Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Top Ten Tuesdays: Movies With (Mostly) One Actor

Earlier this month, The Martian came out and received wide critical acclaim. If you haven't seen The Martian yet, do yourself a favor and go: it's a wonderful return to form for director Ridley Scott and will undoubtedly be appearing on my "Best Films of 2015" list later in the year. It is a truly excellent movie. In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets accidentally stranded on Mars after his crew believes he has been killed during a violent storm and they are forced to evacuate the planet. Knowing that there won't be another ship arriving on the planet for several years, Watney is forced to use the limited resources he has to survive on a planet where there's no ready access to food or water (well, until a couple days before the film's release at least). Damon gives a wonderful performance--his portrayal of Watney is a character we can root for and empathize with, and he comes across as someone who could credibly survive in the harsh conditions with which he's faced. But while he's certainly the main character, the film does not only take place on Mars. The film actually features a large ensemble cast, as we follow Watney's former crew, and the employees of NASA who are working to try and bring Watney back to Earth (the film is well acted, but of these supporting players, Chiwetel Ejiofor stood out to me as the strongest performance of the lot). By juggling these different locations, Scott stops us from feeling too claustrophobic. After all, no matter how gosh-darn-charming Matt Damon is (when he's not unfortunately putting his foot in his mouth) any movie where we're stuck with just one person in just one location would be way too boring to watch, right?

Matt Damon is like the sun. If you gaze at him too long it's not good for your eyes no matter how beautiful he is.

Not necessarily. Films with small casts can be undeniably effective when done well (such as Twelve Angry Men, which uses its small scale to wring intense emotional poignancy). And while it is rare, it is not unheard of for a film to focus exclusively on a single performer. And so I thought I would consider these brave films which have attempted this feat and compile my list for the top ten films with one actor. Or, to be fair, MOSTLY one actor. Most of these films do have other actors show up at least briefly or find some other way to skirt the limitation of one character. So, here we go, these are my picks for the top ten films with (mostly) one performer!

Honorable Mention) Life of Pi

I know the CGI is incredible, but I still think it would have been better if they had gotten Andy Serkis to play the tiger.
Life of Pi focuses on the story of a teenager named Pi (Suraj Sharma) who is stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. I must admit that, right off the bat, I'm cheating a little bit. This film actually spends a considerable amount of time off of the boat--there's ample build-up where we see Pi as a young boy and get to know his family, and the film also constantly cuts back and forth to the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) as he tells the story to a reporter. So, this entry definitely leans heavily on the "mostly" part of this list's qualifications. This is also why it only gets an honorable mention--in terms of quality alone, it is better than several of the entries that have made the list outright. But I decided that it does deserve inclusion. In The Martian, the time spent away from Mars is vital to the story and to the overall success of the film. In Life of Pi, the time not spent on the boat with Pi is actually to the film's detriment. The film's strength lies in the material it mines from its one actor and, were you to only watch the parts of the movie where it is just Pi and his tiger alone on the boat, I actually think you'd get a better film. Credit here is due entirely to Sharma. I've actually talked a little bit about his performance before when I spoke about child actors, and how I think his performance was criminally underrated. The performance he gives--especially when you consider that he didn't have his CGI co-star to work off of--is truly remarkable.

10) All is Lost

I wasn't a huge fan of this recent film, where an unnamed man (Robert Redford) is stranded at sea. I think it took a big risk and ran with it--not only is Redford the only actor, but his performance is almost wordless. In most of these films, there is some trick that explains why the narrator would speak to us. In The Martian, Watney keeps a video log explaining his actions and emotions. In Life of Pi, Pi communicates with the tiger. But in All is Lost, they bravely attempted to forego any such conceit and stick to the basics. If this man does not have anyone around him, then he's not going to talk to anyone. They let the stakes of the situation and Redford's reactions to those stakes do the talking. For me, the risk doesn't really work. Redford's performance is very committed and impressive, but while I empathized with his situation, I never felt all that invested in him as a character. But this film swings for the fences and is a commendable experiment despite its overall failings.

9) Buried

Wishing he still had that Green Lantern ring right about now.
The idea of Ryan Reynolds being buried alive in a coffin for an hour and a half sounds like a) an apt punishment for The Green Lantern and b) a pretty terrible movie. And while I wouldn't exactly call Buried an incredible film, it's far better than one would expect, and features an adept performance from Reynolds as a truck driver who terrorists have buried underground with nothing but a lighter and a BlackBerry (the phone, not the fruit although the fruit would have made for an even more interesting movie). It's a deeply flawed film, but the clever camera and interesting storytelling work makes this film far better than anyone would expect it to be.

8) Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron's film has experienced an interesting roller coaster of reactions: it was hailed as a cinematic achievement when it first came out, but while it is still well-regarded, I have recently heard a considerable amount of backlash against Gravity, where it is lumped with films like Avatar in the argument that movies are leaning on technical accomplishment as opposed to an emphasis on story and character. I have to disagree. It would be foolish to think that Gravity succeeds on technical merit alone. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are technical masters, but they do not ignore the other crucial elements that make up a successful film, and the film features some excellent performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Now, you will notice that I mentioned two names just now, and like with Life of Pi, the prominent presence of another actor is why this film is not ranked higher on the list. But Clooney's character leaves the film fairly early on and for a good portion of the movie, focus is places solely on Bullock's character Ryan Stone. This is undeniably a solo performance for the vast majority of the movie, and it's an effective one at that.

7) Swimming to Cambodia/Gray's Anatomy

Lies! He isn't swimming at all, let alone to Cambodia.
One of the most influential storytellers in recent years was Spalding Gray, an actor and writer who rose to prominence through his solo shows. Through his strong writing, unique choices of subject matter, and charismatic presence, Gray quickly rose as an iconic figure in the world of theater. During his career, a few of the monologues that he performed on stage to much acclaim were later filmed and released as films in their own right. And it is two of these films which I have lumped together for this entry. In Swimming to Cambodia, Gray talks about, among other things, his experience filming a role in The Killing Fields in Thailand. In Gray's Anatomy (directed by none other than the great Steven Soderbergh) Gray offers a reflection on his own mortality as he seeks alternative methods to cure an eye condition. I am sure there are those out there who would question whether these are "real movies" considering that they really are just monologues set to film. But they're still undeniably effective. Gray is not talking to us as if it's a documentary--he is performing for us. And the films do more than simply plop a camera down on a tripod. Filmmaking techniques are used to enhance the story. "Real movie" or not, both are engaging and worthwhile showcases for arguably one of the most iconic solo performers of all time

6) Wall-E

I love Wall-E. The whole film could have been him trying to solve that Rubik's Cube and I'd still watch it.
One of my favorite films of all time, Pixar's masterpiece Wall-E is about a robot who forever roams a long-since evacuated Earth cleaning up junk after a commercialism-driven apocalyptic event. But everything changes when another robot named EVE arrives, whose appearance starts of a chain of events where we discover why Earth was abandoned and what has become of the human race. Once again I'm cheating by including a film with multiple characters. There's EVE, there's a bizarrely adorable cockroach, and there are several humans who all play prominent roles. But like with Life of Pi, I justify Wall-E's presence on this list by saying that, even if you were to take out everything except the parts that focus on the titular robot, you would still be left with an incredible film. And, like with Life of Pi, if I were ranking based on quality alone and ignoring the prompt I've given myself, this film would be MUCH higher on this list. In many of the films on this list, someone is abandoned and stuck in some situation, and the film is about them trying to survive. But Wall-E doesn't have to do anything to survive. He doesn't need food, he doesn't need shelter. So, instead, the film is a love letter to curiosity and a touching reflection on the effects of loneliness. Even as the scope of the film expands and more characters are introduced, the emotional core of this film remains our curious robot with a heart of gold.

5) The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Hopefully you already know and love Lily Tomlin. If you don't, then know that she voiced Miss Frizzle and NOW you know and love her like all the rest of us.
Like with Spalding Gray's films, this is a filmed version of a one-person stage show. Like with Spalding Gray's films, the movie makes no attempt to hide its theatrical origins. And like with Spalding Gray's films, none of that matters because that stage show is good enough that this film is a must-watch even without the frills and whistles of more traditional filmmaking. In this case, the solo performer is comedy legend Lily Tomlin (who does excellent work in this year's Grandma, her first starring film role in years). Written by Tomlin's wife Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was hailed as a triumph as both a stage show and as a film, and is a truly unique tour de force. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it immediately. As a film, it doesn't really make much of an attempt to adapt the material beyond what was done on stage, but the collaboration of Tomlin's performance and Wagner's writing is absolute magic.

