(or How I Learned That Comic-Book Adaptations Don’t Win Oscars)
Joaquin Phoenix’s turn in Joker is already gathering both awards buzz and a troubled reputation.
It’s the mandatory controversy that comes bundled with any “anti-hero-against-the-world” story produced in 2019 – the latest “Year of the Mass Shooter” in a long, sad line of “Year of the Mass Shooters”.
Little is certain right now, but there are some things about the end of 2019 you can count on; people will be outraged if Joker wins awards, others will be upset if it doesn’t, and “fall season” will bring in the usual glut of Top 10 retrospective lists.
Since 2010 we’ve seen many well-publicised performances showered with praise.
Joaquin Phoenix himself and the late-great Phillip Seymour-Hoffman caught lightning in a bottle in The Master, Leo finally got his overdue ‘attaboy’ for The Revenant and Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes and Naomi holy-shit Harris brought gravity to Moonlight.
These are the kinds of already-idolised “big performances” that critics will soon be re-ranking, re-analysing, re-sucking-off.
If I was completely honest, my own ‘Top 10 Performances of the Last Decade’ looks just like everyone else’s. Of course, I loved Ladybird. Everyone did.
The controversy around Joker, before the film even releases, comes in two flavours – over-eager-liberal-beavers like Little White Lies are fainting in the aisles over (perceived) right-wing undercurrents. The argument that “man vs. world” tales are in poor taste in today’s climate is valid, if a little obvious and condescending to audiences.
That’s one flavour.
The other flavour is a predicable, snobbish backlash against the validity of any-and-all comic-book movies. It’s one you’ll hear many (very articulate) otherwise capable critics espousing.
It is, of course, another silly reduction of the complicated truth.
Blanket-dismissing “comic book movies” based on elitism over the original medium makes just as much sense as dismissing “book movies”.
But it has got me thinking.
It’s not just performances in comic book adaptations that get unfairly ignored by the film criticism elite.
Minimalism and nuance are seldom rewarded. Certain genres are outright barred from entry – anything remotely touching horror or comedy is practically invisible to “the committees”.
It’s another Hollywood simplification that rejects vast amounts of common sense – the strange assertion that dramatic acting (Read: crying, yelling) is a fine art, but expressing fear or well-tuned comedic timing is somehow base, crude.
Character actors providing versatile foundations for more extroverted ‘main characters’ are rarely thanked for the plates they spin – sidekicks by name and by critical nature. There are ‘Supporting’ categories, but they do not reward good support. There’s “supporting” in the hoggish and competitive “look-at-me-I’m-emoting-too” sense, then there’s real supporting. Like playing the Medic class, it’s often under-valued.
So instead of joining the incoming chorus, here’s my ‘Top 10 Performances of Last 10 Years… that aren’t going to be on any other Top 10s’.
Here’s to those talented souls still standing by the wall, still waiting to be picked for gym class; the over-shadowed supports, the under-valued villains and the thankless heroes.
This is my Top 10 Performances of the Last Decade… if I wasn’t allowed to have my first choices.
1. Patrick Stewart – Green Room
If you consider yourself a “P. Stewart” fan but have only ever seen his cosy, book-smart “Nice Dad” shtick (e.g. Captain Picard, Charles Xavier) you owe it to yourself to see him play heel.
In Green Room Stewart delivers a masterclass in threatening minimalism, under-playing an under-stated Neo-Nazi faction leader dishing out ruthless crisis management.
It’s the kind of unfussy performance that’s too good for its own good.
Stewart creates one of the most threatening villains of modern cinema without ever raising his voice, force-choking any henchman or any eating livers with fava beans and Chianti.
It’s a villain with no quotable one-liners, no showboating monologues. As such, it’s been unfairly forgotten.
Stewart works with a toolkit of minute vocal inflections micro-expressions so slight that it’d be easy to watch the movie missing them all, yet the composite is a sense of dread that permeates the entire film.
If that isn’t great acting, then what is?
2. Tom Waits – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Search for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on Google and you’ll see a lot of Tim Blake Nelson as the titular ‘Scruggs’, complete with guitar and big white hat.
Nelson’s goofball musical opener was so hilarious and so memorable that the other vignettes, unfortunately, existed under his shadow.
It’s a shame because, in a fair and just universe, Tom Waits would be on that Netflix thumbnail.
