We’ve named our Top 20 moments of 2014 (re-live those moments here and here) and now it’s time to turn our eyes to our favorite individual performances of the year. As usual, we make the disclaimer that we are but two modest bloggers and cannot see everything, so try not to get too worked up if your favorite isn’t here. Still, we live for nothing if not to celebrate great work when we see it. Help us do that, won’t you?
1) Julianne Nicholson – Masters of Sex
Guys, I don’t understand why EVERYONE isn’t talking about Masters of Sex. I’m still in the midst of watching season two (I watch it on my iPad at the gym, which must make for amazing over the shoulder watching for whoever is on the machine next to me.) While Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan’s performances carry the bulk of the weight, Masters is incredibly rich in its supporting and recurring characters. I love Julianne Nicholson’s Lillian DePaul because she is the anti-Virginia. Where Virginia is warm and emotive, Lillian is awkward and tenacious and to the point. Lillian is abrasive and seems to always be clawing her way up, believing her intelligence should stand on its own, whereas Virginia smoothly slides herself into the places she needs to be, unafraid to use her feminine wiles. These women are two sides of the same coin, which is why they gravitate towards each other (even if Lillian does it kicking and screaming). Obviously, the relationship between Virginia and Bill is the driving force of the show, but the unsung relationship of the show is Lillian and Virginia and what these two women learn from each other. Virginia helps soften Lillian and teaches her that sometimes intelligence and passion isn’t enough to get you where you want to be, while Lillian, in her incredibly rigid way, teaches Virginia to expect MORE from herself and respect her own intelligence. It’s a fascinating relationship and I love how Lillian isn’t afraid to call Virginia out for the way the affair with Bill is offensive to her.
“Don’t you understand what you’ve done makes it harder for every woman who comes after you? Easier for every man that has designs on that same woman?”
The best friendships are the ones where one is not afraid to call the other out. “Giants” is a spectacular episode for that very reason, as Lillian and Virginia end up screaming at each other in her office. Neither is in the right, as Lillian disregards Virginia’s emotions, while Virginia refuses to admit that she is doing anything WRONG. (“We’re participating in the study” is the LAMEST excuse ever.) It’s the kind of fight that would end a weaker friendship. But when Lillian’s cancer flares up at the end of the episode and she passes out, who does she call? Virginia. (“I am scared though, for what’s ahead, which means I can’t really afford to be upset with you now, can I?”) And Virginia comes because her friend needs her. FRIENDSHIP.
Don’t even get me started on when Virginia tucks Lillian into bed and kisses her forehead like one of her children. The pain is too real right now.
Nicholson is so wonderful in the role because she allows you to see the woman behind Lillian’s brittle exterior. It could have easily been a one-note character, but instead you see a woman terrified that she is losing the one thing she has always counted on and the only thing about herself she’s always prized: her mind. Lillian has so many wonderful unexpected moments, like when she pulls a bottle of liquor out of her desk to have a post-work drink with Austin or when she slyly refuses to outright apologize to Virginia after their fight (acknowledging the non-apology IS the apology). Given her character’s diagnosis, I always knew Julianne’s time on the show was limited…but that doesn’t mean I didn’t sob like a baby when Lillian died. Because she did it on her own terms, blazing her path on her own, like she had always done. HERO.
2) John Barrowman – Arrow
You all know that John Barrowman can do no wrong in our eyes and we love Arrow for bringing him back to our television screens on a regular basis. There is little to nothing redeeming about Malcolm Merlyn. He’s a ruthless business man and an even more ruthless assassin. His only loyalty is to himself. Just when you think there might be hope for him in the form of love for his daughter, he turns around and drugs Thea, forcing her to murder Sara (with no memory of doing so) for some reason I’m STILL not entirely sure of other than fridging one female character whilst taking away the other’s agency. (Seriously, writers. This is supposed to one of the most pro-lady shows on TV and you are failing this gender.) It takes an actor with an innate sense of over-the-top theatricality to make all of these dastardly deeds seem grounded and realistic. Luckily, John Barrowman has that in spades. What elevates Barrowman’s performance is the fact that you can SEE how much fun he is having bringing this bastard to life. He chews all the scenery with a fervor usually reserved for meals at five-star restaurants. It’s nothing short of delightful.
