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A few months back, I wrapped up my Best Performances of the Decade series. But while that list included a lot of familiar names and acclaimed performances, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the performances that not everyone has seen. This list contains no Oscar or Golden Globe nominated roles, and I’ve limited myself to performances that received little or no awards attention and were relatively overlooked by audiences (as much as I think that Jim Carrey, Peter Sarsgaard, and Rebecca Hall should’ve been nominated for Oscars, they did receive a considerable awards attention elsewhere for the roles in question, which disqualified them from the list). Here are ten unfairly under-recognized performances from the past decade, in alphabetical order.
Daniel Bruhl – Good Bye Lenin!
Inglourious Basterds may have introduced German actor Daniel Bruhl to a wider North American audience, but it’s 2003′s Good
Bye Lenin! that really showcases his skills. Bruhl’s charismatic performance carries the film, and he nails the sense of whimsy that permeates every scene. Heartbreaking at times and hilarious at others, Bruhl’s performance shows enough genuine charm to cross all language barriers.
Clifton Collins Jr. – Capote
Clifton Collins Jr. is a solid character actor who has lately been favouring tiny roles in big studio films (Star Trek, Brothers). But if there’s one film that proves why he should get bigger roles, it’s Capote. Playing one of the two murderers that Truman Capote investigated for In Cold Blood, Collins makes his character Perry disarmingly and chillingly sympathetic. Collins is every bit as good as lead Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the scenes that they share together are breathtakingly intimate.
Abbie Cornish – Bright Star
Abbie Cornish’s performance as Fanny Brawne, the young love interest of poet John Keats, is just as beautiful as the cinematography in Bright Star. She revels in Fanny’s feisty modernity, but also reflects the melancholy of her restrained life. As Fanny’s relationship with Keats evolves, so does Cornish’s performance – ranging from star-struck to distraught over the course of the film. It truly is a breath of fresh air.
Robert Downey Jr. – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
A favourite performance among his fans, Robert Downey Jr.’s work in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang proves why so many people love him. He’s hilarious, bumbling, and sexy as our protagonist and snarky narrator. Always a scene-stealer, Downey is the epitome of charisma here.
Emile Hirsch – Into the Wild
Previously best known for his work in the teen sex romp The Girl Next Door, Emile Hirsch stunned audiences with his raw performance in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, Into the Wild. Playing a young man who gives up his material possessions and sets out for the Alaskan wilderness, Hirsch is often the only person on screen throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. Hirsch takes what could have been a purely preachy character and injects a sense of vulnerability that makes his optimism admirable. He’s entirely charismatic and compelling.
Jared Leto – Requiem for a Dream
Ellen Burstyn received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her work in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, but the unsung MVP of the film is Jared Leto. Leto’s strangely iconic turn as Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life coupled with his foray into emo music has made him something of a critical punching bag, but he proves what an amazing actor he can be here. Much like the film itself, Leto’s performance as Harry is dark and harrowing. It easily could have become caricature, but his performance as a drug-addled optimist cuts right to the bone.
Daniel Day-Lewis – The Ballad of Jack and Rose
As one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, it’s surprising to see how often Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in The Ballad and Jack and Rose is overlooked. It may not be as “big” as some of the other performances that he gave in the past decade, but Lewis’ work here is just as good as anything else he’s done. Playing a quietly desperate, confused man, Lewis’ performance is heartbreaking and unforgettable.
Guy Pearce – Factory Girl
Always a chameleon, Guy Pearce’s turn as the legendary Andy Warhol is uncanny. To me, the entire film is underrated, but Pearce’s performance is certainly the highlight of Factory Girl. The character is often downright unlikeable, and Pearce’s snarky screen presence is striking.
Sam Rockwell – Snow Angels
Sam Rockwell is an actor who is just starting to get the recognition that he deserves, and it’s easy to see why with a film like Snow Angels. David Gordon Green’s story of small-town tragedy is disturbingly beautiful, and Rockwell is stunning as a recovering-alcoholic-turned-evangelist. The film’s bombastic final moments are only amplified by the quiet, desperate journey that Rocwell’s performance takes us on.
