to speak again…when not enjoying her silences (her approval of Mary’s umbrella is particularly juicy). Stephen Fry once said that discovering Thompson in performance at Cambridge, he remembers watching an actress who made you sit forward and listen; it is obvious that the years since have not dulled her exquisite powers.
McConaughey’s acerbic good-ole-boy in Dallas Buyers Club couldn’t be as effective without the company of his partner-in-crime, which is where Jared Leto comes in. Rayon is at first a recipe for disaster for our anti-hero, all Dietrich eyebrows and high heels against his brutal pride, but eventually he comes to see the strengths we have already fallen in love with: a combination of gutsy personality and the defense built up from years in a social war zone, receiving as she has the ire of a world that looks down on her and a disease that seems determined to remove her memory from all existence. Leto is as bewitching in his softer moments as he is when showing his harder edges, a mouth that is always ready with a whipcrack response while the eyes are constantly in search of a better world.
It almost seems criminal to single out individual performances in Asghar Farhadi’s films considering how well his casts work as a whole. While The Past isn’t as electrifying as A Separation, it does feature another ensemble of characters whose plight becomes incredibly sympathetic as scenes progress and secrets are revealed. The most shockingly motivating is Pauline Burlet as daughter to leading lady Berenice Bejo; at first she seems a young woman at the height of teen selfishness, objecting as she does to her mother’s new marriage to the latest man in her life. As the onion-skin layers are removed, however, we find out that she is invested in the situation a lot deeper than was obvious, and Burlet (previously known outside of France mainly as one of the younger Piafs in La Vie En Rose) handles the character’s descent into regret and trauma with gorgeously fluid skill. The whole film is entrancing for its many moments of pathos, and she provides many of the best ones.
Goodness knows there’s nothing better for quality entertainment than two hours of naked men at a paradise of a beach, getting it on in the heat of summer. This only shows the directorial prowess of Alain Guiraudie to better effect, then, to point out that the exacting structure and powerfully subtle guidance he brings to the unforgettable Stranger By The Lake is so mesmerizing as to leave you with the pleasures of both visual titillation and the experience of a damn fine thriller. There are as many brilliant choices in narrative structure, including a sense of repetition that draws you into a sexually drunken lull, as there are powerful moments of stillness: you don’t just watch the summer buzz slowly by, you feel the sand burning into your skin, while the chilly night air is practically filling your nostrils as you watch a nighttime swim that turns, very quietly, into a cold-blooded murder.