Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Actors Working Right Now

Like my list of my favorite directors, this list of my favorite actors working right now is based solely on the actors work in the past decade. So while actors like Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino are probably better then the actors on this list, they do not make the cut because this decade, these 10 actors are the best actors currently working right now. Just like with the directors, I could not believe some of the names that DID NOT make the list (there are too many to list, but the one that stands out the most for me is Josh Brolin). Stay tuned, because later I will do my 10 favorite actresses.

10. Leonardo DiCaprio
I know that to many people DiCaprio is still just a pretty boy and not much of an actor, but looking at his body of work this decade, you cannot deny that he has become one of the best actors in the world right now. He has done so by picking great directors to work with time in and time out. He was the best part of Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000), a subpar film about life in paradise that becomes much darker than it at first appears. In 2002, he started his collaboration with Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York, and even if DiCaprio’s performance in that film was a little uneven, for the most part it is a great performance, in a great film. That same year he was even better in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, as a charming conman, who gets away with one con after another for years. In 2004, he reteamed with Scorsese for The Aviator, where DiCaprio gives a great performance as Howard Hughes, an obsessive-compulsive billionaire who is on the verge of bankruptcy for much of the film, but just keeps coming back. In 2006’s The Departed, DiCaprio gives his best performance for Scorsese as an undercover cop who keeps gets himself in so deep, he cannot get himself out. In that film he has the wounded intensity of a trapped animal. That year, he received an Oscar nomination for Blood Diamond as a South African diamond smuggler, who starts to get a pang of conscience. Last year, he gave a strong performance in Body of Lies, Ridley Scott’s terrorist thriller. But his best performance last year was in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, as a 1950s husband whose life is falling apart because he hates his job, and his wife is getting bored with her life. DiCaprio has built up a large body of great work in the past decade. As long he continues to work with great directors, like Scorsese who he teams up with once again in this falls Shutter Island, then DiCaprio is going to continue to be one of best actors.

9. Javier Bardem
Bardem is one of those actors who I cannot take my eyes off of whenever he is on screen. Not every film he has made this decade has been great, but he is always great in them. The Spanish star came to my, and North American audiences attention, in 2000 with his brilliant Oscar nominated performance in Julien Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, as a gay Cuban poet, dying of AIDS in New York and recounting his life in Cuba. After that, it has been one great performance after another. In 2002’s The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich’s directorial debut, Bardem plays a cop who is becoming obsessed with a case. In 2004’s Collateral, Bardem has all of one scene, and yet it is a performance that sticks in your head. That same year, he gave a great performance in The Sea Inside, as a quadriplegic who just wants to die with dignity. In 2007, he gave three wonderful performances, even if two of the movies were less than good. In Love in the Time of Cholera, he played a man with an obsessive love who waits decades for his true love. The film did not work, but Bardem sold his strange character. In Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts, Bardem plays one of the Spanish Inquisitions staunchest defenders, who has no qualms about torturing someone. Again, it is a great performance in a less than great movie. But those performance pale in comparison to his work in the Coen brothers No Country for Old Men, as Anton Chigruh, a psychopath on the trail of a few million dollars and the man who has it. Chigruh is one of the best, most memorable villains of the decade, and his strange, Dutch boy haircut only adds to the menace. His most recent performance was in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as a charming man who seduces the title characters, and has a strange relationship with his ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). Bardem is always brilliant in every film. I cannot wait to see his collaboration with Alejandro Gonzalez Innartu in Bitiful later this year.

8. Benicio Del Toro
Del Toro is a picky actor. Although he has not made a lot films this decade, he has been brilliant in each and every one. In 2000, he gave three memorable performances. First his role in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, where he gave life to his brief role. Then he made Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun, a fast paced, fun crime thriller in the Tarantino mold. But it was his performance in Steven Soderberg’s Traffic, where he won an Oscar, for his performance as a Mexican cop trying his best to fight the war on drugs that no one else in his country seems to care about, that remains the best performance of his career. He followed that up the next year with his brief performance as a mentally disturbed murder suspect in Sean Penn’s The Pledge, in which he had one scene, but one that you cannot get out of your head. In William Friedkin’s The Hunted (2003), Del Toro played a hunter on the run from the cops in the woods, and delivers a wonderful performance as a man who respects nature, but not the people who try and destroy it. Later that year, he gave another great performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Innartu’s 21 Grams, as a recovering alcoholic become Jesus freak, dealing with his guilt over the death of man while he was driving. It was an amazing performance, and earned Del Toro another Oscar nomination. In Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Del Toro played a corrupt cop, who keeps talking well after Clive Owen has murdered him. In the underrated Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), Del Toro gave one of the best performances of the year as a drug addict, trying his best to put his life back together following the death of his best friend. Del Toro specializes in these kinds of broken characters, and his performance here was heartbreaking. Last year, he gave an amazing performance in Steven Soderberg’s two part, four hour epic Che, playing the revolutionary from the moment he becomes involved in the movement, until his death in Bolivia. Del Toro’s performance, and Soderberg’s film for that matter, mainly concentrates on Che’s outer world, but even with few close-ups, Del Toro gives an remarkable, controlled performance. Later this year, he will star in The Wolf Man, which is just about a perfect role for him. I have full confidence, that Del Toro will be great in that movie as well.

7. Mickey Rourke
If you think that Mickey Rourke only came back last year, with his brilliant performance in The Wrestler, then you have not been paying attention this decade. Rourke has been doing great work, in mostly small roles, for most of this decade. He did a wonderful job as a convict in Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory (2000), he had the single most memorable scene in Sean Penn’s brilliant The Pledge (2001), he did a good job as a meth maker in Spun (2002), he was one of the many famous actors doing strange work with Bob Dylan in Masked and Anonymous (2003), he was wonderful as a large man with a small dog in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), was equally great in Man on Fire, as Washington’s lone friend, and in Domino (2005), as a bounty hunter. Stil, even after all these great, small performances, it was not really until 2005’s Sin City, where he played Marv, a not very bright man out for revenge, that Rourke proved he was one of the best actors in the world again. Covered in make-up, Rourke was still able to give a wonderful, emotionally gut wrenching performance. His comeback was completed in 2008 with The Wrestler, where he gives a brilliant performance as Randy the Ram Robinson, an over the hill wrestling star trying to hold onto his career. He deserved an Oscar for that one, but he’ll have to settle for a real career again. Earlier this year, they finally released Killshot, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, where Rourke, as a Native hetman, was the only reason to see it. Rourke is just now starting to get his career back on track, and cannot wait to see what he does next.

6. Brad Pitt
Pitt has had an interesting decade. He started out giving a great, if verbally incomprehensible, performance as a boxer in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. You may not have known what the hell he was saying, but it does not matter, you cannot take your eyes off of them. He spent the next five years not really challenging himself, playing the charming pretty boy - which he does well, but it is not really challenging. He is fine in films like The Mexican, Spy Game the Ocean films, Troy and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but they are not exactly brilliant performances. In fact, my favorite of his performances for this part of the decade is his cameo in Full Frontal, where he plays himself as a terrible actor, which was absolutely hilarious. But in the last three years, he has delivered one great performance after another. In Babel (2006), he plays a man whose wife gets shot in the Mid East, and he tries to hold his family together, as he is falling apart. The following year, he gave perhaps the best performance of his career as Jesse James, in Andrew Dominik’s brilliant western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Pitt plays James as a weary celebrity with mad eyes, and a seething paranoia. Pitt has never been better than he was here. Last year he gave two great performances. In Burn After Reading, he was hilarious as a dim witted gym employee. He also received only the second Oscar nomination of his career, for his quiet, subtle work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as a man aging backwards. When Pitt pushes himself, he is more than a movie star - he is a legitimately great actor. I cannot wait to see him in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds later this month.

5. Johnny Depp
Since the early 1990s, Johnny Depp has been one of the best, most interesting actors working anywhere in the world. But it took until this decade for the rest of the world to really notice. Although Depp has started to make bigger movies than at any other point in his career, he remains a true original. He started out the decade doing three smaller roles in Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried, Julien Schanbel’s Before Night Falls and Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat (all 2000), and although only Before Night Falls was a very good movie, Depp was solid in all three. In 2001, he delivered two great lead performances – as a drug dealer in Ted Demme’s Blow (which while it tried a little too hard to be GoodFellas, was still an excellent little film) and as the cop trying to track down Jack the Ripper in the Hughes brother twisted From Hell. But it was 2003 where Depp really elevated his game. First, he delivered a great performance in Pirates of the Caribbean, turning a movie based on a theme park ride into a huge hit, and one of the most entertaining films of the year (and getting his first Oscar nomination in the process). While the sequels that followed in 2006 and 2007 were not as good, Depp was still a lot of fun in them. Personally though, it was his deranged performance as a hit man in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico that was truly great. Even at the end, when he has had his eyes plucked out, Depp is deliriously entertaining in the film. Three films followed in 2004. First was the Stephen King thriller Secret Window, a rather by the numbers thriller, in which Depp gave a wonderful performance as a horror writer. Next was Finding Neverland (where he received his second Oscar nomination) where he played Peter Pan author JP Barrie. I was not a huge fan of that movie, and Depp’s performance, while good, was much more bland than normal. It was his amazing performance, in the admittedly awful film The Libertine, that year where he truly impressed me. The film is a complete mess, and borders on incomprehensible at times, but Depp’s performance as a man who screws his way through the period piece is remarkable. He followed that up with three Tim Burton collaborations. First was his incredibly strange, incredibly fun performance as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which I think did more to spurn the rumors of him playing Michael Jackson than anything else), then was his remarkable vocal performance in the stop motion film, Corpse Bride, where he plays an incredibly shy young man. Best of all was his work in Sweeney Todd (2007 – Oscar nomination 3), the adaptation of the classic Sondheim musical. Depp may not have the voice than previous Sweeney’s have had, but he so captures the warped spirit of the piece that it doesn’t matter. His latest performance, was his wonderful turn as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s underrated depression era gangster movie Public Enemies. Depp is one of the few actors around who is not afraid to take chances in every role. While he has specialized in playing outsiders, Depp is capable of doing pretty much anything. Later this year, he will co-star in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (taking over part of the role for the deceased Heath Ledger), and next year he will star in than two films – the Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary (directed by Bruce Robinson), and in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, where he is perfectly cast as the Mad Hatter. Depp shows no signs of slowing down, or playing it safe any time soon – and that’s why I love him.

4. Sean Penn
Sean Penn has threatened at several points in the last 10 years of retiring from acting to concentrate on directing. And while I think Penn is a great director (his films The Pledge and Into the Wild from this decade prove that), he would be sorely missed if he did stop acting, because few actors can match his intensity. What he lacks in sheer quantity of performances this decade, he more than makes up in quality. He started the decade quietly, with a role in the period romance Up at the Villa, which was largely ignored by critics and audiences and a cameo in Before Night Falls (both 2000). In 2001, he received his third Oscar nomination, ironically for one of his very worst performances in I Am Sam. I am tired of “inspirational” movies about the mentally handicapped, and while Penn does as good as job as possible in this film, it was a terrible film, and one that tried so hard to manipulate the audience that I simply stopped caring. In 2003 he redeemed himself in my eyes though by giving two amazing performances. First was his work in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, where he played a father ripped apart by grief when his daughter gets murdered (the film that finally earned him his first Oscar). He was every bit as good in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s fragmented drama 21 Grams that year as well, playing a man who receives a heart transplant, and falls in love with the wife of the donor (the film, which is brilliant, is no where near as cheesy as that description makes it sound). Penn’s best performance of the decade may well be his least well known however. In 2004’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Penn plays a man in the early 1970s who loses his job, his wife, his kids – everything – and starts to blame the President for his problems, so he hatches a ridiculous plot to try and kill him. This is the type of film that Scorsese perfected in the 1970s, and it is not exaggerating to say that Penn matches DeNiro’s performances in those film. Why no one else seemed to notice, I’m not sure – but the film awaits rediscovery on DVD. The next year his one film was Sydney Pollock’s thriller The Interpreter, where he plays an FBI agent trying to foil a terrorist plot. The film maybe standard issue Hollywood thriller, but Penn is quite good in it. The following year featured a rare misstep for Penn, when he took on the lead role in All the King’s Men. Penn’s politics may have inspired him to do the film, but Penn was miscast a blustery, populist politician in the 1940s South (the film is based on the Robert Penn Warren novel about Huey Long). But once again, Penn redeemed himself with his next film, 2008’s Milk, where Penn played the famed San Francisco politician – the first openly gay man elected to office in the USA. Penn’s performance, which earned him his second Oscar, was brilliant, capturing Milk as a rabble rouser, a fun loving guy, and at times a bit of prick. It once again showed Penn at his best. If Penn does make good on his threat to retire, I will be disappointed, but he does have two more films come out in the next year which I cannot wait for. First his Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (Penn made The Thin Red Line in 1998 with Malick) and next year, he will star in Doug Liman’s Fair Game, about the Valerie Plame scandal. Penn is one of those actors whose name on a film usually signified quality of the highest order. I hope we can expect years of great performances ahead for him.

