Oscar sure loves his villains, especially in the Supporting Actor category. Such recent winners as Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa and Heath Ledger as The Joker certainly proves this, and this past year was no different, with the gold going to J.K. Simmons for his mesmerizingly manipulative performance as Terence Fletcher in the equally engrossing Best Picture nominee Whiplash. His victory is even more impressive considering (unlike his predecessors) he wasn't playing a psychotic murderer but a college music teacher... albeit a really, really mean college music teacher.
It's to writer/director Damien Chazelle's credit that we don't just see Fletcher's nasty side; there are hints that below all the abusiveness (a folding chair or two is hurled, for example) there is a reasonable human being, one that even has a reasonably logical explanation for his questionable behavior. The hero of the piece, Andrew (Miles Teller, holding his own opposite Simmons), is an aspiring drummer who finds himself the bullseye for Fletcher's wrath once he joins his school's jazz ensemble. Fletcher brings out the best and worst in Andrew, both artistically and morally, and their battles (ironically for the same goal) make Whiplash (named for one of the musical pieces heard in the film) as taut and tension-filled as any thriller.
While the Supporting Actor nominee in The Judge could only be called the villain of the film in the broadest sense, he does represent another popular character type in the category: the disgruntled daddy. Robert Duvall (whose nomination here makes him the oldest Supporting Actor nominee in Academy Award history) plays the curmudgeonly title character of a small town who is arrested for murder and must rely on his estranged son, a hot shot big city lawyer played by Robert Downey Jr. (in perhaps his most mature performance to date) to represent him.
A tad overlong and predictable, The Judge is nevertheless a compelling courtroom/dysfunctional family drama thanks to the two R.D.s, both at the top of their game. Their scenes together, especially as the story progresses and the characters' lifelong walls begin to fall, anchor the film and make its missteps (such as a bizarre subplot involving Vera Farmiga as a former flame — and possible baby momma — of Downey's character) easier to take.
There are some villains, like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher, who can't be contained within the supporting category and find themselves Best Actor nominees. Such is the case with Steve Carell as creepy philanthropist/obsessive wrestling enthusiast John du Pont in the based-on-a-true-story sports drama Foxcatcher. An heir to the du Pont family fortune, John du Pont is mainly, infamously known for his inexplicable murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz (played by Mark Ruffalo, who was the one nominated as Best Supporting Actor). Foxcatcher (the title is taken from the sporting facility located on the du Pont family estate) focuses on the events leading up to the tragedy, beginning with du Pont's taking David's younger brother, fellow Olympian Mark (a brutish Channing Tatum) under his wing.
A lot of effort (and time in the makeup chair) was spent to make Carell into du Pont, strange considering du Pont is hardly a recognizable historical figure... and in the end, Carell doesn't look much like the real du Pont anyway. As directed by Capote's Bennett Miller (who somehow nabbed a Best Director nod despite a lack of Best Picture recognition in a field of up to ten contenders), Foxcatcher is lugubriously paced and, despite some strong if a bit oddly-pitched performances, ends up as pointless as the death of David Schultz.
The Judge: B-
Whiplash, The Judge and Foxcatcher are now all available on DVD and Blu-ray:
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.