I Am DB

August 24, 2014

Emmy Nominations 2013-14: Reaction Mishmash

Filed under: Emmys,TV — DB @ 9:45 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Emmy Awards are upon us, and once again this year’s crop of nominees reminds us that there is an astonishing level of quality across today’s television landscape…if it can even still be referred to as television now that online entities like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are presenting original programming. Unfortunately, it tends to be what isn’t nominated that serves as the reminder, for no matter what makes the cut, there remains so much great work that is left out. As I say every year, there is simply too much good work out there for all of it to receive the celebration it deserves come Emmy season. But that doesn’t stop TV critics and avid watchers from sounding off anyway. For the past couple of years I’ve offered a slate of write-ups for work that stood out to me as nomination worthy but went unrecognized. I really need to work on those throughout the season, while the shows are fresh in my mind, but I dropped the ball this year. Still, I have thoughts on what was and wasn’t nominated, and I’ll be damned if I’m just going to keep them to myself. I’m a blogger! So here’s a down-and-dirtier version of this annual post. I’m not making predictions here; the Emmys are far too erratic and offbeat for me to apply my Oscar mojo. This is just a rundown of the nominees, accompanied by thoughts and opinions where I have them. Maybe I’ll get my act together next year. Until then….

 

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
The Big Bang Theory
Louie
Modern Family
Orange Is The New Black
Silicon Valley
Veep

Thoughts: As entertainment award travesties go, the annual omission of Parks and Recreation is one for the books. How does this show get passed over year after year after year? With all respect to the fine Modern Family, Parks and Rec dances circles around it. It’s more ambitious in its storytelling, it develops its characters with greater depth and it continues to offer surprises each season while Modern Family and other shows just do more of the same…even if they do it well. And on top of all that, it’s hilarious and still has the best comedic ensemble on TV right now. I don’t watch The Big Bang Theory, but I’d bet it too falls short of Parks and Recreation in almost every metric.

On the upside, it’s nice to see Silicon Valley land a nomination for its debut season. The show came out of the gate strong and never faltered. I have yet to get around to Orange is the New Black, but by all accounts it’s a true original and a deserving nominee…if not necessarily the right fit for this category.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Lena Dunham – Girls
Edie Falco – Nurse Jackie
Melissa McCarthy – Mike & Molly
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Veep
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation
Taylor Schilling – Orange is the New Black

Thoughts: At least Amy Poehler got some love for Parks and Rec, though the fact that she hasn’t won yet is every bit as scandalous as the show itself not being nominated. Yes, we all adore Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but she’s got plenty of Emmys at this point, and while her work on Veep is excellent, the character doesn’t have the range of Poehler’s Leslie Knope. She won her first Golden Globe for the role in January. Perhaps this will finally be her year at the Emmys as well?

Also, how about getting some Mindy Kaling up in this joint?

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OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Louis C.K. – Louie
Don Cheadle – House of Lies
Ricky Gervais – Derek
Matt LeBlanc – Episodes
William H. Macy – Shameless
Jim Parsons – The Big Bang Theory

Thoughts: Ricky Gervais’ nomination for the Netflix series Derek is quite the surprise. The series hasn’t garnered the acclaim or noteriety of The Office or even Extras, so it’s a testament to Gervais’ appeal that he made the cut over more widely predicted people like Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Andy Samberg (who took the Golden Globe) and Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch. I’m also giving a shout-out to the great Chris O’Dowd, who was a real joy as the lead in Christopher Guest’s mellow HBO comedy Family Tree.

As for the win, I gotta go with Louis C.K.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Mayim Bialik – The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen – Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky – Veep
Allison Janney – Mom
Kate McKinnon – Saturday Night Love
Kate Mulgrew – Orange is the New Black

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Fred Armisen – Portlandia
Andre Braugher – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Ty Burrell – Modern Family
Adam Driver – Girls
Tony Hale – Veep
Jesse Tyler Ferguson – Modern Family

Thoughts: Can someone explain to me how Fred Armisen is a Supporting Actor on Portlandia? He’s the co-lead and co-creator of the show. He doesn’t belong here, especially at the expense — yet again — of any member of the Parks and Recreation crew. Nick Offerman remains the show’s most egregiously overlooked cast member, but Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari and Adam Scott are plenty deserving.

Silicon Valley also boasts an impressive group of supporting players, any of whom — T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods or the late Christopher Evan Welch — would have been welcome additions here.

Returning nominees Adam Driver, Tony Hale and Ty Burrell all deserve a place once again, and Andre Braugher is a welcome addition for his deadpan precinct captain. His co-star Joe Lo Truglio would have been deserving too…though again, neither outshine the men of Parks and Rec. I really don’t get the Emmy’s aversion to that show.

I would love to see Driver take this. Reigning champ Hale is terrific, but Adam Driver is one of the most exciting actors anywhere right now. His work on Girls has been remarkable from day one, and he continues to take his character in fascinating and unexpected new directions.

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OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Uzo Aduba – Orange is the New Black
Laverne Cox – Orange is the New Black
Joan Cusack – Shameless
Tina Fey – Saturday Night Live
Natasha Lyonne – Orange is the New Black
Melissa McCarthy – Saturday Night Live

The Guest Performer Emmys were handed out last weekend at the Creative Arts ceremony, and the prize went to Uzo Aduba. As I mentioned above, I have yet to see Orange is the New Black, but even I’m aware of her breakout character Crazy Eyes.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Steve Buscemi – Portlandia
Louis C.K. – Saturday Night Live
Gary Cole – Veep
Jimmy Fallon – Saturday Night Live
Nathan Lane – Modern Family
Bob Newhart – The Big Bang Theory

Thoughts: Another Parks and Recreation omission: is it not far past the time to recognize Ben Schwartz for his hilarious recurring work as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein? This is a show that has done such a phenomenal job of building up a roster of recurring characters to fill out the town of Pawnee, and none are funnier or more well-honed than hipster doofus Jean-Ralphio. His impact on the show has been significant enough that the creators gave him an equally hilarious sister Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate) and this past year introduced Henry Winkler as their father. Given how this show has been passed over by Emmy voters across the board, I can hardly expect Schwartz to be singled out. But he sure deserves it.

All that aside, the winner was Jimmy Fallon.

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OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik – Episodes (Episode 305)
Louis C.K. – Louie (So Did the Fat Lady)
Liz Friedman, Jenji Kohan – Orange is the New Black (I Wasn’t Ready – Pilot)
Alec Berg – Silicon Valley (Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency)
Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Armando Iannucci – Veep (Special Relationship)

Thoughts: Cheers to the voters for nominating the season finale of Silicon Valley, which featured one of the funniest sequences I saw anywhere all year: a serious discussion amongst software engineers about how one of them could theoretically jerk off 800 men in ten minutes. This was inspired. The best part is that, as with much of the show’s shop talk, the concept had to be worked out with the help of a legitimate engineering genius — 27 year-old MIT grad Vinith Misra. While discussing his work as an advisor to the show in this interview, he mentioned that his tasks included “performing a detailed mathematical analysis in support of a penis joke.” Fantastic.

