December 24, 2009

Best forgotten and overlooked performances of 2009

There's a certain blank-slate magic in the air before movie awards season, when everything is fair game. Praises are sung in the moment. But then it gets to the end of the year, and for starters, the first three-quarters of the year in film are almost completely forgotten. Then, one critics' group will come forward with their picks. And another. Momentum builds for certain films and performances. And then it gets to a point where it becomes hard to deviate from the status quo. Thankfully, I feel that 2009 has been a pretty rich year for film, which has led to less of a consensus (I mean, obviously films and people emerge as frontrunners, but opinions are more divided this year). In the course of this snowballing, performances get lost. Maybe they were earlier in the year, they weren't seen by enough people, or they were just somehow overlooked, but for some reason they're not cropping up with distinctions and awards even though they completely deserve it. I've compiled a list of what I feel are the overlooked/forgotten performances of the year. Now, I want to be completely clear: I'm not saying that these are necessarily better than the performances getting all the recognition. In most cases, I don't think they should yank the rug out from under the Clooneys and the Streeps (in other cases, definitely!).

Best Actress

Rachel Weisz as Penelope Stamp in The Brothers Bloom
Cinema has its share of man-children, but women-children are a lot harder to come by (specifically, ones that are just naive but without a mental illness). Enter Penelope: she's brilliant and cultured, but has never left the house. Once two charming con men take her into their world, she opens up and takes the audience on her crazy ride. Weisz throws herself into the role with wild abandon - she actually learned a staggering array of instruments, sports, and talents for the part, and has great all-the-way moments like frantically humping the floor with a childlike declaration of "I'm horny!" (The fact that I found that scene funny and endearing instead of disturbing should make my point.)

Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds
Virtually absent from the film's trailer but really its driving force, Laurent's breakthrough performance is a knockout. Maybe audiences didn't see the true genius because she spends so much of the film speaking through gritted teeth and guarding her secrets for dear life, which isn't as immediately impressive as hardcore scenery chewing. But it snakes into your brain and stays there, right down to the iconic image of her maniacally laughing black and white face on a movie screen consumed with flames. I'd say the performance echoes Al Pacino in The Godfather.

Maya Rudolph as Verona in Away We Go
We all know the familiar story of a woman trying to free an emotionally stunted man from his shell. But what happens when the gender roles are reversed, and a happy-go-lucky man tries to do that for his girlfriend? Rudolph shows us beautifully, starting with an indignant smack to her boyfriend's head when he suggests she might be pregnant to some candid and completely unforced personal moments. She goes beyond being a funny lady from SNL, and then some.

Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski in Sunshine Cleaning
Adams has virtually conquered the market on adorable - from perky pregnant southerners to princesses (she's even kind of a cute nun). Her persona is put to perfect use in this bittersweet comedy, where she applies a touching sincerity to what would be unbearably hokey in the hands of a less capable actress (she talks to her dead mother on a CB radio, for god's sake!).

Best Supporting Actress

Samantha Morton as Olivia Pitterson in The Messenger
Morton may be kind of nuts in real life (there are strong indications that she lied about having a stroke), but on screen, she aways delivers. As a newly widowed army wife, she's not glamorous, but she's real. In a series of hypnotic long takes, she lays her heart bare in a much more candid and real way than, say, Halle Berry's hysteric thrashing and screaming in Monster's Ball. I found myself hanging on her every word, literally entranced.

Olivia Williams as Miss Stubs in An Education
I wanted to like this movie, but I just didn't get what the fuss was about. Sure, it was solid, but I didn't feel it was anything special. All the attention has been lavished on star Carey Mulligan, but Williams, in a great supporting performance, has been ignored. I lamented not seeing Williams more after her amazing work as another teacher, Miss Cross, in Rushmore, and here she brings a quiet intensity to her interplay with Mulligan's Jenny that plays like a dramatic version of Cady's relationship to Miss Norbury in Mean Girls. (I know it's not a very highbrow example, but they are completely identical.)

Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Cavendar in Whip It
For as formulaic as this film got, one sharp and welcome deviation from formula was the main character's mother. So often in these teen sports movies, the mother is a shrieking caricature whose sole purpose on earth is to prevent their teenage daughter from participating in her sport of choice for completely arbitrary reasons. But Marcia Gay Harden is better than that. She's excelled in supporting roles in films like Pollock and Mystic River, and she brings the same elegant and multidimensional approach to this role. She's a real person, a real mother, and you find yourself agreeing with her a lot of the time. I also want to give a shoutout to Kristen Wiig and her role as Maggie Mayhem in the same film; much of my praise is the same. In a beautifully understated scene, Wiig tells our spunky protagonist that her mom might be right, but in a way that never feels preachy.

Best Actor

Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon
I'm not alone in gunning for Sam as Sam - there's a lot of support, including an online petition, to get him an Oscar nomination. After all, how often do you see a film featuring one actor playing multiple versions of a slightly different character...who interact with each other...successfully? I can't think of another. Moon is a great film all around, but without the anchoring performance it would fall apart. Rockwell is compulsively watchable in everything, and this introspective sci-fi odyssey is no exception.

Nicolas Cage as Terry McDonagh in Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog understands the truth about Nicolas Cage: if you want to get anything out of him as an actor, you have to let him run around and be crazy. He doesn't do subtle, he does crazy. Frankly, from early reviews I was expecting a lot more crazy, but there are still plenty of deliriously pleasurable moments to be had. From Cage's inexplicably Jimmy Stewart-sounding voice when he's high to random and over-the-top sex acts. It's funny, weird, disturbing, and sad.

Tom Hardy as the title character in Bronson
Quick, name a performance from this year that featured extremely large amounts of body painting, bizarre makeup, yelling, fighting, and full-frontal male nudity. There is only one answer - and that alone should give you a hint as to how bold this performance as Britain's most violent prisoner is. Plenty of actors can do psychopath, but rarely in such an extravagant, immersive, comical, and brave way. To further prove his chops, Hardy is just as good in psychotic prison scenes as he is when demonstrating his profound discomfort at normal social interaction in the "real" world. This is usually the gonzo stuff that award-givers love, but maybe it was underseen or just too out there, which is really a shame. If nothing else, they love the award physical transformation for a role, and this one rivals any I've ever seen.

Michael Sheen as Brian Clough in The Damned United
I could always tell that Michael Sheen was a talented actor, but in the first few roles I saw him in I felt like he wasn't being given enough to work with. He was pretty good in The Queen, but it was Helen Mirren's show. He was pretty good in Frost/Nixon, though the character wasn't very fleshed out and Frank Langella had the flashier part. In TDU, he finally got his chance to shine. At first nothing seems extraordinary, and then you realize a) that Sheen has become the character so fully that nothing even seems like acting, and b) that a man that just seemed cocky actually created a fierce sports empire driven by nothing other than his own selfish ambition. Combine those two factors and you get a compulsively watchable, egotistical asshole. That you root for.

Adam Sandler as George Simmons in Funny People
I am not one of the many who threw popcorn at the screen during Funny People because there was not a suitable sex-joke-per-minute ratio. It's a drama, people. And while I definitely thought it was uneven, it had great elements like Adam Sandler's performance as George. Wistful, sad, and autobiographical, Apatow managed to tap the same depths in Sandler that Paul Thomas Anderson did in Punch-Drunk Love.

Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in The Informant!
Okay yes, technically this performance is getting buzz, but I don't understand why it's not a "given" like Clooney or Bridges on the lists. Maybe because it's funnier and more bizarre, and hardly the archetype of awards bait. But god dang it, that's what makes it great! Damon's Whitacre has such a fractured mind (from bipolar disorder) that he can compartmentalize everything in his life to the point where there is no overlap. When he lies (as he does often), it's unclear whether he believes it or not. Often, in movies featuring a constantly lying character, the audience knows the truth. Not here. Damon strings us along, pulling us into Whitacre's mind with hilarious interior monologues on subjects ranging from word pronunciations to polar bears that occur when he zones out. Damon has the advantage of being an actor with no defined persona, so he can seamlessly slip into roles like this one.

Best Supporting Actor

Christian McKay as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles
McKay had plenty of practice playing the larger-than-life Welles - he did so in a fruitful run of a one-man show. The tricky part of playing a real person, especially one as dynamic as Welles, is elevating the performance above mere impersonation. McKay achieves this by toying with the characters and the audience just like the real Welles did - like Welles' out-there documentary F for Fake, you never know when he's telling the truth or being genuine. Similarly, McKay's Welles is just as slippery with sincerity, which makes him a treat to watch.

Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman in A Serious Man
The Coen universe is dotted with wonderfully absurd characters, and Sy Ableman marks another one of their great creations. Condescending and slimy but with a strangely soothing presence, his contribution to this deadpan experience is capped by his brilliantly serious delivery of the line, "I think, really, the Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action." Ableman is a serious man, all right - a seriousness that leads to absurdity that brings the funny.

Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen
Brad Pitt was nominated for a Golden Globe and Oscar for creating a character with insane technology in
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - and yes, the finished result was visually impressive, but I found the character and performance to be pretty bland. Why not reward a successful fusion of the two? Dr. Manhattan is great to look at, of course, but Crudup pulls off the incredible feat of conveying a superhuman being that knows and can do absolutely everything, but has no attachments to this world and exists beyond emotion. Just as Dr. Manhattan exists on infinite planes of being, so does Crudup's performance.

Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach in Watchmen
On the other side of the Watchmen spectrum is someone too emotional. Haley - after a buzzed-about comeback in Little Children and with his upcoming role as Freddy Krueger - might become permanently typecast as a psychopath/creeper, but I'd probaby pay to watch it every time. He is unrelenting, merciless, and sometimes even right. There's a reason that Rorschach is, as my boyfriend claims, a fan favorite, and Haley brought all those conflicting reasons to life.

Special Mention: The cast of Humpday - Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore
I'm singling this film out because it's awesome, and there's no reason that it couldn't have been a totally accessible hit like I Love You, Man except for lack of a huge marketing budget and a fear of indies. I had heard of the mumblecore movement before but never really explored it, and hell, if it just means talky scenes that are hilarious, improvised and unbelievably realistic, consider me a fan. Delmore, as the wife of a completely straight man (Leonard) who is considering having onscreen sex with his best male friend (Duplass), has a series of amazingly profound scenes where she and her husband grapple with what love means in the 21st century. That sounds like a drag, but it's fresh, honest, and often funny. Duplass and Leonard have great bro-chemistry in their escalating dare. The three of them work together for a sense of realism that's never dull (i.e. if the word realism scares you because it makes you think of Italian Neorealism with really long shots of "the common man" shining his shoes). SEE IT!

Special thanks to my boyfriend and his blog, The Rail of Tomorrow, for helping me remember why I liked things.

The Oscar nominations will be announced February 2nd. Maybe they'll wise up and nominate some of the above.

Do you agree? Then what are your favorite forgotten/overlooked performances of the year?


filmgeek said...

Interesting list. I'd like to add a shout out for Paul Schneider for his supporting roles in Away We Go and Bright Star. I think he's incredibly under-appreciated

Scott said...

Paul Schneider is one of the best actors out there, and one of the only reasons I hung on for the entire first season of Parks and Recreation (luckily, the second season really turned around).

He was really damn good in Away We Go (the whole cast was, come to think of it) and Bright Star - I heard an interview with Jane Campion, and she said when it came time for his big scene with Ben Whishaw, he just sort of casually said, "so I'm gonna try something here..." and then he just unleashed that. Masterful.

filmgeek said...

Couldn't agree more

Rachel said...

hi julie, this is rachel finn i was routed to your blog from scott's and i just noticed the rachel weisz, "brothers bloom" bit. which completely reminded me how much i loved her in that movie, absolutely charming, and "woman-child", perfect.

Davey Morrison said...

Good list. I'd toss in Max Records in "Where the Wild Things Are," who gave maybe the most honest child performance I've ever seen in my life ever. Heck, one of the most honest performances by any performer ever. Maybe three minutes into the movie, when he's crying after his snow fort gets crushed--man, I was ready to sob. I rarely cry in movies. I don't think I've ever cried three minutes into a movie. Not even "Up." Records, Cage, and Rockwell were the three best male leading performances of the year for me, though probably none of them will be nominated.

Also, good call on "A Serious Man." Sy Ableman is a brilliant creation. An incredible movie all around.

Julie said...

Ugh, I know, "Where The Wild Things Are" is a distressing gap in my 2009 viewings due to circumstances beyond my control. I'm gonna catch it soon though, I swear!