3. Robert Downey Jr.
When the decade started, you could be forgiven for thinking Downey’s career was pretty much over. He had once again run afoul of the law, and had to spend time in prison, making him pretty much uninsurable for any major Hollywood productions. Yet Downey was still able to deliver a great supporting performance in 2000’s Wonder Boys before heading off to jail. It took him three years for him to follow it up on the big screen – but it was worth the wait. While Gothika (2003) was not very good, his amazing performance in that same year’s The Singing Detective, a sort of quasi musical/film noir put Downey back on the map. He did supporting roles in smaller films for the next few years – often elevating the overall quality level. He was memorable as a man seeing his shrink in Steven Soderberg’s segment of Eros (2004), entertainingly weird as a writer in Game 6 (2005), and quietly touching in George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck (2005). But it was really Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) that announced that once again Downey Jr. was one of the best in the business. Playing a low level criminal, who gets mistaken for an actor, Downey ends up going on a twisted tour of Hollywood, full of dead bodies and mysteries and gay Private Eye’s (the excellent Val Kilmer). His performance in that movie was pure genius. Since then, it’s been one great performance after another. In 2006, he was wonderful as a drug addict in Richard Linklater’s trippy, animated film A Scanner Darkly, and pretty much the only reason to see the exceedingly strange Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, where he played a man covered head to toe in fur. He was amazing as a alcoholic reporter trying to unravel the complicated case at the heart of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) – a role that should have scored him an Oscar nomination. But it was 2008 that cemented Downey’s status as a true movie star again. First of all there was Iron Man, where he played asshole weapons manufacture Tony Stark, who gets a pang of conscience, and decides to become a superhero. The movie is pretty much your standard issue superhero movie, but Downey truly elevates the entire movie with his amazing performance. Next up was Tropic Thunder, where he did get an Oscar nomination, for playing a method actor who takes himself too seriously, and undergoes cosmetic surgery to make himself black for his next movie. While out in the jungle, Downey goes slightly crazy as he has trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Downey is hilarious in every scene he is in. Earlier this year, he was the only reason to watch The Soloist, a subpar “inspirational” drama about a reporter and a musical genius living on the streets. I cannot wait to see what he does with Sherlock Holmes this Christmas, or the sequel to Iron Man due out next summer. Robert Downey Jr. is that actor that you know even if the rest of the movie around him is crap, you’ll at least enjoy him. No one is happier than me that he is back on top.

2. Philip Seymour Hoffman
I mean this in the nicest way possible, but Philip Seymour Hoffman does not look like a movie star. He is essentially a character actor, but one that gets the best roles offered to him year after year, and continues to make good on them. When the decade was opening, he was just beginning to make a name for himself, and in the past 10 years, he has delivered quite a number of wonderful performances. In 2000, he delivered two great performances – one in David Mamet’s State and Main, a Hollywood comedy where Hoffman plays the screenwriter who realizes that no one cares about his opinion, and an even better one in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, as famed Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs, who takes a young writer under his wing and shows him the ropes. Hoffman had a very busy 2002, delivering a subdued, yet powerful lead performance in Love Liza, a brilliantly over the top supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love as the mattress man, another supporting role as a sleazy reporter in the Hannibal Lector film Red Dragon, and finally as a teacher struggling with his attraction to one of his students in Spike Lee’s brilliant 25th Hour. In 2003, he was great as a gambling addict in the little seen Owning Mahowny, and contributed a memorable cameo in Anthony Mingella’s Cold Mountain. In 2005, the Academy finally wised up to just how good Hoffman was, giving him an Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Truman Capote in Capote (original title, ain’t it?). Hoffman captured the voice and mannerisms of the famed author perfectly, but went much deeper than mere impersonation, making us feel Capote’s pain, and understand his genius. Since then it’s been one great performance after another. He was a memorable villain in Mission Impossible III (2006), great as one half of a dysfunctional brother/sister combo in The Savages (2007), utterly brilliant as an accountant being sucked down into economic disaster and murder in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (also 2008), and excellent as an over the top CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007, for which he received another Oscar nomination). Last year, he received his third Oscar nomination for his work as a priest accused of molesting a student in the wonderful Doubt, and was even better in my favorite film of the year, Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant portrait of a self absorbed theater director. In a few weeks, American audiences will get to see him cut loose and have fun as a DJ in Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked. Hoffman is an actor who just seems to get better every year.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis
Is it fair that I am listing Daniel Day-Lewis as the best actor in the world right now when he has only made three films this decade? I think it is, because when Day-Lewis delivers a performance, it usually towers over everything else done by an actor that year. In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), Day-Lewis gave what to that point was the best performance of his career as Bill the Butcher, one of the most memorable screen villains in history. His towering performance as a Native New Yorker, angered by the foreign hordes he sees as desecrating his land is the type of performance that legends are born from. His is violent, vile and disgusting, yet Day-Lewis also makes him somewhat understandable in his quieter scenes. The following year, he gave a wonderful performance in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, written and directed by his wife Rebecca Miller. Day-Lewis plays Jack, a hippie father who has a relationship that is far too close (although it has not crossed into incest – yet) with his daughter Rose. They live on a secluded island, and things seem to go from bad to worse when he moves his girlfriend and her kids there. While the movie is too heavy on obvious symbolism (the snake squeezing out of its cage under the bed while Rose loses her virginity on top of it for example), Day-Lewis never takes a wrong step. But it was his performance in 2007’s There Will Be Blood that will definitely live on as one of the great performances of all time. His performance as misanthropic oil man Daniel Plainview, who grows to hate pretty much everyone, and ends up desperate, alone and covered in blood, is truly one of the all time greats. Even if this was the only performance he gave this decade, I would have a hard time not making Day-Lewis my favorite actor currently working. I cannot wait to see him do the musical Nine later this year, and hope beyond hope, that he does in fact reteam with Scorsese for Silence.

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