5. Stellan Skarsgard in "Our Kind of Traitor"
Though the film itself is sturdy, efficient but completely unremarkable, the real pleasure of Susanna White's spy thriller is Stellan Skarsgard as the "traitor" in question. Playing a Russian mob accountant who wants to go straight and get his family out of dodge before they end up like the rest of his compatriots, Skarsgard plays his role like a bumbling good natured giant who not only seems to understand the complexities of the international game in front of him, but is prescient about his determined attempts in protecting his family. The rest of the cast is solid. Ewan McGregor is Ewan MvGregor. Damien Lewis hams it up as an MI-6 agent playing by his own rules, but its Skarsgard who registers the most.
4. Rebecca Hall in "Tumbledown"
Allow my Jason Sudeikis moratorium to expire with "Tumbledown". Sean Mewshaw's romantic drama not only provides him with his best and most affable performance to date, but its also a film of surprising warmth, humility and carefully crafted emotional manipulations. Oh, and Rebecca Hall is pretty damn amazing also. Taking the narrative of cult-songwriter worship to varying heights, "Tumbledown" initially wallows in grief as Hannah (Hall) struggles to come out from under the shadow of her late husband's death. Added to her grief is the fact he released one personal album that (as mentioned in the same vein as Kurt Cobain) still resonates around the world as a lost musical genius. Obsessed with writing a biography of the man, Sudeikis enters Hannah's world as the two try to manage their expectations and accolades for the man from drastically different sides of his persona. Packing a huge emotional wallop, "Tumbledown" is a film that builds slowly. Part romantic comedy and part backwoods New York cultural war, I wasn't expecting the ultimate wallop it delivers. There are no big dramatic shifts or surprise secrets, just a cautious and searching tale about the lives we lead after unforeseen devastation. Just watch the scene where Hall listens to a previously unrealized song and watch the shadows of memory, love and loss sway across her face. In that single moment, "Tumbledown" hooked its claws into me and never let go.
3. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in "The Nice Guys"
Shane Black's loopy, irreverent 70's noir has been one of the genuine surprises so far this year both in how it manages to tell a story (i.e. "The Big Lebowski" would be proud) and for its high-profile star duo who bounce and repartee off each other like Abbott and Costello. The denouement is less important than the sly comedy and almost accidental way this pair of private detectives bob and weave their way around Los Angeles trying to solve a scheme of kidnapping, murder and political infractions. It's a joy from start to finish.
2. Anya-Taylor Joy in "The Witch"
It's a film in which the character speak in mid 18th century English. It's taken from the annals of witchcraft history. It's dark, a bit glacial and certainly not the Blumhouse production most audiences were expecting. But Robert Eggers' superb atmospheric horror features not only features skin-crawling dread in just about every scene, but a terrific lead performance from wide eyed Anya-Taylor Joy. As the oldest daughter of a family experiencing some profoundly evil attributes, she grounds the film in realism with her anger, disbelief and misunderstood adolescent behavior that today would pass as simple tween angst.
1. The Ensemble Cast of "Mustang"
In the opening scene of Deniz Erguven's devastatingly real tinderbox of female-emotion-drama, the older three of five sisters are waiting outside the school for young Lala (Gunes Sensoy) as she says her goodbye to a teacher. The three stand, half full of swagger and attitude, knowing that their budding sexuality and natural beauty are but moments away from blooming when they meet their boyfriends by the ocean. It's as if they're poised to star in an 80's teen drama and they're most certainly Kim Richards or Lea Thompson... i.e. the bad girls. But it's exactly this risque attitude that lands all five sisters in trouble when they get home, subsequently beaten and verbally abused for being such loose women and flirting openly with men. "Mustang" doesn't reside in John Hughes middle America, but the restrictive culture of Turkey. Gradually, their freedom (both of personal expression and choice) are eroded as they're locked inside their home and kept prisoners by grandmother and uncle until, slowly, each one is given away to womanhood and arranged marriages. "Mustang", the debut feature film by Erguven, works methodically and brilliantly, canvasing the girl's suffocation in gentle overtones. There are night time escapes to freedom. Outward displays of retaliation. And of course tragedy. Even though it's a Turkish film, "Mustang" is universal in its depiction of smothered youth via overwrought and antiquated traditions. By the time it ended, not only was I reduced to tears for these girls to make it out alive, but ultimately resentful of so many nationalities whose backwards belief system chokes the life from sparkling eyes.