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Best Lead Performances of 2009

January 25, 2010 1 comment

Here is my list of the best lead performances for the year 2009. The best supporting performances will come next.

MALE

1. Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James in The Hurt Locker: As we watch Renner attempt to dismantle a bomb, we immediately understand that this is something he must do. He is drawn to it. This type of character, a man who doesn’t follow the rules, could have been played as a big badass type. Renner wisely doesn’t play this character that way. There is subtly and a quiet intensity in Renner’s performance. War is indeed a drug for him and his actions have serious consequences to his fellows soldiers. There is a great, honest moment at the end of the film where Renner quietly tells his baby son about the one thing he loves in life.

2. Colin Firth as George Falconer in A Single Man: This performance almost came in at number one. Firth is fantastic as a college professor suffering over the loss of his long time partner. What makes this role standout is not what Firth says, it’s what he doesn’t. He is able to convey a different range of emotions in just his slightest facial movement. The scene where he learns that his partner has been killed over a telephone call is a piece of great acting. He is a man who tries carefully to hide his feelings and in that one scene he finally lets it all out.

3. Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man: You feel a lot of sympathy for Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, a Jewish college professor living in 1960’s Minnesota. His professional and personal life are in serious chaos. We feel an enormous amount of sympathy for the man because of Stuhlbarg. He doesn’t play Larry as a loser, but just as a normal man trying to lead a normal life. Stuhlbarg wisely never goes over the top here. You can always tell he is just on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Credit the Coen’s for finding humor in this man’s chaotic life.

4. George Clooney as Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air: 2009 was a great year for Clooney. In three films Clooney delivered very strong work. His strongest performance came in this film as a professional corporate down sizer. Clooney’s Bingham is a pro at firing people. He has it down to an art. What makes this performance work is that Clooney doesn’t rely solely on his charm. There is a real vulnerability that exposes a side to him we are not use to seeing. His great chemistry with co-stars Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga doesn’t hurt his performance either.

5. Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart: Bridges has always delivered strong work in every picture he’s been in for nearly forty years. He seems dead certain to win the Oscar for his role as Bad Blake. Some will say the Academy will give it him as a career achievement award which represents his entire body of work. Regardless of that, he would deserve it if he wins. What makes this character move beyond cliche is Bridges. Bridges is able to instill a real level of authenticity and vulnerability into this hard living country singer.

Honorable Mentions: Sam Rockwell in Moon, Sharlto Copley in District 9, Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orléans.

FEMALE

1. Carey Mulligan as Jenny Miller in An Education: Mulligan is simply mesmerizing to watch on the screen. You are witnessing a star being born with this performance. Mulligan’s performance has been compared to Audrey Hepburn and justifiably so. Some of the images of Mulligan on-screen are comparable to Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” Jenny is a complex, intelligent young woman trying to find her way in life. She thinks she knows everything and is intelligent when compared to young ladies her own age. But she is still young and a bit naive. The troubles she goes through may end up hurting her, but we know she will end up stronger as a result. Mulligan was one of the great discoveries of 2009 for me. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.

2. Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds: Even though she may be considered a supporting performance, the film is essentially built around her character. Tarantino has crafted a strong memorable female heroine with Shosanna. Laurent is able to bring this character to life, as a brave and smart woman. If you want see Laurent at her best, look at the scene where she comes face to face with Hans Landa, the man responsible for her family’s death. She puts up a strong face throughout the meeting and when it’s finally over, she can’t help but break down in pure emotional heartbreak.

3. Tilda Swinton as Julia in Julia: Tilda Swinton is one brave actress. In this film she plays a character who is an out of control alcoholic. There is no vanity here, she lets all the ugliness of this character hang out. I was amazed watching her performance. The story focuses on Swinton kidnapping a friend’s son and holding him for ransom. She has no idea what she is doing and its riveting watching her completely make up this kidnap plan along the course of the film. Julia is a captivating character who always has us guessing what her true motivations are.

4. Gabourey Sidibe as Precious in Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire: This is a sad, moving debut performance. Sidibe is fantastic as this poor, uneducated, abused African-American teenager living in 1980’s Harlem. You watch this role and swear that she must really be like this character. Despite all the trouble that Precious goes through, Sidibe is able to inject real humanity into this role. We care about her and want her to succeed in life. It’s a heartbreaking moment when she finally breaks down over all the hardships she has lived through.

5. Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar: Saldana’s performance is the heart and soul of Avatar. She is the reason we care about what happens to the Na’vi on the planet of Pandora. The fact that we don’t actually see her live human performance on-screen doesn’t hinder her ability to convey a range of feelings up on the screen. A close up of her Na’vi face has the same emotional impact as a close up of a human face.

Honorable Mentions: Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces, Merly Streep in Julie & Julia.

Review Roundup: Brothers, A Single Man, Nine

January 4, 2010 2 comments

As 2009 was quickly coming to an end I made  an effort to catch up with some films before the year’s end. Here are some quick thoughts on 3 pictures I caught up with.

