17 November 2008

Very Good Work: Beau travail (Claire Denis/1999)

A while back I watched my first two films by two of France’s most celebrated and polemical female filmmakers, Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis: Anatomy of Hell/Anatomie de l'enfer (2003) and Beau travail/Good Work (1999), respectively. I saw them a few days apart, and whilst they didn’t have an enormous amount of clear-cut commonalities, they do share some ideological concerns. I guess I couldn’t help but view them as counterpart works in some respects.

An apparent connection I found when watching them consecutively – apart from the fact both are fascinating films from the controversial doyenne-duo of French cinema, and likewise ripe for analysis – prompted me to view them as near similitude to each other. Seeing them in such close proximity cemented the fact that both films are essentially about looking, above all else; specifically, they focus on how other people look at other people (and we looking at them both). But while Anatomy was a rather hollow exercise rammed forth with pretentious impassivity and muddied visual bluntness, Denis’ film was all fleshy cogitative swagger, enhanced by a crisply aerated clarity of image. Beau travail was also the sharper of the two in terms of what it means to be repulsed and fascinated at the same time by an exotic other. It burrowed a bit deeper. Further comparisons may or may not exist, other than the notion of visual (dis)pleasure, but Denis' was by far the better work. The act of looking is more evocatively investigated; its images have a lasting impact.

It’s indeed a handsome film to look at in formal terms. Denis’ favoured cinematographer, Agnès Godard, provides Denis’ camera a languorous and analogical look at male beauty and weakness, as filtered through its main character’s (Galoup, Denis Lavant) mostly idealised recollections. He narrates the story of his time spent in the French Foreign Legion, situated in the Gulf of Djibouti in Africa, where he leads the troops in training. Endless shots of bare-chested men running, mock-fighting and sweating through assault courses are frequent.

Denis’ camera adores these men. She tracks them in their daily grind at every juncture; the camera practically caressing their bodies as they train. From early on it’s evident that Denis is gradually developing an erotic fascination that is both incredibly distanced (in formal terms; her camera is physically at a remove from her subjects) and unfalteringly intimate at the same time (intimacy through the sense of sight alone). We know exactly how athletic each man is, how their bodies contort and their muscles flex, but we never really hear them talk, apart from snatched moments of idle conversation – It’s as if Denis is disallowing us any verbal distraction from the imagery; she’s nudging us to get our eyes to do the heavy lifting.

But if we don’t know much about the men’s inner lives, it’s because Lavant isn’t interested in them, not Denis. Events are somewhat skewed through his selective memory. That is, apart from his fixation on Sentain (Gregoire Colin) a soldier who inflames his repressed lust and occupies his singular gaze; this infatuation is a result of envy mixed with his craving the attentions of Commander Forestier (Michel Subor). Lavant is clearly in love with Sentain, and his strange and unjust treatment of him speaks volumes about the hierarchy of power these men adhere to. It’s very much about unspoken desire, of course, but we can’t seem to access it, just as Lavant can’t, or won’t, accept his feelings on any level apart from through the cruelty of furtive (though infertile) glances. But to say this is all surface longing is wrong, as what we can’t glean from the characters themselves, we piece together through the way in which Denis films them.

Landscape plays an important part in the film, too. Denis grew up in Africa (though now works out of Paris) and she clearly knows the setting well; the imagery is grounded by a great sense of place, and is as assured as it is oddly surreal. The land seems to stretch far and wide and it meets the tip of the ocean, which affords the film many shots of rampant skinny-dipping – this made me think that Denis was trying to trump Derek Jarman by one-upping his Sebastiane (1976).

Wet bodies don’t seem to interest her as much as hard bodies though. In training – usually on the seared deserts – the men hurriedly and quietly go about their procedures. The camera gets close enough to observe all the minute intricacies of their actions, but never opens up specific, logical avenues for us to see it extended beyond preordained and coded sexualised activity. It’s all pent up emotion, with little, or no, outlet. All this endless exercise is the calm before the storm, so to speak. It’s amazing how captivating it can be; there’s rarely a moment of boredom at any point. The languid rhythm of the editing mimics the men’s bodily movements. We’re lulled into a daze of oddly calm gestures, which are all the more strange because of the submerged levels of aggression they contain. These men respect one another – as comrades do – but there’s no obvious closeness. Denis does all the real bonding here, while we watch with inquisitive eyes.

