Top 25 Performances of 2014

We had a lot of maniacs this year. We’ve seen the disturbed, the wonky, the goofy and the psychotic. We’ve also seen many battles here. Actors fought against one another, with the world and with themselves. Psychologically and physically, we have witnessed many bruises and a handful of blisters. This is the hard work and dedication brought to us this year by a palette of coat-changing actors, and we truly found some gold in 2014. It was hard to pick only a few, and many lovely names were sadly left out. That’s because of how challenging this year was, between the intense performances and our observations of what it means to be an actor. Here are the Top 25 Performances of 2014.

25. Angelina Jolie-Maleficent (Maleficent)

The sets are stunning and so is the music, but the script barely made Maleficent come to life and the atmosphere was destined to be unfulfilled. That is except for the magnetic work of Angelina Jolie, who turns the draconic damsel Maleficent into a fully realized seductress. She carries a ton of mystique upon her back and such hatred through her stare. The movie falls behind her and hangs onto the shards of dress that trail along near her feet. If anything, the movie is worth the watch just to see how it becomes a functioning podium for Jolie’s talents. She is a rock star from hell, and you’ll find it difficult to not want to be around her despite her evils.

24. Lee Pace-Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy)

The whole cast in this multi-galactic shitstorm is fun and hilarious. Everyone is even a little bit emotional, too. The one performance that takes the cake in Guardians of the Galaxy is that of Lee Pace, who has dominated his supporting role in a successful fantasy blockbuster for the second year in a row (his work in the Hobbit series is quite noteworthy, too). Pace does a great job becoming this obsidian villain, where he is barely recognizable (and would be without the make up job, too). Pace is grandiose in nature, booming in tone and his stance is gargantuan. Guardians of the Galaxy was a ride to begin with and didn’t need additional help, but Pace’s take on this sci-fi baddy helps make the film’s more dire moments all the more severe (and the contrast against the more-fun moments is more than welcome).

23. Shailene Woodley-Hazel Grace Lancaster (The Fault in Our Stars)

Shailene Woodley’s become as big of a teen phenomenon as the novel The Fault in Our Stars is. It’s only natural that she became a part of this highly successful film adaptation. Her performance is also just only natural. You see her laugh, smile and talk as if all is okay at times. You also see her clearly upset and/or disinterested with life. Behind it all, she always feels weak and sick. Her brain is always a little bit elsewhere, even in her happiest moments. Perhaps she is thinking about the immediacy of the events that take place, or the fear that it could all end unexpectedly. She’s charming, raw, and, of course, full of grace.

22. Mia Wazikowska-Robyn Davidson (Tracks)

Mia Wazikowska has hidden within movies for quite a few years now. She needn’t be shy, because she has emerged as quite a talented newcomer. It’s nice to see her lead a film again (although her supporting work is always welcome, too), and here she commands the geographical journey Tracks. While it isn’t as demanding as lone adventures like All Is Lost, The Life of Pi and 127 Hours, there is a lot of self discovery here. Especially with her reaction to Rick Smolan’s photographic contributions to her travels, Wazikowska uses her surroundings as muses and not as obstacles. She truly loves the world around her. This is something to keep in mind, as many forget the complete tasks an actor has. Here, it’s surviving the damning climates around her at ease. She is wide eyed enough to show curiosity, but is restrained enough to command her craft and not seem like an amateur.

21. Jennifer Connelly-Naameh (Noah)

We haven’t seen Jennifer Connelly in a truly realized role in a very long time. She’s put up with many flops for who knows what reason. Noah may not have won many people over (I thought it was pretty good, actually), but it’s far from a downfall for her, especially considering it’s her best work in a while. She plays Noah’s companion Naameh, and she has to deal with a hell of a lot. She has to accept that their lives will never be the same. She has to deal with Noah’s revelations and their outcomes. She goes through turmoil after turmoil. Who better to deal with psychological damage than someone who was in Requiem For A Dream (another Darren Aronofsky film)? She bawls with intensity and fixates on that of which disturbs her. Connelly helps bring out Noah’s possible delusions (as many doubt him during the film) with her exploding reactions. It’s just nice to see Connelly being able to give it her all again, and I hope this isn’t a rare moment from here on.

20. Michael Fassbender-Frank (Frank)

If you went into Frank not knowing who the actor behind the mask was, you may not have figured it out until the very end. For those of us who knew ahead of time, we were still amazed at how well someone can do behind a gigantic, papier-mâché head. That’s how good Michael Fassbender is at his job. If anything, his role as Frank seems to be his least demanding work in ages, where as it’d be a problematic character for most actors. Without the ability to show emotions, Fassbender uses a deadpan voice and still evokes humor and feelings. Once we get to the end of the movie and we can experience Fassbender without restraint, we believe that he needed his head all along; He may be even weirder at the end. We understand his need for that security blanket, but we were with him the entire time (even though he’s certifiably insane). 

19. Robin Wright-Robin Wright (The Congress)

Technically a 2013 film that was released in 2014, The Congress is a highly risky film that combines live action reality with a surreal animated world. That’s not the biggest gamble, either. Robin Wright takes on the challenging role as, out of all people, Robin Wright. That’s still not the most difficult part here. She has to play herself in different realities, different time periods and different states of mind. How one can even begin to analyze themselves in such a detailed way is beyond me. It takes someone who truly knows how acting works to pull this off, and Wright does a job that deserves your attention. She examines herself as a flawed human like any others, but also as one who wants to take advantage of her capabilities to better herself and the outcomes of her life. You can sense some self discovery here, and there are many perspectives that she dominates in order for you, and her, to truly know who Robin Wright is. We know now, and we knew all along: She’s a great talent.

18. Adrien Brody-Dmitri Desgoffe un Taxis (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

It’s hard to pick the best amongst a whole cast of colourful, wacky, comical characters in yet another Wes Anderson psycho-epic, Adrien Brody doesn’t beat everyone here by a long shot, but his character, the foul mouthed and egocentric Dmitri, is the funniest and one of the most memorable of the bunch. The way he punches his statements is hilarious, and his body, oh so full of sleaze, oozes anger all over the floor. He marches his way towards that he is greedy of and at those he hates. He should be a character we all dislike, but Brody makes him a funny staple within this political comic. You’ll laugh at those he directs his misfortunes towards, too, because none of them will be hitting you; Just don’t be him.

17. Emma Stone-Sophie Baker (Magic in the Moonlight)

Yes, Emma Stone’s work in Birdman is great as well and is worth checking out (if not for every other reason the movie is fantastic). However, it’s always nice to see an eccentric like Stone truly shine alone within a star vehicle. Magic in the Moonlight is a disappointment that should have been great (it definitely had the capabilities there), yet if there’s one thing that was pulled off well, it’s Stone’s translation of the by-the-numbers script. She uses the clichés to turn herself into more of a kook and uses the better moments to make her off-the-walls character one that has something we can grab onto. Even when we realize there is more to Sophie than what we are led to believe, the trip there was an interesting one, and it’s thanks to Emma Stone’s dedication to making the obvious twist more fully realized and interesting.

16. Andy Serkis-Caesar (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)

Caesar is back, and so is Andy Serkis. The interesting thing to note here is that we almost get a new performance out of Serkis. We see a newly developed Caesar years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out. He can talk a little bit more now, he can think more calculated plans than before and he is a little bit more human. His confusions between what is morally correct and what isn’t begin to come into play, and Serkis uses this to his advantage. There is a lot of focal points made through Serkis’s use of his breathy, pounding, single-worded dialogue and they are heavy hitting to listen to. Serkis also never loses sight of what Caesar was in the first film, so we get a true evolution of this character here. Serkis is a gem of a character actor, and I cannot wait to see how he transforms Caesar once again in the upcoming third film in this trilogy since this take on the ape was so carefully constructed.

15. Keira Knightly-Gretta James and Joan Clarke (Begin Again and The Imitation Game)

Recent online remarks have shunned Keira Knightly as being a poor actor. I hardly think that is fair, especially when she has had some good (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) and daring (A Dangerous Method) roles. Almost every actor has had poor film choices which belittle their strengths, if that’s what people are getting at. Well, this year she has won twice. She played the songstress Gretta in Begin Again and Alan Turing’s support, Joan, in The Imitation Game. She bounced heart and brains back and forth this year. She sang and she solved. She felt and she calculated. Both performances are good, and their range makes them simply better. She was found by two men who saw something in her in these films. I don’t know what to tell you if you didn’t.

14. Reese Witherspoon-Cheryl Strayed (Wild)

Like Mia Wasikowska’s adventure, Witherspoon took to nature to learn about herself. Wazikowska wanted to see who she was an actress. Witherspoon, a previous Academy Award winner and American sweetheart, wanted to find her worth after a poor run in with the law. “Don’t you know who I am?” Was plastered all over the news. Here, she puts herself on the line. She takes on her character’s flaws and loses herself in the wilderness as Cheryl Strayed (a last name that indicates all but what Witherspoon did with her performance). She lets her feelings out but reserves enough to survive. It’s a gamble for this actor to take on a movie alone, especially after she told the world they must know her. Well, we sure do now. Welcome back, Ms. June Carter.

13. Matthew McConaughey-Cooper (Interstellar)

How would you react if you lost it all to try and save everything? It’s a huge ordeal, and Matthew McConaughey gave it a shot. Twice. He won an Academy Award for last year’s role of martyrdom where he slowly became a hero that helped those with aids in Dallas Buyers Club. He’s not nearly as thin in Interstellar, but he sacrifices a lot here as well to try and save mankind. Cooper leaves his family behind, and his reactions to his initial departure and his realization that he’s missed their entire lives is devastating. His urgency to keep going forwards as a result is striking. It’s difficult to imagine a real experience when you deal with science fiction films, especially with a script as frigid as your common Nolan work (which isn’t a bad thing, as it works well with thrillers like Inception, The Dark Knight and Memento). McConaughey turns these exposition-heavy words into those of determination and foresight; He speaks in goals because they’re real to him. Interstellar is a gorgeous movie I feel is taken for granted, and McConaughey is a big reason why it has heart (but not the only, as you’ll see).

12. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke-Olivia and Mason Sr. (Boyhood)

Twelve years is a long time to be committed to a project. It isn’t as if both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke haven’t been attached to many films in between the shooting sessions for Boyhood. How they didn’t lose sight of the characters they created within this film alone is a blessing (you can thank Richard Linklater’s fantastic directing a little bit for this, of course). Then, you can observe how real these roles are. Olivia is a good mother who wears her heart on her sleeve, so she is clearly angry when she is angry and glad when she is happy. She is easily mislead through her emotions, and she is often stranded when she hits a brick wall. Mason Sr. seems like a badass who has it all figured out despite not being very successful; At least he’s happy, right? It’s depressing to see Olivia flounder about when she finally has achieved independence and her kids are beginning their own lives. It’s just as sad to see that Mason Sr. settled down for a life far outside of his grande dreams (again, he is at least happy). Boyhood depicts life so well, and out of its many functioning components, Arquette and Hawke are two reasons why we get wrung out until we’ve shed all the tears we could muster. 

11. Michael Keaton and Edward Norton-Riggan Thomson and Mike Shiner (Birdman)

Everyone in Birdman is outstanding and worth looking at in detail, but the two finest examples represent the battle between been-there-done-that and anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better. The fight between a bruised ego and an overly inflated one made up this vibrant foil between Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. The most interesting aspect is that both men falsely love themselves. We see more cracks in Thomson’s armor, but Shiner, too, has self doubts. Maybe Shiner would grow up to become the low life Thomson is; Is this a look into the future? Thomson’s wishes for superpowers also can be linked to Shiner’s belief that he is an acting god. The world believes Shiner more, though. Not us. We feel Thomson’s sorrows and woes. We can sense the artificiality Shiner has (his last name alone means he’s overly polished). We can spot the horrors that each actor may or may not spot between one another, and we can see it all result in their fights to feel relevant. Keaton shows us it all fully realized, and Norton hides it shamefully.

10. Jessica Chastain-Murphy Cooper (Interstellar)

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Miss Julie. A Most Violent Year. Jessica Chastain. Ms. Chastain has made so many fantastic performances year after year, even in the movies that aren’t as strong as others. She has continued to be the bright face of cinema through her passion and countless efforts. Once she became big, she never took it for granted. With another highly successful year, we have to pick which of her performances is her best. It’s tricky, but I had one thing in minds that haunted me for weeks: The very second you see her in Interstellar. The revelation works as a great lead in, but it’s Chastain’s approach to being a daughter that had to fend for herself that made that part of the movie quite possibly the greatest. Her reactions, both negative (her refusal to let people stand in her way) and positive (her celebrations of her successes) are fueled by her reliance on herself. This comes from a deep place (possibly reality), and Murphy as a hero is fully realized because of this. Chastain has won us over yet again, but are you surprised at this point?

9. JK Simmons and Miles Teller-Terence Fletcher and Andrew Neiman (Whiplash)

The duo of the year is one where anger was a catalyst between the two and talent was used as spite. I praised Miles Teller last year for The Spectacular Now and predicted that he would be going places; Well, here we are. We all know how capable Simmons has been this entire time, so I needn’t speak on his behalf. Together, you have a hurricane of rage. Simmons shouts with bass and tone, while Teller sits still until he explodes with a piercing scream and fury. Simmons conducts abusive authority and Teller expels rebellious retaliation. The bruising between the two is large, and both of their egos are pummeled to the point of embarrassment; This makes them fight even harder. When you see a veteran who thinks he knows everything try to shape up a prodigy, this is what happens. This is also what happens when an underrated acting great brings out the best of a newcomer, as their chemistry is burning. The raw acting of old (appropriately mixed in with older jazz tunes) met the new generation rather well here. These two prove that you’re never too old or two young to realize your potential.

8. Benedict Cumberbatch-Alan Turing  (The Imitation Game)

Take a man who has played the sputtering savant Sherlock Holmes and you’ll get someone who can make facts and numbers intetesting. Take someone who has been Julian Assange and you will find that they know how to not only portray a person but also how to take on political diologue, too. Take a credible few years and you’re bound to find platinum amongst gold. This is Benedict Cumberbatch, and this is his opus so far. He may be both a cult icon and a meme, but there’s nothing funny about his heavily detailed role as Turing. His eyes twitch at any idea popping into his head and he darts towards anything he solves. He can seem like both a dominant force and a possible lunatic at the very same time. He’s had to crack codes acting as Turing, but solving how to take this role on seems effortless.

7.  Julianne Moore-Alice Howland (Still Alice)

Like JK Simmons, Julianne Moore is so talented that we often forget how good she is. She exploded onto the scene in the 90’s, and we’ve just come to accept that she’s great in everything. Like Meryl Streep’s reign of golden glory, despite the fact that Moore (unfortunately and undeservedly) hasn’t been as showered with accolades, we need a role to bulldoze us over into remembering just how great the best can be. WIth Streep, we had her role in The Iron Lady. With Moore, we have the more sympathetic character in Still Alice; One of the roughest movies you’ll see all year. You’ll see Alice’s brain deteriorate before your (and Moore’s) very eyes. You’ll see her battle against her disease with such efforts. Every fight is balanced between success and failure, no matter which side seems to be prevailing. It’s hard enough to command lines as a mentally healthy person, never mind someone who is slowly losing her ability to remember anything. Still Alice is hard to watch but it is also a positive fight, and both are thanks to one person: Moore, whose appropriately homonymic last name represents her ability to go above and beyond the norm.

6. Marion Cotillard-Ewa Cybulska (The Immigrant)

The Immigrant was a pretty nice movie, yet it did trudge on a little bit. It was a pleasant aesthetic experience mostly, and everything from the set design, costumes and acting helped to make this movie come to life despite its pacing. This is true with Marion Cotillard’s performance as the Polish migrator Ewa, and like most of Cotillard’s performances, there is much to treasure here. Her accent is believable and her struggle with the English language, too. Her burdens from being rejected as both a citizen and as a human being are crushing, and Cotillard channels that tragic flooding out through her eyes an her body. She quivers in fear and there is doom sunken within her pupils. Like many films she stars in, Cotillard transforms movies into vessels for her own talents as it is often difficult to keep up with her. The Immigrant is no different, and she has wrenched our hearts out once again.

5. Eddie Redmayne-Stephen Hawking  (The Theory of Everything)

We all know about Stephen Hawking and his successes. Not many of us got to witness him when he was younger and healthier, though. Eddie Redmayne took on the Hawking we love, which was risky because we could make comparisons. He also took on the young Hawking we’ve merely read about, which is also a risk because we have no idea if he is spot on or way off. He took on both parts with ease. We’ve come to expect charm from this wide – grinned actor by now, but his strengths in The Theory of Everything shock us anyways. This is a very careful performance, all while feeling very natural. It’s respectful, authentic and pure. If you were worried that you wouldn’t see him around with his supporting roles, Redmayne’s kicked the door down with this film.

