I Am DB

June 6, 2013

It’s Still Good to Be the King

Filed under: Movies,TV — DB @ 4:00 pm
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Mel Brooks is having a moment. A few weeks ago, he was the subject of a profile on the esteemed PBS series (“esteemed PBS” – is that redundant?), American Masters. Tonight, Brooks will be honored by the American Film Institute with its 41st Life Achievement Award. It’s one of Hollywood’s great annual traditions, bringing out many of the collaborators who have worked with the honoree throughout his or her career. Unlike many similar awards given out by other bodies — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Screen Actor’s Guild — the AFI presentation is not made by just one or two people who are closely associated with the recipient. Rather, it’s an all-star tribute, with a slew of friends and colleagues taking the stage or rising from their table to address the evening’s celebrant.

On that count, as much as I’m looking forward to watching Brooks feted when the show airs on TNT next Saturday night, I’m also saddened to think how few of the people one might expect to salute him are still with us. At 86 years old, Brooks has outlived many of his most notable associates. Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, Harvey Korman, Marty Feldman, Zero Mostel, Cleavon Little, Richard Pryor, John Candy, Slim Pickens, Gregory Hines, Charles Durning, Alex Karras, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars, Larry Gelbart, Don Adams, Leslie Nielsen, and of course his wife, Anne Bancroft. All gone.

There are a few others whose attendance, or even participation in pre-taped segments, is questionable given their general distance from the limelight these days. We don’t see much of Teri Garr, Rick Moranis, Sid Caesar or Gene Wilder anymore. I hope Wilder, at least, will make an appearance. How can you hold a tribute to Mel Brooks without Gene Wilder? And yet the actor only appeared in archival interviews on the American Masters special.

It’s not like the room will be devoid of celebrities. The award itself will be presented by past winner Martin Scorsese (an interesting choice given his lack of professional connection to Brooks). Carl Reiner is still kicking, and you can bet he’ll be on hand, while I would think Cloris Leachman will probably be there too. Plenty of younger actors who worked with Brooks in his later films like Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It may be in the room too. Hopefully Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will be there representing Brooks’ Broadway triumph, The Producers. Maybe even Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman, who starred in the film adaptation of the musical? And then there are people that Brooks has worked with as a TV guest star, like perhaps Paul Reiser (Brooks won three consecutive Emmys for his recurring guest role on Mad About You) or Larry David (Brooks and Bancroft appeared as themselves in a classic season-long arc of Curb Your Enthusiasm). Could we be so lucky as to get an appearance by the wonderfully offbeat David Lynch, whose film The Elephant Man was produced by Brooks? Either way, there are plenty of notable stars, writers and directors from throughout Brooks’ career that are still around and could be in attendance; it’s just sad to think how many of them won’t be.

Often when it comes to these lifetime achievement awards, I think, “If this person doesn’t get it soon, they won’t be around anymore.” But rarely have I considered the need to honor someone before all of their closest or most frequent collaborators are gone (and Brooks is someone who worked with the same people over and over again, to legendary results, which will accentuate their absence). I don’t know how the AFI makes the decision each year about who to recognize with their Life Achievement Award. The list of recipients is impressive, but I’ve often questioned why people like Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford and Meryl Streep received the award at such relatively young ages, prior to obvious people who’d been around longer and were still waiting. Look down the list of winners, for example, and one glaring absence is Paul Newman. How could the AFI honor Hanks and Spielberg before getting around to Newman? I wonder if the person has to accept the honor and agree to participate in the celebration evening. If that’s the case, I can imagine Newman saying, “Hey, I’m honored, really, but that kind of event where I sit for three hours listening to people praise me makes me uncomfortable. Thanks but no thanks.” I have no idea, of course. It’s just that Newman seems like too obvious a candidate for the AFI to simply not have gotten around to before he passed away. (Still breaks my heart a little bit every time it crosses my mind that Paul Newman is dead.) And where are the AFI honors for Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton? For Peter O’Toole and Woody Allen? (Allen’s another guy I could see politely declining, if that’s the way these things work.)

Pardon that tangent; these are things I think about. Back to the man of the hour. Beyond those who he has worked with directly, Brooks has been an influence on many comedians who came after him, so the room will probably include some famous fans as well. Whether he’ll be there or not, one such fan is Jerry Seinfeld, who last year featured Brooks (and Reiner) in an episode of his excellent web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

(Click Image for Video)

It’s great to see the AFI pay tribute to a guy like Mel Brooks, whose contributions to film are much sillier but no less significant than many others who have received the honor before him. Already in the rare company of EGOT recipients (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), he adds the AFI award to his 2009 Kennedy Center Honor, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and numerous other accolades he’s collected over the years. It seems unusual for a comedian — especially one as broad and naughty as Brooks — to be so celebrated; we tend to think of our most Serious Artists as the ones most decorated. But Brooks has earned his place, in part, by helping us all take Seriousness down a few pegs. He famously said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” I’ve always loved that quote. Another twist on the same theme is spoken by Alan Alda in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (though I’m not sure if the quote originates with Allen): “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” And has there ever been someone whose body of work epitomizes that statement more than Mel Brooks? He has practically made a career out of finding the comedy in the 20th century’s greatest purveyor of tragedy, Adolf Hitler. From The Producers‘ “Springtime for Hitler” to History of the World Part I‘s brief “Hitler on Ice” to the Nazi lampooning To Be or Not to Be, Brooks has delighted in taking one of the least funny things in history and making it into a punchline. Then there are the stereotypes he attacked head-on in Blazing Saddles, taking the risk of offending not just morals, but good taste. So it’s nice to see him recognized as a daring artist. He absolutely deserves the awards and attention he continues to collect.

