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Timothy Spall (#110 of 3)

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

Cannes Film Festival 2014: Mr. Turner Review

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Cannes Film Festival 2014: <em>Mr. Turner</em> Review
Cannes Film Festival 2014: <em>Mr. Turner</em> Review

Mike Leigh’s sprawling J.M.W. Turner biopic opens with a marvelous extended-take long shot: A windmill’s silhouette churns its blades against the rays of the rising sun as two Flemish maids enter the frame carrying buckets of water on their shoulders, the camera tracking with them along the muddy banks of a canal before settling finally on a distant figure in top hat, Mr. Turner (Timothy Spall), fervidly sketching the scene in a portfolio. In one masterfully conceived shot, Leigh evocatively situates us within the milieu of a Turner canvas, while almost subliminally shading in one of the film’s foremost themes: the once celebrated painter’s progressive sidelining by the tumultuous forces of 19th-century history as well as the fickle tide of public opinion.

Mr. Turner suggests itself as a more morose companion piece to Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s raucous and outsized treatment of Gilbert and Sullivan’s music-hall demimonde. Which isn’t to say that the film is an entirely humorless undertaking. Quite to the contrary, Leigh indulges his penchant for splenetic, even churlish comedy. When Turner isn’t flummoxing his listeners with floridly baroque circumlocutions, his characteristic grunt speaks even more eloquently as a wicked deflation of social hypocrisy and cant. Mr. Turner hits the traditional biopic beats more routinely than the latter, but at least it refuses to truck with that most irksome generic sawhorse, the emotionally tidy rise-and-fall arc, by a simple expedient: opening at the height of its subject’s popularity, and then dwelling with Leigh’s characteristically misanthropic relish on the artist’s latter-day sufferings and setbacks.

New York Film Festival 2012: Ginger & Rosa

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New York Film Festival 2012: Ginger & Rosa
New York Film Festival 2012: Ginger & Rosa

Though Ginger & Rosa is arguably Sally Potter’s best work to date, it’s certainly the English filmmaker’s most accessible. But that’s not to diminish her past experimental, more iconoclastic movies. Her previous work has clearly enriched this finely observed and affecting tale about two teenage girls coming of age in early-1960s Britain. Like Orlando, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s centuries-spanning novel which established her name internationally 20 years ago, there’s a strong female protagonist through whose POV the movie unfolds. We sense a deep personal involvement in the narrative, though not to the autobiographical extent of Potter’s The Tango Lesson, in which the director played herself. The formalist challenges she took on in the fashionista thriller Rage—comprised almost entirely of confessional close-ups—seem to have resulted in the huge emotional payoffs in the intimate scenes in the current film.