December 21, 2009

The Mindful Critic’s Ten Best Film Performances of the Last Decade

As a follow-up of sorts to my list of the “Ten Best Films of the 00s”, I’m borrowing a page from the Onion A.V. Club‘s playbook and sharing my picks for the ten best film performances of the last decade.  Enjoy, and please share your picks with us in the comments.


10. Kate Winslet as “Clementine Kruczynski” in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

It’s not hard to see why everyone loves Kate Winslet:  she’s a very glamorous celebrity who, unlike some of her contemporaries, still seems quite rooted in things that are familiar to all of us.  She’s one of us, movie star trappings notwithstanding.  As the object of Jim Carrey’s affection in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she’s imminently crushable in that starry way.  (Their meeting on the train is downright adorable in a way that many romantic comedies strive for but rarely achieve.)  At the same time, though, those astounding acting chops help her tap into those uncomfortable, all-too-human aspects of relationships that discombobulate and torture us all.  (Carrey plays brokenhearted beautifully here, but the real sting of loss in the film is all thanks to Winslet.)  That Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the most affecting films ever made about romantic love is a testament to its performances, and chief among them is Winslet’s.  [Watch a clip here.]

9. Heath Ledger as “The Joker” in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)

I think there’s a very strong case to be made for Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker as the most iconic film performance of the last ten years.  Years from now, when people ponder the great performances of the ‘oos, it’s safe to say Ledger’s will be one of the first (if not the first) to come to mind.  Barely a year old, it has already been spoofed and ripped off ad nauseum.  (The role also managed to inspire one of the hands-down funniest gags ever on NBC’s The Office.)  It also deservedly earned Ledger just about every possible film honor (including the uncommon posthumous Academy Award)–something that undoubtedly would have happened even if this incredibly talented actor hadn’t died at the tragically young age of twenty-eight.  (The only reason his performance in Brokeback Mountain isn’t on this list as well is because I didn’t want to have more than one performance from an actor represented.)  As I wrote of Ledger’s performance in a review of The Dark Knight for the Journal of Religion and Film, it’s the show-stopper in a work that is masterpiece to begin with:  “With his feral tics, punk rock-inspired savagery, and ghastly scars evoking the Black Dahlia, the late Method actor’s Joker is the perfect personification of the problem of evil. It’s a performance for the ages.”  [Watch a clip here.]

8. Peter Sarsgaard as “Charles Lane” in Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass (2003)

As current Washington Post staff writer and former National Review editor Charles Lane, Peter Sarsgaard is as much a revelation in Shattered Glass as Edward Norton was when he first appeared in Primal Fear some years back.  Watching him makes you say, “Where the hell did this guy come from, and how the hell did he learn how to do that?”  Restrained to an elegant degree, Sarsgaard plays a consumate professional doggedly trying to get to the bottom of a scandal involving his magazine’s star writer Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) that just seems to get worse and worse.  In an almost paradoxical twist, the quietness with which he plays the part quickly becomes as delectable as the most over-the-top performances of the last few years.  And when he finally, inevitably blows his stack, it literally feels electrifying.  It’s not so surprising, then, that not long after this film, he was starring opposite such mega-talents as Jodie Foster (Flightplan) and Meryl Streep (Rendition).  But this performance is much more than just a calling-card:  it’s a rich and robust triumph from an exciting new young actor.  [Watch a clip here.]

7. Will Smith as “Muhammad Ali” in Michael Mann’s Ali (2001)

Hollywood’s most impossibly charismatic actor was perfectly cast as professional sports’ most impossibly charismatic figure in Michael Mann’s Ali, but the caliber of Smith’s performance is stunning nonetheless.  After undergoing an incredible physical transformation, the actor did something even more surprising:  he abandoned the usual movie star affectations and built his Ali from the kinds of subtleties and low-key qualities usually reserved for much smaller films (not multi-million dollar biopics).  Take a look at the attached clip, for instance:  it’s the breathtaking eight-minute opening of the film in which the hypnotic Smith does not even speak until near the end.  All the acting is in the eyes.  It’s a simply magnificent performance.  He captures the Ali we all know, and offers fresh insights about the man in his portrayal as well.  The Greatest (who famously quipped that Smith wasn’t “pretty enough” to play him) couldn’t have done better himself.  [Watch the clip here.]

6. Julianne Moore as “Cathy Whitaker” in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002)

Maybe nobody else does anguish better than Julianne Moore (see also Safe, Boogie Nights, and The Hours), and here’s a part that offers her many opportunities to showcase that special talent.  In this homage to Douglas Sirk, Moore plays a 1950s housewife thrown into personal turmoil by circumstances that also heighten sexual, racial, and class tensions in her community.  Though most aspects of this film are absorbing (from the art direction to the music to the other performances), Moore is transfixing:  you can’t take your eyes off of her, even as she recieves painful emotional blows.  She also keeps flawless pace with Haynes, balancing  the fanciful and naturalistic elements in the film with effortless finesse.  This is a film of so many surprises (including more than a few from the actress herself) that the less said is definitely the better–just see it and behold the mightiness that is Moore.  [Watch a clip here.]

