I Am DB

August 14, 2012

It Was a Shark

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A few months ago, I wrote about this year marking my 25th anniversary as a tragic movie fan, and I cited the unexpected dramedy Nothing in Common as a movie that might have played a key role in my becoming such a fan…or at least in the timing of when it happened. The movie I write about here is one that most definitely affected my growing passion for movies, though it would be a few years after 1987 that its impact fully hit me. The movie was Jaws, and today it makes its debut on Blu-Ray disc.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I first took note of Jaws as more than just that shark movie I’d watch part of on TV with my dad. By then, my fascination with movies was all-consuming, and Steven Spielberg was more real a god to me than the one I was supposed to pray to in temple each week. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind through Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, E.T., Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Innerspace, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg was the name attached to some of my favorite movies. It was my curiosity about him that led me to understand what a director does, and what an executive producer is. And Jaws was the movie where I first realized there was a technique behind movies. If Nothing in Common first showed me the emotional impact movies could have, Jaws first showed me that what I was watching was the result of a camera being placed in a certain position and zooming in, panning across, etc. The picture was being deliberately framed in a certain way to convey information or to help tell the story somehow. I probably couldn’t have articulated it as such at the time, but I understood that there was a method at work. And I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that realization changed my life. From that point on, I watched movies through a new pair of eyes.

It’s not that I hadn’t been struck by shot composition at that point. I noticed when something looked “cool”, even in movies I hadn’t yet seen. I remember watching clips of The Untouchables on Siskel & Ebert and other movie shows, and noticing  interesting shots such as the low angle view of Kevin Costner, towering in the frame with an ornate domed ceiling above him. But Jaws made me aware not just of how shots could look good, but how they could work for the movie. When the Orca departs the harbor to head for sea, the scene is photographed from inside Quint’s workshop, the camera slowly pushing in on a window which itself is framed by a pair of gaping shark jaws, suggesting that our three heroes are heading into the belly of the beast. The first of the film’s major beach scenes, which climaxes in the death of Alex Kintner, also made me aware of filmmaking tools. The way Spielberg focused on a sitting Chief Brody and his view of the activity in the water, using passersby to serve as camera wipes from one shot to the next, or the famous dolly zoom shot depicting Brody’s reaction to the fountain of blood that erupts upon the shark’s seizure of Alex. The Fourth of July beach scene, which also climaxes with a shark attack – this one on a man attempting to assist a group of boys that includes Brody’s son – ends with a shot as simple but effective as Brody looking up in the direction of the now departed shark, and the camera pushing in to suggest the inevitable showdown that will occur in those waters.

The things I learned from the movie didn’t stop there. Long before any English teacher introduced the concept of foreshadowing in literature, I learned about it as it related to Jaws. It wasn’t the movie itself, but a book about Steven Spielberg that I found in the library which illustrated how the director employed this technique. There was the dog playing fetch with his owner during the first beach sequence. Before the shark surfaces for Alex, we see the owner calling out the dog’s name, answered only by the stick floating on the water. Later, toward the beginning of the Orca’s expedition, Brody has a close encounter with one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks, eliciting a warning from Hooper that if he’s not careful the tank could explode. Spielberg then reminds us of the tanks later on, when the shark rams the boat, knocking Hooper and Brody off their feet and causing Brody to lunge toward the tank to keep it from falling over. The shark’s eventual fate is actually telegraphed much earlier, when Brody is at home looking through books about sharks. Among the many pictures he stops to ponder is one in which a shark has some kind of cylindrical device – it almost looks like a small missile – in its mouth.

I realize that I’m not illuminating these things for anybody now; just pointing out that at the time I came to understand them, they had quite an impact on me.

The most significant example of foreshadowing, as I learned from this Spielberg book, was how Quint’s Indianapolis story makes his demise inevitable. His tale of surviving the shark onslaught that killed so many who had been on the U.S.S. Indianapolis after it was torpedoed by the Japanese establishes his history with these creatures, reveals his true motives and seals his fate. It also happens to be one of those legendary scenes in movie history, not only for Robert Shaw’s riveting delivery, but for how it came about in the first place. In fact, Jaws is one of those movies whose behind the scenes tales are as famous and engrossing as the finished film. It’s a movie for which the public’s fascination never abates, and I had fun digging into some of the lore as I prepared this piece. So beware: this post is about to spin out of control into a rambling potpourri of thoughts, observations, trivia, etc. about Jaws. Feel free to abandon ship.

Quint has always been a point of fascination for me. In fact, Robert Shaw as Quint might be my favorite movie performance ever, though I don’t know if I could ever really commit to so bold a claim. Forget the fact that Quint is just a great character to begin with, but what Shaw does with him always struck me as wholly unique. Quint is so authentically bizarre that I could never imagine that he existed on paper in any way close to how Shaw played him. The little songs he sings (“Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…”) and poems he recites (“Here lies the body of Mary Lee, died at the age of a hundred and three…”), not to mention his many other random mumblings…basically everything about him. It always felt to me like there was no acting going on there. No writer had come up with this guy. He just showed up on set, fully formed.

I finally decided – as I was preparing to write this – that I would see how exactly Quint did exist prior to the movie. So for the first time, I read Peter Benchley’s novel on which Jaws is based. I didn’t know much about it, or how it might differ from the movie, other than being aware that the movie omitted a sexual tryst between Hooper and Ellen Brody. Thinking of the characters as played by Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, it seems unlikely that they would ever get together. But the Hooper of the book is a much different character than the scruffy, bearded, genial guy portrayed by Dreyfuss. In the book, he’s clean-shaven and clean-cut, more WASPy and more openly flirtatious with Ellen, whom he knows from years earlier (she had dated his older brother when he was 10). The book puts a great deal of emphasis on Amity’s class differences, detailing a tense dynamic between the island’s blue-collar, year-round residents and the rich vacationers who come for the summer. It establishes that Ellen was once part of the latter, but her marriage to Martin Brody has removed her from that world, which she’s beginning to long for. Hooper represents a connection, and she pursues an affair with him. While Brody never becomes aware of the infidelity, he suspects it, and even before that he resents Hooper and his privileged status. They are not the fast friends in the book that they are in the film; their relationship is antagonistic throughout the novel.

The book also includes an organized crime subplot, in which Amity mayor Larry Vaughn is in trouble with some shady business partners, giving him an even more personal financial motivation to keep the beaches open and the summer money rolling in. The last significant difference between book and film constitutes a pretty big spoiler for people who may actually want to read the book, so I’ll hide the text and you can highlight it if you want to know. In the book, Brody is the only survivor of the final battle at sea. Hooper doesn’t escape the shark cage, as he does in the film. The shark busts through it and takes him before he can escape. When it surfaces, the lifeless Hooper is still clasped in its teeth. The deaths of both Quint and the shark play out differently as well. How the shark dies is actually unclear to me, but I think it’s the effect of multiple harpoon and stab wounds. Quint, meanwhile, isn’t eaten, but rather drowns when his foot gets caught in a rope attached to one of the barrels they fire at the shark. As the struggling fish swims wildly away, it takes Quint with it.

There are lots of other differences as well, but more in keeping with the normal types of changes that occur in the adaptation process. The role of the local newspaper man, Harry Meadows, is much larger in the book, while Mrs. Kintner’s encounter with Brody after her son dies is longer and angrier than the movie version. Something the book captures nicely which the movie doesn’t quite manage is how dire the effect on Amity will be if the summer tourist season fails. In the film, Mayor Vaughn is made out to be a bit of a villain, driven by greed to keep the beaches open despite the threat of the shark. “Amity is a summer town,” he tells Brody. “We need summer dollars.” But the movie doesn’t go much further than that, whereas the book lays plain that if Amity doesn’t make enough money in the summer, the town may literally not survive the lean winter. Businesses will fail, residents will have to move…Amity will become a year-round ghost town, and will never be able to recover.

Getting back to Quint, well, he’s certainly tough, terse and salty on the pages of Benchley’s novel, but lacks the distinctive personality he has in the film. Still curious as to how much of the performance sprung from Shaw’s own instinct vs. the screenplay, I fished around for that too. Benchley’s contract gave him first crack at the script, and the version he turned in was fairly different from both his novel and the eventual film. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown had already decreed that the sex subplot be removed so that the story could focus on the adventure of the shark hunt, so Hooper and Ellen’s fling was eliminated early. Quint’s role also had to be expanded. He features much more prominently in Benchley’s script than he did in the book, and he is painted as a pretty eccentric guy. Many of the specifics are different from what would ultimately be featured in the movie, but I give credit where credit is due: Quint was as colorful in Benchley’s script as he was in the finished film.

It was determined that more work was needed on the screenplay, so the next draft was written by Howard Sackler, who had written Stanley Kubrick’s first two features Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, as well as The Great White Hope. Sackler had only a short time to work on the project, and apparently asked not to receive credit. From there, Spielberg hired a friend named Carl Gottlieb, casting him in the reduced-from-novel role of news reporter Harry Meadows as well. Gottlieb and Benchley received final credit for the screenplay. But as fans of the movie know, there were yet other writers involved. Stories have always swirled around the true author of the aforementioned U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue, and there still seems to be a lack of clarity. Spielberg has said, as recently as last year in an epic interview about Jaws that he gave to writer Eric Vespe (aka Quint) from Ain’t It Cool News, that Sackler was the first writer to introduce the Indianapolis story into the Jaws script. Yet the draft by Benchley that I referenced earlier  – supposedly the first draft to be turned in – features a short version of the tale. Who knows, maybe that script is a fraud, but the Indianapolis seeds are there. Check it out, and scroll way down to Scene 191. Either way, various versions of the story seem to agree that from there, Spielberg’s filmmaker friend John Milius took the speech and turned it into an epic, ten page stunner of a monologue. Then Robert Shaw, who was not just an actor but also an acclaimed novelist and playwright, took Milius’ speech and pared it down himself. Shaw’s version is what appears in the film. Supposedly. The full and complete genesis of the scene may never be known, but the end result speaks for itself.

Of course, I don’t know if any of the Jaws scripts floating around online can accurately reflect the finished product (unless they’re transcribed directly from that), since the film’s notoriously difficult shoot resulted in so much revision and improvisation. For anyone who might be interested, here’s another draft, credited to Benchley and Gottlieb. Although it’s much closer to the finished film, it’s still not exact, but it could be the actual draft that was turned in. Given how much new writing was done during production, there probably isn’t an official script that matches the final film. With shooting frequently delayed or impossible due to technical problems with the shark, evenings often found Spielberg, Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, Gottlieb and editor Verna Fields working together to delve deeper into the characters and relationships. They would come up with new ideas and Gottlieb would generate new script pages, so the film was constantly evolving. It’s generally agreed that the problems with filming the shark are a huge part of the reason that the movie is so good. Had the mechanical behemoth worked perfectly, Spielberg probably would have featured it more prominently, which would have lessened the impact it had. By being forced to show the shark less often, Spielberg was able to make count the moments when it was onscreen.

Some of my favorite elements of Jaws have nothing to do with the shark. The movie basically consists of two parts. Part One takes place in Amity as the town deals with its unwanted offshore guest, while Part Two follows Brody, Hooper and Quint at sea. And although most people probably think of the movie for the scenes on the water – from the opening sequence with the attack on Chrissie to everything in Part Two – I’ve always loved Spielberg’s depiction of Amity throughout Part One. He captures the community so vividly, presenting such a natural and authentic portrait of the townsfolk and their chatter. A lot of the smaller parts were cast with local actors, many of whom stand out so clearly. Though she is uncredited in the movie and never mentioned by name, one of the more prominent townspeople is Mrs. Taft, a hotel owner, played by the perfectly named Fritzi Jane Courtney. Tell me that this lady doesn’t exist in every single town in America, serving on the City Council or the school committee for like, 50 years. There’s also the big guy with the checkered hunter’s cap and the camouflage jacket who greets Hooper when he arrives at the dock. (“Hello back…young fella, how are ya?”) I’ve seen this character referred to online and in writings as Ben Gardner, but I don’t know when that is ever established in the movie. Gardner is mentioned a few times, but never in connection with this figure. And of course, who could forget another of Jaws‘ great minor characters, the heavy fisherman who has a comic reaction to learning what kind of shark he and his buddies have just caught.

The presence of people like this, backing up the naturalistic performances of Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, Gary and Murray Hamilton as Mayor Vaughn, helps make the first half of Jaws as memorable and rich as any of the scenes at sea. Of course, the cast might have looked a bit different from how it ended up. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Brody, Hooper or Quint, other names were in play. Spielberg is said to have wanted Robert Duvall to play Brody, but the actor wasn’t interested, preferring Quint. Spielberg didn’t think he was right for the part, so they parted ways, though apparently the director later admitted that he was wrong not to have seen Duvall could have been great as the Orca’s captain. As it was, he first offered Quint to Lee Marvin, who turned it down. Then he went to Sterling Hayden, who was unavailable. Producers Zanuck and Brown had just worked with Robert Shaw on The Sting, and thought he would make a great Quint. Shaw turned it down at first, reportedly calling the novel “a piece of shit”, but his wife convinced him to take the part.

Richard Dreyfuss was Spielberg’s first choice for Hooper, but the actor turned him down at least twice, saying that he would much rather watch Jaws than shoot it. But then he watched a pre-release screening of his most recent film, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and felt he was so terrible in it that if he didn’t have another job lined up before the movie came out, he might never be hired again. He begged Spielberg for the role, and the director was happy to comply. As for the part of Brody, Spielberg was having trouble finding the right actor, until he met Roy Scheider at a party. In author Nigel Andrews’ book about Jaws for the Bloomsbury Movie Guide series, Scheider recalls hearing Spielberg talking to someone about a project in which a shark would jump out of the water and land on the deck of a boat, cracking it in half. He thought they were crazy. A couple of months later, he says, Spielberg called him and asked him if he was interested in the part. Spielberg’s recollection is slightly different. In the Ain’t It Cool News interview linked above, he affirms that they met at a party, but says he was sitting on a couch and feeling a bit glum about his inability to cast Brody, when Scheider approached, introduced himself and asked why he looked so down. He says Scheider then suggested himself for the part, and Spielberg loved the idea, having enjoyed his performance in The French Connection. The actor did have concerns during filming that Brody came off as too weak and clumsy opposite Quint and Hooper, but he needn’t have worried. Brody is the audience’s surrogate, and as such we relate to him most easily. The film doesn’t disrespect him, but does derive humor from his aversion to the water and his lack of experience on boats. And he gets some of the best moments in the movie, from the shark’s first full-on appearance just beyond the chum bucket to the classic line that follows to the climactic showdown as the Orca sinks. Brody’s the fucking man.

Jaws became the highest grossing film in history during its initial run, and was the first movie to make over $100 million at the box office, ushering in – alongside The Exorcist and previous box office champ The Godfather – the blockbuster era. It has sometimes been denigrated for this, but in the 70’s more so than the decades that followed, great movies and box office hits were often one and the same. Like those two earlier movies, Jaws was based on a popular novel, and just like The Godfather, it is widely agreed that the movie improved upon and deepened an entertaining but soap opera-ish book. It went on to success at the Academy Awards, though it didn’t earn nearly as many nominations as either The Exorcist or The Godfather. Spielberg was actually being filmed by a TV crew on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, and his reactions display good humor despite not being nominated himself and the movie not being recognized in more categories. (C’mon, how was Robert Shaw not nominated?!?)

It eventually went three for four, winning Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Score for John Williams’ classic music. It lost only Best Picture. In the wake of the movie’s success, obligatory and inferior sequels followed. Scheider was apparently under contract to return, but neither Dreyfuss, Shaw or Spielberg were involved. According to Nigel Andrews’ book, Spielberg toyed with the idea of doing Jaws 2 as a prequel, telling the story of the Indianapolis, but the idea never went anywhere. I don’t even know if it’s true. Andrews cites no sources for any of the information in his book, and Spielberg says in the Ain’t It Cool News interview that he had no ideas about what he might have done with Jaws 2, and that he couldn’t face the prospect of another ocean shoot anyway. However as this article from Den of Geek! neatly summarizes, several attempts have been made to film the saga of the Indianapolis, with J.J. Abrams and Robert Downey, Jr. among the more recent names attached.

There’s so much more to say about Jaws, but it’s already been said in books, magazines, documentaries, etc. For the truly obsessive, I came across this amazingly in-depth blog called A Mouth Full of Butcher Knives, whose author delves exhaustively into the film, first by comparing it to the novel in detail, and then by analyzing it scene by scene. It’s an ongoing project that he’s still in the middle of, but his knowledge and ability to explore the film in various contexts is seriously impressive. Any Jaws lover should give it a look. So really, what can I add? This post has already gone off the rails. The main points are: Jaws was a formative movie for me; it’s a classic that never loses its power; the Blu-Ray is getting rave reviews and you should check it out not only to enjoy the film itself, but to dig into the extras and learn about all the stories I’ve been recounting (plus more) from the people who actually experienced them. I don’t know how one DVD could contain it all. They’re gonna need a bigger disc.

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
Tags: , , , ,

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

July 17, 2012

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

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

Okay, we’re off and running. Let’s continue…

KATHY BATES – MISERY (1990)
Annie Wilkes
Bates was mostly known for theatre work when director Rob Reiner smartly cast her in the starring role of this taut Stephen King adaptation. She’s dynamite as the frumpy, possibly bipolar, definitely psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan), whom she rescues from near-death when his car goes off an icy road in the remotes of Colorado. Pleasant enough at first, Annie’s dark side emerges when Paul’s newest book comes out and she learns that he has killed off the main character of her favorite series. As she holds Paul prisoner, forcing him to write the character’s resurrection, Bates slowly reveals Annie’s layers of insanity. She transitions from affable to frightening with slippery ease, and presents a chilling portrait of obsession.

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SEAN CONNERY – THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)
Jimmy Malone
As a veteran Chicago cop who joins FBI agent Eliot Ness on a crusade to bring down Al Capone, Sean Connery kicked off a career revival – winning an Oscar, becoming an A-list star all over again and proving there was life long after James Bond. Connery’s Malone brings the calming voice of experience to Ness’ small crew, and the actor fills the role in much the same way with his younger co-stars, his looseness and humor playing strongly off Kevin Costner’s straight-arrow Fed and Andy Garcia’s novice cop. Like many mentors of film and literature, this one has to take his leave in order for the hero to fulfill his destiny, and Connery makes the most of Malone’s final moments with an unforgettable farewell.

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JACK BLACK – SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003)
Dewey Finn
School of Rock is an absolute perfect marriage of star and vehicle. The movie could not exist without Jack Black, and it’s the movie he was born to make. As a wannabe rock star who poses as a substitute teacher at an elite private elementary school and uses his musically talented students to fulfill his dreams of rocking, Black’s trademark goofball energy serves a story that couldn’t be more apt for the Tenacious D frontman. His interaction with his young co-stars, all great in their own right, is terrific fun to watch. This movie makes me smile beginning to end, thanks largely to Black hitting every note.

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TILDA SWINTON – MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)
Karen Crowder
Tilda Swinton is one of our most unique and original actresses, yet in Michael Clayton, it is her ordinariness that becomes so captivating. She plays a corporate attorney so desperate to save her case, her firm and her career that she sells her soul to do it…but like everything in Michael Clayton, this scenario plays out in a stripped down, un-heightened manner. Swinton digs deep as an average person who surprises and frightens herself upon discovering the evil she is capable of when backed into a corner. Whether sitting in a bathroom stall or standing on a New York street, Swinton’s Karen Crowder always looks trapped, and her attempts at humor or appearing relaxed are mere masks under which her anxiety stews. Her Oscar winning performance is mundanely chilling.

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EDWARD NORTON – PRIMAL FEAR (1996)
Aaron Stampler
Norton’s Oscar-nominated debut performance was so impressive that his audition tape alone became Hollywood legend, landing him major roles in films by Woody Allen and Milos Forman before Primal Fear even arrived in theaters. As a shy alter boy accused of savagely murdering a powerful and respected Chicago Archbishop, Norton is mesmerizing from the moment he opens his mouth. His agile performance – with that particularly killer mid-film scene in the interrogation room with Richard Gere – left no doubt upon Primal Fear‘s release that a huge new talent had arrived.

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PAUL NEWMAN – NOBODY’S FOOL (1994)
Donald “Sully” Sullivan
To watch Paul Newman’s sublime performance in Nobody’s Fool is to see one of the finest actors of all time at his assured best. Warm, witty and wry, Newman’s beautifully nuanced work seems entirely effortless. Though he had a few more stellar turns to give, Nobody’s Fool felt like the culmination of a career brimming with charming rogues. His command of the screen brings out the best in his co-stars, and his comfort with the material makes the film feel like a glimpse into the life of a real man in a real town with a real history. It’s a simple film offering simple pleasures, and for any movie fan, few things are more pleasurable than watching Paul Newman at the top of his game.