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OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

Iain B. MacDonald – Episodes (Episode 309)
Paris Barclay – Glee (100)
Louis C.K. – Louie (Elevator, Part 6)
Gail Mancuso – Modern Family (Vegas)
Jodie Foster – Orange is the New Black (Lesbian Request Denied)

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OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES

Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mad Men
True Detective

Thoughts: Although I don’t watch The Good Wife, I gathered that it had a strong season. I couldn’t escape the news of a major cast member’s dramatic exit, so it’s surprising that the buzz didn’t translate into a nomination. Much as I enjoy Downton Abbey, I’m not sure if it belongs here when other acclaimed shows like Good Wife, The Americans, or Masters of Sex were shut out. The Bridge had an impressive debut run too. It would also be nice to see more genre shows join Game of Thrones. Neither The Walking Dead nor Bates Motel have Thrones’ prestige factor, but both are coming off high-quality seasons. And Hannibal is not only riveting, but one of the most visually arresting shows on the air. Also, I have to say, True Blood bounced back in a big way last year.

I’d like to think this will be the year that Game of Thrones triumphs, but it’s a tough call. It’s unanimously agreed that Breaking Bad’s final season completely nailed it, and might even have been the show’s best yet. But those episodes aired a year ago, and it may be too far out of mind to claim the prize for the second year in a row…though most fans of the show would say that only one Outstanding Drama Series win is not enough. True Detective is the big threat here. Fueled by the presence of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, the show was highly anticipated and lived up to the potential. It was an instant hit — smart, engrossing and atmospheric. And it’s probably more in Emmy voters’ wheelhouse than Game of Thrones. One potential hiccup is that earlier this month, accusations surfaced that True Detective‘s creator Nic Pizzolatto plagiarized portions of the show’s dialogue. He and HBO have denied the charges, and the timing does seem suspicious. The show ended its run in March, but this story doesn’t hit until August, in the middle of the Emmy voting period? Sounds like the work of Tywin Lannister…

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Lizzy Caplan – Masters of Sex
Claire Danes – Homeland
Michelle Dockery – Downton Abbey
Julianna Margulies – The Good Wife
Kerry Washington – Scandal
Robin Wright – House of Cards

Thoughts: Does Michelle Dockery really belong here? She does good work as Lady Mary, but in a crowded field, I can think of a few performances that have more going on than hers. How about Vera Farmiga, nominated last year for her wonderful work on Bates Motel? The Bridge’s Diane Kruger, might have been a more interesting choice as well. I don’t watch any of the following shows, but what I hear of Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Keri Russell (The Americans), Connie Britton (Nashville), Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy) and the usually-nominated Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) suggests that all are eminently Emmy worthy.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad
Jeff Daniels – The Newsroom
Jon Hamm – Mad Men
Woody Harrelson – True Detective
Matthew McConaughey – True Detective
Kevin Spacey – House of Cards

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Thoughts:
Poor Michael Sheen. The Masters of Sex star is always the bridesmaid to his co-stars. The Queen: Helen Mirren wins the Oscar, but he’s not nominated. Frost/Nixon: Frank Langella gets the Oscar nomination, Sheen is passed over. Now Lizzy Caplan is welcomed into the Emmy race for Masters while Sheen is yet again ignored. Perhaps he can take some consolation in the fact that as always, this is a jam-packed category. There’s really nobody here who doesn’t deserve their place. Some might say Jeff Daniels, who pulled off a surprise win last year, but critics and pundits just don’t like The Newsroom. Whatever they think of the show though, Daniels is terrific. Many expected James Spader to be a shoo-in for The Blacklist, and there were hopes that Matthew Rhys would find his way in for The Americans. But there can be only six.

Jon Hamm remains Emmy-less for Mad Men, which probably should be rectified at some point, but it’s unlikely to be this year. While Bryan Cranston could take it one final time for Breaking Bad, this award seems destined for McConaughey, who was spellbinding on True Detective. His first foray into series television further bolstered the hot streak that he’s been on in the movies. He’ll need some more shelf space to add all the True Detective awards he’s bound to win over the next six months to the swarm he already collected for Dallas Buyers Club. His next two projects are with Christopher Nolan and Gus Van Sant. Dude is crushing it.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Christine Baranski – The Good Wife
Joanne Froggatt – Downton Abbey
Lena Headey – Game of Thrones
Anna Gunn – Breaking Bad
Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
Maggie Smith – Downton Abbey

Thoughts: I’m always pleased by any recognition for the Game of Thrones cast, so I’m happy to see Lena Headey score her first nomination. I still say Maisie Williams is the cast’s most deserving female, but I’ll take what they give me.

I didn’t expect the Emmys to suddenly find room for The Walking Dead in a main category, but Melissa McBride certainly deserved a place here this year. McBride’s Carol has had the best character arc on the show, coming a long way from the meek, abused wife she was at the start to the badass warrior momma she is now, one of the toughest of the survivors, who makes difficult life or death decisions and then follows through, all for the greater good. Her evolution and do-what-needs-to-be-done attitude were crystallized in this season’s episode “The Grove,” which saw Carol execute her most heartbreaking decision yet. I had some issues with the how the story played out — I think the writing failed to explore the situation as fully as it needed to (and easily could have) before the ultimate solution was reached — but I have no issues with McBride’s performance. It was a textbook example of the kind of showcase episode that should earn an actor a nomination.

I also want to make a stand for Caitlin FitzGerald, from Masters of Sex. As the warm, supportive wife to Michael Sheen’s intense title character, FitzGerald had the challenge of taking a 1950’s housewife whose lot in life seems to be supporting her man, and turning her into a character who was, in her way, just as strong and compelling as Lizzy Caplan’s less conventional woman of the era. FitzGerald quickly evolved into my favorite character on the show, as I found myself looking forward to her scenes more than anyone else’s.

Lastly, while I can’t comment on Baranski, Gunn or Hendricks, I can say the category should have found room for The Newsroom’s Olivia Munn. Probably the least experienced of the show’s primary cast members when it debuted, she was strong from the start and does great work week in and week out. If she had been giving the same performance on The West Wing, she’d have been nominated.

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OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Josh Charles – The Good Wife
Jim Carter – Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin – Homeland
Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad
Jon Voight – Ray Donovan

Thoughts: Could sentiment be with Josh Charles, given his character’s high-profile departure from The Good Wife? Or will voters look to Aaron Paul one last time for Breaking Bad? No surprise, I’m rooting for Dinklage to win for a second time. His arc this season provided great material, both showy and subtle, and he was as stellar as ever. Unfortunately, he is once again the show’s sole representative. Several of his castmates could just as easily join him here, but all were overlooked. One particular absence stings because the character won’t be returning, and has been one of the standouts each year. I’m avoiding his name for spoilers sake, but those of you watching probably know who I mean. Frankly, if this entire category were comprised of Thrones actors,  it would be entirely justified.

