Monday, February 15, 2010

Top Acting Performances, According to Me

I was reading another blog the other day, and the topic of the post was "the top ten acting performances I've ever seen." The guy who wrote the post admitted his choices where limited, since he wasn't much of a cinephile, and some of the choices might be controversial, arcane or both. But he listed some interesting choices, some of which I'd seen, others I hadn't.

It got me to thinking about my own top ten choices. So I thought I'd share them here, and let y'all argue with me/agree with me/share your own ideas about your favorite performances. Also, I'm not going to rank them in any particular order. I'm just going to list ten acting performances that moved me and have stuck in my mind to this day.

Just keep in mind, I don't see a lot of movies, so my list is, by definition, entirely incomplete. Warning--there are going to be a few story spoilers here, though I'll try to keep them to a minimum. That said...let's go...

1. Colin Firth as Adrian LeDuc in APARTMENT ZERO. I admit, I only came across this film because of my Colin Firth obsession after PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But this strange, disturbing little film took my breath away. Firth gives a stunning performance as a young, repressed Argentinian man who is slowly but surely corrupted by a handsome, charming American con artist. His transformation is complete at the end, and, as the protagonist, he has "won." But at what price to the world around him? Firth does repressed well, but in Adrian, he takes the performance to another level as he portrays a man slowly unraveling, inch by inch.

2. Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. I love a good action flick, and DIE HARD is one of my favorites. It's certainly Bruce Willis's most appealing film; his John McClane is an iconic action hero precisely because of Willis's bravado and charm. But it's Alan Rickman's tour de force turn as the smooth, urbane and oh-so-entertaining villain, Hans, that steals the movie. He's smart, he's sexy, he's sarcastic and twisted. You listen to every word and can't wait to see what he's going to do next. When he gets his just deserts at the end, you have to cheer, because he's been so very, very bad. But there's a part of you that also wishes he didn't have to go yet, because he's just so much fun to watch.

3. Peter Dinklage as Finbar McBride in THE STATION AGENT. This is one of those movies where not much happens in terms of action. But there's a lot of quiet, intense character growth happening, as this lonely man tries to hide from grief only to be sucked into the lives of a persistently friendly food vendor and a shattered, depressed woman, forming an unlikely but powerful friendship. While Bobby Cannavale's Joe is bombastic and profane, threatening to steal every scene he's in by sheer volume, it's Dinklage's Fin who commands each scene. He's the wise one, and you find yourself watching him to unearth the truth of every interaction.

4. Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre in JANE EYRE. I've seen several JANE EYRE adaptations, and generally enjoyed them all. For a long time, I was convinced that nobody could improve on Samantha Morton's 1997 version, but Ruth Wilson proved me wrong. She convinced me that she WAS Jane Eyre, the quiet, enduring young woman full of barely-contained passion and deep, abiding integrity. Step by step, as the events of the story transformed her, Ruth Wilson seemed to bloom on screen from a plain, cautious young orphan to a woman of strength and beauty. I found myself watching this miniseries over and over again, just to watch Ruth's Jane come into her own.

5. Greg Kinnear as Simon Bishop in AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Kinnear completely surprised me with his nuanced, appealing portrayal of sweet, tormented gay artist Simon, whose unlikely friendship with Jack Nicholson's crusty Melvin Udall is far more compelling than the romance between Udall and Helen Hunt's Carol. Fey, petty, selfish, naive, vulnerable, wise—Simon is the most interesting character in the movie. Before seeing this movie, I knew Kinnear only from his hilarious, sarcastic role as host of TV's TALK SOUP. After seeing AS GOOD AS IT GETS, I discovered Kinnear was a real artist, not just a talking head.

6. Dennis Quaid as Arlis Sweeney in FLESH AND BONE. I don't know that I can actually recommend the movie itself, as it was uneven and not entirely satisfying in the end. But Dennis Quaid was powerful and convincing as the guilt-driven, emotionally tormented son of a murderous grifter. As the somewhat unlikely events of the tale unfold, it's Quaid who grounds us in reality with his gritty, believable turn as a man living with a terrible secret, a man as drawn to his wicked father as he is repulsed, and whose decisions every step of the way lead to the inevitable confrontation with the man who made him what he is.

