By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 16, 2013 at 2:48PM
4. Onata Aprile - “What Maisie Knew”
Equally heartbreaking and frustrating, “What Maisie Knew” can be a hard film to get behind. Centering on a young girl caught in the middle of her parents' bitter custody battle in In New York City, like her ugly, selfish parents (played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan), ‘Maisie’ can be awfully manipulative, unfair and underhanded. Stuck in this mess in between two of the worst parents in the world is Maisie herself, a then 7-year-old Onata Aprile. The film becomes, at times, sentimental, contrived, convenient and maddening as this poor kid is shuffled between two parents and then even a third new family that emerges (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, who are good, but in an overstretched narrative twist are the romantic partners of the two aforementioned asshole parents). Throughout it all, keeping the movie anchored beyond its treacly or manufactured sentiments is Aprile, who plays things at a much softer, graceful note then her shrill guardians. More importantly, Aprile is a natural, playing the quietly wounded observer of her parents’ shitty behavior. One could argue her deer-in-headlights approach is one of a child actor probably not sophisticated enough to understand what’s going on, but that would be undercutting how much Aprile conveys that exact feeling of unease and discomfort, perhaps mentally filing it away for therapy sessions to come as an adult. With solid actors around her all playing the most rancid people alive, most importantly, you feel for Aprile. You want to save her, scoop her up and make sure next time she hits the screen that she’s given a movie and fictional parents she actually deserves.
3. Conner Chapman - “The Selfish Giant”
Already dubbed one of our top 25 Breakthrough Performances of the Year, Conner Chapman tackles the role of a troubled young boy in northern England in Clio Bernard’s “The Selfish Giant” (loosely based off of a real person Bernard met while shooting her first film “The Arbor”) with the impetuousness of a teenager and the veracity of a master that it’s almost hard to believe that this marks his first time onscreen. With ADHD and without a father figure, 13-year-old Arbor (Chapman) barely gets to school on time, let alone sits through class without causing some trouble. Arbor’s one source of constant support is his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas). With bleak day-to-day lives (lower middle class backgrounds, trouble in school, frequently picked on by their peers) and witnessing even bleaker prospects (both police and repo men knock at their doors, with Arbor’s drug addict brother and Swifty’s deep-in-debt father), both Swifty and Arbor hope to break out of their unpromising circumstances; the former looking to education at the behest of his mother and the latter looking to scrapping for money against his own mother’s wishes. Breaking their mothers’ hearts, the combination of Arbor not taking his medication and the local bullies taunting Swifty leads to both boys being excluded (or expelled, for us Yanks) from school. Now officially out of the system, Arbor goes full steam ahead searching for scrap metal by some dubious and desperate means (beg, borrow, steal) and enlists Swifty for help, leading to a climax which, though we've long sensed something ominous approaching, truly jolts the heartstrings. Both Thomas and Chapman are clearly remarkable talents, but the latter’s ability to throw himself so deeply and authentically into the character’s emotions without falling into melodrama or insincerity is what rivets the attention. As Arbor, Chapman never falters, from rough piss-taking to being coaxed from under his bed (his safe zone) to hesitantly, unsurely, trying to make amends. Capturing the full range and facets of Arbor as a young boy assuming more mature responsibilities too soon, Conner Chapman is surely a talent to look out for in the years to come.
2. Waad Mohammed - “Wadjda”
Haifaa al Mansour’s movie would be amazing just for its existence alone: it’s the first film made in Saudi Arabia, and it was directed by a woman in spite of the restricted society. But what might be most impressive is the performance from Waad Mohammed in her first film role. As 10-year-old Wadjda, Mohammed gives an authentic performance that feels like anything but a performance. Throughout most of the film, Mohammed gives the title character a spirited energy, as she works toward her goal of owning a forbidden bike in the suburbs of Riyadh. Later in the film, Wadjda realizes that her best chances at owning the green bike—and therefore beating a neighborhood boy in a race—is to pretend to be a good, obedient student and win a Koran recitation competition. The role-within-a-role gives Mohammed even more room to stretch and impress, as she plays a young girl pretending to follow the rules so she can ultimately break them. Hopefully, “Wadjda” is only the first of many films we’ll see from Saudi Arabia, and we’re eager to see more of Mohammed as well.
1. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland - ”Mud”
“Mud,” Jeff Nichols’ follow up to “Take Shelter,” has been hailed as one of the best films of the year, and features one of the all-time great Matthew McConaughey performances as the drifter Mud. But there are two very important elements that make the film work as well as it does, and they come in the form of Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as friends Ellis and Neckbone, who get caught up in the mystery surrounding Mud and his circumstances. It’s really a two-hander between McConaughey and Sheridan, but the film absolutely would not work without the perfectly written, perfectly pitched character of Neckbone, as played by Lofland. He’s a tiny, little foul-mouthed man in a boy’s body, and his dose of authentic deadpan balances what could possibly tip into sentimentality. He’s skeptical but deeply loyal and his perspective is needed to match the blind nobility that Sheridan’s Ellis espouses. Speaking of Sheridan, it’s insane to think that his first film role was in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” just a few years ago, for how preternaturally comfortable and charismatic he is onscreen. He just has “it.” Ellis believes in honor, loyalty, true love, and in upholding those beliefs no matter what stands in his way (even if it is a half dozen armed bounty hunters). But at the same time that Sheridan and Lofland possess a wise-beyond-their-years sensibility, they are still just kids, and they look, move, and act like kids too. Lofland gives Neckbone these subtle gestures that speak volumes to his character and his relationship with Ellis, while Sheridan’s facial expressions reveal the inner turmoil that Ellis is experiencing. “Mud” celebrates boyhood in a very specific way, a sort of nostalgic version of boyhood that doesn’t rely on technology or other hallmarks of 21st century tweens, but on adventure, on wilderness, on dinghies and dirtbikes and crushing on girls who hang out in parking lots. As Ellis worries for the fate of his houseboat home on the wild river, we worry about the transient nature of boyhood that Sheridan and Lofland and Nichols have captured in “Mud.” We know that it’s fleeting, impermanent and something to be treasured for that moment.
Some of you are asking where's Elle Fanning and her breathtaking performance in "Ginger & Rosa." Yes, the movie is technically a 2013 movie (it came out in February), but many of us saw it in Telluride 2012 and for us the Sally Potter-directed movie ended up taking on a 2012 flavor (our editor-in-chief even put it on his Best Films of 2012 list). The movie was unfortunately caught in that neververse in between years and this is why we omitted it from this list (plus the fact that Fanning is in contention for our Breakthrough Performances list almost every year; she landed there in 2011). But make no mistake, we're huge fans of the underrated film, think Fanning is going to grow up to be Meryl Streep, and think her performance in that film is stupendous.
Of course, there were a few performances that didn’t quite make it onto the list and 2013 was rich with fine showings from younger actors in smaller parts and leads. Mana Ashida made an impression with her single, emotional scene in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” offering a dose of backstory to the creature feature. Ty Simpkins also impressed in another superhero movie: “Iron Man 3.” On the indie side of things, twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith supported Rooney Mara and Ben Foster in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” as the four-year-old daughter Sylvie of Mara, with Casey Affleck as their jailbird daddy. Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier anchored the ghostly horror creep fest “Mama” with Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Colster-Waldau. Finally, Liam James perfectly captured the awkward ennui of the teenage boy in “The Way, Way Back” balanced by a heavy dose of humor from co-star River Alexander. -- Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor, Diana Drumm