July 18, 2012

100 Great Film Performances of the Last 25(ish) Years: Part III

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm
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The road goes ever on. Shall we continue? Let me know your thoughts…

Kirk Lazarus/Lincoln Osiris
Which of the characters named above is Robert Downey Jr. really playing? Is he playing Lazarus, the Australian, Oscar-winning Method actor? Or is he playing Osiris, the African-American, Vietnam platoon leader who is Lazarus’ latest onscreen creation? The brilliance of Downey Jr.’s work is that he plays both, simultaneously and seamlessly. Lazarus stays fully immersed in his portrayal of Osiris, even while suspecting that he and his film-within-the-film co-stars have been truly left to their own devices in the hostile jungle. The comedy comes not just from Downey Jr.’s physical transformation, but from his expression of Lazarus’ views through the Osiris persona, such as when he lectures the dimwit action star played by Ben Stiller about the pitfalls of going “full retard.” If you haven’t seen it, I won’t try to explain. Just watch it, and you’ll understand exactly why Downey Jr. received a rare-for-comedy Oscar nomination.


Karen Sisco
Hard to believe there was once a time when J.Lo was just an actress. She still shows up in movies now and then, but her pop star/diva persona has so overwhelmed her image that it always seems to be in the way of her acting. But once upon a time, she was charting an impressive rise as a movie star, and she hit her peak in every way under the whip-smart direction of Steven Soderbergh in this modern classic. Lopez has never acted better (or looked better) than she does as a US Marshal who finds herself romantically drawn to a bank robber who kidnaps her when she inadvertently stumbles into his prison escape. After being released, she continues to track his movements even as they both fantasize about what might have been had they met under different circumstances. The film’s entire ensemble crackles, but Lopez is really something special here. Cool, tough, clever, sexy, natural, funny…watching how good she is, I can’t help but feel disappointed that she put the focus on her music career. Her contributions to that industry are unlikely to stand the test of time, but her performance here will…and if she’d kept her energy on acting, who knows where she might have gone.


Leo Getz
Okay okay okay! Initially, Pesci was on my list for his Oscar-winning turn in GoodFellas, and that live-wire performance could easily be here as planned. But I felt compelled to select the comedic and equally unpredictable performance he gave as a money launderer under the protection of Mel Gibson’s Riggs and Danny Glover’s Murtaugh as he awaits a date to testify against the criminals he swindled. In the wrong hands, Leo could have come off as obnoxious, grating on viewers’ nerves for two hours. But Pesci made him completely endearing, locating an appeal in Leo’s incessant, rapid-fire yapping. Nearly a decade after Raging Bull put him on the map, Lethal’s Leo made Pesci a star.


Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
I want to resist the cliché of calling Washington’s performance as the real-life middleweight champion a knockout, but that’s exactly what it is. Carter was a victim of police corruption all his life, and years of that life were wasted in prison for a crime he did not commit. Washington radiates with the physical intensity of a fighter in peak condition, the intellectual intensity of a man who would not let dispiriting circumstances master him and the emotional intensity of someone who allowed himself to love and be loved when he had every reason to hate and close himself off. He blends the rage of someone who has been beaten down again and again with the dignity of one who won’t stop getting back up. It may seem like Washington has played these scenarios before, but he brings such emotion and passion to the performance that it feels new and raw. Once again, you can’t take your eyes off him.


Harvey Milk
It’s hard to describe a given performance by Sean Penn as “one of his finest,” since almost every one he gives can be described the same way. The joy of this particular example is that unlike the dark or brooding characters Penn often inhabits (with a few notable exceptions, including Fast Times’ Spicoli), his Harvey Milk exudes a warmth and charm that seem to recast the gifted actor in an entirely new light. The playful twinkle in Penn’s eye embodies Milk’s empathy, intelligence, wit and keen skill for endearing himself to people who wanted to see him as a threat but couldn’t help liking him. Though Harvey experiences challenges both personal and political, he has an indomitable joie de vivre that is especially thrilling to behold when inhabited by Penn in a performance as generous as it is commanding.


Billy Elliot
Jamie Bell had no easy task in the role of a lonely lad who begins taking ballet lessons and displays a gift for dance that catches the eye of a no-nonsense instructor. Frustrated by his late mother’s absence, his father’s disapproval and his older brother’s chronic bitterness, Billy expresses his emotions through several dance numbers that combine his developing ballet skills with freestyle footwork all his own. Bell aces every moment, both as actor and dancer. His gift for balance isn’t just evident in his dancing, but also in his ability to play a boy possessing both the innocence of youth and the weariness of scarred adulthood. It’s a triumphant debut performance that earned Bell a Best Actor BAFTA award over the likes of Russell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Hanks and Michael Douglas.


