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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.
Here’s the much-belated fourth installment of my “Favourite Performances of the Decade” series. I’ve seen a few more amazing performances since I compiled my original list, so I’ll likely be posting another five performances soon.
Cate Blanchett – I’m Not There (2007)
Tilda Swinton was quite good in Michael Clayton, but I was shocked when she won the award for Best Supporting Actress at the 2008 Oscars, over Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was one of six actors to portray Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, and though she was the only female in the cast, her performance was hands-down the most captivating and convincing performance of the bunch. Playing “Jude” (each of the six actors has a separate storyline, all of which show different facets of Dylan’s life) Blanchet loped, squinted, and mumbled her way to a pitch-perfect Dylan impersonation. She had this great aura of cool in her gender-bending performance, which made her segment of the story infinitely captivating.
Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood (2007)
He’s one of the best working actors, but Daniel Day-Lewis took his career to new heights with his unforgettable role in P.T. Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece, There Will Be Blood. Over the top in the truest sense of the phrase, Day-Lewis’ performance is amazingly fun to watch. Plainview is already a bit of a caricature, and Day-Lewis’ performance – though hammy – is perfectly demented, and really draws the audience in. Other actors might have looked foolish when reciting lines like, “I…drink…your…milkshake! I DRINK IT UP!” (which became 2007′s most unlikely cinematic catchphrase), but Day-Lewis brings just the right tone to it. The movie staggers around in this kind of surreal, woozy state of semi-consciousness, and as Plainview makes bloody blows and sells whatever is left of his soul, Daniel Day-Lewis slips into his character wholeheartedly.
Amy Adams – Junebug (2005)
Amy Adams shines as the eternally optimistic Ashley in Junebug. Stuck in a dead-end Southern town with a husband who seems to resent her presence, Ashley is still bubbly and excitable. When her brother-in-law visits with his new wife from the city, Ashley finds herself eager to please. Adams plays the demonstrative young mother-to-be with a sparkle in her eye that feels like a giant breath of fresh air. Her genuine performance is at times hilarious, melancholy, and heartbreaking. Adams has since gone on to bigger roles, and she always brings wonderful poise to the screen, but her breakthrough performance in Junebug is unforgettable.
Renee Zelwegger – Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Though I may not be a huge fan of Zelwegger, but her motor-mouthed turn as the chain-smoking Bridget Jones was irresistible. Armed with a spot-on British accent and loads of charm, Zelwegger made the romantically unlucky thirty-something relatable, and provided many laughs throughout the film. Bridget Jones was a top-notch romantic comedy, and Zelwegger helped to elevate it beyond the usual fare. She had great chemistry with Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, and whether she was flubbing a public speaking engagement or her own dinner party, she was frothy, light, and hilarious. Forget Chicago, and try this infinitely watchable film, instead.
Joquin Phoenix – Walk the Line (2005)
In an ingenious bit of casting, Phoenix portrayed The Man in Black (aka Johnny Cash) in 2005′s Walk the Line. The dark edge to Phoenix is perfectly suited to the troubled country star, and his brooding acting style fits the tone of the film to a tee. Though Walk the Line is a fairly by-the-numbers biopic, Phoenix’s performance helps to elevate it. He makes the best of clichéd material and embodies the musical legend so believably. The musical numbers are a treat to watch (who knew Phoenix had such a great voice?), and whether he’s falling in love with his wife-to-be (played by Reese Witherspoon) or having a meltdown, Phoenix’s presence is undeniable.
I think that I’m going to expand this list from 25 to however many performances there are that I feel are noteworthy. Here are five more performances from this decade that I’ve loved. Be sure to check out the other parts of this feature, and feel free leave me some comments on what you think!
Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starts off as an unconventional love story, and then becomes even more unconventional when love goes sour, and Clementine and Joel decide that they want to erase each other from their memory entirely. The most memorable moments of Winslet’s performance come when Clementine gives glimpses of her emotional, raw inner self. This often comes during spats with Joel. While I loved Carrey’s moody, restrained performance, Winslet is the opposite. She’s fiery and passionate, and Carrey almost feels like the “straight-man” to her ultra-vibrant character. Yet the vulnerable moments are great too. And even the moments where everything is actually going right in Clementine and Joel’s relationship seem elevated from the usual romantic comedy fare. Without Winslet, much of the quirkiness, heart, and charm of this movie would be gone.
Sam Riley – Control (2007)
My favourite musical biopic of the decade was Anton Corbijn’s Control, which chronicles the short adult life of Ian Curtis, and the rise of his band, Joy Division. It’s a pretty grim movie. Curtis cheats on his wife, has horrific seizures, struggles to find success with his band, and ultimately takes his own life. But Riley’s up to the role, clearly. Riley’s Curtis is soft-spoken, withdrawn, and petulant. Yet when he steps on stage, everything comes alive in a bizarre, desperate kind of way. Riley switches between Curtis’ electric stage persona and troubled personal life with startling ease, and you can feel Curtis’ pain. At times, it feels much more like a documentary than the usual glossy biopic, and this is largely because of Riley unaffected performance. Curtis is a figure who is often romanticized in hindsight. But Joy Division was only on the cusp of success when Curtis killed himself. Riley portrays him as the real, troubled human being that he was.
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
I’m not sure if there’s much left to say about this instantly iconic performance. Only exacerbated by the tragedy of Ledger’s untimely death in January of 2008, his brilliant performance as the Joker was haunting. Darkly funny and incredibly eerie, his take on the anarchistic clown has become a landmark of 21st century pop culture. Some questioned whether Ledger would have won the Oscar (which he was posthumously awarded at the 2009 Oscars) if he had still been alive. I have no way of knowing if he would have, but I absolutely believe that he would have deserved it. His death is tragic for many reasons, but for the fans, perhaps the most frustrating aspect is the idea of the performances that we could’ve seen from this immensely talented actor.
Benicio Del Toro – Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)
While it was generally received positively by critics, Things We Lost in the Fire seemed to disappear as soon as it was released. This is a huge shame, because as well as being a really good film, it features one of my five favourite performances of the decade. Benicio Del Toro plays Jerry, a heroin addict who, after the death of his friend, goes to live with his friend’s wife and kids. If you look at a film like Requiem for a Dream, that film is all about the surreal, frightening visuals, which are meant to represent a drug-induced whirl. This film has a much simpler style. It relies on Del Toro to convey the horrors of his addiction, rather than the style and editing of the film. It’s not a by-the-numbers character arc, and Del Toro’s performance is anything but contrived. He takes the performance far beyond the usual one-dimensional “drug addict” stereotype, bringing a surprising amount of warmth to an otherwise bleak role.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Capote (2005)
Whether his Truman Capote was captivating a crowd at a lavish party, or visiting a convicted murderer in his tiny jail cell, Hoffman’s performance was both grand and subtle at the same time. Of course, he imitated the infamous voice of Capote well, but the performance goes far beyond an impersonation and never becomes the stereotype that it could have been. I thought Capote was an excellent movie, and the performances were a large part of that. Some of the supporting performances are great (Clifton Collins Jr. is incredible and understated in his role as one of the murderers that Capote is chronicling), but it’s clearly Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s show. He earned a well-deserved Oscar for his work in Capote, and it cemented his status as one of the best working actors.
Here’s the second part of my “Favourite Performances of the Decade” feature. You can check out the first part of the series here, and be sure to stay tuned for the next three parts, which will be revealed over the next few months.
Emile Hirsch – Into the Wild (2007)
In Sean Penn’s directorial debut, Emile Hirsch plays Christopher McCandless, a young man so disillusioned with society that he sets off alone on a journey to Alaska. Though McCandless meets a few kind strangers along the way (most notably, a lonely old man played by Hal Holbrook), the film is essentially Hirsch’s. Luckily, he seems to have no trouble filling three hours with his understatedly charismatic, honest performance. Whether McCandless is marvelling at the breathtaking Alaskan wilderness, or struggling to survive in the face of its backlash, Hirsch’s performances never seems forced. In fact, I found it indefinably inspiring. As the audience, we follow the arc of emotions that McCandless goes through, and Hirsch is a good companion to have along for the ride. His performance is joy, innocence, heartbreak, and courage all rolled into one. Into the Wild is long and kind of slow-moving, but it’s ultimately very rewarding to watch, and a lot of this is because of Hirsch’s wonderful performance.
Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
As much as I love Jim Carrey’s style of comedy (I’m picky about broad, physical humour, but Jim Carrey’s always makes me laugh.), my favourite performance of his came in Michel Gondry’s 2004 breakthrough, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here, he plays Joel, a lonely, low-key man who finds love in the quirky Clementine (played by Kate Winslet). But don’t let the floppy hair and glum demeanour fool you. Carrey’s Joel isn’t just some middle-aged guy who’s still wallowing in teen angst. Carrey brings more dimensions to his performance. I totally related to Joel, and while a lot of the credit goes to the brilliant writing of Charlie Kaufman, Carrey’s performance also played a huge part. Even when the film takes a bizarre turn and explores the world of purposeful memory loss, Carrey still brings a lot of heart, and his presence keeps the film grounded.
Ellen Page – Juno (2007)
Page’s portrayal of the sixteen-year-old mom-to-be in Juno is just as sassy as everyone says, but while Juno seems self-assured, we learn that a lot of her bravado is covering up insecurities. Vaguely questionable relationships with the man about to adopt her child (played brilliantly by Jason Bateman) and dealing with the judgement that she faces as a pregnant teen clearly begin to wear Juno down. Page’s performance feels perfect as she plays a girl who is slowly stripped of her defence mechanisms (sarcasm, mainly), and is only left with real life to deal with. The way that Page reacts to teenage experiences that are both typical and unusual was so believable, and just a joy to watch. Her performance is the reason that so many different types of people loved this movie, and it’s probably the most authentic portrayal of a teenage girl that I’ve seen on film.
Casey Affleck – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Not since Jon Favreau called the same girl’s answering machine six consecutive times in Swingers have we witnessed such an epic display of loserdom on screen. But while Favreau’s performance was played for laughs, the 2 hours and 40 minutes we spend with Casey Affleck’s bumbling Bob Ford is far from comedic. The movie itself is a complex character study of the two men in a battle of wits (Robert Ford and Jesse James, who is played by Brad Pitt), and their never-ending quest to be one step ahead of the other. At one point, James muses to Ford, “I’m not sure if you want to be like me, or to be me.” That sentiment kind of sets the tone for Affleck’s entire performance, which twists and evolves beautifully throughout the film. I found Affleck’s performance unexpectedly moving, in a way. This is best shown in the last half hour or so of the film, after Bob has killed Jesse and has to return to the real world – only to find that they don’t want him, either. He’s annoying and egotistical, yet Affleck’s amazing performance made me pity and even sympathize with this bizarre character.
Leonardo DiCapprio – The Departed (2006)
In Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film, DiCapprio plays Billy Costigan, a conflicted young man working as an undercover investigator for the Boston police. When he’s assigned to get in with gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) he soon finds himself in over his head. One of the things that I liked most about The Departed is that they had two characters on either side of the law, who are crossing into each other’s turf for their work (a very clean-cut Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, who is a Costello’s rat in the SIU), and they flip our expectations early on in the film, when we find out who is working for who. DiCapprio is so convincing as a man with a questionable family history (which is the entire reason that he was chosen to be the mole), but who is essentially good, and strives to do the right thing. The conflict that Costigan feels is played so well, and the entire process that he goes through is really amplified by DiCapprio’s great work.
This is the first part of an ongoing feature where I’ll be sharing some of my favourite film performances of the decade. It’s impossible to compare and rank these performances, as they’re all very different and equally good, so I’ll just be posting 5 random performances at a time. It will probably be a five part series. My list is a work in progress, and I’ll be taking the rest of 2009 into account later on. These are just the acting performances that I liked best, so feel free to post your own opinions and suggestions!
Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson (2006)
Ryan Gosling has proven himself to be one of the best young actors around, and he earned a surprise Oscar nomination for his turn as Dan, a crack-addicted school teacher, in Half Nelson. The Oscars seem to be all about big “actor’s moments”, but Gosling gives a great subtle, well-rounded performance here. His character is quite likeable, yet you’re left shaking you head as he continues his downward spiral. Gosling does a great job of balancing Dan’s teaching persona – where he’s charismatic, and seems to genuinely care about his students – with his hellish private life. When Dan is caught smoking crack by one of his students, Drey (played magnificently by Shareeka Epps), he develops a special bond with her as both teacher and student try to help each other. Through his facial expressions and body language, Gosling gives one of the most quietly moving performances that I’ve ever seen.
James McAvoy – Rory O’Shea Was Here (2004)
McAvoy has proven himself to become one of the most popular young actors of the latter part of this decade (and has also managed to become an odd kind of sex symbol), but before he was getting starring roles in big films like Atonement, he played a young man with muscular dystrophy in Rory O’Shea Was Here (also known as Inside I’m Dancing). Playing Rory, McAvoy had the challenge of making the character charismatic and loveable, but also exasperating at times. Rory’s friendship with a young man with cerebral palsy is touching, and you’re heart goes out to the boys as you see their daily struggle to live a “normal” life, and deal with the prejudice that they face from others who do not understand their handicaps. Rory has a biting sense of humour, and McAvoy’s performance is both emotional and funny. For both fans and sceptics of McAvoy, I’d recommend checking out this movie.
Robert Downey Jr. – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
2008 was a great comeback year for Robert Downey Jr. with Iron Man, and his Oscar-nominated work in Tropic Thunder. But my favourite Downey role that I’ve seen from this decade is from a few years back. Though it was not a commercial success, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a hilarious crime caper comedy, where Downey plays Harry, a mediocre crook who finds his way to Hollywood posing as an actor, and gets involved in a real life murder plot. Co-starring with Val Kilmer (who is actually pretty funny!), the two have great chemistry. Downey is hilarious, charming, and sexy here. His delivery is brilliant, and he plays the everyman-out-of-his-depth role like no one else. Downey is his best playing a smartass, and there’s plenty of witty dialogue and clever subtleties to compliment Downey’s charismatic acting style. It’s a really fun movie, and a lot of that has to do with Downey’s great performance.
Jennifer Connelly – A Beautiful Mind (2001)
In my opinion, Jennifer Connelly has got to be right up there with Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep as one of the best actresses around. Even in some of the so-so movies that she’s been in (think He’s Just Not That Into You and Hulk), she manages to still stand out and give a really solid performances. She was fantastic in 2000′s disturbing Requiem for a Dream, but her understated, mature performance in 2001′s A Beautiful Mind is what I see as her finest work to date. Playing the wife of Russell Crowe’s character, she must deal with her husband’s increasingly debilitating struggle with Schizophrenia. Connelly’s performance is at times vulnerable, moving, heartbreaking, and powerful as she portrays a woman who is far from perfect, but is trying desperately to make things work.
Aaron Eckhart – Thank You For Smoking (2006)
In Jason Reitman’s directorial debut, Thank You For Smoking, Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, an incorrigible lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Armed with ridiculous spin tactics and an affinity for smooth-talk, it’s Naylor’s job to convince people (especially children) to take up smoking, and to downplay the health risks of cigarettes. Eckhart is hilarious and smooth in the scenes where he’s working his hyperbolic magic, and you can tell he’s having a lot of fun with it. And although his character is relatively despicable, Eckhart still brings glimmers of warmth and genuine likeability to his performance, which prevents us from truly hating the film’s protagonist. Eckhart shows real affection with his on-screen son, without falling into the sappy clichés that are so readily available in most films revolving around a single father. Here, Eckhart is larger than life in a very, very good way.