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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Best Performances of the "00s": Actress

Finishing up my look back at the past decade (2000-2009), here are my favorite performances by some extremely talented lead actresses.

Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream (2000)

In Darren Arronfsky's tour-de-force of human misery, Burstyn's portrayal of the lonely, painkiller-addicted widow Sara Goldfarb is perhaps the heart of the movie. So remarkable.

Check out this monologue for an example of Burstyn's greatness.

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Is there a more lovable and singular performance this decade? Hawkins constantly teeters on the edge of annoying in her performance as Poppy, but we can't help but fall in love with her. In the end, it's Hawkins' performance that gives this movie so much added depth.

Nicole Kidman, Dogville (2003)

I wavered between picking Kidman's charismatic performance in Moulin Rogue or this emotionally wrenching portrait of Grace, a woman on the run in a small town which quickly turns sinister. Kidman, who has a striking charisma when put in the right roles, runs the gamut of emotions in this emotionally raw film from provocateur Lars Von Trier. Here's an early scene between Kidman and Paul Bettany, also great in the movie.
-Besides the aforementioned Moulin Rogue (2002), the other Kidman performance I liked best this decade was probably in Birth (2004). She won her Oscar for The Hours (2002), where I think her performance is good rather than great.

Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me (2000)

I think Laura Linney is a true acting treasure. I've never seen her in a performance that felt false or forced. Linney is hilarious, touching, and a perfect partner for Mark Ruffalo in this great film. Nuanced and true-to-life sibling relationships seem so rare on film, and this is surely one of the best.
-I also loved Linney's lead performance in The Savages (2007) and her supporting roles in The House of Mirth (2000), Kinsey (2004), and The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006)

This performance was probably the most awarded of any actress performance this decade, and for good reason. Mirren goes far beyond mere imitation to create a truly deep and nuanced portrayal of a chilly character in Stephen Frears' highly engaging political drama.

Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven (2002)

Todd Haynes' 2002 movie is simply stunning, and it wouldn't work without a perfect lead performance, which he gets from Moore. Her performance has to both play for style (as the whole movie is filmed as a 1950s-era melodrama) and for real, so the audience connects fully with the emotions. She's perfect.
-While Moore is one of my favorite actresses, I'm surprised by how few of her best performances are in the 2000s. Besides this performance, I love her most in Boogie Nights (1997), Safe (1995), and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).

Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake (2004)

As a good-natured, but also naive, amateur abortionist, Imelda Staunton is perfection. Director and writer Mike Leigh (who also directed Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky) partners with Staunton to create a quietly powerful performance.

Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)

Oscar gets a bad wrap for too-often awarding actresses playing real people and beautiful actresses who make themselves ugly. Theron certainly fits both categories, but damn this is one hell of a performance. Theron is so emotionally raw in an already difficult movie, it would be hard for me ever to sit through the whole thing again.

Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive (2001)

Watts probably gets my vote for favorite actress performance of the decade. As Betty/Diane, Watts has to show two completely different personalities. She's so successful that some viewers didn't even realize it was the same actress. Watts also has to play with cliche and archetype in this mind-twister, and she succeeds on every possible level.

Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Kate is my favorite actress, bar none. As Clementine, Winslet is quite simply the heart and soul of my favorite movie of the decade. Better known at the time for her British period dramas, it's surprising that Winslet was chosen for this role, but she is absolutely perfect.
-I loved so much of Winslet's work this decade. As good as she was in her Oscar-winning role in The Reader (2008), I actually think her work is stronger in Little Children (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008). She also gave a great supporting performance in Iris (2001).

Looking at this list, my tastes diverged from Oscar a bit. Only two of these performances won (Mirren and Theron), while Watts, Kidman, and Hawkins were not even nominated for these great roles. As these actresses age, I hope the movie world continues to find great roles for their talents.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Best Performances of the "00s": Actor

Before Oscar season explodes in full force, I thought I'd continue with my look back at the past decade. Here are my picks for the 10 most revelatory, affecting, skillful performances by lead actors.

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (2007)

I'm writing these in alphabetical order, but I'm sure glad Daniel ended up at the top of the heap where he rightly belongs. I don't think there was another performance last decade as audacious, strange, and brave as Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis carries this whole film on his back, and he is absolutely unforgettable.
-Also Oscar worthy in Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002).

Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson (2006)

Gosling gets my vote for the most promising actor of his generation. As Dan Dunne, a committed but drug-addicted middle school teacher who develops a close relationship with a student, Gosling gave a performance lacking any false notes or histrionics.
-Gosling was also so moving and natural in a completely different role in Lars and the Real Girl (2007). I can't wait to see what he does with Blue Valentine, which releases soon.

Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ledger is the only actor who makes both my supporting and lead lists for different roles this decade. What else to say about this actor we lost far too young? With Brokeback and The Dark Knight, I think Ledger qualifies as this generation's James Dean. It's amazing that he was only 25 when this astonishing performance was filmed.

Viggo Mortenson, A History of Violence (2005)

While his most-seen work this decade was in The Lord of the Rings movies, Mortenson's most brilliant work was with director David Cronenberg. As a small-town man with the past Tom Stall, Mortenson gives a brilliantly layered performance.
-Also terrific as a Russian mobster in Eastern Promises and of course in those movies about some hobbits or something.....

Bill Murray, Lost in Translation (2003)

I've seen this performance more than any other on this list, and I grow more in love with it every time. As washed-up movie actor Bob Harris, Murray creates a hilarious and lonely portrait of a lost soul without ever going even the teeniest bit over-the-top.