3) Jenna Coleman – Doctor Who
2014: The Year of Clara Oswald.
Before Series 8 premiered, I was very lukewarm on Clara as a character. This is not a slam against Jenna Coleman at all…she’s always been wonderful on the show, she was just saddled with bad writing and being reduced to a plot device. Clara was a cipher, a puzzle for The Doctor to figure out, which did not do much for her in terms of a personality. She showed flashes of who she was outside of being “The Impossible Girl” in “The Day of the Doctor” but that was lost in “The Time of the Doctor”. Then Matt Smith regenerated into Peter Capaldi and EVERYTHING changed. In the wake of having the Doctor go through an identity crisis, Clara’s personality solidified and what emerged was WONDERFUL. Clara became a Type-A control freak who desperately wanted to “have it all” in her life. Gone were the days of her being a nanny (really…what was that?) and she blossomed in her position as an English Teacher. She moved past her hero-worship of The Doctor and became unafraid to push his buttons and call him out on his shit. She demanded more of him because she KNEW the type of man he was capable of being and she did not accept him being any less. She fell in love but refused to compromise herself or bend to Danny Pink’s demands of the relationship. She is passionate, she is self-assured, she is empathetic, and she is ruthless. She is devoted to The Doctor to a fault and she’s addicted to the life that he has shown her though their travels. She is incredibly difficult and complex. She’s not an easy woman content with simple pleasures, and I love her all the more for it.
With better material, Jenna emerged as a brilliant actress who was capable of bringing incredible pathos to Doctor Who. In Peter Capaldi, she got a scene partner who pushed her to bring her A-Game every episode…and she did. Their chemistry is electric and unexpected and thoroughly watchable (and shippable WHOOPS). If you had asked me a year ago if I was ready for Clara to move on, I would have probably said yes. Now? I screamed with joy and almost flailed off my bed when she was confirmed for Series 9. Don’t ever leave me, Jenna.
4) Jesse L. Martin – The Flash
I’m still grappling with the notion that Jesse Martin can play a character with an adult child. For heaven’s sake, who’s holding down the anarchist movement at MIT??
Regardless. With Coach Taylor out of the game, Jesse’s Detective Joe West is the best dad on TV right now. Built on the sturdy base of Arrow, The Flash hit the ground running (hee) this year. The series boasts quality writing and very un-cheesy effects. But The Flash‘s ace in the hole? Its superhero casting. Grant Gustin is a find – heroic and unequivocally good, but without laying on the “gee, whiz” routine. I love the ingenuity of casting erstwhile nice guy Tom Cavanagh as the ambiguously unsavory Dr. Wells. And then, there’s Jesse. He’s just so WARM, you guys. I want him to bear-hug me into a coma.
I’m a sucker for a father/son relationship, especially a non-traditional one. And with Barry Allen’s biological dad (heeeeeey Mitch Leery) taking the rap for his wife’s murder, it’s Joe who’s held that position for most of Barry’s life. Like its sister show, The Flash wins at humanizing its heroes by focusing on the people who build them up and give them a reason to do what they do. In Joe, Barry has a boss, an ally, a possible future in-law, and the family he needs to keep on being that light. He’s the guy behind the guy.
When you first moved in with us, I thought it was going to be too much. I was already a single dad, finances were tough and you were a little boy who just lost his mother. But, man, I was wrong. Within two weeks you changed the whole dynamic of the house. Suddenly the house was filled with this light, this energy. I mean, you brightened up everything. You’ve seen more darkness than any man will in a lifetime and you never let it dim your soul. So there I was thinking that I’m changing your life by taking you in, but the truth is, you changed mine. So don’t lose that light, now, Bar. The world may need The Flash, but I need my Barry Allen. Let’s go home.
I think there’s something in my eye…
5) Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
While everyone hemmed and hawed over the casting of Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike situated herself comfortably in the title role of this whole nasty business. (Also, Ben Affleck is an actor. He’s going to do movies. You may as well get used to it.) And she nailed it. Amy Dunne is a Hitchcock blond on Adderall. She’s cunning, merciless, vulnerable, and utterly insane. She scared the bejesus out of me. But because she also did that to every man in America, I root for her. Just a little bit.
6) Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything
The only thing I can compare Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything to is Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Both are extraordinary PHYSICAL performances that could easily feel gimmicky or like a blatant awards grab…but they are so rooted in the humanity of the men that they are portraying that they feel nothing but completely natural. The difference in the performances is that Christy Brown was BORN with cerebral palsy, while Stephen Hawking went through a gradual decline thanks to ALS. This gives Redmayne the opportunity to also grapple with the incredible struggle of being a healthy and brilliant young man being crippled by a horrible disease. It’s a daunting challenge for any actor and Eddie Redmayne immerses himself in the challenge fully. The result is extraordinary. Physically, I don’t know how Eddie managed to contort his body for hours at a time…just looking at that gif makes my neck hurt. The best part is how, despite the deterioration of his body, Eddie always keeps Hawking’s MIND alive. It’s an incredibly aware and alive performance. The wheels never stop turning, his eyes never lose the sly twinkle, even after he is no longer able to use his voice. That’s right. In the final act of the movie, Hawking loses his ability to speak, leaving Eddie Redmayne with only his FACE to convey all the things going on in Stephen’s mind. It’s mind-boggling.
7) Robin Lord Taylor – Gotham
I won’t speak for the rest of the cast of Gotham, but Robin Lord Taylor hits the sweet spot when it comes to comic book acting. He’s broad enough to read “supervillain” but not prone to unnecessary chewing scenery. (Calm down, Jada Pinkett. I’m begging you.) As Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, Robin works his unusual features to his advantage. He’s a shifty little creep, always calculating and subject to occasional violent outbursts. We can all agree that Gotham threw too much at the wall right out of the gate, and Cobblepot is the only standout baddie so far. The Penguin doesn’t have a clear motive yet beyond wreaking havoc, collecting favors, and turning his enemies against each other. He’s the chaotic force we associate with every incarnation of the Batman, and right now, he’s carrying this show.
8) Reese Witherspoon – Wild
I went into my screening of Wild filled with trepidation, expecting a movie that would be brutal and assault my senses in the way that 127 Hours did. I could not have been more wrong. I found Wild to be strangley uplifting and warm and that is mainly due to the wonderfully raw and honest performance by Reese Witherspoon. Don’t get me wrong…the subject matter in Wild is tough, as Cheryl Strayed deals with her immeasurable grief over losing her mother and the way she allowed that grief to let her life spiral out of control. Wild is all about the journey (literal and figurative) that Cheryl takes to get her life back. I loathe to use the term “vanity-free” performance, because it gives too much weight to the fact that Reese goes make-up free for most of the movie, and to some critical eyes, that’s a very “brave” choice. I like to think of “vanity-free” as an actor stripping themselves down to the very core of their craft. “Vanity-free” is ditching all the typical actor tricks and giving a pure and honest performance, which is exactly what Reese Witherspoon does in Wild. Yes, she is without make-up, but to me, she’s never been more beautiful than in this movie. From the moment we first see her ripping off her toenail and subsequently losing her boot off a cliff to the final moments where she reaches her destination, Reese draws you into Cheryl’s journey, and in a way, you are healed right along with her. It’s the best work of her career and I don’t know why she isn’t winning ALL the awards for it.
9) Channing Tatum – Foxcatcher
Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell are getting all the acting accolades for this film, but I urge you not to overlook Channing Tatum’s performance as easily influenced wrestler Mark Schultz.
The film opens on Schultz’s morning routine. And from the first seconds he was on-screen, it was clear that Channing had altered his entire physicality for this role. The way he walks, the way he speaks, the way he holds his jaw, even the way he stands still – the transformation was undeniably thorough. And we all know that Channing is a dancer, so I’m guessing that training his muscles to mimic the awkward, stilted quality of this specific type of athlete was all the more difficult.
