Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Actor

George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

Will win: This one’s a gimme. Both of the male acting awards this year are relative locks, even if they shouldn’t be. Of course, Brokeback Mountain was supposed to be a lock too, but I’ll take my chances on this one. Daniel Day-Lewis has pulled a Dominik Hasek so far this awards season; he’s taken home sixteen trophies and hasn’t lost once. Initially I was thinking Clooney would stand a chance because Michael Clayton has been so well-received overall, but Day-Lewis has debunked that theory with extreme prejudice. Clooney himself has already conceded that Day-Lewis will win, quipping, “He sort of irritates us all because he’s so good”. This proves two things we already knew: A) Daniel Day-Lewis is going to win his second Oscar, and B) George Clooney is freaking awesome.

(Seriously, if you don’t appreciate George Clooney at this point, you’re either bitterly jealous or just deranged. It was one thing when he was a vaguely irritating heartthrob in his “E.R.” days who showed little in the way of range, but now he’s a home run every time he steps in front of the camera. I’m not saying I’d necessarily like to trade places with him – he’s a little too globally conscious for my ignorant, selfish personality. Besides, given the option, I’d rather trade places with either James Dolan (so I can fire Isiah Thomas), Dwight Howard (so I can throw down Superman dunks), or Dan Radcliffe (so I can hang out with Emma Watson every day, not to mention a host of adoring teenage girls with British accents). But Clooney is talented, good-looking, publicly savvy, and just generally awesome. And if that makes me a little gay, well, I also think Jonathan Rhys-Meyers was better-looking than Scarlett Johansson in Match Point, so whatever.)

Should win: The Academy generally displays unusually good judgment in the acting categories because, unlike with some of the lesser categories, voters don’t let the classical Best Picture favorites sway their evaluation of acting talent. This year is no exception; Tommy Lee Jones and Viggo Mortensen each represent their respective film’s sole nomination, while Sweeney Todd only landed two others (in perhaps a relative surprise). It’s a solid group overall, with no particularly egregious omissions. Admittedly it’s almost impossible for the Academy to make a mistake, given that we are currently blessed to live in a cinematic era populated by dozens of reliably excellent male actors. But as I’m an extraordinarily nice guy (except, you know, not at all), I’ll commend them for their selections all the same.

Interestingly enough, the only nod I have a minor complaint with is Johnny Depp’s. This isn’t because I disapprove of Depp’s work in Sweeney Todd; on the contrary, he approaches the role with his customary total dedication and delivers a performance of typical excellence. His singing may be occasionally shaky, especially in the film’s early scenes, but he grows more comfortable as the story unfolds, and we gradually grow to accept his vocals rather than be distracted by them. More importantly, Depp completely submerges himself into the role of a revenge-obsessed madman. Here’s an actor who possesses such effortless charm and talent that he’s been ranked #1 on IMDb’s STARmeter four consecutive years, yet there’s nary a trace of his natural stardom in Sweeney’s cold, hardened face. His transformation into Sweeney is absolute – he is single-minded, ferocious, and without pity. You won’t catch a whiff of Jack Sparrow’s playful impishness in Sweeney’s bloodthirsty quest for vengeance.

Which is sort of my problem. Because as good as Depp is in Sweeney Todd, I honestly felt his superior performance of the year came in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Depp landed an Oscar nomination for the first Pirates movie in 2003 (he should have won, but of course he didn’t stand a chance), but since then his inimitable portrayal of Capt. Jack Sparrow has gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, one of the unfortunate consequences of the critical marginalization of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels is that people have failed to appreciate the remarkable acting on display in these fantastic films. The movies have been graced with a terrifically talented cast, and in spite of the roguish, carefree nature of the films themselves, all of the actors take their work seriously.

For his part, Depp could easily have mailed in his performance in the (hopefully) last film in the franchise – it was going to be a smash box office hit regardless – but he chose to embrace the series, and he stays invested straight to the end. His usual rococo antics are back, and they’re as enjoyable to observe as ever, both the limp-wristed movements and the slurred, verbose dialogue (how many pirates heroes have ever used the words like “feculent”, “macabre,” and “Q.E.D.”?). But along with his outlandishness he also supplies brief moments of poignancy; his gentle line, “The world’s the same, there’s just less in it,” carries with it an unexpected sting of sadness. One of the central themes of all three Pirates movies is that there’s more to Jack Sparrow’s apparent selfishness than meets the eye, and Depp’s performances function similarly, adding depth and nuance in his creation of one of the iconic characters in film history.

