Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Best Performances of 2012

Here are my picks for the best performances of the year, broken up into the four categories we’ve come to expect thanks to various awards shows/polls.

Best Actor:

10. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)- Bradley Cooper has spent the past decade or so playing smug alpha males in films like The Hangover and Wedding Crashers, but his background at the Actor’s Studio in New York and his intelligent interviews have hinted at an actor with a far greater range, just waiting to break out. Cooper got his chance in Silver Linings Playbook, toning down the smarm to play Pat Solitano, a troubled man whose uncontrollable emotional outbursts hide his good nature. The role was initially offered to Mark Wahlberg, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Cooper here, whose natural charm carries us through Pat’s most difficult moments.

9.  Jack Black (Bernie)- Jack Black burst onto the national scene as a raging id tornado in High Fidelity and School of Rock, but he’s been spinning his wheels in the past few years with dreck like Year One and Gulliver’s Travels. Black’s back at the top of his game with Bernie, in which he and his School of Rock collaborator Richard Linklater make Bernie’s bizarre situation believable by making Bernie damn near the most lovable murderer who ever lived. His zest for life (and sympathy for the dead) put us on his side even after he does in Shirley MacLaine’s nasty old Marjorie…and maybe even get us to make excuses for him.

8. Denzel Washington (Flight)- Denzel Washington has spent the past several years playing quietly dignified heroes that I’d quite frankly grown bored with. Oh, sure, he’s always fine, but he’s most fascinating when playing morally questionable or even dubious men, as in his career-best performances as the charismatically evil Alonzo Harris in Training Day or as the brilliant but complicated civil rights hero in Malcolm X. Washington himself has expressed boredom playing heroes, thankfully, and Flight shows him in top form in morally thorny territory. Whip Whitaker is a man who numbs the pain in his life while harming those he loves, justifying it to himself even as he turns into a mess of a man who may be responsible for the deaths of six people. And yet Washington still gives Whip his dignity, never judging him for his faults, simply showing a complicated man struggling to maintain.

7. Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained)- For a while, it seemed like Jamie Foxx was all done. After a burst of brilliance in the early 2000s culminated in his double Oscar-nominations for Collateral and Ray, Foxx spent too much time in transparent Oscar-bait like Dreamgirls and The Soloist for anyone to care. But Foxx’s work in Django Unchained ranks right up with his best as he plays one of the best taciturn heroes since Russell Crowe in Gladiator, a man whose every action is carefully measured and modulated, lest he give something away and be killed. And yet Django has that quick Tarantino wit to him as well, as seen in a late scene where he bargains his way out of chains and back on the road to saving his beloved wife.

6. Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour)- Trintignant’s status as an aging French New Wave legend certainly does much of the work in Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking drama Amour, but Trintignant’s casting wouldn’t mean much if he weren’t up to the task. As it is, his work as Georges ranks among his best. He plays a man determined to keep his wife alive, despite all the evidence of A. her rapidly approaching demise, and B. her desire to die soon, and without pain. His normally gentle demeanor sometimes gives way to curt reactions towards those around him, but he’s ultimately motivated by love, by his desire to make everything OK for his wife (and, true, for himself) when he knows it’s not going to be.

5. Sean William Scott (Goon)- The single most surprising performance of the year. Scott suggested untapped greatness in his work in David Wain’s Role Models, but Goon fulfills that promise. The film wouldn’t work without Scott’s balance of sweetness and dumbness as Doug Glatt, a man too nice to master trash talking (biggest laugh: “I’ll light your ass back up…on fire!”). He’s the kind of guy who feels so bad for stealing another man’s girlfriend that he lets the guy beat the shit out of him. We believe it because Scott believes it, and we go along with Goon because we like him so damn much.

4. Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe)- Talk about the comeback of the year. Matthew McConaughey’s early work in Lone Star and Dazed and Confused suggested a talented character actor who was about to take over Hollywood (people seriously compared him to Paul Newman), but a decade of terrible romantic-comedies washed away most of the good will towards him. But 2012 is the year of McConaughey, and it culminates with his terrifying performance in Killer Joe. McConaughey retains his cool Southern charm, but it’s all a carefully measured act to hide his sociopathic depravity and sadism. If there was a more frightening performance this year, I don’t know it.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)- No other actor has made every performance he gives an event like Daniel Day-Lewis (ignoring Nine). The man makes so few movies and goes all-out every time he does, so it isn’t surprising that he’s been canonized the greatest actor in the world. Day-Lewis fans certainly found more ammunition for their argument in Lincoln. Day-Lewis gave the performance of his career in There Will Be Blood, but his work in Lincoln comes awfully close as he inhabits the role like no other actor could have, hitting the right balance between what made Honest Abe a legend in his time and what made him a flawed, recognizable human being. Whether he’s telling a joke or demanding his staff find the votes for the 13th Amendment, Day-Lewis never loses that balance. Is he the greatest actor in the world? He’s certainly right up there.

