Every year there’s a lead performance or two in an indie-level film that’s so drop-to-your-knees mesmerizing that people like myself throw back the shutters and shout “definitely award-worthy…make room!” (Last year’s contender in this regard was Adele Exarchopolous in Blue Is The Warmest Color.) And every time I blow the horn the cynical, know-it-all Gurus and Gold Derby-ers say “nope…no way, Jose…the distributor either can’t afford or won’t pay for a serious awards campaign, let alone for the services of a Lisa Taback-level campaign strategist…this is a Spirit Awards contender at best.” I spit on that attitude, that corroded way of thinking. Because I’m telling you straight and true that Paul Dano‘s performance as the youngish Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad‘s Love and Mercy, which I saw this afternoon, is almost spookily great.

Perfectly fattened-up Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy.

Wilson’s disturbed spirit hums and throbs in the 30 year-old Dano, who looks like he gained 35 or 40 pounds to play the genius Beach Boy maestro in his mid ’60s blimp period. You can really feel the vibrations and sense the genius-level ferment and the off-balance emotionality. Inwardly and outwardly it’s a stunning, drop-dead transformation and the finest performance of Dano’s career, hands down. It is also, trust me, just as commendable as the other highly-touted, year-end heavyweight performances (including Birdman‘s Michael Keaton, The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne, The Imitation Game‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), if not more so. You might be thinking it but don’t you dare dismiss Dano’s performance with a wave of your hand. I know what you’re going to say so don’t even say it. Just shut up.

Not to mention John Cusack also as the 40ish Wilson in the same film, which shifts back and forth between the mid to late ’60s (i.e., the recording of Pet Sounds and Smile) and the mid to late ’80s (i.e., “the Landy years”). Cusack has been on a downturn for the last three or four years, playing ghouls and creeps and psycho killers…my heart aches for the guy. True, he’s had two good roles over the last couple of years — Richard Nixon in The Butler and the husband-masseuse in David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars — but this is a revelation. Cusack plays a gentle but very solemn and intimidated Wilson during the period in which he was under the firm hand of the disreputable Eugene Landy, who died in 2006. (Landy got Wilson to lose weight and get healthier, but at a tremendous price.) Cusack is child-like and Gentle Ben-ish, and as convincing and fully submitted to his task as Dano is to his. For the first time in my moviegoing life I wasn’t bothered by two actors playing the same character — quite a landmark.

And let’s not under-praise Paul Giamatti‘s deliciously evil performance as Landy. This is one of the tastiest bad guys to come along in any film in a long, long time. He’s like cookies and cream with chocolate sprinkles…perfect. I know, I know…Giamatti is always good but this is a wonderfully venal role and he milks it to the max.

Love and Mercy is much, much better than I thought it would be. Pohlad’s strategy of cutting between the two periods works quite well, and he particularly excels in his recreations of the Pet Sounds and Smile recording sessions as well as the general period flavor and right-on performances from even the lowest-ranked actors. His casting instincts are excellent. The supporting standouts include Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter (whose love affair with and support of Wilson beginning in the mid ’80s constitutes the latter half of the film), Jake Abel as the eternal asshole Mike Love and Max Schneider as Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks.

Screenwriter Oren Moverman, whose writing and direction of Time Out of Mind is apparently being regarded by most Toronto cognoscenti as a complete wipe-out, has really found the right tone and particularity here, and Pohlad has almost amazingly managed to make the film look and sound authentic all the way down the line, and he did this with what I presume was a nickle-and-dime budget. I went in hoping for something at least competent and perhaps half-decent — Love and Mercy is much better than that. It’s definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in Toronto thus far.

It’s now 7:25 pm. I have three parties to hit tonight — Whiplash, Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game. I’ll write a couple of more riffs late tonight and probably post whatever photos I get. Tomorrow morning are screenings for Manglehorn, Cake, The Humbling and who knows what else? I always start to sink into the quicksand sometime around Thursday and I’m sure this year will be no different.