7. John Malkovich as Mitch Leary in IN THE LINE OF FIRE. As the soft-spoken, clever and deadly ex-CIA assassin who has decided to pay back the government's betrayal by killing the president, Malkovich is the quintessential "big bad"--an antagonist who is as close to the intellectual and skillful equal of Clint Eastwood's aging Secret Service agent, Frank Horrigan, as most thrillers get. You want a bad guy who can stay ahead of your protagonist step for step over the course of the story, before a fatal flaw helps the good guy bring him down? Mitch Leary is your guy. And Malkovich inhabits the role as if he was born for it, leaving you thinking about Leary long after you've forgotten Horrigan.

8. Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge in TENDER MERCIES. This is another quiet film where not a lot seems to happen. Except one man's redemption. Mac Sledge has a lot of regrets about his life, about the things and people he sacrificed to pursue his career as a country singer. Now he's down and out, with nobody to care what happens to him next. Until he meets a kind-hearted single mother who helps him learn the true meaning of grace. Over the course of the movie, Duvall's bare-bones, gut-grabbing performance sucks you into Mac Sledge's life and makes you root for him to get a second chance to be the man he was supposed to be. In a life free of neither struggle nor loss, Mac finds meaning and purpose.

9. Denzel Washington as Creasy in MAN ON FIRE. I know a lot of people would cite Washington's work as Alonzo in TRAINING DAY as his acting tour de force. But I've never seen TRAINING DAY, so I have to go with his quiet, compelling performance as the burned out, alcoholic ex-assassin who finds a new purpose in life protecting the young daughter of a wealthy Mexican family. When everything goes wrong, and the girl is kidnapped despite his best efforts to protect her, Washingon shows Creasy rediscovering his inner fire as he goes after the kidnappers to bring the child home safely. His performance crackles with intensity.

10. Tim Blake Nelson as Daly in CHERISH. Even though the film belongs to Robin Tunney as Zoe, a hapless young woman trying to escape house arrest long enough to prove her innocence in a case of vehicular homicide, it's Nelson whose portrayal of the serious, conscientious deputy assigned to monitor her electronic bracelet captivity shows the most range and depth. When Daly gives into his growing attachment to Zoe, and lets himself believe in her innocence, it's a revelation to see him come alive as he takes a step on sheer faith, knowing there's no solid ground beneath him anymore, and learns how to fly. I dare you not to smile at the last few minutes of the movie.

Hmm, not a lot of women on that list. I don't think that says much about the quality of actresses out there, however, just more about the characters who catch my eye. I can attest that Tunney in CHERISH was fantastic, as were Rene Russo in IN THE LINE OF FIRE, Tess Harper in TENDER MERCIES and Patricia Clarkson in THE STATION AGENT.
So there's my list. How about sharing yours? You don't have to come up with ten--that was hard for me! But share one or two acting performances that blew you away or caught you by surprise.


Kea said...

The only two on your list that I've seen are Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre and Greg Kinnear in As Good as it Gets. I agree with you on both.

Someone who comes to mind from television is Tony Todd, a little-known character actor. He used to guest star on Deep Space Nine and one episode, The Visitor, is some of the best story-telling and acting I've ever seen, period. That man should be a big-name star, he's so talented.

Robert Carlyle from The Full Monty.

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in just about anything, fabulous performances together in Ladies in Lavender.

Amanda Root in the 1995 version of Persuasion.

Morgan Freeman, another fabulous actor. Shawshank Redemption comes to mind, as one of the best films ever.

Jeremy Brett--hands down the best Sherlock Holmes ever portrayed, absolutely brilliant. (Television and stage.) He died too young.

Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine. An older movie, but a must-see for any woman, IMO.

I'm sure I could think of others, but those come to mind right now.

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't see many movies either - I haven't seen any of the ones on your list :)

My fave movies are sci-fi & musicals for the most part - so maybe it's a toss up between Judy Garland and William Shatner! Kidding!! :)

Paula said...

Kea, I love Tony Todd--he played Worf's brother on ST:TNG, didn't he? I also thought he was effective as one of the powers that be in the show Chuck--he added a sense of threat and gravitas to a show that's quite comical otherwise.

Agree about Dame Judi and Maggie Smith. Judi had the thankless role of Lady Catherine in the most recent Pride and Prejudice adaptation, and yow, she was fierce.

I agree about Amanda Root, too, and I almost included Morgan Freeman's turn in Shawshank as one of my top ten.

Heh, Jemi--hey, don't diss the Shatner. I think he's found his calling as an interviewer, though. I caught an episode of Raw Nerve and Shatner was fabulous. Far better than Leno, Letterman or the other talking heads at really getting new and interesting things out of his well-known guests.

MJFredrick said...

Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia.