Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2012 Year End: The Top 10 Best Actor Performances of 2012

A great year for this category – any of my top five could have easily been my number choice, and there are a host of other truly great performances.

Runners-Up: Daniel Craig in Skyfall humanized James Bond in a way he never has been before. Anders Danielsen in Oslo August 31st was great as a drug addict who decides over the course of one long day that his life is hopeless. Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper keeps this sci-fi film grounded in a real emotional level. Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas had the most consistent “character” of anyone in Cloud Atlas, and strange English accent aside, pretty much nailed it. Daniel Henshaw in The Snowtown Murders was extremely creepy as a psychopath who drags everyone down to his level in this little seen Aussie film. Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables proved there is a real actor – and singer – inside him, that has often been underutilized. Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being s Wallflower made just about the perfect teenage outsider, finally finding friends. Neil Maskell in Kill List has to deal with an ever shifting narrative, that requires him to go from kitchen sink drama to hit man film to horror film, and maintain consistency – and nailed it. Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis is still an actor I am not convinced can really act, but he was the perfect choice for David Cronenberg’s film as a billionaire disconnected from reality. Michel Picolli in We Have a Pope gave the legendary actor his best role in years as a Cardinal who surprisingly finds himself elected Pope and runs away. Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly rises above the so-so movie and delivers a fine performance as an amoral hit man – and has the best closing line of the year. Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone is just as damaged and brilliant as co-star Marion Cottillard, if less obviously so. Channing Tatum in Magic Mike has all the charm to make this male stripper movie work.

Top 10
10. Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
Up until Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper pretty much just coasted on his movie star good looks and charm. But in this movie, Cooper delivers an excellent, funny, touching performance. He plays Pat, a man obsessed with his wife, who left him, and has spent months in a mental hospital before being let out to move back in with his parents. He obsessively works out, has occasionally freak outs, but is really, truly trying to be good this time. Cooper’s chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence is palpable – the two have an effortless connection as they rattle off rapid fire dialogue as if they were in a 1930s screwball comedy. You cannot help but root for this guy as he tries to piece his life back together – and the movie proves that Cooper is more than just his movie-star good looks.

9. Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained
Jamie Foxx has the title role in Django Unchained, and he rips into it with swagger, style and extreme anger. When we first meet him, he is an angry slave with no outlet for all that rage – he is impotent to do anything about his lot in life. But during the course of the movie he slowly transforms into slavery’s worst nightmare – an intelligent, violent, capable, angry free black man, who is done taking crap and decides it’s time to kick ass. In many ways, Foxx has to remain the calm center of the film – allowing the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz to riff wildly all around him. But he anchors the movie brilliantly – and gives one of his very best performances.

8. Liam Neeson in The Grey
No one is more surprised than I am that Joe Carnahan’s Liam Neeson vs. wolves movie was as great as it was – or that Neeson, who too often makes silly, pointless thrillers, delivers one of the finest performances of his career in the lead role. Neeson plays a man with secrets in his past that haunt him. This leads him to take a job working security for an arctic oil company in the first place and when the plane carrying the crew crashing, killing most of them, and leaving the rest to fend for themselves against the wolf pack closing in on them, Neeson takes charge. This is a very physical performance by Neeson – who does so much with so little dialogue and just the look on his face. Neeson, who at the beginning of the movie seemed suicidal, all of a sudden goes into survival mode – he may not care if her lives or dies, but damn it, he’s going to do it on his own terms. Neeson’s middle aged conversion to an action star has never made much sense to me – at least until The Grey, which uses the men vs. wolves plot as a setup for a movie that is so much more than it seems. And Neeson carries it from beginning to end.

7. Matthew McConaghey in Killer Joe
In a movie full of nothing but despicable characters, Matthew McConaghey’s title character is the worst of the bunch. He plays a cop, who sidelines as a contract killer, which is convenient, since he often has to investigate the murders he commits. When a trailer trash family wants to bump off their no-good matriarch, they come to him to get the job done – and when they do not have the retainer to pay him, they offer up their simpleton teenage daughter (Juno Temple) as a down payment. McConaghey starts the movie off as an amoral bad guy, and grows more despicable as the movie progresses – through possible pedophilia, and into the final scene where he forces Gina Gershon to fellate a piece of fried chicken. McConaghey has admitted that when he first read the screenplay, it made him physically ill, but he fully commits to this role, using his good ol’ boy Southern accent and charm to make Killer Joe’s descent all the more disgusting. And I’ll never forget how his face lights up in the final moments of the film.