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BILLY BOB THORNTON – SLING BLADE (1996)
Karl Childers
Though he had an extensive background as a TV supporting actor and motion picture bit player, Billy Bob Thornton seemed to appear out of nowhere with one of the most stunning performances I’ve ever seen. Working from his own script and under his own direction, Thornton is nothing short of hypnotic as the gentle but deadly ex-convict who befriends a lonely, fatherless boy after being “turned loose” from a state mental hospital. With his guttural voice, nervous hand rubbing and scrunched neck, Thornton wholly disappeared into one of the most original characters in film history. That few people were familiar enough with him at the time to realize the extent of that disappearance didn’t matter. We would not soon forget Billy Bob Thornton.

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DENZEL WASHINGTON – GLORY (1989)
Trip
Playing a freed slave who enlists in the first regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War, Washington created a searing portrait of a man whose pride and anger run deep. Though Trip is initially confrontational with his fellow soldiers, Washington takes him further, eventually peeling back the front of bravado to reveal the insecurity and fear of a man coming to terms with the freedom he has so long craved, as well as the anger he can’t let go of. Washington steals every scene he’s in, and the look on his face during the whipping – a scene that on its own would have merited the Oscar he won – is eternally burned in my mind.

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FELICITY HUFFMAN – TRANSAMERICA (2005)
Bree
A well-respected actress on stage and television, Felicity Huffman proved with Transamerica that she could carry a film. In the days leading up to a long awaited gender reassignment operation that will complete her transformation from man to woman, Huffman’s Bree discovers that she has a 17 year-old son who is in serious need of some positive guidance. What follows is a lovely road movie charting both the development of their relationship on a cross country drive, and a journey of self-discovery for Bree. Neither the movie nor Huffman’s performance dwell on the transgender issue, and Huffman’s work is no stunt. The script provides a rich and original character, whom Huffman brings to life with affection and authenticity. Makeup helps to sell the illusion of a woman in physical transit, but cosmetics are only skin-deep. True transformation comes from within, and Huffman’s dry humor and big heart make Bree an immensely appealing protagonist.

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KEVIN BACON – MURDER IN THE FIRST (1994)
Henri Young
Kevin Bacon has been around for a long time and done consistently fine work in countless films, but he does his finest in this underseen courtroom drama. In a performance unlike any he’s given before or since, Bacon is sensational as an Alcatraz prisoner subjected to excessive torture by the institution’s cruel associate warden. Terrified, skittish and darting to and fro like a cornered animal, Henri has a deeply tragic story to which Bacon does great justice (even if the film may be less than historically accurate). Having been in jail since boyhood, Henri is a virgin, so at one point his lawyer arranges a visit from a prostitute. In Bacon’s hands, the scene becomes one of such aching sadness that it could move you to tears. He makes that sexual experience of Henri’s into a lament for every instance of joy, pleasure and hope that his incarceration has denied him. Bacon received a Screen Actor’s Guild nomination, but how was this great piece of acting overlooked by the Academy?

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PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN – CAPOTE (2005)
Truman Capote
A quarter of this list could easily be filled with performances by Hoffman, in roles both large (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Savages), small (Almost Famous, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski) and really small (Nobody’s Fool, Punch-Drunk Love). But his Oscar winning portrayal of Truman Capote’s self-destruction while writing In Cold Blood is a master class. Hoffman is fascinating in his delicacy as he shows Capote exploiting others to achieve his own ends, recognizing the cost of his manipulation but too exhilarated by the artistic possibilities to stop himself.

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ANTHONY HOPKINS – THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
There could be any number of ways to approach the role of the wickedly intelligent cannibal psychiatrist, and one can look at Brian Cox’s take on the character in Manhunter to see a much different approach. But Anthony Hopkins came up with an unforgettable interpretation, making Lecter somehow otherworldly – too human to be a monster, yet too alien to seem quite human. How does one come up with all the seemingly perfect ingredients to concoct such an eerie, original persona? With his approach to Lecter, Hopkins is a showcase in the mystery of great acting.

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JODIE FOSTER – THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Clarice Starling
Hopkins’ eccentric character is more pop-culture friendly, but as far as craft of acting goes, Foster matches him move-for-move and then some as the bright, ambitious FBI trainee whose supposedly innocent interview with Lecter sets her on a path to finding serial killer Buffalo Bill. Starling is the center of the movie, and Foster imbues her with the perfect combination of strength, intelligence and openness, as well as an intriguing asexuality and an awkwardness as she tries to make her mark in a field dominated by men. The scene in which she tells Lecter of her childhood attempt to save a lamb from slaughter cuts to the bone.

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EMILE HIRSCH – INTO THE WILD (2007)
Christopher McCandless
The role of Christopher McCandless is tremendously demanding – physically and emotionally – but Emile Hirsch rises to the challenge in a revelatory performance, throwing himself body and soul into the part of the real-life adventurer. However you feel about the choices McCandless made, Hirsch makes sure you are deeply invested in his journey. In his interactions with the various people he meets along the way (embodied by an ensemble of actors giving terrific performances of their own), he projects an intelligence, mystery and magnetism that makes you understand why people were so drawn to him. The film finds beauty in many places, but perhaps nowhere more so than in Hirsch’s soulful performance.

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TOM HANKS – FORREST GUMP (1994)
Forrest Gump
As the simpleton hero of an odyssey through latter 20th century American history and culture, Hanks created an iconic character that goes further and deeper than the “stupid is as stupid does” or “life is like a box of chocolates” catchphrases that permeated the zeitgeist. The film’s Forrest-stumbles-through-famous-incidents gimmick is amusing but less interesting as the years pass. What endures is Hanks’ beautiful performance, always grounded and heartfelt even when the film tips toward sentimentality. He does particularly wondrous work with co-stars Robin Wright and Gary Sinise, as well as in Forrest’s moments of solitude and stillness.

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JEFF DANIELS – THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005)
Bernard Berkman
Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s observant story about a Brooklyn couple’s divorce and its impact on their teenage sons gives Jeff Daniels perhaps the richest role of his long, diverse career; it’s the fillet of his filmography, as his character might say. Bernard is insufferably haughty, vainglorious and emotionally stunted, and it is to Daniels’ credit that we still feel for him and find him engaging despite his numerous flaws and questionable parenting skills. The character may possess some ugly qualities, but Daniels’ willingness to embrace them results in a performance of comic beauty and raw vulnerability.

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NICOLE KIDMAN – MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007)
Margot
In Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and The Whale, Kidman seizes the titular role and delivers a vivid performance that ranks among her best. Margot is a variation on Squid’s Bernard, just as narcissistic as her forebear but even gloomier and more petulant. And perhaps even more so than Bernard, she has some misguided and inappropriate ways of expressing love for her child. Kidman brews all the elements together and makes Margot seem like the authentic result of a life that has been steeped in complicated experiences and relationships. It may be the most natural work she’s ever done.  You may not want to know Margot in person, but Kidman makes her fascinating to observe.

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DENNIS HOPPER – BLUE VELVET (1986)
Frank Booth
Newly sober from years of drug and alcohol addiction, 1986 saw Hopper in top form. He earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Hoosiers, but made an even more lasting impression playing Frank Booth, a truly sick twist of the kind that only David Lynch could conceive. Hopper’s oxygen-sucking, psychosexual freakshow holds the key to a mystery that intoxicates an amateur sleuth, and the actor’s portrayal of homicidal lunacy is scarily unsettling.

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ROBIN WILLIAMS – ALADDIN (1992)
Genie
One could go to any number of Robin Williams performances on a list like this – Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting…but they all have one common drawback: they’re live action. Animation proved the only visual medium capable of keeping pace with Williams’ speed-of-light mind, and the Genie is the ideal vessel for his brilliance, as the character can shapeshift into whatever Williams can imagine, from a buzzing bee to William F. Buckley. Williams meets his match in the ink and paint of Disney’s animators, and gives the performance of his life without ever appearing onscreen.

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DANIEL DAY-LEWIS – THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
Daniel Plainview
Ladies and gentlemen, if I say Daniel Day-Lewis belongs on this list, you will agree. And how could you not? The actor is monumental as the power-hungry oil baron around whom Paul Thomas Anderson constructs his singularly visionary epic. The film begins with Daniel Plainview as a simple man working for his keep; by the time it ends, his complexities are strewn violently across the screen as he seethes with rage, a dark soul cocooned in his misanthropy and megalomania. It’s a remarkable journey that finds Day-Lewis plunging into the psyche of a deeply flawed, larger-than-life, self-destructive figure in the great cinematic tradition of Welles’ Charles Foster Kane and DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta.

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Come back tomorrow for the next 20, including an English monarch, an intense Vietnam veteran and a colorful comic book villain.

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

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