The movie year barrels into awards season in December, when studios release sun-and-sandals epics (“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” out Dec. 12) and star-studded musicals (“Into the Woods,” Dec. 25), and indie distributors put out Hilary Swank movies (“The Homesman,” Dec. 5).
This long holiday weekend offers a chance to take stock of accomplished performances in films already in release – before the awards marketing machine dictates who is a contender and who isn’t.
The performances below might or might not receive awards attention. What they share is freshness, boldness and, in some cases, an ability to inspire a feeling of discovery in the viewer.
Carrie Coon, “Gone Girl”: As the twin sister of a man (Ben Affleck) under suspicion after his wife (Rosamund Pike) disappears, Coon offers the complete filial package. Her character calls out her brother for betraying her trust in him with some ill-advised behavior, yet remains his most fierce defender.
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Coon, a New York stage actress who broke out this year with HBO’s “The Leftovers” – her performance as a woman who lost her entire family to a strange event is the best thing in the series – is an unusually straightforward presence. Down-to-earth yet bracing, she’s a reality check in the form of an actress.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”: The creepy “Nightcrawler” goes into the wee hours to track the paparazzi’s squirrellier cousin, the freelance crime photographer.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, who listens to a police scanner and speeds to crime scenes, where he commits miscarriages of journalism to get the most graphic footage to sell to TV news.
Jolly and polite, insincere and soulless, Gyllenhaal embodies L.A.’s far outer fringe. He’s the loser who always secretly suspected he was special, only to have his suspicions confirmed when a low-rated news station buys his footage and allows him on set.
Lou recruits an assistant (Ahmed) he pays next to nothing and over whom he lords his power. As the assistant, who is an agreeable kid and who holds no delusions of grandeur or any aim beside getting and keeping a job, Ahmed brings a sense of humanity to “Nightcrawler” that otherwise goes missing.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, “Beyond the Lights”: They don’t give out Oscars to glossy romantic melodramas like this one about a Rihanna-like pop singer (British actress Mbatha-Raw) who falls for the police officer (Nate Parker) who saves her from a suicidal jump from a hotel balcony.
They’re more likely to give out Oscars for costume dramas. That’s why Mbatha-Raw is getting an awards push instead for “Belle,” in which she plays a real-life, biracial 18th-century woman raised by her father’s aristocratic uncle, and caught between privilege and racial prejudice.
Mbatha-Raw is very good in “Belle,” but better in “Lights.” Her “Belle” character seems self-possessed throughout much of the movie. “Lights” allows the actress to track a character’s journey toward her eventual self-possession.
Mbatha-Raw’s performance maintains an inverse relationship to the amount of clothes her highly sexualized pop-starlet character wears. As the singer, Noni, moves away from giving the public what it wants to taking charge of her life, the swagger Noni displays in public and artifice she cannot turn off in private give way to authenticity. The transition is so gradual that Noni’s true self remains a mystery to the audience for much of the movie. This keeps us intrigued.
Plus, the camera adores Mbatha-Raw, which is the other key part of a star being born. (She’s 31 and has been in a million things on British TV already, but we’re talking American big-screen stardom.)
If there is an entertainment-world figure more controversial than night crawlers, it is a stage mom who promotes her daughter’s sexy image.
But Driver makes a slight case for the Dina Lohans and Kris Kardashians of the world by giving a bit of depth to Noni’s mom/manager in “Lights.” Teenage, single, abandoned by Noni’s father and by her own family because her daughter is biracial, the mother saw Noni’s talent as their ticket out of a British slum. She believes the wealth that surrounds them compensates for her daughter having to show a little skin.
Yet Driver also never tries to make this woman truly sympathetic. She knows who she is playing.
Edward Norton, “Birdman”: Norton, known for sometimes going Method, spoofs himself as stage actor Mike, who demands authenticity at all times. Then Norton goes deeper into character, to explore the quicksand that is egomania.
His uncompromising, disruptive pursuit of “art” has cost Mike relationships and his reputation among colleagues. Mike knows this, because he is smart and, as the flickers of self-loathing on Norton’s face tell us, aware of the damage he causes. But as long as the crowds still cheer, who cares? Acclaim papers over Mike’s doubts.
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”: In the annals of Oscar bait, the role of Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist with debilitating motor neuron disease, seems as if it would rank among the bait-iest.
But Redmayne does not try to play on our sympathies as Hawking, first shown walking around as a student at Cambridge, before his diagnosis at age 21. The performance focuses on what Hawking still can do, not what he can’t. Redmayne contorts his body to impart the physical struggles. But his eyes, electric with intelligence, always look toward the next discovery, the next possibility.
His Hawking can be a charmer, and a selfish lout, as he burdens his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones) with too many duties around their home. Redmayne puts it all up on the screen, less-heroic traits and all.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.