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The 21 Best Performances Of 2014

The 21 Best Performances Of 2014

Unless you’re making “Koyaanisqatsi” or something, film is nothing without the people on screen: even the most egregious piece of CGI porn needs to cut to an engaging human who can sell the reality of the unreality exploding behind them every so often, or it simply won’t work. Think of your favorite moments from movies in any genre, and more often than not, they’re likely to be scenes, or even shots, that sing because of the actors or actresses in front of the camera as much as the filmmakers behind it.

So far in our look back at the best of 2014 in cinema, we’ve looked at some of the actors who made breakthrough turns in the last twelve months, but for the first time, we also wanted to broaden the field, and pick out the very best performances, from veterans, newcomers, and everything between. So as part of our ongoing year-end coverage, below you’ll find the 21 best performances of 2014, along with four movies honored as an ensemble, mainly because we found it too difficult to pick out a single actor from each.

It’s a wide-ranging group, including some of the most obvious, can’t-miss candidates who have been widely discussed during the awards season, but hopefully also some more surprising choices. Take a look at our list below, and let us know what your favorite performances were from 2014 in the comments.

21. Anne Dorval – “Mommy”
In a year when the accepted Oscar narrative is already that the Best Actress race is a weak one, it’s a shame so little buzz (and a weird U.S. release strategy whereby the film qualifies for Foreign Language Oscar consideration, yet pretty much no one saw it outside of festivals) has happened around the two blistering female performances in Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.” The film’s breakout may be Antoine Olivier Pilon, but that’s only because Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément are Dolan regulars — and still, both turn in revelatory work here. Clement has the slightly smaller, quieter role (though the friendship that springs up between two such opposite women is one of the film’s most endearing elements), but if Pilon is the lightning, Dorval is the storm, portraying the titular mother, Diane, whose love for her uncontrollable son is a heartbursting force of nature. Catty but warm, slightly trashy and unapologetically confrontational, Diane is simply one of the most unforgettably alive characters of the year.

20. Chadwick Boseman – “Get On Up”
He might have headlined “42” last year, but portraying James Brown in “Get On Up” was Chadwick Boseman’s real breakthrough role. His turn made us realize the full range of his talent, but the sheer force of the performance also made it one of the best of the year, one that’s sadly going a bit overlooked in a year chockablock with excellent male performances. Still, the actor’s full body channeling of Brown was perfect from the tip of his sneer to the swag of his toe. It was more than just a very good imitation of some signature moves — Boseman (soon to be Marvel’s Black Panther) inhabited Brown on a seemingly molecular level, imbuing his performance with the insecurity, fear, and doubt that stoked the fire beneath the singer. And damn if he can’t sing and dance too — he truly shines in the musical numbers, making one wish he might launch a Brown-themed tour. “Get On Up” may suffer from unnecessary narrative twists, but it’s never lacking in pure entertainment, and that’s entirely due to the main performance. There are fine supporting players in the film: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Jill Scott, and Craig Robinson, but it’s really Boseman’s world, and we’re just lucky to bear witness to it.

19. J.K Simmons – “Whiplash”
There’s something enormously satisfying when a longtime character actor — one of those performers who improves any movie they’re in, even if it’s just for a scene — gets a proper showcase. Think Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor,” Viola Davis in “The Help” or Melissa Leo in “Frozen River.” This year, it was the turn of J.K. Simmons — familiar to many thanks to “Oz,” “Juno” and playing J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” films — who was gifted a hell of a part by Damien Chazelle in “Whiplash.” Initially, you think that Simmons is doing some kind of riff on the gruff-but-fair inspirational teacher archetype, but then that extraordinary first band practice develops, and you see the true blood and bile underneath, as Simmons throws out four-letter-insults like no one since Malcolm Tucker. But crucially, he’s not a villain for the sake of villainy, and the actor makes you understand why he treats people the way he does —he’s attempting to bully greatness out of his students, even if it leaves them wrecks. Simmons is the frontrunner to win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and that’s truly happy news.

