Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
While last week was a rather weak week in terms of potential topics for this article. This week has a rather bountiful array of potential actors to highlight. From Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Colin Firth, and Frances McDormand to Oscar nominee David Strathairn and non-nominated Stanley Tucci. Heck, even Jared Leto makes an appearance this week and while I wouldn’t recommend much that he’s been in, he has at least one title I would celebrate in a heartbeat. So, I had two options: cover one film from each of five actors or cover five of one particular actor.
For McDormand, starring in the widening release of major Oscar contender Nomadland, I don’t adore her like a lot of people. I think she’s a wonderful actress and respect her work in Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but her filmography just isn’t as filled with titles I would want to highlight in detail. For Strathairn, he has a small role in Nomadland as well, but he faces a similar problem, however with more titles on his list I wouldn’t mind talking about. That said, like McDormand, there aren’t enough to discuss five.
Firth and Tucci star this week in gay love story Supernova. Both actors are straight, but have each played gay characters before. Each have a handful of titles to acknowledge, but again not five I would feel excited about putting on my weekly list. That leaves Washington and Leto in The Little Things, the weekend’s only major wide release. As I mentioned before, Leto has a single title I would talk about, but that’s not enough to make a list. Washington, on the other hand, has earned a lot of acclaim for a lot of films. Sadly, I have seen fewer than I would like to admit.
Ultimately, this lack of clear leader, makes my decision easier. I’ll highlight five of these actors and then pick one major one from each. I’m ultimately going to leave Leto out because his filmography is mediocre at best and the others, while having some soft films in their pasts, are considerably better actors than Leto will ever be.
Before we get started, I also want to discuss the one film that didn’t get included below, but which I would have selected had I picked Leto for inclusion. In 2000, Leto starred in Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant addiction drama Requiem for a Dream. Not only did the film feature an absolutely wonderful score, it featured four brave and impressive performances from Leto, future Oscar winner Jennifer Connolly, and Marlon Wayans alongside the woman who should have won her second Oscar for Best Actress that year, Ellen Burstyn. This harrowing exploration of differing types of drug addictions and the destruction they wreak on the lives of the addicts and those around them was inventive in its use of editing and extreme close-ups to give the audience a jarring experience. That experience is one of the more compelling elements of the film as you can almost feel what it’s like to be under the sway of narcotics as a result. It also helps us to feel both shame and sorrow for the four figures, most notably Burstyn’s.
Now, back to my list.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Starting off with Frances McDormand, I would immediately toss both Fargo and Three Billboards from consideration. While I love McDormand in both, neither film was one of my favorites. Matter of fact, I’ve softened a bit on Fargo since it swept the critics awards in 1996, but I honestly still don’t care as much for it as I do other Ethan & Joel Coen films and certainly not as much as a lot of other people. Matter of fact, the title I selected for her came from that longstanding and beneficial working relationship.
The Coens’ 2001 film stars Billy Bob Thornton as a barber whose wife (McDormand) drinks heavily and whom he suspects is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini). As Thornton attempts to black mail her boss so he can use the money to invest in a dry cleaning operation, his carefully built house of cards comes crashing down as various characters suffer at the hands of his greed.
Characteristic of many of the Coens’ numerous twisting narratives, but employing some radically different filming techniques, The Man Who Wasn’t There is filmed in black-and-white, presenting a bygone 1940s era wherein simple lives are far more complicated than they first appear. McDormand is good, but this is Thornton’s time to shine with gorgeous photography and the story itself supporting him. It’s one of the Coens’ least talked about films, but it’s the best of theirs in my view.
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
With his debut feature coming in 1979, Strathairn has the longest career of any of the actors on this list. He has starred in numerous prominent films in his 40-year career, but there are three I like more than the others. The first is 1992’s A League of Their Own, which I highlighted a few weeks ago, and the second was Dolores Claiborne, starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in which he plays the abusive husband to Bates’ character and who died mysteriously several years earlier. However, the third film also happens to be one of his absolute best performances to date.
George Clooney’s tremendous sophomore directing effort stars Stathairn as legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow as he prepares to take down Senator Joe McCarthy who led numerous attempts to root out Communism in the United States. Murrow’s popularity and fame helped bring light to McCarthy’s dangerous and disingenuous activities, ultimately forcing him out of the public eye and beginning the process of healing America after its decades of division.
This is the second film on my list filmed in black-and-white and while The Man Who Wasn’t There used the feature for a similar reason to Good Night, and Good Luck., it’s clear that this film benefited greatly from that decision, ensconcing the audience in a bygone era where the difference between Communism and anti-Communists were perceived as black-and-white, but were very clearly not. It’s a wonderful, fascinating film with plenty of clever dialogue to bring the audience along with its ideological viewpoints.
