Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Best of 2009, Part 2: Acting

Welcome back! Here we are again, taking a delightful romp through wild list territory. On today's menu: the best performances of 2009. I'll try to provide youtube links for these performances, but some of them will require you to use your imagination. Here we go!

Best Actor

5. Sharlto Copley-District 9
It's not easy being a corporate prick. Nor is it easy being a prawn. Sharlto Copley manages to do both with incredible believability. His character, Wikus van der Merwe, starts the film as an inept, joyfully incompetent bereaucrat, runs afoul of some mysterious black goop, and starts his slow, agonizing descent into prawndom. Let's be honest: District 9 is a little silly (in the best sense). But somehow, Copley makes everything feel brutally real. That's no small accomplishment.

4. Sam Rockwell-Moon
(not a great clip, but oh well.)
This very well could have been the toughest film on the list to act. Moon has only one central character (essentially. We don't need to quibble over technicalities), a character who's forced to endure some supremely trippy happenings. It's a gargantuan feat that Sam Rockwell takes this one-man show and makes something completely absorbing. His performance is a fascinating study of a blue-collar worker doing his best to stay professional as he slowly loses his mind.

3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt-(500) Days of Summer
(just about the only clip I could find)
It seems to be the consensus among actors that being genuinely funny is the hardest trick of all to play. Gordon-Levitt pulls it off in spades. He's effortlessly charismatic, hilarious, and, the masterstroke, achingly vulnerable. He hits all the highs associated with being in love, but he also resonates on all of the lows associated with rejection. This performance demonstrates a huge range, but Gordon-Levitt makes it look effortless.

2. Colin Firth-A Single Man
This here, ladies and gentlemen, is your study in control for the year. Terrible things happen to Firth's character, George Falconer; it would have been all too easy to let a little bit of melodrama seep into the performance. Colin Firth is too talented for that, however. Instead, he, like his character, puts on a facade of mildly boring cheeriness before plunging into his day. His facade shows some all-too-visible cracks, however, and he can never erase the pain in his eyes. This performance is a perfect study of nuance and subtlety: nothing is shown outright, but everything can be inferred.

1. Jeremy Renner-The Hurt Locker
There are showier performances this year: roles that require screaming, crying, boozing, gnashing of teeth, and all other forms of baity acting, but none of those gripped me the way Renner's powder keg of a man did. On the outside, Sgt. James is cocky, outgoing, and courageous. Every now and again, though, Renner allows the audience to glimpse something dangerous lurking beneath the surface. The rare moments when he allows himself a hint of vulnerabilty are enough to break your heart.

Honorable Mention: Willem Dafoe's prideful, cruel husband in Antichrist

Best Actress
5. Saoirse Ronan-The Lovely Bones
(No clip. Sorry!)
The Lovely Bones is an awfully flawed film, and the majority of the performances are somewhat south of quality. This can't be said for Saoirse Ronan, however, whose performance, when combined with her turn in Atonement counts as definite proof that this actress is one of the great up-and-coming talents. Ronan nails the emotionalized world of a thirteen year-old girl easily, then effortlessly transitions into the more mature emotions associated with death: desperation, grief, loneliness. Her portrayal keeps the film afloat when it should sink.

4. Charlotte Gainsbourg-Antichrist
Filming this movie must have been torture. Charlotte Gainsbourg has to be somewhat of a masochist to subject herself to the horrors that Antichrist puts her through. Yet she does, and, somehow, against all odds, succeeds with flying colors. It can't be easy to reach the depths of evil that she does while maintaining believability, but it happens. Her character's signature emotions is grief, followed closely by despair. When she fully embraces her darker nature, it's hard not to see something sinister lurking behind her eyes.

3. Carey Mulligan-An Education
On the complete opposite end of the acting spectrum, we have Carey Mulligan, who maintains a delightful, charismatic presence through what could have become a sappy, sentimental role. Her character, Jenny, is capricious and headstrong, but Mulligan provides her with moments of quiet dignity and grace. Her performance acknowledges the impulsiveness of her character's desires, while hinting at a greater woman buried inside.

2. Gabourey Sidibe-Precious
It's difficult to believe that Sidibe had never acted before she made Precious. She exudes a talent so raw and uncompromising that it all but burns the audience with its intensity. Gabourey Sidibe isn't acting here: she is Precious. She becomes her character so completely it's mind-boggling to see her outside of the film: the actress herself is witty, energetic, and cheerful. How she so adroitly embraced her character is anybody's guess.

1. Meryl Streep-Julie and Julia
As an avid Streep fan, y'all must have known that this performance would take the cake. I don't know if I've ever seen a performance so giddy or joyful. Streep is obviously having a ball here, and she doesn't mind sharing this experience with the audience. A sense of fun and dead-on impersonation would all be for naught, however, if Streep didn't imbue her Julia Child with an almost-buried sense of furious determination. She may be smiling, but she'll go to hell and back before she doesn't get what she want. This performance makes me smile every second it's on screen.

Honorable mention: Meryl Streep's warm, slightly slutty ex-wife in It's Complicated.

Supporting Actor
5. Stanley Tucci-Julie and Julia
(...Just watch the last one again.)
Most people this year have lined up for Tucci's serial killer in The Lovely Bones as his best acting this year, but I heartily disagree. In The Lovely Bones, he's forced, overly mannered, rather unbelievable. Here, however, he exudes a warmth and kindness that oozes off the screen. He holds his own with Meryl (no easy task, I'm sure), whilst efforstlessly supporting her. This performance really is a textbook sample of a 'supporting actor': He makes Meryl look great, and doesn't look too shabby himself.