(I’m not exaggerating – Jack Sparrow is absolutely one of the most enjoyably original characters of all-time. And I swear, one day, I’m going to sit down and finally create my much-contemplated Hall of Characters, and Capt. Jack Sparrow will have an inaugural spot, along with Lloyd Dobbler, Hermione Granger, Han Solo, Jessica Stein, Rob Gordon, Rick Blaine, and Ferris Bueller. Someday.)

So I can’t fully support Depp’s nomination for Sweeney Todd – not because his performance isn’t splendid but because it isn’t his best. Besides, Sweeney’s haircut nearly gave me nightmares. One of the most difficult parts of being a murderous throat-slashing barber, I imagine, is that you can’t hire anyone else to cut your own hair.

Sweeney’s a formidable figure, but Tommy Lee Jones’ retired military police officer of In the Valley of Elah probably could have made mincemeat out of him. Gruff, tough, and morally inflexible, Jones’ character here might initially appear to be a cousin of Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff he plays in No Country for Old Men. But though the two men share similarities, the characters – and Jones’ highly individual performances – are entirely different. Ed Tom is resigned to the evils of a world he no longer understands, and Jones plays him with a weariness suggesting extreme age and fatigue.

Hank Deerfield, the hero of In the Valley of Elah, has no such fragility. He operates by a rigid, self-imposed code that he seems to have inherited from his time in the army. He is judgmental, craggy, and almost always right. He begins the movie with an unbending faith in the military system, only to have that faith slowly shattered as he learns the grisly circumstances of his son’s murder. This gradual transformation makes the subtleties of Jones’ performance all the more appealing. He doesn’t illustrate Hank’s ideological changes with huge strides; he maintains his brusque demeanor even as he begins to question the foundation of his own principles. He underplays Hank’s suffering rather than beseeching us for our compassion, which is exactly how he earns it. As a movie, In the Valley of Elah can occasionally feel hackneyed and forced, but Jones’ acting is entirely true.

Such restraint is also a key ingredient in Viggo Mortensen’s brilliant turn as a Russian mobster in Eastern Promises. Mortensen has been a reliable character actor for some time, but it was his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies through which he first endeared himself to mainstream audiences; this was especially true of women, who were easily seduced by his penetrating gazed and unforced charisma (my sister can’t talk about him without getting flushed). That charisma serves him well as Nikolai, allowing him to emit an aura of intrigue along with an innate sense of lethality. Nikolai needs to be strangely appealing as well as menacing in order for Naomi Watts’ Anna to approach him so brazenly, and Mortensen’s reserved, coolly modulated performance cloaks Nikolai in a haze of mystery. This ambiguity not only aids the deceptive nature of Eastern Promises’ screenplay but also secures our interest in Nikolai as well as Anna’s. Neither an innocent nor a common thug, he can be both polite and hard-edged, gentlemanly and deadly, and that ability to layer his character with dimension is what makes Mortensen such a magnetic screen presence. (He also has great fun adopting a thick Russian accent – I particularly enjoyed the way he pronounced “limousines”.)

Daniel Day-Lewis is going to win the Best Actor Oscar for his awe-inspiring performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood – of that we can be certain. What is less certain is whether or not he deserves it. Most people seem entirely convinced. I’ve read various articles declaring Day-Lewis’ work to be the greatest performance not just of the year but of the past decade, perhaps of his whole generation. I would make the same argument about a certain Day-Lewis role – just not this one.

That’s because the greatest, most mesmerizing screen performance I’ve ever seen came five years ago from Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. As Bill the Butcher, he was the embodiment of tyranny. He wasn’t just larger-than-life – he was a titan among dwarfs. His clipped speech patterns, his decisive movements, his eloquent voice (“He speaks so beautifully!” my father gushed afterwards), his towering stature – everything combined to give the earth-shattering impression of perverse divinity. He was God, if God was unforgiving and cruel.

Daniel Plainview is a different beast from Bill the Butcher. He camouflages his cruelty in a shroud of decency and family values. He pretends to care about the community he’s ravaging, although he eventually tells us, “When I look at people I see nothing worth liking”. These contradictions may make Plainview a slightly more intricate character than Bill the Butcher, but they also make him just a shade less omnipotent. I do not say this to mitigate the power of Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood, for it is nothing short of remarkable. I only mean that if I were forced to select a single performance from his career – my Desert Island choice, so to speak – it would be his work in Gangs of New York.

