Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
On opening night of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, audiences were thrilled by Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” a film that is a virtual lock to win an Oscar this month for Best Supporting Actor for the great J.K. Simmons. I’m not sure there’s a single performance from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with that kind of brute force to carry it all the way from Park City to the Academy Awards. However, that’s not to say that there weren’t great, memorable turns—pieces of work that I expect will make my personal acting ballots at the end of 2015. I asked our writers to submit their top three performances of Sundance 2015, the ones that you really need to watch for this year, and I had a very difficult timing narrowing my list down to three myself. Here are the combined 9 best performances from Sundance 2015, alphabetically. (Brian Tallerico)
Christopher Abbott in “James White”
For film fans, Christopher Abbott’s work in Josh Mond’s stunning drama about youthful irresponsibility halted by the illness of a parent might be a total revelation. Even fans of HBO’s “Girls” will be startled at the range displayed between that character and this one. Although viewers of HBO’s underrated “Enlightened” won’t be quite as startled as Abbott gave one of the most memorable one-episode turns of the last decade in the second season of that show. Here, he finds a deeper reservoir of pain to capture a young man who has stunted his emotional development and degree of responsibility through addiction. James White is arguably the most fully-realized character of Sundance 2015, someone who Abbott thoroughly defines in just a few scenes, setting up the façade that will crumble when his mother’s cancer returns from remission. And yet that description may make Abbott’s work sound more melodramatic than it is. What’s so remarkable about this performance is the numerous opportunities that it presents a young actor for scenery-chewing—addiction melodramas about dying parents aren’t always known for their subtlety—and how many of them he avoids. (BT)
Karren Karagulian in “Tangerine”
In “Tangerine,” Karagulian plays Razmik, a taxi driver and husband who lives a double life. At night, a family man. In the afternoon, a horny cabbie traversing the commercialized streets of LA looking to pick up prostitutes. Besides comically delivering in spots, Karagulian plays his character with unbridled curiosity. We’re not exactly sure why Razmik does what he does, but we’re always fascinated. (SF)
Zoe Kravitz in “Dope”
The child of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, Zoe blends the talent of her respective parents in “Dope,” a coming-of-age dramedy in which she plays Nakia, a resident of Inglewood looking to jettison the hood and go to college. Obsessed with 90s hip-hop, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa creates a powerful character in Nakia—a woman born into violence and eager to leave it behind. Kravitz imbues this young woman with charm, intelligence, and seduction. There’s no breaking away from the allure of Nakia when Kravitz releases that wicked smile. (SF)
Thomas Mann in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
Mann played the awkward teenager before in supporting parts ("Fun Size") and even leads (2012's "Project X"), but those were mere auditions for "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." As the "Me" of the title, Mann plays Greg, trying to get through high school without making enemies, or even friends. When he is coerced by his mom to hang out with the classmate just diagnosed with leukemia it is the beginning of a journey to confront previously unused sentiments and a friendship that will kickstart the rest of his life. The same could be said of Mann, who also narrates the film with just enough snark to make him likable and relatable to anyone who ever turned to the comfort of pop culture over the high school hierarchy. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon accurately frames Greg throughout the film, but Mann is not let off the hook with easy edits to find the performance. Though the climax is a melodic mélange of sound, images and emotion, its power is derived from the reluctant feelings bubbling to the surface that Mann has kept just behind his eyes for 90 minutes. (EC)
Ben Mendelsohn in “Mississippi Grind”
Despite a 30-year career, Mendelsohn only really broke as the calculating criminal in 2010's "Animal Kingdom." Since then he has played a string of shifty supporting roles from "The Place Beyond the Pines" to even "The Dark Knight Rises." As good as he has been at times (and even great in last year's little-seen "Starred Up"), he has found his meatiest role to date in Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's "Mississippi Grind." No longer just a side player, this time he's being supported (by an also terrific Ryan Reynolds in one of his best performances). Mendelsohn inhabits the role of Gerry, the addicted gambler, as if he had been preparing for it his entire life. Desperation has been captured before in gambling epics, but the quiet expectation of accepting loss is what Mendelsohn does so well here. It is a painfully sad journey to witness, but Mendelsohn carefully never lets Gerry slip into an unredeemable void even as he draws us into his spiral. There is a breathless appeal to watching him go for it and an even more winded feeling the bigger the stakes get. They have never been higher for Mendelsohn. (EC)
