Too divisive to get Academy traction in anything except craft categories, "Anna Karenina" is positively stuffed with performances that could have made it to this feature: Domhnall Gleeson as the lovelorn Levin, Alicia Vikander as the pure, lovely Kitty, Jude Law giving one of his very best turns as Anna's cuckolded husband. But for us, the pick of the bunch is a somewhat unlikely one, Matthew Macfadyen, as Anna's brother Oblonsky. Reuniting with his "Pride & Prejudice" director Joe Wright in an entirely different kind of role, Macfadyen is something of a revelation; buried underneath a walrus moustache, he's a boisterous, vibrant man of enormous appetites, and Macfadyen positively relishes the chance to seize a man with so much carpe diem (particularly when put in contrast with the brooding, repressed Mr. Darcy). Oblonsky's kind of a shit, unapologetically and repeatedly cheating on his doting wife (Kelly Macdonald), but Macfadyen's so endearing in the role that you can't help but like him. Which helps when it comes to the end; his final appearance, after his sister's suicide, is heartbreaking, a beautifully simple and silent bit of acting from the performer, showing a man who has always been so broad and vivacious suddenly subdued and broken. The complete lack of awards buzz for Macfadyen has killed whatever slim chance might have originally existed, but he's certainly worth a second look.
However smart and moving it is, Rian Johnson's "Looper" always faced an uphill struggle for awards recognition, although fortunately it's looking increasingly likely to pick up an Original Screenplay nomination. But given that the best performance of the film doesn't appear until midway through the picture, one suspects that its chances of picking up a nomination are pretty much nil. Which is a shame, because in a year where she delivered four strong performances (also including "Your Sister's Sister," "Salmon Fishing In the Yemen," "The Five-Year Engagement"), "Looper" was Emily Blunt's finest hour, and in a film full of pleasures small and large, the actress might have been the best thing about it. Entirely absent from the first half of the film, the British actress turns up as Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stumbles across the farm on which the film's last act is almost entirely set. Her character, Sara, cares for her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), and Blunt (with pitch-perfect American accent) is great at showing the fierce love for her child that leaves her entirely willing to blow Joe's head off as it comes to it. But it's also a far more complex character than that, and Blunt deftly shows the other sides of Sara -- the remains of the irresponsible party girl she once was, the sexually frustrated young woman out in the boondocks, the parent without a rulebook to a child who scares the living shit out of her. It's a great part, and a great peformance from an actress who's increasingly demonstrating that she's capable of anything.
One of the year's most pleasant surprises turned out to be "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," an on-the-surface unpromising-looking coming-of-age tale that proved to be honest, authentic and emotionally charged in all the right ways. And in a cast full of further surprises (strong turns from Emma Watson and Nina Dobrev, a revelatory leading role for the heretofore-unregarded, by us at least, Logan Lerman), perhaps the best came from Ezra Miller. The cheek-bones-tastic Miller first made an impression in 2008's "Afterschool," and hammered home his talent as the infuriating, sociopathic title character in Lynne Ramsay's "We Need To Talk About Kevin." But both were fairly brooding, tough roles, and Miller took a total about-face to play Patrick, the openly gay outcast (and step-brother of Watson's Sam), who takes Charlie (Lerman) under his wing at high school. Virtually the anti-Kevin, Patrick might be an attention-seeker, but he does so as the class clown, and does it to conceal his secret heartbreak -- his jockish boyfriend Brad isn't out, and eventually humiliates him, rather than lose face with his friends. Miller's both incredibly winning at the more upbeat side of the character (it's a version of the gay best friend archetype we actually recognize from real life, rather than from other movies), but sells the broken-heartedness, the step-sibling bond with Watson, and the general sense of being on the wrong side of the cool kids beautifully. It's the sweetest and most empathetic he's ever been, and seems to point the way to all kinds of possibilities for Miller in future. And can we have a Slut & The Falcon spinoff, please?
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