And in contrast to all the gently swaying bodies in states of exertion, Lavant’s odd, spasmodic and downright fucked up dancing to Coronia’s 'The Rhythm of the Night' in the very final scene of the film is both hilariously baffling and strangely poignant all in one. In this last moment of acting out, both Denis and her main character do eventually achieve some kind of emotional release.

© Craig Bloomfield 2008

4 November 2008

Praise for the Cutaway shot in Ozu's Floating Weeds

Floating Weeds/Ukigusa (1959), Yasujiro Ozu's colour remake of his earlier silent 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds/Ukikusa monogatari, is an incredibly beautiful film about a troupe of travelling kabuki players who arrive at a small port town "somewhere in the south of Japan" during a particularly scorching summer. The players are brought to the town to perform by troupe master Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura); his mistress, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), also a player, accompanies him. Komajuro ventures off to look up his old flame, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), with whom he had a son some years ago. The boy, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), now in his late teens, believes Komajuro to be his uncle, having been told by that his "father" died when he was child.

Ozu subtly provided more substantial content that added to - and concretely advanced - his film's central narrative in several masterfully crafted and poignant cutaway (or insert) shots. There's one particular scene, bookended by two identical cutaway shots, roughly forty-five mins into the film: Komajuro is upstairs at Oyoshi's house playing chess with Kiyoshi. Sumiko visits, intending to reveal to the family that Komajuro is Kiyoshi's father. She and Komajuro talk downstairs, away from Kiyoshi (though Oyoshi is present). Sumiko strongly hints at the truth, though doesn't specifically reveal it, but enough telling details are revealed for an eavesdropping Kiyoshi to draw his own conclusions.

The scene is established by an interior low-level shot of a window with red flowers nestled in a stone rockery and a blue lampshade in front of it; rain pours down outside, just visible behind the blinds in the window (here the film's 1.33:1 aspect ratio holds the image perfectly). The scene takes place, then we return to the same shot of the window: the rain is still pounding down. Somehow all the harsh realities of family strife, and the rift that caused them, seem both all-important and needlessly trivial at the same time. The shot is no more than three seconds long, but its impact lasts well into, and beyond, the following scene.

The rain falling outside is concomitant to the rift being created inside the house. We are never not aware of it; the continual downpour is audible for the entire duration of the scene. But it doesn't signify a pathetic fallacy. At no point does it feel as if it's there to theoretically replace any of the emotional gravity - expertly invoked through the actors' commitment to the script - unearthed by the confrontation.

After the confrontation Komajuro hurriedly and angrily guides Sumiko outside to admonish her, and Kiyoshi simply sits on the stairs in resignation, staring at Oyoshi but saying nothing. Everything changes from now on. The secret now revealed has not only highlighted Komajuro's long-standing and perhaps needlessly foolish pride (hinting that he maybe shouldn't have feared rejection for being "merely an itinerant player"), but it has also opened a wound and perpetuated the emotional distance between father and son. Together these two factors, and the resulting complexity born out of them, signify the crux of the whole film; it in fact seems to pivot on these brief moments of change.

The scene is crucial because it tells us everything we need to know about the situation, about how precarious emotional family bonds can be and how hidden truths erode hopeful reconnection. It's the substantive heart of the film: everything before it builds up to this point; everything after is determined by how each character reacts here. It lasts roughly 4 mins. The duplicate shot of the window encloses this family secret, keeping peripheral characters outside of the knowledge and the family members emotionally contained in this moment. Ozu uses several stunning cutaway shots (to establish place and event, and to enhance the narrative) elsewhere in the film, but here, in this one scene, his use of them cements a significant and unalterable plot point. Between two identical images a whole world of difference has minutely shifted.

Here, more than probably elsewhere in his work, Ozu showed he was the master of the cutaway shot. He created some of the best truly great cutaway shots; ones that contained an unforced power, which lingered in my mind long after the scene had ended. This one small but significant part of the film confirmed to me his absolute control of his material. It's my very favourite moment not just in Floating Weeds but in all of his films that I've so far seen. He used the elapsing of small pockets of time to determinant effect. In mere minutes-worth of screentime our position on the story, the characters and events big and small has crucially altered.