Mark Ruffalo – You Can Count On Me
You Can Count on Me is a film that I recently caught up with, and while it provided my favourite Laura Linney performance to date, the real stand-out for me was Mark Ruffalo. His character is an insufferable screw-up, yet rather than making him a downbeat loser, Ruffalo revels in his messiness and makes him a purely charming, memorable guy. There are no big “cinematic” moments in the film, but this allows Ruffalo to give an all-around great performance, rather than relying on select scenes to stand out.
Samantha Morton – Control
Michael Angarno – Snow Angels
Ryan Gosling –The United States of Leland
Keri Russell – Waitress
Jason Bateman – Juno
Benicio Del Toro – Thing We Lost in the Fire
Here’s a wrap-up to my Favourite Performances of the Decade series. I may edit the five posts occasionally if I see a performance that’s deserving of a spot, but I want to keep my list to 25.
Colin Firth – A Single Man (2009)
In Tom Ford’s visually lush debut film, Firth plays George, a man reeling from the sudden death of his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). Firth takes this difficult role on with all of the class and poise that you would expect from the charming Brit. Yet there’s also a profoundly moving undercurrent to his portrayal of a man who’s trying to desperately keep his facade intact while contemplating suicide. Firth’s performance may be subdued, but it’s the nuances in his body language and inflections that give away the deep sense of grief that George is experiencing. For me, it was the best performance of 2009.
Carey Mulligan – An Education (2009)
Audrey Hepburn comparisons ran rampant around the release of 2009′s An Education, but I think that it’s best to let Mulligan’s vivacious performance speak for itself. As a confident young woman who finds that she doesn’t know herself nearly as well as she thought, Mulligan is charming, witty, intelligent, and vulnerable all at once, and she hits the perfect emotion for every scene. Her Jenny is a joy to watch, and your eye is drawn to Mulligan during every moment that she is on screen. It’s rare to find this magnetic of a performance from such a relatively unknown young actor.
Keira Knightley – Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Keira Knightley has cemented her status as the queen of the period piece (think Atonement, Silk, The Duchess, King Arthur), but her most vibrant performance to date comes in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. As heroine Elizabeth Bennett, Knightley brings a refreshing sense of modernity to the feisty role.
Peter Sarsgaard – Shattered Glass (2003)
Though usually relegated to supporting roles, Peter Sarsgaard (on the right side of the above photo) has proven himself to be one of the most diverse working actors. The character of Chuck Lane in Shattered Glass is a departure from some of the more troubled characters that Sarsgaard has taken on, but he thrives as the driven hard-ass of a newspaper editor, too. He takes what could have been a forgettable supporting role and turns it into a surprisingly gripping tour de force performance. From Chuck’s low-key moments in the newsroom to his inevitable explosions as the film unravels, Sarsgaard is perfect.
Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married (2008)
With a showy role in a modest film, Hathaway is both harrowing and hilarious as Kym, a recovering drug addict visiting home for her sister’s wedding. I’d had my doubts about Hathaway’s acting abilities, but this unforgettable performance instantly remedied that.
Of course, it was a daunting task to pick my favourite movies of the decade. But after re-drafting my list at least a dozen times, this is what I managed to come up with. These are the ten films that I enjoyed most from this decade.
10. Capote (2005)
For some reason, the #10 spot seemed to be the hardest to fill on this list. But Capote, which won Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, was captivating in every way. The acting (of course), the story, and the visuals are all stunning. The evolution of Capote’s character, and his relationship with the murderous subject of his next book, were astounding to watch unravel.
9. Finding Nemo (2003)
I guess this is my requisite Pixar choice. Up and Ratatouille underwhelmed me, but this colourful tale of aquatic life was undeniably joyful. The animation is hypnotic, and the characters are unforgettable. It’s both a touching story of family, and an exciting adventure tale. Throw in Ellen Degeneres’ hilarious Dory character, and you’ve got a fantastic family film.
8. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Spend thirty seconds with the foul-mouthed grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine (played by the wonderful Alan Arkin), and you’ll likely appreciate your own family a little more. But underneath the biting, dark humour of this film, there is actually an incredibly heart-warming road trip story. Steve Carrel’s suicidal scholar and Paul Dano’s voluntarily silent teen make one of the best on-screen duos I’ve ever seen.
7. Memento (2000)
Guy Pearce (one of the more underrated actors out there) plays a man who can’t make new memories in Christopher Nolan’s frenzied breakthrough film. The film amazingly manages to keep up its fast-paced momentum, despite the fact that it’s scrambled and chopped, and that scenes play out in overlapping reverse order. It’s amazingly unique, and Memento is both intelligent, and an incredibly entertaining whodunit.
6. There Will Be Blood (2007)
This film seems to be popping up on everyone’s top 10 list (often at the top spot), but that’s probably because There Will Be Blood is such a masterpiece. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing, there are so many striking, unforgettable moments (the whole oil rig fire sequence was amazing, not to mention the final scene).
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
There is no doubt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the most unique films of the decade. From the quiet, realistic courtship of Joel and Clementine, to the unusually messy breakup (they decide to erase each other from their memories entirely), it’s a whimsical, gorgeous film. It feels like it’s made for this time, which is probably why so many people connected to it so intensely.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Honestly, do I need to say anything at all? I’ll just apologize and move on.
3. Half Nelson (2006)
Ryan amazingly subtle performance as a crack addicted teacher is the anchor of Half Nelson, but the film as a whole is entirely absorbing, and it’s a stunning debut for director Ryan Fleck. Half Nelson celebrates and laments the small moments in life that everyone experiences, as well as delving into the tragic problems of the character’s lives. The relationship between Gosling’s Dan and Shareeka Epps’ Drey is beautiful – full of sorrow, understanding, and respect.
2. Juno (2007)
Maybe it sounds stupid to say this about a fairly lightweight comedy, but Juno is a film that really spoke to me. I love that Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody created a fun, mainstream film that actually has something to say, and it features some amazing well-written characters. It’s touching and funny, and Juno is one of the only honest on-screen depictions of what it’s like to be a young woman.
1. Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous has a wonderful sense of joy, and it captures the feeling of being young and loving music in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson (in what may be her only good performance, like, ever), Frances McDormand, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are vibrant, and the killer soundtrack (featuring the first Led Zeppelin tune to be licensed for a film) tops it all off.
A Beautiful Mind, The Departed, Donnie Darko, Garden State, Into the Wild, Requiem for a Dream, Signs, Snow Angels, Zodiac
Here’s the second and final part of my “Best Albums of the Decade” list. Be sure to check out part one, which covered numbers 20-11. Feel free to let me know what you think of my list in the comments. Of course, this is all just my opinion, so let me know which albums from this decade struck a chord with you!
10. Amnesiac – Radiohead (2001)
I can see the merit of Kid A. I just don’t find it to be that enjoyable of an album to listen to. And while Kid A and Amnesiac are often lumped together, I see them as totally separate albums. Amnesiac has some typically lovely Radiohead songs, like “The Pyramid Song”. You can also find one of the most debauched, oddly raucous songs in Thom Yorke’s catalogue here – the jazzy “Life in a Glasshouse”. I may be one of those annoying “common” Radiohead fans that love The Bends and OK Computer more than anything from this decade, but Amnesiac is by far the best of their less accessible albums, in my opinion.
9. For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver (2008)
I don’t want to overstate the importance of Bon Iver’s (aka Justin Vernon’s) debut, but this is an album that I could see becoming something of a classic, over time. The back story is top-notch, as are all of the songs on here. “Skinny Love” is a phenomenal song, and “Re: Stacks”, “Creature Fear” and “Flume” all rotate as my second favourite song on the album. Justin Vernon followed For Emma up with his Blood Bank EP, and if these two releases are any indication, I’m definitely excited to see where his music is headed. Maybe all of the praise is premature, but even if he can never recreate the magic of this album again, at least we have this one.