Voters might also have considered Jeffrey Wright’s work on Boardwalk Empire. He was an excellent addition to the show, and a more interesting character than Bobby Cannavale’s Emmy-winning villain from the previous season.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Kate Burton – Scandal
Jane Fonda – The Newsroom
Allison Janney – Masters of Sex
Kate Mara – House of Cards
Margo Martindale – The Americans
Diana Rigg – Game of Thrones

Thoughts: Kate Mara? Really? Nothing against her or her performance, but her arc on House of Cards was pretty brief this year. Does she really deserve this slot? Diana Rigg is so good on Game of Thrones, but she was in much less of the season this year than last. If she didn’t win then, it’s unlikely that she would now.

And she didn’t. The award went to Alison Janney, and that’s hard to argue with. Janney was heartbreaking as a wife and mother experiencing her sexual awakening as she learns that her husband — fellow nominee Beau Bridges — is not the man she thought he was.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Dylan Baker – The Good Wife
Beau Bridges – Masters of Sex
Reg E. Cathey – House of Cards
Paul Giamatti – Downton Abbey
Robert Morse – Mad Men
Joe Morton – Scandal

Thoughts: Pedro Pascal came into the crowded Game of Thrones cast and immediately carved himself a place of honor with a compelling portrayal of a revenge-minded prince. He seemed a shoo-in for recognition here. I mean, it was fun to see the great Paul Giamatti pop up on Downton Abbey, but I’d trade his one-episode appearance for Pascal’s pivotal season-long role in a heartbeat. It’s disappointing to see him passed over.

I’ve only seen half of these nominees — Giamatti, Bridges and Cathey. I’d have gone with Bridges’ wrenching turn as a married man grappling with his homosexuality. The scenes of his professional relationship — he plays Michael Sheen’s longtime friend and boss — are terrific, but the character’s personal struggles deepen the role and allow Bridges to do some beautiful work. Alas, the winner was Joe Morton (Miles Dyson, for all you Terminator 2 fans). Though I don’t watch Scandal, I’ve always liked Morton, so it’s nice to see a working actor like him get some recognition.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
Moira Walley-Beckett – Breaking Bad (Ozymandias)
Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad (Felina)
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss – Game of Thrones (The Children)
Beau Willimon – House of Cards (Chapter 14)
Nic Pizzolatto – True Detective (The Secret Fate of All of Life)

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OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A DRAMA SERIES

Tim Van Patten – Boardwalk Empire (Farewell Daddy Blues)
Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad (Felina)
David Evans – Downton Abbey (Episode 1)
Neil Marshall – Game of Thrones (The Watchers on the Wall)
Cary Joji Fukunaga – True Detective (Who Goes There)

Thoughts: Without having seen the Breaking Bad episodes, I have no doubt both were expertly crafted. And the nominated episode of True Detective got a lot of attention for its lengthy tracking shot that moved in and out of several houses as it followed McConaughey’s character on an undercover assignment gone bad. But how can anything here compare to the directorial challenges and superb execution of the battle for Castle Black on Game of Thrones? The extensive use of visual effects to create so much of the surroundings, the multiple storylines playing out within the limited location, the ability to make it all look so impressive and cinematic on a TV budget. This is the first directing nomination Thrones has received in three seasons, and its omission from the past two years is absurd. It deserves the award not just for this episode, but as compensation for past mistakes.

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OUTSTANDING MINISERIES

American Horror Story: Coven
Bonnie & Clyde
Fargo
Luther
Treme
The White Queen

Thoughts: American Horror Story is always a force to be reckoned with, but Fargo was the buzzy critic’s darling this year, and accomplished the impressive feat of standing on its own in the shadow of a classic piece of contemporary cinema. I wasn’t totally sold on it at first, but it grew on me steadily as it went along, and I still find myself thinking about it. I’ll definitely have to revisit it eventually.

OUTSTANDING TELEVISION MOVIE
Killing Kennedy
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
The Normal Heart
Sherlock: His Last Vow
The Trip to Bountiful

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Helena Bonham Carter – Burton and Taylor
Minnie Driver – Return to Zero
Jessica Lange – American Horror Story: Coven
Sarah Paulson – American Horror Story: Coven
Cicely Tyson – The Trip to Bountiful
Kristen Wiig – The Spoils of Babylon

Thoughts: How awesome is it to see Kristin Wiig sneak into this line-up for her performance in the absurd comedic series The Spoils of Babylon? This show was totally ridiculous, and totally hilarious. Not everyone’s style of comedy, I’m sure, but for those who appreciated what they were going for, it was lots of fun, and Wiig was aces.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Sherlock: His Last Vow
Chiwetel Ejiofor – Dancing on the Edge
Idris Elba – Luther
Martin Freeman – Fargo
Mark Ruffalo – The Normal Heart
Billy Bob Thornton – Fargo

Thoughts: The delightful ubiquity of Martin Freeman is evident in the fact that half his fellow nominees are actors he’s worked with. He’s joined here by his Fargo co-star Thornton, as well as his Sherlock and The Hobbit pal Cumberbatch. Plus he and Ejiofor were both in Love, Actually. But they had no scenes together, so maybe that doesn’t count? You decide.

Jesus, this is a strong line-up. Tough, tough call.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Angela Bassett – American Horror Story: Coven
Kathy Bates – American Horror Story: Coven
Ellen Burstyn – Flowers in the Attic
Frances Conroy – American Horror Story: Coven
Julia Roberts – The Normal Heart
Alison Tolman – Fargo

Thoughts: No surprise that this category is dominated by ladies of American Horror Story. Bassett, Bates and Conroy were all fantastic. The former two especially, had probably the best roles they’ve had in ages thanks to Ryan Murphy and his team, who can always be counted on to create roles that actresses can tear into. It’s no wonder they signed on to return for the upcoming season, American Horror Story: Freak Show. It will be a challenge to choose between them. So maybe the voters won’t, going instead for Allison Tolman’s wonderful breakout turn in Fargo.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Matt Bomer – The Normal Heart
Martin Freeman – Sherlock: His Last Vow
Colin Hanks – Fargo
Joe Mantello – The Normal Heart
Alfred Molina – The Normal Heart
Jim Parsons – The Normal Heart

Thoughts: This category is kind of a slap in the face to Taylor Kitsch. He was the only main cast member of The Normal Heart to be overlooked, and he was just as good as everyone else. He certainly had a bigger role than Joe Mantello, but Mantello had something that Kitsch unfortunately didn’t: a showstopping scene in which he took center stage and was allowed to fly. He was basically nominated for that one scene. All the other cast members had at least one standout moment like that. Kitsch’s character didn’t, and it probably cost the actor a nomination.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Brad Falchuk – American Horror Story: Coven (Bitchcraft)
Noah Hawley – Fargo (The Crocodile’s Dilemma)
Neil Cross – Luther
Larry Kramer – The Normal Heart
Steven Moffatt – Sherlock: His Last Vow
David Simon, Eric Overmeyer – Treme (…To Miss New Orleans)