I’m sure there will be plenty of people at the AFI event to share their appreciation of his life and work. While the program will of course feature memorable clips from throughout his career, here’s one I suspect may be overlooked, and which provided my first introduction to his comic genius: his cameo in The Muppet Movie, annoyingly spread here across two clips. (He enters around the 1:28 mark of the first.)

The AFI Life Achievement Award for Mel Brooks will air on TNT next Saturday, June 15, at 9:00 P.M., and again July 24 at 8:00 P.M. on Turner Classic Movies, where it will run alongside other films and specials highlighting Brooks’ work. His episode of American Masters continues to air over the next week.

Congratulations Mel, and may the Schwartz be with you.

May 17, 2013

Player Hader

Filed under: TV — DB @ 3:55 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Saturday Night Live‘s 38th season comes to an end tomorrow night, and with the close of another year comes the departure of a cast member who, for my money, has long been the show’s MVP: Bill Hader.

Hader has been on SNL for eight years, joining at the start of the 2005-2006 season at the same time as Andy Samberg. (Jesus, was that really eight years ago?) He quickly proved to be one of the show’s most versatile and reliable cast members, excelling at original characters and impressions, though just as capable of playing the straight man. Well…straight-ish, anyway. Last year, he became only the 18th cast member in the show’s history to earn an Emmy nomination for his individual performance. But one thing that also struck me about Hader during his time on the show was how quickly the outside comedy community caught onto his talent and started to utilize him. I haven’t researched this, but my sense is that most SNL cast members who break out beyond the show tend to do so after serving for a few years. But Hader was snatched up fairly soon after hitting the stage of Studio 8H, winning roles in some of the best comedy films of the latter aughts, including Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder and Superbad. Greg Mottola, who directed the latter, also used him in Adventureland and Paul, while the actor’s association with Judd Apatow continued beyond Knocked Up with roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express.

As it turns out, Hader may not be the only performer leaving SNL after tomorrow’s finale. Rumors abound that Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis will also bid farewell, and with Seth Meyers leaving halfway through next season to replace Jimmy Fallon as host of Late Night, the show is about to experience a major makeover. Of course, this has always been the nature of Saturday Night Live. Cast members arrive, grow successful, move on, new players arrive, lather, rinse, repeat, lather, rinse, repeat. From Chevy Chase to Kristen Wiig, this has been the way of SNL, and so it shall continue to be. But it’s still sad to bid adieu to the greats, and Hader is one of the greats; a terrific character comedian in the tradition of Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey. (I’ll miss Sudeikis a lot too, but I’ve always been indifferent about Armisen. If Sudeikis follows Hader out the door, the two best things about Kenan Thompson’s “What Up With That” sketch will be gone: the former’s enthusiastic, red tracksuit-clad backup dancer, and the latter’s repeatedly snubbed guest, Lindsey Buckingham.)

So what’s next for Hader? Sleep, and moving back to Los Angeles, he says. Careerwise, I don’t see him graduating to many lead performances in comedy movies. He seems more suited to supporting parts in that medium, while TV is the likely place for him to find a central role. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he flexes his muscles a bit and takes on some characters and material with more serious overtones; I suspect that he has the talent for them. In the meantime, he’ll be seen in an upcoming project called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a couple whose relationship is seen across two separate films: one from her perspective, and one from his. Hader also reunited with director Mottola for an HBO movie called Clear History, co-written by and starring Larry David. And I’m sure he’ll pop up on SNL again, for a surprise cameo or a hosting gig. Until then, here are a few of my favorite Bill Hader moments from his tenure at SNL.

Most notably, Hader’s departure leaves the show without its best recurring character of recent years, Weekend Update’s delicate, trendspotting City Correspondent, Stefon. One of my favorite things about Hader has been that, like Jimmy Fallon before him, he often has trouble getting through a skit without laughing…which only makes it funnier. Never is this more true than in his appearances as Stefon, probably because a) his material is always so bizarre, and b) writer John Mulaney apparently likes to switch up the dialogue between the dress rehearsal and the live show, so that Hader is often seeing Stefon’s lines for the first time when he performs them on air. Under those circumstances, it’s a miracle he holds it together as well as he does. (Incidentally, Stefon’s first appearance on the show was not as part of Weekend Update, but in a 2008 sketch featuring Hader and host Ben Affleck as brothers pitching a movie idea. If Hader reprises Stefon tomorrow night when Affleck hosts, it will mark a nice bit of symmetry.)

Hader’s performance as a beleaguered Vincent Price hosting a Halloween special would be enough to lodge this sketch in my memory, but it gets additional points for Jon Hamm’s turn as James Mason.

Although not as much of a breakout character, I’d put Hader’s Italian talk show host Vinny Vedecci up alongside Stefon as one of his best and funniest creations. I was recently lamenting that Vinny hasn’t turned up in a long time, and have been hoping for a return appearance. We’ll see if he shows up tomorrow night to add Affleck to a list of guests that has included John Malkovich, Shia LaBeouf and Drew Barrymore.

Hader’s impressions over the years range from James Carville to Julian Assange, but one of his best — and most unexpected — is Alan Alda. The veteran M*A*S*H star does have a distinct voice, yet it’s not one that is often imitated…not this successfully, at least. Hader’s take is truly uncanny, as demonstrated in this sampling of Back to the Future auditions. Close your eyes and you’d never know it’s not Alda himself.

Another of Hader’s great characters is TV news reporter Herb Welch, a creaky correspondent long past his expiration date. More than his other recurring characters, if you saw one Herb sketch you saw them all. But Hader made them worth seeing.

Beyond recurring characters and impressions, Hader could always be counted on to elevate an otherwise ordinary sketch. This clip shows that the proof is in the puppet.

Farewell Mr. Hader, and thanks for eight seasons of great work.

December 15, 2012

The De Niro Dilemma

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not because of Christmas; because ’tis the season of movie awards! The Oscar nominations are less than a month away (begin to mentally prepare yourself for my usual, agonizingly deep immersion into that), but in the meantime, national and regional film critics groups are rolling out their accolades. This week saw nomination announcements for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Broadcast Film Critics Awards. And among the Best Supporting Actor nominees put forth by two of those three groups (the Globes denied a hat-trick) was Robert De Niro, for his performance as Bradley Cooper’s superstitious, football-obsessed father in Silver Linings Playbook.

In an acting career spanning 47 years, more than 80 films, six Oscar nominations, two wins, the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor and countless other awards and nominations, De Niro is rightly regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time. But it’s been a while since he’s been on the awards circuit. Because the hard truth we all know is that Robert De Niro has been lost. For the past 13 years or so, he has been wandering in a desert of bad movies and half-hearted performances, a shadow of the actor he once was. (It’s too bad he isn’t Jewish; perhaps ancestral instinct might have kicked in after a few years and helped him course correct.) So what happened? Good intentions that just didn’t pay off? Laziness? Lack of interest?

Look at the movies he made between 1973 and 1999, and the directors he worked with.

1973
Bang the Drum Slowly (John D. Hancock)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

1974
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)

1976
1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

1977
New York, New York (Martin Scorsese)

1978
The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)

1980
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)

1981
True Confessions (Ulu Grosbard)

1983
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

1984
Falling in Love (Ulu Grosbard)
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)

1985
Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

1986
The Mission (Roland Joffé)

1987
Angel Heart (Alan Parker)
The Untouchables (Brian DePalma)

1988
Midnight Run (Martin Brest)

1989
Jackknife (David Hugh Jones)
Stanley & Iris (Martin Ritt)
We’re No Angels (Neil Jordan)

1990
Awakenings (Penny Marshall)
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)

1991
Backdraft (Ron Howard)
Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese)
Guilty By Suspicion (Irwin Winkler)

1992
Mistress (Barry Primus)
Night and the City (Irwin Winkler)

1993
A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro)
This Boy’s Life (Michael Caton-Jones)
Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton)

1994
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh)

1995
Casino (Martin Scorsese)
Heat (Michael Mann)

1996
The Fan (Tony Scott)
Marvin’s Room (Jerry Zaks)
Sleepers (Barry Levinson)

1997
CopLand (James Mangold)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson)

1998
Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron)
Ronin (John Frankenheimer)

1999
Analyze This (Harold Ramis)
Flawless (Joel Schumacher)

Obviously there are some all-time classics in that era, and it’s an overall impressive filmography filled with strong, memorable, in some cases legendary performances and plenty of gifted directors. Not every film there is well-known, and not every one is a keeper, but by and large it’s a list that justifies De Niro’s status as one of the greats.

Now let’s look at what happens when we enter the new millennium.

2000
The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (Des McAnuff)
Meet the Parents (Jay Roach)
Men of Honor (George Tillman, Jr.)

2001
15 Minutes (John Herzfeld)
The Score (Frank Oz)

2002
Analyze That (Harold Ramis)
City By the Sea (Michael Caton-Jones)
Showtime (Tom Dey)

2004
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Mary McGuckian)
Godsend (Nick Hamm)
Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach)
Shark Tale (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman) – Animated

2005
Hide and Seek (John Polson)

2006
The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro)

2007
Stardust (Matthew Vaughn)

2008
Righteous Kill (Jon Avnet)
What Just Happened (Barry Levinson)

2009
Everybody’s Fine (Kirk Jones)

2010
Little Fockers (Paul Weitz)
Machete (Robert Rodriguez)
Stone (John Curran)

2011
The Ages of Love (Giovanni Veronesi)
Killer Elite (Gary McKendry)
Limitless (Neil Burger)
New Year’s Eve (Garry Marshall)

2012
Being Flynn (Paul Weitz)
Red Lights (Rodrigo Cortés)
Freelancers (Jessy Terrero)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Well, the man certainly keeps busy. That’s a long list of movies to consider. But a few things can be quickly gleaned.

1973-1999: Lots of intense drama. Lots of smart comedies. Lots of classics. Lots of strong, established directors. Lots of Martin Scorsese.

2000-2012: Lots of tepid drama. Lots of broad comedies. Lots of duds. Lots of undistinguished directors. No Martin Scorsese.

Now to be fair, I’ll say this. First, I have not seen a lot of the movies from the 2000-2012 span. Second, just because some of those movies weren’t big box office hits doesn’t mean they weren’t good. Third, just because critics may have had low opinions of many of those movies doesn’t mean they’re right. Fourth, just because many of the directors are less well-known doesn’t make them untalented.

But…when the reviews are bad, and the movies don’t connect with audiences, and they don’t go on to develop enduring reputations for being good, it’s not unfair to draw certain conclusions. And of the films I have seen from that era, few feature De Niro anywhere near his best. The performances are uninspired. He appears to have a lack of energy or interest. He doesn’t look engaged. Could it be that a bout with cancer took a toll on him? De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, but the disease was caught early and he went on to beat it (probably with a baseball bat). Maybe the cancer affected the energy he brought to his performances, but the problems began well before his diagnosis, and have continued well after he received a clean bill of health.

