Three Movies, Three Amazing Performances

26 Jan

We’ve all heard the cliché that there aren’t any good movie roles anymore for women of a certain age.

In fact, yesterday, a Boston Globe article about Julianne Moore led with that very thought.

Well, three year-end movies — each of which finally received national release this past weekend — provide more than ample evidence to the contrary.

In the films, Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), and Moore herself (Still Alice) play women who are challenged physically, emotionally, and financially, and these actresses set great examples for those in the younger generation who may worry about their future career prospects.

Are the movies worth seeing? Here are some brief reviews.

Be There for This

cake_posterIn Cake, Aniston plays Claire, a woman left with physical and emotional scars after she’s in a car accident that killed her young son. Now she’s addicted to pain killers and angry at the world, taking her frustrations out on her devoted housekeeper (Adriana Barraza), ex-husband (Chris Messina), physical therapist (Grace Gummer), support group leader (Felicity Huffman), and basically, anyone else with whom she comes in contact — including the ghost of a support-group peer named Nina (Anna Kendrick), who visits Claire during her drug-fueled hazes.

Yes, the film features the normally glamorous and often funny Aniston “going ugly” and giving a very serious performance while sporting a less than flattering look. Yes, that makes the film blatant awards bait. But thankfully, Aniston is very good in the role, turning what could have been a one-note performance into something layered and subtle, earning our sympathy without being desperate or cloying.

And yet — and I don’t mean to downplay Aniston’s achievement, but — chances are good we wouldn’t be calling this an awards-bait performance if Cake had been released earlier in the year. (For the record, she was nominated for both a Golden Globe and SAG award but shut out of the Oscar race.) Cake, after all, is not Aniston’s first solid dramatic performance; she’s been very good in other, less comic movies, including Friends with Money and The Good Girl. But for better or worse, this is one of those movies (like Greenberg or The Blind Side) where your reaction to it is colored by the timing of its release.

Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t measure up to Aniston’s performance. Director Daniel Barnz and writer Patrick Tobin let the performance and the audience down, throwing in a subplot where Claire befriends Nina’s widower husband (Sam Worthington), and wrapping things up a little too nicely for Claire — providing this too-long film with its own sort-of pain killer.

Cake gets a B.

A Real Bonus

two-days-one-night-posterAnyone who’s ever been laid off will sympathize with the character played by Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. She’s Sandra, a woman who learns while on sick leave that she’s been laid off from her factory job. But it gets worse: Turns out her coworkers had a choice between letting her keep her job and receiving generous year-end bonuses. Obviously, they chose their bonuses.

Desperate to hold on to her job and the paycheck — not to mention her marriage and family — Sandra convinces her manager to hold a revote, then goes door-to-door pleading with her coworkers to choose her. As you might expect, it isn’t easy.

Neither is watching Cotillard. Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made an ticking-clock movie where every ring of a cell phone takes on a sense of dread as Sandra waits to hear if things will go her way. She doesn’t want people to pity her, but she’s desperate to get her life back on track and can’t do it by herself. As we watch this broken-down woman campaign over the course of the movie, hat and heart in her hand, Sandra teeters on the edge: She wants to give up but knows she can’t. Will she find the inner strength she needs to stand up for herself?

Two Days is a foreign-language film with English subtitles, but the struggles and challenges of its characters transcend any language barrier. In these tough economic times, could any of us choose a coworker over our own economic gain? The coworkers — nearly all working class — treat Sandra with a mix of cruelty and kindness, many conflicted themselves because they need the dough but also want to help out their friend.

And through it all, Cotillard’s face says it all. It’s an unvarnished, authentic, and very moving (Oscar-nominated) performance. No wonder it’s been chosen as one of the year’s best.

Two Days gets a B+.

One to Remember

still_alice_posterStill Alice tells the tragic story of how an illness can wipe away nearly everything about a person. It’s a tough watch, a real tearjerker of a film, elevated by a beautiful performance by the always reliable Moore. Here, she plays the titular Alice, a linguistics professor at Columbia University who starts forgetting things and learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alice is only 50, which makes the diagnosis rare and even more of a shock. Moore captures the heartbreaking realization that everything her character has worked for will soon disappear, that she can no longer live as she has, and that one day, she might need to take her own life to spare her family the burden of taking care of her. And Alice’s family — played impressively by Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart — each struggle with the situation in different ways.

Writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland don’t shy away from the pain of the disease, showing — much like Anthony McCarten and James Marsh did with ALS in The Theory of Everything — how powerless a person can feel when they lose control of their body, and how scary that can be. And sure, they could have done without the treacly piano and violin score to make the whole thing more heart-tugging. But they’ve made a personal film that really punches you in the gut.

Enough can’t be said about how good Moore is in this movie. Graceful, nuanced, detailed without being too small, and utterly lacking in cliché, it’s a performance that’s made even deeper because Moore has been a beloved actress for so long. Her pain is our pain. Her loss is our loss. We cry for her when she’s unable to do it herself. Oscar, are you watching?

Still Alice gets a B+.

2 Responses to “Three Movies, Three Amazing Performances”


  1. Eight Movies Were Enough for Me So Far This Year | Martin's Musings - April 1, 2015

    […] but that I may have seen in this calendar year. For reviews of those movies, you can read this blog post or revisit my 2014 top-10 […]

  2. Make Room for These Movies on Your Must-See List | Martin's Musings - November 9, 2015

    […] of crazy. No, I don’t believe it either. No, that doesn’t include 2014 releases that didn’t hit theaters till earlier this year. Yes, I may have a little too much time on my hands. No, I don’t need another […]

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