A film character is defined by several traits. The first and perhaps most prominent one is the performance by the actor hired to perform the role. And while movies rise and fall on the strength of its performances, solid acting alone is not enough to sell me on them. So beyond acting chops, I consider the setting these characters are in, their backgrounds and contexts, and how they must feel in the adventures that play out for my viewing pleasure.
The following 10 characters provided me with memorable lines, great story lines, wild entertainment and above all, reminders that it is not how much money is put into a project that matters, but how much heart.
In alphabetical order:
When Ben (Viggo Mortensen) tells his six children that their mother has just committed suicide, he utilizes the same tone of voice and manner that he employs when he is teaching them about Noam Chomsky and lecturing them about Lolita. As most loving parents do, he believes this to be the right way to raise his children, but the film argues that love is not a good enough excuse to do certain things. Ben, we come to discover later, is kind of a kook. This is his journey of realization, occasionally moving, hilarious and insightful.
DOROTHEA, JULIE, ABBY, JAMIE and WILLIAM—20TH CENTURY WOMEN
The greatest film narrator of 2017, Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) cares so much about everybody that she invites strangers over to her house for dinner. It’s a house where she already lives with two girls and two guys, and though only two of them are still teens, everybody is in the process of growing up. The film, which appears lyrical at times, presents the interactions between them as almost poetic, tinged with wisdom, sadness and the hope of a freer tomorrow.
BROOKE and TRACY—MISTRESS AMERICA
For somebody who utterly loved Frances Ha, it took me a while to finally get around to this Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach collaboration. But when I did, there was nothing I wished more than being witness to the writing process of this acting/directing duo. The witticisms they make their characters express! The last stretch of the film, when Brooke, Tracy, and some of her friends invade a rich guy’s house with a business proposition, is absolutely genius and one of the funniest moments I’ve had at the movies all year.
Nobody does dejected misery better than Ryan Gosling. What he accomplishes as an android with dreams of a soul in Blade Runner 2049, however, stirs the heart so that the only appropriate response is silence, astonished at the sacrifice.
Delivering the performance of a lifetime, Hugh Jackman is a wounded, depressed and alcoholic Wolverine in a film that’s almost uncomfortable to watch. The opening frame makes it clear that Logan does not want to be in this world anymore, and for the next two and a half hours he will slice, dice and cut up fools who want to help him get to his final destination quicker. Therein lies the tragedy of Logan: in its inability to see beyond the scars and blood, deep into the soul that is worthy of redemption.
NADINE—THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
Sometimes we are the asshole. Far too often movies present the hero of the story, making us relate to the hero’s righteous indignation, in one shape or another. With Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), we are forced to relate to a person who’s not all that likable. Nadine is such a fantastic creation not because she is cruel and insensitive for meanness sake, but because she is so human. Her flaws and follies are the ones of all of us, and by seeing her we can confront ourselves with the question: “am I in the wrong here? Should I be the one asking for forgiveness, instead of demanding it?” It is no easy feat of course, but the movie makes clear that though the path to redeem oneself is tough, at least it’s there for everybody to embark on.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) is what happens when writers are allowed to explore characters motivations and be bold with their behaviors. I did not care much for Rey when she was first introduced, seeing her as a bland Luke Skywalker rip-off. Now, however, she has truly come into her own, and it is exhilarating to watch. “You’ve got spunk”, somebody tells her in the movie. She does, and you wish more characters around her did too.
In a perfect world, men would be like Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Selfless and brave, he recognizes that his demons don’t amount to a hill of beans in this messed up world, and he lets the woman he loves fly away to a better world. In a perfect world, men would not be like Rick Blaine. Bitter and grieving over the loss of the only woman he has ever loved, he shacks up in Casablanca, sticking his neck up for nobody. Bogart perfectly encapsulates the duality of love, its heroic deeds and restless nights.
SOUTHEAST TEXAS CHEROKEES—EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
I’ve never watched a single baseball game in my life, but this made me want to join a team. More than any other experience in 2017, the shenanigans of the Southeast Texas Cherokees are so damn fun its near impossible not to have a good time.
TERRY MALLOY—ON THE WATERFRONT
Single handedly transforming acting forever, Marlon Brando is something to behold. Sure, there’s the “I could’ve been a contender” monologue, devastating and memorable, but Brando was such a gifted performer that even in the most mundane shots, like picking up a glove from the floor, he appears as if he is a god among mortals. By the time he enters the warehouse bruised, battered but victorious, Marlon Brando has become a legend.