It was a year in which there were great performances by some perennial Oscar contenders—Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, Marion Cotillard—and some that are becoming so—Jessica Chastain, Christoph Waltz. It was a year of breakthrough performances by some relative newcomers to the top tier as well—David Oyelowo, Chadwick Boseman, Luminita Gheorghiu. Perhaps most interestingly, it was a year of comeback performances—Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum—and long-awaited breakthroughs from actors who had been producing excellent work for years, waiting for their shot at the brass ring—J.K. Simmons, Timothy Spall, Patricia Arquette. Here are our favorite movie performances from 2014.
Plenty of things needed to go right for Guardians of the Galaxy to travel the considerable distance from “What are they thinking?!” to “That was one of the most enjoyable films of 2014!” Marvel needed a decent story, a good director, and of course for the CGI behind a certain talking raccoon and sentient tree to be spot-on. But the most important ingredient in this particular space opera—and hell, maybe in all successful ones—was the performance of Chris Pratt as the likable, scoundrel-lite Star-Lord. With a franchise so unfamiliar to viewers and a story that bears scrutiny but barely, it was Pratt’s turn as the affable, capable lost boy that both grounded and propelled the blockbuster. Sure, Pratt won’t be competing for an Oscar come February, but none of those contenders will have single-handedly ensured an entire wing of the Marvel Universe (Marvel Cosmic) will most definitely be open for business in the years that follow. Who is the only actor on this list carrying a billion-dollar franchise on his or her shoulders? His name is Star-Lord. —Michael Burgin
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. —Michael Dunaway
There’s a scene in Listen Up Philip where Moss’ character gets the courage to turn away her 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. —Josh Jackson
Gheorghiu’s Cornelia is never an outright loathsome woman, even when she meets with an eyewitness (a superbly calculating Vlad Ivanov, another 4 Months alum) in the hopes of bribing him to alter his testimony. Child’s Pose spends most of its running time following Cornelia as she frantically schemes, but Gheorghiu focuses on the woman’s maternal concern—the actress never worries about needing to oversell the inherent injustice at play. For most of Child’s Pose, Netzer intentionally ignores his story’s central tragedy—another family had its son senselessly killed—making us in some ways complicit with Cornelia’s desperate strategizing. We don’t necessarily root for her, but her conviction makes us wonder if she’ll succeed—and how one woman’s genuine love for her son should be weighed against the trauma of those who lost theirs. —Tim Grierson
Though the film starts slowly, A Most Wanted Man is merely taking its time to map out the engrossing complexity of its narrative. Likewise, it takes a little getting used to Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Gunther, who works for a branch of German intelligence that’s essentially unauthorized, tasked with hunting down possible Islamic terrorists and trying to ascertain potential homeland plots. But if it’s at first jarring to hear Hoffman wield a German accent, soon it feels natural—just as natural, in fact, as his potbellied frame, which is almost a comedic commentary on the usual James Bond action-hero theatrics of the traditional spy movie. Instead of engaging in spine-tingling suspense sequences, Gunther dives deep into the tough, draining minutiae of detective work. Hoffman makes you feel the man’s exhaustion and frustration, the irritation of trying to do the right thing despite all the people who try to get in his way, even though they’re all supposedly on the same side. The actor 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. —T.G.
With Selma, Ava DuVernay lights a fire beneath both modern civil rights discourse and her career. But if DuVernay provides the film’s spark, it’s David Oyelowo who stokes the flames. Selma is a classic case of an actor disappearing into a role and becoming their character rather than making a mere pantomime; when you see Oyelowo on screen, you’re not seeing Oyelowo so much as you’re seeing a man possessed of the same courage, the same conviction, the same vigor as the man who was is the embodiment of the Civil Rights Movement. Whether he’s playing politics, leveraging media, showing humility in the face of his own weakness, or broadcasting his belief that human fellowship will always triumph over adversity, Oyelowo is ever a force of human nature and the heart of the film. —Andy Crump
Keaton plays Thomson as a neurotic lion, at times ferocious, at times hemmed in by the cage his popularity has erected around him. His eyes dance with mania, but no sooner does he lay bare his anxieties than he asserts himself with heartbreaking outbursts of broken ambition. Let’s not go so far as to say that Keaton is often talking about himself, but he does appear to connect with his character on a primal level. —A.C.
