Joaquin Phoenix Her
Amid the awards chatter for Best Actor–Will Robert Redford make that fifth spot? Is Leo due for a nomination for his splashy turn in The Wolf of Wall Street? Did you see how much weight McConaughey lost?–people seem to be overlooking one of the best performances from an actor this year. And perhaps it's because his work is usually so intense and begs to be noticed that people seem to be ignoring the quietly moving and heart-achingly sweet turn by Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's Her. When we first meet Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a man in near-future Los Angles who makes a living writing "Beautiful Handwritten Letters" for people, he is a man lost and alone (play a melancholy song, he instructs his mobile device) due to his separation from his wife (played by Rooney Mara). Walking home from the office, where everyone is too absorbed in their own personal electronic devices to notice much of anything, he seems to be silently screaming for affection. This man, who is capable of being so intimate with total strangers for his job (finding out lovers' favorite body parts to incorporate into letters), is incapable of intimacy in his real life. It isn't until he meets his new Operating System (Samantha, she quickly names herself) gifted with artificial intelligence, that something is unlocked in Theodore. Samantha delves into him. She senses when something isn't right with him. She asks questions that provoke his mind and heart. With Samantha, he begins to love again–not only her, but the person he is when he's with her. Phoenix, who seems to have cornered the market on oddballs and weirdos (on screen as well as off), brings just enough of his off kilter personality to fit perfectly into this world where a man can convincingly have a relationship with his computer. But the surprising thing about his work in the film is how intimate, likable, and believable he's able to make the relationship feel. (It helps greatly that Samantha is given the warm, breathy voice of Scarlett Johansson.) After last year's frenzied Oscar-nominated performance in The Master, in which Phoenix commanded the screen like a feral animal, the sight of him laughing on a beach and giddily spinning in circles at a fair seems downright revelatory. But beneath the light-heartedness is that tempest of emotions and intelligence we've come to expect from Phoenix. His work as Theodore is just as layered, complicated, and complex as his work in previous films, but, unlike those performances, aren't nearly as joyful to watch unfold.
Greta Gerwig Frances Ha
If everything goes according to everyone's predictions, tomorrow morning we could have a Best Actress category made up entirely of previous winners (if Meryl makes it in) or entirely of previous nominees (if Amy Adams' mesmerizing décolletage gets the fifth spot instead). It just doesn't seem like a new actress will be able to add "Best Actress Oscar nominee" to her résumé this year. And if anyone deserved to do it, it should be Greta Gerwig, an actress who not only created one of the most interesting and lived-in characters of the year in one of the year's best films, but was also responsible for her creation as co-writer of Frances Ha. Along with director and fellow writer (and real-life lovah), Noah Baumbach, Gerwig presents a portrait of girl during that awkward phase (called your twenties), when society tells you that you should be a responsible, functioning adult, but you haven't quite found your footing yet. Gerwig plays Frances, a modern dancer (okay, so, maybe not in a company or anything, but she is an apprentice) in New York City living with her best friend, Sophie (Sting and Trudie Styler's daughter, Mickey Sumner). But the film isn't so much concerned with plot, as much as it's a character study of Frances as she stumbles her way through the journey of life. Appearing in every scene, the film showcases Gerwig's quirky charm and naturalistic acting. Despite her ditziness and clumsiness (Gerwig somehow manages to even make a scene about finding an ATM hilarious), her Frances never veers off into manic pixie dream girl land. That character type, a male fantasy created as the ideal woman (she's sexy and kooky!), could hardly describe Frances as she's too real and far from anyone's ideal (she's actually "undateable" as one character teasingly calls her). For Frances, romantic love and finding a man don't even really factor in nor does it define who she is as a person. She's an accidental feminist–forging her way for herself. And despite the curveballs and bumps along the way to her self-fulfillment, she remains ever optimistic and hopeful (some might say delusional, but they're just cynics). Awards aren't usually given to performances so effortless, tending to reward technique and histrionics, but Gerwig's performance works so well because despite the heavy lifting of carrying an entire film on her shoulders, she never lets us see her sweat.
