[This is the fifth entry in “Video Evidence,” a series of video essays championing the most deserving Oscar nominees. For the full list of video essays, see the 2014 Oscars :Video Evidence main page.]
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Total screen time: 91 minutes (72% of movie screen time)
If I were giving an Oscar to the most compelling character in this category, I’d give it to Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. his personal saga of injustice and survival is simply devastating to witness. Chiwetel Ejiofor embodies his physical torments with a sturdy dignity, and it’s sympathetic. . .but never surprising. His pained expressions and rational demeanor pretty much hit the same note of tragic, noble suffering from start to finish.
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Total screen time: 125 minutes (73% of total)
Way on the far opposite end, there’s nothing noble about DiCaprio’s hedonistic stock trader Jordan Belfort. Regardless of what you think of this thoroughly amoral antihero, DiCaprio relishes the juiciness of the role, squeezing it for maximum entertainment value. There’s one particular sequence where he unleashes hilarious physical comic talent that I hadn’t seen from him before. Otherwise, I’m skeptical of this performance because it tries so hard to overpower you as a viewer. It’s the acting equivalent of a three-hour arena rock concert, with DiCaprio playing the same power chord over and over.
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Total screen time: 60 minutes (46% of total)
“Subtle” is not the first word that comes to mind with American Hustle, and on one level Christian Bale’s turn as a seasoned con artist comes off as a tacky homage to Robert De Niro. But Bale adds his own twists. He’s the backbone of the ensemble, but in a strange way: he’s a character who seems to play hide and seek with the others and with the audience. He wears his sunglasses like a protective armor, while his voice and gestures try to persuade others. Bale combines shiftiness with vulnerability to create an unusual charisma. And there are surprising moments where his warmth comes through like few times in Bale’s career. Follow his eyes in this moment and you might be able to follow his heart.
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Total screen time: 89 minutes (80% of total)
McConaughey absolutely dominates Dallas Buyers Club, turning the movie into a showcase of the full range of his talents. He occupies eighty percent of the movie, more than anyone else in this category. But beyond sheer numbers, what’s impressive is the different ways he dominates the screen. Look at how he runs this scene, balancing authoritative force with relaxed comic confidence. Then look here at how he dominates from a position of weakness. Through a swift series of eye movements and body language, he shows you his mind racing desperately for solutions. Even in one of the movie’s most patronizing scenes, he owns the moment with deadpan conviction. It’s a special blend of rage and kindness that defines this performance.
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Total screen time: 61 minutes (56% of total)
Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody Grant is the most low-key of the bunch. At first, this old man doesn’t seem that complex. You’re not sure whether Woody is senile or just plain stupid; either way, he’s easy to condescend to, as a viewer and as an actor. But Dern doesn’t condescend in the least. Instead he uses his character’s simplicity to conjure a mystery.
The split second precision in the timing of his responses make you wonder, how is his mind working? His delivery gives dignity to his answers. This man has his own values, strange as they are. And that strangeness cracks open a door to whole way of life that is now dead and gone. We can only hear it in Dern’s brief answers, not just the words, but the way he answers. And we see it in his eyes, the way he looks. They’re not answers but more questions: What does this man see? What does this man remember?
This kind of performance is a world away from the wall to wall salesmanship of Leonardo DiCaprio, or the prestigious suffering of Chiwetel Ejiofor. It’s not just for pleasure, and it’s not just for spectacle. It’s the kind of acting that feels like a lost art. The art of mystery. The mystery of the strangeness that great movies can bring to life: the mystery of life itself.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets as @alsolikelife.