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The 20 Best Film Performances of 2014

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The 20 Best Film Performances of 2014
The 20 Best Film Performances of 2014

Ironically, for an awards program meant to highlight standout performances, the Academy Awards have turned into the 800-pound gorilla of fall and winter entertainment coverage, stomping out other movie news to deposit mounds of hype about a relatively small group of “frontrunners.” Some of our favorite performances of the year were in movies that are being talked up for Oscars, but many were in films too quirky or dark or subtitled for the Academy of Arts and Sciences’s taste, and it would be a shame if that consigned them to the shadows. With this list, we hope to shine a little light on these brilliant, touching, often funny performances, which enrich our understanding of what it means to be human. Elise Nakhnikian

New York Film Festival 2013: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

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New York Film Festival 2013: <em>The Secret Life of Walter Mitty</em> Review
New York Film Festival 2013: <em>The Secret Life of Walter Mitty</em> Review

There’s a good reason why James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has endured since its publication in The New Yorker in 1939: In its evocation of an utterly ordinary man retreating into his own private fantasies as an escape from numbing reality, Thurber hit upon a concept as simple as it is profoundly universal. It’s also an idea ripe for cinematic expansion, especially if you view cinema the way Ingmar Bergman once characterized the films of Andrei Tarkovsky: “When film is not a document, it is dream.”

For Ben Stiller, apparently, Thurber’s classic story is grist not for a sympathetic exploration of the universal human desires to dream and live, but to craft what eventually amounts to a totem to his own vanity. How else to explain its increasingly exasperating collapse into scene after scene that extols Mitty’s, and by extension Stiller’s own, heroic goodness?

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Imogene

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Imogene</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Imogene</em>

A dismal, D-grade sitcom stretched out to wafer-thin feature length, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Imogene sounds like it was written by somebody who has never heard a single real-world conversation. This is a film composed exclusively of simplistic potshots and walking clichés, its humor strictly confined to the lowest-common denominator in both content and execution. This is where wit and comic timing go to die; every joke is dated, shopworn, and tiresomely bland. It’s difficult to imagine anybody involved with this project having real, honest conviction in the quality of the material (one hopes, at the very least, that this was just a paycheck for the otherwise enormously talented Kristen Wiig), and it’s even more difficult to reconcile the film’s tepid, warmed-over look and feel with Berman and Pulcini’s still-great American Splendor, a film Imogene couldn’t be less like. The couple’s 2007 film, The Nanny Diaries, was clearly a big step in the direction of commercial homogonization and, if you’d like, of “selling out,” but not even that suggested the duo could be capable of work this abysmal.

Lana Del Rey’s Feminist Problem

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Lana Del Rey’s Feminist Problem
Lana Del Rey’s Feminist Problem

Part of the intrigue of Lana Del Rey’s breakout “Video Games” was its two-sided nature. It’s ostensibly a love song in which the singer rhapsodizes devotion to her man (“Heaven is a place on Earth with you/Tell me all the things you want to do”), but there’s a stinging quality to both the words and her blasé delivery: “Open up a beer/And you say get over here…It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you/Everything I do.” It’s unclear who’s being played: the guy, who might actually think he’s worth her time, or Del Rey, deluded and desperate enough to stay with somebody who’s so clearly no good for her.

This slippery question of identity and intention is also, of course, what’s made Del Rey the center of a national conversation in recent months. Simply put, Del Rey isn’t the singer the viral “Video Games” had led people to believe she was—the “authentic” singer-songwriter ingénue plucked out of obscurity based on the merits of a DIY music video. Her Lana Del Rey persona is the latest incarnation of several years spent putting in time in the industry. Nor is she the kind of pop artist we’ve come to expect these days—the primetime-savvy vessel of club-ready hits. She’s awkward in interviews and on stage, with a high-pitched speaking voice and vampy mannerisms, expertly imitated by Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live last week. She seems to be both trying too hard and not trying hard enough, stoking questions about whether she even means any of what she’s singing.

Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Original Screenplay

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Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Original Screenplay
Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Original Screenplay

Historically a haven for the quirk, verve, and humor that can’t quite crack the tougher races, the Original Screenplay category will openly welcome a movie like Bridesmaids, which may have a fiery fanbase and a sure shot at Supporting Actress, but isn’t about to compete in Best Picture, no matter how hard the mainstream dreamers squint their eyes and pray. The script nom might strike some as a snub-amending bone-throw to a buzz-building comedy, but Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo actually deserve to be in contention for their dialogue-driven hit (unlike The Hangover, another R-rated giggler with Best Pic whispers, to which Bridesmaids is belittlingly compared). Still, pink-clad comediennes with volatile bowels are bound to be outclassed by Midnight in Paris, the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice victor that’s all set to squeeze another gold man onto Woody Allen’s crowded mantle.