I am not the Academy Awards and, as such, see no need to separate supporting performances from lead performances. A good performance is a good performance. In fact, my assessment of performance tends to skew more toward the supporting performances.
Leading performers have the benefit of screen time. Those in supporting roles have the task of creating a fully realized character in just a couple of scenes.
Also note that the majority of these performances take place in movies that made my list of the top ten films of the year, which only serves to show how important acting is in making a great film.
So, like everything else, the ten best performances of the year:
10. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
Ledger’s work in this movie only gets better upon repeat viewings. The subtle tics he adds to his character to fill out the more showy moments (the pencil trick comes to mind) lend just the right amount of malice to his menace. He creates the kind of character that the audience wonders where he is when he’s not on screen, and when he’s on screen, the audience can’t watch anyone else.
9. Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt is a tabloid star, and we sometimes forget that he used to be a movie star. But, even before that-- he was an actor. As Benjamin Button, he is an actor again. Truthfully, the old man Benjamin (who is paradoxically the young Benjamin) is a bit frightening, like a leprechaun who sat in the tub too long. But, with everything that he does, Pitt gives this outcast a soul and gives the audience a reason to care.
8. Kate Winslet as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road
Like I said yesterday, this movie is written on the faces of the actors, and nowhere is that more true than on the face of Kate Winslet. The director’s trust is not misplaced. There is no actor as aware of her facial expressions as Winslet, and she uses every muscle she has to tell the story of April’s bitterness and betrayal. And, in wide shots, she is capable of using her whole body to express the frustration of a trapped woman. This is the definition of a complete performance.
7. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn in Doubt
Hoffman has a habit of turning in very good performances and of making it look very easy. With three great performances last year and two more this year, he is quickly establishing himself as one of the best working actors in Hollywood. In Doubt, he matches Meryl Streep note for note and blow for blow in a battle of will and conscience. He is equal parts endearing and frightening, and it is because of Hoffman’s performance that audience never knows whether the terrible accusations against him are true.
6. Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale in The Visitor
Richard Jenkins was in Step Brothers this year with Will Ferrell. He was very good in that, and that was a not a good movie. A good actor is a good actor. So, given an intelligent script and a complete character, which he has in The Visitor, he gives one of the best performances of the year. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, he brings Professor Walter Vale out of his shell and into the world. He never goes for the big, flashy moment just because he can. He knows his character better than that and knows to stay within his character’s stilted emotional range, which is what makes his performance so good.
5. Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt
Ms. Streep is a very good actress. Can we all agree on that? Okay. Then, let’s move on to the specifics of this performance. As frightening as Hoffman’s Flynn is, he is redeemable. Streep’s Sister Aloysius is bloodless. She is a predator, relentless in the pursuit of her prey. Just watch her body language as she confronts Father Flynn. Whether she is right or not is of no concern to her. It is her dominance that matters, and the way she works over her adversaries is masterful. The way she stands is enough to shake doubters to the core, and in the end, it is only her own doubts that can defeat her.
4. Dev Patel as Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire
In a movie that is all about heart, the central performance must exude that same resiliency, determination, and love. Patel has all of these things. What is so interesting about the character, and Patel’s performance, is that he is almost entirely a reactionary character. Audiences are used to their main characters being proactive, but this movie is about fate. And, Patel has a great face for reactions. He exemplifies the ride that destiny takes his character on with the spontaneity necessary for such a role.
3. Rosemarie Dewitt as Rachel in Rachel Getting Married
It is Rachel’s wedding day, and it is being ruined by her sister, Kym. Rosemarie Dewitt plays it straight, as she must. As Rachel, she walks a very fine line between being sympathetic and being pathetic. She comes down on the right side by never going too far with the hysterics. It is, of course, her wedding, and the audience wouldn’t begrudge her a few moments of agony. But, Dewitt remains calm when she has to be, is forgiving when she needs to be, and stays strong when it hurts to do so. She weathers the storm with all the stability that an older sister must when the younger sister falls apart.
2. Anne Hathaway as Kym in Rachel Getting Married
Speaking of the younger sister, Anne Hathaway gives her first fully realized, fully human performance as Kym, the recovering addict out of rehab for her sister’s wedding. Kym does not, however, seem to realize that the event is not about her. There aren’t many young actresses in Hollywood capable of playing a role as naked and uncompromising as this one, but Hathaway is perfect for the part. As much as DiCaprio grew up in The Departed and Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, this film is Hathaway’s right of passage into serious acting, and she is a serious actress.
1. Brendan Gleeson as Ken in In Bruges
Perhaps best known as Professor Alastor Moody in the Harry Potter series, Brendan Gleeson has slowly, over the last twenty years, amassed an impressive resume of film roles. Finally, here, he gets just the right role, and he sinks his teeth in deep. As an actor, he seems to understand his character better than even the writer. The way that Gleeson chooses to emphasize his character’s pragmatism over all else allows the audience to get just close enough to care but not close enough to understand, which is perfect for the character of a hit man in existential crisis. As the agent of redemption for Ray (Colin Farrell), Gleeson’s Ken is the most complete portrait of a hit man ever put to celluloid.
As for the rest:
Best performance in a bad movie:
Tropic Thunder may have been a big, offensive mess, but Robert Downey Jr. showed up to play and out-acted everybody on the screen, out-acted the material, and out-acted the film.
Worst performance in a good movie:
Diego Luna, as the preening lover in Milk, wanders around the screen wondering what to do with himself. He is outmatched in every scene, and it doesn’t help that most of his scenes are with likely Oscar-nominee Sean Penn.
Best young actor:
Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire in a race that wasn’t even close.
Worst young actor:
Anton Yelchin in Charlie Bartlett. Does anyone even remember this movie? If not, sorry for reminding you. After turning in a performance as the least sympathetic kidnap and murder victim ever (last year’s Alpha Dog), Yelchin gets worse and gives a terrible performance in a bad movie. (note: Robert Downey Jr. gave a pretty good performance in this bad movie, too)
The “I know who that is, but I don’t know his name” award goes to:
Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Burn After Reading, and Step Brothers. Hopefully, you remember his name now, and hopefully, he gets the kind of roles where you want to remember his name.