Emily Charlton
Even with all the great actors and performances jockeying in my head for position on this list, I kept coming back to Blunt’s breakthrough. In a movie full of scene-stealers – including veterans no less formidable than Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci – it’s Blunt who nearly runs away with the show as the snotty assistant to Streep’s grande dame magazine editor. She proves herself a deft comedienne, raising sarcasm and eye rolling to an art form as she sneers at Anne Hathaway’s fashion naïveté and general cluelessness. Yet as obnoxious as Blunt’s Emily is, the actress never goes so far that she loses favor with the audience. Emily is mean, but Blunt places the emphasis on the comedy of the character rather than the cruelty, which proves important as the story plays out.


The creation of Gollum was a collaboration between actor and graphic artists unlike any that had been seen before, and the visual effects team responsible for bringing the character to such believable life can not be overlooked when talking about the character. But as this is a recognition of actors and performances, it is Serkis who must be singled out. More than just creating Gollum’s voice, Serkis was present on-set, acting the scenes with his co-stars and lending his movements and facial expressions to the character as he would to any role. His eyes are behind the digital pixels we see onscreen, and more importantly, he gave the character a soul that computers alone could not have created. It is Serkis who brings Gollum’s torment to the surface, making him the pitiable creature with whom Frodo comes to sympathize. The Two Towers took home an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but Andy Serkis’ absence from the year’s Best Supporting Actor nominees meant only part of the Gollum achievement was recognized. Serkis gives a full-blooded performance that was transformed by visual effects, but never buried by them.


Russell Crowe won an Oscar as the titular hero, but it is Joaquin Phoenix who creates the most intriguing and complex figure in Ridley Scott’s Roman epic. Commodus comes to the throne on the blood of his father, and Phoenix locates not only the sinister amorality of a schemer hungry for power, but also the sorrowful heart of a son unappreciated. The new emperor oozes incestuous lust for his sister and desperately seeks the love of a populous whose favor he hasn’t earned, allowing Phoenix to slither through the movie with a dynamic performance that creeps up on you while creeping you out. It took me a few viewings of the film before I realized just how fantastic he is.


Clementine Krucyznski
Of all the miraculous performances Winslet has delivered, I single out this one not only because I’m particularly in love with the movie, but because her work as Clementine represents the best of what the gifted actress is capable of: transforming herself before our eyes not through physical chameleonic traits (as the equally gifted Cate Blanchett so often does) but by an innate ability to tap into a character’s inner life. Clementine is a girl of countless quirks, yet not one of them seems even the slightest bit artificial. Winslet, working from another ingenious Charlie Kaufman screenplay, makes Clementine absolutely genuine: a self-described fucked up girl who’s just trying to find her own peace of mind.


The Dude
Rare is the performance by a famous actor that is so immersive, I can truly lose sight of them. Despite a prolific career filled with memorable work, Jeff Bridges somehow disappears in plain sight, becoming The Dude. Bridges left no trace of his previous work in his portrayal of the bowling enthusiast whose simple desire for a replacement rug leads him down a rabbit hole of nihilists, pornographers, kidnappers, car thieves, a pissed off Malibu sheriff and an avant-garde artist with a hidden agenda. And I haven’t even mentioned Walter. The ensemble is full of actors doing some of their best – and similarly immersive – work. But at the center is Bridges and a bemused characterization that’s earned rightfully iconic status.


Walter Sobchak
Okay, so let’s talk about Walter. John Goodman, like his co-star, inhabits this character so completely that everything else you’ve seen him do vanishes from memory. It’s a particularly challenging feat for an actor as recognizable and omnipresent as Goodman. But as Walter, an erratic, overzealous Vietnam veteran and rule-conscious bowler, he pulls it off. The laughs Goodman achieves are enough to make for one of his most memorable performances, but what really makes him great is the way that for all of Walter’s eccentricities, he is 100% real. In Goodman’s hands, a character that is almost begging to be overplayed stays grounded in truth, allowing The Dude and Walter to form an enduring and endearing duo. Am I wrong? Am I wrong, Dude?