4) 127 Hours

There's going to be a sequel to this film which documents Ralston's life after the events of the first movie, and how everyone jokes to him "Talk about being between a rock and a hard place, am I right?!" It is far more torturous than anything in the first film.
When I first heard about Danny Boyle's true story film 127 Hours, where Aron Ralston (James Franco) was trapped in a cave by a boulder and had to sever his own arm to escape, my first instinct was to avoid the film at all costs. I was sure it would be a good movie, but it was not a story that I had any interest in seeing. But, eventually, I gave in and watched it and I am really glad I did. 127 Hours takes this event and turns it into poetry. At times hauntingly beautiful, 127 Hours doesn't just show Ralston's perilous situation, it puts us in his state of mind. It is not about survival, it is about desperation and hope. Tremendous credit is due to Franco, who uses a combination of charm and panic to craft a brilliant performance that helped cement his status as a movie star (despite some questionable choices as of late). Perhaps most impressive about Franco's performance, though, is his subtlety. His portrayal of Ralston is realistic and quiet, which is in stark contrast with some of the more dreamlike and fantastical shots and images that Boyle puts forth as a director. The collaboration between actor and director allows the film to have its cake and eat it too: as a director, Boyle can go abstract and symbolic and free-form, while Franco's work keeps the film grounded and nuanced. The film exceeds all expectations and forms a finished product which is greater than the sum of its considerable parts.

3) Secret Honor

This is, for me, the definitive version of a film with only one character. Directed by the great Robert Altman, known for his work with ensemble casts, here he focuses on one actor. That actor is Philip Baker Hall--a reliable character actor who is rarely given a chance to carry a film. And that's a shame, because this is the definition of a performance carrying a film. His talent is put front and center, and Hall rises to the challenge. Much like with the work of Spalding Gray and Lily Tomlin, this is a monologue, but it's a far more traditional performance than in either of those films. Playing a fictionalized version of Richard Nixon, Hall reflects on his actions and speculates as to his thought process on his controversial actions throughout his life. Hall's work is blatantly honest, and while the film is inconsistent, his performance stays with you far after the film is done. This is probably the most ambitious film on this list, and in less capable hands than Hall's and Altman's, it would not succeed as well as it does.

2) Cast Away

Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away, about FedEx employee Chuck Noland (a wonderful Tom Hanks) who gets stranded on an island takes the #2 spot not just because of its quality, but because of its iconic status. Whenever there is a film about anyone stranded anywhere, it is compared to Cast Away. The Martian? It's Cast Away in space. Life of Pi? It's Cast Away with a tiger. Secret Honor? It's Cast Away but as an introspective drama about Richard Nixon contemplating suicide.

With a bloody volleyball as Spiro Agnew!
Zemeckis is one of the most accomplished directors working today. He consistently demonstrates an instinctive understanding of his audience. While many great filmmakers create works that can be viewed as divisive (someone like Paul Thomas Anderson comes to mind), Zemeckis creates films that will reliably appeal to a wide range of audiences. He creates engaging films that are not superficial and have far more depth than a traditional "popcorn flick." What could have just been an uplifting film of survival, becomes an emotional reflection of humanity. Only a great filmmaker can mine so much emotion from a fucking volleyball, from crying out loud. I will seriously never get over the "death" of Wilson. Sorry, I would have said spoiler alert but my eyes were too busy gathering water all of a sudden.

I will never recover.
1) Moon

This movie is incredible, and not unknown to any regular readers of this blog. I mentioned it on my list of favorite films of all time, and I mentioned it in my review of Interstellar as an example of an actual good science fiction movie. So if you haven't seen it, please watch it now! Especially because I'm about to talk about it and give away some major plot points. So, don't get spoiled, just watch Moon and you won't be disappointed. Especially because of the incredible performance from the always underrated Sam Rockwell.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut who is on the final days of a mission on the moon. All he has for companionship are occasional video messages from Earth and a robot named GERTY (a hugely underrated movie robot). And, then...himself. Sam is shocked to find another version of himself on the moon. And then another one. And then another one. Moon solves the storytelling problem of having just one character by having that character show up multiple times. And Rockwell is instrumental in making each of these characters believable as iterations of the same person, but also distinct enough so as to be their own character. With all of the other films on this list, you never forget that you're just watching one person. Even with films like Cast Away or 127 Hours where the sense of a wider world is created, part of the film's power is its isolation. But Moon is the only film I've mentioned here that doesn't feel like a one-actor movie. You seriously forget just how small the cast is thanks to the richness of the story, the filmmaking, the writing, and Rockwell's performance. It's the only one-actor movie I can think of where you truly forget about the gimmick.

GERTY the robot just watched Cast Away and will also never recover.

So, those are my choices. Are there any one-actor movies that I missed? As I did research online, I found out about a film called Locke starring Tom Hardy where it's apparently just him, and also found out about a one-actor Japanese film called Symbol that's supposed to be excellent. So I'll have to check those out and see if they would have cracked this list had I seen them before. As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments and feel free to send me recommendations for future Top Ten Tuesdays and/or other things to write about in the future.