© Craig Bloomfield 2008

3 November 2008

Short-Term Lovesong: Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs (2004)

Michael Winterbottom’s candidly explicit 70-minute digital feature 9 Songs (2004) caused controversy when it premièred at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, due to the portrayal of real sex performed in the film. The story revolves around Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margot Stilley), who meet at a concert and embark on a brief, intense affair, which is depicted in all its graphic and intimate variations. The narrative is composed of a numerous series of spare, interwoven vignettes: the couple having sex in Matt's flat; specially-shot footage from Brixton Academy gigs featuring the likes of Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand and so on (with a one-off Michael Nyman performance thrown in for a bit of variation); and Matt recollecting events from his work post in the Antarctic. The plot isn’t of high importance: it’s not so much what happens, but how it is shown. After Matt and Lisa first meet, it's wall-to-wall sex (save for the above interspersed narrative diversions).

The idea to examine the realisation and consequences of a particularly hermetic sexual liaison, money shots and all, is a fresh and welcome decision. Many filmmakers may not possess Winterbottom’s audacity here, although Patrice Chereau's film Intimacy tried a similar approach in 2001 (and John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus pushed the 'real sex' angle a step further in 2006). Scenes of the couple idly chatting in bed are filmed in a very loose style and have a slightly vérité feel. The photography (by Marcel Zyskind, who works regularly with Winterbottom) is accordingly luminous, bathing the actors in warm hues of yellow and orange. At times it was reminiscent of Nan Goldin's photographs from the late ‘70s: lovers depicted in varying states of sexual and emotional openness, eyes gazing beyond the frame in knowing recognition.

We obviously have more information than that provided by a still image, however. Our minds aren't allowed to wonder what may have taken place; we are shown every intimate, revealing detail. There is (visual) description where there could have been suggestion, and very little pause for reflection – either the couple’s or the viewers’. The wholesale explicitness isn’t always a negative thing: by allowing his camera to almost brush up against the pair during sex, Winterbottom urges the viewer to almost become implicit in their actions, to near-as-dammit feel how closely and instinctively connected these relative strangers in fact are. It's as if he wants his audience of reluctant voyeurs to be drawn out of the dark cinema and into his camera's direct glare, to admit that in the act of watching strangers in "porn" the closest viewpoint is the only one possible to fully absorb the intentions of his imagery: it's either the back-row or the front line. This does indeed allow for a more thorough, visceral sense of how deeply involved with one another Matt and Lisa are, and how we might question our distanced view of them, but it also smacks of the director drooling over his subjects. The line Winterbottom treads here is thin, but what he suggests is certainly worthy of analysis all the same.

There is a fundamental lack of development of the characters as modern, upwardly-mobile everyday people. However heightened or idealised the sex portrayed is, these two are positioned as more than anonymous porn actors (they are surely essentially intended to represent any sexually-experimental, random heterosexual couple). The sex may be real but their personalities are unremarkable and go unexplored: if they have full lives outside the relationship, we're none the wiser. What importance their jobs or families have goes unquestioned. I wanted to discover more about them besides merely what bands they liked or how trendy they were. Although a perceptive character study clearly isn't the major focus here, a better degree of character definition would enhance further interest in them as fully-functioning sexually active individuals, not just as superficial vessels for fucking.

The script veers between blandly descriptive and immature. At one point during a gig, Matt remarks: "in a crowd of 5,000 people, you still feel all alone." The quality is that of a sulky teen committing thoughts to a diary. The use of narration (confined to Matt alone) gives the film a certain structure, but no true insight is provided and it gives predominance to his character. A voice-over for both characters may have provided an equal weighting for Lisa, too. Either that, or have no narration at all. As it is, it's too infrequently used to make much of a solid impact anyway. And why make the characters' inner thoughts outwardly explicit if they are as lopsided and cringe-worthy as those already on display in the spoken dialogue?

If Winterbottom had defined the characters (and given them more room to be real sexual and emotional individuals, as opposed to merely infatuated, meandering strangers) and discarded the unwieldy tone of the Antarctic soliloquies, the film may have achieved its aim to show how sex - and the endless possibilities of desire – can affect two people in a way that can alter their lives. It’s a bold yet elusive film, with a palpable undercurrent of real kinkiness to it. But ultimately it perhaps charts one song too many.

