2014 Calvin Awards: Best Actor

By Reagen Sulewski

February 13, 2014

A lifetime of orchestra geek jokes finally take their toll on his psyche.

This year's Best Actor competition for the Calvins was one of the closest in the history of the entire awards. Our voters settled on three main candidates almost entirely evenly, and it came down to the very last placing to decide who came away with the award.

Chiwetel Ejiofor ekes out the victory by a single point for his performance in 12 Years a Slave. As the captured freeman Solomon Northup, Ejiofor had to portray a man suffering almost unimaginable indignities and humiliations, and forced to hide his true nature due to the danger it would pose him. It's a role that requires an astounding degree of internalization, and could have drifted off into blankness. Instead, he serves as a powerful audience surrogate to bring us into the horrors of slavery, not just on an institutional level, but on a personal one, as it crushes all sense of identity. The barely hidden anguish in Ejiofor's eyes as piece by piece of his humanity is stripped away from him is an astounding piece of work, and impossible to dismiss.

Perhaps the total polar opposite of that performance is our second place finisher, Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street. Here, he has a star turn as the insufferable conman and broker Jordan Belfort, all brash and bravado as he cheerfully manipulates the financial system for his own personal benefit and greed. It's a powerful flip on DiCaprio's excess of charisma; putting it in service of a thoroughly reprehensible and amoral character. The best performances make us reconsider an actor's abilities – this one made us reconsider whether it's a good idea to like actors because of their charisma at all.

Just five points out of first, Matthew McConaughey's perfomance in Dallas Buyers Club is sort of a combination of the two performances above it. As a man diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 1980s when few effective treatments existed at all, he uses his vast reserves of charisma to portray a man who is determined to exist based on sheer will, demanding the right to survive by any means necessary. In every moment, it's clear that he's using his only weapon, his charm, to assert his right to be. Taking into account his dramatic weight loss for the role (which strictly speaking is not acting), it's a flabbergasting combination of vanity and the complete lack of it. We always knew Matt had a great performance in him and it's fantastic to see him trying.

There's a sizable drop to fourth spot, which goes to Bruce Dern in Nebraska, finding genius late in his career. Playing a man in the early stages of dementia who believes he's won a million dollar contest, Dern subsumes himself into the role, but also takes on the challenge of a man who may just have nothing there in the first place. Eccentric without being quirky, he captures that essence of a man quietly fading out, but seemingly entirely unconcerned with that notion. As opposed to the “quiet desperation” that we usually get out of these types of portrayals, here we just get... quiet.


In fifth, we have Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her. An extremely reserved performance, Phoenix plays this very lonely, flawed man who falls in love with his operating system as someone who is just waking up from a long slumber. That the object of his affections is an AI makes no difference to how real his happiness is, and it's a remarkable transformation as he wrestles with the implications of his feelings. That Phoenix spends most of the movie playing to absolutely nothing but a computer screen makes this performance all the more remarkable.

Tom Hanks' title performance in Captain Phillips is our sixth place finisher. Hanks carries a significant portion of the movie as a man forced into survival mode and constantly attempting to be one step ahead of his kidnappers. Where this role really leaps from the great to the sublime is in a single sequence where tension is released and he breaks into a blubbering mess. It's an astonishing transformation in a couple of short moments, and I'm not sure how it was even possible.

Oscar Isaac claims seventh with his role in Inside Llewyn Davis, playing a folk singer so wedded to the idea of artistic integrity that he can't find success when it falls in his lap. Isaac, a folk singer in real life, proves he's more than capable of being a cross-over performer, dominating the screen in the Coen Brothers film, something that's no easy feat.

Survivor roles were big this year, and another lands in eighth spot. Robert Redford was the entirety of All Is Lost, where he played a man struggling to survive in the middle of the ocean after a shipwreck. He spends virtually the entire movie dialogue-free, and impresses simply by his action. It's acting in its purest form.

Ninth goes to Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station. Playing a man unjustly shot while under arrest. Portraying the day in his life before his death, Jordan turns him into a flawed but warm character, giving life to his last time on Earth.

Rounding out the category is Forest Whitaker for The Butler. As a man who served multiple Presidents over some of the most tumultuous times in US history, Whitaker makes his character a dignified stand-in for the African-American experience over that time.

2014 Calvin Awards
Calvins Intro
Best Actor
Best Actress
Best Album
Best Cast
Best Character
Best Director
Best Overlooked Film
Best Picture
Best Scene
Best Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best TV Show
Best Use of Music
Best Videogame
Breakthrough Performance
Worst Performance
Worst Picture

Top 10
Position Actor Film Total Points
1 Chiwetel Ejiofor 12 Years a Slave 113
2 Leonardo DiCaprio The Wolf of Wall Street 112
3 Matthew McConaughey Dallas Buyers Club 108
4 Bruce Dern Nebraska 84
5 Joaquin Phoenix Her 80
6 Tom Hanks Captain Phillips 77
7 Oscar Isaac Inside Llewyn Davis 65
8 Robert Redford All is lost 51
9 Michael B. Jordan Fruitvale Station 49
10 Forest Whitaker The Butler 32



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