7. Elyes Aguis - “The Past”
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi sure loves his familial discord and heartbreak. In “A Separation,” he depicted an estranged couple on their way to a divorce. And in “The Past,” he weaves a complex narrative four years into a separation that’s belatedly about to conclude in a finalized divorce. Caught at the center of it all is, well, everyone, but perhaps especially, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the Iranian ex-husband who has agreed to come back to France to grant his wife a divorce. He arrives into the tumult of a new and tenuous family—his ex wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her new lover Samir (Tahar Rahim)—but of course, the children too are caught in the crosshairs. With two kids from a previous marriage, Marie's about to move on to her third husband, which further wounds her teenage daughter Lucie (an excellent Pauline Burlet). But perhaps most uncertain and therefore discontented and tantrum-prone is Samir’s 7 year old son Fouad. Played by Elyes Aguis, Fouad has seen his share of confusion and suffering at far too young an age. His mother’s in a coma due to a suicide attempt and he’s recently upended his life by moving in with Marie and her children. When Ahmad arrives and tensions arise between the adult trio, it reaches a kind of tipping point for the boy and his bewildered confusion. At one point, he tries to escape his own father in the subway much to his father’s outraged disbelief. Scolded, little Fouad is a ball of resentment he doesn’t even even quite fully comprehend what's going on: he's all tears and little fists of anger. Aguis’ performance doesn’t ask for sympathy, it just is the authentic face of the wounded and contains all the elements of teenage angst in the making.
6. Annika Wedderkopp - “The Hunt”
If there’s a single villain in this complex, modern witch hunt drama from Thomas Vinterberg, fingers could point toward Annika Wedderkopp’s Klara. The young girl in “The Hunt” has a crush on her teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who with absolute correctness, gently turns her away when her declaration of affection veers toward inappropriate. As an act of revenge, she then accuses him of revealing himself to her. The community responds, ignoring Lucas’s denials and taking Klara’s word, with Lucas then becoming the victim of harassment and violence. What she does is reprehensible (and Klara is only slightly vindicated when she admits the truth), but the character isn’t damned due to both her innocence about the consequences and Wedderkopp’s realistic, heartbreaking performance. In the early, lighter scenes, she has wonderful chemistry with Mikkelsen, where her admiration is clear. Later in “The Hunt,” when she makes her accusation, it’s gasp-inducing, not only because of the lie she tells but because of how well Klara does it (communicated by Wedderkopp perfectly). The subject matter here is incredibly mature, and we can’t imagine grappling with even shades of that at such a young age. This is Wedderkopp’s only screen credit, and we’re curious what she’d do in the future with material that’s less disturbing.
5. Keita Ninomiya - “Like Father, Like Son”
“When I choose child actors, I chose them for their personalities. And then I work with their own vocabulary, so I'm not imposing text or dialogue on them, I'm just receiving. I'm catching their dialogue and putting it in my film,” Kore-eda Hirokazu recently told us in Marrakech about his technique when working with kids. And he certainly got a personality in the young Keita Ninomiya who plays the six year-old at the center of “Like Father, Like Son.” The tender drama centers on Keita (so named in the film too), whose parents find out he’s actually not their child, and that their baby was accidentally switched at birth. And while the movie mostly investigates what the parent/child relationship really means, and if it can be tied by bonds other than blood, Keita is given a particularly difficult challenge for a young kid, in only his second film. Not only does he have to react to his own, already stern father, who begins to pull away as he questions his feelings for a child who is now a stranger in his house, Keita also has to navigate his life with his “real” family whom he begins to spend time with. And while all due credit is certainly deserved for Kore-eda in evoking some very naturalistic performances from all the kids in the film, none of it works unless the actors are able to get to the wavelength required for what are more than a few emotionally complex scenes. And Ninomiya does, beautifully conveying the innocence of a son who loves with the kind of unquestioning openness his own father seems to be unable to achieve. The pull of the heart strings this film accomplishes succeeds because of Nimomiya’s unaffected work, which is all the more impressive given the nuanced terrain he has to navigate.