The Best Performances of 2014

David Oyelowo in Selma

5. David Oyelowo in Selma

David Oyelowo had the choice of playing Martin Luther King, Jr. as a great legend or as an ordinary person. Somehow, he manages to do both. His performance in Selma took the King we’ve seen in old textbook photos and brought him to life in vivid color.

Oyelowo captured King’s larger-than-life quality — the powerful charisma that inspired thousands to stand with him and fight. Oyelowo’s King gets up on a podium in 1965, and his words ring with urgency in 2014. At the same time, however, Oyelowo’s portrayal of King felt intimate. He exposes King as a flawed being who might snap at his wife or give into his own fears. King doesn’t come across a lesser man for having struggles; he seems like a greater one for having overcome them.

Best scene: Wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts Martin about his alleged infidelities.

GONE GIRL

4. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

At one point in Gone Girl, a character notes that Amy Dunne is “the kind of girl that attracts admirers.” Rosamund Pike made it easy to see why. Gone Girl goes through more twists and turns than perhaps any other movie this year, and it’s a great credit to Pike’s performance that it never completely went off the rails. (Spoilers for Gone Girl follow.)

Amy Dunne isn’t really one role but several, nested together like dolls. At times, not even Amy seems sure if she’s acting or being “herself.” Pike, on the other hand, knows exactly what she’s doing. She gets to the core of who Amy is, and maintains a firm grasp on it even as Amy herself swings from Cool Girl to vengeful demon and back again. In every incarnation, she’s nothing short of mesmerizing.

Best scene: Amy reacts to not-so-subtle hints from her ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris).

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

3. Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

At various points in her career, Scarlett Johansson has been accused of being a blank actress coasting on a pretty face. She’s since proven, many times over, that she can be far more than that, but in Under the Skin she turns that blankness and beauty to her advantage. Johansson deliberately perches right at the edge of Uncanny Valley here. Her friendliest smile can’t quite mask the cold detachment at her core.

But then something changes for this predatory alien. Johansson does incredible work during this transformation, inching her unnamed character ever closer to humanity without quite reaching it. She makes everything we’ve grown used to about human life — the kindness of strangers, the assholery of other strangers, fear, joy, and even the taste of chocolate cake — feel foreign and new again.

Best scene: Johansson’s character targets a man (Adam Pearson) with neurofibromatosis.

Essie Davis in The Babadook

2. Essie Davis in The Babadook

Part of what makes The Babadook so resonant is the way it taps into real-life terrors, and part of what makes that possible is Essie Davis. The Aussie actress doesn’t play Amelia, the widowed mother of an unruly son, like a typical horror movie victim. There’s a rawness and a sensitivity to her performance that wouldn’t be out of place in an intimate family drama.

Amelia starts the film at the end of a rapidly fraying rope, and Davis allowed us to see each little fiber as it falls away. Exhaustion, grief, loneliness, and parental ambivalence chip away at Amelia’s being until she’s sitting fully clothed in a bathtub, a dull glaze falling across her eyes. Davis never lost sight of Amelia’s humanity, and as a result her descent into madness was as heartbreaking as it was terrifying.

Best scene: Amelia stops her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) from making a phone call.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

1. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t just convincing as crime journalist Lou Bloom. He makes it momentarily impossible to believe he could be anyone but Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal reportedly dropped 30 pounds for the role, and he looks hungrier than he ever has here. But his transformation goes far beyond that.

It was in the way he moved — unnervingly still, like a predator waiting to pounce on prey. It was in the way he talked — calm and articulate, but with an insistent, unrelenting edge. It was in the way he looked at things, his big blue eyes quietly taking everything in. Lou Bloom is capitalist ambition incarnate, a unique creature that nevertheless felt unnervingly familiar. Nightcrawler set a new high for Gyllenhaal, who’s been on the best streak of his career for the past few years.

Best scene: Lou and his boss Nina (Rene Russo) have drinks at a Mexican restaurant.

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