Best Actress - Adèle Exarchopolous - "Blue Is the Warmest Color"
It would be so easy for "Blue Is the Warmest Color" to be overshadowed by the endless chatter around it—the Steven Spielberg-endorsed Palme d'Or win, the explicit sex scenes, the feuding between its directors and stars. That it can stand away from those elements is a testament to the extraordinary performances from its two leads, and in particular from newcomer Adèle Exarchopolous as protagonist Adèle. Exarchopolous was only 18 when the film shot, with only a handful of performances behind her, so it's not surprising that she's enormously convincing as the younger version of Adèle: hungry for life and love, searching out her place in the world, so full of longing that she might burst. Her chemistry with Léa Seydoux's Emma is immediate and palpable, to the extent that you wouldn't dream of questioning the loss she feels later when the relationship is done. It's in that latter section of the film that Exarchopolous really shines, though: skipping ahead several years to find the pair happy, settled but a little bored, the teenage actress is never less than entirely convincing as a twenty-something schoolteacher, the fulfillment of the promise that she held. Who she's grown up to be is very impressive, but you can see why she starts to stray. And when she does and it all falls apart, she pulls off one of the most painfully recognizable pictures of heartbreak we've seen in a long time, just about holding it together at work before collapsing when left on her own. Is it any wonder that Spielberg's jury elected to give her and Seydoux their very own Palme d'Ors to go alongside the film's?
Best Actress - Julie Delpy - "Before Midnight"
It's almost impossible to pick a favorite from Richard Linklater's 'Before' trilogy as the films are so tied in with each other, each one growing in stature because of what came before, and retroactively, what comes after. But it's probably fair to say that the performances have only grown in power, with "Before Midnight" seeing both leads deliver iterations of Jesse and Celine that are richer and more complex than those that came before. Ethan Hawke is wonderful, of course, and Julie Delpy is delivering work that's as good, if not better than her on-screen partner. Now over 40, Celine isn't quite living the fairy tale: she has her daughters with Jesse (Hawke), but he's still torn over being separated from his son by a previous marriage, and may have cheated on her. Furthermore, she's on the brink of betraying her ideals to take a job with the French government. Since "Before Sunset," Delpy made two couple-centered travelogues of her own, "2 Days In Paris" and "2 Days In New York," and though those films are quite different, comedies owing more to Woody Allen than to Linklater, you can feel their influence in Delpy's performance—there's a certain neuroticism to Celine that's set in with middle age that we haven't seen from her before, as well as a savage, sharp wit that's capable of truly wounding Jesse when she turns on him. Every time we see these characters, they become more and more fascinating—do the Academy really want to wait another nine years to honor Delpy? Though she’s at least likely to be nominated, alongside Hawke and Linklater, for writing the screenplay to the film (but even that isn’t a certainty).
Best Actress: Scarlett Johansson - “Her”
Yes, we’ve practically got the whole cast for “Her” in this piece, deal with it. Look, we think a lot of people are very worthy in Spike Jonze’s movie, but if we had to pick one and only one it would be the unsung heart and soul of the picture: Scarlett Johansson. Spike Jonze’s ambitious “Her” is a love story about a lonely man going through a divorce and his computer, or rather his iPhone, or rather the artificial intelligence Operating System of his futuristic personal device (like a 5.0 of Siri of the future). So the usually brooding Joaquin Phoenix pulls off one of the most charming performances of his career, genuinely likeable and optimistic, especially for a man that is heartbroken (nice to see a non-sad sack) and Johansson, well she’s not even on screen. In fact, she wasn’t even the original actress to voice the O.S. (that was Samantha Morton). Through trial and error and acute refining, Jonze had to recast the O.S. with Scarlett Johansson and reverse engineer the picture, recording new voice work to fit the already-shot performance by the lead male (Phoenix). That in and of itself is an extremely daring and tricky task, but not only does Johannson’s breathy performance work, it's actually a huge part of why the movie works and emotionally connects like it does. “Her” is a love story between two people, both discovering new things about themselves and in the case of Johansson, waking up to the fundamental discoveries of joy, wonder, sadness, and all spectrums of the emotional color rainbow. Her character is essentially like an infant joining the world, but with a hyper-intelligent synaptic engine to orient her immediately to all these new found revelations. And of course, we all glean this with Johansson never appearing onscreen, but just due to the nuanced inflections and emotions conveyed through her voice. It’s quite startling when you think about it. The Academy is likely not going to give her a nomination here, it’s too game changing and it’s likely something they cannot wrap their heads around. But chances are if you love Spike Jonze’s “Her” an integral reason why is Scarlett Johansson.
Best Actor - Robert Redford - “All Is Lost”
For a moment there, it appeared as if Robert Redford, along with old timer Bruce Dern were going to be the lock of all solid locks for this year’s Best Actor category, but a few things happened in this very tight race. 1. Redford barely campaigned. 2. Dern campaigned like there was no tomorrow. 3. Leonardo DiCaprio entered the race with his wicked “The Wolf of Wall Street” performance 4. Everyone underestimated the Academy’s love for “Dallas Buyers Club” and Matthew McConaughey’s excellent performance. That coupled with the fact that the studio Roadside Attractions has far less money to campaign against vs. Paramount, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, and Sony Pictures and you have one rather amazing performance by one Robert Redford looking like it’s on the outside. Let’s not forget: Redford barely utters a word within the movie, aside from some cuss-word freak-outs and a spare line of voiceover at the beginning, but expresses everything about what the character is going through: suffering, regret, existential ruminations of his life and impending death and resignation without speaking any dialogue. It’s an impressive, incredible feat of understated acting and it very much looks like it’s going to go unrewarded tomorrow which is a huge shame.
Best Actor - Oscar Isaac - "Inside Llewyn Davis"
It's almost absurd that Oscar Isaac is on this list. In any other year, the actor would surely be a shoe-in for a nomination, but with the competition so stiff, and the star still a relative unknown, he's sadly likely to be frozen out. We won't stop crossing our fingers until it's all done, though, because almost no one is more deserving than Isaac. The film is the Coens' most focused character study since "Barton Fink," and it needed an actor of immense talent to hold the screen throughout. Fortunately, they found one in the shape of Isaac. In his hands, Llewyn Davis is an infuriating, arrogant, impossible figure, but also a deeply sympathetic one. The performer's careful to show Llewyn's talents, even if they're limited, and for all his more asshole-ish qualities, it's always clear how deeply wounded he is by his lack of success, by the suicide of his musical partner, by the fact that he's in love with someone who mostly has only contempt for him. It's a fully realized character at every level, and Isaac makes unexpected and inspired choices at every opportunity. He might not end up with a nomination, but he'll be remembered decades from now for this one.