Mark is a blank slate. Not an idiot, but someone who seems to lack a basic identity. His life is bare until DuPont comes along, and then he becomes the person DuPont wants to be around. This isn’t an easy job for an actor. The bigger the personality, the clearer the actor’s road map. So let’s hand it to Channing Tatum, who continues to prove himself light years better than the unfairly low expectations we have of him and who is also the best writer of emails in the history of digital communication.
10) Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – Begin Again
John Carney gets a kick out of making your soul sing right before he punches your heart in the face. Begin Again is a lovely little movie which flew under the radar for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a quiet, character study that was released in the season of superheroes and sequels. And, okay, one could argue that it’s Once set in New York with a bigger budget. Or they could, if Mark and Keira weren’t so gorgeously matched as disgraced producer Dan and reluctant talent Gretta. (None of this explains why “Lost Stars” is getting shunned in the Best Song category. Can you hear, Academies? ALMA, CHECK YOUR BATTERY.)
I keep using the word “warm” in this post, but sometimes it’s the only word that applies. Obviously, I’m talking about Mark Ruffalo. We know by now that no one can turn in an effortless, lived-in performance like he can. (And between this, The Normal Heart, and Foxcatcher, way to slay in 2014.) The redemption arc is predictable and the Loveable Messy Artist doesn’t break any new character ground. But the difference is in the details. Music is Dan’s great love. When he hears something that moves him, his eyes light up, his posture changes – you can see him being saved, song by song.
I wrote about my Keira Knightley conversion in my review of The Imitation Game, and this film played a big part in it too. She’s become a perceptive, understated actress. She never goes one step further than the moment requires, and I mean that in the best possible way. Gretta doesn’t jump at the chance to record with Dan, and that’s a tough choice to sell. She may have been abandoned by her rising superstar boyfriend (Adam Levine, giving in to our collective view of him. He’s good though!) in a foreign country, but she knows what she wants and she knows how to hold on to what belongs to her. That’s what makes her eventual collaboration with Dan so transformative and bittersweet. The chemistry between these two lost souls is never more palpable than in the scene where they pop in a headphone splitter and wander New York at night, sharing their lifeblood. We exist to make each other better, which is why Dan and Gretta can walk away from each other and still look at it as another in a lifelong series of beginnings.
11) Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
Whiplash was the third movie in my annual Black Friday Triple Feature, and boy was I glad that I saved it for last, because had it been first, every movie afterwards would have been a let down. On paper, Whiplash is a simple enough story: boy genius and demanding teacher push each other to make beautiful music in pursuit of being the best in the world. Watching it, however, is an incredibly visceral experience (I think I spent most of the movie curled up in a tense little ball…just ask TV Mouse) and that is due to the tour-de-force performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. While I hated The Spectacular Now (sorry guys, I know most of you loved it, but no), I definitely respected Miles Teller’s performance and have enjoyed his previous work (how precious is he in Footloose?). He is a revelation in Whiplash and definitely proves he is a young actor to watch out for. Andrew is relentless in his search for glory, punishing himself emotionally (as he carelessly tosses aside sweet little Marley from Glee because what genius musician has time for girls?) and physically (playing until he is drenched in sweat and his hands are bleeding). It’s an incredibly grueling performance, and it’s elevated even more by the cat-and-mouse game Andrew plays with his teacher, Terence Fletcher.
After decades of being “Oh THAT guy” or the doting dad (Juno) or the cartoonish crackpot (the Raimi Spider-Man movies), J.K. Simmons seizes his moment in the sun with a terrifying ferocity. Fletcher’s teaching methods are fucked up, and that’s putting it lightly. He’s verbally and physically abusive, but does it in the name of pushing his students to greatness. He inspires pure terror the moment he walks into a room. Don’t even get me started on how a single hand gesture sucks all the air out of the room. (Sorry for all the actual recoiling I did during the movie, Kelly.) He vacillates wildly from tender teacher (his monologue about a student’s passing is probably his Oscar clip, if only for the fact it’s the only long stretch of dialogue where he doesn’t say “fuck”) to an outright tyrant who will toss a cymbal at your head for not being on his tempo. But yet…despite the abuse and the mind games, Fletcher’s students want to please him. It’s a fascinating performance, and Simmons will likely walk away with the Supporting Actor Oscar come February.