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OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon – American Horror Story: Coven (Bitchcraft)
Adam Bernstein – Fargo (The Crocodile’s Dilemma)
Colin Bucksey – Fargo (Buridan’s Ass)
Stephen Frears – Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
Ryan Murphy – The Normal Heart
Nick Hurran – Sherlock: His Last Vow

OUTSTANDING VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Thoughts: The golden of age of television we continue to find ourselves in is not limited to fictional series. The late night field is also full of gems, as evidenced by how strong this category is. Saturday Night Live is always going to be hit or miss, but the rest of these shows are just great. Conan could easily be here too, as could some of the other shows which pop up in the Writing category below (despite the list of nominees, this isn’t actually a late night category). Last Week with John Oliver probably debuted too late in the season to qualify, but its chances next year are looking great. Strong as all of these shows are though, none of them equal the satirical brilliance of The Colbert Report, which finally won this award last year after a record-setting 10 years of domination by The Daily Show.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Inside Amy Schumer
Key & Peele
Portlandia
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

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OUTSTANDING ANIMATED PROGRAM

Archer (Archer Vice: The Rules of Extraction)
Bob’s Burgers (Mazel Tina)
Futurama (Meanwhile)
South Park (Black Friday)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Manhattan Project

Thoughts: Much was made of the fact that for the first time in 23 years, The Simpsons wasn’t nominated. The consenus may be that the show is long past its prime, but I still probably laugh harder and more often during a Simpsons episode than I do at any other series. Now maybe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is good…but better than The Simpsons? I seriously doubt it.

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I’m looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out. Seth Meyers hosts the show, which airs tomorrow night, Monday, August 25, on NBC. Go Amy Poehler and Game of Thrones!

And now I leave you with another classic moment of Emmy past.

 

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July 19, 2013

Emmy Nominations 2012-13: Reaction Mishmash

Filed under: Emmys,TV — DB @ 5:00 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Emmys do not occupy the same level of alarming obsession I have for the Oscars. For example, I didn’t wake up at the ass-crack of dawn yesterday to watch the live nominations announcement, as I do every year for the Oscar nominations. But that hardly makes me immune to Emmy fever. I’m as hopped up on TV as I am on movies, so the Emmys are firmly on my radar. You won’t find me engaging in the same series of prediction and reaction posts that I dive into during Oscar season (many of you are grateful for that, no doubt) but of course I have plenty of thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of today’s nominations.

Now, once again, I have to make the point that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences—and nearly every other body that hands out awards for television—faces an impossible challenge. There is a staggering amount of TV programming out there, and now that outlets like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are producing content, the arena is even more packed. How can every show and all their components—acting, writing, directing, production design, etc.—be fairly evaluated? I’ve elaborated before, both in last year’s version of this post and in an earlier, more detailed overview, on the flawed process for Emmy voting at the nomination stage. And once again, you should read the latter, because I was right when I wrote it and I’m even more right now. (This is also a succinct summary of what’s wrong with the Emmys.)

So with that said, I offer a small selection of artists whose work this past year deserved to be recognized. I won’t get into which nominations did happen and shouldn’t have, nor will I argue that any of my choices that didn’t make it are more deserving than certain ones that did. For I am not immune to the problem I describe in my 2009 post; I don’t watch every TV show, so I can’t fairly judge what does and doesn’t deserve an Emmy nomination. I’m simply saying that the offerings below—whether at another’s expense or not—were worthy of the recognition.

But before we get to that, here are the nominations in what I consider the major categories, with some brief thoughts along the way. I’m not a fan of reality TV around these parts, so I’ve omitted those categories. BUT, a huge congratulations to my friend Carl Hansen, who earned his first Emmy nomination yesterday. He was an Executive Producer on Outstanding Reality Program nominee Shark Tank. Way to go, Carl!

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
The Big Bang Theory
Girls
Louie
Modern Family
30 Rock
Veep

Thoughts: A fine list, but the omission of Parks and Recreation is criminal. That show, along with its ensemble cast—which has to be the best on any current comedy series—continues to kill it every week, without fail. I also would have liked to see Arrested Development here. I know many people were disappointed in the new season, but I thought that while it had some problems, its density and ambition were staggeringly impressive. And even flawed, there was still more than enough hilarity.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Laura Dern – Enlightened
Lena Dunham – Girls
Edie Falco – Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey – 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss – Veep
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation

Thoughts: How great to see Laura Dern here. Enlightened was not renewed for a third season due to low viewership, but it was a beautiful show. This nomination for the always underrated Dern is a small but appreciated way to bid it a premature farewell.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Alec Baldwin – 30 Rock
Jason Bateman – Arrested Development
Louis C.K. – Louie
Don Cheadle – House of Lies
Matt LeBlanc – Episodes
Jim Parsons – The Big Bang Theory

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Mayim Bialik – The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen – Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky – Veep
Jane Krakowski – 30 Rock
Jane Lynch – Glee
Sofia Vergara – Modern Family
Merritt Wever – Nurse Jackie

Thoughts: Seven nominees and they couldn’t find room for Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walter? Jane Lynch’s role on Glee is pretty much played out at this point. She’s great, but I would swap her for Walter in a heartbeat. Or how about some love for Parks and Rec‘s Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza?

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Ty Burrell – Modern Family
Adam Driver – Girls
Bill Hader – Saturday Night Live
Tony Hale – Veep
Ed O’Neill – Modern Family
Jesse Tyler Ferguson – Modern Family

Thoughts: Bit of a surprise to see Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet left off, though it does keep the category from becoming a Modern lovefest once again. Still, I’d always nominate Stonestreet before Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who I’ve always found to be a little too one-note. Great to see Bill Hader and Tony Hale here, but the real delight is Adam Driver’s nomination for Girls. I didn’t expect voters to come through for Driver, so I had included him among my write-ups below. Well, now I can delete that. Every moment of Driver’s performance feels authentic, electric and unscripted. Kudos to the Emmy voters for not overlooking his sensational work. As for disappointing oversights, how about every single male actor on Parks and Recreation? Seriously, line up Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott and Rob Lowe. Now put on a blindfold and throw a dart. Throw a few. Whoever you hit, they deserve to be here. If this category is going to be dominated by one show, Modern Family ain’t the one. And I say that as a big fan. But these Parks and Recreation guys…they crush it. And how stupendous were Will Arnett and David Cross on Arrested Development?

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Dot-Marie Jones – Glee
Melissa Leo – Louie
Melissa McCarthy – Saturday Night Live
Molly Shannon – Enlightened
Elaine Stritch – 30 Rock
Kristen Wiig – Saturday Night Live

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Louis C.K. – Saturday Night Live
Bobby Cannavale – Nurse Jackie
Will Forte – 30 Rock
Nathan Lane – Modern Family
Bob Newhart – The Big Bang Theory
Justin Timberlake – Saturday Night Live

Thoughts: As long as we’re giving it up for SNL guest hosts, where’s the love for Martin Short? His Christmas episode was among the season’s strongest. At least they included Louis C.K., whose Abraham Lincoln sketch was the best of the year.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES
David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik – Episodes (Episode 209)
Louis C.K., Pamela Adlon – Louie (Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 1)
Greg Daniels – The Office (Finale)
Jack Burditt, Robert Carlock – 30 Rock (Hogcock!)
Tina Fey, Tracey Wigfield – 30 Rock (Last Lunch)

Thoughts: The Office and 30 Rock each went out on a good note, but not good enough to exclude a single nomination for Arrested Development, whose writing was brilliantly ambitious on levels that I don’t think any other show ever has even aimed for.