6. Jack Black in Bernie
Like many comedic actors, Jack Black can actually do more than just make funny faces, and deliver crude jokes at top volume – that is when he actually gets a chance to. I’m not sure what made Richard Linklater cast Black in Bernie, but he couldn’t have picked better. As a possibly guy undertaker, who breezes into a small Texas town, and immediately makes them fall in love with him, Black is at his charming best. He seems like such a nice guy – and see how kind he is to old the old widows. He is involved with everything in the town (seeing Black perform 78 Trombones is a highlight) and he is beloved by all – but there is a darker side to Bernie that will eventually come out. Black plays Bernie as a man who is easy to love – effortlessly charming and affable – but one who cons everyone in town into thinking he really is that nice. Hell, Black is so charming, he may have even conned himself into believing his own lie.

5. Denzel Washington in Flight
Denzel Washington can take control of a movie screen like few other actors in the world can. Unfortunately, he has spent much of the past decade in movies that are not quite up to his talent level – sure he’s good in all the action films and thrillers he has done, but Washington is capable of more. In Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, Washington delivers one of his finest performances ever. He plays Whip Whitaker, a pilot with a drinking problem who doesn’t realize it until his plane crashes. The plane crash wasn’t his fault – hell, no sober pilots could land the plane like he did drunk, but that doesn’t make it any better. Most of the movie is Washington in a powerhouse performance as he denies he has a problem, all the while spiraling downwards towards the films inevitable conclusion. Flight is more than just an addiction story – it’s one of the best addiction stories of recent years, and Whitaker is not a typical movie drunk. He has to get away with what he’s done before he can admit it – he has to come clean on his own terms. Washington is a great actor, and Flight is one of the very best performances of his career.

4. Denis Lavant in Holy Motors
No actor this year worked harder in one movie than Denis Lavant does in Holy Motors. He plays some sort of strange actor who during the course of the movie will go on many “appointments” which will require him to play an old woman begging for change, , a man working at first solo, and then with someone else, in a motion capture studio, a subterranean psycho named Merde who kidnaps a beautiful model  a disappointed father driving his teenage daughter home from a party, an accordionist leading a musical parade, a murderer, the murderer’s victim, a man who runs into a woman from his past, and finally the husband and father of a very strange family. It’s arguable that somewhere in between these times – in his limo – he really is playing his “real” character, or perhaps that’s just a front as well. Lavant is brilliant in all these roles, as he morphs between them. His performance is really about the nature of performance – of acting – and what Lavant accomplishes in this film is nothing short of brilliant.

3. Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour
Out of the two performances at the heart of Amour, Jean-Louis Trintignant has the more difficult one. Emmanuelle Riva, who is utterly brilliant, gets to play a woman with a debilitating stroke, but Trintignant has to carry the movie as the husband forced to care for her. Many have praised the movie as a heartbreaking look at what true love is, by defining what Trintignant does as selfless. I’m not entirely sold on that notion – at times, he can be downright selfish in this film, and even his last act of “mercy” can be read as being more about himself than about his wife. Trintignant makes his character a complex creation – a man of comfort, who tries his best when things get tough, but may not be up to the challenge. For reasons I do not understand, Riva has received tons of praise (all of it deserved), but Trintignant has been overlooked by far too many. His performance is one of the best, most heartbreaking, of the year – no matter what you think of his character.

2. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Playing Abraham Lincoln must have been a daunting task for even an actor as great as Daniel Day-Lewis. Lincoln is a larger than life figure in American history – perhaps the most beloved President ever – and everyone has an idea of precisely who he is. And Day-Lewis gives us the Lincoln we have dreamed of – impassioned, eloquent, intelligent, charming and funny. That would have been enough to make this a great performance. What elevates it even higher than that though is how Day-Lewis makes Lincoln into a real human being – not just a larger than life political hero, but a real husband, father and man who struggles with the weight he must carry. His accent and pitch choice for Lincoln voice was controversial for some (I think it works beautifully), but what it allows is for Lincoln to seem less like a “very important political figure” and more like a human being. There is a reason Time Magazine called Day-Lewis the World’s Greatest Actor – because he may well be.

1. Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
No performance this year sticks in my mind as Joaquin Phoenix’s in The Master does. His Freddie Quell is the most fascinating character of the year – a man who begins and ends the movie an enigma. We first meet Freddie as a sailor in the waning days of WWII in the Pacific – then back to “normal” life as a photographer, and finally as a devotee of The Cause, or more specifically, of its founder Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). To watch these two actors play off each other is to watch two completely different styles clash – Phoenix is all rage and sexual energy – a man who carries himself with a strange walk, a weird posture, and a cackling voice he forces out one side of his mouth. Who is Freddie Quell? Where did he come from, and what is going to happen to him when the movie ends? Joaquin Phoenix has always been a great actor – from the time I first saw him in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For I knew he had this type of performance in him. I worried that he fell off the deep end with his I’m Still Here phase, but he’s back now, and better than ever. In Paul Thomas Anderson he found a director to push him into uncomfortable territory, and in Philip Seymour Hoffman, the perfect scene partner. No performance this year haunts me as much as this one – one of the great screen performances of the decade so far.

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