18. Andy Serkis – “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
Over the summer, Andy Serkis got in a lot of trouble for calling the digital animators who translated his motion capture performance as Caesar in summertime hit “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” as glorified make-up artists. This put the emphasis more on his movements and voice than maybe should have been, considering the hard work (not to mention visual embellishment and editorializing) that the insanely talented artists and technicians at Weta contributed. But without Serkis, there would certainly be no Caesar. He probably could have been traditionally animated, as countless creatures and characters have been, but the character, especially in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” would have been lacking in, for lack of a better word, soul. In the film, Caesar goes from a revolutionary to a genuine leader, marching his tribe to new, untested battlefields and forced into having to deal with a trusted ally turned dangerous enemy. And it’s that struggle, that emotional arc, all that pain and anguish, that would have been the most difficult to render with all those ones and zeroes without a performer as gifted and emotional as Serkis. It’s undoubtedly the actor’s finest role, performance capture or otherwise, and helped to make “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” not just one of the better “rides” of the summer, but one of the most rewarding movies of the year, period.

17. Jack O’Connell – “Starred Up”
For the first 10 or so minutes, Jack O’ Connell doesn’t say a word in “Starred Up.” His 19-year-old prone-to-extreme-violence Eric Love is taken into prison, and he looks like he’s shopping for groceries. O’Connell wears this nonchalant, slightly bored, attitude throughout, because he’s playing a kid who has the experience of a war veteran, and prison is just a playground he has to be in for a while. The confidence he emits in the performance can only be curtailed by the ferociousness he displays when he bursts into his fits of rage. That’s the thing with O’Connell; everyone else around him is great (Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, etc.), but he seems to be his own inspiration, and if the whole film was just him in a cell for an hour and a half, he’d find a way to make it interesting. “Starred up means you’re a leader” Eric is told, and after a year like this, with standout performances in “‘’71” and “Unbroken” to go along with this star-making turn, O’Connell isn’t just on his way to lead. He’s already there.  

16. Gugu Mbatha-Raw – “Belle”
Despite the presence of more experienced actors in Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson, “Belle” rests entirely on the shoulders of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. As a biracial aristocrat in 18th-century England, Dido Elizabeth Belle straddles a variety of worlds, unable to fit in with either the upper class or the ones who serve them given her unique position and racial heritage. Previously seen by few in the short-lived series “Touch” and “Undercovers,” Mbatha-Raw brings a freshness to the role that serves Belle’s innocence well. However, there’s also a growing awareness of the world she lives in, and how her heritage reduces her options. Her eyes communicate her intelligence and curiosity about the changing world around her, while they’re equally adept at communicating her shifts between sadness and hope. It’s an emotional role that never feels overplayed by Mbatha-Raw, praise which could also be extended to her part in the underrated “Beyond the Lights.” Both films could easily slip into melodrama, but the actress keeps them tethered to authenticity every moment she’s onscreen.

15. Philip Seymour Hoffman – “A Most Wanted Man”
Those who have not seen Anton Corbijn’s low-key modern spy movie, based on the John Le Carré novel might look at this entry and think, well of course they had to put in a PSH performance this year, after the actor’s tragic passing in February. But Hoffman’s turn as the German head of a small counter-terrorism unit in Hamburg would be greatly affecting any year, especially for being so understated. A portrait of gentle decency shot through with a core of steely dedication, Hoffman’s Gunther is a far more melancholic role than we’d expect to find in an ostensible thriller. But while Hoffman of course could bring titanic bluster to towering portraits of great men with huge egos, “A Most Wanted Man” reminds us of the gamut of his talents in being so nuanced and so genuine a turn. Gunther is trying to resist the gravitational pull toward cynicism and moral defeat that the world he occupies exerts, and while watching a good man pulled inexorably toward despair is hardly uplifting, in Hoffman’s hands it becomes deeply moving.