2. Denis Lavant (Holy Motors)- Is it possible to declare someone one of the greatest actors in the world solely off the basis of one performance? How about 11 performances in one movie? Director Leos Carax said that if Denis Lavant has said no to Holy Motors, he would have asked Charlie Chaplin or Lon Chaney. It’s easy to see what Carax means: no other actor could possibly have pulled this off. Whether he’s playing an old man on his deathbed, a hitman going after his own doppelganger, or a weird, shambling creature who eats flowers and fingers, Lavant pulls off every role and finds some sort of strange sense of order to it all, acting like the Virgil to our Dante, exploring the strange but inviting world of Holy Motors.

1. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)- In a recent speech for the London Film Critics Circle Awards, Joaquin Phoenix accepted his award while acknowledging that his work would mean nothing without the work of others, and that he alone was not responsible for creating the character of Freddie Quell. And it’s true- Phoenix’s work wouldn’t have the same power had Paul Thomas Anderson not written the single most complete and fascinating character of the year, or had Phoenix not been working with equally brilliant actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone playing Quell half as well as Phoenix did, his wiry body and cracked face showing a man who’s constantly coming apart at the seams, his animalistic behavior and fierce commitment earning welcome comparisons to Brando or James Dean. As played by Phoenix, Freddie is at once unlikeable and deeply sympathetic, a man forced to question just as he thinks he’s found the answers, and a man who at once wants to both join society and break from it.

Honorable Mentions: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Guy Pearce (Lockout), Liam Neeson (The Grey), Daniel Craig (Skyfall), Tom Holland (The Impossible), Will Ferrell (Casa de mi Padre), Channing Tatum (Magic Mike), Gael Garcia Bernal (The Loneliest Planet), Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Thomas Doret (The Kid with a Bike), Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), Paul Rudd (This is 40), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Premium Rush), Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis)

Best Actress:

10. Lola Creton (Goodbye First Love)- Mia Hanson-Love’s Goodbye First Love is one of the most honest and tender depictions of young love in years, and it owes much of its success to Lola Creton’s performance. Creton’s character often acts self-absorbed and foolish, but it’s only because, well, she’s at that age. Creton and Hanson-Love never judge her character’s behavior, and her growth as a person to someone slightly older and wiser registers because of it.

9. Hani Furstenburg (The Loneliest Planet)- Going into The Loneliest Planet, I had only heard of Gael Garcia Bernal, who’s reliably excellent as always. But I was even more impressed by Furstenburg, who I’d honestly never even heard of. As Nica, Furstenburg is goofy and playful, one of the most delightful presences on screen this year. But when the film reaches its big event midway through the film (believe me, it’s not whatever you’re thinking), her reaction is subtly heartbreaking, one of pain and confusion towards her partner. It’s not the showiest role of the year, but it’s one of the most complicated.

8. Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom)- Young Hayward’s co-star Jared Gilman is impressive as the oddball camper Sam, but Hayward’s work as Suzy is noteworthy for her especially severe demeanor for a child actress. Suzy is like a young Margot Tenenbaum, intimidating but ultimately sympathetic, a young girl searching for a companion in a lonely world. Hayward’s awkward affection for Gilman is so charming that it’s downright heartbreaking when she’s briefly hurt by him. He meant no harm, but her pain registers.

7. Cecile de France (The Kid with a Bike)- Previously best known for her work in the French slasher High Tension, de France impresses in The Kid with a Bike as a hairdresser who takes in the troubled young Cyril out of deep sympathy for his rejection by his father. She’s the loving parental figure that Cyril so desperately needs, so her patience amidst Cyril’s often shocking behavior is even more touching.

6. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)- With her work in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence has proven adept at playing strong but often prickly women. Silver Linings Playbook, however, shows us something new from the talented young actress: she’s funny. Playing an woman just as damaged as Bradley Cooper’s protagonist, she’s less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and more a Manic-Depressive Angry  Girl, her performance hitting the right note of anxiety and likability.

5. Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)- The discovery of the year. Dwight Henry’s performance in Beasts and Benh Zeitlin’s impressive direction certainly helped give the film shape, but the whole film rests on the shoulders of nine-year-old Wallis (only six when she was cast). She’s perfect, giving a refreshingly naturalistic performance as a resilient and inventive young girl growing up in poverty. Wallis’ combination of strength and curiosity drives the film past its sometimes vague writing and towards a heartbreaking finish.

4. Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress)- Greta Gerwig is just about the most delightful presence on film today, and her loopy turn in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress fits the tone perfectly. As Violet, Gerwig is often hypocritical, a snob who hates snobbishness, someone whose apparent confidence hides deep insecurities. But she’s well-meaning and ultimately sympathetic, too busy trying to help everyone else to see that she suffers from the same crippling neuroses.

3. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)-  The most heartbreaking performance of the year. Riva’s turn as Anne starts out so lively that it’s painful to watch her slowly lose control of her body and speech. We see her passion for life slowly fade as every task requires herculean effort. And yet it never becomes a wallow in misery, even as Riva’s suffering becomes unbearable and we’re forced to wonder when she’ll finally escape from her pain. We’re too reminded of that charming old lady who delighted in teaching her students piano.

2. Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea)- As Hester, Rachel Weisz leads a life of quiet desperation, surrounded by wealth and affection but deeply unhappy. When Hester takes what she wants, however, she’s thrown into emotionally devastating territory. Weisz kills all of the most emotionally charged scenes, but the quieter moments are even better. In one flashback during the bombing of London, writer-director Terence Davies pans alongside a group of people singing the Irish-standard “Molly Malone”, only to find Hester unable to join in, isolated among a crowd of people. Another scene involving a phone call between Hester and Freddie makes full use of Weisz’ expressive face as the camera slowly pushes in on her, showing her in all of her pain.

1. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)- 2011 was the year of Chastain: she appeared in six movies and quickly became the breakout actress of the year. She fulfills the promise of Take Shelter and The Tree of Life in Zero Dark Thirty. The film’s best moments come from Chastain as the steely Maya, her quiet determination and frustration shining through as she deals with apathy towards the bin Laden hunt and casual sexism from her fellow CIA officers. She’s a feminist hero, to some degree. But she’s also a an all-too human face on America’s hunt for justice: decent but fatally flawed, consumed by obsession, destined to dissatisfaction and emptiness. The film’s final moments show Chastain not overjoyed at bin Laden’s death, but rather filled with a sense that she no longer has a reason for being. With Chastain’s work as Maya, what could have been a pat revenge story finds the moral thorniness it requires.
Honorable Mentions : Ann Dowd (Compliance), Nadezha Markina (Elena), Gina Carano (Haywire), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Leslie Mann (This is 40), Sarah Paxton (The Innkeepers), Noomi Rapace (Prometheus), Analeigh Tipton (Damsels in Distress)

Best Supporting Actor:

10. Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)- A friend of mine debated with me, saying that Jones was good in Lincoln but that it didn’t seem that different from what he usually does. My answer: and? Jones’ casting as Thaddeus Stevens is key to that role’s success. Stevens is a righteous crusader, but he needs a prickly presence like Jones to turn him into something more complicated. With Jones, he’s an often disagreeable man whose nature obscures his ultimate goodness.

9. Javier Bardem (Skyfall)- James Bond found one of his most entertaining nemeses in Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, a cross between a classical Hollywood villain (complete with omnivorous sexuality) and a modern one, a sign of what Bond could become if he were to stay in the game too long. His character got the single best introduction of the year in one long take that communicated his power and his outright delight at being evil.

8. Simon Russell Beale (The Deep Blue Sea)- Theatre vet Beale has perhaps the most difficult role in The Deep Blue Sea. He’s less outwardly emotional than Rachel Weisz or Tom Hiddleston, a man whose sense of security and goodness is buried under a milquetoast demeanor that’s sadly not the kind of passion Weisz desires. He never explodes into theatrics, but rather shows all of his pain and sadness in remarkably subtle expressions.

7. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty)- Clarke was so likable as Dan in Zero Dark Thirty that it made his role as a torturer even harder to watch. His actions are inexcusable, but Clarke gives Dan his humanity and shows the toll all that cruelty takes on a human, even if he never admits it.

6. Bruce Willis (Moonrise Kingdom)- Willis gave his best work since Twelve Monkeys as a lonely sheriff whose situation makes him more sympathetic to Jared Gilman’s Sam than any of the other adults in the film. When Sam’s foster parents reject him, Suzy’s parents demonize him, and Social Services turns him into nothing but a cardboard problem child, it’s Willis who stands up for him, recognizing a good kid underneath all the troubled behavior.

5. Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)- In Django Unchained, Waltz plays a sort of good twin to his sadistic but erudite Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. He’s just as delightfully verbose as King Schultz, another man whose love affair with language makes him the perfect character (and indeed actor) to deliver Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue. But he’s also the single most racially sensitive man in the film, one whose disgust at Calvin Candie’s treatment of his slaves is barely masked until he finally can’t stand it anymore.

4. Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike)- Who knew that McConaughey would be the one actor to show up on two of my best of lists? Certainly not me. But as Dallas in Magic Mike, he takes on a welcome bit of self-parody as the constantly shirtless, bongo-playing Emcee-like character of the Xquisite club. He’s a man who’s overt sexuality and devilishness makes him a born performer, one who plays on the crowd of eager women with a trademark “alright alright alright!”.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained)- The most fun DiCaprio has ever had on film. Calvin Candie is very much the Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds, equally sadistic beneath the charm. But DiCaprio knows that there’s a subtle difference between Candie and Landa that makes it more than a rehash: the utterly pretentious Candie is full of shit. DiCaprio never tips his hand, playing Candie as a man who believes in every bit of racial hatred he spouts, but he’s also a man who knows far less than he claims, who’s far less in control of his estate than he appears, one who depends on one particular slave to run his business. With that, DiCaprio and Tarantino mark the innate hypocrisy of the whole ugly business.

2. Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained)- As time has gone by, Jackson’s performance in Django Unchained is the one that’s stuck with me the longest. It’s the most complicated role in the film, one that could easily be offensive with a less talented actor. But Jackson knows when Stephen is putting on his Uncle Tom act (in what’s a hilarious parody of the history of black actors on film) and when he’s in control of the situation, the man with the most to lose if Django succeeds. He’s both the year’s most complicated villain and its most venal.

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)- Philip Seymour Hoffman has put together just about the finest resume of any actor working today, but he does his best work ever as Lancaster Dodd, the complicated cult leader of The Master. The character is inspired in part by L. Ron Hubbard, but there’s some Orson Welles charisma and showmanship in there as well as a magnetic figure who seems like he has it all together…until his work is questioned. In Freddie Quell, he sees the ultimate conquest for his movement and the ultimate companion, but his frustration dealing with a man who proves, in fact, that man is an animal. He’s a man looking to make sense of a world without sense, whose well-rehearsed persona comes crashing down in a handful of startling moments whenever his work is questioned. Hoffman and Phoenix created the single most fascinating relationship on film this year, a push-pull relationship between a father figure and his son, two men looking for answers to unanswerable questions.

Honorable Mentions: Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Bruce Willis (Looper), David Straithairn (Lincoln), Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle), Michael Shannon (Premium Rush), Matthew McConaughey (Bernie), Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers), Gael Garcia Bernal (Casa de mi Padre), Clarke Peters (Red Hook Summer), Bidzina Gujabidze (The Loneliest Planet), Thomas Haden Church (Killer Joe), Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe), James Spader (Lincoln), Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises), Tom Hiddleston (The Deep Blue Sea), Diego Luna (Casa de mi Padre), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), Pierce Gagnon (Looper), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible), Alan Arkin (Argo), John Goodman (Argo), Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables), Frank Grillo (The Grey), Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods), Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods)

Best Supporting Actress:

10. Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress)- Echikunwoke wins the prize for the year’s funniest use of an accent. Her exaggerated English prep accent is so cartoonish and so in tune with her character’s pretentiousness that one can’t help but laugh even when it doesn’t totally convince. And then it turns out that it’s a fake accent, and I laugh even harder.