Best Supporting Actor
Ryan Gosling The Place Beyond the Pines
Best Supporting Actor always seems to be the hardest category to predict (and also the most all-over-the-place). It seems the only locks are Jared Leto (still can't believe Jordan Catalano is gonna be an Oscar nominee) and Michael Fassbender (it's about time, Academy). So, it surprises me that more outside-of-the-box choices haven't been able to make their way into the running for the three other spots. I know a lot of people take issue with the films over-ambitious three-part story (I agree that each act is less engaging than the previous, but I really appreciated what was created with the story taken as a whole) and it was never really going to factor in at awards time with it's March release date, but the film is still one of my favorites of the year and Ryan Gosling's performance has still stayed with me almost a year later. Having previously worked together on his first film, Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance and star Ryan Gosling create another emotional drama with a showcase of Gosling's charisma and depth. Covered in tattoos (including one on his face. Gosling apparently regretting having done it and asked if they could reshoot without it, but production was too far to go back. Cianfrance told Gosling the film was about living with the choices you've made - good or bad - and Gosling was just going to have to live with this one as well), his hair a bleach blonde, and playing a motorcycle stuntman named Handsome Luke, Gosling is the epitome of cool–recalling James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. And like Dean before him, Gosling is able to mix that hard edge with a tender understanding. Gosling, able to convey much with just a stoic gaze and silence, plays a similar character to his role in Drive, but the reason this performance works better is because there's a humanity behind the stillness. After finding out that he has fathered a son with a girl he left a year ago (Eva Mendes), Luke decides to straighten-up and do right by his son. But the straight and narrow path doesn't suit Luke who starts robbing banks to support his estranged family. After one robbery too many, Luke meets his end and the story is handed off to the cop that got him (Bradley Cooper) and then ultimately to the son Luke left behind, 18 years later. The audience never really gets over the shock of losing the main character so early on and it's a testament to Gosling's performance that the lose weighs so heavily over the rest of the film.
Best Supporting Actress
Scarlett Johansson Don Jon
After already missing out on Oscar nominations in her breakthrough year in 2003 (for Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring), it's disappointing to think that 10 years later, with another pair of strong performances (for her voice work in Her and her work in this film), that ScarJo will miss out again on a nomination. (It's also a little hard to believe that a non-actor like Oprah could be on her way to a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.) And while much is being said about her vocal work as Samantha in Her, including a history-in-the-making campaign to be the first to score an acting nomination for a voice-over performance, her real achievement of the year was as Barbara Sugarman–which excellently combined both her voice and body–in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut. As Gordon-Levitt's object of desire, not much is really asked of Johansson in the film except to look pretty–which she never has been more so, in a trashy/chic, Real Housewives of New Jersey sort of way. Embracing her curves in a series of tight-fitting costumes, she uses her body to tantalize the film's titular character and then ultimately uses it to wield power over him by denying him sex until he enrolls in night classes. Johansson elevates the material by throwing herself completely into the character. With her long nails, hair-extensions, and perfect Jersey accent (all used to fine effect on her first date with Jon, "You're cute. I like you") she fully embodies a character we've come to know through reality shows, but the performance never feels like a parody and comes across as a fully developed character. She's even makes the scene where she goes off on Jon for talking about housecleaning because it's not "sexy" seem credible. For Barbara, there are very specific gender assigned roles and to deviate from them is unacceptable. She also seems to be looking for an unrealistic relationship that could never meet her expectations. A view formed by her love of romantic comedies. Her inflexibility, especially in regards to Jon's porn addiction, ultimately leads to their break-up. The script asks us to look at Barbara as the villain of the film, but with the scene-stealing way Johansson plays her–it's impossible not to be enamored.