14. Elisabeth Moss – “Listen Up Philip”
Given her tremendous pace of work, it’s remarkable that Elisabeth Moss’ productivity rate never seems to impact quality. Her turn in Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip,” which narrowly missed an ensemble nod below (Jason Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce and Krysten Ritter also do great work), is so totally inhabited that we kind of forget she doesn’t actually have that much screen time. She was also great this year in “The One I Love,” but as Ashley, Philip’s long suffering girlfriend reaching the end of her tether, Moss takes a part that could be either saintly or shrewish and makes it a person. And not always a likeable one — she has a fearlessness about showing her character’s flaws and pettiness-es that is admirable. And in Perry’s hands (where she’ll return for next year’s “Queen of Earth”) that often happens in intimate, nowhere-to-hide closeups in which Moss’s terrifically subtle, expressive face says it all.

13. Tilda Swinton – “Snowpiercer”
The always-great Swinton wasn’t short of great roles ths year: in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” she walked away as the coolest character in a film hardly lacking that quality, she was borderline unrecognizable in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and even shone in a tiny part in Terry Gilliam’s otherwise forgettable “The Zero Theorem.” But it’s Bong Joon-Ho‘s sci-fi masterpiece “Snowpiercer” (rapidly becoming an unlikely Supporting Actress Oscar dark horse) that gave her her most unrecognizable turn, as a Yorkshire-accented regime mouthpiece with some of the most grim cinematic dentistry in a long while. You know an actor is hitting all the right notes when she’s a villain (not even the main one), yet is immediately missed when her character exits the film. Swinton’s been doing this her entire career, but her seriously deranged, Thatcher-esque opportunist struck just the right balance of cartoonish villainy and humor, while never abandoning the nuance that she always brings.

12. Josh Brolin – “Inherent Vice”
Moto Panacaku! Moto Panacaku! As ever, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is stuffed with great actors giving memorable performances, but aside from Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston (who we gave some deserving love to in our breakthrough performances list), the likes of Martin Short, Jena Malone and Benicio Del Toro don’t have enough screen time to truly make an impression. But the real exception is Josh Brolin, working with PTA for the first time and let off the comic chain in a way that we’ve never really seen in the serious-sometimes-to-a-fault performer. Playing Equity-card-carrying detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, Brolin’s marine-haired, jockish turn as this bullish bully gives the movie an injection of threat, violence and drive, the metaphorical aggressive cokehead in a party full of mild-mannered stoners. It’s yet another new leaf for a performer who continues to surprise us.

11. Michael Fassbender – “Frank”
In Lenny Abrahamson’s fantastic outsider art serio-comedy “Frank,” the unpronounceable Soronprfbs are a freaky pysch/art-rock band whose career and lives are forever changed when they meet an idealistic newbie musician. And perhaps one of the terrific feats of the movie is that the band leader, Frank —a mysterious, weirdo musical idiot savant in the mold of Syd Barrett or Captain Beefheart— wears a giant, papier-mâché head throughout the entire movie, but you still know that deep down inside this bizarro visage lies the heart and soul of Michael Fassbender. It’s a testament to the star’s acting prowess that even without his main tool he’s still able to express and emote layers of feeling, both nuanced and bold. “Frank,” the movie and the character, is funny, melancholy, curious about the world that lies outside the margin, and even poignant. Through a brilliant physicality —whether it’s manic enthusiastic gesticulations, slightly head-titled humor or slumped shoulders of defeat— Fassbender is able to project each minute feeling, while his voice, a curiously squeaky tenor suffused with comedic value, also insinuates the hopelessly damaged individual hiding behind his mask. He takes off his mask by the end of the picture, but by then it doesn’t really matter. The enigmatic stranger within has already awed us by baring his soul.

