Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2009 Year In Review: Best Actor

A strong year for performances in this category. Not only these 10 performances but Johnny Depp in Public Enemies, Colin Firth in A Single Man, Patton Oswalt in Big Fan, Sam Rockwell in Moon and Joseph Gordon Levitt in 500 Days of Summer were also excellent.

10. Willem Dafoe in Antichrist
As the man in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Willem Dafoe delivers his best performance in a number of years. His major sin is pride – he takes his wife out of the hospital, and is convinced he can cure her himself because after all, he is a shrink himself. The great thing about Dafoe’s performance is how supremely calm he remains throughout the movie (at least until he gets his testicles crushed, and a medieval grinding wheel drilled through his leg, at which point he gets understandably upset). In a strange way, his performance here reminded me of his work in The Last Temptation of Christ as Jesus. Dafoe is one of those fearless actors who will go anywhere for a director – the places von Trier asks him to go in this movie are extreme, but Dafoe handles it all brilliantly well.

9. Viggo Mortenson in The Road
Mortenson has a very difficult role in The Road. He is a man with no name taking his son across a barren, desolate American landscape on foot with all their possession crammed into a shopping cart in the hopes that the coast has so semblance of civilization left intact. He has honed his survival instincts, so that they can get through, but the things he must do in order to get them across maybe too much for his son to bare as he wants to ensure that they are still the “good guys”. Mortenson, his face hidden behind a scraggily beard delivers one of his best, most subtle performances to date. It’s all about that look in eyes - the false hope they try to give his son, the horror when they enter that basement, and the out and out struggle in minute after minute. Mortenson, who became a big star with the Lord of the Rings movies, has decided to concentrate on doing strong work, in dark, often difficult films. In The Road, he delivers one of his best performances.

8. Sharlto Copley in District 9
Copley’s role in this sci-fi epic is not as easy as it appears to be. At first, Copley has to play a dim, government bureaucrat who is put in charge of moving all of the aliens out of their homes and into a new area - a job for which he dangerously unqualified. But as the movie progresses, and he slowly starts becoming one of the aliens himself, Copley makes his terror palpable, becoming a like a paranoid, trapped animal. This is Copley’s first major role, and he knocks it out of the park on his first try. Definitely one of the break out stars of the year.

7. Ben Foster in The Messenger
Ben Foster is an actor who has impressed me quite a bit in the last few years with is over the top performances in 3:10 to Yuma, Alpha Dog, 30 Days of Night and Hostage. But The Messenger is a different kind of role for him – one that requires him to be understated and subtle, and he pulls it off brilliantly. He is a soldier who has back from Iraq with injuries to his leg and eye, who is simply trying to serve out his contract with the army, when he is assigned to the Causality Notification Unit – a job that essentially has him to the houses of family members of soldiers who have been killed in action and tell them what happened. Foster plays his cards close to his vest – he doesn’t let us know what happened until late in the movie, and the only hint of what he is thinking is behind those deep, dark eyes as he argues and befriends his superior (Woody Harrellson), deals with his ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) or has the beginning of a new relationship with the wife of one of the soldiers killed (Samantha Morton). Foster’s performance in The Messenger isn’t flashy, but it rips your guts out just the same.

6. Matt Damon in The Informant
Damon is a major movie star, but I have always felt somewhat underrated as an actor. His brilliant turns in The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Departed prove that he can do more than just typical movie star roles. But I don’t think I have ever seen him better than he is in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant. Playing Mark Whitacre, a delusional corporate executive who thinks that he can work with the FBI to take down his company, and then become CEO, all without anyone figuring out his embezzlement schemes is pure gold for Damon. Packing on extra pounds, having that goofy grin on his face, and trying to talk his way out of every jam he finds himself in, Damon is the best thing about Soderbergh’s breezy film. Damon is a real actor, and The Informant should be all the proof you need on that score.

5. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
Everyone knows that one of the ways you win an Oscar is to play an alcoholic, but while Bridges plays drunk as well as anyone I have ever seen, his performance is more than just drunk theatrics. He gets under the skin of Bad Blake, a country music star who is on the down slope of his career - broke, playing in dives and bowling alleys for a fraction of what they used to make, and hoping for a comeback. Bridges does his own singing in this movie, and the pain comes through in his voice. He retains the mystic nature and charm of a star, and is able to win people over - for a short time anyway. Bridges plays the broken down star perfectly, and carries a movie that could have just been another cliché leaden drama, but becomes much more. A great performance.

4. George Clooney in Up in the Air
There is no one better at playing the “movie star” roles these days than George Clooney. In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, he has been given perhaps the best role of his career - a corporate downsizing expert who spends all of his time traveling so he doesn’t have to have any real connection with people. Clooney is all full of charm and swagger in this role, but he finds the vulnerability underneath his exterior cool. Clooney always does quality work, but he has never been as good as he here. If we do not feel for his character, then the whole movie becomes an exercise in cynical cool, but Clooney provides the heart for this great movie.

3. Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
Jeremy Renner has been doing great work for almost 10 years now, and no one seemed to notice. Finally, he gets the recognition he deserves for his brilliant portrayal of a bomb technician who becomes addicted to adrenaline and action in the war in Iraq. He seems like a typical Southern cowboy, but Renner goes deeper then the surface cliché. He is a man who loves his job too much, who needs to keep pushing himself further and further into danger, and drags his team along with him. Renner’s performance is mainly about his actions - his facial expressions as he spirals further and further down into his own world. Renner’s talent is no longer a secret.

2. Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man
Looking at his resume of IMDB, I realize I have seen Stuhlbarg several times before, but I didn’t remember him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget him now. He is at the heart of the Coen brother’s latest masterpiece A Serious Man. In the span of a few days, his entire world collapses all around him. He tries to remain calm throughout, but when he is tested like no one since Job, it is impossible. Stuhlbarg does a remarkable job on his spiritual journey that leaves him completely and totally confused more than anything else. Stuhlbarg tries hard to keep his cool, and do the right thing, until he can no longer take the pressure anymore. One of the great, unappreciated performances of the year.

1. Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans
There is no other actor working today quite like Nicolas Cage. There are few actors out there who have made as much crap as Cage, but there is no other actor who could have pulled off a role like this one. He plays a cop who moral compass is broken, who will take any drug under the son, is in extreme pain throughout the entire movie, and has a hooker for a girlfriend. Cage goes wildly, crazily over the top here, with his clipped voice and wild motions, and yet it is perfect for the film. Director Werner Herzog is one of the craziest men in the world, and he needs an actor willing to completely and totally let loose, and that is what Cage does so brilliantly well in this movie. Without this performance, the film could have been painfully bad. With it, it is one of the best of the year. When Cage is on his A game, there is no one better in Hollywood - and I’m not sure he’s ever been better than he is in this movie.

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