© Craig Bloomfield 2005

2 November 2008

Looking Back to 2005: Top Ten Female Performances

Top row: 10 - 6; Bottom row: 5 - 1

10. Laura Dern as Terry Linden in We Don’t Live Here Anymore

In a strong four-hander Dern's performance stood out; she was the one character that seemed to be set apart from the rest somehow, either through the fact that she played in a few more scenes without a co-star, or that she was the only one to truly flesh out her character fully. I'm not sure if it was that I connected with her (and therefore her storyline) more, but there was something almost soulful in her fierce portrayal of a confounded wife (and mother) who is seriously not happy with her lot. Dern instills a sly fury and pathos into her role, making it much less of the token effort, a mere fourth wheel, that it could have been if played by someone without her determination and driving force. Terry was someone who needed to break free in absolutely her own way. As always, Dern excelled.

09. Mary-Lynn Rajskub as Avalyn Friesen in Mysterious Skin

Rajskub’s character is the kind of girl you might see week-in, week-out on 'The Jerry Springer Show'. Rajskub turns UFO fanatic Avalyn - a person that could have simply been laughable and pathetic - into a fully-rounded person (Araki's clear-witted writing helps here also). She's sweetly needy, instead of cloying; charming instead of indigent, right down to her subtle, not-too-quirky mannerisms and permanent walking stick. Rajskub is an underrated actress who I'd like to see move up to lead roles (she has a similar quality to Toni Collette; she's never put in a bad role). She's got heaps of talent and assured comic timing. She just needs the right role to catapult her to more weightier parts. This one should surely help.

08. Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth Malet in The Libertine

Rosamund Pike is amazing in The Libertine. I'd only seen her in Die Another Day before this, but here she holds her own amongst strong company. Her surprising and brilliantly un-vain performance (as the prim and very vain Elizabeth Malet) was astounding. There's a scene near the end of the film where she verbally spars with Johnny Depp - both have reached the absolute social nadir: she swigs wine manfully, letting it drool down her face as she spits abuse at him. She does it better than he does. She shows Malet is a force to be reckoned with; push a lady like her too far and social standing goes flying out the window. This intense scene, balanced with her earlier moments of serene composure and contemplation, made for a brave and compulsive performance. Back away and admire from a distance; she's much much more than a Bond girl.

07. Shiang-Chyi Chen as Shiang-Chyi in The Wayward Cloud

Chen doesn't exactly do a great deal in the film, but everything you need to know about her character is written all over her blank, but open-hearted face. She follows up the same role from Tsai Ming-Liang's precursor to this film, What Time Is It There?, but here she slowly and beautifully twists the character around until she ends up somewhere completely different, and sadly less happy, from where she began. It's a totally different place she finds herself in from where we thought (and surely hoped) she'd end up. The final moments of the film are hard to watch, but however dismaying Shiang-Chyi makes the film's audacious, questionable ending rind with an earned sadness. The single tear eking its way down her face in the last shot did it.

06. Abbie Cornish as Heidi in Somersault

Heidi was a character that really could've been played badly if the wrong person took the role. Abbie Cornish manages effortlessly to be many things at once here: a demure drifter, a hollow vessel for others to transfer their desires onto and an outrageous flirt, all contained behind the same pair of pleading eyes. It wouldn't surprise me if Cornish goes on to the bigger things in time; she could act many of her peers off the screen on the evidence of this role. She avoids easy dramatics and stroppy tantrums that can go with a part like this by simply bringing a variety of subtle shades to it. It's like she knew the role outright, from head to toe.

05. Valerie Tedeschi-Bruni as Marion in 5x2

From the start of the film (the end of the story) to the end (the beginning), Bruni Tedeschi's Marion changes so much, not just in those big life shifts required to show the eroding stages of the marriage, but in tiny ways that almost go unnoticed. The single, carefree woman who dances gleefully to Whigfield's ‘Saturday Night’ (hilarious song choice, that) at the end is not the woman who suffers through the - most probable - marital rape at the beginning. After the film ended, I straight away replayed it (and her performance in particular) in my mind; I realised how much of a lasting impression she immediately left . She had to shape five wildly different stages of this woman's life, in limited chunks. That Marion felt so real was down to the way Tedeschi-Bruni instinctively fleshed her character out.

04. Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake in Vera Drake

I had to put a shout out for Staunton here. She’s an actress who can inhabit this kind of role like a glove and make it feel 100% realistic (or as real as I could imagine) and, in the end, deserving of the utmost praise. It was perfect casting. Vera's frequent bustling back and forth to help out friends and family, running errands, cooking meals, having cups of tea on tap, and of course, the polemic of the film, her "assisting girls in trouble", speaks volumes about the differences between what happens on the street and what's going on behind the net curtains in Leigh's probe into '50s post-war Britain. There aren't any affected quirks or false mannerisms to the part. It's all essential to how someone like Vera is. Staunton scrunches her eyes up, and makes you feel the blind helplessness behind them, like no-one else; she turns crying into an artform; tea-making even more so. It's great to see her in a risky central role for once, too. It goes without saying that it's her best performance yet.

