The Screen Actors Guild Awards are tonight, where actors will honor actors for the best performances of the year (2009). I thought I’d take the opportunity to chime in with my list of the best performances of the year. Not wanting to separate the men from the women or the leads from the supporting, it’s a simple list.
As with last year’s list, eight of the top ten performances highlighted here appear in films that are also among the top films of the year. Movies are not made in a vacuum, and great words hold no meaning when badly spoken. Performances are integral in making a picture work. The following performances make their films work.
10. Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds
Inglourious Basterds has been described as a Jewish revenge fantasy with Brad Pitt and his band of Jews hacking their way through the Third Reich. These are all visceral thrills. The heart of the story is a movie house proprietress whose family has been killed by the Nazis. Laurent plays Shosanna Dreyfus with a wisdom and dignity that the Basterds lack. Her revenge is poetic, and Laurent’s performance is poetry. She belongs instantly in the canon of great Tarantino women: the Bride, Jackie Brown, the Death Proof girls, and Shosanna Dreyfus.
9. Peter Sarsgaard as David in An Education
David is a smooth talker, and he is the quintessential snake in the grass. The magic trick that Peter Sarsgaard performs in this film is showing the charm, always the charm, while hinting at the fangs, which lay in wait to strike. He really is the most likeable character put to celluloid all year, and in the same way he convinces her parents, he is able to convince us that there is nothing untoward about a middle-aged man courting a 16-year-old girl. Like I said, it’s a magic trick.
8. Anthony Mackie as Sgt. JT Sanborn in The Hurt Locker
Anthony Mackie’s Sgt. JT Sanborn is the polar opposite of Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. William James. While James has the family and the job back home and needs the war to escape, Sanborn needs the war to prove to himself how much he wants the family and the job and the civilian life. Mackie is all anger and fear and confusion as a man whose spiritual and literal existences are threatened by the appearance of the renegade Sgt. James. He must respect the superior officer, but he is free to feel whatever he wishes, which is anything but respect. Mackie lives this dichotomy brilliantly.
7. Sasha Grey as Christine Brown/Chelsea in The Girlfriend Experience
“If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn’t be paying you,” Chelsea says of her profession, providing a high-priced escort service. Sasha Grey plays a character who must always be someone else and someone different. At the same time, however, she must be able to show us the woman who plays those different parts in life. Grey is aloof and businesslike as her job requires but observant and engaged as necessary. Grey, quite famous in the adult film industry, proves her ability to play a real three-dimensional character. She has a future, but in this film, she is also the now.
6. Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon
This success of this film is based on the ability of the audience to stay interested in the Sam Bell character who is on screen alone, for all intents and purposes, for nearly the whole film. More than that, the audience must care about him. Sam Rockwell makes them care. There aren’t many actors I would want to watch perform an hour-and-a-half monologue, but Rockwell is one of them. Duncan Jones’ script is filled with a thousand different notes, and Rockwell hits every one with the precision and grace of which few other actors are even capable.
5. Christian McKay as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles
Christian McKay portrays Orson Welles as less a man than a myth. That is the right way to go. Welles is too big of a character to fit into one film, and maybe only Welles himself could have attempted it. McKay shows Welles as the walking ego that he most likely was but gives us glimpses into the genius that was always there. He gives the kind of performance that you wonder where he is when he is not on screen. In an otherwise average film, McKay is a big, bright, shining light that illuminates everything around him.
4. Colin Firth as George Falconer in A Single Man
George Falconer is a stiff, repressed man, forced to hide his sexuality from the world. His entire life is inside his mind. Colin Firth brings that inner world to the surface and somehow instills emotion and humanity into the character, while never betraying the fact that he leads a life built on secrecy. Director Tom Ford gives Firth no margin of error in portraying this character, and Firth never steps wrong. Every subtle gesture and studied mannerism is a mark of the actor diving into a character and bringing out a person.
3. Charlotte Gainsbourg as She in Antichrist
Gainsbourg’s character does not have a name. In the credits, she is referred to simply as She. Why? Because it does not matter who she is so much as what she represents. She represents women and the treatise that women are inherently evil. It is a tall order, but Gainsbourg is up to the task. This is a cruel, brutal movie, and she gives a brave, fully committed performance. She is put through all manner of physical and psychological torture, and while the character may not endure, Gainsbourg weathers the storm admirably.
2. James Gandolfini as Carol in Where the Wild Things Are
In this role, Gandolfini has given up the primary tool of any actor: his face. Best known as the head of a crime family on “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini completely reinvents himself in the most emotive, vulnerable, and affecting performance of the year. As sometimes-gentle giant Carol, he is the wild thing who leads Max through his strange adventure. But, he is a reflection of who Max was in the real world. He is the driving force of Max’s transformation. It is a lot of responsibility, and Gandolfini valiantly carries the load on his enormous shoulders. When he is angry, fear is the only appropriate response; but when he is hurt, the tears can not be stopped.
1. Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers’ script is so full of small details and careful observations that it makes sense that the lead performance would be built on those same details and observations. Stuhlbarg is a well known theatre actor, and his theatre training is his greatest asset in this role. His voice has so many distinct levels to it, and he uses every one to convey the fear, anxiety, and anger over the utter incomprehensibility of what his character experiences. And, his face, my god, his face-- it is so wonderfully expressive. His furrowed brow, his wrinkled nose, his pursed lips, every emotion that can be felt lurks just below the surface, waiting to be given form. Stuhlbarg gives them form and oh so much more. Every viewing of this film reveals new depths to the performance. They are all worth cherishing.