Still with me? Then on we go…
REESE WITHERSPOON – ELECTION (1999)
Before she became an A-list star and queen of mainstream romantic comedies like Sweet Home Alabama and Just Like Heaven, Witherspoon showed a darker and more hard-edged comic sensibility in Alexander Payne’s brilliant, underseen masterpiece. Witherspoon’s career high remains her portrayal of Tracy Flick, a girl desperately seeking her school’s student council presidency and willing to secure it at any cost. The actress achieves a tricky balance with Tracy; she makes us understand and empathize with her loneliness and isolation just as easily as we understand why her civics teacher tries to destroy her dream. Most of all, she comes through with a wickedly amusing performance, instilling Tracy with fervent optimism, exhausting energy and adopting a precise, pitch-perfect vocal delivery that ties it all together like a bow. How could I not Pick Flick?
ELLEN DEGENERES – FINDING NEMO (2003)
Ellen DeGeneres’ vocal work in Finding Nemo makes Dory one of the shining stars of Pixar’s rich stable. DeGeneres not only creates a consistently hilarious character, but proves quite touching as well. The moment when she begs her traveling companion Marlin (Albert Brooks) not to abandon her…well, let me put it this way: there are only two times in my life when a fish has nearly brought me to tears. The first came when I was seven and my mother tried to make me eat filet of sole, which was completely disgusting. The second came watching a memory-addled blue fish plead with her distraught friend not to leave her. It’s Ellen DeGeneres’ vocal work that makes the moment so piercing, and she’s a big part of the reason that, for my money, Nemo remains one of Pixar’s top few films.
RALPH FIENNES – SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
Even now when I watch Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, I feel like I’m discovering him for the first time. From the moment he begins speaking, with a nasally, bell-like quality to his voice, his unflinching performance is a spellbinder. He somehow exposes the crevices of light in Goeth’s dark soul, showing that even the most evil men have their complexities and vulnerabilities, daring you to feel something more than repulsion…and succeeding. Whether Goeth is shooting Jews for sport from his balcony or trying to embrace the foreign concept of showing mercy, Fiennes holds you rapt at every moment.
WARREN BEATTY – BULWORTH (1998)
Jay Billington Bulworth
People often talk about how brave a performance is because a beautiful actor appears in unflattering makeup or with none at all in order to shed Hollywood glamour and play someone “real.” Here’s what I think constitutes bravery in mainstream film: a 60 year-old, silver spoon-fed white dude co-writing, directing and starring in a movie about a U.S. Senator who at one point tells a church full of disgruntled African-American constituents that if they “don’t put down that malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind somebody other than a running back who stabs his wife” they’ll never have real support from politicians. That’s just one of the audacious nuggets Beatty dispenses, letting his freak flag fly as the senator who resuscitates his flatlining campaign by speaking – and then rapping – the brutal truth about race, money, politics and power in contemporary America. Against all odds, he pulls it off. Bulworth has to be one of the ballsiest movies ever financed by a major studio, and it seems all the more surprising coming from Beatty, who turns in a seriously funny, underappreciated performance.
NATHAN LANE – THE BIRDCAGE (1996)
Lane’s breakout – if you don’t count voicing Timon the Meerkat in The Lion King – came with his portrayal of a middle-aged drama-queen drag-queen faced with the daunting task of concealing his femininity for just one night. Lane delivers plenty of laughs, but touches a deeper nerve by laying bare Albert’s insecurities; his ongoing struggle to feel that he is seen as a person and not merely a sideshow. Lane is just one member of an excellent cast that gives the film wings despite the many ridiculous plot contrivances that should keep it grounded. But by exposing Albert’s fragile emotions, he transcends caricature and becomes the member of the ensemble whose work lingers longest.