Waits’ unique selling point is his gravelly voice, yet in ‘Scruggs not only does he carry the strongest segment of the anthology single-handed, but he does so with little enough dialogue that the segment works on mute.
He breathes warmth into an otherwise cold movie’s most humane story not with dialogue (or attention-grubbing song) but through sheer presence and physical acting mastery.
It’s hard to imagine many other actors rendering so little action so gripping, harder still to image many other actors pulling it off to so little applause.
3. Rachel Weisz – The Favourite
Olivia Coleman was fantastic – obviously. She’s Olivia Coleman.
Only “The Coletrain” (as nobody calls her) could swing so seamlessly between infantile fecklessness and terrifying rage... except Adam Driver, I suppose.
Gamely matching her blow for blow was Emma Stone, translating onto the screen a complex internal game of emotional chess.
Between this rock and hard place was the largely un-thanked Rachel Weisz, lumped with the hardest job of the movie.
In The Favourite, Rachel Weisz had to pull off a character who was, all at once, a lover/mentor/puppeteer to the Queen and an ally/enemy/protector to Stone’s rival Baroness.
On top of this, she had to give her character agency and drive – i.e. could not just spend the whole movie “reacting”.
Weisz, in one coherent character, juggles genuine romantic feelings with furtive self-protection, patronisation with fear, manipulation with love.
She gets the biggest laugh of the movie with her flintlock “fantastic jape”, runs a gauntlet of emotional states and even shines in a solo subplot.
It’s a character with so many facets that Weisz deserves far more credit for bringing it all together, especially as a conduit between two more ‘obviously good’ performances.
4. Michael Fassbender – Frank
If the Bond producers give in to cowardice and passed on Idris Elba for the next Bond, the only way I’d be ok with it is if they picked Michael Fassbender.
As the titular Frank in Lenny Abrahamson’s 2014 oddity, Fassbender not only gave a respectful, necessary deconstruction of the toxic ‘brilliant artist with mental health issues’ trope, but did so whilst being funny, heartfelt, and outshining stellar character actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson.
He also did it all from inside a papier-mâché head.
Fassbender may have the effortless, sexy suave of a Bond contender, but as Frank, he proved that he doesn’t need it.
Unfortunately, few people saw Frank, and many that did couldn’t get past the weirdness to see the renovation happening underneath.
Unless synchronised to music, masterful physicality is barely rewarded in Hollywood.
The obliviousness to Fassbender’s non-verbal communication in Frank stems from the same blind-spot Hollywood has over stunts and action choreography – the blind spot that sees LA LA Land applauded but John Wick buried in the “genre” bin.
5. Elsie Fischer – Eighth Grade
Waxing lyrical about unknown teenage girls “breaking into Hollywood” with “incredible debuts” is such a cliché that it’s beyond my limited skills to explain how good Elsie Fischer was in Eighth Grade without being asinine.
What I can try to do is express is just how fucking fearless her role was; Eighth Grade isn’t a melodramatic Oscar-bait tragedy with requisite “emotional breakdown” scenes, ready-built for media junkets. There is none of the “grand narrative” of Winter’s Bone.
Eighth Grade is a painful, agonisingly-relatable warts-and-all study of the nightmarish twilight-zone of being 14 years old and self-conscious.
Whether you turned 14 as a Youtube-devouring girl in North America in the 2010’s, or as a mawkish, lanky boy in 1990’s West Midlands, the film holds a fearless mirror to those awkward, acne-ridden blunder years.
Fischer, herself in the midst of those peak-anxiety years, turned the floodlights onto herself in a performance so rich in bravery and openness that it would jaw-dropping from a grown woman playing a kid… much as Saoirse Ronan did to greater fanfare in Ladybird the same year, despite being 9 years older than Fischer.
Half-arsed apologies and rehab-holidays for actors sidestepping social (and legal) ramifications for criminal misbehavior are often coupled with “gutsy, raw performance” that obliquely references past-misdeeds as means of “meta” exoneration.
If we’re letting drink-driving asshats off the hook for playing basically themselves, as drunken pricks who, really, deep-down, just needed true love or whatever, then surely we should acknowledge that it’s far braver for a child at the absolute hormonal zenith of embarrassment to externalise it all so brazenly for a global audience.
6. Robert Patterson – Good Time
I’m sure there are still throngs of emotionally retarded late-20’s man-child ‘edgelords’ who consider sneering at Justin Bieber, television, and anything related to the Twilight movies as somehow constituting a personality.
