Runners-Up: Alan Arkin in Argo plays the stereotypical, profane movie executive to perfection. Jim Broadbent in Cloud Atlas is alternately lovable and creepy in his multiple roles. Albert Brooks in This is 40 is his regular hilarious self, which I cannot get enough of. Michael Caine in The Dark Knight Rises made Alfred into a real character for perhaps the first time ever. Bryan Cranston in Argo proves that the best actor on TV can make a seamless transition to the big screen. Benicio Del Toro in Savages plays the opposite role he did in Traffic – as the most violent, cruel, amoral drug dealer in Mexico. Michael Fassbender in Prometheus was just about perfect as a robot, who models himself after Peter O'Toole. Paul Giamatti in Cosmopolis had one long scene, where he is spot on as a pathetic loser. Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Dark Knight Rises brought an element of normal humanity that was needed in the final installment. Pat Healy in Compliance is one of the most memorable villains of the year, even though for most of his performance, you only hear his voice. John Goodman in Argo/Flight was excellent in two very good movies, in two very different roles. Thomas Haden Church in Killer Joe played perhaps the dumbest character of the year – to perfection. Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild was the scary realism in this tale of magical childhood. Jude Law in Anna Karenina somehow made the most boring character in the movie into the most fascinating one. John Lithgow in This is 40 turns what could have been a nothing role, and makes it one of the best in the film. Scoot McNairy in Killing Them Softly is a bundle of nervous, frazzled energy right up until his final, bloody moment. Ezra Miller in The Perks of Being a Wallflower delivers on the promise of his stellar work in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Clarke Peters in Red Hook Summer is the best thing about Spike Lee’s extremely messy film – no matter how farfetched his character gets, he plays it brilliantly. Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths was the best performance in a movie full of them. Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom/Looper toyed with his own image twice in one year, to radically different results, although both were wonderful. Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas was heartbreaking as a composer in love who has one great hurrah – that hardly anyone ever hears.
Top Ten10. Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises
Tom Hardy has been a rising star for a while now with fine performances in Bronson, Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior and Lawless on his resume. One of his best was as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. It could not have been easy to have to fill the void of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and while Hardy cannot match Ledger, he makes a great villain in his own right. Hardy is a massive physical presence in The Dark Knight Rises – the one villain so far who can match, or outmatch, Batman on pure physical strength – and he struts around like he knows it. I also love his malevolent voice – and yes, I could understand what he was saying in the film. And yet, it is the final look he gives in the film that sticks with me – that pure, pathetic, hangdog, love struck look that turns one of the toughest villains into a scared little boy.
9. Robert DeNiro in Silver Linings PlaybookI have complained a number of times over the years that Robert DeNiro has spent the last 15 years or so coasting on his talent- never taking on roles that truly challenge him, and often playing roles beneath him. But in Silver Linings Playbook, he gets one of his best roles in years, and delivers a funny and touching performance. DeNiro plays a father struggling with his relationship with his son, just released from a mental hospital, and moving back home. He doesn’t know how to relate to his son – he loves him, but doesn’t know what to do with him, perhaps because he sees a part of himself he has denied for years in him. DeNiro has many great moments in the movie – none greater than his toe-to-toe with Jennifer Lawrence (also the highlight of her performance), where he finally has to admit that perhaps he may not be right. Welcome back DeNiro.
8. Javier Bardem in SkyfallThe truth of the matter is most Bond villains are interchangeable and forgettable. The film have always been more about the hero and the gadgets than the villains themselves, since they all want to take over the world, or some other such nonsense. That’s why Bardem’s work in Skyfall is so great – he is motivated by something far more personal than world domination – revenge. Bardem pulls out all the stops in the movie villain canon here – his cackling, evil laugh, that psychopathic glint in his eyes – and is aided greatly by special effects (the moment he takes out his teeth is seared in my brain), and yet he always keeps his baddie believably evil on a more human scale. Bad guys have taken up a number of spaces on this list – and Bardem’s is the best of the bunch.
7. Matthew McConaghey in Magic MikeNo one is more surprised than I am that Matthew McConaghey chose 2012 to be the year where he actually decided to act. Following up a fine performance in 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaghey was great in no less than four films in 2012 – Bernie, Killer Joe, The Paperboy and his best work in Magic Mike (and I hear he’s great in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, his follow-up to Take Shelter). In Magic Mike, McConaghey has a role that fits him like a glove – a charming, pretty boy, with a lazy Southern drawl that he uses to seduce his female clientele at the low rent strip shows he puts on – and to make his dancers think they’re all his best friend. But there is a darker side to McConaghey’s character as well – one that comes out in a chilling scene where he basically verbally pimp slaps Channing Tatum who is starting to get too big for his britches. Director Steven Soderbergh was smart to cast McConaghey here – on the surface, this is the perfect vehicle for him, but then he subtlety twists it to get to darker places. Matthew McConaghey can actually act. Who knew?
