As a follow-up to my Top 10 of 2008, here are my favorite performances of the year, or the performances I would have nominated for Oscars. I find supporting performances fascinating. At their best, they make me want to watch a new movie with them as a protagonist. These are the performances where they light up the screen each time they are on and elevate the movie to another level (Heath Ledger, Viola Davis). Other supporting performances are great because they play a perfect role in a great ensemble (Eddie Marsan, Rosemarie Dewitt). However their roles play in their movies, here are 10 supporting performances I found compelling.....
Josh Brolin, Milk: Takes the villainous role of Dan White, which could be played as a cliched bigot, and turns it into a fascinating character study. Lets you see the internal struggles he goes through which leads him to his ultimate act.
Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married: Probably the most sympathetic role in the movie, the father trying to hold his family together. Natural, endearing, and responsive to the actors around him. I wasn't familiar with Irwin before this movie, but I hope he gets more roles after this movie.
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight: While I found The Dark Knight entertaining but slightly overhyped, there's no denying that Ledger's swansong is the most fascinating part of the movie. Finds the uneasy evil place inside his character and puts past superhero villains to shame. I wonder if Jack Nicholson feels angry?
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky: If Ledger is the evil side to Batman, Eddie Marsan's driving instructor is the negative worldview in opposition to Sally Hawkins' Poppy. He expertly goes head-to-head with Hawkins' performance and is one-half of what feels like the emotional and intellectual core of the movie.
Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading: As a dim-witted gym instructor, Pitt manages to stand out in a cast that includes Frances McDormand, George Clooney, and John Malkovich. Made me laugh every moment he was on screen.
My favorite: Bill Irwin
Runner-Up: Josh Brolin
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona: The Oscar-winning performance was terrific. Brings a huge dose of European humor and energy to Woody Allen's movie when she enters halfway through.
Viola Davis, Doubt: A performance that truly elevates the movie. In a few short minutes, Davis' turn as the mother of a possibly abused student adds countless layers of intellectual and emotional complexity to a movie that, before, risked being a "did-he-or-didn't-he" style mystery. Astounding.
Rosemarie Dewitt, Rachel Getting Married: As the title character, Dewitt does a beautiful job playing the counterpoint to Anne Hathaway's performance as drug addict Kym. The two do a beautiful job of showing the good and bad qualities of both sisters, so that as an audience our sympathies switch depending on the scene.
Hannah Schygulla, The Edge of Heaven: A beautifully understated performance of a somewhat distant mother who must deal with real emotions after a tragic event.
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler: Tomei takes a somewhat underwritten "stripper with a heart of gold" role and takes it new places. Moments that would seem cliched in the hands of other actresses feel emotionally truthful and beautiful.
My favorite: Viola Davis
Runner-Up: Penelope Cruz