8. Rockin’ the Suburbs – Ben Folds (2001)
Ben Folds Five is a band that is quintessentially 90′s. Snappy, piano-driven hits like “Kate” (which was on my Sabrina the Teenage Witch soundtrack) and “Brick” seem like nostalgic fun now. So perhaps it makes sense that Ben Folds would go it alone for the new millennium. Rockin’ the Suburbs still has the upbeat, vaguely gimmicky vibe that his music has always had, yet it also feels very honest. It’s power-pop at its best. “Zak and Sara” and “Rockin’ the Suburbs” are tons of fun, while “Gone” is just a plain fantastic tune. Ben Folds is fairly popular, but I still don’t think he gets enough serious credit as a songwriter.
7. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – Bright Eyes (2005)
Perhaps what I like best about Conor Oberst’s music is that he isn’t afraid to be earnest. His lyrics (while sometimes seeming contrived) are just ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation, but they are also distinct in their sentiment. And I don’t think he’s ever got that emotional-fuck-up sentiment as right as he did on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. He celebrates drugs, women, and making noise, but there’s a naiveté to his tales of rebirth and fresh starts that keep it all relatable and grounded. He might not be the “New Dylan”, but Oberst knows how to pull on people’s heart strings in precisely the right way.
6. Chutes Too Narrow – The Shins (2003)
The Shins hit it big with Oh, Inverted World, but I like their 2003 follow-up slightly better. Chutes Too Narrow is generally far more upbeat, and it suits James Mercer’s off-kilter, yelpy voice really well. “So Says I” is my favourite Shins song, and the rest of the album is an easily digestible, fun set of songs. I know that they’ve supposedly changed the lives of indie kids everywhere, but can’t people just enjoy the Shins for what they are – a really good pop band that writes fantastic pop songs – and stop with all the overstatements?
5. Close to Paradise – Patrick Watson (2006)
I’m always eager to support Canadian music, and even though not as much of it ended up on this list as I had originally hoped, I am incredibly proud to place Patrick Watson’s debut album in my #5 spot. Close to Paradise has slowly been growing on me since its release, and I’m now just about convinced that it’s a perfect album. Every song is lovely, and they all work together to create a fantastic atmosphere. From the piano-driven hymn “The Great Escape” to the slightly raucous “Drifters”, Watson always uses the precise emotion in his voice to convey his ideas. (Side note: if you haven’t already, be sure to check out Patrick Watson’s work with The Cinematic Orchestra on “To Build a Home“)
4. White Blood Cells – The White Stripes (2001)
Jack White is undoubtedly one of the hardest working musicians of the past ten years. People often whine about how rock stars are a dying breed, but this guy is singlehandedly keeping them alive. The White Stripes burst into the mainstream in 2001 with their third album, White Blood Cells. It’s an eclectic collection that even tosses in some country (“Hotel Yorba”), but even though the Stripes hadn’t entirely honed in on their blues-rock niche yet, this album is far from unfocussed. It’s obvious that Jack White knows exactly what he’s doing at all times, and it makes for a nice transition between their scrappier early work, and their more refined albums that would follow.
3. Boxer – The National (2007)
This Brooklyn band has steadily been releasing great albums throughout the decade – it just took people (including myself) a little while to catch on. They earned massive critical acclaim for 2007′s Boxer, which was actually their 4th release of the decade. Boxer is home to a slew of fantastic songs, such as the timely, brooding “Fake Empire”. Matt Berninger’s voice has such wonderful feeling of melancholy in it, and The National extend that feeling throughout the record. I find new things to love about this album every time that I listen to it, and I think that this is an album that I will be listening to regularly for years to come.
2. Neon Bible – Arcade Fire (2007)
2004′s Funeral may have been the album that caught most people’s attention, but Arcade Fire’s follow-up, Neon Bible, was the one that caught my attention. The album sticks with the band’s signature grand arrangements, but also makes the songs feel more personal. There’s a desperation here that I like. Not to be morbid, but I like the anger, frustration, and near hopelessness that seems to run through this album. I think the grandness of Arcade Fire’s sound (not to mention the power of Win Butler’s voice) is much better suited to this kind of fare. I don’t know that it’s meant to be a concept album, but I feel like this album takes us through the course of a person’s life. Every song evokes a different feeling, yet they all work together perfectly to create a beautiful statement about what it means to be alive.
1. Heartbreaker – Ryan Adams (2000)
Leave it to Ryan Adams to out-brood everyone else on this list just by opening his mouth. Even when he’s singing an upbeat song, he still sounds miserable as hell. Heartbreaker, his debut solo album (his original band, Whiskeytown, imploded around the turn of the millennium) is one of his twangiest to date, but it’s also his most consistent, by far. Every song here is great, and integral to the over feeling of the album. The raw energy of Adams’ voice on songs like “Shakedown on 9th Street” and “To Be Young” contrast nicely with the wistfulness of “Come Pick Me Up”, and it all comes together to paint a portrait of a complicated man. Heartbreaker goes far beyond your typical “break-up album”, emotionally.
Though I was originally going to make this a top 50 list (and I did compile such a list), I decided to trim it down to 20. The list was starting to feel unfocussed, and I thought that it would be more interesting to really focus in on 20 albums from this decade that I really loved, rather than worrying about fitting in the certain albums I felt I had to have on my top 50.
So here is part 1 (#20-11). I think there are some unpredictable choices, which I like. It has some of the stuff you’d expect, but I tried to keep things a bit interesting. There’s lots of indie stuff, but I guess that’s just what I like to listen to most. Let me know what you think of my list, and feel free to share your own picks in the comments.
(UPDATE: Part 2, where I talk about my top ten albums of the decade, is now up! Be sure to check it out here.)
20. Consolers of the Lonely – The Raconteurs (2008)
In just one of his many side projects of the decade, Jack White joined forces with some “old friends” (he and Brendan Benson share frontman duties) to form the Raconteurs in 2006. Their first album was something of a success, and they topped themselves (pun somewhat intended) with their sophomore disc. The album is split more definitively between White and Benson, and each bring a lot with their respective styles. Highlights include Benson’s “Many Shades of Black” and White’s “Top Yourself” and “Five on the Five”. Every track is fascinating, and the endless variations on style throughout the track listing are impressive.
19. Youth and Young Manhood – Kings of Leon (2003)
Kings of Leon have recently been spotted invading radio airwaves with “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” off 2008′s Only by the Night. But North America’s just been a little slow to pick up on these guys (which is odd, considering they’re American). Back in 2003, when they all had ridiculous haircuts and moustaches, they released their debut LP, which is full of catchy little retro tunes. I like the new Kings of Leon sound, too, but there’s something endearingly scruffy about their early work. “California Waiting” and “Red Morning Light” are raw, but the Followills’ ability to write an incredible pop song was evident early on.
18. Gold – Ryan Adams (2001)
Gold refuses to stick to one style, and the eclectic sound suits Ryan Adams well. Adams handles country stompers (“Firecracker”), lovely ballads (“Good Night, Hollywood Blvd.), and even blues (“The Rescue Blues”, “Touch, Feel, and Lose”) deftly on his lengthy, sometimes erratic sophomore solo album. All of his genre-shifting is fascinating. Every song offers something new, and Gold proves that when it comes to his music, Adams is ambitious and fearless. Some of his best songs to date can be found here, and despite the diversity of styles, it never feels unfocused. Adams is one of the best songwriters of this decade, for sure.