9. Genesis Rodriguez (Casa de mi Padre)- Rodriguez’s experience on Spanish telenovelas made her a perfect fit in Will Ferrell’s ferociously underrated Spanish-language comedy Casa de mi Padre. She’s completely at home the hilariously fake backgrounds, the melodramatic plot turns, and the insane relationships, so she never bats an eye at any of the overt silliness. Her committal to the work is what makes 
Casa de mi Padre one of the funniest films of the year.

8. Emily Blunt (Looper)- Blunt served as the heart of Rian Johnson’s twisty-turny sci-fi/noir, a good woman trying desperately to make up for past mistakes and raise her young son right. As with anyone in a noir, she has dark secrets. But she’s determined to keep them at bay, convinced that if she does everything right and keeps her son away from the evils of the world, everything will turn out OK.

7. Elizabeth Banks(The Hunger Games)- The year’s most underrated performance. Banks is completely unrecognizable as Effie, a woman whose prim, proper behavior and extravagant wardrobe combines into a cold, creepy embodiment of the government’s manipulation. Whether she believes in the system or is just going along for the ride, she acts as the face of The Hunger Games’ world.

6. Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises)- Hathaway will likely win an Oscar for her emotionally wrenching work in the otherwise unsuccessful Les Miserables, but she’s even better in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film. As Selina Kyle, she’s a perfect femme fatale, someone whose early shift from a lost little lamb act to a powerful and complicated woman ranks as one of the year’s finest acting moments. She’s the conflicted soul of the film, one torn between her natural instincts for self-preservation and the goodness that hides beneath the moral murk.

5. Sally Field (Lincoln)- Sally Field has played so many mother figures in recent memory that it’s easy for one to underestimate her. But as Mary Todd Lincoln, Field is perfect as a woman who’s clearly aware of her unbalanced state of mind, yet completely unable to control it. She’s the film’s most tragic figure, someone whose fear of loss and death is ultimately, and unfortunately, fulfilled in the worst possible way.

4. Kelly Reilly (Flight)- Reilly’s performance as a heroin addict in Flight starts out as a mirror of Denzel Washington’s own addiction, particularly after the two become companions. But she’s someone who realizes that her survival means a second chance, and that staying with Washington will destroy her. When she leaves him, it’s a point of sad necessity, brilliantly played by Reilly as a woman who knows her second chance will likely not give way to a third.

3. Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty)- Ehle’s role as Jessica Chastain’s one true friend in Zero Dark Thirty is perfect in the way it contrasts from Chastain. Where Chastain’s Maya is solitary by nature and steely, Ehle’s Jessica is more comfortable where she is, less obsessed until she befriends Maya in the film’s most charming relationship. Yet she’s also less cautious than Maya, seemingly less aware of the inherent danger of her situation, which leads to one of the film’s tensest moments.

2. Judi Dench (Skyfall)- When Judi Dench was cast as the new M in Goldeneye, it stood as welcome feminist concession to the often sexist James Bond series. Over the years, M’s relationship with Bond has morphed from contentious but fun to a complicated relationship between a mother figure and a troubled young son. That relationship reaches its peak in Skyfall, in which Bond’s relationship veers from contention to hate to love as he’s forced to protect the closest thing he has to family left. Dench, for her part, is given some of the most emotional material in the series as a woman forced to face her the mistakes she’s made over the years.

1. Amy Adams (The Master)- When she first burst onto the scene, Amy Adams was a delightful, sunny, living Disney Princess (literally in Enchanted). 2010’s The Fighter gave her a chance to show her range as a tough but still warm barmaid. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master shows a new side to Adams ability. As Peggy Dodd, she’s chilly, controlling, and powerful, just as much of a master as her husband. She’s not quite a villain- the admires her power and intelligence too much- but she’s the most frightening character in a challenging film, an intense, unnerving, woman who’s the only one with a firm grasp of who she is.

Honorable Mentions: Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers), Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Frances McDormand (Moonrise Kingdom), Juno Temple (Killer Joe), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Edith Scob (Holy Motors), Gina Gershon (Killer Joe), Alison Pill (Goon), Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook), Tilda Swinton (Moonrise Kingdom), Isabelle Huppert (Amour), Kerry Washington (Django Unchained), Samantha Barks (Les Miserables), Kylie Minogue (Holy Motors), Laura Dern (The Master)

Want to check out my Best of the Year list? Click here.

Want to check out my top ten lists for previous years? Well here you go.

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