Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Top 10 Supporting Actors of the Millennium

Forgive my laziness. I know list-making is the lowest form of Internet writing. It can, however, appeal to the most people at once (now 10 movies instead of 1 for the same low, low price!), and it's something I can churn out before I have to make dinner, which, though not very prescient for you, is a huge selling point for me. So, without further ado, I give you the best supporting actors of the new millennium!
(If you're wondering why I only do these lists as pertaining to the last 10 years, I figure that y'all have seen few enough of these recent titles as is. If I open up the game to "older" movies, chances are I'll just be talking to myself. Unless, of course, I'm wrong. If you want to hear about older movies, don't be shy in the comments section.)

10. Jackie Earle Haley-Little Children (2006)
Mr. Haley is the first of many monsters on a list decidedly jam-packed with villains. This character is unique, however, in that none of the other villains are trying quite so hard to be normal. Haley's performance is a masterwork in its intensity and its emotional nuance. Somehow, Haley inspires sympathy with the audience for a convicted child-molester and rapist. Perhaps it's the small ways he seems like a child himself: the way he calls his mother "mommy," how insecure his body language is, the creepy intensity with which he looks at other people. It's a fascinating character study, and an incredibly effective one. Haley convinces the viewer that even monsters love their mothers.

9. Jake Gyllenhaal-Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Poor Jack Twist. Jake Gyllenhaal brilliantly conveys the character arc of a man whose naive optimism is dashed against the rocks time and time again. In the beginning of the film, Jack is confident, cocky, and energetic. He's easy to fall in love with, and falls in love easily. Then, reality strikes, and his long descent begins. Gyllenhaal isn't aided much by the sub-par makeup artists in the aging process. Luckily for the film, he's more than able to convey his age and experience on his own. I can almost feel the weight of the world on his shoulders in the later stretches of the film, and I can see the sadness huddling around his eyes. For so long, however, he retains a spark: therein lies the genius of Gyllenhaal's performance. Jack Twist may become bent and twisted out of shape, but he remains unbroken until his very last scene: that last gaze at the camera hurts: all of Jack's emotional anguish pours out of the screen, suffocating the viewer.

8. Clive Owen-Closer (2004)
Closer is a film about terrible, terrible people, but of all of them, Clive Owen is by far the worst. Closer follows the lives of four people who enact emotional pain on each other out of jealousy, immaturity, or vanity, but only Clive Owen's character truly enjoys it. Owen plays Larry as a man far more intelligent than his peers, and all too willing to take advantage of it. Watch him as Dan (played by Jude Law) confronts him about a shared lover. He reclines in his desk chair, throwing quips like they're confetti, hardly restraining a smile. And then he explodes, and suddenly a different person is in the office. Clive Owen doesn't play one character; he plays many--every facet of the good doctor Larry's personality that he feels like manipulating to get ahead. A truly chilling performance.

7. Channing Tatum-A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)
Forget the Channing Tatum you know: a squinty-eyed, mildly retarded actor who makes Keanu Reeves look like Sean Penn. This is the Channing Tatum you should know: intense, heartfelt, and so real it hurts. Channing Tatum's portrayal of (what I consider) wounded love and passion in the ghetto is incredibly powerful. A constant undercurrent of anger buzzes throughout his performance, tangible and electric. Every time you see Tatum's eyes, your blood runs a little bit cold. What sets this performance apart, however, is the tenderness with which he tempers the anger. Though he's full of hate, his capacity for love is unsurpassed. Watch him try to take care of Dito after he's beaten up, or the jilted-lover sequence on the rooftop. On top of all this, and subtle shades of shame and an inferiority complex, and you've got truly compelling work.

6. William Hurt-A History of Violence (2005)
I respectfully offer you William Hurt as the definition of a scene-stealer: he appears in A History of Violence for only eight minutes, but makes such an indelible impression that one can hardly think of the film without thinking of Richie, Joey's older brother. The key, I believe, is in the voice. The film has built Richie Cusack up as a ruthless mob boss, and the audience has developed a mental picture. But then, Richie appears, and hark! He speaks so deliberately, almost effeminately, with bizarre affectations belonging to no particular accent. Add this to the physicality that Hurt brings to the role: every movement is measured and calculated while appearing completely superfluous. Hurt's performance is a balancing act: he walks a tightrope between ridiculous caricature and perfunctory villain. Somehow, miraculously, he never strays into either territory. Richie Cusack is both scary and likable; a dangerous and difficult combination.

