Favorite Characters

As with last year, the time has come for a look back at the year in film that was 2014. I saw more 2014 releases than I have any previous year, and while there are still a few unfortunately glaring omissions (namely A Most Violent Year and American Sniper, as well as a few animated films like The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea), I believe I have seen more than enough to speak with at least some sense of confidence about what was good and bad among the fare that played across screens both big and small during the last calendar year. We begin this look back with a few of my favorite characters (in no order of particular note). This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor are any of my spotlight articles that will be published this week, and I have biased myself a tad toward lower profile roles or films, or movies I loved that I may not have had the opportunity to write about otherwise. That's why you won't see some of my favorite performances, like Patricia Arquette in Boyhood or Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer or Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (for example) couldn't quite make the list. Either way, on with the show.

Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) - Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski’s French adaptation of the American stage play of the same name only has two characters, but it does not take long for one of them to establish dominance. It is a tricky screenplay, one that serpentines back and forth between this audition/rehearsal for their play-within-the-play and combative conversations about gender and sexuality, and Seigner’s Vanda is the prime mover for any and all action in the film. She takes on at least three different personas over the course of the film’s hour and a half, and the way she effortlessly slides into each skin, often at the drop of a hat, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence, never gets old. Sexy, alluring and chameleonic, Vanda commands attention from the second she stumbles out of the rain into this stately theater, and leaves an indelible mark on not only Matthieu Almaric’s Thomas, but the audience as well.

G-Daawg (Gary Poulter) - Joe

The story surrounding Gary Poulter’s role in David Gordon Green’s Joe is a bit of a sad one. Gordon Green mixed well-established actors, like Nicolas Cage and young emerging star Tye Sheridan, with lesser knowns and non-professionals like Poulter, a homeless man in Austin who had never acted before. Poulter is a manic and barely contained presence in Joe; his role as Sheridan’s abusive drunk of a father certainly feels less like acting than is comfortable (Poutler was bipolar and had a history of alcohol abuse). He is a livewire, thoroughly unpredictable and tangibly dangerous, and he injects a real sense of malice and terror whenever he is on screen (including being the agent of one of the most shocking moments of any film in 2014). The sadness of this story is that Poulter died before the film was released, and his big break came at the end of his life rather than the beginning.

Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) - Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first comedy in twelve years works as well as it does because of performances like Josh Brolin’s outsized Bigfoot Bjornsen. The professional foil to Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry “Doc” Sportello, Brolin is the ultimate square, with his no nonsense attitude and perfectly maintained crew cut. He is also absurdly funny at every turn, an aggressive brute of a man who cannot abide by Doc’s burned out hippie ways. From assaulting Doc at every opportunity to barking in Japanese for more pancakes at a restaurant, Bigfoot livens up every scene, but the joy of his character lies in the little things. It’s the way that, even through all of his machinations, he has these little foibles that make him feel real. Bigfoot really wants to be an actor, and we get these little glimpses of his other life as a glorified extra in TV cop procedurals or hawking some product dressed as a Native American in some low rent local access commercial. Bigfoot could have easily been a simple heavy or overbearing antagonist, but Brolin, through the muse of Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon, has created a fully realized character and a wonderfully comic presence.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) - Locke

With only one character ever appearing on screen, Steven Knight’s Locke is all about Tom Hardy. Following his character in real time as he drives to London to be present for the birth of his bastard child born of an affair, Locke spends nearly the entire trip on the phone, attempting to reconcile with his family after informing his wife of the affair, trying to comfort the mother of his child as she enters labor, and most critically working to ensure the concrete pour he was supposed to supervise the following morning will still go off without a hitch without him. For a film that literally consists of one man sitting for 90 minutes, Locke is a surprisingly tense and engaging affair. The reason for this is all Hardy, whose Ivan Locke is a proud man with a troubled childhood who will do whatever he can to make this right, even if it means throwing away his family and career in the process. Locke is the definition of a tragic hero, and Hardy plays that side of him with aplomb.

Fred (Nat Wolff) - Palo Alto

Gia Coppola’s directorial debut adapting a book of James Franco short stories has no end of pedigree behind it, and while it features established actors like Franco and Val Kilmer in roles, they share the screen with quite a few up-and-comers, the best of whom is Nat Wolff’s Fred. Wolff, fresh from stealing multiple scenes as a genial blind teen in the otherwise dreadful The Fault in Our Stars, shows a noticeably darker streak here, the sort of troubled youth who is so volatile that nothing seems beyond his ability, good or bad. Both of these roles point to Wolff as a young actor on the rise, but his character in Palo Alto surely has more teeth and depth with which he can play. Fred brings that unpredictable element to the film, and his work helps keep it afloat at times it would otherwise lose its momentum.