“Oh, THAT guy” no more.
12) Melissa McBride – The Walking Dead
At The Walking Dead panel at New York Comic Con this fall, Melissa McBride broke out into tears when she talked about her attachment to and love for her character. TWD is – um – problematic, but they’ve always gotten it right when it came to Carol Peletier. But let’s not give them all the credit. Most of it goes to Melissa herself .
Melissa nails the delicate balance of kindness (her nurturing of bb Daryl, particularly) and efficient ruthlessness that make up the Carol we know and love. Tragedy and horror have been dumped on all of our survivors, but Carol more than anyone has allowed her defeats to harden into something useful. As in, literally everyone would be dead if it weren’t for this formerly downtrodden little woman.
Melissa has always put in good work, but the writers really blew out Carol’s arc this year. Lizzie unraveled – and it was as chilling as this show has ever been. Carol had no choice but to take her out. Lizzie was about as old as Sophia would have been if she’d survived, as we could see in Carol’s face as she instructed Lizzie to “look at the flowers.” She confessed her actions back at the prison to Tyreese, fully believing that he might choose to end her life but not being able to keep it from him any longer. Oh. And then she BLEW UP TERMINUS. Like the ballin’-ass bitch she is. What could Rick do but rightfully welcome her back into the group?
In 4.5 seasons, Carol went from barely participating in her own life to being the crafty, careful leader she is now. (Thanks, zombie apocalypse!) Thanks to Melissa McBride’s skillz, we see that new confidence, but also the toll it’s taken on her psyche. Praying that she continues to get material worthy of her. Because it’s The Walking Dead, and you never do know.
13) Audra McDonald – Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
One of the best choices Sage and I made this year was to get rush tickets to both Lady Day and Hedwig and the Angry Inch the week before the Tony Awards. Both Audra and Neil Patrick Harris went on to win Tonys days after we saw their performances, making tickets nigh impossible to get (especially for poor people like us. #SugarDaddiesin2015please). I’ve had the privilege of seeing Audra live many times. Anyone who has seen her live knows how full-throated and clear her voice is, so when she came out on stage and opened her mouth and Billie Holiday’s signature gravelly sound came out instead, I had a full body reaction to it. For 90 minutes I sat transfixed as Audra commanded the stage solo, with only her band and the audience surrounding her to interact with. She sang Billie’s standards, she told stories about her life, and she steadily declined throughout the show, leading to a perfectly timed stumble into the audience which elicited an audible reaction from the entire house. The thing that was most incredible about her performance is that we NEVER saw Audra McDonald playing Billie Holiday on that stage. We just saw Billie. It’s no wonder that she won a record-breaking 6th Tony Award (and became the first person to win one in all 4 categories for their gender).
In December, it was announced that the show would be airing on HBO in 2015 and I could not be more pleased that the masses will be able to experience this performance. It’s one of the all time greats, and it’s entirely possible Audra will be adding an Emmy to her overflowing trophy shelf next fall.
14) Vin Diesel – Guardians of the Galaxy
He is Groot.
15) Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
I love the intrepid spirit behind Boyhood, and the bravery of the actors to sign on for a 12-year gig. Think about it: whatever befell them, whatever they had going on personally. Even if they quit acting outright – they’d still be returning to these roles. It’s like they were living parallel lives.
And that’s what exactly what it should and does feel like. As Mason’s divorced mom and dad, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke provide the foundation for Ellar Coltrane’s performance. He grows up, uncontrollably and unpredictable, and they are bedrock.
I’d be perfectly content if Ethan Hawke devoted his life solely to Linklater movies. I would watch him smoke cigarettes and pontificate for hours. I have. He’s at home here, and possibly the most successfully naturalistic actor of his generation. And Mason Sr. – charismatic and irresponsible, but reforming – was obviously designed for him. I loved watching him grow up, right alongside his son.
