Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The 5th Annual Jarmo Awards

With the Oscar nominations looming tomorrow, now seems like a great time to unveil everyone's favorite blog-based awards with a funny-sounding non-sequitur for a name, the Jarmos! It's hard to believe that this is the fifth year of the awards, meaning that I have been doing this blog for a lot longer than I could have ever expected. And it's all thanks to you, dear readers! So for the fifth anniversary, I've decided to shake things up a bit: instead of listing just the winner and runner-up in each category, I've also included the other finalists in my personal balloting system. This gives it more of the appearance of actual Oscar categories (which have five nominees) while also showing some love to the other great performers and entertainers that didn't make the top two.

And so, without further ado, here are your Jarmo winners for the year 2014. Winners, if you wish to collect your award, please let me know so that I can make you one.

*Finalists are listed in alphabetical order.


Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin)

runner-up: Essie Davis (The Babadook)
finalists: Gugu Mbawtha-Raw (Belle), Jenny Slate (Obvious Child), Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida)

Even in her best performances, Scarlett Johansson has always had a certain blankness about her: a vacant stare or an affectless demeanor that makes her seem out-of-place. Her best performances, then, are the ones that utilize that blankness, and lately she has been on a roll in that regard, delivering one great performance after another in last year's Her and this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But her very best was her role as a nameless predatory alien disguised as a human woman in Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi film Under the Skin. Johansson completely carries herself differently, channelling the alien's feeling of being out-of-place on this world while still hunting her prey: men. Her performance is almost completely wordless, but she says so much with just her body language, or even just a simple, glazed-over stare, mouth slightly agape. Most importantly, it's a performance that keeps us grounded in what's happening in the film, even when nothing dynamic is happening. She forms the rich interior of the film, making us feel for this stranger in a strange land. It's undeniably excellent work.


Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)

runner-up: Michael Keaton (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
finalists: Macon Blair (Blue Ruin), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Tom Hardy (Locke)

I've loved Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor for a long time now, going all the way back to Donnie Darko (like most boys who were teenagers in the mid-2000s). Lately, he's been doing some of the most interesting work of his career, and it's culminated a commanding, outstanding performance in Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a slimy individual introduced talking his way out of trouble with - well, ultimately attacking and robbing - a security guard for stealing metal to sell to a scrap yard. Bloom is a sleazeball opportunist, constantly espousing business-school buzzwords that never once sound sincere, and once he gets into business providing video footage of gruesome accidents and crimes, it's clear that he's going to work his way to the top by virtue of being completely soulless. And Gyllenhaal is transformative in this role, his greasy, wiry hair slicked back, eyes bugged out, shit-eating grin spread across his gaunt face. He plays Bloom with the conviction of a man who believes every nonsensical, delusional word that falls out of his mouth, and because of his conviction he succeeds beyond anyone's belief. That's true for Bloom, and it's true for Gyllenhaal as well.

See the rest of the winners after the jump.


Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer)

runner-up: Uma Thurman (Nymphomaniac: Volume I)
finalists: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl), Kim Dickens (Gone Girl), Emma Stone (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))

We can always count on Tilda Swinton to deliver a performance that is unlike anything else we have ever seen. Just this past year, the Scottish alien goddess delivered not one, not two, but three great performances that were so wildly different - a vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, an old hotel patron in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and a stern government official in Snowpiercer - it's hard to believe she was responsible for all three. It's the lattermost, though, that was the best. Virtually unrecognizable behind thick glasses, jagged teeth, and an unplaceable accent, she plays Mason with both stern authority and just-left-of-normal whimsey, a person capable of ending your life or sparing depending on how the (artificial) wind blows. Her "be a shoe" speech is an easy highlight in a film full of them, and the longer her character is around, the more sniveling layers she reveals. It's unlike anything else that was committed to the screen this year.


Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)

runner-up: Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
finalists: Bryan Cranston (Godzilla), Bill Irwin (Interstellar), Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer)

I'll be honest: this category had the shortest list of contenders in my spreadsheet; it wasn't a particularly great year for memorable supporting turns. That being said, there were some great ones, and the one that stood out the most was one in which the actor himself never actually appeared onscreen. Toby Kebbell's motion-capture performance as Koba, Caesar's (Andy Serkis) right-hand man (or ape, whatever) who has a drastic distrust of anything human. Kebbell admirably conveys all of the scheming and pain that drives Koba, in both his facial expressions and his body language, while mostly communicating in hand gestures and whoops. Even so, Koba becomes the film's tragic figure, an ape so consumed with hatred that he's driven to commit terrible acts against humans and apes alike. It's thanks to Kebbell's remarkable performance that the character remains so vivid in my mind. It's a masterwork in motion-capture acting.


Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past)

runner-up: Joseph Russo (Jersey Boys)
finalists: Matt Damon (Interstellar), Ed Harris (Snowpiercer), Alison Pill (Snowpiercer)

In all honesty, Peters is earning this spot almost solely for the brilliant "Time in a Bottle" sequence of the film, a highly entertaining and inventive moment that was among the best of the summer. But Peters cemented this honor by delivering a funny, energetic performance that felt completely character-based. His Peter, aka Quicksilver, is a mutant who's fully aware of the freedoms his powers afford him, and Peters plays him as a delinquent who's having a little fun simply because, hey, wouldn't you if you had his abilities? His role is brief, but he makes such a lasting impression on the film that you keep waiting for him to show up again.


Gone Girl

runner-up: Snowpiercer
finalists: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Fury, The Grand Budapest Hotel

For a lot of films, just landing a bunch of big names would be enough to taut their ensemble, regardless of whether or not those names are right for the roles or even in major roles. Gone Girl, however, is different. There are plenty of major actors in the cast, but each is cast perfectly in their roles. Ben Affleck, well-known for his stilted presence and aura of smugness on-camera, is the perfect actor to play Nick Dunne, who's sincerity and innocence is always in question. Similarly, "Amazing" Amy Dunne wouldn't have made such a lasting impact if she had been played by an actress audiences were already very familiar with (imagine, say, Reese Witherspoon in the role), and Rosamund Pike delivered an indelible, surprising performance. Casting Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's ex Desi allows him to bring just the right level of skeeze, and Tyler Perry is perfect for the outsize-charisma (and twisted voice-of-reason) of defense attorney Tanner Bolt. Even the lesser-known character actors are perfectly cast: Missi Pyle as a Nancy Grace-type news host, Kim Dickens as the weary lead investigator into Amy's disappearance, Patrick Fugit as an untrusting police officer, Carrie Coon as Nick's salty-mouthed twin sister, Margo. Kudos to casting director Laray Mayfield: there were ensembles that had more star-power this year, but none that were this impeccably cast.


Gugu Mbawtha-Raw (Belle)

runner-up: Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida)
finalists: Adam Bakri (Omar), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Stacy Martin (Nymphomaniac: Volume I)

Truth be told, Mbawtha-Raw wasn't a completely-unknown actor before this year to me as the other finalists in this category were. I had fond memories her from ABC's short-lived, little-remembered spy series Undercovers (she starred alongside Boris Kodjoe, who's scored a breakthrough on BET's Real Husbands of Hollywood). But to watch her come into her own as an actress has been an absolute joy this year, thanks to two high-profile leading roles that are quite different from each other. One, the star-is-born film Beyond the Lights, I didn't have a chance to see myself. But in Belle, she delivers a performance that demands attention be paid to her. Based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman born into nobility in 18th-century England, Mbawtha-Raw embodies Belle's unique position in society and elegantly portrays the internal struggles that rage inside her. She's a woman without a true place, suspended between stations by virtue of the family she was born into and the color of her skin. She elevates what could have been an otherwise-stogy period piece into being a fierce, essential biopic. Here's hoping she has more roles worthy of her prodigious talents in the future.


(tie) Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)) and Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer)

runner-up: Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)
finalists: Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar)

It wouldn't be the Jarmos if there weren't a tie somewhere, right? When it came down to narrowing my choices in this category, I had a hard time picking away at everyone. Each of these five directors did such an amazing job in completely different ways; how could I possibly choose one as the best? I finally pared it down to just Inarritu and Bong, and faced the most difficult choice. Do I go with Inarritu, who surprised everyone this year by avoiding the miserablism that his been his trademark and delivering a film that was deft, funny, ambitious, challenging, dark, and singular in its approach to celebrity, art, and truth, all while displaying technical mastery in making film appear as if it were done in one take? Or do I go with Bong, who delivered a thrilling, offbeat, cynical, and bonkers film about the remnants of humanity surviving a frozen wasteland on a high-speed train that also functions as a metaphor for class struggle and the dirty business of revolutions, all while keeping up a narrative propulsion that lunges forward like the rebels through each train car? Ultimately, the answer is "both." Both of these men delivered stellar, career-best work, and so they'll be lauded equally for it.