We get it, David. You’re an atheist who listens to TOOL and drinks ale. Very provocative.
Unfortunately for David, some of us saw The Rover. We’ve known since 2013 that Patterson is not only the real deal, but one of the most exciting actors working today.
High Life wasn’t a revelation, it was confirmation of what we already knew, and Good Time is just the nasty, rotten cherry on the fascinating cake.
Good Time is like a nihilistic Big Mac – fast, dirty and shamefully fun. In it, Patterson is unrecognisably ugly in every sense of the word.
If you can’t read the name Robert Patterson without mentally drafting lazy vampire gags, please, go watch Good Time.
Even in writing this, I admit that I’m adding to the problem. Patterson is plain and simply a great talent, his skill and bravery already massively outweighing the, yes, unfortunate beginnings.
It’s long past time that everyone, including me, dropped the patronising “Yes, Twilight was bad, but also, you should see this” dialogue.
If Mel “Jews did it” Gibson has been allowed back into the party, then Robert Patterson sure as shit has earned the right to work without having Eddy Cullybobs whispered behind his back like some nasty rumour.
7. Daniel Radcliffe – Swiss Army Man
Whilst we’re talking post-Goblet of Fire reincarnations, Daniel Radcliffe was the funniest thing in Swiss Army Man, and he played a corpse.
It’s tempting to wheel out my University-honed skill for shining overwrought psychoanalytical subtext from material where literally none exists – you know the nonsense I’m talking about – “the curtains being blue represents depression” and all that.
If I were writing this article to reach a word count and impress a lecturer, I’d say something like; “Radcliffe’s adoption of the symbol of a dead man can be read in the Freudian sense as the retirement of a previous identity, a now-destroyed persona, a meta-textual ego-death.”
As with any essay written to hit a word count, I would, of course, be waffling nonsense.
Radcliffe plays a corpse not as some wanky symbolic statement, but because Swiss Army Man was funny as shit.
I suppose, at a push, I could keep the line “It is an ego death” – as only Radcliffe, with his disarming modesty, could do a role so self-effacing and unglamorous whilst still bringing in the big marquee billing.
Radcliffe is that rarest of beasts; a smart, hugely successful star who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Swiss Army Man is a dissertation on not taking yourself seriously – so of course the pretentious critical elite ignored it.
In an industry of ego and arrogance, it’s charming, refreshing to see this kind of playfulness… but it’s not exactly magnetic for publicity.
Radcliffe is just as famous, talented and ‘real’ as Jennifer Lawrence, but without the savvy PR game of ‘meme-ready’ red carpet ‘bants’.
He’s worthy of the same adulation and, even more charmingly, he doesn’t seem to go around looking for it.
8. Kayvan Novak – Four Lions
Novak in Four Lions is surely the most loveable Islamic extremist ever put to film.
I’m saying half as a lazy attempt to be “shock-funny”, but also… it really is a miracle worth taking a moment to unpack. Novak managed to make Four Lions work, and Four Lions should not have worked.
It’d be easier to credit the heart of Four Lions to Riz Ahmed – and if this article wasn’t about digging up under-valued great performances, I’d do just that – but Novak had the harder wares to sell.
He was playing a moron, and as was preemptively dissected in Tropic Thunder, playing a moron (no matter how convincingly) is not the key to the trophy cabinet.
His moron is the kind of too-stupid-to-be-real moron normally synonymous with tacky fare like Dumb and Dumber. Novak not only went full-on Three Stooges levels of idiotic, but managed to be so likeable that we laughed over all the suicide bombing stuff.
It’s the epitome of a thankless role, thanks in equal parts to institutional prejudice against comedy performances and the gargantuan outrage-minefield Novak gracefully tap-danced across.
9. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Any sane person will agree that the Oscars panel is up there with Britain’s ‘First past the post’ and America’s ‘Electoral College’ as some of the most redundant, obsolete, out-right worthless voting models still limping around and daring to refer to themselves as ‘Democratic’.
Oscar snubs and under-rated performances are two very, very different beasts and since the truly interesting developments in film happen outside the Academy’s rusty limelight, I am quite deliberately not writing a list of “Oscar-snubs”.
The term “Oscar snub” is, in 2019, about as damning to the credibility of a film as criticising it for “not being filmed in Wigan”.