03. Maria Bello as Edie Stall in A History of Violence

I was in awe of just how well Bello conveyed something as straightforward as disbelief. And even more in awe of how well her character then easily accepted the secrets that surrounded her husband's past. It was more than just convincing emotional details that made her performance so good though; it was in the minor, but subtly complex particularities of the role, too. In a male-dominated film, Bello stood her ground firmly. Her clothes and surroundings were drab, but her personality and her passion for her marriage wasn't. Her outward demeanour harboured a tough, independent soul. I was totally convinced that Edie lived a full life even though very few aspects of her job, and indeed her world away from her husband (and all other areas of her existence), were shown. Bello managed to make Edie real through sheer impellent conviction and by fully enveloping herself into the part.

02. Sibel Kekilli as Sibel in Head-On

Speaking of kicking arse, Sibel Kekilli got hers well and truly booted in Head-On (in one of the most unbearably sad and harshest scenes of a film that goes to the harshest extremes in depicting a couple's tumultuous lives together). But she got up time after time, spat back and defiantly asked for more; I couldn't believe the guts this woman had. Her suicidal model of independence was one of the best characters of the year; a woman who took life by the balls and shook it up good and proper. Kekilli had this role firmly down. There's a moment where she literally stops herself in her tracks - where she is hoovering a hotel room - and looks out of the window – looking out wistfully at what her life was and now is. Without words she manages to inhabit real lived experience in a few facial gestures. Kekilli, a Turkish ex-porn star, made her "legit" film debut here. In a disheartening and ironic twist that somewhat mirrors the situation of her onscreen character, her family disowned her after seeing the film (upon discovering her former career). It was bold for her to do this role - and the performance came from a place of sincere conviction.

01. Eva Löbau as Melanie Pröschle in The Forest for the Trees

Eva Löbau enhances what is an already excellent film tenfold with her quietly stunning performance here. It's the first time in a long time where I've felt both totally sympathetic to and fully supportive of a fictional character. Which is why she gets the top spot. Löbau kinda broke my heart a little bit with her role as Melanie - a new schoolteacher, on her own and in a strange town making a life for herself. She's someone trying to meet new people, attempting to do well in a job that she feels no-one really wants her in and living as simply as she can. These things usually come as standard character-padding for this type of fish-out-of-water role in more mainstream-minded films. Löbau fully shows the character in all her good and bad attributes: Melanie was high maintenance, annoying and embarrassing, but she was also good-natured, eager and someone who is genuinely interested in other people's lives (much more so than they are with her). It's a small, quiet film with no grandstanding moments that has at its centre a performance full of humanity, complexity and charm. You don't see characters like this very often, if at all. Her car ride at the end of the film - as the Grandaddy song ‘He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot’ fades in - was unbelievably heartbreaking and is probably my favourite moment in any film from 2005.

The subs - 11. Fatoumata Coulibaly / Moolaadé 12. Jennifer Connelly / Dark Water 13. Jennifer Jason Leigh / Childstar 14. Maggie Cheung / Clean 15. Sharon Wilkins / Palindromes 16. Lola Dueñas / The Sea Inside 17. Anapola Mushkadiz / Battle in Heaven 18. Jodie Foster / A Very Long Engagement 19. Shirley Maclaine / In Her Shoes 20. María Alche / La Niña santa

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

1 November 2008

Looking Back to 2005: Top Ten Male Performances

I like to compile a list of what I consider to be the best films and performances (and occasionally the odd technical credit) from each year. There's also a list of the worst, or, to perhaps be more diplomatic, disappointing films of 2005. I started doing write-ups for these lists last year, but have since put together basic lists for films from 2000 to 2004 as well, which I'll include when I've (hopefully) written something on them. I wanted to put these older comments on here (initially from '05, '06 and '07) in the lead up to my 2009 list (for the films from this year - as, of course, these things need to be done retrospectively). I include all films I got to see during the year that essentially received a UK release between Jan. 1st and Dec. 31st '05.