5. Casey Affleck-The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Casey Affleck has quite the uphill task in this film: his character, Robert Ford, suffers emotions too complex to transcribe with simple description. He is an avid fan of Jesse James; a precursor to the screaming fangirls of today. He has foolish dreams of life as an outlaw. He finds himself in the presence of Jesse James, and, against his will, falls in love. How to solve this? All the pretensions of grandeur, all the illusions he had of James are shattered: his god become mortal before his very eyes. Then, he finds himself forced to betray the one man he thought he would never betray, if only to save his own skin. Affleck plays Robert Ford as a man of curiosity and delusions of grandeur: he can't help but get a closer look, and when he finally does, he finds himself acting in extreme ways so reality can begin to live up to the hype. Ford is weak, selfish, and infatuated, but at the same time he's cold, ruthless, and dangerously pragmatic. Somehow, Affleck makes all of these conflicting emotions evident without saying a word.

4. Javier Bardem-No Country For Old Men (2007)
"How much have you ever lost on a coin toss?" Anton Chigurgh, Javier Bardem's character, doesn't really seem like a person. He's more like death personified: incapable of pity, and unstoppable. What strikes me about this performance is how normal Chigurgh seems to be, despite his extreme actions, his odd appearance, and his voice like ice scraping on concrete. Chigurgh, it seems, thinks this is just another day at the office. Watch him take joy in the little pleasures of his day, the tiniest of smiles that sneak onto his normally dour face. Javier Bardem manages to be absolutely terrifying while doing his best to keep up polite conversation. He keeps up the facade right until he kills. That working-man aura, that nonchalant attitude, are strokes of pure cinematic genius. Bardem has created one of the most indelible characters of recent cinema.

3. David Carradine-Kill Bill (2004)
Another great villain, another polite fellow, another deliberate voice. No, I suppose it would be wrong to categorize Bill as a villain. Retired villain, perhaps. But now, he's just a daddy. I love David Carradine's performance for being just that: a retired villain who is now a stay-at-home father. Sure, we see glimpses of the evil incumbent in his villain persona, but they aren't what define him. He's gentle, kind, and eloquent. Watch how he interacts with his daughter, or better yet, the Bride. Does he treat her like a lover, or like another daughter? I don't think Bill knows either. Above all, Bill is world-weary. He's tired, he's almost grateful that his assassin makes her appearance. Carradine's performance is Great Acting, the kind that earns the capital letters.

2. Tim Robbins-Mystic River (2003)
Frequent readers will know that I consider Mystic River to be one of the most well-acted films of all time. Watching it feels like taking a class on effective drama. It's inevitable, then, that one of the actors from the film pop up near the top of this list. Tim Robbins plays Dave, a victim of sexual abuse in his childhood, trying desperately to feel normal again. Robbins plays him like a piece of china: too easily broken if not properly handled. When the guilt, of a nature I won't divulge for spoiler-related purposes, is thrown onto his already complex neuroses, Dave begins to crack. Tim Robbins enters virtuoso territory here, offering a compelling portrait of a man whose sanity is slowly leaking away. Watching him attempting to interact with his wife and child while he slowly self-destructs is intensely painful. Tim Robbins takes a character that could have been cliched and turns him into a searing vision of the consequences of wounds that refuse to heal.

1. Heath Ledger-The Dark Knight (2008)
I know, I know. It's the obvious choice. It's still fresh in everyone's minds. It's wonderfully showy. None of this should detract from the astounding piece of art that is Heath Ledger's performance, however. I can't say much that hasn't already been said, or that you haven't said yourself, so I won't try. I would like, however, to draw your attention to the small details: the constant licking of the lips, the strained quality of the laugh, the shiftiness of the eyes. It's beautiful work. Ledger's Joker isn't just one of the greatest screen villains of all time: he's one of the greatest characters to grace the screen period. And that's an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Glaring omissions? Overrated performances? What do you think? Does this list look legit, or does it need tweaking?

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