January 29, 2011

Best overlooked and underappreciated performances of 2010

It's that time again...for me to complain about what everyone got wrong! Not really. But I realized that I've developed this now annual tradition because come awards season, I never feel like I have anything terribly compelling to add to the discourse. For as much as people hate on the awards circuit, they get a lot of things right, and at this point I hardly have any worthwhile contributions on the terrific work of Bale, Bening, et al. So instead I'll continue to champion the lesser-known underdogs and point out some of my favorite performances of the year that flew under the radar. Some went completely unnoticed, others got attention but no awards. Once again, I offer my disclaimer that these are not necessarily replacements or alternatives for this year's batch of nominees/winners - just ones I think deserve more love. 


Ben Stiller as the titular Greenberg
Stiller is actually a talented actor when he puts his mind to it, which is basically never. Seemingly content to churn out Night at the Museum and Fockers sequels for the rest of his life, he came out of nowhere to deliver a career-best performance as the neurotic and wholly unlikable Greenberg. The film was a divisive one that raised questions about the need for likability in protagonists, with audiences so dismayed by the character's self-destructive behavior that they were booing and demanding refunds. That's an absurd and limiting viewpoint, and those who could get past it were rewarded by a rich, subtle, and hilarious performance that made the midlife crisis seem fresh again.

Patrick Wilson as Barry Munday
This is one of those films that would be completely forgotten while viewing it if not for the overwhelmingly charismatic performance of its lead. Wilson is an actor I've been championing for years, with bona fide talent to back up his blinding attractiveness. The film is a kookier, darker Knocked Up, with Wilson essentially playing a loser who doesn't identify himself as such and is just trying to make the best of any situation. A wholly lovable lead in a fluff movie...stars have been born from less.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2
Look, whiners: you know why everybody says that the Iron Man sequel is inferior to the original? Because the element of surprise was gone - the "wait huh Downey is a superhero I thought he was still in rehab and Gwyneth Paltrow is actually kind of sassy and appealing and Favreau is directing the hell out of this whaaaaaa AWESOME!". Instead, they crammed the sequel with enough character development to fill a dozen superhero flicks. I'll steal a line from my boyfriend's review on his blog: that the writers came up with "the great conceit that just because a narcissistic, live-for-the-moment playboy has become a superhero doesn't mean he isn't still narcissistic and unable to confront the real, pressing issues in front of him." We were stunned and delighted when the second-act low point came not from the nefarious plans of an antagonist, but from Tony's own flaws. And even with all this going on, Downey still maintains the sprightliness of Cary Grant. (And for those who complained that Iron Man outshone the villains, isn't that a good thing? Didn't you complain that the villains in The Dark Knight snatched the rug out from under Batman? No pleasing you people.)

Michael Douglas as Ben Kalmen in Solitary Man
The two things that Michael Douglas got attention for this year were throat cancer and his revival of the Gordon Gekko role, respectively. Less conspicuous, then, was his terrific work in this little indie, which is hardly original but boasts a great cast giving it their all. As the solitary man himself, Douglas spends nearly the whole film's running time digging himself deeper into a hole (he starts out pretty deep already) and making bad, self-destructive decisions. His interactions with supporting players like Jesse Eisenberg, Susan Sarandon, and Imogen Poots enrich the character and make you remember why everyone likes him as an actor. He puts up a solid struggle against the audience's sympathy, but wins it anyway.

Jim Carrey as Steven Russell in I Love You, Philip Morris
I'm so glad that this film finally debuted stateside after over a year of delays - it's hilarious, outrageous and even rather sweet. You get kind of immune to the phrase "based on the incredible true story" after it's abused by very believable movies about underdog sports teams, but trust me when I say this is one of the most unbelievable stories I have ever seen. It concerns the affairs, escapades and numerous jailbreaks of a gay con man played adroitly by Carrey, channeling his typical comedic elasticity into his portrayal of this glib genius (Russell has a rumored IQ of 163). Carrey can really knock it out of the park when he's not just phoning it in for paychecks, and here he's found a role that seems positively written for him.


