The 20 Best Acting Performances of Sundance 2014

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The 20 Best Acting Performances of Sundance 2014

Paste Editor in Chief Josh Jackson, Movies Editor Michael Dunaway, Chief Film Critic Tim Grierson and critic Jeremy Mathews descended on Park City for the Sundance Film Festival and between them saw dozens of films. You can see Paste’s 20 Best Movies at Sundance 2014 here, but here are our twenty favorite performances of the fest, five from each writer.

Paste Film Critic Jeremy Mathews’ Top Five Performances of Sundance 2014

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5. Irmena Chichikova in Viktoria
There are few tasks more difficult than playing someone with severe depression. A performance can easily turn into one mopey note, repeated ad nauseum. But Chichikova truly expresses the frustration of a woman who’s frustrated in a life with no future in communist Bulgaria. Even during portions of the film that veer toward absurdist comedy, she maintains a strong emotional core.

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4. Pei-pei Cheng in Lilting
Cheng eloquently relays the experience of a Chinese immigrant who never integrated into British society and, after the death of her son, has no connection to her culture. She has some amazing scenes with the excellent Ben Wishaw, who plays the lover of her son. The son never officially came out to her, and she’s in denial about him being gay. Because her dialogue is relayed through a translator, we’re able to really focus on her face and the tone of her voice, and feel all the intense emotions she does.

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3. Brendan Gleeson in Calvary
Whether dealing with deep issues of faith, forgiveness and family or tossing off witty one-liners, Gleeson is perfectly at home in the role of a small-town priest who spends a week preparing to be murdered. Gleeson goes deeper down the rabbit hole of doubt and despair as the appointed time of his killing nears. The veteran actor is at finest in the tender scenes featuring Kelly Reilly as his daughter.

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2. Emily Browning in God Help the Girl
For a musical to really work, it needs a magnetic star. Browning fits the bill nicely in Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl. She strikes the perfect balance of spontaneity, melancholy, conviction and gumption. It’s hard not to root for her character as she sings personal songs, dances like someone who doesn’t know how to dance but loves to anyway and tries to figure out life’s puzzle.

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1. Payman Maadi in Camp X-Ray
Kristen Stewart  may have given Camp X-Ray its pre-Sundance buzz, but Maadi steals the show as a mentally scarred prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who forges a friendship with Stewart’s soldier. While Camp X-Ray may have some issues working against it, Maadi is amazing. He nails both the comedic and human aspects of his character, revealing deep psychological issues developed during incarceration, but also the lingering need for friendship.

Paste Chief Film Critic Tim Grierson’s Top Five Performances of Sundance 2014

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5. Mark Duplass in The One I Love
To dissect Duplass’s great performance in The One I Love would be to risk ruining this marital comedy-drama’s great twist. But suffice it to say that this underrated actor delivers one of his most nuanced turns, expressing in layered detail the struggles all married couples face revealing their true selves to their significant other.

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4. Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip
Portraying a misanthrope is easy—portraying one who’s an absolute bastard and yet still compelling is a major feat. That’s what Schwartzman achieves in writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s dark comedy about an ambitious, emotionally ruthless author laying waste to his personal life, in particular his loving girlfriend (a wonderful Elisabeth Moss).

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3. Miles Teller in Whiplash
With exceptional supporting work from costar J.K. Simmons, Teller electrifies as an aspiring jazz drummer determined to win over his demanding teacher. This is a portrait of obsession and genius consistently humanized by the young star’s casual, inescapable charisma.

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2. Brendan Gleeson in Calvary
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s despairing drama tackles heavy themes: faith, morality, the very meaning of existence. Giving those topics the full emotional heft they deserve, Gleeson (who previously starred in McDonagh’s The Guard) is simply lovely as a dedicated Irish priest with a week to live and a lot to learn about forgiveness and grace.

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1. Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man
Playing a relentless, weary German spy, Hoffman is the soul of director Anton Corbijn’s dour, quietly stunning thriller. Now, sadly, it’ll be remembered as one of his final performances as opposed to just simply one of his best.

Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s Top Five Performances of Sundance 2014

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5. Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins
Don’t expect crazy characters and impersonations. Hader’s character in Craig Johnson’s dramedy is plenty funny, but what makes the performance so moving is the tragedy Hader evokes at the core of Milo, however at times self-inflicted and however at times overdramatized. It’s not in spite of those flaws that we’re drawn in; it’s because of them. Maybe the best recent performance by any SNL alum.

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4. Anne Hathaway in Song One
Hathaway confessed to me that early int he production of Song One, she was a little worried that audiences would tire of “two hours of closeups of me making sad faces.” She needn’t have worried. Outside of those few magical Oscar-winning moments as Fantine in Les Miserables, I think her acting in Song One may be the best of her entire career. Her silences speak more than most actors’ monologues. Touching and thrilling.

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3. Mark Ruffalo in Infinitely Polar Bear
I confess, I generally have a problem with actors portraying mental illness. not because it’s esepcially a hot button in my own life, but just because it always seems so showy and actor-y. “Look at me, ma, I’m acting,” as William Goldman once put it. Ironically, it’s in embracing the artifice inherent in Cameron’s personality that Ruffalo breaks through to some really beautiful work. Cameron is the down-on-his-luck son of an aristocratic Boston Brahmin family, and his accent, bearing, attitude, and even his walk have an exaggerated theatricality to them. but they’re also grounded and REAL — we’ve all known people like this. It creates a bizarrely perfect canvas on which Ruffalo paints a deep, textured, muti-layered performance.

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2. Alfred Molina in Love is Strange
Alfred Molina is one of those seemingly effortless actors that always, time and time again, turns in performances that truly live and breathe. Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have written a beautiful part for him here, but perhaps Sachs’ greatest choice was simply to give him a lead role and let the camera linger on him. As always, he’s magnificent.

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1. John Lithgow in Love is Strange
John Lithgow does weird so convincingly that when he turns his hand to more dramatic roles it always feels like a revelation. But even if you have some nice dramatic turns of his from the past in your mind, you won’t be fully prepared for what he does in Love is Strange. His Ben is sweet and sincere, awkward and oblivious, self-sacrificing and gently neurotic, all at once. It’s simply a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest of his career, and yes, I’m counting his Oscar-nominated roles in Garp and Terms of Endearment. It’s that good.

Paste Editor in Chief Josh Jackson’s Top Five Performances of Sundance 2014

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5. Aaron Paul in Hellion
In between his stint as the redeemable punk kid on Breaking Bad and his first attempt at blockbuster action hero, Sundance gave us Aaron Paul a depressed widower trying and failing to hold his family together. The desperation of Jesse is present here, as is the sympathy he demands from the audience.

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4. Elisabeth Moss in Listen Up Philip
There’s a scene in Listen Up Philip where Moss’ character gets the courage turn away jackass of a boyfriend. As she closes the door the camera stays on Moss’s face for what must be 20 seconds. In that one shot, she’s proud of herself, she’s lonely, she’s free, she’s sad—the succession of emotions hit her like machine-gun fire, and she communicates it all without saying a word.

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3. Philip Seymour Hoffman in God’s Pocket
We’re still reeling from the news, but Hoffman left behind a couple more brilliant performances. The story was a little scattered, but he held this darkly funny drama together with his steady presence as an increasingly desperate outsider in a late 20th Century working poor neighborhood.

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2. Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Richard Linklater  cast Coltrane when he was six, not knowing what a talented actor he would grow up to be. Shot over the course of a dozen years, Boyhood is the story of a child growing into a young man, and we see Coltrane blossom before our eyes. It wouldn’t have worked without such a compelling lead.

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1. Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip
Jason Schwartzman  has played a self-involved author before in Bored To Death, but this time he does so with a complete self-awareness. As the titular Philip, his actions are despicable, but the actor has a natural charisma that makes the attention of those around him still believable. His chemistry with Jonathan Pryce (his equally selfish mentor) is mesmerizing to watch.

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