Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Top 25 Acting Performances of 2009

I'm sure most readers can't distinguish between a 2009 and a 2010 film, but when you write about movies as often as I do you become kind of geeky about those things. Here's a random list of my 25 favorite performances of 2009 I wrote up in order to fill a slow day.

To review:
Oscar Best Picture nominees I saw: Avatar, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, Blind Side, Up

Other award-worthy films I saw: Invcitus, Julie and Julia, Star Trek, In the Loop, 500 Days of Summer, Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, Public Enemies, Hangover, Informant!, Me and Orson Welles

Award-worthy films I didn't see:
BP Nominees: Precious, Hurt Locker, An Education, Single Man
Also: Single Man, It's Complicated, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Messenger, Brothers, Young Victoria, Bright Star, Taking Woodstock, Nine, Last Station, Lovely Bones, Princess and the Frog, Moon
And the list:

1. Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes-There's certainly some genre bias in why he didn't go further in the Oscar race but if you take Downey's performance on its own terms, it's an incomparable performance of an iconic character. And, yes, there is a lot of comparison. Along with the Sherlock-influenced characters on TV (House and Monk) to come before, there have been at least three great performances (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, and recently Ian McKellen) since, yet this is the performance I remember. Robert Downey Jr. won a Golden Globe for his performance in the comedy category which is pretty fraudulent but it highlights the fact that performances in action features don't really fit into any box when evaluating a performance.

2. Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air-What I imagine when I think of a supporting role: Someone
interesting enough that you could imagine a whole movie being made about them. To the frequent-flyer protagonist, Farmiga's character is alluring. She speaks his language and could even be considered a perfect match. Underneath the veneer, however, her life is fraught with complications.

3. Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds-In this film, he has an obvious presence and this was just as a universally great performance for good reason. I like that he's not just pure evil but [SPOILER ALERT] takes a deal at the end. His mastery of all the different languages as a weapon obviously helps his cause to be shot towards the top of this list. Since this performance, he has been pigeonholed as a villain of uncharacteristic eloquence but he's a strong enough actor to deliver it with so many variations.

4. Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds-Although Inglourious Basterds claims to be an ensemble
film, it could easily be read as Shoshanna's journey. Laurent has a very quiet presence but a strong survival instinct and so many shades of her presence are visible in her journey: In particular, the fear of concealment is prevalent in her every moment on screen.

5. Rachel Weisz, The Brothers Bloom-Trying my best to distinguish between a bad movie and a good performance, I have to vault Weisz towards the top for a standout role in a film that failed to be memorable. Aside from learning all those skills for the purpose of that montage (ping pong, unicycling, rapping, what more could you want?), her character is so interesting in that she's socially stunted but so capable of socialization if given the right push. In this case, the reclusive character is given an introduction point to society that couldn't be worse (a trio of con artists) which makes her even more interesting.

6. Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia-Not a particularly eventful movie (Plot summary: If I remember correctly, the film's two plots are: a) one girl learns to blog and b) Meryl Streep imitates a historical figure for an easy Oscar nod), but it's Meryl Streep and she rarely does anything less than amazing.

7. Edgar Flores, Sin Nombre-I'm not one to spout on foreign films others haven't heard of as I average less than one foreign film a year, but I did happen to see this one and I can't deny the powerful performances here. Flores takes you on a journey of guilt, pragmatic redemption, and a hesitant survival instinct. He's a man born in Hell who sees the light late in life.

8. Sandra Bullock, Blind Side-I didn't mind the Oscar win here over Streep because this is a transformative role for Bullock that makes or breaks the movie. Bullock is a Southern belle of sorts but never dumbs herself down for the role. Bullock was always a popular box office draw but 2009 marked a year in which she suddenly began to be taken seriously as an actress. The Proposal was another film that showed her maturity in comedic roles this year.

9. Quinton Aaron, Blind Side-Bullock doesn't deserve sole credit. It's a two-part movie. Aaron's Michael Oher possesses a quiet gentleness that gets you on his side fast. There was a challenge here to portray the character as uneducated but not necessarily devoid of intellectual potential and Oher resistd temptation to simplify that dichotomy.

10. Robert Downey Jr., Soloist-Whereas some saw this is a standard feel-good filler on the movie calendar of 2009, this was my third favorite movie of the year so I thought pretty highly of the film already. While it seems logical that Foxx (who played a mentally ill artist) should be rated higher for the more flamboyant part, Downey Jr.'s typical persona- gruff exterior, good with words, internal demons hidden deep down- is used perfectly here and his arc was no less cathartic even if it was quieter than his counterpart. You also got the sense that he did his research into the life of a beat reporter.

11. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer-This was Gordon-Levitt's breakout role as a star
and shows off his grandiose theatricality even in its quieter moments. Gordon-Levitt is so infectious here with his youthful optimism that you forget that his views on love (at least with regard to Summer) are misguided and self-destructive (by JGL's own admission).

12. Zoe Saldana, Star Trek-The entire ensemble of Star Trek deserves a lot of credit for creating wholly original dramatic struggles while retaining the essence of the characters they're modeled after. I could pick any one of the seven leads from the film and put them in my top 25 but I'll limit myself to one and just go with Saldana who took what was originally thankless part (saved from being forgettable solely by the performance of Nichelle Nicholls) and made it a star attraction. Shipping her in a relationship with an emotionless half-alien didn't hurt in raising the degree of difficulty either.

13. Jamie Foxx, Soloist-Foxx is one of the most consistently on actors in my opinion and he always seems to make my Oscar wishlists for even minor performances (Dream Girls and Jarhead). His performance is Oscar-baity here but I give it points for being very close to his real-life counterpart (I've seen documentary footage on Nathaniel Ayres).

14. Ed Asner, Up-I generally don't believe that a voice-over performance is comparable to a live action role and should not be considered for awards buzz. Scarlett Johansson was someone who made me consider that rule of mine with Her. However, I realized when making this list that Johansson isn't my favorite voice performance of all-time but this is. Asner's role in this film was make-or-break and the emotional ride you felt from this movie can only be attributed to him.

15. Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds-Creepy is generally an overused word, but it's definitely apt for this character here who's underhanded bragging and dogged pursuit of Shoshanna makes him
someone you're hoping will be shot down (in the literal sense) sooner or later.

16. Tom Hollander, In the Loop-Peter Capaldi was the man who generated the most Oscar-buzz from this awesome film but I prefer Hollander because he's the straight man in the middle of this circus of snide insults and brown-nosing. His look of defeat at the end of the film says so much.

17. George Clooney, Up in the Air-I've had a long-standing belief that George Clooney is not only overrated but over-celebrated to the point where I want to pull my hair out whenever I see a softball interview with the man. However, of his four Oscar nominations, I'll maintain that he most definitely deserves two of them. Although he repeats a lot of the same beats (world-weariness, graying charm), he really sold the hell out of them on an emotional level and bought something new here. Jason Reitman did more with Clooney than Alexander Payne did in my opinion.

18. Matt Damon, Informant-For a long time, I adored Matt Damon in this film until I realized it's the genius of the character and not the actor that makes the film great. The film stands out because of its unreliable narrator at the center. His speech inside his head and the world outside his head do not align and that's something. However, I don't know if that takes a great performance of a schizophrenic to pull this off. I'd imagine it's substantially easier to just voice a character of different temperament in the recording booth after acting out your scenes as a different character.

19. Paulina Gaitan, Sin Nombre-Another wonderful performance from a film whose director, Cary Fukunaga, might soon become a bigger name with the buzz for Beasts of No Nation. Gaitan plays a teenager being smuggled across the US/Mexico border who makes a seemingly fatal mistake by drifting away from her family and following an ex-gangster. It's a massive twist in the story and Gaitan pulls it off with a lot of consistency.

20. Tilda Swinton, Julia-I would not call this a watchable film by any means. It's a dreary trip about a troubled woman. But how can you (reluctantly) deny that playing a troubled woman like Julia takes a lot of work.

21. Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air-I love Anna Kendrick and the best I can say about this part is that this film made me a fan of her. However, I don't think her arc was particularly complex.

22. Amy Adams, Night at the Museum 2-Great performances can be found in popcorn films. If Cate Blanchett can win for an imitation of Katherine Hepburn, why can't Amy Adams at least receive a little bit of recognition in channeling her so perfectly for this fun romp?

23. Sharlto Copley, District 9-I might be grading on the curve here but this guy deserves a lot of praise for what is essentially a debut performance with minimal acting background. In this movie, he spends most of his screentime opposite a crudely-costumed giant squid-mouthed insect, and plays those moments with complete seriousness and even leaves an emotional residue. That's not easy to pull off.

24. Melanie Lynskey, Up in the Air-I've always admired Melanie Lynskey in a number of her roles.
As Ryan Bingham's sister, she possesses that kind of quiet reserve that she does best. 

25. Saul Rubineck, Julia-Again, this is not a very entertaining film and I don't recommend people see it, but if you DO see it, you will notice that Rubineck (the guy who played Daphne's boyfriend on Frasier) plays well of Tilda Swinton with a lot off tension and spark.

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