It’s reasonable to think that as actors get older, some of their intensity and passion will subside or burn out. But if we look at some of De Niro’s key contemporaries, who were also considered the best actors of their day – Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall – we see actors that are still delivering excellent work, if not quite as consistently as in their early days. Yeah, Pacino has had his duds over the past few decades, and has veered toward overacting at times, but he’s also shown that he’s still got the magic, in HBO movies like Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack, and even as the bad guy in Ocean’s Thirteen. He’s also continued to do impressive work on stage. Hoffman doesn’t do a lot of leading man work anymore, but has shined in supporting roles in films like I ♥ Huckabees, Finding Neverland, Confidence, Barney’s Version and Stranger Than Fiction. He also headlined this year’s short-lived HBO series Luck, delivering a quietly cutting, laser-focused performance as a recently paroled gangster out for revenge. Duvall has also continued to do excellent work in roles large (Open Range, Get Low) and small (Crazy Heart, Thank You For Smoking). He had a tiny part in the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and with about five minutes of screen time managed to give one of the best performances of that entire year. And what about Meryl Streep? Defying the oft stated problem that no good roles exist for older women, Streep is in the most successful stage of her career, turning character driven comedies into box office hits, still slam dunking dramatic roles and winning her third Oscar earlier this year. I’d like to think that if these actors are still capable of delivering top-notch work, De Niro is too.

In fact, I know he is…because I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook, and he’s great in it. He does his best work in years. His character is just a regular guy with a few idiosyncracies, but not every part needs to be Jake LaMotta or Travis Bickle to give an actor something special to do. His performance isn’t astonishing or transformative, but it’s vigorous and fully energized. The role gives him something to work with, and you can see him having a blast with it. I don’t think that anyone expects him to pull another LaMotta or Bickle out of his hat at this point in his life, but earlier in his career he could turn even ordinary parts into something special. Consider the fire inspector he played in Backdraft. It was a fairly small role, and there’s nothing dynamic about the character on paper. But even though he’s just “a guy,” De Niro gave him an appealing dry humor and a short fuse that kept things interesting. He does the same sort of thing in Silver Linings Playbook, and that’s why he once again finds himself in the conversation for awards. If he gets nominated for an Oscar, it will be his first in 21 years. While accepting an honor in October for Supporting Actor of the Year at the Hollywood Film Awards, De Niro joked that he had become much more accustomed to presenting awards than receiving them. Well take a look at your filmography Bobby, and it’s not hard to see why your trophy shelf hasn’t had many new additions of late.

While it’s great to see him back in the game with this new movie, I worry that it may be only a brief return to form. His upcoming projects look to be mostly of the same ilk he’s been turning out for years now. Commercial, broad, maybe kind of fun, but not worthy of his talent:

The Big Wedding, a comedy that boasts some fine actors like Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace and Robin Williams, but sounds like generic, madcap fluff.

Last Vegas, with De Niro, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman as four buddies who go to Vegas for a bachelor party when one finally decides to get married. Great cast, and these guys will surely play nicely off each other, but you can almost see the script being assembled by a studio marketing team.

Grudge Match, a comedy with De Niro and his CopLand co-star Sylvester Stallone as two ex-boxers who come out of retirement for one last fight. Kinda fun to think about Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta squaring off…but again, you know this is just going to be a middle-of-the-road exercise that might offer some amusement before it’s forgotten.

There are a few others listed on IMdb.com, but only two sound like they have some potential to be interesting: Malavita, a crime drama directed by Luc Besson and co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron, about a mafia family who enter witness protection in France and struggle with the adjustment; and The Comedian, which I don’t think is even an officially greenlit project yet, but would be directed by Sean Penn and star De Niro (alongside Kristin Wiig, intriguingly) as an aging, Don Rickles-like insult comic.

Those movies could prove to be bright spots, but otherwise De Niro’s current line-up doesn’t inspire much hope. Maybe he made those deals a while ago, and the experience of making Silver Linings Playbook, along with the acclaim he’s receiving for it, will reawaken whatever passion or desire for quality material has been lying dormant for so long. What De Niro really needs to do is hook up with HBO. As I mentioned before, the cable network has provided great material for Hoffman and Pacino. The latter will be back on the air in 2013 playing music producer-turned-murder suspect Phil Spector in a film written and directed by David Mamet. How great would it be to see De Niro topline a series with the kind of rich storytelling and writing that HBO consistently offers? Maybe he can dip his toes in those waters slowly, with a nice season-long arc on Boardwalk Empire? C’mon Scorsese, you’re a producer on that show! Make it happen! Or hell, put the guy in one of your movies again. Just because Leonardo DiCaprio is your new De Niro doesn’t mean De Niro can’t be your old De Niro. Give the guy a juicy co-starring role! I know, I know…De Niro was supposed to be in The Departed, in the role eventually played by Martin Sheen, but couldn’t do it because of his schedule directing The Good Shepherd. But what about the other projects over the last several years that were going to see you two reunite? Haven’t you been attached to a gangster film called The Irishman for years now? What’s the holdup? Marty, help us out. We want De Niro back in top form, and we need you to help get him there.

Only time will tell if Silver Linings Playbook is a turning point for De Niro, setting him on a path back to the kind of quality roles and impassioned performances on which he built his reputation. Nothing can take away from the momentous work that marked his early career, but it’s sad and frustrating to see such talent squandered on dumb comedies and flat dramas. Silver Linings Playbook is a much-needed reminder that Robert De Niro is capable of better. Here’s hoping some talented writers and directors can steadily provide him with the material to match his skills, and that he’s ready to bring his A-game when those scripts arrive at his door.

July 20, 2012

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

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Alright, we’re down to the final day. Thanks for hanging in there. Let’s bring it home…

NATALIE PORTMAN – BEAUTIFUL GIRLS (1996)
Marty
After an impressive debut in The Professional, itself fully worthy of inclusion on this list, Portman continued to show a command of her craft at a young age with her performance as the teenager whose wit and intellect platonically captivate Timothy Hutton’s late-twenties pseudo-slacker, back home for his high school reunion. Marty calls herself an old soul – and she is – but she’s also still a kid navigating the wonder years, and Portman blends maturity and insecurity to create a teen that is unique but credible. Some of the storylines are a little forced and a little silly, but Portman really glows, her relationship with Hutton forming the heart of the movie. On the heels of The Professional, Beautiful Girls solidified her standing as a young actress at the dawn of a bright career.

X

MARTIN LANDAU – ED WOOD (1994)
Bela Lugosi
Landau’s touching and unexpectedly humorous performance as Hollywood’s original Count Dracula might have made people rethink how Lugosi spent his twilight years. Though his career ended in the doldrums as he starred in the comically awful movies of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film suggests that Lugosi’s relationship with the young director gave him a human connection he’d been lacking, and provided a sense of purpose that he had long since abandoned. The change in fortune came too late for him to turn the clock back on the damage he’d done to himself through drug abuse, but the sadness and vitality of Landau’s performance illuminate that while Lugosi still had demons to grapple with in his final days, he also had a last chance to experience happiness and bring some to those around him. Landau does him proud.

X

CHARLIZE THERON – MONSTER (2003)
Aileen Wuornos
The initial shock of seeing the physically flawless Theron with bad skin, dark eyes, dirty teeth and extra heft quickly gives way to shock at how powerful the performance is. She had proven herself a fine actress by this time, but nothing she had done suggested she had this in her. As a severely damaged woman who doesn’t realize how desperate she is for an emotional connection until she meets someone who needs it even more, Theron gave the role everything she had – and it turned out she had a lot. The actress, so graceful and statuesque, changes her entire physicality to adopt Wuornos’ cocky swagger. It doesn’t take long before the makeup is forgotten and only the richly detailed character is visible – her neediness, hopefulness, anger, fear, insecurity…Theron nails it all in a gripping, career-changing performance.

X

BENICIO DEL TORO – TRAFFIC (2000)
Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez
Del Toro gets no showstopper scenes or chest-thumping monologues in his role as a Mexican cop – as decent as the corrupt system will allow – who unexpectedly finds himself at the center of the Mexico-U.S. drug war. What he does get is a chance to demonstrate that even a man engaged in something as personal and internal as grappling with his conscience can be the stuff from which compelling characters are built. Del Toro’s performance is one of minimalism, but the small gestures and subtle shadings he employs to portray Rodriguez’s attempts to do the right thing make for enthralling viewing.

X

HILARY SWANK – BOYS DON’T CRY (1999)
Brandon Teena
Swank had the advantage of being largely unknown when she made Boys Don’t Cry, which perhaps made it easier for audiences to accept her as a girl dealing with a gender identity crisis by passing herself off as a man. That doesn’t make it any less impressive a feat. Swank fully pulls off the challenge, making Brandon a completely believable male protagonist. Equally admirable is how she shows the excitement and possibility that comes with finding acceptance from a crowd. Discovering a new group of friends and finding your place in a circle is a universal experience that is key to Boys Don’t Cry. The acceptance Brandon found disintegrated when some of his new companions learned of his deception, but the movie captures something honest about the excitement of new friendships, first love and a sense of belonging, and that internal euphoria is made external by Swank’s convincing, committed performance.

X

MERYL STREEP – MARVIN’S ROOM (1996)
Lee
It seems like Meryl Streep need only sneeze to earn an Oscar nomination, yet of the 17 she’s collected to date, one role that did not net her Academy recognition also happens to be one of my favorites. In Marvin’s Room, she plays a gruff single mother whose angry, resentful teenage son is institutionalized and whose attempts to get her life on track are disrupted when her estranged sister falls ill and requires a bone marrow transplant. As usual, Streep transforms into a different person so thoroughly that all you can do is shake your head in amazement. There’s no accent to master or hook to latch onto in playing Lee; Streep simply carries herself in an entirely different way, giving such a fully realized and specifically detailed performance that it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a fictional character. This woman is a marvel.

X

JASON SCHWARTZMAN – RUSHMORE (1998)
Max Fischer
Schwartzman has been a uniquely funny and surprising presence in films as varied as Marie Antoinette, Shopgirl and I ♥ Huckabee’s, but his debut in Rushmore was particularly thrilling because, like his more experienced co-star Bill Murray, he seemed an absolute natural for the distinctive comic rhythm of director Wes Anderson. As a wildly ambitious, occasionally self-aggrandizing, lovestruck high schooler, Schwartzman’s dry humor and carefully measured glimpses into Max’s vulnerable core enable him to toe the line between appealing and obnoxious. Extending the legacy of talent in the Coppola family (he’s Talia Shire’s son), Schwartzman’s discovery for Rushmore was a casting coup that continues to pay off.

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BEN KINGSLEY – SEXY BEAST (2001)
Don Logan
Measured in time, roughly 20 years separate Kingsley’s Oscar-winning turn as Gandhi from his nominated turn as Don Logan. Measured in character, the span is mammoth. As a frighteningly intense career criminal who travels to Spain to lure a retired colleague back to London for a robbery, Kingsley delivers a ferocious and unpredictable performance that couldn’t be further from the benevolent Mahatma. Relentless as the Terminator and as tightly coiled as a cobra, capable of striking at any moment, Logan is as bad as they come…and in presenting the depths of his depravity, Kingsley is a force of nature.

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DENZEL WASHINGTON – MALCOLM X (1992)
Malcolm X
Spike Lee’s epic biopic is a showcase for Denzel Washington, who takes us on a detailed journey through the adult life of the nationalist and civil rights leader, starting from his days as a flashy, cocky hustler and thief. Malcolm’s conversion to Islam and preaching of Elijah Mohammad’s message allows Washington to do some of his best work. The blazing speeches are powerful, but he is just as absorbing in his stoicism and stillness. Lee’s movie runs nearly three and a half hours, but doesn’t feel it, thanks in no small part to the sheer dynamism of Washington’s performance.

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STEVE BUSCEMI – RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
Mr. Pink
Of all the great ensemble films from which it’s difficult to parse a standout performance, Reservoir Dogs may be one of the most challenging. (So was L.A. Confidential. And The Big Lebowski. And The Lord of the Rings, Almost Famous, Out of Sight…okay, nevermind.) Point is, even with all the actors expertly chewing up Tarantino’s dialogue, Steve Buscemi rises just above the rest. I think it’s the character’s pragmatism that makes the difference. I always appreciated that while the other tough guys pose and bellow, Mr. Pink keeps things in perspective. Whatever he says, he’s usually right. That trait, embodied by Buscemi in combination with a hypernervous energy, has helped this remain one of the signature roles of his prolific career.

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MATTHEW BRODERICK – FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)
Ferris Bueller
Broderick defined high school cool for a generation of filmgoers with his portrayal of a renegade senior from suburban Chicago. Ferris brims with such rock solid confidence that he could have come off as cocky and smug. But thanks to Broderick’s easy-going charisma and inherent likability, Ferris remains endearing even while pushing his neurotic best friend to the breaking point. Broderick’s onscreen persona in more recent years has often been the square or the nerd, but he will never escape the shadow of the bold, charming Bueller.

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FRANCES McDORMAND – FARGO (1996)
Marge Gunderson
McDormand won a Best Actress Oscar for Fargo despite an entrance that comes roughly 45 minutes into the film and a total of just over a half hour of screen time. The win acknowledged that despite those limitations, she still created a character that earned a place in the annals of film history. She brought great warmth and humor to her crafty, very pregnant, very upbeat sheriff who maintains a sunny worldview despite her daily encounters with the criminal element. McDormand is radiant, making Marge an unwavering positive force to all around her, from her schlubby hubby to her fellow officers to the old high school classmate with whom she shares an awkward reunion. The Coen Brothers have always been good to McDormand (as they should be, since Joel is her husband and Ethan her brother-in-law), but they really outdid themselves this time, and so did she. Heck, she’s just terrific.

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MICHAEL DOUGLAS – WONDER BOYS (2000)
Grady Tripp
In one of the best roles of his career, Douglas plays a writing professor and novelist navigating relationships with his mistress, his editor and his morose star student during one chaotic weekend. Douglas can come off as so natural and low-key onscreen that it sometimes seems like he isn’t even trying. But don’t be fooled. The looseness, dry humor and mellow vibe he brings to Grady are all carefully calibrated. Taken with Traffic, his other film from 2000, Wonder Boys showed Douglas entering his fourth decade as a star whose versatility and skill were at their peak.

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MARLON BRANDO – THE FRESHMAN (1990)
Carmine Sabatini
In this late career triumph, Brando offers a warm and affectionate tribute to his role in The Godfather, playing a powerful and mysterious businessman who takes a liking to an NYU film student and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: a well-paying job that may or may not be illegal. It’s a treat to see the actor so funny and on his game, charmingly sending up the most famous role of his career. There’s a scene in the film which finds Sabatini ice skating, and despite the heft Brando had built up over the years, he looked as light on his feet and playful as when he fidgeted with Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On The Waterfront 36 years earlier. All that time later, The Freshman showed Brando could still make magic on the screen.

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LEONARDO DICAPRIO – THE DEPARTED (2006)
William Costigan
When DiCaprio deservedly earned a Best Actor nomination for his work in 2006, there was only one problem: it was for the wrong movie. His nomination came for Blood Diamond, and while he was quite good in that film, it simply doesn’t measure up to his sensational work in what turned out to be his best-yet collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Doing his most accomplished adult work to date, DiCaprio completely melts into the role of an undercover cop bravely holding up his masquerade despite physical and psychological pressure crushing down on him. His shifts between the intelligent, quick-thinking cop and the somewhat dim crew member serving Boston’s most wanted gangster are distinct yet facile. He even does an impressive Boston accent, which is one of the trickiest to pull off. In case anyone still needed convincing, this performance exemplified why DiCaprio is such a supehstah.

