Now for my favorite lead roles of the year. These roles are on screen enough to make or break a movie. If they're bad, they can ruin an experience and, if they're good, it's much easier to overlook a movie's flaws. Here are the performances that made mediocre movies enjoyable, good movies more compelling, or were essential elements in great movies.
Colin Farrell, In Bruges: So beneath the bad-boy antics lies a great actor. This movie was fun if not spectacular, but Farrell had the best moments and owned his screentime in a hilarious yet somehow poignant performance. His two essential monologues (one where you find out his original crime, and his final monologue, are great.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road: Plays his tricky character with the right mix of charm, guilt, and lost dreams. Plays his entirely believable character arc very well. After The Aviator, The Departed, and this, can we finally call this former Tiger Beat cover model one of our most consistently good actors?
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor: Great to see this character actor (perhaps best known for his role on Six Feet Under) get to be the star of the show. He gives a beautiful performance as an emotionally closed economics professor opening himself to all kinds of life's pains and joys. Bonus points for 2008: very funny in Burn After Reading.
Sean Penn, Milk: Penn takes Harvey Milk and, without imitation or obvious stereotyping, makes a three-dimensional character out of him. There are many ways this performance could have gone wrong, but Penn does everything right. The best performance by one of my very favorite actors.
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler: Perfectly cast as a washed-up wrestler looking for redemption. A physically and emotionally demanding role. I'm not sure if this role will cause a resurgence in his career, or if this performance is a "one-trick pony" (like Randy the Ram), but nevertheless this performance will continue to be remembered and celebrated.
My favorite performance: Sean Penn
Runner-Up performance: Mickey Rourke
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married: Gives a complex performance as the force of nature sister whose visit to her sister's wedding throws the family into turmoil. Hathaway never makes the cheap easy choices that would gain obvious sympathy points, yet by the end of the movie the audience cares more about Kym precisely because of her brokenness and complexity.
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky: Has the incredibly difficult role of playing a character who is not only the main character, but also a sort of living treatise of the movie's philosophy. Director Mike Leigh allows his actors to improvise much of their roles, and Hawkins does an astonishing job. Poppy, the irrepressibly happy elementary school teacher, is one of the most memorable characters of recent years.
Melissa Leo, Frozen River: I was no superfan of this fairly predictable indie movie, but Leo captured my attention every second she was on screen. A powerhouse as a tough as nails working-class mom willing to fight for her piece of the pie.
Meryl Streep, Doubt: While at times her performance as Sister Aloysisus threatened to descend into caricature (and, OK, maybe the ending did), Streep expertly fleshes out her character to provide both humor and real emotion. Another great performance by (in my mind) one of the two greatest modern actresses. The other one being....
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road: To my mind, Winslet's performance here was a touch more accomplished than her excellent award-winning role in The Reader. I would have put both in my top 5, but I decided to limit myself to one appearance per actor. Watching Winslet as April Wheeler is spellbinding. There's not a moment where Winslet is not truly living the dark emotions of her character.
My favorite performance: Sally Hawkins
Runner-Up: Kate Winslet