Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Weekly Top 10: Actors In Need of a Comeback

A new feature starting this week. Each week, I'll post a top ten list of something movie related. For this debut edition, I chose the top ten actors in need of a comeback. In the past few years, we've seen Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke rise from the dead, so why not these 10. None are really as far down as they were, but all need some career help. So, without further ado, here's the list.

10. Edward Norton
Perhaps its unfair to put Norton on this list, because in truth, he hasn’t really gone anywhere. He continues to make at least one or two movies a year, often movies that get a wide release (last year for example, he was in The Incredible Hulk and Pride and Glory). But when I think back to the Norton who got Oscar nominated for two of his first five performances between 1996 and 1998, and the Norton of today, there is a difference. After American History X in 1998, I was convinced that Norton would win and Oscar within the next 10 years. Now, 11 years later, he has yet to be nominated again, and in fact hasn’t really come close. True he was good enough in Fight Club (1999) and 25th Hour (2002) to deserve nominations, but they didn’t come. But in the seven years since 25th Hour, what has he really done that is truly special? He has made seven films since then, and he is good or very good in all of them, but only one, his supporting role as the masked King in Kingdom of Heaven was truly great. Part of Norton’s problem is that he has garnered a reputation as difficult, which has kept top notch directors away. Look at who he worked with between 1996 and 2002 – Woody Allen, Milos Forman, John Dahl, David Fincher, Frank Oz, Julie Taymor, Danny DeVito and Spike Lee. And since then? F. Gary Gray, Ridley Scott, David Jacobson, Neil Burger, John Curran, Louis Letterier and Gavin O’Connor. Which list is better? Norton needs to get back on track, because the fact of the matter is, difficult or not, he is more talented than almost any other actor working right now. Perhaps Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass, where he plays a dual role, will get him back on track, or perhaps his project after that, Motherless Brooklyn, which is also directing will. I hope so. I miss the Edward Norton who could blow me away with a performance.

9. Juliette Lewis
I know Juliette Lewis is not the popular actress in the world – I personally know of some people who cannot stand the sight of her. But for me, Lewis has always been a strange, one of a kind talent. There is some appealing about her loopy, free spirited style of acting that always drew me in. The hurt look of a lost little girl that she had in some of her best roles. After being nominated for an Oscar for her brilliant turn in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, she had a decent career going. Strong work in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992) Domenic Sena’s Kalifornia (1993), Lasse Hallstrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)was followed by a great performance in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). After that she did some good work in 1995 and 1996, most notably in Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated Strange Days (1995) and in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Then, she kind of dropped off the map. There have been some good performances since then – in Christopher McQuarrie’s Way of the Gun (2000) and Mira Nair’s Hysterical Blindness, but more often then not, she shows up in small roles in dumb comedies (Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Daltry Calhoun and Catch and Release) or in dumb thrillers (Enough, Cold Creek Manor) or in stuff that ends up going direct to DVD. I know that Lewis works with her rock band, Juliette and the Licks, quite often, but I want to see her back on screen in a role worthy of her strange, one of a kind talent.

8. Michael Keaton
Looking over Keaton’s resume, I was surprised by how few truly great roles there have been in his career. He is an actor I instinctively like every time I see him on screen, and yet there have been precicous few roles that actually allowed him to do great work. Chief among them is of course Beetlejuice (1988), but also Clean and Sober (1988) the two Burton Batman films (1989 & 1992), The Paper (1994), Multipilicity (1996), Jackie Brown (1997) and Live from Baghdad (2002). But that’s about it. In everything else I have seen Keaton in, he has never been less than good, but the movies themselves have often been terrible (his most recent hit, 2005’s White Noise is a prime example). Keaton has been slumming it for far too long now – taking roles in things like Herbie and the upcoming The Post Grad Survival Guide, most as the “dad” character. He needs a great role again. Hopefully someone gives him one.

7. Bridget Fonda
According to the IMDB, Fonda hasn’t acted since 2002. She married Danny Elfman in 2003, and since then, I guess, has had a happy home life. You can’t fault her for that, but damn, do I want to see Bridget Fonda in a movie again. Her two greatest roles, in arguably, came in back to back years in 1997 and 1998. The first was in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, playing the stoned Melanie, who flirts and fucks and generally annoys Robert DeNiro’s Louis, until he shoots her and leaves her for dead in the parking lot. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), she plays the pregnant wife of the main character, who we first suspect is all innocence and sweetness, but is really Lady Macbeth in disguise. Fonda has other great work on her resume – Shag, Scandal, Singles, The Godfather Part III, It Could Happen to You – but these two roles marked her as someone to truly watch for. So, in closing all I have to say is this: Fuck you Danny Elfman, for making Bridget Fonda happy and taking her away from acting. And by the way, all your damn scores sound the same – deal with it.

6. John Goodman
I love John Goodman. As Dan Connor on the sitcom Roseanne, he played just about the perfect TV husband, but also made him a realistic person. That he never won an Emmy for that show, one of the best of the 1990s, is criminal. But his movie work is just as good. His work with the Coen brothers – in Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) remains his best work, but there are other films as well. The Big Easy (1987), Sea of Love (1989), Mother Night (1996), The Borrowers (1997), Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999) and Todd Solondz’s Storytelling (2001) chief among them. He is also one of the most reliable voice actors around, doing his best work in Monsters, Inc. (2001), and whenever he shows up on TV, especially his brief run of The West Wing, he is superb. Goodman is that rare actor who can do over the top comedy, and truly scary down to earth drama with equal measure. I know there are probably few roles for a 300 pound man approaching 60, but Goodman deserves to get some better roles. He has no fewer than 7 in development credits on IMDB, two of them being voice work, but none seem all that great. I hope that a director finds Goodman a role worthy of his talent again soon.