A Single Man (2009)
Coming to the big screen first in 1984’s Another Country, it wasn’t until his co-starring role in Bridget Jones’ Diary that American audiences really began to pay attention to Firth. While he’s good in that film, he would prove a more gifted actor in future efforts, most notably in the title I chose to spotlight this week. Before discussing that, let’s talk about two other films that are personal favorites. Love Actually turned out to be a surprise hit when it was released in 2003 and Firth had a prominent role in the film, but the picture succeeds on the strength of the cast rather than his performance in specific. The same could be said of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the Cold War era spy thriller released in 2011. That film was a re-adaptation of a popular John Le Carré novel. Again, the entire cast helps make the slow-boil feature a success.
Few films tap into Firth’s natural charisma and acting talents the way Tom Ford’s directorial Debut did. A Single Man tells the story of a gay man and his best friend (Julianne Moore) as he tries to cope with the loss of his lover in an auto accident. Firth explores numerous emotions as he mourns the man he loved while feeling like he is betraying him when he seeks out companionship elsewhere.
Ford’s insightful debut is the best Firth has ever been, far better to his Oscar-winning role in The King’s Speech. As frustrated as I have become with straight actors playing gay on the big screen, there’s no doubt that this particular outing for Firth was a huge success. While the film didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved, earning Firth his first Oscar nomination, it certainly deserved nominations for Picture, Directing, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay.
Easy A (2010)
Tucci is one of those actors that you could swear you’ve seen in everything and you might actually be right. Since his big screen debut as an unnamed soldier in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor in 1985, he has appeared in 92 movies and 32 different television productions from TV series to movies to miniseries. His prolific career is a direct result of his affable and compelling presence. He’s been in several films I’ve liked, but there are three I feel deserve most of our attention. In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep commands the screen as notorious fashion editor Miranda Priestly. She’s ably supported by Emily Blunt, in her breakthrough role, and Anne Hathaway as Priestley’s co-assistants while featuring Tucci as her art director. The role doesn’t demand much of him, but it’s a fun movie either way. The other film is a quadrilogy, The Hunger Games. As Caesar Flickerman, Tucci gets to ham it up as an exuberant, pompous television personality. He was the perfect embodiment of that character.
While I almost chose The Hunger Games for this slot, I ultimately landed on Easy A because it was such a warm, hilarious movie that needed to be recognized. Emma Stone had a stellar breakthrough in this film as a smart teenager who inadvertently starts a rumor that she’s promiscuous and decides that instead of letting the school make fun of her, she would turn the experience around and own the moniker, embodying the ultimate literary target of rumor-mongering, Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
This hilarious, endearing film asks the audience to understand the unacceptable pressure we put on young woman to live a certain kind of life or risk being labeled for it. A compelling exploration of teenage bullying and the toll it takes on young psyches is perfectly punctuated by an excellent performance from Stone and a wonderful array of supporting performances by Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson, and Tucci. Tucci plays Stone’s father alongside Clarkson’s mother, a smart, humorous pair that exemplify the values Stone is trying to exhibit. The warmth that Tucci and Clarkson provide in the film help anchor it.
Admitting that you aren’t very familiar with an actor’s filmography is very difficult, but I must admit that Washington is one my blind spots as a critic. Several of his most prominent films from Glory to Malcolm X to Training Day to Fences have been on my radar, but remain unexplored. The handful of films I have seen him in have largely been unappealing or unsuitable to his talents. I was only able to come up with two films I could honestly say were my favorites. The first of which is 1993’s Philadelphia in which Washington plays a lawyer defending Tom Hanks’ gay man who was unceremoniously fired when it was revealed he had AIDS. While the film seems a bit hokey in hindsight, it provided a tremendous opportunity for both actors to tackle complex characters and their interactions.
In one of the few good late-career films Robert Zemeckis has directed, Washington plays a cocaine-addicted alcoholic pilot who must safely land a plane that might have crash-landed without his clear-headed thinking. In spite of the success, the National Transportation Safety Board investigates the incident and attempts to put Washington on trial for the fault they say is his in the accident. As this film unwinds, we discover more unappealing aspects to Washington’s character as the jury is educated about them, hoping to sour them on his actions.
Washington is fierce in the film, delving into complex emotions and having to deal with the consequences of his addiction. His performance landed him his seventh of so-far eight Oscar nominations as an actor. While the film might not have fared well with the Oscars, earning only one other nomination for Original Screenplay, the power of Washington’s performance is more than enough to overcome some of its weaker elements.