It’s a familiar rule of thumb in the Oscar-watching game that the best actors aren’t always recognised for their best work. Tom Hardy’s as good an example as any this year: he cracked his first nod for his beardily villainous performance in The Revenant, though it’s some of his wobblier work. I’d rather have seen him honoured for Legend (Studiocanal, 18): his twin turn as Reggie and Ronnie Kray is no less brash a feat of scenery-chewing, but it’s a considerably more special one. Drawing on both his reckless movie-star magnetism and his character-actor peculiarities, often in the same frame, it’s a dazzling thespian stunt and a full-bodied (well, double-bodied) characterisation – and the lifeblood of Brian Helgeland’s less inventive chunk of East End gangland lore.
Legend distinguishes itself from Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic, The Krays, which starred Gary and Martin Kemp and centred vividly on the vicious twins’ relationship with their mother, by shifting focus to Reggie’s relationship with his young wife, Frances (Emily Browning). Yet while Helgeland’s script grants Frances the film’s narrating voice, her perspective is less generously defined – often seeming incidental to the film’s comic-book view of laddish underworld dealings. And with Hardy playing both Krays with such megawatt intensity – Reggie as a blemished urban lothario, Ronnie as an unhinged manchild – it’s not as if any other character has a chance to register. And while Helgeland’s film sits a notch below Medak’s as biography, Hardy doesn’t need dual roles to prove he’s twice the actor either Kemp is.
Future awards trivia collectors will delight in the fact that Mark Ruffalo was Golden Globe-nominated this year not for Spotlight, but for his turn as a loving manic depressive dad in Maya Forbes’s cracked autobiographical comedy Infinitely Polar Bear (Sony, 15). Ruffalo’s endearingly crumpled human decency has become one of modern American film’s most reliable comforts, even in a film that yo-yos as rashly as this one. Forbes’s often frantically chipper film-making is perhaps too strained in reflecting its protagonist’s state of mind, but there are honest reserves of heart and hurt here.
Among the many reasons to look askance at the last two Spider-Man films: they took Andrew Garfield out of non-Lycra-clad acting for the better part of four years. Ramin Bahrani’s gripping, riled-up financial-crisis parable 99 Homes (Studiocanal, 15) reminds us what we’ve been missing. Garfield’s an urgently curled fist here, pained and poignant as a jobless Florida dad evicted from his home by a predatory real estate broker, for whom he becomes, in desperation, a conflicted protege. Michael Shannon superbly plays the property baron as a kind of tan-suited Mephistopheles; the actors enact a terse, taut war of wills between these opposingly determined men, sturdily anchoring Bahrani’s seething script even at its most rhetorically heated.
More gentle, if similarly direct, in its allegorical approach is Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines (Axiom, 15). Not to be confused with the iPhone-shot transgender indie Tangerine, this Oscar-nominated anti-war fable miniaturises the 1992 Abkhazia conflict to the battleground of a lowly rural homestead, as wounded soldiers from the Georgian and Russian factions are mutually sheltered by an elderly, disinterested carpenter. The mutual understanding that blossoms from their forced truce isn’t terribly surprising, but neither is it saccharine – Urushadze’s war-what-is-it-good-for? message is coloured with a doleful streak of gallows humour.
Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, a bruising, matter-of-fact documentary immersion into the Mexican drug war, came and went with relatively little fanfare in cinemas last year, but scooped a well-judged Oscar nomination. Happily, for those wishing to catch up, Netflix has just added it to its roster. It’s worth the hard graft. Tracing the parallel efforts of anti-cartel vigilantes on either side of the Arizona-Mexico border, the film remains cool-headed even when granted startlingly close access to the conflict – exposing the galling violence yielded by the drug trade even on the notionally right side of the law. Arriving around the same time as Denis Villeneuve’s fictional cartel film Sicario, it’s a thriller in its own right.