The book-loving immortal played by Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive redeems the recent spate of silly sparkly vampires. Her Eve is a passionate character who still finds wonder in the world outside vampire’s nocturnal bubble. She is the companion to Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, a brooding musician whose all-black ensembles and despondent worldview is in stark contrast to hers. But centuries of love cannot fall apart so easy, and it is Swinton’s ethereal screen presence and Eve’s tenderness that soothes Adam’s blues. She’s well-versed, friends with Shakespeare (sorry, actually it’s John Hurt’s Marlowe), and rocks sunglasses at night with almost all-white outfits. Tilda Swinton’s calm, cool, and collected Eve made vampires cool again. —Monica Castillo
A detective yarn is only as strong as the private dick anchoring it. Thomas Pynchon’s kooky Inherent Vice is a conventional story filtered through an assortment of very unconventional absurdities. In the grand tradition of the likes of The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, the central case in question appears to be nearly impenetrable in its convolutions. In this way, pothead PI Larry “Doc” Sportello is the ideal audience surrogate, as he seems just as confused and befuddled by all this hoopla as we are. Cast the wrong actor as Doc and most everything else collapses. Luckily, director Paul Thomas Anderson had an ace up his sleeve with Joaquin Phoenix. Though he’s never really been known as the funniest guy in the room, Phoenix more than adjusts to the occasion here, whether the comedy is as broad as general pratfalls or as subtle as the character trying desperately to keep up a façade of professionalism despite being massively baked. And though Phoenix has fun with Doc’s many eccentricities and tics, he also does a great job at locating the vulnerability and innate melancholy in what could very well have been a one-joke character. While Pynchon may have created the character and Anderson may have expertly calibrated him for the big screen, it’s Phoenix who deserves credit for truly bringing Doc to life. —Mark Rozeman
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. —Jeremy Mathews
While actor Ethan Hawke and writer, director and producer Richard Linklater have been friends and colleagues since working together on Before Sunrise in 1995, Boyhood will stand as the masterpiece of their collaborations. Linklater casts Hawke as Mason Sr., the sensitive, if immature, divorced father, who co-stars alongside Patricia Arquette in the beginning of the film. As the years progress, Hawke transitions Mason Sr. into a more present and aware father—one who has learned as much from his children as he tried to teach them. Borrowing pieces of his own life experiences, Hawke’s performance brings an authenticity to the character and serves to remind audiences how important the role of fatherhood is to Boyhood. —Hilary Saunders
Goldblum is one of the overlooked treasures not only in 2014, but in the hierarchy of American acting, too. His manic neuroses might sound grating coming from another performer, but Goldblum makes those tics cool. He’s the suave geek, the kind of nerd young nerds grow up wishing they could be—brainy and pithy but handy with a jazz piano. In Le Weekend, Goldblum uses all of those qualities so as to make Jim Broadbent’s maritally challenged protagonist realize his own failures and missteps in life. For all the character’s blustery flagrance, though, Goldblum also manages to make him, well, human, particularly in Le Weekend’s final notes, as the erstwhile Dr. Ian Malcolm leads Broadbent and his co-lead, the luminous Lindsay Duncan, in a lovely nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part. —A.C.
Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Dave Schultz, the doomed Olympic champion in Foxcatcher, is just as powerful a performance as Steve Carell’s eccentric millionaire John du Pont. We posit that Ruffalo had an even tougher job in creating a complex and interesting character for the film’s “golden boy” role: a natural champion wrestler and caring brother/family man. In Ruffalo’s hands, Dave’s amiable nature belies his mettle, seen during wrestling moments with Channing Tatum that switch from affection to aggression instantly, and then quietly standing up to du Pont, who doesn’t hear the word “no” often. Ruffalo’s acting performance is akin to Dave’s wrestling: masterful, powerful and natural. No prosthetics needed. —Christine N. Ziemba
He sweats, he screams, he splits. Chadwick Boseman puts his heart into bringing the Godfather of Soul alive in Tate Taylor’s latest movie, Get On Up. Spanning an impressive breadth of James Brown’s career and childhood, Boseman is tasked with bringing humanity to the oftentimes difficult performer. He nails Brown’s raspy voice, his stage presence, and of course, signature moves. Not bad for the actor who previously portrayed Jackie Robinson in 42. Although the film gets cheeky at times by breaking down the fourth wall or inserting extra pathos towards the end, Boseman’s performance is unshakably, even frighteningly, good. —M.C.
Scarlett Johansson again proves she’s not merely another pretty face, even if that pretty face is an awfully useful tool in portraying a lethal seductress. Along her character’s journey from dispassionate alien serial killer to vulnerable human sympathizer, Johansson hits her marks with chilly precision. The casting of Johansson, too, proves additionally inspired; just as with David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the very nature of their iconic presence further distances the notion of mere actors-cum-aliens—they’re already elevated above the clouds in their stratospheric fame. —Scott Wold
Who knew jazz could be so stressful? In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, J.K. Simmons is riveting as Fletcher, the emotionally abusive maestro of a New York music conservatory’s top jazz ensemble. While the character may be too fiendish to be realistic (or gainfully employed for that long), Simmons uses his booming baritone and physicality to put the fear of God in his students and command the audience’s attention. The dynamic between Fletcher and his ambitious pupil, Andrew (Miles Teller), is tension-filled, with the actors’ performances elevating Whiplash above the melodrama that’s usually associated with the student-teacher trope. —C.N.Z.
Seigner has to cover a wide gamut in her role—exasperating dolt to sophisticated vixen—and she’s a small wonder, her transformation arousing but also very funny. (You laugh at her cleverness while you swallow hard because of her carnal pull.) She’s Polanski’s wife in real life, of course, and many have noted the physical similarity between the director and Amalric. You can read Venus in Fur as autobiographical, Polanski exposing his own feelings about how a muse can bring out your darker cravings. But you can also simply enjoy the hell out of this fiendish little back-and-forth for its many surface pleasures. —T.G.
The repetitious nature of Two Days, One Night reveals a fundamental flaw with the film’s bones, but if the structure of individual scenes is familiar from one to the next, that’s okay: Marion Cotillard evolves and transforms enough to carry the entire movie on her narrow shoulders. Cotillard has dedicated a good chunk of her career toward playing tormented, unbalanced women—Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, La Vie en Rose, Rust and Bone—but here she perfects the act by fostering magnificent compassion for her character, Sandra, as she desperately fights to hold onto her job, lost to the heartlessness of corporate redundancy. Cotillard is never less than sympathetic, alternating between wracked depression and the utmost peaks of joy. The film tasks her with running the gamut. It’s a marathon she’s more than well-suited for. —A.C.
Walter Keane is really two roles rolled into one. At the beginning of Big Eyes, he’s the silver-tongued, sensitive artist who serves as knight in shining armor to Amy Adams’ forlorn Margaret. As the film progresses, however, he is shown to be a raging, manipulative sociopath with delusions of grandeur that rival that of certain Looney Toons characters. No actor can quite pull off this duality quite like Christoph Waltz, who navigates this transformation with all the dexterity and charm that he brought to his award-winning roles in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. By the time the film reaches its climatic courtroom scene, Waltz has laid down enough foundation for Keane that, when his freak flag truly does fly, we don’t find his actions beyond the realm of possibility. —M.R.
