Our autopsy on the still-living body of 2016 continues with a discussion about the year’s best performances. Our previous entries tackled themes and surprises.
Q: As a rank-and-file auteurist, I often fail to adequately acknowledge onscreen work when writing about film. There are exceptions of course. I was quick to acknowledge Zhao Tao’s generous performance as one of the great strengths of Mountains May Depart. I am thankful that wonderful film saw a belated release in Seattle because I can include it in my year-end write-ups (especially since I am woefully behind in the bumper crop of Oscar bait currently invading theatres). Which 2016 performances stood out to you?
Evan Morgan: In both Things to Come and Elle Isabelle Huppert proves again that she is essentially peerless, but much praise will be (rightly) heaped on her from other quarters, so I’ll focus my energies on two less widely highlighted standouts. First, Agyness Deyn, who lends Sunset Song an adamantine delicacy; her waifish features conceal an iron resolve to measure life by the glories of the world, no matter that it offers her greater proportions of sorrow. She’s old-fashioned and perfect, exactly what Davies’s melodramatic instincts require.
Equally tuned in to her director’s particular wavelength is Jenjira Pongpas, whose presence in earlier Apichatpong Weerasethakul films offered reliable warmth and folk wisdom to match Joe’s sunniest tones. Something’s purposefully amiss in Cemetery of Splendor, however: Jenjira’s brow is darkened, weariness has taken hold of her body, and the phantoms are coming out to meet her. Ghosts both personal and political haunt Joe’s most recent film and his acteur fétiche appears equally under their spell, deluded where she previously seemed merely eccentric, narcotized instead of gentle. Jenjira risks much in Cemetery of Splendor by lending herself and her biography so fully to this character, particularly in the moment where she displays her stunted and scarred leg (the result of a real-life accident), the reveal of which provoked discomfited laughter from some in my audience who clearly were unprepared for this kind of honesty. But arousing the senses in order to see things with unblinking clarity is what Cemetery of Splendor demands. Jen finally proves herself desperate to meet that challenge, arising from slumber with her eyes wide open. The movie ends. It wafts you out of the theater back into the street. You rub your eyes and look around at our current nightmares. Jen showed you what’s now required. Stay awake.
Ryan Swen: Aside from the performances that many people have already lauded in some way or another for very good reason (Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester By The Sea, Tom Bennett in Love & Friendship, the entire cast of Certain Women, Isabelle Huppert, etc.), the three performances that most stood out to me were, not coincidentally, all from leading actresses: Kate Lyn Sheil in Kate Plays Christine and Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden.
In a particularly strong year for women in lead roles, I feel that Sheil gave the strongest, most complex performance that I saw, despite and perhaps because it is situated in Robert Greene’s documentary. She is essentially a co-auteur, mixing professional calm with a seemingly real sense of unease at the subject she is tackling. Together, she and Greene pull off an extraordinary examination into the nature of performance that relies heavily on her ability to burrow deeper and deeper into who exactly Christine Chubbuck is.
Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri don’t exactly have equal leading status (I’d argue the former leads the whole of the second and third parts of the film) but The Handmaiden wouldn’t work nearly as well without performances as versatile, tenacious, or harmonious as these. Through both the sensual romance and the twists of the multiple cons that are played throughout the film, the two seem inextricably bound to each other, even as the perspective changes and events are replayed. Kim Min-hee acts aloof and mysterious while Kim Tae-ri seems naive and vigorous, but both are sublime from beginning to end.
Sean Gilman: I’d second all the performances mentioned above, particularly the plaudits for Isabelle Huppert, if she’d had only one movie released this year, either Elle or Things to Come, she would have given the performance of the year. The fact that she did both, and that they’ll be released here in Seattle within a span of two weeks, is astounding. Tom Bennett and Casey Affleck as well deserve all the praise they get, and Evan is absolutely correct about the necessity of Jenjira Pongpas to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film(s). Rewatching all his movies in a short span of time this year, her story slowly unfolding over this century is one of the treasures of cinema.
I’d also add Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship
to the list, as the antiheroine of Whit Stillman’s Austen adaptation. It’s the best role and performance of her career, certainly at least since The Last Days of Disco
. The two young actresses who star in Derek Tsang’s Soulmate
shared the Best Actress award at the recent Golden Horse Film Awards, an honor which was well-deserved. Despite a clever narrative, what truly makes that film work at all, beyond the coming-of-age melodrama it wants to be, is the specific work of Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun. Finally, I think Sammo Hung’s performance in My Beloved Bodyguard
is his best dramatic work in ages. For all his skill as an athlete, his genius as a choreographer and his abilities as a filmmaker, Sammo has been a remarkably lazy actor at times throughout his 45+ year career. But occasionally he shows glimpses of a true actor, most especially in the 1988 film Painted Faces
. His work here shows that kind of mastery, a portrait of a broken down old man, tortured by past mistakes, who slowly comes back to life.
Melissa Tamminga: I’d concur with all those mentioned so far (relative to those films I’ve seen) – the cast of Certain Women, especially Lily Gladstone, whose nameless ranch hand of very few words communicates volumes and breaks my heart; Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett (special shout-out, too, to the perfectly paired Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet, as Sir Reginald and Lady DeCourcy, whose letter reading scene is one of my favorites in the film); Agyness Deyn; Zhao Tao.
The whole cast of Hail, Caesar!
, as well, from every smaller part (Frances McCormand! Tilda Swinton! Ralph Fiennes!) to the bigger ones (Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ahrenreich) is a total delight, going big in so many ways in their acting and yet never crossing the line into caricature, and the emotional gut punch at the end of the film depends on the film’s kaleidoscope of perfectly tuned performances.
I’d also like to mention Elaine May, who didn’t have a 2016 performance, of course, but clips of her 1950’s and 60’s sketches with Mike Nichols pepper Douglas McGrath’s documentary, Becoming Mike Nichols. The film has nothing in particular to recommend itself as a film (though it is an enjoyable watch), but seeing those clips of May as the genius comedy improv artist that she is made the film one of this year’s treasures for me.
Tomorrow we close up shop on our year-end retrospective with a discussion of genre pictures and a glimpse into the future.