2015 Year in Film: Favorite Characters
Welcome, one and all, to my annual Year in Review blowout. As you are likely to see over the course of the next five days, 2015 was an excellent year at the cinema, one dominated by stories about women both expected (Todd Haynes’ Carol) and unexpected (George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road). There were far too many good films to fit into even a week of articles, but I shall do my level best to shine a light (a Spotlight, perhaps) on some of the great things that have happened on silver screens both big and small throughout 2015.
We begin with a look at some of my favorite characters of the year (in no particular order).
Carol - Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara)
It is a cliche that eyes can be the most important and expressive part of a great film performance (the close-up is, of course, the great equalizer and film’s advantage over the stage), but then you see someone like Therese Belivet in Todd Haynes’ masterful Carol and you understand how cliches become cliche. As the department store clerk/amateur photographer at the center of the film, Rooney Mara makes everything work with her eyes. The bowled-over wonder when she first sees Carol from across the department store floor. The half glance when Carol lays a hand on her shoulder. Her stare through the camera lens as Carol browses for Christmas trees. Carol might have the name of the film on her side and Cate Blanchett may be the one (unjustly, arguably) pushed for all the lead actress accolades by the studio, but the film plays out behind Therese’s eyes. There is naivete in her youth, but boldness in her spirit. And in this year of woman-driven films, you can’t find a better example than right here.
Inside Out - Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith)
The incisive joy (oh, puns) of Pixar’s triumphant return to form Inside Out lies in the way it reimagines the confusion of pre-adolescent emotions through the lens of five prime movers: joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. Everyone wants their charge Riley to be happy, but the non-Joy emotions can’t seem to help themselves in meddling with her mood. Chief among them is Sadness, whose inquisitive nature and desire to help often has the unintended consequences of “poisoning” the memories, changing them from happy to sad, causing all manner of distress for Riley. There is an innocence to Sadness, pitched against the overbearing condescension of Joy, and while their need to reconcile their differences and win the day is pure Disney, the implications for how it affects Riley is what makes Inside Out so special. Phyllis Smith expertly inhabits Sadness’ desire to help and pitiable, often illogical responses to the most mundane of situations. She is a character who is both inquisitive and destructive, but utterly innocent in her motivations. By the film’s end, Sadness is arguably the most vital character of Inside Out, as Riley’s development as an adolescent is tied to the understanding that sometimes sadness can have its benefits.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Rey (Daisy Ridley)
It’s fitting that, in this year of women dominating the cinematic landscape, the last big movie release of the year is thoroughly and utterly stolen by its female cast member (and a droid that looks like a beach ball, but that is neither here nor there). Daisy Ridley’s Rey, essentially the new Luke Skywalker for this new set of films, is so completely captivating from the second she hits the screen, confident and assured, but also a bit mysterious and with a penchant for mischief and eyes for the stars, she’s everything a franchise like this needs to keep its momentum. She is the perfect conduit for the audience, a strong female role model and a kickass fighter, a crossover appeal if ever there were. Ridley often looks and sounds a bit like Keira Knightley, perhaps hearkening back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but Rey is a much more interesting character than Elizabeth Swan ever was (which is no fault of Knightley’s, to be sure), and is destined to be perhaps the biggest star to come out of a film that has a cast with the likes of Harrison Ford and Oscar Isaac in it. Most exciting, though, is the potential for this character moving forward, especially with Rian Johnson lurking in the wings for Episode 8. Come for the lightsabers and sassy robots, stay for Daisy Ridley.
The Revenant - John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)
It would be difficult to find a single character in 2015 that feels more dastardly than Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald. Sure, Immortan Joe ruled over the wasteland with an iron fist and kept a series of wives as sex slaves in order to create an heir, and sure, Old Nick imprisoned a teenager for seven years and forcefully impregnated her with a son in Room, but both of those utterly repugnant villains did not have as much focus or screen time as Fitzgerald gets in The Revenant. From the second he appears on screen, he is only looking out for himself. Furious at every decision Hugh Glass makes that cuts into his bottom line, Fitzgerald just looks like a ticking time bomb ready to explode, making the decision to stay behind in order to see out the end of Glass’ life and give him a proper burial lead to the outcome that literally everyone but the characters in the movie can see coming. He could have easily been an arch moustache twirler of a villain, but Hardy gives him a sort of cowardly charisma that makes him far more persuasive than a man like that ever should be. With a weird and magnetic drawl that could only come from the Tom Hardy School of Accents and a shifty set of eyes that look liable to stab you in the chest just by looking at him the wrong way, Hardy’s Fitzgerald manages to keep The Revenant engaging even as it thoroughly overstays its welcome with its bloated running time.
