Oh hey, I didn’t see you there!
When it came time for me to write this list I was utterly surprised by the choices I was making. I saw a lot of great films this year, horror and non-horror alike, but there was a certain freedom in limiting myself to films that (more or less) fit in the horror genre. For instance, I loved George Clooney in The Descendants and I thought Charlize Theron was pitch perfect in Young Adult. But those are great performances that are already going to make almost every list out there.
So by shaking off the burdens of consensus (whether or not I largely agree with it), I was able to focus almost solely on roles that surprised me. There’s a couple of performers included that I would have never in a million years considered putting on any list – good or bad – even just a couple of weeks ago. It was such a great pleasure to strip away my own expectations and simply write about what performances made me happy – for various reasons. I guarantee that there’s only one in here that has a chance in hell of overlapping with the Academy.
Oscar-nominated actresses often take risky low-budget roles between the agent approved, career trajectory signpost films that make up the bulk of their body of work. But rarely are those roles this risky and this low budget. As Libby in James Gunn’s Super, Ellen Page gets to play an infectiously energetic young woman who just happens to be a 100% complete sociopath. It’s a fearless performance that draws upon the heretofore unseen reserves of innocence, sexuality and violence in Page’s repertoire. Waves of vicarious glee wash over you as she dives headfirst into the carnage afforded by her new identity as Boltie. It’s a kinetic, visceral performance that’s enhanced tenfold by how unpretentious it is.
The Innkeepers is an effective thriller that literally had me pounding the armrests of my seat in suspense during its final act. It also happens to possess a sort of adorable innocence that impressively enhances the film’s fear factor in places where you would expect it to be diminished. The same can be said of Sara Paxton’s performance as Claire. She’s cute and adorable, but there are also some very real layers to her character and the place she’s found herself in life that are key to justifying her need to explore the darker corners of the Yankee Pedlar Hotel. I’ve seen Paxton in a ton of stuff before and she never really popped out at me as a performer. So whether she’s found her voice, the right piece of material, the right director in Ti West or some combination thereof – something’s happened that allows her to portray all these layers and yet remain an insanely likable character. Almost as much as TI West, she gives The Innkeepers its sense of identity.
If you’ll allow me to plagiarize myself from my year-end list, “‘You’re Next’ may very well be my favorite of the horror films I’ve seen this year, at least on a visceral level. It’s at times uneven and angular, but it’s never less than invigorating. And to be fair, the unevenness never stems from a lack of quality, but an abundance of it. The film’s highs are so soaring that the lows have to settle for merely being “really good”.” It’s a confluence of many factors, most of them structural, that the film really takes off around the same time Joe Swanberg arrives onscreen as Drake (the seemingly douchey brother to AJ Bowen’s Crispian). But to deny him credit for this uptick in the film would be criminal. It would seem at first glance that he has little to do in the movie, but if you look closer you’ll find that his supporting role provides the central family’s fractured dynamic the most clarity. He’s a hilarious dick whose slightly more tender dimensions are slowly revealed by his actions throughout the film. I’d never really thought of Swanberg as a performer before this, but I’d be surprised if a ton of roles didn’t get thrown at him after the film’s release this coming fall.
Lucky McKee’s The Woman, for all of the controversy surrounding it, remains at its satirical heart an ensemble character piece. And while Pollyana McIntosh is absolutely fearless in her role as the titular character – it’s Bridgers performance as family man Chris Cleek that grounds the film’s tone. Actually, his performance isn’t just responsible for grounding the tone – it’s the anchor the audience needs to buy into the decisions the Cleek family makes as a unit. The facade of normalcy, the secrets, the violence, the damaging sexual politics – it all stems from the roots that grow out of his “aw shucks” All-American demeanor. It’s not the showiest role in the film but, by a nose, it’s the most important.
If you don’t think Contagion is a horror film, then you haven’t seen it. It’s utterly terrifying and if you have a brain in your skull you’ll find its wholly plausible, probable, realities as impossible to shake as the best scare or kill you witnessed in a cinema this year. It’s a film filled with fine performances, but Damon’s turn as soft hearted cuckolded family man Mitch Emhhoff not only sells you on the personal horror, but the heartbreak as well. By design, Contagion is admirably clinical, economical and dispassionately scary. That Damon emerges from the ensemble, sharing more or less equal the amount of screen time as many others, as the film’s heart and the audience’s point of access speaks volumes about the chops he displays here.