Edward Norton, 25th Hour (2002)

Spike Lee's post-9/11 New York movie is perhaps one of the most overlooked great movies of the decade. As Monty Brogan, a drug dealer about to be sent to jail, Norton gives a deeply emotional performance that ties the whole beautiful movie together. Just watch this brilliant scene, which is filled with hate but is subtextually a mournful love letter to the city he's leaving.

Sean Penn, Mystic River (2003)

As grieving and angry father Jimmy Markum, I don't think Penn has ever been better, and he's certainly one of our best actors. He turns one man's sorrow into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
-I almost chose Penn's performance in Milk. As much as I loved Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, I was firmly on team Penn in Oscar Race 2008.

Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me (2000)

I don't think there's ever been a brother-sister duo as beautifully acted and felt as Laura Linney and Ruffalo in Ken Lonergan's lovely movie. His first big role, and I still don't know why he's not a biggest star.
-Also great in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I'm also rooting for a Supporting Actor nomination (win??) for this year's The Kids Are All Right.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005)

Yes, Hoffman does a wonderful imitation of Truman Capote. But he goes so much deeper than that, giving us a multi-faceted view of a character who is simultaneously an outcast and an insider.
-I also loved Hoffman's work in Almost Famous (2000), 25th Hour (2002), The Savages (2008), and Synecdoche, NY (2008).

Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom (2001)

Matt Fowler is a very different grieving father from Sean Penn's Jimmy Markum, but his deep sadness may be even more felt by the viewer. His performance has to be great so that the surprising twists of this domestic drama ring true, and it is.
-I also loved Wilkinson in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Michael Clayton (2007)

Oscar did a pretty good job of recognizing my favorites. While only 3 won the grand prize (Day-Lewis, Penn, and Hoffman), all except Edward Norton and Viggo Mortenson were nominated, and Mortenson was nominated for Eastern Promises.

I'm also struck by the darkness of these portraits. Several killers, a couple grieving fathers, and a few substance abusers. Looking at the group, I'm also excited for their future work. Most of these actors make good choices in their roles, and I have a feeling many of them will be filling out the Oscar slots for years to come.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Town and Fair Game

The Town

Is working-class, Irish Catholic South Boston one of the most ubiquitous movie locales of the past decade or so? It's not hard to see why. Tribal loyalties, drugs and violence, an ethnic enclave slowly changing, and one of the best accents in the country. Add to the already crowded Southie team Ben Affleck's second directorial effort, The Town. It's a worthy addition to the field.

The Town is a perfect example of a really well-made genre movie. Its plot is fairly simple. A group of bank robbers (led by Doug, played by Ben Affleck) rob a bank and take a hostage during the robbery (Claire, played by Rebecca Hall). In order to make sure the hostage doesn't remember them, Doug checks up on Claire and they of course start a relationship. What elevates this story is some really great performances and some truly engaging chase and robbery scenes. I'm not usually a huge fan of Affleck's, but he was very strong in this movie. I think he could have used a bit more of a harder edge, but all in all I liked him. I absolutely love Rebecca Hall in everything she's done (especially Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Please Give), and she does a very nice job adding depth to a somewhat underwritten character (think Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting). The best performance in the movie is given by Jeremy Renner as Jem, the extremely violent and unpredictable friend to Affleck's character. Renner, who was so astonishing in The Hurt Locker, proves himself as an actor again. I wouldn't be surprised to see another Oscar nomination for him. Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite are also terrific as always in limited roles as older members of the crime community.

So how does The Town stack up compared to its Boston forbears? It doesn't have the air of epic tragedy you got from Mystic River, nor the audacious violence and energy of The Departed, so I wouldn't put it in the company of those two great movies. I do think it's a bit stronger than Affleck's previous Boston movie, Gone Baby Gone, which I also liked but didnt' seem as cohesive. Affleck is a capable director who knows how to tell a good story and shoot a great action sequence. My biggest problem with the film is probably the ending. I loved the almost-ending (to avoid spoilers, I'll just say involving Rebecca Hall on the phone), but thought the scene after that was a bit hard to believe (Rebecca Hall in her garden plot).

In a year that's looking a little weak for 10 Best Picture nominees, I even think The Town, which has been a hit, has a chance at a Best Picture nomination. It's solid entertainment, and I'd recommend it to anyone.

Grade: B+

Fair Game

If you asked me my favorite performance by an actress during the past decade, I'd probably say Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. If you asked me my favorite by an actor, Sean Penn's turns in Mystic River and Milk would certainly rank high. Give me a movie starring Watts and Penn, and I'm there.

Fair Game is the story of the Valarie Plame/Joe Wilson saga. For the first hour, the movie was terrific. It follows Plame's actions as a CIA agent, Wilson's trip to Niger to investigate uranium tubes, and how the Bush administration's thirst for war led to vicious backstabbing. The first hour of the movie is gripping, intense, and brings back the anger so many of us felt in the nation's rush to war.

The last 45 minutes of Fair Game deals more with the fallout from Plame's outing as a CIA agent, especially the effect on the couple's marriage. This material felt a little thin to me, and I don't think it lived up to the first hour. We still care about the characters, mostly because of the very strong performances.

Fair Game is the a movie that is engaging and highly watchable, but doesn't stand out as great. I don't see it playing much of a role in the Oscar race this year.

Grade: B