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A COMEDY SERIES
Lena Dunham – Girls (On All Fours)
Paris Barclay – Glee (Diva)
Louis C.K. – Louie (New Year’s Eve)
Gail Mancuso – Modern Family (Arrested)
Beth McCarthy-Miller – 30 Rock (Hogcock!/Last Lunch)

OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES
Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
House of Cards
Mad Men

Thoughts: Yeah, that looks about right. Downton could have been left off. I love it, but the past two seasons have been uneven. I don’t watch them, but based on their reputations, it would have been cool if Justified or Sons of Anarchy had snuck in. There seemed to be a lot of love for The Americans, too. And why can’t The Walking Dead catch a break?

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Connie Britton – Nashville
Claire Danes – Homeland
Michelle Dockery – Downton Abbey
Vera Farmiga – Bates Motel
Elisabeth Moss – Mad Men
Kerry Washington – Scandal
Robin Wright – House of Cards

Thoughts: Not that I watch the show, but I’m surprised not to see Julianna Margulies here for The Good Wife. I thought she was a perennial in this category. I also didn’t watch Orphan Black, but heard Tatiana Maslany was off-the-charts amazing. I thought she might find a place among the more recognizable names. On the other hand, I love that Robin Wright made it. I consider Wright, like Laura Dern, to be one of the most undervalued actresses around. Any and every bit of attention she receives is deserved. Great to see Vera Farmiga make the cut too. She did some impressive tightrope walking as the complex mother to Norman Bates. And even though I don’t watch Scandal, I kinda love Kerry Washington, so good for her making it as well.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Hugh Bonneville – Downton Abbey
Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad
Jeff Daniels – The Newsroom
Jon Hamm – Mad Men
Damien Lewis – Homeland
Kevin Spacey – House of Cards

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Morena Baccarin – Homeland
Christine Baranski – The Good Wife
Emilia Clarke – Game of Thrones
Anna Gunn – Breaking Bad
Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
Maggie Smith – Downton Abbey

Thoughts: Emilia Clarke breaks in for Game of Thrones! Nice. Her character had a kick-ass season. She only stands to kick more ass as the show progresses, so I might have gone with her castmate Michelle Fairley instead. But hey, any love for Thrones is fine with me. Good to see Homeland‘s Morena Baccarin recognized too.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Jonathan Banks – Breaking Bad
Bobby Cannavale – Boardwalk Empire
Jim Carter – Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin – Homeland
Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad

Thoughts: The Station Agent‘s Dinklage and Cannavale, together again! Though frankly, I would sacrifice Cannavale in favor of House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll, who had a terrific, heartbreaking arc as a troubled congressman. I also think Sam Waterston was a worthy contender for The Newsroom. And while I didn’t see The Americans, I heard Noah Emmerich was outstanding. I’m thrilled to see Mandy Patinkin here after he was overlooked last year. Perhaps one of these days, another member of the amazing Game of Thrones cast will join the always deserving Dinklage. A little love for Charles Dance, please?

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Linda Cardellini – Mad Men
Joan Cusack – Shameless
Jane Fonda – The Newsroom
Margo Martindale – The Americans
Carrie Preston – The Good Wife
Diana Rigg – Game of Thrones

Thoughts: Diana Rigg = Awesome. And Jane Fonda was a blast on The Newsroom.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Dan Bucatinsky – Scandal
Michael J. Fox – The Good Wife
Rupert Friend – Homeland
Harry Hamlin – Mad Men
Nathan Lane – The Good Wife
Robert Morse – Mad Men

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
George Mastras – Breaking Bad (Dead Freight)
Thomas Schnauz – Breaking Bad (Say My Name)
Julian Fellowes – Downton Abbey (Episode 4)
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss – Game of Thrones (The Rains of Castamere)
Henry Bromell – Homeland (Q&A)

Thoughts: I figured that Homeland would receive at least one writing nomination, but I wasn’t sure which episode it would go to. I’m glad to see it went where it belonged; that’s another write-up I did that I can now discard. “Q&A” was the stellar episode in which Carrie interrogates Brody after finally confronting him with evidence of his treachery and taking him into custody. Writer Henry Bromell used to write for NBC’s great police series Homicide: Life on the Streets, and penned many of that show’s most intense sequences: Det. Pembleton questioning suspects in an interrogation room known as The Box. He proved with “Q&A” that he still knows his way around that intimate setting. The session between Carrie and Brody is the episode’s lengthy centerpiece, and the writing—from the broad scope of Carrie’s approach to the carefully chosen words and brutal honesty with which she reaches him—is masterful (as are the performances by Claire Danes and Damien Lewis). On top of recognizing this excellent achievement, the nomination doubles as a tribute to Bromell, who died of a heart attack in March. Like James Gandolfini, he was a great contributor to dramatic television who left us too soon.

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
Tim Van Patten – Boardwalk Empire (Margate Sands)
Michelle MacLaren – Breaking Bad (Gliding Over All)
Jeremy Webb – Downton Abbey (Episode 4)
Lesli Linka Glatter – Homeland (Q&A)
David Fincher – House of Cards (Chapter 1)

Thoughts: Fincher!

OUTSTANDING MINISERIES OR MOVIE
American Horror Story: Asylum
Behind the Candelabra
The Bible
Phil Spector
Political Animals
Top of the Lake

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Jessica Lange – American Horror Story: Asylum
Laura Linney – The Big C: Hereafter
Helen Mirren – Phil Spector
Elisabeth Moss – Top of the Lake
Sigourney Weaver – Political Animals

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Parade’s End
Matt Damon – Behind the Candelabra
Michael Douglas – Behind the Candelabra
Toby Jones – The Girl
Al Pacino – Phil Spector

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Ellen Burstyn – Political Animals
Sarah Paulson – American Horror Story: Asylum
Charlotte Rampling – Restless
Imelda Staunton – The Girl
Alfre Woodard – Steel Magnolias

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Scott Bakula – Behind the Candelabra
James Cromwell – American Horror Story: Asylum
John Benjamin Hickey – The Big C: Hereafter
Peter Mullan – Top of the Lake
Zachary Quinto – American Horror Story: Asylum

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Richard LaGravenese – Behind the Candelabra
Abi Morgan – The Hour
Tom Stoppard – Parade’s End
David Mamet – Phil Spector
Jane Campion, Gerard Lee – Top of the Lake

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Steven Soderbergh – Behind the Candelabra
Julian Jarrold – The Girl
David Mamet – Phil Spector
Allison Anders – Ring of Fire
Jane Campion, Garth Davis – Top of the Lake

Thoughts: Soderbergh!

OUTSTANDING VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Portlandia
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live

Thoughts: Wow, Saturday Night Live still hanging on here. I would have thought Conan or Late Night with Jimmy Fallon would earn a place.

OUTSTANDING ANIMATED PROGRAM
Bob’s Burgers (O.T.: The Outside Toilet)
Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (Enter the Dragon)
Regular Show (The Christmas Special)
The Simpsons (Treehouse of Horror XXIII)
South Park (Raising the Bar)

For what it’s worth, some stats: HBO was—to nobody’s surprise, I’m sure—once again the most nominated network, but I couldn’t believe how far ahead they were. With 108 nominations, they had just over twice as many as the second most honored network, CBS. (Really? CBS?) The most nominated program was American Horror Story: Asylum, with 17 nominations, followed by Game of Thrones with 16. And while I haven’t seen this factoid called out, I think Louis C.K. may have been the most nominated individual. Between his Saturday Night Live hosting gig and the multiple hats he wore on both his series and his HBO standup special, he received nine nominations. I would think that’s gotta be tops for the year.

Some people actually get paid to watch and write about TV, and are therefore likely to have seen all the eligible shows, so here’s a sampling of their reactions: Vulture‘s Matt Zoller Seitz, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Tim Goodman, and Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen and James Hibberd. Goodman had a lot to say (he usually does), and actually wrote three different pieces reacting to (mostly railing against) the nominations. The initial two can be accessed through the one linked here. He talks about what I wrote of back in 2009: the impossible task of fairly evaluating all the choices out there. Then he goes on to damn the voters for too frequently eschewing bolder options in favor of the same old thing. He does have a point. I mean, I love 30 Rock, but it was past its prime. Did the final season really deserve an Outstanding Series nomination over Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation? He also suggests that it’s time for the Emmys to expand the major categories to ten nominees each, in order to better represent the overwhelming number of shows and performances vying for recognition. I think that’s a great idea; some of the categories already have seven nominees. But let’s face it: expanding the categories doesn’t mean that more critically favored but Emmy-retardant shows like Justified, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans or Hannibal would suddenly find a seat at the table. More likely, given Emmy voters’ tendencies, we’d just see more middle of the road choices. This year, the Outstanding Comedy category might have made room for Parks and Recreation, but it would probably have also included shows like Two and a Half Men, The Middle and Mike & Molly over Community, The Mindy Project or Arrested Development. Still, I agree with Goodman; it’s time for an expansion.

As usual many of the nominees released statements of gratitude. Best Reaction Statement: Don Cheadle, House of Lies (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy) – “Given all the hilarious film work I’ve done, from Traffic to Crash to Flight, it’s nice to finally be recognized as the comic genius I am. Thank you, Academy members.” Second Best Reaction Statement goes to Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama) -“Yer chomoe anhaan. Jin ha Khalaan, shekh ma shieraki anni. For those not fluent in Dothraki, it translates to: You do honor to me. This is for the Khal — my sun and stars.”

Now then, for your belated consideration…

These write-ups make no attempt to avoid spoilers, so if you come across one for a show you haven’t seen yet but intend to watch someday, I advise you to skip it.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Denis O’Hare – True Blood
Although it’s past its prime and I watch it more now out of habit, there was a time when True Blood was really killing it (the current season has actually been pretty strong). But the Emmys have never had much use for it. A shame; its terrific second season earned it a nomination for Best Drama Series, and it has garnered some below-the-line nominations over the years – sound editing, makeup, casting, that sort of thing. But probably because it’s an out-there, gothic fantasy soap opera, it has often been unfairly overlooked, especially in the acting department. In five seasons, only a single acting nomination has been bestowed: Alfre Woodard for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, from the third season. I like Woodard, but hers was hardly the most deserving or memorable performance True Blood has given us. Nelsan Ellis should have been cited in the first year or two for his great performance as Lafayette, and Michelle Forbes was robbed of recognition for her luscious turn as the second season’s antagonist, Maryann Forrester. And where was the Guest Star nomination after Season Three for James Frain as the sicko vampire Franklin Mott?

Also robbed after season three, was Denis O’Hare for his hilarious, whacked-out performance as extremist vampire king Russell Edgington. After being absent from season four, Edgington returned last year, colorful and crazy as ever, giving voters a chance to rectify their mistake. They failed to do so. O’Hare was nominated last year in the TV Movie or Miniseries group for his role on season one of American Horror Story. If he could get nominated for that, he surely deserves a nod for his far more memorable work as Edgington. (Come to think of it, why has American Horror Story been embraced so enthusiastically by Emmy voters while True Blood has been repeatedly stiffed? If anything, AHS is even more lurid and over-the-top.)

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Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: David Lynch – Louie
In a three episode arc last season, Louie was under consideration to replace a retiring David Letterman as host of CBS’ Late Show. In order to see if he has the right stuff, the chairman of CBS sends Louie to an old school TV producer named Jack Dall to help whip him into shape. As I watched the episode, I was stunned and delighted to discover filmmaker David Lynch playing Dall. Like his films, Lynch is a little…odd. He’s pleasant and mild-mannered, but always seems just slightly out of sync with the world around him. As C.K. explains in this story about how he got Lynch to do the show, he wasn’t looking for the director to show up and be someone else; he wanted Lynch to be Lynch. Layering his own unique, deadpan persona on top of the cryptic, impatient Dall, Lynch was bone-dry hilarious, fitting right at home with the often surreal tone of C.K.’s show. Lynch the director would be proud of Lynch the actor, and Emmy should have taken note.

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Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: Chris Colfer – Glee
An Emmy darling after its first season, Glee has largely disappeared from the awards landscape after subsequent seasons have proven uneven. It picked up some nominations here and there yesterday, but it has mostly dropped off the radar when it comes to awards. I can’t really argue with that. But one aspect of the show that was great from the start and hasn’t faltered is Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt Hummel, a character destined to be remembered as one of the most important in television history. The series may have jumped a number of sharks by now, but it tends to be at its best when Kurt is around, because Colfer is too genuine to let it get away with its more absurd tendencies. He’s a performer who exudes authenticity, and so it seems that the writers—by the very nature of having to serve him—are forced to come up with stronger material. And he never lets us down. His vocal range continues to astound, and across the entire television landscape he’s probably second only to Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey in his ability to deliver a line (especially a cutting one) with brilliant timing and precision. Colfer’s work on Glee has already earned him two Emmy nominations, plus a Golden Globe win, but his fortunes have faded along with the show’s. Too bad; he still deserves the accolades.

