Ever since Danny Boyle’s epic 127 Hours, many filmmakers have had their hand at the new “one person alone” style (if that even is a real style of film, it sure has hell should be), and the newest entry is perhaps the most challenging. Robert Redford stars as a man with no name, little to say, and is truly all alone. No, really. The movie is secured solely around him. No introductions. No backstories. Nothing. Redford wakes up on a leaking boat and the next hour and a half is him fighting for survival. This movie is like that of a legend spread by story, and Redford is the perfect man with no name. He surveys the situation, he panics, and he shows a grave sense of certain doom throughout the movie. He has no one to react to, so the entire movie is based on his stamina both physically and as an actor. It’s a role only a true great could pull off, and he never showboats in the film. He approaches this character just like any regular actor would, only he does it well. There aren’t theatrics. There’s only Robert Redford showing us how it’s done yet again.
During most of Gravity, with the long takes, incredible physics, and precise effects, I was left wondering “how was that pulled off?”. I had the same reaction for the feat that Sandra Bullock pulled off as Ryan Stone; The lone woman in a mission gone catastrophically wrong. It is said that Bullock had to stage her every move like a dance routine, including every breath, to perfectly replicate how each action would have played out in space, especially with Alfonso Caurón’s signature lengthy-as-hell shots, and you cannot even notice an ounce of rehearsal in her very real acting. She never pretends to be a big shot, nor does she give up like a damsel in distress. Her responses are organic. She panics as she wasn’t prepared to face death. She focuses and pushes herself once she calms down and looks at her situation in a different light. She may have won awards for her role as a hospitable mother in The Blind Side, but her best role, and most real, is when she was separated from the rest of humanity in space, where she realized what it means to be alive.
What a week of hell this certainly is for Llewyn Davis. The film could have been a complete cesspool of misery if it wasn’t for the hilarity of each unfortunate situation brought on by Oscar Isaac. His sarcastic nature and burst of tantrums may be cries of help within the film, but to us we can appreciate the humor as outside viewers. He doesn’t make a joke of his misfortunes, though. Within the film, he’s still very serious, and within context his out of control behavior is still extremely sad. In fact, his reactions are those we have probably had ourselves. We won’t ask why he loses his cool when he does because we ourselves have often erupted at the wrong times. Perhaps we are laughing at ourselves when we laugh at Llewyn Davis. Maybe his loneliness is the isolation we feel on a daily basis. Nonetheless, Oscar Isaac makes Llewyn Davis relatable enough for us to feel sorry but his own person as an entity. He makes this folk singer have the same ambitions any folk singer would die for: Unity within humanity. Inside Llewyn Davis, thanks to Oscar Isaac, becomes a film about ourselves.
It’d be a damn shame to have left any one of the lead actors in American Hustle off of this list. David O. Russell put together some of his past co workers in this film, including Christian Bale with Amy Adams (The Fighter), and Bradley Cooper with Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), as well as tossing in Jeremy Renner as a mayor for good measure. Christian Bale plays a larger DeNiro-like character who is manipulative and stubborn. Amy Adams plays a chameleon temptress who switches back and forth between her real self and her facade at the blink of an eye. Bradley Cooper is a no-nonsense cop who still somehow gets pushed around and is ready to take charge for once. Jennifer Lawrence is Bale’s reckless and explosive wife. Finally, Jeremy Renner is a mayor who is still charming despite being wrapped up in one big mess. O. Russell once said that he is focused more on making characters than stories, and it shows here with such memorable characters played by such talents. When they are alone, they are hilarious. When they are together, they are spine tingling The biggest con these cheats ever pulled was fooling us into forgetting what these actors are really like off camera.
If last year’s performance in The Master wasn’t enough, Joaquin Phoenix’s role as the awkward and lonely man-in-the-future Theodore should pluck some of your heart strings. Here, he is getting divorced, he lives by himself, and he becomes friendly with his operating system Samantha. To be able to see someone by themselves within a shot be both depressingly isolated and fantastically entranced s a difficult achievement, and it wasn’t from Spike Jonze’s directing alone. Phoenix talks to “himself” with so many emotions, hidden thoughts and energy that you believe he truly is communicating with an OS (Scarlett Johansson’s voice-only performance is note worthy as well, as her extra garnish helps create some magic in the film and in Phoenix’s reactions too). The bulk of Phoenix’s lines are from a monologue, and they never feel like they are from a man talking to himself. To fall in love with an artificial being is tough, but to make it believable and heart warming is a feat only Joaquin Phoenix can pull off with ease.