So, I'm starting with what male performances of 2005. The best '05 female performances will follow; after that the best and worst '05 films, and so on. The 2008 lists will be done at the end of January '09. Right, enough intro - on with the first batch:

Top row: 10 - 6: Bottom row: 5 -1

10. Alan Arkin as Gene in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Even though I didn't like the film as a whole, Arkin's performance was greatly measured and affecting. It was one of those character-driven, multi-plot-strand kind of affairs, where the cast is individually designated an appropriately emotional storyline. It got boring quickly, but was worth seeing if only for Arkin. He comes across as completely unlikeable as a difficult, workaholic office manager in a tight spot, but on a few rare occasions the camera follows him home alone too, where another side to him is discovered. He has to fire a co-worker due to company regulations and the man to get the chop is the one that Gene resents for being funnier and more popular than he is. Never have the words "I'm letting you go" felt so awkwardly put across. The conflict and pain in Gene was right there, but never overstated. His plot strand takes up a bigger chunk than the rest; this surely goes to show that the filmmakers ensured Arkin’s great work not get sidelined.

09. Sean Penn as Samuel J. Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Penn was great in two films in 2005: The Interpreter and The Assassination of Richard Nixon. The latter had the edge; it was the far more rewarding film. It's a very Willy Loman-like act that Penn pulls off, but he's always had a vast default range of variably emotive expressions and a plethora of tics and traits that could even see him through a performance as a lamppost. Even when Bicke is staring blankly, you know that he's seething deep down inside about the state he's found himself in. All that interior fury gets distilled right up until the end where it erupts in a really bad way. The great thing is that Penn maintains a cool-headedness throughout, managing to convey both the very much evident decency in and the mounting resentment regarding the collapse of his dreams. Bicke’s no (Travis) Bickle but comes close enough to warrant at least a small comparison.

08. Birol Ünel as Cahit Tomruk in Head-On

Sibel Kekilli was great in Head-On, but she was more than perfectly complimented by Ünel as her husband. Whether he's recklessly driving into walls like a stroppy teen with a death wish or chugging down one too many beers in a club, Ünel brilliantly manages to be a self-destructive teenager trapped inside the body of a forty-plus-year-old has-been. Cahit clearly doesn't want to let go of his former self, but can't seem to function as he is either. When he gradually gets to know Kekilli's character - after she makes an indelible mark on him - the side of him to emerge was something truly unexpected. His journey felt real and entirely plausible, but it could've been portrayed so badly if Ünel missed a beat. He doesn't at all and creates a man that I wanted to see succeed.

07. Banlop Lomnoi as Keng in Tropical Malady

The two distinctly separate parts of Weerasethakul’s audacious, dreamy film are tied together through thematic hints and strange parallels. But also through one fixed character. As soldier Keng, Banlop Lomnoi has to translate the emotional arc of his character without the use of much dialogue: for a large amount of screentime he is alone in the jungle. He is pursuing what he believes to be his lover (a farmhand, Tong), who may or may not have been transformed into a mythical creature. As Keng searches, sleeps, waits and wanders around, Lomnoi made me believe that every single minute of his search either had the potential to be fraught with danger or filled with the joy of discovery. He perfectly captured the idea of loss and trepidation being at a complete remove, as if it were somehow outside of a person, following them around, but Lomnoi manages it effortlessly here, and is totally mesmerising. Just like the film itself.

06. Issey Ogata as Tony Takitani in Tony Takitani

The eponymous lead character played by Ogata was a quiet type who works as a technical illustrator. Lonely and solemn, he gently goes about his existence without much in the way of emotional interaction. That is until a woman brings him out of his shell. It’s a highly-guarded performance completely atypical to showboat-style acting (we rarely ever seem to even see his face fully) but the way Ogata plods along and shifts about reveals a great deal about his character. The film deals with death and loss as its main theme, but never in an obvious or clear-cut manner. To play a man who has to show closed-off longing and regret through the subtlest of means must be difficult to achieve without much dialogue, so the fact that Ogata convinced me of his grief with nothing more than a few words at a time and a forlorn, inexpressive face was astounding. The scene where Tony enters his late wife’s walk-in wardrobe, and how he responds to the emptiness inside, was intensely moving.

05. Topher Grace as Carter Duryea in In Good Company

Grace doesn't seem to get a lot of praise, probably because some of his films aren't too good (or maybe that he's been in so few films), but in In Good Company I thought he was simply great. His character was incredibly pushy, awkward and foolish, but these aspects of his character were shown as awkwardly sweet-natured traits of a man who obviously went about things the wrong way whilst actually trying to get it all right. I could tell that Carter didn't really believe in all the corporate speak as it came out of his mouth, he was just trying to do what he thought should be done, what would advance his career. When Dennis Quaid's character obligingly asks Carter to dinner with his family, he didn't expect a quick-fire response of, "Oh yeah! That'd be great!!" This brief exchange showed me everything I needed to know about Carter Duryea, and began the best romantic relationship between two straight men that cinema offered up in a long time.

04. Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda

I loved the way that in the more desperate and terrifying parts of this film Cheadle's character kept a level of professionalism totally in keeping with his job as a hotel manager. The terrible events of the film, that detail the effects of the Rwandan Genocide, are shown through the struggles of a man who really only wants to keep his family safe, but ends up doing much more because of the nature of his job and the environment he's in. I sweated alongside Cheadle here; I just wanted him to get through the ordeal. He managed to get the right amount of fear, frustration and panic across, whilst making it all seem like another working day. Considering the circumstances, a massive feat. It was a tightly controlled performance, without any any false grandstanding. Everything Cheadle did was expertly played.

03. Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall in A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen plays Tom with a careful reserve and intense conviction. You have to study his face hard to see that underneath the gruff façade an altogether different man could be lurking. At first he's the Average American Man who is as everyday as the apple pie he serves in his diner, but the unforseen violent circumstances that creep into the story change him into someone else altogether. It's like Tom has stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting straight into Interzone. I'd love to see Mortensen get awarded for this performance, although it's an unshowy and subtle piece of acting likely to be overlooked. The expression on his face as he calmly washes his hands in the river at the end of the film - just after the fatal encounter with William Hurt, and well before he returns to the family fold - wasn’t easy to forget.

02. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil in Mysterious Skin

Not since River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho has the wandering gay with a price tag on his ass been so brilliantly portrayed. Gordon-Levitt is in pretty much every scene of the film (and his presence still felt in scenes without him in). He makes each one count. I hadn't seen him in anything prior to Mysterious Skin, so there was an element of true discovery to his performance. Gregg Araki didn't skimp on the icky details of the story, and Gordon-Levitt boldly took the role by the reigns. The final scene was brilliantly handled by both the main actors (the other being Brady Corbet). The position Neil found himself in - taking into account the deeply sad experiences of his life up to that point - was heartbreaking to watch. It's worth noting that a great many younger actors wouldn't surely have taken a role like this for fear of career damage, but I'm glad that there are still actors – like Phoenix before him, and Ledger and Gyllenhaal after him – who still take risks. They do sometimes pay off.

01. Romain Duris as Thomas Seyr The Beat That My Heart Skipped

For both the No.1 male and female performances of '05, I chose characters that in some respects – in either small or large ways - I've related to on some level. I've never been a piano prodigy nor have I beaten people up for not wanting to be evicted from their homes, but something about Romain Duris' performance as Thomas personally appealed to me. Other than that, it was just plainly great acting: Duris was endlessly watchable. It was all in the way he conveyed the wildly different extremes of Thomas' personality. His outlook on life was largely conflicted through two things: music and crime. These things were blurred to a degree that any attempts to simply rationalise Thomas’ actions came off as near pointless; one begat the other too closely to differentiate their cultural conflict. Thomas was an inherently complex guy caught between two worlds neither of which he was sure he belonged in, both pulling him like a tug-of-war. Ultimately it was his family loyalty and the neccessity to be a better person that affected him most - the punctured look on Duris' face in the concert hall scene at the end said everything in one deflated expression. Nothing ever got answered fully, but this was a brilliant decision on Audiard's behalf; decisions like this aren’t simplistic in art, as in life. Duris is an actor to keep an eye on. His performance here was the best by a man that I've seen all year.

The subs - 11. Jeffrey Wright / Broken Flowers, 12. Bruno Ganz / Downfall, 13. Nick Nolte / Clean, 14. Michael Pitt / Last Days, 15. Tadanobu Asano / Café Lumiere, 16. Chiwetel Ejiofor / Kinky Boots, 17. Sam Worthington / Somersault, 18. Ashley Walters / Bullet Boy, 19. Steve Carell / The 40 Year Old Virgin, 20. Stéphane Freiss / 5x2

© Craig Bloomfield 2006