5. Christoph Waltz as “Colonel Hans Landa” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009)

In a word:  wow.  The last few years have given us some remarkable bad guys who have rightfully finished first on Oscar night (both Heath Ledger and Javier Bardem won Academy Awards for their terrifying baddies in The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men, respectively), but Waltz may be the most deserving yet.  Aided in no small measure by Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant script, the actor, unknown in the U.S. until now, creates one of the cinema’s most sinister and unforgettable villains–right up there with Dracula and Darth Vader.  One of the things that is especially unnerving about Col. Landa is his unpredictability:  his unexpected rage at one character and girlish squeal of “Bingo!” at another are both complete surprises, and yet they perfectly fit the character–thanks in large part to Waltz, who performs with relish but is careful never to sound a false note.  Another spooky quality would certainly be the flair with which he toys with his prey:  in the brauvura 25-minute opening, he reduces a French farmer who may or may not be sheltering Jews to horrified tears without making any explicit threats or doing anything violent (both of those things come after the tears).  That scene in particular certainly wouldn’t work at all without a truly great actor at the center.  Tarantino clearly loves actor, and it would seem that he loves Waltz the most:  he’s given him maybe the best part he’s ever written.  The actor returns the favor with a performance that will stay with the viewer for a long, long time, like it or not.  [Watch a clip here.]

4. Laura Linney as “Sammy Prescott” in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000)

One of the great actors of her generation, Laura Linney’s breakout performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me gives her ample room to do the many things she does better than almost anybody else.  A nominally Catholic, small town single mom drawn to men she “feels sorry for,” Linney’s Sammy is forced to confront her best and worst qualities upon the arrival of her recently paroled little brother (Mark Ruffalo).  The actress gives us earthy and funny, perplexing, neurotic, in control, and vulnerable–sometimes all at once.  (Her confession scene with the town priest, played by Lonergan, is a riotous and awe-inspiring master class for aspring actors.)  Linney and Ruffalo also offer one of the screen’s precious few really convincing sibling relationships:  their unique chemistry communicates so much about how brothers and sisters relate (or don’t) with one another.  In addition, her scenes with Matthew Broderick (as the unhappy bank manager with whom she enters into an affair) are sublimely funny, and result in some of the most memorable laughs of the decade.  Laura Linney is a national treasure, and some of her choicest work is right here.  [Watch a clip here.]

3. Bill Murray as “Steve Zissou” in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

With the title role in Wes Anderson’s underappreciated gem, muse Bill Murray for the first time marries the goofball charm of his early period films (Ghostbusters, Stripes, What About Bob?) with the droll, laconic soulfulness of his late period films (Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, Cradle Will Rock), and it proves to be a match made in heaven.  As the reprobate oceanographer/filmmaker, the hipster icon carves out an inspired comic creation worthy of mention in the same sentence as Groucho Marx’s Otis B. Driftwood–and that is not said lightly.  (Consider the hilarious rescue of “bond company stooge” Bud Cort.)  At the same time, the performance is a new high point for Murray as a dramatic actor. (Try watching the “jaguar shark” scene without tearing up.)  The character of Captain Steve Zissou is the finest work yet from one of our true blue American originals.  [Watch a clip here.]

2. Ken Watanabe as “General Tadamichi Kuribayashi” in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

As a spiritual practitioner, I often struggle against my own Quixotic striving for “perfection.”  It’s often quite difficult to accept ourselves just as we are, warts and all.  It’s even more difficult when we encounter works of art that make it seem like perfection is actually possible–works of art like Ken Watanabe’s performance as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Letters from Iwo Jima.  Consumately exquisite, tremendously moving, and infused with such rarefied physical grace, it’s an acting feat that is practically perfect in every way.  It’s a portrait of a historical figure that flawlessly balances the mythic qualities of such a figure with his undeniably human elements.  Kuribayashi is so seamlessly and powerfully portrayed by Watanabe that it’s a little overwhelming at times.  The actor, who is best known to American audiences for his supporting roles in Memoirs of Geisha and Batman Begins, as well as his Oscar-nominated turn in the title role of The Last Samurai, confidently steps into the lead role here and takes command of an important, technically dazzling film full of exceptional performances.  Names like “Eastwood” and “Spielberg” are in the credits, but make no mistake:  the man in charge of this one is Watanabe.  [Watch a clip here.]

1. Sean Penn as “Jimmy Markum” in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003)

There’s little left to say about Penn, our finest American film actor, and his wrenching performance in Mystic River that hasn’t been said already.  At the time of the film’s release, the New York Times spoke for most when they wrote:

[Penn’s] Jimmy Markum not only one of the best performances of the year, but also one of the definitive pieces of screen acting in the last half-century, the culmination of a realist tradition that began in the old Actor’s Studio and begat Brando, Dean, Pacino and De Niro.

But Mr. Penn, as gifted and disciplined as any of his precursors, makes them all look like, well, actors. He has purged his work of any trace of theatricality or showmanship while retaining all the directness and force that their applications of the Method brought into American movies.

Though he is completely devastating in all the big, Oscar-clip moments (Penn won his first Academy Award for this film), such as the now-famous scene in which he learns of his daughter’s murder, he’s equally effective in the much quieter moments.  It’s a phenomenal performance that more than lives up to the hype.  [Watch a clip here.]

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