17. Parachutes – Coldplay (2000)
No matter how many jokes people make (or how vehemently Chuck Klosterman hates them), I honestly think that Coldplay is pretty excellent band. Their debut album, Parachutes, certainly showed a lot of promise. “Yellow” became a big hit, but it’s far from the best song of the album. “Shiver” is fantastic, and apparently it was Chris Martin’s attempt to write a Jeff Buckley song. Their signature sound can already be heard throughout the album, but I like that this is a smaller, more personal album than some of their later work. Scoff at the sappiness if you want, but there are some fantastic songs here.
16. Poses – Rufus Wainwright (2001)
I have a pretty huge spot in my heart for Rufus Wainwright. Something about the tone of his voice always makes me feel at ease. It’s hard to describe, but it’s unlikely virtually any other singing voice I’ve heard. On Poses (the follow up to his 1998 eponymous debut), Rufus gives us more of his signature theatrical fare. Though that’s not usually my taste, I love it when Rufus does the over-the-top stuff. He also gets folkier on his cover “One Man Guy” (it’s a wonderful interpretation of his father’s song), which is nice. I’ve heard that Wainwright was at the height of his drug addiction around this time period, but it’s a beautiful album nonetheless.
15. Elephant – The White Stripes (2003)
After the success of the song “Fell in Love with a Girl” (and the accompanying Gondry-helmed music video), The White Stripes managed to take advantage of their positive buzz and release another stellar album a mere two years later. It had a couple of songs that have since become radio staples (“Seven Nation Army”, “The Hardest Button to Button), but despite its more polished sound, there’s no way in hell that Jack White is selling out here. “Ball and Biscuit” is mighty, and this album features more of a blues influence than their past three. The White Stripes are a band that is constantly evolving, and following their journey over the decade has been a blast.
14. Trouble – Ray LaMontagne (2003)
His cuddly beard and raspy voice may seem commonplace in the wake of the recent folk movement, but Ray LaMontagne came before all of that. Before I discovered LaMontagne’s music, I thought that the song “Trouble” was some kind of soul standard. And all of his songs have that timeless feeling to them, which I always love. There’s so much soul in his music, and he sings every word with such emotion. I love music that is emotionally raw, and LaMontagne pretty much epitomizes that concept. His subsequent two albums are quite strong too, but his debut, Trouble, is his most affecting work to date.
13. I and Love and You – The Avett Brothers (2009)
The Avett Brothers have been releasing albums consistently since 2002, but they’ve just recently started making waves in the mainstream with their latest album. I and Love and You was helmed by super producer Rick Rubin, and the expected shiny production is there. But all that gloss doesn’t detract from the wonderfully eclectic collection of songs. There’s not a bad track on the album, and most of the tracks are exceptional. “Laundry Room” and “January Wedding” stay closer to the Avetts’ country roots, while “Slight Figure of Speech” is a spiky little pop gem. The signature rawness, beautiful harmonies, and thought-provoking lyrics that The Avett Brothers are known for haven’t gone anywhere.
12. New Wave – Against Me! (2007)
Fans accused these Florida punks of being sell-outs when they released this radio-friendly set of songs, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a pretty amazing album. They worked with Butch Vig, who made Nirvana famous with his production of Nevermind, and I can understand how the polished production would put some fans off. But I don’t think that it hurts the album at all. “Thrash Unreal” is an infectious, unexpected anthem, and “The Ocean” boasts lovely lyrics from Gabel pondering what his life could have been under different circumstances. It’s fierce, relevant, and uncompromising, which is all anyone can ask of a band like Against Me!.
11. The Woods – Sleater-Kinney (2005)
Most people probably thought that the “riot grrrl” movement died at some point during the mid-90′s, but Sleater-Kinney proved that they still have what it takes to write an awesome rock record. The Woods is ostensibly their final album (they’ve been on an “indefinite hiatus” since 2006), and I had the unfortunate timing of discovering their music just as they ceased making more of it. But what an album it is to go out on. It rocks harder than most albums released this decade, and “The Fox” and “Modern Girl” are great slices of songwriting. Sleater-Kinney were at the height of their musical career with 1997′s Dig Me Out, and The Woods gives that album a run for its money.