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?

December 1, 2009

What's the point of the "awareness" documentary?

Yesterday, my boyfriend asked me if I was interested in seeing the documentary Collapse with him, which according to IMDb is "a portrait of radical thinker Michael Ruppert [who] explores his apocalyptic vision of the future, spanning the crises in economics, energy, environment and more." I declined, because, well, what's the point?

I have always had a vague problem with "crisis" documentaries that I have never really been able to put into words. I could finally crystallize my feelings after seeing the excellent The Yes Men Fix the World. The film follows the Yes Men, two men who expose hypocrisy and stupidity in corporations and the government through elaborate pranks. Think Michael Moore meets Borat. In addition to causing a stir, though, the pranks have a purpose - for instance, one of them poses as a representative of the New Orleans government and promises to reopen a public housing area, thinking the real government will be too embarassed not to follow up on it. It doesn't actually work, but they get a lot further than you'd think. Most amazingly, though, it had a hopeful ending. They pass out a fake issue of the New York Times that has optimistic headlines like "College is made free for everyone" and "war in Iraq ends" and show people reacting positively to it, and end on the basic message that if two guys can get as far as they did, anyone is truly capable of making a change.

That was it. That was why Michael Moore's films had always left a sour taste in my mouth. It wasn't because of the subject matter - the Yes Men tackled subjects like a city in India left ravaged by the effects of a chemical disaster - but that the message seemed to be "this sucks and there is nothing anyone can do to fix it." Particularly in Roger and Me, which ends on an almost snarkily ironic credits sequence that features the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Moore doesn't seem concerned with making things better, only informing people that things are terrible. And this begs the question: what's the value of just plain awareness?

I'm going to put out the bold idea that it's not worth very much. The idea is that from awareness will come action, but at least from personal experience I never find that it works that way. Moore's films (I'm just using him as an example, there are obviously others) are so depressing that they become paralyzing. You walk out of the theater feeling too bad to do anything. Usually the only thing borne from that kind of "awareness" is cocktail-party banter. "Say, did you know that the town of Flint, Michigan is falling apart at the seams? Simply dreadful! Would you like another martini?" I experienced a fundamentally different phenomenon with The Yes Men, however. By staying positive and particularly ending a positive note, the film galvanized and energized me instead of draining me. I wanted to do something. (I didn't, because I suck, but this was closer than I had gotten before.)

The other problem is that is often's unclear what viewers CAN do to make a difference. I learned in a psychology class that contrary to popular belief, human beings often don't engage in helping behavior not because they don't want to or they're heartless, but because they simply don't know how. They see a situation and keep walking because they genuinely don't know what to do and how to contribute. Thus, I think these kinds of documentaries could benefit substantially from a screen at the end that says something like "We have started a fund for the people you see in this film, go to to learn more and donate" or maybe have people with collection jars outside the theater. There's nothing wrong with guiding people and giving them a little push. It can be hard to come away from a film of that sort and immediately formulate a way to connect yourself to the cause.

Finally, an inherent problem with the "just awareness" movie is that it costs money to make. Maybe a lot of money - obviously, not an Avatar-type budget but still thousands of dollars. If this movie is not going to motivate people to help, wouldn't the money be better spent helping the cause yourself? Returning to Roger and Me, the budget on that film was an estimated $160,000. Michael Moore himself said the film was a failure because it didn't cause anyone to jump to the aid of Flint. Well, Michael, maybe that money would have been better spent on the citizens of Flint - saving families from eviction, opening a public help center, something. It could have done a lot of good. Did he think a bunch of eccentric billionaires would see it and spill open their wallets? Furthermore, Moore's stunts - asking senators if they'd send their children to Iraq, trying to track down the CEO of General Motors - don't really accomplish anything. He could have led by example, perhaps - use half the money to help the town and the other half to document it.

I want to be wrong about this. If you have stories of yourself or people you know seeing depressing crisis documentaries that motivated them to open hospitals in Africa or even shell out some cash, please tell me. But as far as I can tell, the "awareness" model should be reevaluted and those filmmakers should take a cue from the Yes Men.

What do you think?