10. Scarlett Johansson – “Under the Skin”
Firmly dismissing the remaining few who believed she was simply a pretty face, Scarlett Johansson’s spent the last year or so with a fascinating unofficial trilogy that adds up to a truly impressive and somehow diverse trifecta of post-human performances. After her purely vocal turn in “Her,” she transcended almost silently in Luc Besson‘s “Lucy” (a film that probably wouldn’t work without her), but in between was the finest of the three, Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror cum feminist/humanist deconstructionist masterpiece “Under The Skin.” Johansson isn’t in the film, she is the film, with even Mica Levi‘s brilliant score seeming to writhe out of her being, and it’s a long time since we’ve seen someone give a performance as alien in every sense as this one. Impassive, terrifying, sensual and somehow bursting with pathos, it’s extraordinary work from a star who continues to surprise us.
9. Timothy Spall – “Mr Turner”
When Mike Leigh came to make his long-gestating biopic of the great British artist J.M.W Turner, there was surely only one possibility for the part: his long-time collaborator Timothy Spall, who’s been working with the director since the 1982 TV film “Home Sweet Home.” The result is a transformative turn that won Spall a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and reminded us all, as if we needed reminding, that he’s one of our very finest character actors. Playing not just Turner but also a surrogate for his director in a movie that’s very much a portrait of the artist as an old man, Spall embodies both the warmth of Leigh’s work and the occasional misanthropy. It’s a performance of relatively few words, but plenty of grunts, snorts and snarls, and it’s a testament to the actor that he sells not just the harsh exterior of the artist but also the beauty beneath.

8. Jessica Chastain – “A Most Violent Year”
The wife of the kingpin in a crime movie often feels like an afterthought or a nagging counterpoint to an antihero and inspired by Dick Cheney of all people, Jessica Chastain’s Anna in “A Most Violent Year” puts her would-be good-guy husband to shame. She’s a force of nature, threatening to do what her well-intentioned spouse can’t (or won’t) with a terrifying energy and a solid Brooklyn accent. She hands out goody bags and shoots a pistol with equal aplomb, and Chastain’s performance ensures that she’s never out of control, even while Oscar Isaac’s Abel feels events spiraling beyond his control. What’s most remarkable isn’t the performance itself; it’s that Anna falls alongside the variety of roles Chastain has taken on in 2014: the brittle title character in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby;” her strong, sensitive Murph in “Interstellar”; and her unhinged aristocrat in “Miss Julie.” Any one of those could have stood out in another year, and her prescence in all four makes us question what everyone else is doing with their talent and time.

7. Tom Hardy – “Locke”  
After bursting onto the public sphere in “Bronson,” charming pants off in “Inception” and rising to the occasion as the post-Joker Batman baddie in “The Dark Knight Rises,” it was only a matter of time until Tom Hardy would get into the front seat of his own movie. “Locke” writer-director Steven Knight took it literally by constructing an entire film in a single car ride and casting Hardy as the only actor we see in 85 minutes, making everyone realize just how easy and entertaining it is to watch Hardy talk about concrete and deal with personal issues. Ivan Locke is a regular dude who’s made some mistakes in his life and now he’s dealing with them, but through nuanced bravura and innate charisma, Hardy turns this regular schmuck into a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions (with the controlled support of Knight’s screenplay, of course). Coupled with this year’s “The Drop,” Hardy has proven that he’s an acting force not many can reckon with, whether there’s an ensemble behind him or an empty back-seat of a BMW, and we can’t wait to see his next film.

6. Guy Pearce – “The Rover”
With apologies to Robert Pattinson (and his legion of fans) who is very, very good in this movie and continues to reinvent himself in each new role, Guy Pearce owns “The Rover.” David Michôd’s post-economic collapse dystopian picture is very, very angry and mortally disillusioned, and Pearce embodies these qualities like a blackened-heart furnace on the verge of eruption. The harsh, silent and severe nature of Pearce’s character (who’s in search of a car that embodies all that he no longer has) is also a canvas that echoes back to us; we can imagine the family he’s lost and the life that once had meaning. But his humanity is also occasionally glimpsed and it’s utterly heartbreaking when it briefly peeks through. Like a ratty, emaciated, lonely dog let loose in a ravaged outback, Pearce relentlessly forces his way back home, to the one thing left his is life that has consequence and buries it for good. Pearce’s character is already resigned to all forms of death, you cannot do him any worse, and the affect that he transmits mostly through pained expression is devastating.

5. Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
We’re sure Johnny Depp (Wes Anderson’s original choice for Monsieur Gustave H.) would have been great —actually, no. We’re not sure about that. What we are most definitely and assuredly sure of and endlessly grateful for is that Ralph Fiennes took over and indubitably nailed it. Everyone’s great in Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” yet the entire film would have collapsed and been rendered merely great-looking had it not been for Fiennes’ uproarious performance as the concierge of the Grand Budapest. It’s hard to imagine this is the same man who made a career from playing mostly serious roles, and while he’s had cracks at comedy before (though we’d all rather forget the abominable “Avengers”), he’s never ever been able to turn his refined and debonair persona into such a dainty, comical and posh performance as Gustave H. His timing is genius, his reactions even more so, and the exchanges he has with Tony Revolori‘s Zero and Tilda Swinton’s Madame D. are among the film’s glowing highlights mainly because of his grandiosity. No other actor could have embodied this role and spoken Anderson’s quick-witted dialogue with such splendid results as Fiennes. He deserves every accolade under the sun.

4. Rosamund Pike – “Gone Girl”
Anyone who had read Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling novel “Gone Girl” (so… pretty much everyone) knew what a complex and iconic role Amy Elliott-Dunne was and how any actress would relish the opportunity to take it on. As a suburban wife who goes missing (and is presumed murdered by her smarmy, cheating husband played by Ben Affleck), Amy is a victim that in a key twist (spoiler alert!), becomes so much more. In the weeks and months leading up to the final casting decision, it seemed like every actress in Hollywood was clamoring for the part, so it was something of a surprise when director David Fincher cast Rosamund Pike in the role. Not only was Pike younger than her costar (she’s an older character than the husband in the book), but she was also virtually unknown in the United States, with the handful of performances that had made it here were largely forgettable. Amy Elliott-Dunne is a great character on the page, but Pike made her breathlessly alive. There’s so much subtlety in her performance, and so many layers of granulated nuance, that it’s impossible to feel anything but shocked admiration. With Amy, Pike was by turns intellectual and amazingly physical (not only her weight gain/loss, but the murder sequence and escape), a woman who could steal your cast her spell on you, and then never, ever let you go.

3. David Oyelowo – “Selma”
The most profoundly dazzling moment in David Oyelowo’s stunning performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma” happens without any dialogue at all. It’s in an insanely tense scene where MLK Jr. is being interrogated by his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). She finally confronts him about the other women in his life, which is shocking given how safe most biographical films are (even if MLK Jr’s philandering is irrefutably well-documented). She finally asks him if he loved any of them. And there’s a pause. Director Ava DuVernay and her cinematographer Bradford Young linger on Oyelowo’s face, as a storm cloud comprised of various emotions roils underneath the surface. Is he thinking about these women? Cataloging them? How does this compare with all the world-changing good that he’s done? And will continue to do? Finally, he says, simply, “No.” The word bubbles out of him, like lava out of a lazy volcano. It’s possibly the most powerful moment in a movie made almost exclusively of powerful moments, because it chips away at Martin Luther King, Jr. the icon and the martyr and the legend, and gives us unflinchingly Martin Luther King Jr. the man. It’s the most beautiful aspect of Oyelowo’s performance and the reason why “Selma” is such a singular emotional triumph.

2. Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night” & “The Immigrant”
Funny that here we are in the thick of another awards season, and the common complaint persists: there’s not nearly as many strong, complex and/or leading roles for women in film. Yet who had a better 2014 than Marion Cotillard? In a just world, she’d be nominated for both her towering lead performances that graced screens this year. In the Dardennes Brothers’ latest and perhaps finest, the film completely rests on her shoulders. Watch every stomach-churning, emotional sequence in which Sandra encounters her co-workers and is essentially left to beg for her livelihood, and there’s an actor completely immersed in the material and with her co-stars. Meanwhile, in James Gray’s period piece, her portrayal of Ewa is layered and thrilling to watch. Her arc from wilting, manipulated naif to hardened survivor is so satisfying and subtle you don’t even see a switch, but a gradual change as the film moves fluidly through its narrative. Ms. Cotillard is indeed one of our finest actors working today, a celebrity completely able to disappear into her roles.

1. Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler”
Jake Gyllenhaal is so brilliant in “Nightcrawler” that it almost feels like it’s a breakthrough performance. In reality, he’s been slowly surging ever since 2011’s “Source Code,” and through gritty and psychologically pulsating turns in “End of Watch,” “Enemy,” and “Prisoners,” he’s landed what’s sure to stay one of his most memorable roles, giving the performance of his career thus far. His Louis Bloom has been compared to Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman, and the sociopathic similarities are certainly there, but Gyllenhaal has evolved far beyond merely channeling other actors’ performances. He’s made the demented, determined and diabolical Lou Bloom completely his own creation. Losing pounds for the role in order to embody a starved vulture, Gyllenhaal connects with Dan Gilroy‘s crackling dialogue as if he’s been speaking it since birth. No one else this year will transfix you to the screen, almost through sleep-deprived glazed hypnosis, while simultaneously creeping you the fuck out. Gyllenhaal manages to make the audience root for a scumbag, and with Lou Bloom, has his name etched in the hall of fame for playing twisted maniacs.

Best Ensemble Performances

4. “Only Lovers Left Alive”
Other movies this year might have had more sprawling ensembles, but the relatively tight-knit “Only Lovers Left Alive” was one of the most flawless, once again showcasing Jim Jarmusch’s remarkable capacity for getting surprising turns out of his performers. Not that we should be surprised that Tilda Swinton was brilliant in it, obviously, but the actress somehow used the chance to play a vampire to enact one of her more down-to-earth roles, a sweet-natured earth mother trying to shake her spouse out of his funk. As that spouse, Tom Hiddleston convinced the few who weren’t convinced he was a major talent. Brooding, supercool in his ennui and yet quietly hilarious, his performance makes you forget that Michael Fassbender was once attached to the role. Together, they were the sexiest couple on screen in years. The film’s close to a two-hander, but that’s not to say that great work wasn’t done elsewhere: John Hurt stealing scenes as Christopher Marlowe, Anton Yelchin as a needy, nerdy rock’n’roller, Jeffrey Wright lending his crucially nervy, off-kilter energy to a couple of scenes. But the MVP of the supporting cast was Mia Wasikowska, giving her best turn in a year where she gave several excellent ones as the petulant, provocative black sheep of the little vampire family.

3. “Dear White People
A film with a script of the quality of Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” —whip-smart, complex, novelistic in scope— needs a killer line-up of actors to make it sing, but fortunately Simien is as gifted at casting as he is at writing. Without anything even close to a big name —Dennis Haysbert, the President in “24,” is the most recognizable face involved— the film’s immediately populated with performers who make their characters into living, breathing, complex figures. We’ve already waxed lyrical about Tessa Thompson and her firebrand lead role elsewhere, but everyone is a match for her: Tyler James Williams sweetly insecure as the nerdy, gay would-be-reporter, Brandon P. Bell suitably Obama-esque as the A-student groomed for leadership who’d rather do anything else, Teyonah Parris as the fame-hungry, smarter-than-she-pretends to be Coco, Kyle Gallner as the weasely white student, Marque Richardson as lovelorn activist Reggie. If the film might feel like it’s a TV pilot in places, it’s only because the cast are so winning that you’d happily hang out with them once a week.