Under the Skin (screenplay by Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell)

runner-up: Snowpiercer (screenplay by Bong Joon-ho & Kelly Masterson, story by Bong Joon-ho)
finalists: A Most Wanted Man (screenplay by Andrew Bovell), Edge of Tomorrow (screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth), Gone Girl (screenplay by Gillian Flynn)

The trick to creating a great film adapted from another work is not in being 100% faithful to the source material, but in finding a way to make that material more cinematic. That's exactly what Glazer and Campbell did with Under the Skin, taking Michael Faber's 2000 novel and using mostly just the general idea as the skeleton of the film. One of the most critical differences in the screenplay is to make the alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, a more opaque, unknowable character, allowing the story to be more about one alien's visit to the planet than the novel's more satirical approaches. As a result, the film is able to touch on more themes of personal identity, ultimately growing into a feminist fable about the destructive nature of patriarchy. In Glazer's and Campbell's hands, the story evolved into something even more powerful and evocative. That's the hallmark of a great adaptation.


The Babadook (written by Jennifer Kent)

runner-up: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (screenplay by Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo)
finalists: Blue Ruin (written by Jeremy Saulnier), Interstellar (written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan), Obvious Child (screenplay by Gillian Robespierre, story by Gillian Robespierre, Karen Maine, and Elisabeth Holm)

As I've written over and over about The Babadook, the greatest achievement of Kent's film is that it makes the monstrous Mister Babadook just ambiguous enough to allow the audience to project their own fears onto it. What the creature represents is completely up to you, yet the film still feels like it was soundly structured with a clear direction behind it. That's a feat that's completely the result of the writing, and Kent's work here is simply stunning. From the slow descent into Amelia's barely-together life through her showdown with Mister Babadook to the bold, divisive ending, her screenplay is a masterwork in how to write an effective horror film. The fact that the Mister Babadook children's book in the film is becoming a real pop-up book makes it even better.


The Babadook

runner-up: Snowpiercer
finalists: Blue Ruin, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow

Perhaps its because I don't watch too many horror movies that, for the second year in a row, one has claimed top honors in this category. But unlike The Conjuring, The Babadook is more than just a well-crafted ghost story. Jennifer Kent's film refuses to define the nature of the monster, Mister Babadook, and as a result the audience projects its own baggage on it, making it even more terrifying. But it's not just the monster that makes this film worthwhile. It's Essie Davis' terrific performance as Amelia, a widowed mother who can never get a moment's peace with her son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). Wiseman, too, gives a great performance as well, one that feels completely natural to a child who acts out for attention and has a very active imagination. The key to the film's success is that, even before things are going bump in the night, it feels like Amelia's life is already teetering on collapse. I never would've expected this, especially from a low-budget Australian horror flick. What a delectable treat it is.


Nymphomaniac, Volume II

runner-up: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
finalists: Jersey Boys, The Monuments Men, Muppets Most Wanted

Danish filmmaker/enfant terrible Lars Von Trier returned with his first film in three years this year, the two-part epic Nymphomaniac. The film(s) were described by the director to tell the sexual history of a young woman from birth to near-death, and given Von Trier's reputation as a shockmeister (though an artful one), it seemed like the perfect combination of his favorite ideas. And to be sure, Volume I was a rather great film, taking on an unexpected angle of sex-positivity and an excellent lead performance from newcomer Stacy Martin, which was enough to believe that this could be an engaging new addition to Von Trier's filmography. And that makes Volume II even more disappointing. Gone is the fearless energy and enlightened attitude of the first film, with Von Trier turning the attention to an adult Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who has lost her ability to have an orgasm. Instead of deriving pleasure and power from sex, Joe uses the act to punish, demoralize, and demean herself, and Von Trier seems more than happy to unleash the abuse. It's often hard to watch, even when Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell, who plays a domineering lover of Joe's, are delivering great performances. It resolves with an ending that's more of an exasperated groaner than a shocking twist. Von Trier surely meant Volume II to be the more provocative half of his sexual saga. Instead, it's just flaccid.

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