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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
Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor who seems to pick his roles carefully, and everything he does usually gets lots of attention. So when I checked his IMDB page a few months ago, I was a little bit surprised to hear that he’d made a movie from just a few years ago that I had never heard of. Since I’m a fan of what I’ve seen from Day-Lewis, I tracked down The Ballad of Jack and Rose. It’s a very small, quiet film, and it’s not especially accessible, so the fact that it hasn’t found a large audience is understandable. But I do think that is a shame, because, as you would expect, Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional here.
Day-Lewis plays Jack, while Camilla Belle plays his teenage daughter, Rose. Rose has had a very isolated, unconventional upbringing. She and Jack live on an old commune on a small island off the coast of the United States. Jack spends much of the film trying to prevent a housing development from ruining the island. Since he’s in poor health, he invites his girlfriend, Kathleen (played by Catherine Keener), and her two sons (Paul Dano and Ryan McDonald) to come live with him and Rose. Rose isn’t used to any kind of guests at her house, let alone the permanent kind, so things go predictably awry almost as soon as they arrive.
The film is odd, to say the least. The relationship between Jack and Rose is set up to challenge the audience from the start. That being said, I think their “unconventional” relationship is handled well, and the questionable aspects of it really take a backburner throughout much of the story. The environmental aspect of the story is surprisingly well done. It’s not preachy. I questioned a lot of Jack’s actions to “protect” the island from the housing developments, but I was still fascinated by his passion and willingness to fight. Kathleen and her sons also provide a nice contrast to Rose and Jack’s isolated life, though they turn out to be nearly as messed up as our protagonists.
The acting is superb, for the most part. For such a small film, it has a pretty well-known, reliable cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most magnetic actors to watch on screen, and he’s amazing here, as usual. Jack’s certainly not a black and white character, and Day-Lewis plays every shade of grey perfectly. There are a couple of big, emotional scenes for him to work with, and he always strikes the perfect chord. It never feels melodramatic, which this film could have easily been. Catherine Keener also does a really nice job with a character that while being predictable, still brings a lot to the film. Ryan McDonald was one of the few unfamiliar faces here for me, and I found his performance very captivating. He plays the older of Kathleen’s sons. Rodney. He wants to be a woman’s hair dresser, and he’s a really fascinating character. He’s also the only remotely likeable person in the Jack/Kathleen makeshift family (though he is not perfect, by any means), and McDonald brings a lot of warmth, humour, and heart to the role. Jason Lee (yes, from My Name is Earl) even pops up in a tiny role as a plant delivery man, and I thought he gave an unexpectedly great performance, as tiny as it may have been. Camilla Belle was my one question mark in the cast. She gets points just because she managed to pull of the role. It’s tough material, and she’s sharing virtually every scene with Daniel Day-Lewis. That cannot be easy. I don’t think her acting was as great as it could have been if they’d gotten someone more at Ellen Page’s level, but Belle did an okay job.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose is not a perfect film. At times it feels a bit over-the-top (a scene involving an acid pad gets a bit ridiculous), and I would’ve liked to know more about some of the supporting characters. For example, Paul Dano’s character is a pretty messed up guy. I was expecting to learn more about him, but we never really do. Also, as previously mentioned, the characters aren’t very likeable. I’m all for some crazy, despicable characters, but most of these characters just felt blandly unpleasant. But I thought director Rebecca Miller (wife of Daniel Day-Lewis) definitely averted disaster. The relationship between Jack and Rose is clearly abnormal, and it gets into some sensitive areas. Some people might find some of the material a little squirmy, but the film does manage to keep that to a minimum, and never seems to exploit it. This film is certainly worth watching, if not just for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. Also, it’s a very nice film to look at. The scenery is lovely, and Miller takes great advantage of it. She captures that dreamy kind of world that hippies would have chosen to build their commune in. It’s a controversial film, in a way, but I found enough to like, and I thought it ultimately made a poignant statement.