Wednesday, February 16, 2011

2010: The Best Performances of the Year: Actor

This was almost an impossibly good year for this category. I cannot believe that my number 6 performance here didn’t make it into an “Oscar” slot – but when a year is as strong as this one is in roles for leading men, what can you do? In addition to the top 10, the following performances were also very good and deserve some attention: Jim Broadbent in Another Year, Jim Carrey in I Love You, Philip Morris, Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1, Stephen Dorff in Somewhere, Robert Duvall in Get Low, Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole, Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here, Kodi Smit-McPhee in Let Me In, Ryan Reynolds in Buried, Ben Stiller in Greenberg.

10. Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception
Leonardo DiCaprio has a nearly impossible role in Inception – he has to simultaneously be our narrator – getting inside this complex world, and the rules involved, and also be the emotional core of the movie. He truly is the only character in the film with an arch – crushed by guilt over what he did that led to him losing his wife, and being exiled away from his children, he is betting everything he has to try and get back the only thing that matters in his life. I’m not sure how he did it, but behind all the explanatory dialogue, DiCaprio creates a real person there – and for that he deserves major praise.

9. James Franco in 127 Hours
I was not as big as a fan of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours as many people were – I think Boyle should have downplayed his directorial pyrotechnics at times – but there is no denying that James Franco is brilliant in the lead role. For much of the movie, it is simply Franco, by himself, trapped literally between a rock and a hard place, talking to his camera with gallows humor, and trying to stay alive. The scene everyone talks about is when he cuts his arm off – and that is a triumph for Franco no doubt – but the entire performance is excellent. He traps us down there right alongside him – and makes us care for a man who, at that time anyway, is fairly self involved. It is the best work of Franco’s career so far.

8. Robert DeNiro in Stone
Robert DeNiro is without question my favorite actor of all time – but I have been hard on him for the past decade and a half – and deservedly so. Other than his directorial effort in The Good Shepherd (a vastly underrated film), he has pretty much coasted on his talent, taking on roles unworthy of him since the 1997 tandem of Wag the Dog and Jackie Brown. But in Stone, DeNiro brings his A game. It is a quiet performance, one full of suppressed rage that bubbles under the surface for almost the entire movie, until he starts to let it out just a little bit by the end. This isn’t a million miles away from his work with Scorsese – the difference here is instead of exploding into violence a la Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, DeNiro quietly implodes in this movie. It is a masterful performance – easily the most underrated one of the year.

7. Colin Firth in The King’s Speech
Colin Firth has always been a charming actor, but he has really stepped his game up in the past two years. Coming off his career best work in last year’s A Single Man, Firth delivers another nuanced performance, this time as the King of England, struggling with a stutter and seeing a speech therapist to help him out. Firth is quite amusing at times in the film, and he does indeed nail that stutter, but there is still a sense of Royalty about him – he commands respect, even if he doesn’t always sound like it. His performance is the heart of the film, and he carries off with ease.

6. Javier Bardem in Biutiful
Javier Bardem has long since been one of the best actors in the world – his performances in films like Before Night Falls, The Dancer Upstairs, The Sea Inside and No Country for Old Men among many other, rank among the best work any actor has done in the past decade. His work in Biutiful is among his very best – as he portrays a man who is dying of cancer, but does not want to accept it, because it would mean leaving his children all alone. Bardem has one of the great faces in the movies right now – he can use it to be effortlessly charming as in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or cold and emotionless like in No Country for Old Men – and here you read the pain in his every facial expression. It must have been a difficult performance, as it cuts so close to the bone, but it is one that deserves to be seen.

5. Jeff Bridges in True Grit
A lot of critics have already used the line that Bridges performance in True Grit is The Dude meets The Duke, referencing Bridges previous collaboration with the Coens in The Big Lebowski with the man who initially played Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne. Yet that description does this performance no favors – as Bridges could not be further away from either The Dude or The Duke. He has made Rooster Cogburn, who in the previous film was a hero, into a drunken, cruel, mess of a man – someone who enjoys killing even more than the “criminals” he tracks down. Rooster Cogburn is not really a hero at all. Bridges makes him charming, makes him funny, makes him appear like a pile of dirty laundry on screen, but ultimately he makes one of the well known characters in the Western genre into a slightly pathetic little man. It is great, daring work by Bridges – and the only way that he could have topped Wayne. You can’t out Duke the Duke, so instead, Bridges decided to outdo him by making the character far more complex. I would have rather Bridges waited a year to receive his long belated, deserved Oscar.

4. Edgar Ramirez in Carlos
What a daunting task this must have been. During the course of this five and half hour epic, Ramirez goes from a young, hard bodied man who moves with effortless grace and sexuality, to an overweight, self indulgent slob. Along the way, he speaks in at least five different languages, and has the task of filtering 30 years of history all through him – he is rarely off the screen during the whole movie. Yet Ramirez, who has had some minor roles in American films, completely commands the screen for the entire running time. He handles Ramirez’s descent – his spouting off platitudes, his violence, his sexuality, with ease. Ramirez is a great actor, but I wonder if he will ever be given a role this good again – it is a brilliant performance.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island
Leonardo DiCaprio has become as important to Scorsese’s career in the last decade as Robert DeNiro was to it in the first three decades of his career. In Shutter Island, DiCaprio delivers one of his best performances as Teddy Daniels, the guilt stricken Federal Marshall coming to a island mental hospital to try and solve a disappearance. But right for the beginning of his landing, things take one surreal turn after another. DiCaprio’s performance is a bundle of sweaty, jittery nerves, as he tries to piece everything together in his own mind – and fails right up until the final scene, where we realize he now knows exactly who he is – and cannot live with that knowledge any longer. DiCaprio has become one of the most daring actors of his generation – taking on difficult roles, and making them look easy. I look forward to many more years of DiCaprio/Scorsese movies.

2. Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine
Ryan Gosling’s performance in Blue Valentine is the best performance yet from this brilliant young actor. In the scenes where he first meets Michelle Williams, he is charming and laid back – endearingly sweet and goofy. In the scenes where their marriage is falling apart, he has a look of desperation in his eyes – trying hard to hold onto something that he has already lost. Yet even though the character goes through definite changes, they are still the same person – we see the roots of what will eventually drive Williams crazy about him, his temper, his excess drinking, his lack of ambition and drive, right there in those early scenes. Out of the two characters, more people will likely blame him for the collapse of the marriage, but it really isn’t his fault – he went into the relationship not really realizing they were not right for each other, and years later he still doesn’t want to admit it to himself. This is a brilliant performance by one of the best young actors working today.

1. Jessie Eisenberg in The Social Network
Jessie Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is inarguably the defining character of 2010. He spends most of the movie being a typical anti-hero – a guy that you love to hate, as he destroys every friendship he ever had because of his drive and selfishness. He makes Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue sing, delivering one liners better than anyone else out there, and at the same time remains a defiant, unmovable asshole – offended by the assault everyone launches on him and his creation. It is a brilliant performance for the first 99 minutes of the movie. But to me, where Eisenberg truly earns the top spot on this list is in that final minute – when he doesn’t say a word. Finally alone, sitting in front of a laptop in a deserted conference room, he logs onto Facebook and finds the girl who started it all – and requested her as a friend. Sitting there in the room, he hits the refresh button again and again, hoping for a confirmation. And it’s here where Eisenberg hits his best note – here where he goes from an asshole into a sad, pathetic little man. It’s a brilliant moment, and the heart of what makes this worthy performance of an Oscar.

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