This leaves the un-fun stuff to Mom. And Patricia Arquette has the toughest gig in the film. Mason’s mom has devoted her life to her children. But she always picks the wrong guy (or the right guy at the wrong time, sigh) and they can’t help but blame her for it. Mason Sr. gets to be the romantic, wandering hero. But she gets the brunt of the tantrums and the heels-in-the-ground resistance to every way she tries to better her family, and for what? Certainly not for any credit. She’s done everything she’s supposed to do and we leave her depleted. Boyhood is a hopeful movie overall, but there’s still this nugget of unrest. It’s so important.
16) Everyone Except Johnny Depp – Into the Woods
Okay, okay…let’s be honest. Johnny Depp was not as horrendous as we all feared he might be. It’s just such an egregious casting stunt (The Wolf is normally played by one of the princes in a delicious bit of *wink-wink-nudge-nudgeness* (go with it) considering how wolfish their behavior in the rest of the show is) that I can’t get behind it. Depp’s interpretation is so out of sync with the way the rest of the cast plays the roles that he sticks out like a sore thumb. None for you, sir.
That being said, the rest of the ensemble is pitch-perfect (see what I did there?) from top to bottom. Into the Woods is a sprawling ensemble and it’s a true feat of casting that they got everyone so right.
*Everyone say a little prayer of thanksgiving that they re-cast the original Little Red, Sophia Grace, with the spectacularly talented Lilla Crawford. Bullet dodged, folks.*
Everyone gets their moment to shine. James Corden’s Baker is basically the fairy tale version of Craig Owens (“It’s always been you, Craig.”) and the whole time I watched the film, I was really sad that his Late Late Show gig would truly limit his ability to take on other film projects (but my TV wins, so it’s a wash). Emily Blunt, who normally plays such chilly characters, brings true warmth and daffiness to The Baker’s wife, who is the great big beating heart of the show. Anna Kendrick’s indecisive Cinderella is a revelation and now I really need her to be cast as Sarah Brown in that Guys and Dolls movie if it ever happens. Cinderella could easily come off as flighty but Kendrick grounds her in the reality of a young woman truly discovering herself and what she really wants out of life. And CHRIS PINE. He can be in Guys and Dolls too. “Agony” was the one time where the audience for my screening came to life (most of the people were thoroughly bewildered by the movie, judging by my eavesdropping in the bathroom line afterwards). Meryl Streep proved her singing voice was so much more than what Mamma Mia was, as she tore into “Last Midnight” with a fury that left me clapping afterwards. I was clapping alone. I didn’t care.
One of the core messages in Into the Woods is that “no one is alone” and the cast of the movie certainly proved that. They all worked together seamlessly, and while I do have some qualms with the movie (I’ll always have qualms with a musical adaptation), I could not have been happier with the finished product. You’re forgiven for Nine, Rob Marshall.
1) Olivia Munn – The Newsroom
Olivia Munn was born to speak Sorkinese and she continued to be a revelation on The Newsroom. Her on-air takedown of a smug app developer was one of the highlights of the season. We demand a Sloan and Don spinoff as long as there are no icky storylines concerning rape on college campuses. –Kim
2) Neil Patrick Harris – Hedwig and the Angry Itch
One moderate June day, I sat outside the Belasco Theater for seven hours just to have a shot for a standing room ticket to see Neil Patrick Harris take on the ultimate diva. No regrets. It was nothing short of a privilege to watch NPH strut, sass, belt, and emote all over that stage. One benefit of standing for the whole show? Dance room. –Sage
3) Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
The only reason that Benedict’s Alan Turing isn’t in the top 16 is that he did what we already knew he was capable of in The Imitation Game, so along with the whole of the internet, we’re just sitting back smugly as the rest of the world discovers his brilliance. The fact that Benny and Eddie Redmayne will probably lose that Oscar to Michael Keaton is deplorable. –Kim
4) Sarah Baker – Louie
The truth hurts, but it will also set you free. When I first saw the now infamous “fat girl” monologue, written brilliantly by Louis C.K. and performed even more brilliantly by Sarah Baker, I didn’t know whether to laugh, clap, or cry. So I did all three. –Sage
And that’s it! Stay tuned for our fancy-pants ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR post, coming later this week. Who will it be?? Feel free to guess in the comments.