Bel Powley in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Few films deftly capture the simultaneous excitement and anxiety behind one’s first sexual experience quite like “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” That Marielle Heller’s directorial debut does so is entirely because of Bel Powley, the gifted actress behind Minnie, a high schooler who loses her virginity to Monroe, a handsome 30-something who is also her mother’s boyfriend. Reading Minnie’s diary aloud, Powley effortlessly guides us through this teenager’s first sexual odyssey. It’s a performance that could’ve been overdone, but Powley —like the film—takes Minnie’s carnal confusions seriously. (SF)
Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn”
I had high hopes for Ronan coming into Sundance 2015. Her performance in “Atonement” is one of the best by a young performer in the last decade and her work in Joe Wright’s “Hanna” is woefully underrated. Having said that, she had made some ill-advised career decisions recently, including the execrable “The Host,” and I was worried she’d soon be taken in by the Hollywood machine that so often wastes young talent on inferior films. The first full day of Sundance 2015 saw the premiere of “Stockholm, PA,” which also stars Ronan as a young woman returned from the captivity of a kidnapper to a world she doesn’t really understand. Ronan is the best thing about that film, a work I liked a bit more than most critics in Park City but less than enough to recommend. And then there’s “Brooklyn,” a beautiful, stirring, old-fashioned romance, driven entirely by Ronan’s grounded, fantastic leading turn as Eilis, an Irish immigrant who goes from girl to woman over the course of John Crowley’s film. Watch Ronan’s body language. Just look at her downward glance in the early scenes, afraid to assert her own desire to leave Ireland for the States. Contrast that with the head-high Eilis of the final act, finding her own willingness to make her own decisions. It’s the best performance of her career. (BT)
Jason Segel in “The End of the Tour”
Sundance usually produces a performance or two that falls into the “I Didn’t Know He Had That in Him” category. The one I heard that most about this year was Jason Segel’s work in James Ponsoldt’s unique telling of a five-day interview between David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.” At first, Segel worried me here. The opening encounter between the Davids, as Wallace awkwardly shows the journalist around his non-descript home, featured a few actorly tics like Wallace’s unique vocal cadence and aw shucks Midwestern demeanor. It takes some getting used to, but it’s not long before one sees something much deeper here. Segel imbues Wallace with a notable undercurrent of melancholy and uncertainty, which isn’t difficult, but doesn’t allow those characteristics to overtake the performance. It’s never showy, always balanced in the way it captures multiple aspects of a complex character. It may not be exactly who David Foster Wallace was in real life (I would never suggest any actor could perfectly replicate a real person) but it’s a performance that’s right for the movie. (BT)
Cobie Smulders in “Results” & “Unexpected”
There may have been no more instantly recognizable leap into the next phase of a career as there was for Cobie Smulders. Headlining a major role in not one, but two well-respected films, Kris Swanberg's "Unexpected" and Andrew Bujalski's "Results," you can sense that she is going to be a staple of Park City projects for some time to come. As the newly-christened mother in Swanberg's film, she drives the story by putting a confident face on her own insecurities in order to guide one of her students on a similar path. But as Kat, the fitness-obsessed trainer in "Results", Smulders projects a different kind of confidence—the one that filmmakers will remember when searching for their leading ladies. Smulders plays Kat as someone who feels off-kilter when her vulnerabilities are exposed and feels more at home when she has a project to fulfill. Watch her take command against the waitress that overcharges her and a friend for lunch and how it is less about common sense and justice as it is knowing the person she is protecting can be a better version of themselves if they just try. This is Smulders at her most confident and assured, proving that sitcom work is a thing of the past and her future in film looks bright indeed. (EC)
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