Brothers: Never judge a movie by the trailer. The trailer for Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” was among one of the worst I saw this year. The trailer made the film come across like melodramatic trash. After hearing some good things about the picture I decided to give it a chance. This is a film that I think everybody should check out.

The film is based on the 2004 Danish film of the same name. The story focuses on Tobey Maguire, a marine who is presumed dead during a mission in Afghanistan. The loss of Maguire hits his family back home hard. As a result, Maguire’s wife, played by Natalie Portman, starts to grow emotionally close to Maguire’s ex-con brother, Jake Gyllenhaal. Things get complicated when Maguire returns back home. This is not a spoiler; the movie’s advertising reveals this.

Sheridan does a great job of creating a family dynamic that you can believe. We feel the pain that this family is going through. The film never dwells on over-the-top melodramatic moments. Don’t let the trailer fool you, there are some real nice quite moments in the film that let it breathe.

Maguire, Gyllenhaal, and Portman all deliver some of their finest work to date. Gyllenhaal is the best of the three. He’s entirely convincing as the black sheep of the family who tries to make things right by helping his brother’s family. There is a real nice scene between him and his father (Sam Shepard) in the kitchen where the silence speaks volumes about the problems the two have gone through. The actors deliver the emotional moments without going for big acting. However, Maguire towards the end of the film does dive into big acting. His buggy eyes were troublesome. This film was a real nice surprise. Check it out.

3 1/2 stars

A Single Man: This is an impressive directorial debut from fashion designer Tom Ford. Based on the 1960’s book of the same name, Colin Firth plays a middle-aged college professor living in 1962’s Los Angeles. He is suffering over the loss of his lover, played in flashbacks by Matthew Goode.

Firth is fantastic here. It’s hard for an actor to convey all sorts of feelings just through one’s face. Firth is able to pull this off perfectly. On the outside he is a proper Englishman, but there is a lot of hurt beneath the surface. The only time we get to see that mask torn down is when he gets the phone call telling him his partner is dead. He maintains his composure through the call, but after he hangs up, it collapses. No dialogue is necessary to convey the heartbreak he is going through.

Throughout the film we follow Firth as he encounters one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) who may have a thing for him. We also meet his former lover and friend, played by Julianne Moore, who does her best to comfort Firth. The two spend a drunken night thinking about the past and the future . I think Moore is good in the film as a British boozehound. Though, I’m not sure if she deserves the award talk surrounding her performance.

Ford has a great eye for visuals. Everything in the picture from the camera angles, the framing,and the music is all laid out perfectly on-screen. The meticulous nature of the film aesthetic is used to represent how Firth leads his life. While Firth keeps up a proper appearance, Ford uses the imagery to convey the desire that he feels toward the male form. The great cinematography by Eduard Grau perfectly captures the 1960’s. A great performance, and great visuals make this film one to see.

3 1/2 stars

Nine: I must admit that I was looking forward to this film. A film based on the great Fellini film “8 1/2,” starring the great Daniel Day-Lewis and a line up of talented actress, how could it miss? It does.

The film is a musical version of Federico Fellini’s classic “8 1/2.” The plot of the film is essentially the same as Fellini’s film, but just with some musical numbers thrown in. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Italian director Guido Contini. He is a a man facing deep troubles in his life. He is near ready to shoot a film, but without a script. The women in Guido’s life come in and out of the film as he confronts the professional and personal issues in his life.

This isn’t a very good musical. The songs are just plain bad. The only song that is memorable is “Be Italian.” The other song I did enjoy was one called “Cinema Italiano,” which is sung by Kate Hudson. There’s something catchy about the song, even though I admit it’s bad. It doesn’t help that the actors, except for Fergie, can’t sing at all. Penelope Cruz, playing Guido’s mistress, is horrible during her musical number. She is sexy to look at, but I don’t know what the fuck she is singing about. Even though the actors can’t sing, I did find some enjoyment in that.

I like what Roger Ebert said about the film’s quality of stars. He says though the film may be full of big stars, none of them are actual characters. The only one of the ladies who is actually able to create a character is Marion Cotillard. She is great as the betrayed wife of Guido. Cotillard is able to make us sympathize with her during her brief time on screen.

I found the musical numbers boring because the director Rob Marshall, never takes advantage of the cinematic medium he is working in. The film is based on a stage musical, so many of the films musical sequences are theatrical. But this isn’t the theatre. It’s tiresome to see numerous musical number take place on an actual stage. Lewis is good as Guido, but he’s a no better singer than some of the ladies. I was surprised that this film didn’t bring together all these actors together in one big musical number. The film doesn’t even try to replicate the famous harem scene from the original “8 1/2.” That was a big letdown. The opening and closing curtain calls of the film are well done. No singing is required by any of the leads during those moments. This is an interesting film, but a lot of potential was wasted.

2 1/2 stars