…that said, if we’re going by “The Academy’s” own nonsensical, tit-for-tat arbitrary politics, it certainly seems like Gyllenhaal not being nominated for Best Actor in 2014 for Nightcrawler was an oversight.
The role was transformative, nuanced, and played against star power.
Good performances don’t often cross paths with the exhausted tripe that Oscar judges inexplicably covet, but Gyllenhaal has managed to (repeatedly) do just that.
I assume he wasn’t eligible for a nomination because people still remember and talk about Nightcrawler, unlike whatever precision-targeted weapons-grade Biopic snore-fest won the meaningless award that year.
10. Joaquin Phoenix – You Were Never Really Here
It’s been more than a year and I still think about You Were Never Really Here pretty much every day. It’s a 10/10 movie, currently sitting at 6.8/10 on IMDB. Pretty much everything about it is under-rated, least of all Joaquin Phoenix’s phenomenal central performance.
Yet as much as I adore the film, I’m not oblivious. I get it. It’s a weird film with aggressively unusual editing and pacing.
The protagonist is all over the place emotionally, often acting in direct conflict with his own motivations. You Were Never Really Here is – as per my personal reading, and all art is subjective, yadda yadda – about PTSD and the shattering effect it can have on identity.
This isn’t overzealous infatuation blinding a fanboy to faults, it is (I believe) the film’s explicit intention to be disorienting, non-linear, fragmented.
The most prolific format in cinema right now is,of course, so called “comic book movies”. You Were Never Really Here failed to resonate, for sure. The easy assumption is to condescendingly assert “modern audiences do not want complex character study, they want pure popcorn escapism”.
Like most easy answers, this entirely misses the point.
The hype around Joker proves that not only are audiences willing to dig into a deep character study, but that comic book movie fans specifically are hungry for a movie exactly like You Were Never Really Here. Because 12 months later, they’re chomping at the bit to see exactly that –
You can’t blame the poor user scores of You Were Never Really Here on “stupid audiences”. The problem was poor framing.
The posters for You Were Never Really Here quoted a critic calling it “Taxi Driver for a new generation”.
There are some incidental similarities to Taxi Driver, but not enough to justify having the one quote you use be a direct relation.
It smacks of marketing department cowardice, of approximating an existing fan-base rather than promoting the true merit.
In fact, the two films are so at odds that to market one as like the other ensured that You Were Never Really Here would alienate and confuse… even more so than intended.
In Taxi Driver, every scene directly informs the one that follows. It’s a “Downward Spiral”. The origins and reasons so central to Taxi Driver are completely inconsequential to the objective of You Were Never Really Here. You could arguably market the film as “what might have happened after Taxi Driver ended”, but still to draw such a direct comparison between the two sets viewers up with expectations as to how the film will express “cause-and-effect” that will be relentlessly disappointed.
There’s an interesting significance to be gleaned from Phoenix following You Were Never Really Here with Joker.
It will boil down to how the film handles predetermination and the philosophy of responsibility – it all depends on what kind of Joker Phoenix gives us.
Will Joker tell us that some people are born capable of evil, poised to unleash their fundamental ‘badness’ after the necessary build of tension? Will it posit that the world is cruel to all, and some people snap?
Will we believe that Arthur Fleck, even at his most serene, always had that tiny poisonous core, that terrible potential?
If so, then perhaps Joker is meant to be the Taxi Driver we never got. A “happy now?” middle-finger from the box-office ghost You Were Never Really Here.
Or… will we see a fundamentally innocent Arthur Fleck, pushed beyond the reasonable boundaries by a harsh universe? Will the point be that all of us, under enough duress, could snap? The world is the evil, we are the furtive canvas?
In that case, perhaps Joker will be another stab at You Were Never Really Here, re-packaged by infamous comic lore to give audiences a more accurate priming before they sit down.
Either way, Joker will no doubt drive new viewers to discover You Were Never Really Here with a better idea of what to expect.
It will certainly reach a larger audience – by finally accepting a “comic book movie”, Phoenix has guaranteed at least an out-performance of ticket sales, such is the safety-net of even a potentially political, potentially problematic “comic book movie”.
Marketing for Joker is, wisely, trumpeting the fact that it is a Trojan horse. A wise, well-timed Jack in the Box. Something argumentative and measured, sugar-coated as something light and pithy – a bit like an analysis of Hollywood hypocrisy camouflaged as a Top 10 list.