But this is an unjust method of comparison. Trying to pick the single best Daniel Day-Lewis performance is like trying to select the best David Ortiz walkoff homer or the best quip from Hermione Granger – sure, you might be able to pick one (I’d probably go with Game 4 of the ’04 ALCS and “Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon”, respectively), but that doesn’t mean the others are any less incredible. And Day-Lewis’ acting in There Will Be Blood is without doubt incredible.

What’s so good about it? The voice, again, for starters. Day-Lewis has a singular method of speaking, regardless of his accent (apparently he borrowed this one from legendary director John Huston), in which he enunciates perfectly yet also seems to draw out his words in a deliberate, leisurely manner. The result is that we understand everything he says perfectly, yet we are also deathly still whenever he speaks, the better to hear that exquisite, honeyed voice.

He also carries within himself a sheer brutality, usually controlled but nevertheless ubiquitous. Plainview speaks politely, for the most part, but there is always the sense that he can explode without warning. This happens several times in There Will Be Blood, in several varied keys. In one scene, Plainview is confronted – stupidly, it turns out – by Eli Sunday, the young preacher who represents the closest thing Plainview has to a foil. Eli wants to know when he’s going to receive the money he’s been promised. Plainview doesn’t like his tone. In the first moment of violence in the entire movie, he suddenly unleashes himself, pummeling Eli with punch after punch, humiliating him and dragging his body through the oil-soaked muck, all the while roaring, “I’m going to bury you under the ground!”. (Note: That pronouncement may or may not have become my mantra every time I play ping-pong.) Day-Lewis makes Plainview’s rage palpable. Eli should have known better – preachers shouldn’t pick a fight with gods.

Later there’s a seemingly quiet conversation in which Plainview is haggling courteously with three men who want to buy out his tracts. One of the men makes a casual inquiry about Plainview’s injured son. Plainview looks the man directly in the eye, and without raising his voice says, “One night, I’m going to come inside your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and I’m going to cut your throat”. It is a serene proclamation, but as we see the fury in Day-Lewis’ eyes, we have no doubt that he means it.

Finally, there is Plainview’s boiling, barely contained hatred, both for the rest of humanity and also for himself. In the movie’s most memorable scene (other than the aforementioned accident involving the oil derrick), Plainview is forced to humiliate himself in Eli’s church – it’s the price he must pay in exchange for building a pipeline through the region. At first the scene plays as comic, with Plainview numbly subjecting himself to Eli’s cruel theatrics, derisively parroting the preacher’s inane declarations; he mumbles lines like “I am a sinner” with revulsion, furious that he has been forced to degrade himself in this manner. We chuckle along with this, as it’s amusing see this behemoth of a man reduced to a bored supplicant.

But then Eli insists that Plainview repeatedly say that he has abandoned his child (which, it so happens, he has), and the tenor of the scene changes. Plainview complies several times, and the first few utterances carry the same lazy tone of aggrieved submission, but as he keeps speaking, his voice grows louder and louder, and when he finally shouts “I’ve abandoned my child! I’ve abandoned my boy!,” the pain on his face is visible. Suddenly he is no longer thinking about the pipeline, no longer aware of his undignified surroundings – he is only thinking of his boy, the boy he has failed, and we see an excruciating mixture of anguish and self-loathing. It’s a truly powerful moment, one only an actor of Day-Lewis’ caliber can pull off so successfully.

And yet, in spite of such a compelling performance, I’m not voting for Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor. For the record, this is not because I feel he somehow didn’t measure up to his work in Gangs of New York. That would be the height of foolishness, given that the prior movie came out five years ago and these Oscars are about recognizing the best films of 2007. It’s more that I honestly – perhaps unbelievably – feel another nominee applied his craft just a bit better this year.

That would be George Clooney, of course, and my reasons for selecting him as Best Actor have nothing to do with my man-crush. (To be honest, I have more of a man-crush on Johnny Depp anyway.) But it does have something to do with Clooney’s Hollywood identity. As I referenced earlier, the man has become something of an icon in the film industry, and that mythic status tends to translate fluidly to his screen roles. One of the pleasures of the Ocean’s Eleven series is that Clooney and Brad Pitt are so naturally charming that they don’t appear to act their parts so much as glide through the movies under assumed names. This shouldn’t be viewed as a criticism of Clooney’s acting – regardless of his public persona, he brings a sharp intelligence to all of his roles, and his comic timing is consistently superb. But he is almost always playing characters who are ahead of the curve. In movies such as Three Kings, The Perfect Storm, Good Night, and Good Luck., and most of Syriana, Clooney is typically the alpha dog, in charge, in the know, and in control.

Which is what makes his work in Michael Clayton so revelatory. Far from being in charge, he plays a meek subordinate whose life is in shambles. He isn’t George Clooney. He’s helpless.

This isn’t obvious at first. When we initially meet Michael, we learn he’s the “fixer” at a mammoth corporate law firm. We don’t know what that means, but given the cut of his clothes and the make of his car, we gather he’s good at it. In the film’s first big scene, Michael dispenses advice to a high-priced, self-righteous client with a clipped, confident tone saturated in legal acumen. This is nothing new – he’s George Clooney, the man who’s always right and who always knows everything.

And then, not long after, his car explodes. Whoa.

That’s a plot point, of course, and the majority of the rest Michael Clayton takes place in flashback, illuminating the complex series of events that lead up to the explosion. But it’s also the jumping-off point from which we begin to realize Michael’s life isn’t as neatly ordered as we had perceived. We learn that he’s battling a long-time gambling addiction. His firm may be merging with a London office, clouding his job security. His failed business venture with his drug-addled brother has left him near-bankrupt. And his close friend and mentor, Arthur, is suddenly seemingly deranged, threatening to sabotage a crucial litigation; Michael is entrusted to force his friend to cooperate, but Arthur proves resilient in clinging to his newfound morality.

As the movie grows darker and the circumstances regarding the court case more dire, Clooney portrays Michael with increasingly heightened levels of desperation. At the beginning of the film, Michael is already downtrodden – an early discussion of his financial troubles with a restaurant broker shows him as tired and edgy. Later, in a pained conversation when he asks his boss for a loan, he comes off as needy and insecure, so uncertain is he about his future. And then there’s that agonizing confrontation with Arthur, when Michael is reduced to pleading for assistance, for direction. The strain in Clooney’s voice matches the hurt on his face – he’s portraying a man who is completely defeated.

How can this be? Clooney is essentially the Keith Hernandez of Hollywood – he can do anything! He’s been voted Sexiest Man Alive! He banged the chick who played Emmanuelle from Space! He was Dr. Ross on “E.R.”! He’s stopping the genocide in Darfur! He’s George Clooney!

Not in Michael Clayton. In this film he is wounded, endangered, and disheartened. It all comes to a head in one of the best scenes in cinema this year. It’s early morning – the sun is just coming up – and Michael is driving. He’s in Westchester, where he’s just finished dealing with that obnoxious, high-priced client. He’s driving fast, because men like Michael always have somewhere to be, but suddenly he stops. He gets out of his car and walks up a grassy embankment; it’s a chilly, desolate landscape populated only by a few horses. Michael walks slowly toward them, puzzled at their composure, their serenity, their lack of fear. The camera observes them quietly, then gently turns to Michael.

And then – without speaking a word, without offering the slightest tic, without acting at all – George Clooney somehow exudes pure agony. It is as if he has realized that his life is devoid of meaning. His energy has been entirely depleted, and his face reflects only unadulterated emotional pain. We are looking at a man who has determined his soul is empty. He isn’t George Clooney – he’s broken.

But then that wretched car explodes (the scene is shown twice, once at the beginning of the film, once near the end) and wrenches us back to the movie, to the plot, to the case that has become emblematic of Michael’s ruined life. It’s an event that functions as a catharsis, and it revitalizes Michael, giving him the necessary energy to see that justice is meted out. Not long after, he’s back indoors, in a high-rise office building, in his element, and he’s delivering a monologue of perfectly controlled fury. Striding forward with complete confidence, eyes blazing rectitude, he’s once again the alpha dog, the man in charge. Michael is smarter than you, he’s in the right, and he’s going to get what he wants, and if you’re in his crosshairs, as he says, “you’re so fucked”.

And then we recognize him at last: It’s George Clooney. So nice to have him back.

For the record, this is a fairly long list – as I said earlier, there are a lot of really good actors working in movies right now – so I’ll try to keep these descriptions shorter than usual. Emphasis on “try”.

Russell Crowe, 3:10 to Yuma / American Gangster. People have told me in the past that I should start a blog. The theory is that, given how obsessed I am with movies and how much I enjoy writing about them, what better way is there to get myself noticed than to post my thoughts on the Internet on a semi-regular basis? Isn’t that more efficient and reasonable than just condensing a year’s worth of opinions into a single, bloated, largely ignored document once a year? It’s a perfectly logical suggestion; the only problem is that I write too fucking slowly – not even “Tony Clark circa ‘03” level slowly, we’re talking “The lumbering zombies from Night of the Living Dead” level slowly. So in order to have enough time to maintain a blog, I’d basically need to not work a full-time job, not watch two full-length sporting events per night, not go to the Common 2-3 times per week, not be in a kickass bowling league, and not watch a whole lot of porn. And right now, I’m not ready to not do any of those things. Good thought though.