2. “Foxcatcher
A couple of years ago, hearing about a lineup comprised of Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, you’d have assumed the film would be some indie comedy: “Crazier, Stupider Love,” perhaps. But time and a director like Bennett Miller (whom we discuss here) can make quite a difference. As good as all three actors have been before, “Foxcatcher” features a measured, minuscule approach to its tale of ambition tilting inexorably toward doom and sees all of them produce career-best work. Carell gets most of the buzz, probably rightly because here he totally remakes our idea of him as an actor, but shorn of outside context, Tatum matches him in a remarkable performance as the wrestler Mark, who attempts to escape his brother Dave’s shadow, only to find himself enveloped by a much more insidious darkness. Ruffalo’s smaller part is nonetheless note-perfect; Dave tries to hang on as Mark is disappearing down the rabbit hole of DuPont’s delusions, and thereby becomes his most undeserving victim. All three roles have their outward quirks: Tatum is beefed-up, blocky and occasionally peroxided; Ruffalo’s hairline is shaved back; Carell sports prosthetics. But all three bring an innate physicality: the wrestling scenes convince; Tatum really smashes his face into that mirror; Carell walks, talks and holds himself differently. Add in Vanessa Redgrave making an impression in just a couple of scenes, and you have undoubtedly one of the great ensembles of the year, though they may not seem like one at the outset, so atomised, and individually characterised are their roles.

1. “Birdman”
For all its bravura one-shot cinematography and clever effects, “Birdman” is at its heart a movie about actors and the theater, and as such wouldn’t have added up to much if it wasn’t stuffed with reliably great performers. Fortunately, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu assembled his best-ever cast for the film. Obviously, Michael Keaton anchors the film with a titanic turn: fierce and egotistical and lost in his own mind and delusions, it’s a career redefiner that will deservedly be the one he’s remembered for. But there’s equally great work going on around him. Sure, Edward Norton’s playing Edward Norton, but he’s doing so terrifically, embodying the kind of arrogance, sexiness and insecurity that so many young-Brando types have. The film serves its women well, from Emma Stone confirming that she has the dramatic chops as well as the comic ones (even if she suffers a little from the slightly Sorkinesque summing-up-a-generation quality of the writing), to Naomi Watts’ deft, loose turn, by way of Andrea Riseborough’s heartfelt one, Lindsay Duncan’s brittle one that somehow gives some humanity to the villainous critic, and best of all, Amy Ryan, who comes close to stealing the movie from under Keaton in her handful of scenes.

Honorable Mentions: So who didn’t quite make the cut? There were plenty of ensemble movies we could have talked about, which included “Selma” (which we ultimately thought was a movie dominated by Oyelowo’s turn), “Gone Girl” (similarly with Pike, though Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Ben Affleck and Tyler Perry are all great in the film), “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Listen Up Philip,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Inherent Vice,” “Into The Woods,” “Leviathan,” “Fury,” “Interstellar,” “Nightcrawler” and “Snowpiercer,” among others.

There was also some strong support for Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in “Love Is Strange,” Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year,” Julianne Moore in “Still Alice,” Robert Pattinson in “The Rover,” Emily Blunt in “Into The Woods,” John Goodman in “The Gambler,Roman Madyanov in “Leviathan,” Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory Of Everything” (surprisingly, few fought the corner for Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game“) and Brendan Gleeson in “Calvary.”

Other names mentioned included Dan Stevens in “The Guest,” Melissa Sozen in “Winter Sleep,” Eva Green in “White Bird In A Blizzard,” Uma Thurman in “Nymphomaniac,” Mia Wasikowska in “Tracks,” Jesse Eisenberg in “The Double” or “Night Moves,” Joaquin Phoenix in “The Immigrant” and “Inherent Vice,” Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood,Russell Crowe in “Noah,” Keira Knightley in “Laggies,” Rose Byrne in “Neighbors,” Bill Hader in “The Skeleton Twins,” and all of those from our Breakthrough Performances list. Anyone else you think deserves a mention? Let us know in the comments.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Nik Grozdanovic, Erik McClanahan, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Kimber Myers, Katie Walsh

Check out all our Best Of 2014 Coverage here.

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