5. Willem Dafoe
The list of Willem Dafoe’s great work is long – To Live and Die in LA (1985), Platoon (1986), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Mississippi Burning (1988), Born on the 4th of July (1989), Wild at Heart (1990), Light Sleeper (1992), Affliction (1997), eXistenZ (1999), The Boondook Saints (1999), Shadow of the Vampire (2000), American Psycho (2000), Animal Factory (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Auto Focus (2002), Finding Nemo (2003), Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), The Life Aquatic (2004), The Aviator (2004), Manderlay (2005), Inside Man (2006), The Walker (2007). So why does it seem like Dafoe only ever shows up in unglamourous supporting roles, or in films that no one sees? He is a great actor, capable of being creepier than just about any other actor on the planet, but he can also do spirituality very well. I want to see Dafoe in a role that he truly gets to sink his teeth into. Perhaps this year’s Antichrist, directed by Lars von Trier or Werner Herzog’s My Son My Son What Have You Done will provide that role for him.

4. Winona Ryder
Remember Winona Ryder in the 1980s and early 1990s. She was adorable, and talented in films like Lucas, Beetlejuice, Mermaids, Great Balls of Fire, Edward Scissorhands, Night on Earth and Reality Bites. She received Oscar nominations for The Age of Innocence and Little Women. The later half of the 1990s weren’t as good, but there were some gems – Looking for Richard, The Crucible, Celebrity, Girl Interrupted. But then she was busted for shoplifting, became a punchline, and things fell apart. She has worked consistently since then, but with the exception of her work in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, most of it has been in subpar films that no one has seen. Perhaps Ryder is already on the comeback trail – she has upcoming roles in The Informers, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Stay Cool and Star Trek. I hope so, because at one point, Ryder was one of my favorite actresses, but that was a long time ago.

3. Ray Liotta
When Ray Liotta gets the right role, he can be among the best actors of his generation. Remember is work in Something Wild (1986), Field of Dreams (1989), GoodFellas (1990), Copland (1997), The Rat Pack (1998), Blow (2001), Narc (2002), Smokin’ Aces (2006)? All great. But more often then not these days, Liotta shows up in subpar movies that either go straight to DVD, or else require him to do little more than playoff his badguy image (see Wild Hogs, In the Name of the King or Bee Movie, which admittedly he was pretty damn funny in). Perhaps his best work this decade was his Emmy Winning guest role on ER. But, directors are not using him up to his full potential. Most recently, he sleepwalked through an underwritten role in Crossing Over. He has three other films this year – Powder Blue (which I have feeling will go straight to DVD), Observe and Report (which, hopefully, he is great in), and Youth in Revolt (another mean bastard role, but it could be a good one). Hopefully on of these roles get Liotta back to doing the great work he is capable of.

2. Woody Harrelson
Remember Woody Harrelson on Cheers? He was great as the naïve Woody Boyd. But then in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) he gave a truly outstanding performance, and a few years later, got an Oscar nomination for his work in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). He also has done some great work in Kingpin (1996), Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), Wag the Dog (1997), The Thin Red Line (1998), North Country (2005), The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio (2005), A Prairie Home Companion (2006), A Scanner Darkly (2006), The Walker (2007), No Country for Old Men (2007), The Grand (2008) and Transsiberian (2008). But for the most part, the great roles this decade have been small roles, in often little seen films. Harrelson hasn’t been given a truly juicy role in years. Part of it is his own fault, since he is eccentric to say the least, but Harrelson is a gifted actor who deserves better. Hopefully Oren Moverman’s award winning The Messenger comes out soon and shows what Harrelson can do. He does a role in the large production of 2012, so that should help raise his profile. It’s too bad that it seems like Oliver Stone’s Pinkville has gotten the axe, because that could have also helped.
1. Val Kilmer
What the hell happened to Val Kilmer? This was once a star who was big enough to be cast as Batman, yet he hasn’t been in a movie released theatrically since 2006’s Déjà vu (and that was a role so small it was practically a cameo). This is an actor who has great performances on his resume in films like Top Gun (1986), The Doors (1991), Thunderheart (1991), True Romance (1993), Tombstone (1993), where he played the best version of Doc Holiday ever and Heat (1995). True after that, he hit a dry spell, putting out crap like The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Ghost and the Darkness, The Saint and At First Sight. But even though those movies, he was at least interesting to watch. He then did some great work in The Salton Sea (2002), Wonderland (2003), Alexander (2004), where he was far and away the best in the film, Spartan (2004) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). And yet, in the four years since then, he has starred in 12 films, with only the aforementioned Déjà vu getting any kind of theatrical release. The rest have gone straight to DVD. He has 11 other credits for upcoming movies, but only Streets of Blood with Sharon Stone, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans look like they may actually hit theaters. Val Kilmer is an actor who I always enjoy watching, as he always seems to be up to something different in each role. I would love to see one of the directors he has worked with before – Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Tony Scott etc, come up with something great for him. It would be amazing to see him on the big screen again.

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