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NICOLE KIDMAN – THE HOURS (2002)
Virginia Woolf
The simple application of a prosthetic nose somehow transformed Nicole Kidman into an entirely different person, such that watching her precise performance as the troubled writer of Mrs. Dalloway is like watching not a familiar movie star, but an unknown actress making a high-profile debut. Her inhabiting of the character is so complete and yet so unassuming that I still feel a sense of discovery when I watch it. The movie’s structural shifts in time mean we often only get Kidman in brief spurts, but while her screen time may be limited, her impact is anything but. An impassioned argument with her husband on a deserted train platform provides her meatiest scene (not to mention the clips for countless award shows), but she turns so many small moments into indelible images: the way she spins around on a staircase to look at her husband; the way she watches her young niece with simultaneous affection and detachment; the way she cowers under the silent disapproval of her servants. Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore anchor the film’s other segments, but it’s when Kidman is onscreen that The Hours seem to go by in seconds.

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SEAN PENN – DEAD MAN WALKING (1995)
Matthew Poncelet
Tim Robbins’ film finds Penn playing a death-row inmate – convicted of murdering a teenage couple – who seeks the counsel of a nun to keep him company in his final days. With his usual head-on immersion into character, Penn fully inhabits the racist and generally despicable killer who is too proud and defensive to admit his role in the murders even as he tries to let the nun see the humanity that few others can. Through challenging her, Penn challenges the audience to see something more than a monster. However you feel about the death penalty and Poncelet’s fate, there’s little other than awe to feel toward Penn’s uncompromising performance.

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SUSAN SARANDON – DEAD MAN WALKING (1995)
Sister Helen Prejean
Susan Sarandon scored her fourth Best Actress nomination in five years and finally won the prize as the nun who agrees to visit death-row inmate Matthew Poncelet when he reaches out, and then to serve as his spiritual advisor as his execution approaches. The scenes between Penn and Sarandon form a dance of two great actors at the peak of their powers, yet it should not diminish Penn to say that the movie belongs to Sarandon. This is Prejean’s story, and Sarandon gracefully plays the emotional journey that finds the character appalled and frustrated by Poncelet even as she attempts, with kindness and generosity of spirit, to guide him toward salvation. Sarandon makes simple decency and strength of character into compelling viewing.

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KEVIN KLINE – A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988)
Otto
Kevin Kline’s work here stands as one of my favorite comedic performances of all time. I’d put it in my top five, as a matter of fact. If there is a line somewhere that represents the history of comedy, Kline singlehandedly moves that line up a notch as Otto, a chronically stupid (yes, I said it) jewel thief who gets caught up in a string of double-crosses with his cohorts, hilariously butting heads along the way with a barrister who unwittingly factors into the scheme. Kline blusters through the movie with one laugh-until-it-hurts moment after another, and the cumulative result is a hysterical tour-de-force. Performances this broad and silly are rarely recognized by Academy voters, but they couldn’t deny Kline’s genius, awarding him a richly deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy.

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HEATH LEDGER – THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The Joker
Ledger’s take on The Joker came to theaters shrouded in the tragedy of the actor’s shocking death seven months earlier. Buzz on his performance was strong to begin with, but a morbid curiosity drove it through the roof. When the world finally got to see his creation, critics swooned and award talk was instant, but there was also a question in the air: sure he was great, but was the level of praise truly deserved, or was the loss of the actor influencing people’s judgment? Quite simply, there’s nothing to question. Whatever expectations or anticipation people brought to the film, the performance speaks for itself. Ledger deserved every word of acclaim and every accolade he collected. Taking an iconic comic book bad guy and making him as real and terrifying as any villain the movies have offered us, Ledger’s 180 degree turn from Brokeback Mountain cemented his range and left moviegoers wanting for the career that his death has denied us. With every flick of his tongue, cock of his head, flit of his hands and with every teasing word perversely spoken in mocking, unnerving sing-song, Ledger was no-holds-barred electrifying.

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I thought it would be fitting to end with Heath Ledger’s Joker, since The Dark Knight Rises opens today and, as I explained in the preamble, this whole project began way back in 2008, the week The Dark Knight opened. I do enjoy a good example of symmetry. And there we have it, ladies and gents. That’s my list. I have some closing thoughts, but first, if you want to recap, here’s an alphabetical-by-last-name rundown. (For trivia purposes I’m noting which ones got Academy Award attention).

