As a Lebanese-Canadian mother with an extremely tortured past, Azabal manages to embody the emotionally damaged spirit of the times conveyed in Denis Villeneuve’s intimate epic. It isn’t merely Azabal’s skill at playing a range of ages from old to young (as the film flashbacks to her past, revealing her character Nawal’s mysteries) that makes this a standout performance. She does more, forming the film’s human center, as Nawal is seen in a classic maternal quest to recover the son she lost during Lebanon’s ongoing Muslim-Christian conflicts, and serving as a stunning witness to some of its worst atrocities.
“The Skin I Live In”
Pedro Almodovar’s latest marks an important moment in Banderas’ career. Having established himself as a global star — much like his fellow Spaniard and Almodovar alum Javier Bardem — Banderas has returned to Almodovar’s unique world 21 years after “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” with a creepy-precise portrayal of a plastic surgeon whose skin grafting techniques go too far. The frisky sexuality of the young Banderas has mellowed into a darker, richer attitude, where the stakes are higher, jealousies are deeper and the sex more dangerous. Whether it’s too edgy for awards season will be an interesting plotline of its own.
“A Better Life”
On opening night of the recent edition of the Morelia film festival in Mexico, more than a few tears were shed over Chris Weitz’s “Life” and Bichir’s performance as Carlos, a stalwart father and undocumented gardener trying to support his potentially wayward son. Too many American-made films about the Mexican immigrant experience have made the workers and parents “from the other side” faceless or at least without distinct individuality. Bichir, in one of the highlights of a distinguished career, gives Carlos a face and voice and a certain quotient of interesting contradictions paired to what award voters may well remember as a considerably emotional portrayal.
In her second collaboration with writer and director Abbas Kiarostami (after the more experimental “Shirin”), Binoche is allowed to put the “play” backing into playing a role. Possibly two in fact: A woman running a store in Tuscany who becomes attracted to a visiting British author of art history, and the different women she turns into as she spends more time with him. Filmmakers like Kiarostami have worked with Cubist forms on screen, but it’s rare to see an actor like Binoche attempt it with a bifurcated role, as she bravely does here.
Deneuve not only has the advantage during this Oscar season of being a living legend, but being a living legend with a damn fine performance in Francois Ozon’s “Potiche” — certainly her best in many years. Although she’s been given delicious material to work with in recent times, especially with director friend Manoel de Oliveira, Deneuve has with the role of Suzanne, trophy wife of an arrogant ’70s-era industrialist, the kind of expansive character that seems designed only for her to play. Watching her Suzanne blossom into a leader of her own is to see her return to one of her several decades as a star and improve on her past, as if Deneuve is reliving her own life with comic-ironic verve.
Already beloved among the Hollywood cognoscenti who’ve caught it on the festival circuit, “The Artist” has director Michel Hazanavicius (“OSS 117”) giving his regular leading man Dujardin a chance to play in a more comic-tragic vein. As Hollywood silent star George Valentin, Dujardin has to pivot from being a man on top of the world — a Valentino and Fairbanks rolled into one — to being thrown under the bus once the talkies take over. Dujardin uses his naturally suave nature as a device that makes him the last person in the room to realize that he’s an instant anachronism during one of film history’s most interesting passages.
Kristin Scott Thomas
“Love Crime”/”Sarah’s Key”
Like fellow Brit Charlotte Rampling, Scott Thomas has craftily carved out a twin career for herself in French cinema, to the point where she is actually more visible in French-language roles now than her English turns. She’s impressively bilingual in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Holocaust drama “Sarah’s Key” as an American journalist who uncovers some disturbing facts about her Paris apartment. But she’s all French in the late Alain Corneau’s suspenser “Love Crime,” opposite Ludivine Sagnier, as a corporate boss whose obsession with control collapses around her. In both roles, Thomas expresses the sense of discovery of truths and the vulnerability that emerges from them.
A film and a performance that has quietly built an international cult following since its Cannes 2010 premiere, Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” is uncommonly centered on vet Korean star Yun’s exceptional portrayal of a woman slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s and yet learning the most difficult form of classical Korean poetry. Yun came out of retirement for the role, and it’s understandable, since Lee is now arguably South Korea’s greatest filmmaker and director of female actors. As her character begins to reveal additional layers, the performance and the film take on the dimensions of a great work of art, and critics’ groups voting may make Yun a household name during awards season.
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