The 8 Film Performances You Have to See This Year

Photo Source: Courtesy Warner Bros.

From Maika Monroe in “It Follows” to Tom Hardy in “Legend” and Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years,” 2015 has seen a bumper crop of blazing performances in off-the-wall projects. Here are eight of the year’s very best.

Christopher Abbott, “James White”
Growing up isn’t easy for everyone. For some, the road to maturity has more than a few obstacles. Take James White. Despite the recent death of his father and his mother Gail’s (Cynthia Nixon) ongoing battle with cancer, the young New Yorker on which Josh Mond’s directorial debut is centered has been avoiding adulthood for years. Unemployed and with almost no money to his name, James continues to binge drink with his friend Nick (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) night after night. In James’ eyes, he’s been living on his mother’s couch taking care of her for the past two years, but in hers, he’s been freeloading.

The film changes course, however, when Gail’s cancer returns and she needs her son by her side. But James is a mess. He’s reckless and lazy and you should hate him. But Abbott’s performance reminds us we all know someone just like him, and responsibility can turn anyone into an adult when it’s time to step up—even James White. —Rebecca Strassberg

Abraham Attah, “Beasts of No Nation”
It always seems like luck when an actor’s screen debut is in a spectacular, buzzed-about, critically successful film—particularly when it’s a young, green actor. But Attah, a first-timer discovered by casting director Harrison Nesbit while skipping school and playing soccer in his native Ghana, defies those doubts. In Netflix’s first feature film, the Cary Joji Fukunaga–directed “Beasts of No Nation,” the young actor commands the lens with an aptitude well beyond his then 14 years. As Agu, whose family is torn apart by war, Attah reacts evocatively to violence; the naturally expansive imagination child actors possess is used to capture the atrocities of guerilla warfare. The film’s relentless brutality feels real enough, but Attah’s eyes maximize its effects.

That he must also plunge the character into such senseless cruelty further proves his skill. Brainwashed by Idris Elba’s monstrous Commandant and drugged by his battalion of rebels, Agu commits unspeakable acts as he drifts farther and farther from humanity. Just as the film could be set anywhere in Africa, Attah could represent any child soldier, any young person experiencing trauma. A final, understated close-up reveals that trauma, even as Attah suggests, against all odds, there might be hope. —Jack Smart

Matt Damon, “The Martian”
Damon brings the right balance of austerity and comedy to his turn in “The Martian.” Directed by Ridley Scott, the actor leaves moviegoers holding their collective breath as Mark Watney tackles one obstacle after another in an effort to survive alone on Mars. From deducing a way to power a rover for hundreds of miles to acting as the planet’s very own MacGyver and plotting how to “science the shit” out of his food supply problem, Damon’s botanist remains wholly entertaining without ever sacrificing a believable emotional arc. After all, he’s playing a man who’s stranded millions of miles away from home; sometimes all there’s left to do is laugh. While bird’s-eye views of Scott’s Mars stand-in—Jordan’s otherworldly Valley of the Moon—visually establish the character’s planetary solitude, it’s Damon’s performance that crystallizes the reality of the stakes.

The actor is alone onscreen for nearly all of “The Martian,” and inadvertently does most of the heavy lifting in the ensemble film, which also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Michael Peña, and Sean Bean. But our leading man is never lost in the mix, and like the recent real-life discovery of water on the Red Planet, Damon proves both a revelation and a testament to the power of human ingenuity. —Briana Rodriguez

Tom Hardy, “Legend”
With “Legend,” Hardy doesn’t give just one of the year’s best performances—he gives two of them, doubling down as notorious Brit mobsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray. Reggie is all suaveness and smarts, shrewdly running his nightclub (and the family business) with intelligence and precision. He also gets a kick out of kicking ass. Then there’s Ronnie. He may look identical, save for a slack jaw and glasses, but internally, he’s his twin brother’s opposite: volatile, hotheaded, and by most informed diagnoses, paranoid schizophrenic. He’s a storm just itching to break the sky open, or as Reggie’s wife, Frances, declares, a “one-man mob.”

In re-creating these real-life gangsters, Hardy enraptures. Director Brian Helgeland brews up some camera wizardry of his own, having the Hardys face off onscreen (one particularly memorable sequence has the twins brawling with one another after Reggie lets the club go sour), but the true movie magic comes from Hardy’s seamless ability to lose himself within these men in equal measure. It’s a wonder we end up empathizing with the homicidal Ronnie, but Hardy paints him with notes of vulnerability. He’s just a troubled manchild scared by the thoughts in his own head—and he may bite your ear off, at that. Hardy’s double-duty turn is a master class. —Benjamin Lindsay

Maika Monroe, “It Follows”
More often than not, the appeal of a typical horror film is the special effects and tactics—the blood, the gore, the loud noises that make you jump and squirm in your seat. But “It Follows” isn’t a typical horror film. Instead of just a few moments that make you jump and squirm in your seat, writer-director David Robert Mitchell delivers 100 minutes of breathless terror, begging the question: Where the hell and what the hell is “it”?