Ava (Mia Wasikowska) - Only Lovers Left Alive

Mia Wasikowska had made a name for herself by perfecting the role of aloof waif in films like Jane Eyre and Stoker and Lawless and (to a bit of a lesser extent) The Double, which has succeeded in creating a baseline expectation for her roles in upcoming films. When it became known she would have a part in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive, it seemed perfectly within the scope of her previous work on paper. Of course, Jarmusch is not one to stick to convention, and the Mia Wasikowska who sashays on screen as Ava, Tilda Swinton’s vampire sister fresh off a stint in LA and visiting Detroit seemingly just to make Tom Hiddleston miserable, could not be more different than what was expected of her. She plays deliciously off-type, presenting Ava as a vapid, bubbly and self-obsessed Hollywood socialite, the ultimate yang to Hiddleston’s suicidally depressed rock star yin, and her arrival injects real energy into the stately affair. Ava is a scoundrel in every sense of the word, but she’s also an entirely different scoundrel than Adam and Eve are, and their clashes are electric.

Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) - Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

After viewing Sion Sono’s whacked out ride Why Don’t you Play in Hell?, it is easy for American audiences to think of him as Japan’s take on Quentin Tarantino. It’s not an entirely fair comparison (Sono’s been doing this in Japan for just as long as Tarantino has in the States, and got his start five or six years before Reservoir Dogs), but there are certainly overlaps, one of which is Hirata, the director of the forcefully named “F*ck Bombers,” the rogue filmmaking unit that comprises one of the film’s many, many story and character branches destined to intertwine in act three. Hirata is a perpetual bundle of energy, a lover of film who sees himself as the next great director, letting his passion overcome any short-sightedness or deficiencies of talent. Hirata is the originator of quite a bit of the chaos of the picture, a gleeful Pan dancing around in the background with a camera in his hand and a Cheshire grin on his face, reveling in the madness even as it gets further and further out of control.

Mats (Kristofer Hivju) - Force Majeure

Most audiences are much more accustomed to the prodigiously bearded Hivju wearing animal furs and swinging a broadsword as one of the more outspoken Wildlings on HBO’s Game of Thrones. In Force Majeure, he trades in the sword for skis and the furs for Gore-Tex snow-wear. Joining his friends in the middle of their vacation in the French Alps, Mats walks himself straight into the mother of all domestic disagreements, a nasty and passive aggressive spat between mother and father over his dedication to the family and their children. Confronted with becoming an impromptu mediator in a particularly memorable and hilarious turn, Mats can do nothing but stare into space, bemused, trying to find some way to make his role in the conversation end as quickly as possible without insulting his friends. Mats is the counterweight of Force Majeure, the grounded, comedic influence that stops the film from spiraling into the depths of despair. He keeps it light (though he is not pure comedy either), and the film is all the better for it.

The Girl (Sheila Vard) - A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A walking contradiction, The Girl wears a traditional hijab over a modernist retro striped shirt and listens to New Wave. She’s also a vampire, which is of note, and even within that scope doesn’t follow the standard script. She fashions herself a bit of a vigilante (think Angel from the Buffyverse), but one with a distinctly feminist bent. The allure of The Girl is all about how she carries herself and how that plays with the traditional expectations of how a vampire should look and act. Her hijab flows behind her like a stately cape. She rides a skateboard, creating the appearance of floating along the ground. She chooses her victims with care, only striking against those who do wrong, usually those who do wrong specifically to women. But beneath it all she still has some semblance of humanity, and finds a kindred spirit in a down-on-his-luck man who happens to bump into her after a party. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one of the most exciting and original films of the 2014 season, and much if its success is due to the enigma at its center.

Mike (Edward Norton) - Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I didn’t like Birdman (more on that later this week), but even considering that it’s impossible not to appreciate Edward Norton’s Mike, the supremely confident, blustery and entirely broken man who storms into Riggan Thomson’s staging of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Mike is a whirlwind of chaos, coming into the production just as previews week is set to begin and immediately seizing control. Mike is set up as a sort of paragon of the New York theater system, with all the plaudits and demerits that would imply from a film with a chief goal of tearing down any and everything that comes within its gravitational pull. Whereas often the dialogue feels less character-bounded and more like Inarritu speaking his own mind through his players, Mike always feels like his own man, thanks mostly to Norton just owning each scene he enters. It’s a playful turn, one that pokes at some of Norton’s real life foibles to great effect, and Norton keeps the film on track when it threatens to careen off the rails.

And there we have it. Tune in tomorrow for a look at my favorite scenes of 2014, and throughout the rest of the week for more of my thoughts about the best and worst of last year at the cinema.