Vladimir Wormwood is a Mainer currently living in Allston, and a regular contributor to Film Flam at Boston Hassle. He devotes himself, almost absurdly, to pop culture and pop music. He likes to play guitar and sing. He studied film at the sadly defunct Videoport and also in countless basements and rec rooms. He still studies film every day. Everything is cinema…
As part of the 2016 year in review process I submit some of my favorite performances of the year:
In a less traditional sense I would like to acknowledge the ensemble performance in Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (2016). The cast energetically and movingly embodies the communal ethos of improv performance. The more central relationship of Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs is an artful expression of desire and melancholy, but I feel the creative team of Chris Gethard and Kate Micucci pulls at the art-strings central to all the conflict. Of course, parsing the film in this manner begs the question if I learned anything at all from it. Conflict is the necessary shading in the process, the relief or contrast to better understand the form.
Moonlight (2016) is full of understated depth of character, but nowhere more darkly nuanced than in the middle, teenaged segment. Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome occupy the uncertain space of denying self and actively searching for an acceptable portrayal of passable boyhood. The constant level of anxiety is physically jarring for Chiron (Sanders) who also lives with the constant threat of actual physical abuse. Sanders plays this as skittish, wary-eyed, and head down as though wishing to be more invisible. A dreamlike, melting intimacy and brush with vulnerable honesty is perverted into tragedy by the harsh light of high school. Kevin (Jerome) is uneasy in the irrevocable stricture of his ‘knock-down’ role and his engineered confrontation with Chiron is absurdly heartbreaking. Perhaps most affecting is the film’s quick transformation beyond morality and sympathy toward grim, inevitable violence.
Isabelle Huppert turns in another layered and simultaneously revealing and confusing performance in the controversial Elle (2016). Paul Verhoeven’s twisted thriller plays many angles of perversity and raises questions as it reveals the standard whodunnit plot. Gallows humor nearly dares viewers to be in on the joke, then seems to implicate or mock our identification. Empowerment is constantly subverted or exploded. This is almost entirely thanks to Huppert’s super-humanly resilient or robotically detached performance. Relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy soulfully anchors the revisionist or anthropological impulses in Robert Eggers’ raw The Witch (2015). While the film was a festival favorite last year, most of us didn’t get to see it till 2016. Through Taylor-Joy’s wide-eyed, horror and despair the bulk of this story avoids the supernatural altogether. The real power comes from pushing the limits of interpersonal mistrust and wickedness. It is similar to Elle for finding the evil in religion and family values.
For me, the most moving and affecting portraits of this year are cheats as they are not ‘performances’ strictly defined. Another late comer to US market was Chantal Ackerman’s vivid depiction of her relationship to her mother in No Home Movie (2015). The film is documentary but supremely focused on storytelling and its relation to personality. Similar to Werner Herzog, Agnes Varda, or Jean-Pierre Gorin, Ackerman was always swapping narrative elements into factual film and personal experience via fiction. Probably the single greatest piece of cinema this year goes to Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (2016) and specifically to Kate Lyn Sheil’s open process endeavor. The film never actually becomes the story of Christine Chubbuck, but rather a stylized and unclear document of Sheil’s portrayal. Kate Plays Christine gets uncomfortably personal. In a telling moment for all of artistic creation, Sheil describes wanting to be the best actor she can be and to give her all to every role. Then she waits a beat and then observes, “But who fucking cares?”
On that note the most crass, unoriginal, and mind bendingly perverse performance of 2016 was arguably the most successful. Somehow an ersatz Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life is now the President elect.