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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
Robert Downey Jr.
Essential Filmography: Chaplin (1992), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Tropic Thunder (2008), Zodiac (2007)
Underappreciated Work: Wonderboys (2000)
Despite his personal issues over the past twenty years, Robert Downey Jr.’s unlikely longevity has given him the chance to tackle just about every film genre over the course of his career. Period pieces (Restoration), romantic comedies (Only You), and superhero movies (Iron Man) all went down easy thanks to his quirkily suave style. He may have flubbed his early career and made more than his share of dud films since, but it feels like Downey’s done a lot of his best work yet in the last five years. He gave a fan-favourite performance in 2005′s hillarious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, earned his second Oscar nomination for Tropic Thunder. Having reinvented himself as a bankable box office star, it’s exciting to think that the peak of Downey’s diverse career might still be ahead of him.
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.