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Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series: David Nutter – Game of Thrones (The Rains of Castamere)
For the second year in a row, I’m bewildered by the absence of a single directing nomination for the impeccably produced and impossibly scaled epic series that deserves mention in this category for both its narrative accomplishments and its production quality. Seriously, how in the seven kingdoms does this series not get cited for Directing? While almost any episode of the season would actually be a worthy contender here, the obvious choice would be the now infamous ninth episode “The Rains of Castamere,” which climaxes with the shock and awe of the Red Wedding. (At least the episode scored a writing nomination.) The tension builds during the initial scenes at The Twins, and then when we get to those last ten minutes, in which the trauma is parsed out with thrilling dexterity. The closing of the hall door. The change in the music. The looks exchanged between Catelyn and Bolton. The stabbing of Talisa. The rain of arrows. Then we’re outside with Arya, her excitement disintegrating when she sees the Stark men being killed, followed by Grey Wind. Back in the hall, Catelyn’s desperate plea to Walder Frey. Bolton’s final betrayal and Robb’s death. And then Catelyn after she cuts her hostage’s throat, after she lets out a final wail for her murdered first-born, the camera slowly pushing in as she stands there utterly spent, her husband killed, her daughters captive and all her sons dead (as far as she knows). She stands there and we wonder, “Is it done?” And then just when maybe we think the worst is over, in steps one of Frey’s men to end her too. She falls out of frame. The camera holds for another moment before the credits roll in silence. C’mon, Emmy voters. This was a no-brainer.

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Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series: Mike White – Enlightened (The Ghost is Seen)
In just a single half hour of this little seen HBO gem, writer/actor Mike White delivers one of the most honest, heartwrenching, haunting portraits of loneliness I’ve ever encountered. He doesn’t just expose it from an objective, bird’s-eye view; he takes you inside it, right into its beating, yearning heart and shows what it feels like to live with it everyday, enveloped in it, trapped by it, resigned to it. The episode focuses on White’s own introverted character Tyler and the connection he makes with Eileen (nominated guest star Molly Shannon), the executive assistant to the head of the company, and therefore the unwitting foil in Amy’s mission to expose the illegal activities of the corporation and its CEO. The scenes between Tyler and Eileen are as awkward as they are sweet, and if this doesn’t sound like it belongs in a comedy category alongside shows like Modern Family or Parks and Recreation, well, Enlightened is indeed a different ilk, walking that fine line between comedy and drama, and probably leaning slightly toward the other side if we’re being honest. But whether it’s labeled a comedy or drama for awards purposes shouldn’t ultimately matter. The quality of the writing speaks for itself, and this exquisite episode should not have been passed over.

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Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Jack Huston – Boardwalk Empire
From the moment he was introduced about halfway through the first season, Huston’s Richard Harrow was one of television’s most interesting characters, and one of my favorites. A WWI veteran who wears a specially designed mask over half of his face to conceal a disfiguring battle wound, Harrow is soft-spoken and alone when he meets Jimmy Darmody in an army hospital. After joining up with Jimmy in the bootlegging business, the former sharpshooter discovered a sense of renewed purpose. Upon his promotion to series regular in the second season, Harrow’s role expanded and deepened. This past season, in the aftermath of Jimmy’s death, he became a caretaker to Jimmy’s little boy Tommy (a duty he shares with Jimmy’s mother, who provides him a room in her brothel). He also falls in love with a kind, pretty woman who loves him back, only to reach the conclusion that his hope for a normal life may not be in the cards.

Harrow is a man divided not just physically, but psychologically. He is gentle and sensitive with those he loves, but brutal with those who threaten him or the people he cares about. Both sides battled it out this season, and Huston’s consistent ability to underplay the character winds up making him one of the show’s strongest performers. It may be Harrow’s face that is damaged, but really his wound informs the way his whole body moves. Huston plays him with deliberate physicality – usually hesitant, but quick and determined when he becomes deadly. He still speaks softly—and nervously—but he also carries a big stick (in the shape of a shotgun). Huston—a member of the showbiz dynasty that includes aunt Anjelica and grandfather John—makes the dichotomy between Harrow’s halves into fascinating, essential, Emmy-worthy viewing.

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Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series: Scott A. Gimple – The Walking Dead (Clear)
This quiet, thoughtful episode, which provided a respite from the escalating tension between Team Prison and Team Woodbury, finds Rick, Carl and Michonne taking a drive to Rick’s old town in the hopes of securing weapons from the police station. What they find is the main street rigged with elaborate zombie traps, and the man responsible for it: Morgan, Rick’s former neighbor who saved his life after he woke up in the hospital and wandered home unaware of what had happened to the world. Morgan chose to remain behind when Rick went in search of his family, and this episode finally brought him back, as a broken, half-crazed shell so far gone that he initially doesn’t even recognize Rick, and tries to kill him. As Rick attempts to bring Morgan around, he sees him as a warning sign. He has been dangerously close to the same line that Morgan has crossed, and their encounter becomes an important step in his efforts to reclaim himself. Carl, meanwhile, reveals his own agenda for coming along: the recovery of a family photo that will offer the only picture of his mother that his baby sister will ever have. His determination to get it partners him with Micchone, still seen as an outsider by the group.

The episode offers a stark look at how the new world our characters populate can get the best of those who are incapable of retaining hope, and that survival—not just existence, but real survival—takes more than guns and ammo. Gimple provided an unexpected and creative way to bring Morgan back to the show that didn’t merely satisfy fans, but also furthered the overall story. He also did a nice job balancing Rick and Morgan’s reunion with the side journey that provided some badly needed development for an underserved Michonne.

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Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: Patton Oswalt – Parks and Recreation
Having made memorable appearances on seven shows during the past year, Patton Oswalt was recently named TV’s Most Valuable Guest Star by Vulture. The most memorable of those appearances may have been on Parks and Recreation, as Pawnee history enthusiast Garth Blundin, whose opposition to Leslie’s planned repeal of numerous outdated town laws leads him to deliver the greatest filibuster in the history of filibustering. Star Wars and Marvel Comics fans should take note. (If Republicans filibustered like this in our actual Congress, we all might be less critical of them flagrantly overusing it.) Leslie and Garth eventually make a wager that finds them living in a Pawnee Historical Cabin with only 19th century tools and methods at their disposal. Oswalt is, of course, the perfect guy to play a part like this, lovably inhabiting a smug, know-it-all nerd and making sure we like him enough not to turn against him when he outdoes our beloved Leslie. Oswalt tapped into his own irrepressible enthusiasm for pop culture when he delivered the entirely improvised filibuster, which lasted for about eight minutes. Of course, only a short piece could be used on the show, but the full speech was released on YouTube and became a viral sensation. If nothing else, Oswalt deserved an Emmy nomination for going so imaginatively above and beyond the call of duty.

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Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Hugh Dancy – Hannibal
Not that I’ve been following reactions too closely, but the sense I’ve gotten is that the lion’s share of attention for Hannibal‘s acting has gone to Mads Mikkelsen for his quiet, controlled work as Hannibal Lecter. But it’s co-lead Hugh Dancy who delivers the show’s more gripping performance and who deserved recognition from Emmy voters. His Will Graham has such an acute, overdeveloped sense of empathy that he is able to imagine himself as the killers he hunts, executing their crimes himself and therefore gaining unique understanding into their methods and motivations. But this takes an increasingly dire toll on his state of mind, as he begins to identify so deeply with one serial killer in particular that he worries about crossing the line and becoming a killer himself. Hannibal takes us visually into Graham’s point of view to show us what he sees, but Dancy takes us much further and reveals things only an actor can. He wears the oppressive weight of Will’s visions in every fiber of his physical being. He cloaks himself in Will’s fatigue, isolation, and anxiety, drawing us so close that we can practically smell the fevered sweat that accompanies his sleepless nights and haunted dreams. There’s an obvious sadness and loneliness to Will, but while it is directly acknowledged, Dancy never plays it for sympathy. He earns the audience’s identification through the wholeness of his performance, not through cheap emotional manipulation. It’s a truly fascinating portrayal, understated and underrated. Dancy will likely be at the Emmys anyway, accompanying his nominated wife Claire Danes. But he should be there as a nominee himself.

