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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.

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An Incredible Cinematic Experience

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

James Cameron has crafted an epic film the kind which Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. “Avatar” is in the same vein of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I’m not saying “Avatar” is a classic like those two films, but what they all share in common is that each film is a great cinematic experience. You must watch these films on the big screen to really appreciate the grandeur of what is being put on the screen. Simply just experiencing these films only on a television screen would be criminal.

The story takes place on the planet of Pandora in the year 2154. A greedy corporation has set up shop hoping to mine the planet for a valuable mineral. In order to learn about the native species, ten feet tall, blue creatures known as the Na’vi, scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have developed an Avatar program. The program allows humans to mentally link up and physical control a genetically altered Na’vi. Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine who is recruited for the Avatar program and finds himself being taken in by the Na’vi. He is trained in their culture by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and soon Jake develops an affection for Neytiri and the Na’vi way of life. Jake’s love for Pandora can’t go on uninterrupted. The corporation’s head of military operations, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is hell-bent on destroying the planet for his corporate masters.

The first twenty minutes or so, I was not really into the film. I was bogged down by Cameron’s bad one lines and the actor’s execution of the dialogue. Even when we first see Worthington enter his Avatar body and interact with humans, I was not blown away. Where things picked up for me was when we see Worthington interact with the world of Pandora. There is a great scene of him being chased by a giant creature. The use of the 3D fully threw me into that scene. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

It’s ironic that James Cameron has used today’s modern technology to create a truly beautiful, realistic world. The 3D technology is used to fully immerse the audience into the world of Pandora. There are no cheap 3D tricks here. We feel like we are on the planet. A shot of a waterfall, or grass looks gorgeous and tremendously realistic. You get use to wearing the 3D glasses and just fall into the wonder of the planet.

The motion capture technology Cameron uses is ground breaking because when we are watching the Na’vi, we forget we are watching a CGI character. A close up of the Na’vi has the same emotional impact as the close up of regular human face. The technology does not hinder the performances of the actors. This especially applies to Zoe Saldana, as Neytiri. She is really engaging in her role. Sam Worthington is also good, though it did take me a while to warm up to his performance. Weaver and Lang also deliver some solid work as well.

Much has been made about the screenplay and I agree it’s not the strongest part of the picture. The last half hour of the film does dive into large action sequences like a typical action film. But what action it is! There is riveting imagery in this part of the film. Cameron proves he knows how to shoot great action. I did find myself getting carried away in the story. I cared for the Na’vi and even the romantic subplot involving Worthington and Saldana. The picture has allegories ranging from wars past and present. The story of native people fighting an outside force to protect their land is not a new story angle. I even found imagery that I think invokes 9/11. You will know it when you see it. This image is at the same time strangely beautiful but frightening. The seats of the theatre literally shook when this event occurs.

I saw this film on a IMAX screen in 3D and I one hundred percent recommend you see it this way. It’s a great film going experience that will carry you away with the images and story. Many critics have compared seeing this film to seeing “Star Wars” for the first time. I agree with this. Seeing “Star Wars” on the big screen for the first time at age 10 drove me into the world of film. If I saw “Avatar” at the same age today, I think it would have the same effect. Cameron has returned amazement to the movies.

4 Stars