SARAH POLLEY – THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
Polley’s teenage folk singer is already harboring a dark secret before she becomes profoundly affected by a horrible accident that irrevocably changes her life and the face of her community. In the aftermath of the incident, she finds herself in a position to help determine how her town will move forward, and as we see Nichole delicately navigate the conflict to serve her own interests, we see in Polley an actress of maturity and intelligence beyond her years. In addition, she sings a handful of songs on the soundtrack, and her haunting vocals enhance both her performance and the film.
BILL MURRAY – LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
As his career has progressed, Bill Murray has proven himself capable of much more than the zany antics that defined his early work. Murray has deep reserves of melancholy that he draws on and combines with his comedic gifts to create moving portraits of men unfulfilled, and with a great actor’s ability to give different shadings to those characters, he seldom repeats himself. He showed it in Groundhog Day, he showed it in Rushmore and he took it to another level in Sofia Coppola’s ethereal story of two Americans emotionally adrift in Japan. There are no Caddyshack-like moments of comedy here, yet Murray is as funny as ever even as he delivers a beautifully understated performance that should have won him the year’s Best Actor Oscar.
JOHN TRAVOLTA – PULP FICTION (1994)
Quentin Tarantino originally intended the role of the slightly dim hitman for his Reservoir Dogs star Michael Madsen, but after meeting Travolta for another project, he saw an opportunity to present the actor in a way he’d never been seen before. Travolta seized the role, creating an idiosyncratic portrayal that both drew on and subverted his iconography. He may no longer have been the skinny sex symbol of Grease and Saturday Night Fever, but he gave Vincent as confident a strut as he did Tony Manero, carrying his paunch like a badge of honor and displaying as much comfort with a gun, a heroin needle and Tarantino’s verbal acrobatics as he’s always displayed on a dance floor. Oh, and he did that too.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON – PULP FICTION (1994)
Dictionaries printed in a post-Pulp world should have a picture of Jackson’s Jules next to the definition of “cool”. Playing Travolta’s more pragmatic, spiritual partner in crime, Jackson rocks it like a hurricane, his impact all the more impressive when you consider that he is absent for roughly an hour and a half in the middle of the movie. Not only does Jackson hit every note that Jules demands – menacing, uproarious and in his powerful final scene, magnanimous – but he takes the delivery of profanity to new artistic heights along the way. After years of impressive supporting performances, Pulp Fiction finally made Jackson a star, and proved to everyone that, like his character’s wallet proclaims, he was one bad motherfucker.
GENE HACKMAN – UNFORGIVEN (1992)
Little Bill Daggett
The great Gene Hackman (man, do I wish he’d come out of retirement) is a quiet force to be reckoned with in Clint Eastwood’s superb western, playing a small town sheriff with a strict policy of law and order. Those who cross him quickly find that his folksy charm belies a dangerous sadistic streak, and Hackman’s quicksilver shifts keep both the audience and the characters on their toes. In a film depicting the complicated line between good and bad, Hackman doesn’t play Little Bill as a villain or antagonist, but rather as a man adhering to a code of morality he believes in and will enforce at any extreme. The actor initially turned the film down due to its violent nature, but Eastwood convinced him to reconsider, and it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him.
MICHAEL KEATON – BEETLEJUICE (1988)
Though Michael Keaton is a skilled actor in any genre, comedy is where he shines brightest, and the more manic the character, the more fun he is to watch. And what could be more manic than the title role in Tim Burton’s macabre comedy, an undead entrepreneur trying to market his bio-exorcism skills to a newly deceased young couple? Keaton wanted no part of Beetlejuice when it first came his way, repeatedly turning down requests to meet Tim Burton and discuss the script. It took a personal phone call from producer David Geffen to Keaton’s agent to convince him that this was a part worth playing. Lucky for us, the actor came around. His energy unmistakable beneath the ghoulish make-up, Keaton proved loose and up-for-anything, his singular style an ideal match for the endearingly sleazy, self-proclaimed “ghost with the most.”