Theoretically, however, if I did have a blog, one column I’d like to write for it would be a mock actors’ fantasy draft. Basically, imagine you’re in a fantasy rotisserie league, only instead of drafting athletes, the players are actors, and the categories are things like Dollars (box office earnings potential), Hardware (Oscars and other awards won), Talent (as estimated by the critical community), Public Image (which is sort of a “turnovers” type category, since it’s far more likely to be negative than positive), and Traffic (the number of hits received on Google). That might be a bit too popularity-focused, but you get the idea. Given a basic skeleton, I’d then attempt to rank the top 50 or so actors currently working according to my perception of their overall stardom (IMDb has something vaguely like this with their STARmeter poll, although I think that’s focused much more on image). Writing a column like this would probably take me anywhere from 4-6 weeks. And that is why I don’t have a blog.

Here’s my point though: Assuming I did write that column and do a full mock draft, doesn’t Russell Crowe have to have the highest ADP (that’s average draft position for the unaffiliated) out of everyone? Is there anyone more consistently outstanding who possesses the overall package of acting chops, box office appeal, and star quality? I guess the only alternative would be Johnny Depp, but he’s never won an Oscar, so he can’t be billed as “Academy Award winner Johnny Depp” (see, I told you the Oscars matter). Crowe has a statuette, so I think he ranks first. We’ll never know.

Anyway. It’s pointless for me to choose between 3:10 to Yuma and American Gangster as Crowe’s best performance, as the rugged New Zealander was so good in both. It’s interesting, however, that the two performances are seemingly contradictory – 3:10 to Yuma gives Crowe the showier role, playing the charismatic villain against Christian Bale’s straight-laced hero, while in American Gangster he’s the dogged investigator trying to bring down the flashier Denzel Washington. Given that in the past six years Crowe has convincingly played a schizophrenic mathematician from West Virginia, a nineteenth century British naval officer, and a Depression-era boxer from New Jersey, it’s not as if this dichotomy proved to be much of a challenge for him.

The best thing about Crowe’s work in 3:10 to Yuma is his refusal to yield to temptation and just ham things up. Given that his character Ben Wade is frequently described as a notorious outlaw, it would have been easy for Crowe to accentuate the gunslinger’s more mythic qualities. He does that a fair amount, often adopting a knowingly mischievous smile to match his twinkly eyes. But he also supplies Wade with some real nastiness. Crowe’s easygoing, roguish charm may be secondhand, but he can also turn on the intensity when required, and several scenes in which Wade grapples with his captors are presented with stark violence and barbarism. Crowe is clearly enjoying himself, but he forces us to recognize Wade’s capacity for evil in addition to his likability.

If everyone in 3:10 to Yuma is unavoidably drawn to Ben Wade, that certainly isn’t the case with Richie Roberts, the detective Crowe plays in American Gangster. Women seem to like Richie (“Fuck me like a cop, not a lawyer!”), but no one else does, mostly because of his scruples. Distrusted by everyone in the department after he finds a million dollars in drug money and incredibly turns it in as evidence, he’s forced to build a case against Washington’s Frank Lucas more or less single-handedly, and the injustice of it clearly rankles him. Crowe makes Richie frustrated but also determined. He seems to do battle with corrupt cops as often as actual criminals, and such omnipresent dishonesty infuriates him but also reinforces his resolve.

Two scenes stand out. In the first, Richie is lounging with Joey Sadano, a childhood pal who now has hazy ties to the Mafia. It’s a pleasant scene, just two old friends catching up, until Sadano clumsily offers Richie a bribe. The hurt and resultant anger on Richie’s face is both immediate and severe. “Why would you do this?” he asks softly, and it’s clear that, just like that, the two men are no longer friends.

Much later, Richie informs Frank that he wants his help fingering crooked cops. Frank is stunned that Richie would want to go after “his own kind”. Richie’s counter is instantaneous: “They aren’t my kind,” he says firmly, with a brief but vigorous shake of the head. “If they do business with you, Frank, they are not my kind.” Such stalwart morality might recall echoes of Al Pacino’s classic portrayal of Serpico, but Crowe imbues Richie with his own form of quiet but absolute integrity.