4. Peter Sarsgaard-An Education
Peter Sarsgaard creates exactly the character needed to seduce a young girl: he comes off as charming, articulate, respectful, but not without the slightest hint of danger, like a promise of things to come. Sarsgaard conveys all of these without losing any of his appeal, making it easy to believe that a younger woman might fall for an older man such as he. He's determined to have fun at any cost, and as such, we sense the moments that he spends calculating when he should be feeling. It's a fascinating performance, and it deserves more attention than it got.

3. Brian Geraghty-The Hurt Locker
(not a great clip, but oh well.)
Poor Owen Eldrich. He just isn't cut out for a combat zone. Brian Geraghty's performance shows the 'good ol' boy' stereotype when pushed, pulled, and stretched past its breaking point. Eldrich is a careful study in measured implosion: we see his character slowly melt, but almost never in large steps. Special props have to be given for the scene in the desert: his friends are under fire, they ask him to wash a dead man's blood off of a magazine, and he just loses it. He must maintain face, however, and does his best to cover it up. That terrified, nervous giggling that he does whilse 'spitting and rubbing' is both scary and heartbreaking.

2. Anthony Mackie-The Hurt Locker
Mackie's performance is similar to Geraghty's in that it shows a man who is beaten down and finally broken. What makes this role different, however, is that Lt. Sanborn is man who seems custom manufactured to function in times of duress. He maintains his cool (to an extent) in most situations, rarely showing signs of emotional vulnerability. This makes his final breakdown all the more affecting: when he dissolves into tears in the humvee, asking Sgt. James if anyone will care if he dies. It's a perfectly controlled, completely realized performance.

1. Christoph Waltz-Inglourious Basterds
As good as the other roles are, the laurels this year must go to Christoph Waltz as 'Jew Hunter' Hans Landa. Never has a Nazi looked so charming and gregarious. Waltz's character is so very, very likeable. It makes it all the more shocking when he reveals the monster within. What's so fascinating about this performance is that the glimpse of the monster come so rarely. Most of the film, Landa bounces around, smiling and pontificating in four languages. Every now and again, though, a cold undercurrent cuts through his voice, and he leaves us no doubt as to what kind of a man he really is. This is a phenomenal performance, and will surely be remembered for years to come.

Honorable Mention: Zachary Quinto does his best Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek

Supporting Actress
5. Julianne Moore-A Single Man
She may not have the most screen time, but Julianne Moore makes the most of it. Playing Charley, George's alcoholic one-time lover, Moore perfectly plays quiet desperation masquerading as apathy. She's achingly vulnerable, but tries to hide it with booze, music, and laughter that's too loud. Moore plays all of this easily, while retaining her sense of pride. Her last shot, in which she stares out the door, broken-hearted, is unforgettable.

4. Diane Kruger-Inglourious Basterds
I love this character. Bridget Von Hammersmark is a wonderful cinematic creation, brought to life with seductive glitz and glamour. Kruger is fantastic as a double agent who begins to regret her decisions. Regardless of her situation, though, she is first and foremost a movie star, and will go down acting like one. Whether she's involved in a tavern shoot-out, having her leg operated on, or getting what Colonel Landa thinks she deserves, Hammersmark always seems like a god of the Silver Screen.

3. Melanie Laurent-Inglourious Basterds
(Can't find a good clip. Sorry!)
On the other side of things we have Melanie Laurent, whose principal goal is to be inconspicuous. She does this very well, even when faced with the emotionally tricky task of having lunch with the man who murdered her family. I love how Laurent almost never loses her cool, regardless of the situation. That one shot, though, right after Landa leaves her lunch table, is amazing: suddenly, she breaks down, going from calm and composed to sobbing in an instant. Great work.

2. Anna Kendrick-Up in the Air
(can't find a clip for this one either.)
What a beautifully subdued performance. Anna Kendrick's character, Natalie, is all about moving forward in her career, regardless of how it might affect her emotionally. Since her job is jetting around the country telling people they're fired, it's easy to understand that her job must take its toll. Kendrick perfectly balances the young, go-get-em attitude with the discomfort of walking into people's lives and ruining them. Her character is idealistic and chipper, but ultimately naive. Kendrick's masterstroke is to never try to play too much: her character never completely loses it. Cracks show, but she remains in control. That amount of restraint is rarely seen in movies.

1. Mo'Nique-Precious
This is, in my opinion, the best performance of the year. Mary, Precious's abusive, angry mother, is, for all intents and purposes, a monster, and Mo'Nique plays her like one. She never strays into caricature, however: it would have been easy to overplay this role, making her into something ridiculous, but Mo'Nique always maintains believability. The most impressive moment, however, comes at the very end (the clip above is part of this scene): she loses her ferocity and becomes a child again. In one fell swoop, Mo'Nique humanizes this monster, making the audience feel the tiniest bit of sympathy for her, regardless of the heinous acts she commits. It's a virtuoso performance, and deserves every award it gets.

Honorable Mention: the ladies of Nine: Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, and Penelope Cruz.

There you have. What did I do right? What did I do wrong?
Tomorrow: Directing and Screenplays

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