Tuesday, January 15, 2019

2018 Year End Report: Best Supporting Actor

A good, but not great year for this category – but I really wish awards groups were a little more daring in their nominations this year. Some fine performances that didn’t make the top 10 include: Simon Russell Beale in The Death of Stalin is the best of a fine supporting cast, as the completely merciless Beria, who is scary, hilarious and, at the end, disturbing. Rafael Casal in Blindspotting is excellent as the overcompensating white friend, dealing with the changing face of Oakland. Topher Grace in BlackKklansman uses all that nice guy cred to great, disturbing effect playing David Duke. Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? reminds people of just how good he can be, giving one of the best performance of his career as a charming con man. Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You found his groove here – playing a rich, smarmy asshole. Bill Heck in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs delivers a wonderful, subtle performance opposite the great Zoe Kazan. Jonathan Pryce in The Wife was somewhat lost in all the (deserved) praise for Glenn Close – but he’s nearly as good as the insecure male “genius”.
10. Jesse Plemons in Game Night
Jesse Plemons performance in Game Night just may be the funniest performance of the year. He is the deadpan cop next door of the main characters – who wants so desperately to be liked, but has no idea how to go about doing so now that his wife has left him. Everything about his performance in creepy in the funniest way imaginable – and he gets the last laughs in the film during those end credits, where we see his entire plan in action. Still, I don’t think I laughed more at anything all year than his line reading of “How could that be profitable for Frito Lay?”. Plemons has been doing good work for years now – in small roles in movies, and bigger roles on TV, and he’s finally getting recognized more and more. This performance is a comic masterclass.
9. Sam Elliott in A Star is Born
I could watch Sam Elliott is pretty much anything – he has such natural screen presence that he often overtakes his scenes with a charisma that makes you wonder why he never became a massive movie star. What he does in A Star is Born is somewhat more understated – he doesn’t try to out charm Bradley Cooper in the film, knowing that as the brother, and manager, he would necessarily have to make his brother feel like the big man – which is what Elliott does. When he needs to blow up at Cooper he does – but there is always a deep well of love there for his brother – even though he knows he will never be able to stop him from destroying himself.
8. Daniel Kaluuya in Widows
Probably the scariest villain of the year was Daniel Kaluuya’s in Widows. Playing the right hand man of Brain Tyree Henry’s drug dealer turned politician, he doesn’t share his boss’s ambitions to go legit – he likes being on the street too much, he likes intimidating people (as he does in the most epic stare down possible here). Here, he plays the polar opposite of his star making turn in Get Out last year – that one, he was the nicest most sympathetic person possible, here, is scary as hell. And yet, he also quite charming – and sexy – in the film (that wave in the cemetery will lodge in your mind forever). Kaluuya is still just starting out on what should be a great career – and if Widows proves nothing else, it’s that Get Out was no fluke, and he has got range.
7. Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
It may seem like a back handed compliment to say that Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is the best villain in the MCU so far – after all, it’s basically Loki and then no one else – but I do not mean it to be. In Black Panther, Jordan plays Killmonger as a man with a legitimate beef about the way he was treated by the Wakanda royal family – and a legitimate beef about the way black people the world over have been treated. That these things have warped him in many ways – made him into an angry, violent psychopath makes complete sense. This is a villain with more depth than normal because his motives are purely selfish (they aren’t purely unselfish either – he wants power, but not for the same reasons Loki does) – and he doesn’t just want to want the world burn either. He’s a great villain because he’s one you understand – but still hate. And Jordan nails this contradiction.
6. Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade
Josh Hamilton plays the kind of dad I think all of us dads – especially of girls – want to be. He is kind and supportive of his daughter, even when he has no idea what is going on with her. He’s there for her – even if that means sometimes letting her be. He is quite funny in many scenes in the film – the low-key stalking, his bewildered look when he finds his daughter who he thought hated bananas eating one. But his monologue, late in the film, when she asks him if she makes him sad is pretty delivered and utterly sincere. Kayla is likely to be okay when she moves onto high school – and her dad is a reason why. And Hamilton captures this perfectly.
5. Tim Blake Nelson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
It’s been far too long between Coen projects for Tim Blake Nelson – whose career got a huge boost from being cast as the third lead in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou, and here is given one of his very best roles as the title character in the Coen’s latest. Nelson moseys onscreen astride a horse, strumming a guitar – a seemingly nice, Roy Rogers type character, who reveals himself to be much darker than that when the song ends, and will eventually outside as an out and out psychopath who belongs in a Sergio Leone film. And he does it all with that same goofy smile on his face, that same strange demeanor. Nelson gets the movie off to a great start – and lets you know from the start just where this thing is headed.
4. Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk
Brian Tyree Henry shows up for one sequence, about half way through If Beale Street Could Talk, and when he leaves 10 minutes later, not to be seen again, the movie is never the same. He plays Daniel, the old friend of the male lead, just released from jail and struggling to get his life back on track, struggling to leave behind the world he knew in jail, and the trauma inflicted upon him. Henry, who has done brilliant work on Atlanta, and got some great film roles this year (he is excellent in Widows as well, in a very different role) brings a lot of sympathy and empathy to the role of Daniel – the innocent guy forever scared by his experience with the justice system – and leaves his shadow hanging over the rest of the movie, because of what it may mean for the main characters. This is the way a single scene can change an entire movie.
3. Hugh Grant in Paddington 2
What an unexpected delight it was to see Hugh Grant in Paddington 2 – as the costume wearing, egomaniacal, yet fragile star turned criminal Phoenix Buchanan. Grant, who has always been a delightful presence in comedies – he elevated any number of standard issue romantic comedies in his day – here really turns it up to 11, and channels Alec Guinness in the Ealing days to create one of the most enjoyable bad guy performance in family movie history. You love him from the moment he comes onscreen – all ego – the end when he both gets his comeuppance, but discovers it is precisely what he needed – and is happier now than ever before. Paddington 2 was easily one of the treats of the year, and outdid the original – and Grant’s career best work is one of the main reasons why.
2. Adam Driver in BlackKklansman
It’s hard to believe that Adam Driver only had his first onscreen acting credit 9 years ago – and he’s already worked with directors like Eastwood, Spielberg, Baumbach, the Coens, Jarmusch, Scorsese, Soderberg and now Spike Lee. I won’t say his work in BlacKkKlansman is the best of his career – but that’s only because his work in Jarmusch’s Paterson is one of my favorite performances of recent years. But here, Driver delivers a fascinatingly complex performance – playing essentially an assimilated Jew, who never thought much about his heritage – considering himself “white” – before going under cover with the KKK forces him to consider that. None of that is foregrounded in the performance – it’s subject – but it makes his performance all the deeper and more nuanced – makes what he says sting a little bit more (himself more than anyone else). Driver is clearly one of the best actors working today – and his work here is some of the best of his career.
1. Steven Yeun in Burning
From the moment Yeun’s Ben enters Burning, there is something a little different about him. He is effortlessly charming – everyone loves him, and not only that he’s one of those people who are rich, but never seem to work. The main character immediately hates him – but cannot put his finger on why (“Look at him, over there cooking while listening to music”). But we feel it in the audience as well – there is something off about Ben – something in that smile that seems so nice, that is actually kind of cruel. Something in the way he yawns that reveals something darker about him. Maybe the genius of Lee Chang-dog had in casting Yeun was that he was casting a Korean American in a cast of Koreans, and so there would be something just a little bit different there. But it’s also just there in Yeun’s performance. Yeun is having a good string of movies since leaving his often thankless role on The Walking Dead – and here he proves just what a great actor he really is.

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