(As for American Gangster itself, I know some people are going to yell at me for excluding it from my Top 10 list, but I just don’t think it belongs there. It’s a very well-made, well-acted, and generally entertaining movie with a few great scenes, most notably the shootout near the end, and after I saw it with my buddy Savio, we definitely wanted to cruise around town and fuck people up. But it doesn’t really offer anything new. It’s essentially an effective combination of two genres – the police procedural and the mob picture. It’s nicely executed but hardly revolutionary.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. This could just as easily be filed under Best Supporting Actor instead, as he basically splits time with Ethan Hawke, but I think Hoffman is the true star of Sidney Lumet’s crime melodrama. As Andy Hanson, the man who recruits his brother in to assist him a robbery, he’s brutishly effective as a bully, with his hulking stature and needling, insistent voice. As they begin plotting the robbery, his brother pleads that he doesn’t know where to start – Andy replies coldly, “Well, you can stop being a baby”. Nice guy.

Such harassment paints Andy as a serious prick, but it’s his self-loathing that’s truly memorable. Hoffman has played seedy characters before (most memorably in Happiness), but never has he seemed so repulsed by his own nature. Andy has ostensibly concocted this robbery as a desperate plan to escape from his self-inflicted financial troubles, but all the money in the world couldn’t help him escape from himself. Hoffman succeeds in making Andy a worthwhile character not because he gets us to sympathize with him (how could we?) but because he helps us understand just how much he despises himself.

(Just to confirm: Philip Seymour Hoffman has finally gotten his due now, right? The guy won an Oscar for Capote two years ago, and between that and his spectacular 2007 – an Oscar nomination for Charlie Wilson’s War, solid work in The Savages, and his excellent turn in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – I think it’s safe to say that Phil Hoffman is finally a household name. And I’ll be honest: I’m a little disappointed. It was kind of cool back in 1999 when my Dad and I were the only people in the world who knew about him and John C. Reilly, two of the greatest character actors of their generation. Oh well, at least we still have Nick Stahl.)

John Cusack, 1408. Part of this is distinctly personal – I’ve always just plain liked John Cusack. But he’s also legitimately good in this terrifying little horror film based on a Stephen King short story. He has to be, given that the plot involves him spending a night alone in a hotel room – yeah, that’s it. It’s a haunted room, of course, and the movie is quite expectedly scary as hell (especially if you’re a wuss the way I am and you get scared every time the music starts throbbing and the camera zooms in on a character so you’re unable to see his surroundings), but Cusack makes our fears more directional by providing a smart, interesting, and slightly thickheaded protagonist. He also helps give added weight to a simple credo: When Samuel L. Jackson tells you to do something, you fucking do it, or you’ll be sorry.

Chris Cooper, Breach. I used to have a theory called December Syndrome that basically suggested most movies didn’t have a chance in hell of receiving multiple Oscar nominations if they didn’t come out near the end of the calendar year. Academy voters have notoriously short memories, so even if a movie churns up healthy box office numbers and earns good reviews in the summer (or earlier), it tends to fade from the picture come Oscar season (with Courage under Fire being one of many examples). This has gradually been debunked over the last few years for the most part (The Departed was released in October), but it still materializes on occasion. It reared its head this year for several high-profile actresses (both Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie were viewed as surefire nominations when their movies first came out, only to pull a Bobby Fischer when the candidates were announced), and also for Chris Cooper, who initially garnered Oscar buzz way back in February for his performance in this taut drama about the arrest of FBI spy Robert Hanssen. (If you think I just spoiled the ending, director Billy Ray announces the end result in the movie’s first scene. I found this slightly irritating, since I had no recollection of Hanssen’s arrest, mainly because I’m an ignorant oaf.)

It’s a shame, because Cooper his usual brilliant self in Breach. We’re initially seeing Hanssen through the naïve eyes of Eric O’Neill, who’s unaware of his new boss’ traitorous ways. Eric is designed to gain Hanssen’s trust and is therefore sent into the lion’s den uninformed; when he first meets Hanssen, he sees nothing other than a dedicated social servant who’s devoted to both his family and his country. Cooper’s genius is in his subtlety – initially he presents Hanssen with the outward appearance of supreme uprightness, but there’s still something shifty in his eyes, even in these early scenes. When Eric learns the truth about Hanssen, Cooper doesn’t overplay it, and even though Eric’s perception of him has changed dramatically, the actual shift in Cooper’s performance is nearly imperceptible. The exception is a harrowing voiceover montage in which he narrates letters he’s written to his Russian contacts, detailing his abhorrent crimes with icy, remorseless precision. He’s a true villain of the modern age.

(I also wish the Oscars could create a Best Casting category, in which case I’d nominate Breach’s Cassandra Kulukundis for her inspired choice of Ryan Phillippe as Eric. I like Phillippe, but he isn’t a great actor; his most distinguishing characteristic is a curious blankness. This works perfectly in Breach because Hanssen is described to be brilliant, suspicious, and cunning in reading deception. In an amusing scene early on, he asks Eric to tell him “five things about yourself, four of them true” to prove he can spot the lie. One of Eric’s statements is that his favorite drink is vodka tonic. After he’s finished, Hanssen asks in a bored tone, “What is your favorite drink then, gin?”. The point is that this guy is no joke – he can spot a con from a mile off. If we are to believe, then, that Eric is able to successfully dupe him once he learns the truth, Eric needs to be played by someone unreadable. Phillippe is just such an actor. If Breach had starred someone more affecting like Jake Gyllenhaal as Eric, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as credible.)

Gordon Pinsent, Away from Her. Julie Christie is getting all the buzz for her portrayal of a woman decaying into Alzheimer’s, but I honestly felt that Pinsent’s aching performance as her disconsolate husband was far more moving. Take one of the first scenes in the movie when Christie’s character finishes cleaning a frying pan and then casually places it in the freezer, as if that’s where it belongs. It’s an amusing moment at first, but the scene ends with the camera lingering on Pinsent’s face, and we see his recognition of what just happened, and then the ensuing pain. His knows that his entire life is about to disintegrate and that there is absolutely nothing he can do about it.

Later there’s a horrible moment in a care facility (is that what it’s called? It sounds so callously antiseptic), when Christie’s character has fully succumbed to the disease and no longer recognizes her husband. She’s wearing a garish, multi-colored sweater. Pinsent is watching her, dejected, helpless. Unable to take it anymore, he strides over to her, grips her by the shoulders, and shakes her. “This is not your sweater,” he growls, but she only stares at him helplessly. The mixture of frustration and shame on Pinsent’s face is excruciating.

Seth Rogen, Knocked Up. Don’t underestimate Seth Rogen. The guy is seriously funny (“Pregnant … with emotion?”), but he can also probe his character to just the right degree. The plot of Knocked Up – pot-smoking slacker Ben accidentally impregnates blond bombshell Alison, hilarity ensues – is inspired, but it also creates pitfalls for phoniness. In scenes such as when Ben proposes marriage to Alison despite being unable to afford a wedding ring, Rogen brings pathos to his character without overreaching. He makes Ben tender and true, but he also keeps hold of his vulgar immaturity and slothful lack of ambition. Check out his delivery when Alison asks him what he’d expect if this were a normal second date. He responds, with heartfelt sincerity: “B.J.”. Who could resist falling in love with a guy like that?

Michael Cera, Superbad. This may come as a shock, but I wasn’t very good with women in high school. Like, at all. Not that I’m Casanova or anything now, but in high school, I was about as smooth as Inspector Clouseau. This is why I viewed Michael Cera’s bumbling antics in Superbad with a marvelously painful combination of revulsion and nostalgia. I don’t pretend that Cera’s Evan was anything like me – he’s funnier, hipper, and better-looking than I ever was – but some of his flirtatious, tremendously awkward moments with the appealing Becca speak to me with great truth.

There’s that scene in math class in which his eyes wander to Becca’s chest and then whoops he’s caught and needs to look away. (Oh come on, don’t pretend that’s never happened to you.) Shortly thereafter, Evan and Becca have a pleasant, perfunctory chat and then attempt to part, only they quickly realize they’re still walking in the same direction, except the conversation is officially over, so Evan is forced to quicken his stride and race ahead of Becca while practically shrieking “Bye!” in high-pitched terror. Moments like that make me wince as well as laugh. And then there’s the health class line, which easily wins the “Baxter Getting Kicked off a Bridge Award” for the funniest moment of the year. Nothing else need be said.

His comic timing is splendid, yet in heavier scenes, Cera exhibits an astonishing directness. When his best friend Seth finally confronts him about his prospective future at Dartmouth, Evan responds angrily, “I’m not going to let you bring me down anymore,” before slowly allowing guilt to mingle with his forthrightness. (He does the same thing in Juno – who can forget his wounded “You’re being really immature” line?) It’s unknown yet if Cera has much range, but he plays the anxious teenager to perfection.

(By the way, his next film, Extreme Movie, stars Frankie Muniz. Somebody get this kid a new agent.)

Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone. I’ve used the word “hero” to describe Patrick Kenzie, the central figure of Ben Affleck’s kidnapping mystery, but the way Casey Affleck plays him he’s almost an antihero. At first, Patrick seems like your standard Hollywood golden boy, bright-eyed, willing to do whatever it takes, but his determination soon slides into desperation. Affleck portrays Patrick not as a righteous instrument of justice but a confused, impulsive tough who is gradually losing contact with his own soul. The devolution of his character is the most lasting quality of Gone Baby Gone, and Affleck delineates Patrick’s moral decomposition and ultimate salvation with thoughtfulness and clarity. It may not be as showy a performance as his Oscar-nominated role as Robert Ford, but it’s equally compelling.

Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. His fifth turn as the Boy Who Lived, this unquestionably represents Radcliffe’s best performance thus far in his career. I’ve already discussed the crucial element: his ability to make us sympathize with Harry’s trauma and not be irritated by his childishness. He doesn’t overact. The novel form of Order of the Phoenix is laden with exclamation points, but Radcliffe keeps his voice soft, limits his gestures, and lets his troubled eyes speak for him. We have no choice but to feel compassion for this troubled young man, as Radcliffe emphasizes Harry’s growing sense of estrangement and isolation while still making him likable. Thank God he’s coming back.

Ulrich Mühe, The Lives of Others. 2007 seems to have been a particularly good year for delicate, restrained performances. Along with Viggo Mortensen’s deceptive tranquility in Eastern Promises and Russell Crowe’s quiet dignity in American Gangster, we can add Mühe’s solemn self-doubt in this German thriller. It’s no small thing to determine that you’ve spent your life in the service of evil, and Mühe depicts this tentative self-realization in gradual stages. It’s a thoughtful, carefully textured performance that functions as The Lives of Others’ emotional center. Mühe obviously wasn’t as renowned among Americans as Heath Ledger, but the world clearly lost a great actor when he died last year.

Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man 3. There are times in men’s lives when they just declare someone’s their boy and that’s that. Nomar Garciaparra has been my boy since I first saw him backhand a groundball in the hole and then preposterously fling the ball in the general direction of first base. Mike Dunleavy has been my boy since he first made a spin move from the top of the key and floated in a finger-roll at Duke. Lloyd Dobbler has been my boy ever since I watched Say Anything… six nights in a row my junior year of high school. That’s just the way it is.

And Tobey Maguire has been my boy ever since he followed up The Ice Storm with Pleasantville nine years ago. From that point in his career, he’s approached every role with the same level of youthful vitality and wide-eyed enthusiasm. He’s good-looking, intelligent, and earnest. He’s my boy.

And he’s terrific as usual in Spider-Man 3. It isn’t the best performance of his career – he struggles a bit in some overwrought emotional scenes near the end – but he successfully navigates the contours of Peter Parker’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson, effectively communicating first Peter’s bewilderment and then his frustration and anger. He also has a great deal of fun making an unmitigated ass of himself. Sam Raimi’s curious decision to throw a random dance sequence into the middle of Spider-Man 3 may not hold up on subsequent viewings, but Maguire lampoons himself effortlessly, and in earlier scenes when he’s morphing into the Darth Vader-esque “Black Spidey”, he reaches outside of his comfort zone and delivers some truly hilarious physical comedy. Regardless of your stature in Hollywood, it takes a certain amount of courage to act so foolishly on screen, but Maguire conquers the challenge with aplomb.

James McAvoy, Atonement. First, let’s just get this out of the way: James McAvoy is dreamy. If you disagree, either you need new glasses, you’re extremely insecure, or you’re a lesbian (which, you know, is cool with me). No man – no being on the planet, for that matter – can stand next to Keira Knightley and not be overshadowed, but McAvoy comes about as close as anyone possibly can to holding his own.
But I’m not including him here because of his flashy eyes and strong cheekbones (if I were, I’d have to insist Rebecca Romijn-Stamos be retroactively awarded an Oscar for Femme Fatale). McAvoy also brings plenty of acting talent to his role as Robbie in Atonement, most notably for his pragmatic sense of doubt. Robbie is smart, clearheaded, and perceptive, and McAvoy validates his love for Cecilia with undeniable truth. But when their lives shatter, he permits uncertainty to enter his face and his mind, as if he may only be recollecting a dream. McAvoy’s expression of Robbie’s initial hesitancy – and his subsequent resolve – deepens Robbie’s dimensionality. It’s an intricate performance, and we can hope it’s testament of things to come. It’s too early in McAvoy’s career to determine if he’s destined for greatness, but if he brings the same level of nuance and sensitivity to every role as his does to Atonement, he’ll be back on this list soon enough.

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