* = Oscar Winner    ** = Oscar Nominee

1. Kevin Bacon – Murder in the First
2. Kathy Bates – Misery*
3. Warren Beatty – Bulworth
4. Jamie Bell – Billy Elliot
5. Jack Black – School of Rock
6. Cate Blanchett – Elizabeth**
7. Emily Blunt – The Devil Wears Prada
8. Marlon Brando – The Freshman
9. Jeff Bridges – The Big Lebowski
10. Matthew Broderick – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
11. Ellen Burstyn – Requiem for a Dream**
12. Steve Buscemi – Reservoir Dogs
13. Thomas Haden Church – Sideways**
14. Sean Connery – The Untouchables*
15. Chris Cooper – Adaptation*
16. Marion Cotillard – La Vie En Rose*
17. Russell Crowe – The Insider**
18. Jeff Daniels – The Squid and the Whale
19. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood*
20. Ellen DeGeneres – Finding Nemo
21. Benicio del Toro – Traffic*
22. Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl**
23. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Departed
24. Leonardo DiCaprio – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape**
25. Michael Douglas – Wonder Boys
26. Robert Downey, Jr. – Tropic Thunder**
27. Sally Field – Soapdish
28. Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List**
29. Jodie Foster – The Silence of the Lambs*
30. Morgan Freeman – Seven
31. Paul Giamatti – American Splendor
32. Mel Gibson – Braveheart
33. John Goodman – The Big Lebowski
34. Gene Hackman – Unforgiven*
35. Tom Hanks – Forrest Gump*
36. Emile Hirsch – Into the Wild
37. Dustin Hoffman – Hero
38. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote*
39. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Charlie Wilson’s War**
40. Anthony Hopkins – The Silence of the Lambs*
41. Dennis Hopper – Blue Velvet
42. Kate Hudson – Almost Famous**
43. Felicity Huffman – Transamerica**
44. Samuel L. Jackson – Pulp Fiction**
45. Michael Keaton – Beetlejuice
46. Nicole Kidman – The Hours*
47. Nicole Kidman – Margot at the Wedding
48. Nicole Kidman – To Die For
49. Ben Kingsley – Sexy Beast**
50. Kevin Kline – A Fish Called Wanda*
51. Elias Koteas – The Thin Red Line
52. Martin Landau – Ed Wood*
53. Nathan Lane – The Birdcage
54. Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain**
55. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight*
56. Christopher Lloyd – Back to the Future
57. Jennifer Lopez – Out of Sight
58. John Malkovich – Being John Malkovich
59. Frances McDormand – Fargo*
60. Bill Murray – Ghostbusters
61. Bill Murray – Lost in Translation**
62. Mike Myers – Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
63. Paul Newman – Nobody’s Fool**
64. Jack Nicholson – The Witches of Eastwick
65. Edward Norton – Primal Fear**
66. Haley Joel Osment – The Sixth Sense**
67. Al Pacino – Dick Tracy**
68. Al Pacino – Donnie Brasco
69. Guy Pearce – L.A. Confidential
70. Sean Penn – Carlito’s Way
71. Sean Penn – Dead Man Walking**
72. Sean Penn – Milk*
73. Joe Pesci – Lethal Weapon 2
74. Joaquin Phoenix – Gladiator**
75. Sarah Polley – The Sweet Hereafter
76. Natalie Portman – Beautiful Girls
77. Alan Rickman – Die Hard
78. Tim Robbins – Mystic River*
79. Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler**
80. Geoffrey Rush – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
81. Susan Sarandon – Dead Man Walking*
82. Jason Schwartzman – Rushmore
83. Andy Serkis – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
84. Kevin Spacey – The Usual Suspects*
85. Meryl Streep – Marvin’s Room
86. Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry*
87. Tilda Swinton – Michael Clayton*
88. Charlize Theron – Monster*
89. Billy Bob Thornton – A Simple Plan**
90. Billy Bob Thornton – Sling Blade**
91. John Travolta – Pulp Fiction**
92. Christopher Walken – Catch Me If You Can**
93. Denzel Washington – Glory*
94. Denzel Washington – The Hurricane**
95. Denzel Washington – Malcolm X**
96. Naomi Watts – Mulholland Drive
97. Sigourney Weaver – Aliens**
98. Robin Williams – Aladdin
99. Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind**
100. Reese Witherspoon – Election

Now that the list is out there in its entirety, feel free to take me to task for performances that weren’t included. I was disappointed not to find space for people like Robert DeNiro, Ed Harris and Robert Duvall, but when it came down to it, as much as I love them and as impressive as their bodies of work are, no single performance from the timeframe I was working in rose high enough to bump anything I did include. And of course, the list I initially created to work from had many more choices that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the final cut. There are so many other actors and performances that came close or that I wanted to feature, as well as additional performances by many actors who did appear once or even twice. But such is the life of a list-making movie lover. Tough choices must be made.

So please, share your comments if you have any, and if this series inspires you – whether tomorrow or at some point down the line – to watch a movie you haven’t seen or to rewatch something and/or reconsider an overlooked performance, I’d love to hear about it. Come on back and leave a comment, even if time has passed. Also, if you’re not already subscribed to the blog, take this opportunity to sign up. Just don’t expect a post this ambitious again for a long, long time. I’ve been living with this beast for what feels like ages, and it’s nice to finally have it done and out there. Hope you enjoyed it!

Updated with Full Series Links:
Preamble
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

July 19, 2012

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

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Still with me? Then on we go…

REESE WITHERSPOON – ELECTION (1999)
Tracy Flick
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?

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ELLEN DEGENERES – FINDING NEMO (2003)
Dory
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.

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RALPH FIENNES – SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
Amon Goeth
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.

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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.

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NATHAN LANE – THE BIRDCAGE (1996)
Albert
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.

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SARAH POLLEY – THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
Nichole Burnell
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.

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BILL MURRAY – LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
Bob Harris
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.

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JOHN TRAVOLTA – PULP FICTION (1994)
Vincent Vega
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.

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SAMUEL L. JACKSON – PULP FICTION (1994)
Jules Winnfield
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.

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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.

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MICHAEL KEATON – BEETLEJUICE (1988)
Beetlejuice
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.”

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ELIAS KOTEAS – THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
Captain Staros
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-too-brief moment in the spotlight.

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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.

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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.

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HALEY JOEL OSMENT – THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
Cole Seer
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.

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DUSTIN HOFFMAN – HERO (1992)
Bernie LaPlante
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.

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BILLY BOB THORNTON – A SIMPLE PLAN (1998)
Jacob Mitchell
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.

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MEL GIBSON – BRAVEHEART (1995)
William Wallace
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.

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THOMAS HADEN CHURCH – SIDEWAYS (2004)
Jack
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.

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PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN – CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (2007)
Gust Avrakotos
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.

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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.

Updated with Full Series Links:
Preamble
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part V

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