Gareth Evans' breakout Indonesian actioner "The Raid: Redemption" has its fair share of problems, not least muddy storytelling and paper-thin characters. But what it also has, that manages to redeem the rest of it, is about 90 minutes of relentless ass-kicking, depicted through Evans' restless, inventive camerawork. And the man who dispenses almost all of said ass-kicking is pint-sized lead Iko Uwais. The 29-year-old Jakarta native, a former semi-pro soccer player, is an expert in the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat, and first encountered Evans while working as a driver for a telecoms company, when Evans was making a documentary about the form. The two worked together on Evans' first martial arts movie "Merantau," but got his real showcase as hero cop Rama in 'The Raid.' You wouldn't necessarily want the guy to play Hamlet or anything, but like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Tony Jaa, he's an instant martial arts superstar, and a special effect more impressive than any amount of CGI. The acts of physicality that Uwais pulls off are, frankly, astonishing (and exhausting...), and there's a quiet, Eastwood-ish charisma to him that him makes him compelling to watch, and easy to root for. Evans' follow-up "Berandal," which shoots in the new year, should stretch Iwais' acting chops a bit more, while he's also co-starring with Keanu Reeves in the actor's directorial debut "The Man Of Tai Chi."
In 2012, two of the very best period dramas were anchored by performances by one very young girl: Alicia Vikander, a 24-year-old Swedish actress from Gothenburg. "A Royal Affair" was one of the year's best, most under-seen movies, an Enlightenment Era-set tale about the mentally unwell king of Denmark and the British woman he made his bride. Produced by Lars Von Trier's Zentropa production company, it nicely eschewed sentimentality for a kind of gilded historical romanticism that still felt real. Vikander, as the put-upon queen-to-be, is the movie's narrator and emotional center, especially when she becomes embroiled in a passionate affair with the king's advisor (played by Mads Mikkelsen). Most of what makes "A Royal Affair" such a special movie lies in Vikander's performance. And while Keira Knightley may play the title role in Joe Wright's gorgeously rendered "Anna Karenina," it's Vikander's Kitty that comes off as the more relatable and fully realized character. Your heart breaks for Anna but you fall in love with Kitty. In 2012, nobody wore a bodice quite like Alicia Vikander.
Getting great performances out of well-trained, well-established actors is one thing. Getting them out of non-professionals is another. But to give the credit to helmer Benh Zeitlin would be to do an enormous disservice to the astonishing work done by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, the entirely unknown actors at the center of the director's magic-realist fairy tale "Beasts Of The Southern Wild." Wallis, who auditioned for the role when she was only 5, and Henry, who is a baker and worked with an acting coach while doing the night shift in preparation for the film, had never acted before, but you wouldn't know from Hushpuppy and Wink, the father-daughter duo they play in Zeitlin's flooded allegorical dystopia. Henry is tremendous; proud, angry, drunken and loving. But it's Wallis that you can't take your eyes off. There were questions in some quarters about whether a performance from one so young could ever really be called "a performance." But as un-self-conscious and unguarded as Wallis is, it seems from the film that there's no question she's an enormously gifted actress, one who's created a very detailed and three-dimensional turn, able to pull off everything from the acts of heroism to powerful emotional points. It's a truly miraculous turn, one that finds her channeling both wordly wisdom and naive innocence with ease. Both actors will pop up again next year in Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years A Slave" -- let's hope that that's just the start.
Whither “Pitch Perfect” without Rebel Wilson? Would the singing sound as bright? The jokes as sharp? The cappella sufficiently aca’d? Nope, the musical comedy wouldn’t have been what it was without everyone’s favorite deadpan Aussie comedienne. The film could have been rendered toothless without her, as what the genre comedy really had going for it was its gentle skewering of the genre itself, with Wilson as its flag bearer. Her absurdist humor was the female yin to Adam DeVine’s (“Workaholics”) yang, and the two of them together brought just the right amount of acid to what could have been a sugary-sweet sappy one-note disposable teen flick. The filmmakers smartly let Wilson just be Wilson, a unique voice developing since “Bridesmaids,” and through “Bachelorette,” allowing her to steal the whole damn show from under the noses of Annas Kendrick and Anna Camp. Can we give it up to the casting director of “Pitch Perfect” though, too? That cast was stacked with some of the most likable fresh and familiar faces from Comedy Central to Broadway, including sure-to-be stars Wilson and DeVine, Skylar Astin from the stage production of “Spring Awakening” and singer/songwriter Ester Dean. With that many talents in the mix, it’s even more remarkable that the whole show belonged to Rebel Wilson.
Everyone seems to know Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She had a small role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” and a bigger one in Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and let’s face it, she’s so bloody cute, everyone wants to girlfriend the shit out of her (sorry boys, she’s married). But up until now, Winstead has been just an almost-attainable pretty face. Could she act? The indie drama “Smashed” about an alcoholic couple put to the test when the wife decides to get sober, proves she can. While she and co-star Aaron Paul play inebriated well, it’s actually the second half of the picture when Winstead’s character gets sober that she truly begins to shine, and brightly, but in an understated manner. We see this woman (played a bit doughty and makeupless which is a nice change) struggle with sobriety, but perhaps more importantly the growing distance between her and her husband. Every selfish mishap on her drunken husband’s part breaks like a little ache across her face in the self-recognition that this marriage isn’t going to get better and this situation isn’t going to resolve itself. Overall, it’s a pretty subtle performance, but a distinguished one. When we see her school teacher character at the end, she wears the accelerated visage of pain and wisdom, but also, a hopeful and inspiring resolve.
-- Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Chris Bell, Gabe Toro, William Goss, Charlie Schmidlin, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor