Up front, I’ll admit that this wasn’t a strong year for performances (as one can tell by the uncertainty in all of the Oscar races). This is 2015’s weakest subject, really, but there’s enough to compile a short list of commendation. Let’s run them down:
5. Steve Carrell (The Big Short)—If we weren’t all hypnotized by Leonardo Dicaprio’s crawling, spitting, and devouring raw animals, we might notice that Steve Carrell dropped the most interesting male performance of the year last week. Between his adjusted comedic delivery and imbued and pervasive sense of heart ache, this is the performance that should be the Oscar shoe-in. (Directed by Adam McKay; Paramount Pictures)
4. Mae Whitman (The DUFF)— I hesitate to point out the infrequency with which you’ll see Mae Whitman’s performance on lists like these, because it paints the selection as Armond White-level contrarian. But it’s not. Mae Whitman does an incredible job at a thankless task, recycling the tired high school romance movie trope and building something entirely fresh, combatting a central on-paper premise that immediately turns away modern outrage culture in, well, outrage, and serving as the best comedic central character this year, months before Schumer was deemed the queen of modern comedy in her film. Whitman’s Bianca is every bit as progressively functional to her intended audience as any female character this year, and the actress delivers with equal parts hilarity and relate-ability.
3. Nina Hoss (Phoenix)—Story-wise, I’m not sure any 2015 performer had as much dramatic weight to carry as Nina Hoss. Love, betrayal, identity crisis, the holocaust—and yet the actress moves everything at just the right pace. Searingly intense and yet still quietly haunting, this is the best performance that not enough people have witnessed. Let’s change that?
2. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road)—I mean, come on. You all saw it, right?
1. James Franco (True Story)—With his devil-may-care project decisions, swinging back and forth from absurd boyish comedy to reckless adaptation of canonical literature, James Franco isn’t the easiest dude to root for. I think this is why many may have dismissed his turn as killer Christian Longo as another lazy throwaway effort, when in reality, in its coldness and failed charm, it’s one of the more unsettlingly accurate portrayals of non-dramatized sociopathy I’ve ever seen. The movie may misstep, but it’s actor does not.
Grade: This was more of a year for film auteurs. C-