Sara Goldfarb
Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream may not be a horror film in the traditional sense, like Burstyn’s 1973 classic The Exorcist, but its visceral depiction of drug addiction is frightening and disturbing enough to classify it as one. Burstyn is heartbreaking as a lonely, frumpy widow losing her grip on reality and becoming hooked on diet pills in an attempt to fit into a favorite dress from her younger days. The results are chilling, with the lovely actress barely recognizable as she loses herself in a haunting performance that exemplifies what happens when a fearless actor meets a bold directorial vision.


Daryl Van Horne
I originally had Nicholson on the list for About Schmidt, and that film no doubt contains the more impressive piece of acting from the legendary star; it’s a rare performance for him in that there’s not a trace of the trademark “Jack” persona that we’ve come to know so well. But good as it is, I don’t relish it the way I do his thoroughly Jack-like work in The Witches of Eastwick, a movie that never fails to amuse me. Jack Nicholson playing the Devil – charming, roguish, seductive – isn’t a stretch, but the fact that it comes so naturally to him is exactly what makes it such fun to watch. Clearly having a blast opposite Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, Jack is firmly in his element here. The more scenery he chews, the more I smile.


Edith Piaf
In the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, as the Best Actress race seemed to zero in on newish-to-Hollywood Cotillard and veteran Julie Christie, my thought was that if enough people actually saw La Vie En Rose, Cotillard would win; how could people watch this film and not vote for her? Aided by perhaps the best aging make-up I’ve ever seen, Cotillard’s astounding performance follows the tragic singer from her youthful awkwardness to her crippling final days. The movie itself is choppy, and at times undermines Cotillard’s efforts by jumping too frequently between time periods, never allowing her to present Piaf for one extended stretch and build up a momentum. But while the movie sometimes stumbles, Cottilard never does, delivering a performance fully worthy of Piaf’s musical legacy and of the Oscar she indeed went on to win.


Big Boy Caprice
Some might argue that this film ushered in Al Pacino’s Screaming Era; I’ll let Scent of a Woman take the blame for that. In Dick Tracy, Pacino’s over-the-top performance is ideally calibrated for the comic book world created by director/star Warren Beatty. Like many of his fellow actors, Pacino is unrecognizable under heavy, Oscar-winning prosthetics, but the make-up does nothing to disguise the actor’s energy and humor. As funny as he is – cartoonishly dancing with the chorus girls in his nightclub or expressing stifled fury at the discovery of a hidden microphone in his office – Pacino doesn’t forget that Big Boy is a villain who must be feared, and he makes sure to give the character the necessary edge of danger. He may not look like himself, but all that latex can’t mask Pacino’s talent. Seeing him bust loose like this is a treat.


Edmund Exley
In a movie full of performances that I love, Guy Pearce’s work has come to stand out over my many viewings of the film. As the plot’s twists and turns reveal themselves, there is deep satisfaction in watching Exley prove his mettle. This satisfaction derives from Pearce’s ability to seemingly project his intelligence directly onto the celluloid. The story often pivots on Exley’s discoveries, actions and decisions, and Pearce somehow lets us in to watch the gears turn as the truths about the Nite Owl killings shift, slide and ultimately click into fateful place.


Jeffrey Wigand
Officer Bud White. Captain Jack Aubrey. General Maximus. These are a few of the heroic characters Russell Crowe has portrayed with great skill, but his best performance may be the one that finds him depicting a much more ordinary heroism. In the true story of a tobacco industry whistleblower whose 60 Minutes exposé becomes the center of a personal and political storm, Crowe commands the screen not with the machismo that defines those aforementioned characters, but with the integrity and vulnerability of a normal, often awkward man facing abnormal trials. He brings us right inside Wigand’s struggle to do right by his family and his own moral code, and employs all of his talent to create a richly detailed character. Anyone who’s seen the film knows that the Oscar which Crowe won for Gladiator in 2000 came a year too late.


Queen Elizabeth I
Cate Blanchett exploded into the ranks of essential actresses with her work in Elizabeth. From the title character’s carefree youth in the days before her ascension to her rebirth as The Virgin Queen, Blanchett vividly portrays the journey of a strong woman with everything to prove, who found her footing more quickly than even she thought possible. The actress is effortlessly regal yet fully humanizes the queen as she settles into the throne. A relative unknown at the time, Blanchett owns the role and carries the film with the assuredness of a veteran, earning an Oscar nomination and launching a career that has evolved into the most impressively eclectic of any actress since Meryl Streep.