6. Leonardo DiCaprio in Django UnchainedLeonardo DiCaprio is clearly having fun playing the vile, racist Monsieur Candie who believes himself to be refined, intelligent and enlightened. Like Christoph Waltz’s character in Inglorious Basterds, he has a warped worldview which he uses to justifies everything that he does. But DiCaprio is even more repellent a character than Waltz’s Jew hunter – dragging out that skull of a former slave and sawing into it to prove his point, the way he casually tosses off the word nigger. That he does it all while an air of civility and class – that is until he is truly pushed – makes it all the more disturbing. In many films, DiCaprio’s supporting role would be the showcase role of the whole film. The fact that it isn’t here is no demerit to DiCaprio’s wildly unhinged performance, but to the strength of the cast as whole.
5. Jason Clarke in Zero Dark ThirtyJason Clarke’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most underrated great performances of the year. In many ways, he pretty much owns the film’s first act, as he introduces Jessica Chastain’s Maya into the world of detainee interrogation and intelligence gathering. Clarke is great in those interrogation scenes – hard nosed, brutal and unrelenting. And then in his scenes with Maya, he lets you know there is a human behind all that brutality and violence. Even when he disappears for much of the film’s final two acts, he remains locked in your mind – in many ways, it is what Clarke does that you have come to grips with in Zero Dark Thirty. Does the ends justify the means?
4. Tommy Lee Jones in LincolnIt isn’t easy to be a scene stealer in a movie that contains a performance as masterfully commanding as Daniel Day-Lewis’ in Lincoln – but Tommy Lee Jones pulls it off (it’s probably helpful he doesn’t have many scenes with Day-Lewis). As Thaddeus Stevens, unapologetic abolitionist, Jones is forceful, impassioned and sometimes downright funny. His toe-to-toe with Sally Field is wonderful, as he is forced to eat crow, but even better is when he dresses down a Democratic Congressman in his office, or his scene when he is forced to lie about what he really feels for the greater good. Jones has had a late career resurgence in the past few years – great work in In the Valley of Elah, No Country for Old Men, Captain America and even a film as poor as Hope Springs. His performance in Lincoln stands alongside the best work of his career.
3. Samuel L. Jackson in Django UnchainedOut of all the bad guys in Django Unchained, perhaps the worst of them all is Samuel L. Jacksons Steven – a slave who works for and loves Candie, the racist plantation owner. This is because why the white racists at least have the excuse of not knowing what it’s like to be black, Steven does – and sells out his own people time and time again. Jackson is made to look older – essentially, he is made to look just like Uncle Ben – and while when his performance first starts, we assume he’s just going to be another Uncle Tom, Jacksons Steven is a deeper, darker character than that – and is truly the most terrifying character in the film. Jackson often sleepwalks through his roles as cinematic badasses, but in Django Unchained he is given his best role in years, and makes the most of it. This may well be the most under rated performance of the year.
2. Christoph Waltz in Django UnchainedIn Quentin Tarantino’s last film, Inglorious Basterds, he made Waltz a star, and won him an Oscar, by giving him the plum role as the Nazi villain – the Jew Hunter – perhaps the most memorably evil Nazi in cinema history. In Django Unchained, he flips this – allowing Waltz to be a Good German – and giving him a role that equals his Inglorious Basterds role. His King Schultz is the one white character in the film who is not an unrepentant racist – he despises slavery – so of course it makes sense he isn’t American at all. Yet, Waltz is once again an unrepentant killer – a man who can kill without feeling, because his worldview allows him to. Waltz is also the funniest character in the movie – he is given many of the films best lines, and is hilarious when the films calls on him for that. But his role is deeper than that – he truly comes to love Django, and is willing to do anything for his new friend. Waltz hasn’t quite been given the roles he deserves since his breakthrough in Inglorious Basterds – but with Django Unchained he once again proves why he’s one of the best actors in the world.
1. Philip Seymour Hoffman in The MasterWhile Joaquin Phoenix is all raging id in The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the opposite – a controlled, calm performance where his reassuring voice makes you think everything is going to be okay. It’s easy to see him as a cult leader – he sells his loony ideas with the calm confidence that many of them do. His processing scenes with Phoenix are the heart of the film, as Phoenix remains a braying jackass; Hoffman tries to break him down, piece by piece, until there is nothing left. But it never quite works – which is precisely why Hoffman is so drawn to him, so fascinated by him, and why he cannot let him go even though he knows he should. Hoffman’s final scene in the movie is his best one – again, he remains calm, as he sings a song to Phoenix is his creepy voice. The scene resembles the final one in There Will Be Blood, but without the physical violence. What he’s trying to do is the same thing though. Hoffman is one of the best actors in the world, and his work in The Master may well be his finest to date.