Greta Gerwig as Florence in Greenberg
I haven't extensively explored the oft-maligned "mumblecore" genre, but if history relegates it to nothing more than a training ground for talents like Gerwig, that'll still be a pretty good legacy. Much as her costar Stiller breathes new life into the midlife crisis-ing male archetype, Gerwig rejuvenates the manic pixie dream girl as a figure with her own concerns and dreams. Sure, she helps shake Greenberg out of his funk, but she's pretty damaged herself (although thankfully, not from excessively dramatic life circumstances but rather just the typical pitfalls of the aimless soul). Plus, she's got great comedic timing.

Emma Stone as Olive in Easy A
I was skeptical when I first saw advertising for this film, seeing nothing to differentiate it from other nondescript high school comedies. But following the trail of good reviews it received, I saw it in theaters and was pleasantly surprised. My boyfriend said that the resonance and success of similar movies comes from having a protagonist that the audience wants to be. I guess I never quite clicked with the Brat Pack films because the characters were too one-dimensional to be relatable - I mean, Ferris Bueller is cool, but in the cartoony way that Bugs Bunny is. Olive, on the other hand, is incredibly smart and witty (without being a nerd stereotype), has a great relationship with her awesome family, and doesn't need any kind of "makeover" from the film except to boost her own self-respect. Stone plays the character with a great, fresh energy that should rightly propel her into the ranks of leading lady.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I haven't seen the other two)
Rapace's performance(s) was hardly overlooked in the traditional sense - it won her a slew of awards in Sweden, sent Hollywood scrambling after her and inspired an American remake of the first film. Yet come awards time, everyone was curiously silent. I'm sure it doesn't help that the films themselves are not Typical Oscar Material, and they're foreign-language ones to boot. But that's a shame, because Rapace burst through the narrow mold of femininity that American films pull from and presented a fierce, brilliant, aggressive, and unusual-looking woman constantly fighting to stay afloat. The "tattoo" scene (not pertaining to the dragon tattoo, but I'll leave it at that), among others, is one of the most dynamite of the year, but I know that due to ratings restrictions the remake is going to have to be a lot tamer. So kudos to Sweden, for letting their actresses "go there."


Paul Rudd as George in How Do You Know
This movie isn't all that good, but it's not the train wreck some critics are making it out to be - I think it would be an ideal movie to watch on a plane, for instance. But Rudd continues his decades-long streak as one of Hollywood's most affable second bananas, bringing charm and even a dash of pathos to a movie that hardly deserves him. I've been a huge fan of Rudd for years - sure, he's no Brando, but he can really light up a room. And he really makes the tepid dialogue dance - the Play-Doh scene, for example, would probably have just fallen apart in someone else's hands.

Harrison Ford as Mike Pomeroy in Morning Glory
It's almost hard to believe that the charismatic Han Solo of the Star Wars trilogy is the same person who's been sulking through bland thrillers for years now. His attempts to play grim-faced determination have just come off as cranky. But romantic comedy director Roger Michell, of all people, seems to have figured out what to do with the 21st-century Ford: poke fun at his grouchiness. Ford plays a once-great news anchor reluctantly roped into hosting a morning show, and displays surprisingly adept comic skills in mocking his recent screen persona. He evens brings back some of that old charm to serve as the linchpin in the surprisingly sweet finale.

Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network - Frankly, I'm surprised that the awards-givers aren't all over this...a singer in a flashy supporting role? Jennifer Hudson, anyone? Timberlake clearly has a blast gnawing on Aaron Sorkin's delicious dialogue and playing a pretty outrageous true-life figure, proving equally adept when Parker starts to break down near the end. The only real indication of his acting prowess prior to this film was his lamentably infrequent appearances on SNL, but here he proves that he could pursue this path if he so desired. 


Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang in The Ghost Writer
Making it onto my list for the second year in a row is the consistently wonderful Williams. To call her a bright spot in this amiable but unexceptional thriller is an understatement; she's nothing short of a supernova. Ruth is a woman of contradictions: confident but jealous, straightforward but secretive. At first she just seems like another stereotypical political wife, but Williams is great at peeling back the layers to show how complicated and dynamic the character really is.

Michelle Williams as Dolores in Shutter Island
It's already hard to discuss a twisty film like this in much detail and keep things spoiler-free, so praising Williams' brief but crucial screen time is nearly impossible. I can tell you that she plays the main character's deceased wife and is seen only in flashback - and that's about it. Just watch it already...as if you need another reason to see this fantastic and underrated film.

Jemima Kirke as Charlotte in Tiny Furniture
The film itself is pretty insufferable - it starts as a spot-on satire of New York cliches, but then goes down in flames when it tries to make you care about its one-dimensional, poorly acted characters. It's a cast of "non-actors," which I don't mind as long as they're watchable, but everyone on screen seems uncomfortable and downright...itchy. The lone bright spot in this mess is perfectly calibrated Kirke, who nails her every punchline like a pro while everyone around her trips over theirs. She plays a daffy, ditzy sidekick whose earnestness and good intentions leave the audience no choice but to love her.

Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass
It's a shame that so many audience members couldn't get past the fact that an 11-year-old girl was saying "the C word," because that's really unfair to the immense skill that Moretz displays here. Her physical performance alone is staggering - my understanding is that she did a fair share of her own stunts, and over the course of the film she takes out at least a football team's worth of grown men. Her performance is hardly subtle - it's demented pop art, and it's all the more impressive that someone of her precocious age can work on that wavelength.


Ensemble Award: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
The awards circuit has been honoring films like The Town, The Social Network and The Fighter for their ensembles, and while all those films have terrific casts, each of them still rests primarily on just a few characters. Scott Pilgrim presents a different type of ensemble, which became clear when I tried to single out some of its performances for special mention - and couldn't. This thing is a well-oiled machine, with each cog seeking no greater glory than the make the film as a whole run. It's cast to perfection, down to the tiniest part - I lamented afterwards that I wanted it to be longer, just to afford all of these great talents more screen time. Names like Anna Kendrick (fresh off an Oscar nomination) and Chris Evans (our future Captain America) show up for mere minutes, and the film is better for it.

Dynamic Duo: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson in Easy A
At first I was going to honor Tucci and Clarkson separately in the respective his and hers categories, but I realized that that would be missing the point. As the lovable dropped-a-bit-too-much-acid-in-the-60s parents of high schooler Olive, they have an energy and chemistry that makes it seem like they've been married for years (it probably helps that they also played a couple in 2007's Blind Date). The power of their performances hangs in the air between them. How come it really took this long to have parents in a teen movie that are ridiculously sweet, supportive, and hilarious?

So there you have it. What are your favorite overlooked/underappreciated performances of the year?


Unknown said...

I would argue that Chloe Moretz gave a better performance in Let Me In, than in Kick Ass.

Of course, I have to ask if any one else would agree that Let Me In was an American remake of a foreign film that had the odd distinction of having better acting and worse special effects than it's inspiration.

joem18b said...

nice post. i immediately want to respond with my own list when i read one of these "best of" articles... but it's hard to remember what i've seen, especially going back 12 months. :(

do you keep track through the year, so that you can just go back and collect the results, or check a list of 2010 movies and cudgel your brains, or what? i need a system.

Julie said...

I do have a system for keeping track - I'm dating him! As it happens, my boyfriend compulsively tracks every new release movie he sees, and since we see almost all of them together it makes it pretty easy. In lieu of stealing my boyfriend, though, I'd recommend that you go to boxofficemojo.com and click on their release schedule where you can view releases month by month for a given year.

joem18b said...

aha. i thought of a majorly overlooked and underappreciated performance that i enjoyed in 2010: claire danes in "temple grandin."

Julie said...

Yeah, I've been meaning to see that...not to rain on your parade though, but Danes won both the Emmy and the Golden Globe for that. About as good as it gets for a TV movie.