99 Homes - Rick Carver (Michael Shannon)
You know how we know Rick Carver is a villain? Other than, you know, all those homes he helps foreclose away from desperate low income families? It’s the e-cigarette that’s so often dangling from his mouth, the little blue dot glowing from time to time. He’s too good for regular cigarettes. He’s too good to roll his own to save money like Andrew Garfield’s character does. We’ve known for a long time that Michael Shannon almost always becomes the best part of any movie he’s in (look no further than They Came Together for proof of that), but he’s a special kind of cad in 99 Homes. Rick Carver’s genius is the way he couches everything in the most understandable ways, the snake with a silver tongue. He sees himself as just as much a victim, the real estate crisis having forced him away from legitimate business practices into a life of foreclosing homes and stealing central air units. You can’t possibly believe him watching the things he does, but at the same time he’s undeniably persuasive to the point that maybe he really is telling the truth. Carver is the foot soldier in the 1%’s war against the middle class, and one of the more despicable characters of 2015. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mad Max: Fury Road - Nux (Nicholas Hoult)
Nux is the sort of character who best exemplifies the depth of the world George Miller has forged for Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s the portal into the War Boys and their crazy gearheads meet Norse mythology religion that grew around their leader Immortan Joe. The fear in his eyes when the rest of the War Boys threaten to run off after Furiosa without him, that almost puppy like desire to please his betters, first Joe then Max then Furiosa. It’s so satisfying to see just how much Nicholas Hoult commits to the character, elevating the whole proceeding in his own way. Look no further than the moment when Nux is tapped by Immortan Joe for the mission of assassinating Furiosa, the tears of joy as this God among men personally sprays his mouth and tells him that he will ride eternal, shiny and chrome. Other action films don’t have characters like this, don’t have scenes like this. Nux is a microcosm of what makes Mad Max: Fury Road the film it is. Sure, you could grouse at his unnecessary love arc in the third act, but everything else around him is pure magnetic energy and true heart.
Clouds of Sils Maria - Valentine (Kristen Stewart)
When the first movie that people can think of as a comparison to yours is Ingmar Bergman’s seminal mind-bending treatise on personal identity Persona, you know you have a formidable mountain to climb. But that’s just what Olivier Assayas does with Clouds of Sils Maria, and the linchpin is Kristen Stewart’s Valentine, the personal assistant of aging actress Maria Enders. Playing what is in many ways the Bibi Andersson role from Persona is no small feat, and while Stewart still generally operates within her well-worn wheelhouse of low energy aloofness, it has never worked better than it does here. Perhaps it’s the writing, perhaps her ability to play off formidable actress Juliette Binoche, but Valentine is one of those indelible screen presences, disarming in the way she remains inexplicable as her own character, allowing herself to be swept up in the tempest of her boss’ mounting mid-life crisis, intermingling her own feelings with those on the pages of Maloja Snake. She is as guarded as Enders is exposed, enigmatic and alluring right up to her final scene. It is not the sort of character or performance that screams for acceptance, but it’s the lack of ostentation that makes it so special.
Ant-Man - Luis (Michael Peña)
Ant-Man was another example of Marvel’s slow fall from filmic grace, not a terrible movie but by no means an exciting one. That is, unless motor-mouthed burglar Luis is on the screen. As the de facto leader of the band of crooks who can’t help but get Scott Lang in trouble, Peña has the same sort of breezy charm he always does (see also: The Martian, American Hustle, End of Watch, etc), but he is at his best when he is pressed by Lang to reveal the origins of his heists. Director Peyton Reed mounts these scenes as a series of quick-cut flashbacks with Luis narrating his conversations with various unsightly members of society, as he constantly overshares and offers unimportant details to the constant frustration of those around him. Ant-Man is such a profoundly generic and dull film, but it manages to jerk itself from its cinematic slumber in fits and starts, and in nearly every case, Luis is at the center of it all when it happens.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter - Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi)
A character like Kumiko fires all of my empathy triggers, so much so that certain scenes in the final act of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter became incredibly difficult to watch. A young Japanese girl erroneously convinced that Fargo was real (tricked by the Coen Brothers’ sarcastic “This is a true story” title card) becomes obsessed with traveling to Minnesota to find the suitcase of money Steve Buscemi buried in the snow. Her journey, a microcosm of the American Dream as seen through the life of an immigrant, is continuously and consistently heartbreaking, full of misunderstandings both cultural and linguistic, that all you want to do is hug her and tell her everything is going to be okay, even if her journey is the most foolish of errands. There are few more affecting portraits of the human condition than Kumiko, swaddled in her technicolor hotel blanket turned coat, trudging through the cold, harsh climes of an uncaring world.
Spotlight - Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber)
From the second Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron comes on the scene in Spotlight’s version of the Boston Globe, everyone around him is wary of what he represents. An outsider barging into the insular Boston culture, most of the staff expects the worst. But sometimes an outsider’s eye is exactly what is needed to point out what is hiding in front of everyone else’s face, and Baron is just the sort of man to look at the long history of the Catholic church’s intertwining with the city of Boston and not care about what boats he’s rocking. One of the more interesting aspects of Spotlight is the sense that they had ample opportunities to break the story earlier but didn’t for various reasons, and one of the joys of the Baron character, both how he is written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer and how he is played by Scheiber, is the low key way he responds, not dwelling on the past, just making sure they get things right now. This is a tuned down performance from Schreiber; he doesn’t rage or raise his voice. He is as calm as calm can be, a stone in the midst of whitewater rapids, and just the sort of editorial hand needed to guide the team to the sort of culture-shattering Pulitzer prize winning story that needs to happen.
And there we have it. Stay tuned tomorrow for the continuation of my week in review with a look at some of the best scenes of the year.