ELIAS KOTEAS – THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
Director Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking after a 20 year absence catalyzed a barrage of A-list stars to enlist for duty. Malick populated his film with many of these big names, as well as promising up-and-comers. But even in a cast full of heavyweights (Penn, Nolte, Cusack, Harrelson) and young guns (Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin, Jared Leto), it’s the “where do I know him from?” working actor Elias Koteas whose performance has always stayed with me. Staros is the film’s richest character, a cautious captain who risks his standing by making a crucial decision when his men face a mission he deems suicidal. Though soft-spoken, he’s a man of conviction, and his wide, alert eyes swim with compassion and an understanding of the weight of the battle. Koteas offers a performance that provokes the viewer to debate Staros’ choices and behavior. Despite limited dialogue, the actor expresses humanity and reason even in moments as simple as scanning the battle-sieged landscape. With all the actors clamoring to be involved in the film, Malick could easily have cast a bigger name in this key role. His choice of Koteas pays off for the film while giving a terrific character actor a memorable and all-to-brief moment in the spotlight.
MICKEY ROURKE – THE WRESTLER (2008)
Randy “The Ram” Robinson
While not conceived as an autobiographical story for Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler nonetheless mirrors many circumstances of the actor’s own story, and it was a brilliant stroke of casting on the part of director Darren Aronofsky to choose Rourke for the role. He plays a pro wrestler 20 years past his heyday, still holding onto his glory days, still showing up for small-time fights and events despite a bruised, beaten body that is steadily failing him. With every breath he takes, Rourke conveys the heavy toll that The Ram’s years of going to physical extremes have taken on him. What came as more of a surprise, to me at least, was the deep tenderness of his performance. Despite the pain and discomfort that comes across in his every move, The Ram is playful and generous of spirit, whether horsing around with the neighborhood kids or cheerfully interacting with a store clerk or the customers at the deli counter where he works part-time. Rourke is at his most raw when The Ram tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, now a young woman uninterested in seeing past the man who was never there when she was growing up. Rourke’s penetrating work was a reminder of what an effortlessly charismatic actor he is. Here’s hoping more roles as rich as this one are in his future.
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN – CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)
Frank Abagnale, Sr.
Walken has played so many psychos, spooks and comedic foils that the sight of him playing someone “normal” offers a breath of fresh air. So there is great pleasure in watching his performance as Leonardo DiCaprio’s father – a man whose ambition exceeds his means and inadvertently fuels his son’s misguided lifestyle. Walken hits some beautifully sad notes as a man too emotionally ruined to see that his son is digging himself deeper and deeper into lies and deceit out of a desire to please him. It’s a moving performance, unexpected from an actor who seemed too familiar to still surprise us.
HALEY JOEL OSMENT – THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
In the years since The Sixth Sense, it seems as if many horror films and thrillers have relied on the presence of a creepy kid to crank up the fear factor. But Haley Joel Osment is much more than a freaky prop; he is the linchpin of the movie, upon whose shoulders it largely rests. At nine years old – nine years old – he demonstrated a preternatural gift for nuance and behavioral insight with a haunted, measured performance that’s a marvel to behold. This isn’t a case of a young actor just being natural; you can see that Osment is making choices as an actor. How many kids of that age could have delivered a performance this thoughtful? He is indispensable to the movie, and absolutely should have won the Academy Award he was nominated for.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN – HERO (1992)
When you think of Dustin Hoffman’s lengthy filmography, your mind probably goes to movies like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, All The President’s Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie and Rain Man. Hero may not leap to mind so quickly, if at all, but to ignore it is to miss a shamefully underrated film and lead performance. A two-bit criminal and all-around malcontent, Bernie reluctantly saves over 50 people from a crashed airplane and then watches someone else take the credit. Constantly ranting about the absurdities of modern society, he is the kind of character who could easily come across as exaggerated and unrealistic, but Hoffman takes on his eccentricities with restraint enough to make him recognizable. You’ve probably come across a guy sorta like Bernie before. Hoffman earns big laughs in this sharp satire of the media and society’s need for real-life heroes, and Bernie LaPlante deserves to be counted among the classic creations given to us by one of the all-time great character actors.
