Picking ten performances out of the 80-odd films I see in a given year is never an easy task, even in a year like 2014 that wasn’t quite as strong as some of its recent predecessors. I could probably double the list and still feel as if I was leaving someone out. But for whatever reason, ten is the magic number we’ve agreed upon as a society and who am I to rebel against that? As always (this is, I believe, the fifth year I’ve done this list), I must stress that the following list counts off my favorite performances and not necessarily the ten best performances of the year. This year the gap between “favorite” and “best” was smaller than it usually is, a comment on both the likability of the awards-y films and the mediocrity of the blockbuster fare. Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Honorable Mention: Shia LaBeouf – Boyd Swan, Fury
It should be noted that I am not a LaBeouf fan. Not since his Even Stevens days have I had much use for him. I also, in all fairness, don’t care much for Fury as a whole. I found it very disappointing and oppressively bleak. All of that should speak to the strength of LaBeouf’s performance. It is pure and authentic in a movie that I think overall tried and failed to convey those same attributes. I hope this is the sign of things to come, not the outlier.
10. Edward Norton – Mike Shiner, Birdman
Norton has long had a bit of a reputation for being surly and difficult to work with. His recent resurgence has come about, in part, because he’s taken steps to soften his personal interactions and become more likeable (though some of us always liked him because of how surly he was). So to see Norton, in a moment of complete self-awareness, take on the role of a pretentious, drunken stage actor who does his very best to wreck a production he considers to be beneath him is an inspired piece of acting. I had more sheer fun watching this performance than almost any other on this list.
9. Emily Blunt – Rita and Baker’s Wife, Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Woods
I’m cheating a little here but this is my opportunity to heap praise on one of the best leading ladies in Hollywood so I’m jumping at the chance. Emily Blunt might be the most versatile actress in the industry right now and to prove that, in 2014 she out-action-starred Tom Cruise in his own movie and sang her way beautifully through an otherwise up-and-down musical affair. As tough and strong as she was in Edge of Tomorrow she was equally as charming and funny in Into the Woods. If she’s not the frontrunner for a female-centric Marvel movie then I don’t understand the world.
8. Bill Hader – Milo Dean, The Skeleton Twins
Speaking of versatility, Saturday Night Live alum Hader showed off his serious side in The Skeleton Twins, taking on a tough, demanding role in which he shined. Hader was personally responsible for some of the bigger laughs I had at the theater this year as well as some of the deeper emotional reactions. It’s a great portrayal that has unfortunately been overshadowed by the obligatory depth of quality leading man performances.
7. David Oyelowo – Martin Luther King Jr., Selma
Coming out of our showing of Selma, the other members of my viewing party all asked me, “Who was that guy and what else has he been in?!” Oyelowo delivers such a powerful, commanding portrayal of one of history’s most iconic people and in much of his screen time, you find yourself just sitting in awe of him during much of his screen time. It’s incredibly difficult to play someone that most of the audience knows so well and yet Oyelowo somehow makes the role his own in a remarkable way.
6. Steve Carell – Jon DuPont, Foxcatcher
For a long time I felt like I was one of the few people who understood what a great actor Steve Carell truly is. Too many people wrote him off as the guy from The 40 Year Old Virgin or failed to understand the sublime nuances of his performance as Michael Scott on The Office. As such, I had long awaited his coming out party, of sorts, in Foxcatcher and he did not disappoint. It’s a subtle, quiet contemplation on insanity and Carell completely owns it.
5. Michael Keaton – Riggan Thomas, Birdman
If 2014 was the year in which the masses recognized the greatness of Steve Carell, it also stands as the year that the world suddenly remembered the greatness of Michael Keaton. Like, as an entire society, we met together one day and the entire agenda was, “Hey, remember how awesome Michael Keaton is? Let’s do more stuff with him.” Birdman is an actor’s dream and the entire cast is tremendous but Keaton delivers a mesmerizing performance that will almost certainly earn him a well-deserved Oscar.
4. Bill Murray - Vincent, St. Vincent
I won’t argue that St. Vincent is overly original or that Murray’s performance is somehow better than the leading men who are likely to draw the Oscar nominations this year. I will argue, however, that no other film has the same amount of genuine and well-earned heart that St. Vincent has and almost every ounce of that is brought forth by Murray alone. Look, it’s no secret that I love Bill Murray. He can do no wrong in my eyes (Garfield movies aside). But there is something special about him when he’s truly invested in a role and this is one of his very best performances.
3. Ralph Fiennes – M. Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel
I’m not sure if Fiennes would’ve made this list if I hadn’t rewatched GBH this week. It had been so long since the movie debuted and I’d kind of assigned all of my love and appreciation for the film to Wes Anderson over the cast. But man, how stinking great is Fiennes here?! Gustave is delightfully absurd and entirely too serious for his own good and yet the whole performance comes off as playful. Moreover, GBH is one of the few truly funny films of 2014 and while some of the credit goes to Anderson’s script, much of it is due to Fiennes’ sharp delivery of his ridiculous lines.
2. Reese Witherspoon – Cheryl Strayed, Wild
It’s fair to say that I’ve never been a fan of Witherspoon and would never have imagined that one of her performances would rank so high on my annual list. So, as with LaBeouf, let that predisposition to dismissal serve as an illustration of just how good she really is in Wild. I quite love this movie as a whole but there is no way that the film reaches even half of its heights without the command performance of its lead. This is a difficult role that asks a great deal of Witherspoon and she responds with a brave, vulnerable, and heart-gripping performance that I won’t soon forget.
1. Ethan Hawke - Dad, Boyhood
Boyhood has already taken home a truck load of totally deserved awards and looks to add a few more on Oscar night. It’s unlikely that Hawke will receive the same adulation that the movie itself will and while it’s true that Boyhood probably stands up on its own, I believe it is Hawke’s performance that holds the whole thing together. He is the stabilizing force for a film that could’ve gone off the rails if it didn’t have that anchor to hold it together. His work is quiet, even small at times, but when Boyhood really clicks on all cylinders, I think it’s because of Hawke and his easy relationship with his inexperienced costar. It’s an absolutely brilliant performance that made a crazy, unique project work better than I think anyone could have imagined.