In Sean Baker's "Starlet," Dree Hemingway announces herself as a presence to watch in one of the year's more delicately balanced performances. It's her movie, and while she has a winning partner in Besedka Johnson (the older actress carrying a genuine sense of frustration, frailty and eventual compassion) in crafting the relationship that offers the true heart of the film, Hemingway must balance this complicated friendship with the sticky situations in her own personal life. As an often-idle porn actress in the wasteland of the San Fernando Valley, she perfectly portrays the boredom and listlessness of her everyday life that causes her to seek connection outside of her very small world. As a character whose defining characteristic is the slippage of her own identity, Hemingway brings natural intelligence and humanity to the role. It’s really a performance within a performance, and it's also an incredibly brave one for a debut, particularly in the expertly edited scene of her on the job with a coworker. It's an interesting and deft little indie, anchored by the multi-layered performance of Hemingway, a feat she pulls off handily.
Talk about a piercing stare. Nina Hoss has been well represented in German cinema for a while now, but it's her lead role as the titular character in Christian Petzold's 1980s set drama "Barbara" that really showcases her power, causing audiences outside of her country to really take notice of her considerable skill. Hoss spends a good portion of the movie as a nurse wearing a chilly, borderline hostile disposition, only revealing true compassion to the various ailing hospital patients she tends to. But a potential romance and increased attention from the State Security begin to weigh on her, spidering a few cracks on her shielded ego, and eventually some warmth begins to leak out. The softening of Barbara is an organic transformation, a slow ripening of the soul that Hoss pulls off in spades. It's not the most unique character -- the standoff-ish person becomes lighter and brighter with love -- but the actress makes it feel fresh, and most importantly, tangible. Right now she's Petzold's muse, but we'd love to see what Michael Haneke would do with her, or better yet, how up and comers Ulrich Köhler or Markus Schleinzer would utilize her strengths.
We’ve discussed Scoot McNairy before. Most noticed him after “Monsters,” the lo-fi indie picture about a journalist and a tourist walking to the safety of the American border after an alien invasion has hit Mexico. It’s a good performance, and McNairy seemed to be up for all kinds of big parts after the film, and 2012 was his year when all these films hit seemingly at once. McNairy scored the second lead in “Killing Them Softly” opposite Brad Pitt, and he kills as the scared, stupid junkie who robbed a bookie and knows his time is running out. In “Argo,” he shines as the one hostage in a group of many who doesn’t have faith in Ben Affleck’s plan. Distrustful, skeptical and concerned for the safety of his wife and his comrades, much of the fate of this group lies in his hands. And when he finally agrees to go with the almost-ludicrous plan to escape Iran, McNairy’s character gives a silent, but piercing look to Affleck’s CIA character that reads as “this better fucking work” and the moment when he buys into it, narrating the story of their science fiction movie to the Revolutionary Guard, subtly playing up the parallels to the revolution, is a great bit of payoff for the character. In “Promised Land,” McNairy only has two scenes as a prideful farm worker that’s not about to buy into Matt Damon’s bullshit, but they are memorable. More importantly, like the junkie in ‘Softly’ or the Canadian consulate officer in “Argo,” all these characters are completely different and show McNairy’s range. This guy could play the hero, the sidekick, the goon, the everyman or the clerk. Amazing things are going to come out of this actor and we can’t wait to see what he does next.
The moral morass of “Arbitrage” is a frightening and sickening one. Lies built upon lies that threaten to ruin more than just one man (a fraud of a hedge fund manager played by Richard Gere), but a family, a friend, and anyone within spitting distance of his circumference. One of the unfortunates in this story, about a troubled businessman who tries to cover up the accidental death of his mistress while he tried to complete the sale of his billion dollar empire, is Jimmy Grant (played by Nate Parker). The ugliness of the situation is exacerbated by race. Jimmy’s father was Miller’s faithful chauffeur for decades and so when the magnate gets in a quandry -- his mistress dies in a car accident with Miller asleep at the wheel -- he gets the African-American man to help him out. Soon a hounddog of a detective (played by a terrific Tim Roth) is circling and poor Jimmy, who is trying to leave New York to start a business in Atlanta, is at the center of this crime. Miller, who believes he can’t possibly go away, expects Jimmy to take the fall if it comes to that and Jimmy, who puts loyalty and honor above snitching is put in the worst corner of his life thanks to the selfish and increasingly desperate financier. And of course Miller bribes him with the one thing he doesn’t have -- money. The way Parker’s character is exploited is base and vile, and throughout the actor deftly demonstrates an arresting spectrum of anger, concern and fear that gives him your full empathy. In a picture full of great performances, Parker manages to stand out as the outlier trying to survive. It doesn’t hurt that in 2012, Parker played the exact opposite in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” a tough street hustler who rules the local projects. There’s contour and depth to this actor and it's only going to flourish from here on out.
Going toe to toe with Oscar winner and acting powerhouse Marion Cotillard takes some chops, but Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts made it look easy in Jacques Audiard’s compelling “Rust and Bone.” After breaking out on the arthouse scene with “Bullhead,” Schoenaerts took the huge leap to costarring with Cotillard in the emotionally and physically brutal tale of two broken people, Stephanie and Alain, finding strength in each other. His Alain is a feral animal at times and disarmingly sensitive and perceptive at others. In many ways, he is all id, reacting to things in a purely physical way that cuts through the doubts and anxiety in Stephanie's head when she becomes trapped in her chair and in her house. Schoenaerts brings a soulful quality to this character, a man whose exterior doesn’t always betray his simmering emotions underneath, but when they explode out of him, it’s a truly mesmerizing to behold. Even when getting his face bashed in during an illegal bare-knuckles fight, he manages to find a single expression that communicates so much about who this person is and what drives him. He’s an actor who brings physicality to his role, much like Tom Hardy, but as we said in our review from Cannes, “he's the rare breed with acting chops to spare, finding the vulnerability beneath his character's exterior.” With his recent casting in “Suite Francaise” opposite Michelle Williams, Schoenaerts is here to stay as an international star.
Ang Lee faced the biggest challenge of his career with the magical-realist “Life Of Pi.” It’s a film that piles on all kinds of obstacles, with a story that involves children, animals, shooting on water, myriad effects and the extra hurdle of shooting in 3D. And while there are a few iterations of the boy Pi Patel in the picture, Lee pins pretty much the entire film on the teenage version of the adolescent played by Suraj Sharma. Possessing expressive eyes and an innocent appearance, one must remember that for half of “Life of Pi” -- essentially about a boy stranded at sea in the Pacific Ocean with only a tiger aboard his lifeboat -- Sharma is playing opposite nothing but green screens, soundstages with water being thrown at him and a CGI tiger that isn’t there. While ‘Pi’ has its flashback sequences of an older Pi (played by Irrfan Khan), the picture is a mostly solo venture for Sharma, next to the digital Bengal tiger Richard Parker. And so while the effects and dazzling imagery of “Life Of Pi” steal the show -- Parker is a beautiful digital creation, and every seafaring disaster in the picture looks like it’s made from “Avatar” on steroids -- the picture is deeply moving, spiritual and hopeful. It’s a film about belief, survival, compassion and the endurance of the human spirit and without Sharma to shepherd each one of these emotions, there’s no movie. The young actor -- in his first ever performance -- is the centerpiece that anchors this triumphant visual tale beyond its beautiful aesthetics.