BILLY BOB THORNTON – A SIMPLE PLAN (1998)
Billy Bob Thornton’s sensitive work as a terminally down-on-his-luck man who, along with his brother and best friend, discovers $4.4 million in a crashed airplane, elevates this nerve-wracking thriller to unexpectedly moving heights. Slow-witted, yet in possession of insights that elude his educated sibling, Jacob sees his already fragile existence crumble under the pressure of a lie that escalates beyond anything he’s prepared to handle. Yellow teeth, stringy hair and cracked glasses help physically manifest Jacob’s hopelessness, but the way Thornton plays the sad sack – with his frequent lack of articulation, immature behavior and hesitant optimism that the newfound treasure will improve his prospects – is flawless. The film’s racheting tension is to be expected, but what comes as a surprise is the emotional wallop it packs, largely due to Thornton’s performance.
MEL GIBSON – BRAVEHEART (1995)
Gibson may not be Laurence Olivier (though both have played Hamlet), but he has never gotten the recognition he deserves as an actor. Although he won Oscars for producing and directing Braveheart, his acting went un-nominated. Yet his performance as William Wallace is brimming with ferocity and passion. Gibson makes Wallace a fiery and vicious warrior without ever losing sight of the pain and loss that drives him. There’s a moment late in the film where Wallace goes mano a mano with a masked enemy on the battlefield, only to realize that his opponent is a comrade who has betrayed him. The look of incomprehension and heartbreak Gibson registers as he takes in the discovery hits me in the gut every time. It’s just one unshakable moment (let’s not forget that he also gives one of the great inspirational speeches in film history) in a performance that anchors one of the classic epics of all-time.
THOMAS HADEN CHURCH – SIDEWAYS (2004)
Despite interest from multiple A-list stars, director Alexander Payne chose Church, best known for a supporting role years earlier on TV’s Wings, for the co-lead role of an infantile but lovable actor determined to get his “joint worked” during a wine tasting expedition organized by his best friend Miles the week before his wedding. Payne’s instincts for casting proved right on target; Church kills in this role. His own trajectory as an actor allowed him to bring personal experience to Jack, a former soap star now relegated to voiceovers in commercials. But the rich, Oscar-winning script by Payne and Jim Taylor gave Church room to dig, and he delivered an honest and hysterical portrait of a man who can barely conceal his insecurities and childish urges.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN – CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (2007)
Hoffman’s first scene in this film has got to be one of the best introductory scenes of all time. (I didn’t think anybody could deliver the word “fuck” better than Samuel L. Jackson, but Hoffman gives him a run for his money.) If this had been his only scene in the movie, I might still have put him on this list. But fortunately he has many more scenes, and is as superb in each of them as in the first. Hoffman, baritone and deadpan, nails the rapid fire, rat-a-tat dialogue that is one of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s trademarks, and his ability to balance the outrageous humor of Avrakotos with the gravity he needs to impart makes him a natural for Sorkin’s work. For as much of Hoffman as there is to love in Charlie Wilson’s War, there’s not nearly enough. I wish he had been a regular on The West Wing so I could have enjoyed 100+ hours of this massively entertaining performance. In fact, you know what? I’m breaking a self-imposed protocol for this series and including a link to the scene I mentioned. If you’ve seen the movie, you can revisit one of its best moments. If you haven’t, check this out and tell me you don’t want to keep watching this guy.
And we’ll leave it there for today, but the end is in sight. Tomorrow’s final 20 includes jewel thieves, serial killers, put-upon authors and cops with funny accents. And hey, if you have friends, family members, co-workers, casual acquaintances, anonymous sex partners or anyone else that you think might enjoy these posts, now would be a good time to pass them along.