Edward Norton became “one to watch” with his first film, Primal Fear, picking up a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and the first of two Oscar nominations. He continued to be “one to watch” in films like American History X and Fight Club but, somewhere along the way, I stopped watching. Maybe it was the reports of being difficult on set. By the time he showed up in the tepid The Bourne Legacy, he was delivering the antithesis of the performances I’d come to hope for from him. So, among the many hopes I had for Birdman was a great performance to restore my faith in Edward Norton. I got it, and then some. Playing Mike, a difficult actor with ego and attitude in spades, Norton sunk his teeth into a role that really played to his strengths and, quite possibly, his passions. Mike, possibly like Norton himself, is passionate about acting and theater, maybe to a fault, clashing with his director and co-star played by Michael Keaton. Norton’s performance is a ball of energy that really leaps off the screen as spits out dialogue with the same speed and power as bullets flying from a machine gun. Ultimately, Norton’s Mike is hard to like but easy to sympathize with and understand because his work clearly means so much to him. —David Greenberg
Turner is played magnificently by Timothy Spall, a frequent Leigh collaborator. Grunting, shuffling down the street like a slow-motion cannonball, Spall does nothing to deemphasize Turner’s un-cuddly temperament. (At one point in the film, Turner confesses that he hates looking into the mirror since all he sees staring back is a gargoyle. With his bad teeth and piercing, rat-like gaze, he’s not exaggerating much.) Like Leigh, Spall illuminates Turner by reinforcing his unknowability: This is a performance that’s both profoundly human and inscrutable, keeping us at a distance, always wondering what’s going on behind the man’s eyes. —T.G.
When an actor is called upon to inhabit a completely different mental state in a movie, such as Julianne Moore’s portrayal of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, it’s easy to praise a believable performance. But the panic and frustration she shows during Alice’s less lucid moments is only half the accomplishment. Imbuing the linguistic professor with strength and courage makes her transformation all that more heartbreaking. It may be the crowning performance of Moore’s already impressive career. —J.J.
Only three years into the high-profile stage of her career, Jessica Chastain is already in danger of falling into the Meryl Streep zone, where her performances are so consistently great that it’s easy to overlook them come list-making and award-giving time. We should fight against that danger. Her performance in Liv Ullman’s revelatory Miss Julie is one for the ages—Ullman’s approach to the title character as being the prime mover, as it were, of the plot gives her room to stretch her wings and wring every bit of haughty desperation from one of the greatest roles in the history of the theatre. And her performance in Disappearance may well be its equal. She is by turns haunted, bratty, nihilistic and enormously sympathetic. And she does it for roughly five hours or so—in the two movies combined—with a succession of scene partners that she always seems to make better. I’m not sure whether she’s the Magic Johnson of actresses or the Michael Jordan, but I do know that we’ve seen the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. —M.D.
Wes Anderson has long been (appropriately) lauded for creating a painting with each frame. Some critics—this one not included—have argued that by doing this, Anderson reaches for style over substance, often forcing his players to be nothing more than set pieces rather than coaxing performances from them. Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel lays waste to this criticism, if anyone out there still believes it. Far from his expletive-laden, manic turn along the alcoves of Bruges in In Bruges, Fiennes offers a performance of comedic restraint, breaking just enough to burst through Anderson’s beautiful set pieces. He plays M. Gustave, a concierge at a legendary hotel who ends up in a complicated “situation” involving untimely death, hotel-based conspiracies, family drama and stolen artwork. The character could have easily been entirely comic, utterly ridiculous, or crazy. Instead, he finds the heart of a leading man in a character who spent his past twenty years predicting the needs of others. Under Anderson’s camera, Fiennes’ understated performance shines. —Travis Andrews
For as much as the film is about being a parent, and more specifically being a mom, Boyhood could just as well be called Motherhood. If Ellar Coltrane’s Mason is the protagonist, he’s a passive figure in his own story. It’s the leading lady of his life, Olivia, who drives the bulk of the plot forward. In that respect, Patricia Arquette is Boyhood’s true star, a dynamic figure who invests herself in her on-screen relationship with Ellar with all the love, compassion and limitless gusto that a real mother would. Olivia is a survivor. She’s a fighter. She’s also exactly what a mom should be—there, not just for the fun times, like Ethan Hawke’s freewheeling dad, but for the tough times, the ugly times, the times you wish you could erase from memory for how badly they scarred you. Arquette imbues Olivia with spirit, mighty but gentle, and in doing so creates one of the most indelible, achingly real characters of 2014. —A.C.