This is off-topic, but I feel compelled to say that I have mixed feelings about Hannibal in general. On one hand, it may be the most gorgeously art directed and photographed TV show I’ve ever seen. The entire visual design is extraordinary. On the other hand, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything so relentlessly, overbearingly bleak. This show is daaaark. Not just its highly disturbing imagery (made all the more unsettling because the crime scenes, like everything on the show, are staged so artfully), but the entire sensibility. There is precious little humor or levity to break the tension. It’s not so much a suspenseful tone as it is a severe one. It’s all so Serious and Heavy. In a way, the show has a hypnotic feel that distinguishes it from anything else I watch. But rarely did an episode go by that didn’t have me thinking at least once, “Jesus, this is too much!” (At least they seem to be having fun on the set.) It doesn’t help that some of the violence really bothers me…and I’m not someone who usually has an aversion to on-screen violence. All told, I’m debating whether or not to stick with it when the next season begins. I admire and appreciate so many things about it, but I can’t exactly say that I enjoy it.

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Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series: Jeremy Webb – Downton Abbey (Episode 5)
Jeremy Webb did earn a nomination in the Directing category, but I would argue that it was for the wrong episode. The nomination should have come for the subsequent installment, which delivered the shocking death of Lady Sybil. News of actor Dan Stevens’ departure from the show was all over the internet a few months before Downton‘s third season had its U.S. premiere, so we had a pretty good idea of what was coming down the road for his Matthew Crawley. But the departure of actress Jessica Brown Findlay was preceded by no such commotion, allowing the excellent work done by Webb, writer Julian Fellowes and the cast to take us by complete surprise. Sybil’s demise, which comes in the middle of the night, hours after delivering a healthy baby girl, seemed more shocking than so many other TV deaths because it felt so random. Downton Abbey may be classy, but it’s still a soap opera, with all the melodramatic ups and downs that go with such territory. But Webb directed the scene with such plain, stark realism that it transcended the melodrama. The veil between the audience and the screen dropped, and we were brought into the room along with the family, experiencing the terror, confusion and helplessness as palpably as they did while Sybil writhed in her bed, struggled to breathe, turned ghostly pale and finally expired. We shared in the stunned silence when Dr. Clarkson pronounced her dead, and then shared the pang of heartbreak when her newborn daughter began crying offscreen.

I realize that, as with the Game of Thrones example above, I’m focusing on one scene from an hour-long show. But sometimes that’s all it takes to make an episode. And to be clear, many moments that follow were handled just as effectively by Webb: the servants learning the news in the middle of the night, the Dowager Countess’ arrival the following morning, and the final shot of Sybil’s widowed husband Tom, holding his baby as he stands alone at a window of the house in which he has never felt entirely welcome.

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So there’s that. Finally, a few other odds and ends from further down the list of nominations:

-The nominees for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special included Don Mischer for The Oscars. Sorry, but no. At the risk of beating a dead horse (and one that nobody other than me cares about), Mischer’s direction of the Oscars was, as I said at the time, incompetent, and has been for the past few years.

-There are a couple of categories that I hadn’t heard of before, one called Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs, the other called Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Nonfiction Programs. I noticed them this time because they included some nominees from the internet that made me smile: Zach Galifianakis’ hilarious faux-interview show Between Two Ferns was cited in the former, along with the brilliant web series Burning Love, while Jerry Seinfeld’s excellent Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee was nominated in the latter. Great to see these three programs recognized.

-There’s an award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series, and this year’s nominees are Arrested Development, The Borgias, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Last Resort and Mr. Selfridge. I find it hard to believe that all of those shows offered better dramatic scoring than Game of Thrones, on which composer Ramin Djawadi does better work on a weekly basis than most theatrical movies have done in the past few years. Since each show is cited for a specific episode, I’ll submit this past season’s fourth installment of Thrones. The music accompanying the climactic sequence (Daenarys taking ownership of the Unsullied) and end credits was worth a nomination on its own. Also missing here: composer Mark Mothersbaugh, the former Devo member whose scoring for Enlightened was the most original and effective I can recall for any show in a long while.

-The Emmys give awards for Art Direction, Cinematography, Lighting Design, and other such technical achievements. This year, an obvious nominee in all three of those categories would have been Hannibal, which as I mentioned above, is one of the most visually arresting shows I’ve ever seen. Amazingly, it was passed over in all of these categories. In fact, the show didn’t score a single nomination. If you’ve seen it, you’d agree: that’s unfathomable. (Anyone as geeky as me who might be interested in seeing the full list of nominations that includes these below-the-line categories like Art Direction, Makeup, Special Effects, Music, etc. can have at it here.)

Okay, that about does it. If you’re inclined to share any thoughts of your own, I’d love to hear them.

This year’s Emmy Awards will air Sunday, September 22 on CBS. Until then, I’ll close out with another favorite moment from Emmy past, as I did last year. This one doubles as a tribute to Glee‘s Cory Monteith, who died this week at age 31. The words “too soon” are too small. Here’s the clever, rousing opening to the 2010 ceremony, featuring host Jimmy Fallon, Monteith and some of his Glee comrades, and more.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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…

ROBERT DOWNEY JR. – TROPIC THUNDER (2008)
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.

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JENNIFER LOPEZ – OUT OF SIGHT (1998)
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.

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JOE PESCI – LETHAL WEAPON 2 (1989)
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.

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DENZEL WASHINGTON – THE HURRICANE (1999)
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.

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SEAN PENN – MILK (2008)
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.

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JAMIE BELL – BILLY ELLIOT (2000)
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.

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EMILY BLUNT – THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
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.

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ANDY SERKIS – THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)
Gollum
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.

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JOAQUIN PHOENIX – GLADIATOR (2000)
Commodus
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.

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KATE WINSLET – ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
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.

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JEFF BRIDGES – THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
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.

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JOHN GOODMAN – THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
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?

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ELLEN BURSTYN – REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)
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.

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JACK NICHOLSON – THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
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.

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MARION COTILLARD – LA VIE EN ROSE (2007)
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.

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AL PACINO – DICK TRACY (1990)
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.

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GUY PEARCE – L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)
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.

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RUSSELL CROWE – THE INSIDER (1999)
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.

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CATE BLANCHETT – ELIZABETH (1998)
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.

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ALAN RICKMAN – DIE HARD (1988)
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.

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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:
Preamble
Part I
Part II
Part IV
Part V

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