4. Rosamund Pike-Amy Elliotte-Dunne (Gone Girl)

“I’m that cunt”, Amy says in a pivotal and horrific scene. We know, Rosamund Pike; We know. You will sprint from being sorry for her to truly despising this character, and it’s most likely what Pike would have wanted the most. The twists and turns in this neo-noir are massive, and while not all of it is because of Pike’s performance (much of it is due to the writing, directing, shooting and then some), we truly needed to be led on by this literary femme fatale. Boy, were we ever. She doesn’t even yell when she’s aggravated; Surely this woman is a sweetheart, right? Gone Girl has less to do with the status of one’s whereabouts and more to do with how far Amy will go in order to truly be Amazing Amy. Everything about Pike’s performance is amazing, even if Amy isn’t. Her tricks can be spotted the second watch through but not the first. You can sense panic and distress amongst her pondering facial expressions. She’s always calculating, and she’s downright disturbing about it, too. If you wanted to lose faith in the media and with innocence in humanity, you’ve found the right woman to do that with.

3. Jake Gyllenhaal-Lou Bloom (Nightcrawler)

If Donnie Darko grew up, became fixated on the death of all things and how such demise was captured on film, he’d possibly be Lou Bloom. This creep is so anti-social that he is actually highly sociable in return. He is condescending and manipulative with everything he says. He truly gets how humans act; He just doesn’t know how to love. Jake Gyllenhaal turns this nightcrawler into another definition of the word by making Bloom do anything but. He is wide eyed and predatory, monotone and aware, gaunt and ravenous. He eats society and stereotypes with a wide mouth. He watches the human circus take place with a goofy grin. He knows everything about the world and how it runs but very little about how to be a true part of it. Lou Bloom had to be a snake that hid amongst the shadows, and Gyllenhaal’s take on the despicable slug that feeds on suffering is so ugly that it’s sublime.

2. Scarlett Johansson-Under The Skin

I’m not quite sure what her name in the film is, but I can definitely say that the being in Under The Skin is not Scarlett Johansson. It is? The same Johansson that was in The Avengers, The Other Boleyn GIrl and Match Point? We’ve seen her truly shine in films like Lost in Translation and last year’s Her, but never has Johansson truly commanded both her own body and the screen like she does in Under The Skin. She is a fantastic other-worldly creature that never blinks (only when she is putting on an act), can pick up on other people’s mannerisms to pass them off as her own and simply observe everything around her. She doesn’t exist and yet she does. It’s bizarre feeling sorry for a living thing that cannot even display emotions outside of false content, and yet we do. To her, we are all an experiment. To us, Scarlett Johansson as a preying, celestial nightmare is a risk that payed off. This is an incredibly understated performance that’s been forgotten as the year has progressed. Don’t let it slip away, as it’s a big reminder of what capabilities Johansson truly has underneath it all.

1. Steve Carrel-John du Pont (Foxcatcher)


It was foggy when I left the cinema after watching Foxcatcher. The people walking past me seemed to get in my way. The streetlights, despite being dimmed, were too bright nonetheless. Everything around me just felt miserable and dead. That’s because I was being tortured for two hours straight by lifeless eyes, a concrete grimace and the monstrous heart of John du Pont, played perfectly by Steve Carrel. I usually relied on Carrel’s charm and talents to uplift me, but his role here made me hate everything for a little while. Within this movie, we witness a Hitchcockian monster– a caricature of the evils within man– who happened to truly exist. We experienced him, and we actually even felt sorry for him at times. That is how sinister Steve Carrel is.

Instantly, we know that there is something missing with this man. He sits with his head tilted up and his gaze shooting past down his cheeks. He is unresponsive but very easy to read at the same time. There is nothing there to give, but so much to take. He walks without any energy, and he talks like he is processing five words every twenty seconds. This is the result of an unloved, unfriended man who finally knows what it feels like to be compassionate. This is what happens when that eventual love is apparently stripped away. This is me trying to justify a demon simply because Steve Carrel actually stole my sympathy for a few brief moments amongst the many where he was Satan himself within a statuesque human being.

This is the best performance of 2014, and nothing can even come close. You can truly recognize a classic performance immediately, and within minutes I knew we had a special presentation here. That’s before we even discovered Carrel’s hidden gifts and tricks. This was before we saw his many reactions, his natural breathing and his chemical reactions to virtually everything around him. I don’t even know where he began with this character, because the character just exists. You’ll be pressed to find a performance more rewarding, discouraging, disgusting but depressing within this year, or within many of the past ones. It’s an absolute triumph of a performance–simply put (while his work was anything but simple).

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.