After an unknown supernatural force is passed to Detroit teenager Jay (Monroe) via sexual intercourse, we learn, “It can look like someone you know or it can be a stranger in a crowd—whatever helps it get close to you.” The force, slowly moving toward her at all times, is trying to kill her. Once it does, it’ll move back up the chain and kill whoever passed it to her, and so on.

What “It Follows” does is take the attention off the effects and turn it toward its actors—namely the sublime Monroe. The 22-year-old star aids the film’s plot with internalized dread and confusion, knowing that shrieks of panic and bulging eyes have no place in a film where the killer, whatever it is, is coming to get you at two miles per hour. It’s only after the credits roll and you regain consciousness that you can appreciate the talent you’ve just witnessed. —RS

Elisabeth Moss, “Queen of Earth”
With darting eyes and a smirk on her face, Moss’ Catherine delivers one of this indie film’s most lingering lines: “I could murder you right now and no one would ever know.”

Toying in dark corners of the imagination is what sits at the crux of Moss’ performance and writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth.” As in “Rosemary’s Baby,” the two guide us through a guessing game about our lead’s creeping psychological breakdown, and purposefully create more questions than answers.

Moss oscillates between lucid verbal barrages and absent-mindedly swinging in a hammock talking on the phone to no one. Using these extremes, Perry holds up a mirror; it’s between cuts of her tear-streaked face and Catherine’s voluntary sequestering of herself to a room full of empty potato chip bags that we question our own perceptions of sanity, spitefulness, and jealousy. As we watch her and best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) prod and poke at each other in an idyllic upstate lake house, the muddled truth between reality and fantasy becomes Moss’ anchor as her character descends further into depression.

From her first pitiful look begging her boyfriend not to leave to her last maniacal laugh at the water’s edge, Moss eviscerates everything in her path—we couldn’t stand to look away. —BR

Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”
Kate is a contentedly married woman. Retired and childless, she and her husband live in the English countryside, filling their days with pleasant mundanities and planning their 45th anniversary party. But when a letter arrives containing unexpected news, a tiny fracture appears in the veneer of Kate’s marriage—which is, to say, her whole being.

As depicted by Rampling, a veteran actor whose singular gifts turn “45 Years” into this year’s must-see indie, Kate lets a symphony of emotions cross her weathered face in the wake of the news: wonder, grief, rage, desperate longing. Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s intimate two-hander examines the value we assign to our relationships, how they constitute our faith and determine our identity. Thanks to the subtleties in Rampling’s performance, the minuscule details that make up a relationship become seismic, shaking us to our core. “Kate is treading on ice,” Haigh told Backstage, “avoiding the cracks as they appear around her.”

Can she stay on solid ground? In its final frame, “45 Years” answers that question by allowing Rampling to unleash five seconds of astonishing acting, pianissimo yet somehow deafening. It’s the kind of perfectly calibrated moment that emblazons itself in your mind long after the credits roll. —JS

Charlize Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Theron’s Imperator Furiosa may be one-armed and disabled, but don’t make the mistake of underestimating her brawn—it’d surely be your last. As Immortan Joe’s top imperator gone AWOL, Theron is all badass ferocity, teaching the boys a thing or two about surviving in the desert wasteland of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic reboot. But for all her hard edges, Furiosa’s not without compassion.

After bearing witness to the cyclical rape and abuse of Joe’s five beautiful wives, she, a war rig driver and trusted confidante of the citadel’s tyrant, devises a plan to help them escape. What is at first a standard oil run becomes the most entertaining chase of the year when Furiosa goes off course with the wives in tow. Their destination? The Green Place, Furiosa’s native land of peace and fertility. It’s a betrayal that ignites the film’s main action and pairs her and Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky as an unlikely duo against Joe and his onslaught of War Boys.

Theron wisely plays Furiosa as an expert warrior, yes, but also a wounded one. Her quest for the Green Place emphasizes she’s still an orphan in need of family and a home. When her desperation boils over at the film’s third act reveal, it hardly detracts from her strength. Instead, it makes the fiery imperator that much more human. Theron blasts each note to smithereens. —BL

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