Hans Gruber
I’m sure he wasn’t the first to make the point, but I remember being younger and hearing film critic Gene Siskel say in some of his reviews that an action movie is only as strong as its villain. It’s no wonder then, that Die Hard remains one of the genre’s all-time greats. Alan Rickman’s turn as the suave lead terrorist who takes over an L.A. highrise set the gold standard for action movie villainy, and I’m not sure anyone has done it better since. He chews on the role without ever drifting into over-the-top histrionics or making Gruber a buffoon. He brings such intelligence and charm that I almost find myself rooting for Gruber. All due respect to Bruce Willis’ John McClane, but the movie is at its best when Rickman is onscreen. His presence is a huge reason behind the film’s lasting appeal.


And we’re out. But 20 more await tomorrow, including a provocative politician, a fierce European warrior and an uncommonly ambitious high school student.


Updated with Full Series Links:
Part I
Part II
Part IV
Part V


  1. How are you able to narrow down 100 favorite performances when there are sooooo many? Do you keep a movie journal? Or, do you scan through movie titles to see which ones stand out as having memorable performances?

    Comment by tammypels — July 18, 2012 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

    • It wasn’t easy, Tammy. There were so many worthy ones that I had to leave off. But like I explained in the Preamble post a few days ago, once the idea for this came into my head, all I could think about for days were performances I’d want to include. Names just began crowding my brain, so I started typing them out and then narrowing down. I could keep going with more, but I think I’ve exhausted my knowledge of adjectives.

      Comment by DB — July 18, 2012 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

  2. I’o so glad that you give Jennifer Lopez some recognition. She was great in Out of Sight. And Ellen Burstyn had most of her scenes solos. Take a lot to act at a talking refrigerator

    Comment by Eric Shaw — July 18, 2012 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

    • Lopez almost got squeezed out, but a last minute change of heart helped her slide in. I do love her in that movie.

      Comment by DB — July 19, 2012 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  3. Ok, you’re off the hook now that I see The Dude on the list, and you get bonus points for rightfully including Goodman as well. If I recall correctly, the Coens said they wrote Walter specifically for Goodman (presumably enjoying his previous work for them in Barton Fink) so they clearly trusted that he could pull it off. For all of Walter’s fantastic bluster (“THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU F**K A STRANGER IN THE ASS!!!”), it’s that quiet moment at the end when they’re emptying Donny’s ashes into the Pacific that gets me every time…Goodman nails the soft center underneath.

    Also, good call on Rickman. Any chance you can list him for every role in which he played the villain? Die Hard…Robin Hood…Harry Potter…I see on imdb that he even played Rasputin once in a tv movie.

    Comment by David Z. — July 18, 2012 @ 11:06 pm | Reply

    • I could easily have included Julianne Moore as well. She cracks my shit up in Lebowski. Her speech rhythm is so great. “Yes yes, the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, and aren’t we proud of all of them.” Duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh duh. The Coens had also worked with Goodman in Raising Arizona, don’t forget. Then after Lebowski in O Brother, Where Art Thou. Looks like he’s in their next one too.

      I’m dying to see that Rasputin movie Rickman did for HBO, but I don’t think it’s on DVD. I think he won an Emmy or Golden Globe for that. Maybe both. Anyway, he does do villainy well.

      Comment by DB — July 19, 2012 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  4. Not quite as strong with this group of 20. lopez, phoenix, serkis, goodman are a stretch to me.

    i dig your picks for bridges, burstyon (amazing performance), crowe, and rickman (set a standard for villains).

    Comment by ggears — July 21, 2012 @ 2:03 am | Reply

    • I knew you’d appreciate Crowe and Rickman being here. Thought you’d also enjoy seeing Pesci for Lethal 2, as well as Guy Pearce. He’s someone we both refer to often as a great presence.

      On the other hand, I knew you wouldn’t be onboard with Serkis, but I just continue to pity you for having to live the life of ostracization that comes with not being a Lord of the Rings fan. As for Phoenix, when I first saw Gladiator, he didn’t make that strong an impression on me. I may have even questioned his getting nominated for Best Supporting Actor. But later on, I really started to see something in that performance that I’d missed. I think it’s a really great piece of work. If you haven’t seen it lately, check it out again. Maybe you’ll still be unconvinced, but it’s worth another look if it’s been a while.

      Comment by DB — July 22, 2012 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

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