1 November 2008

Looking Back to 2005: Top Ten Male Performances

I like to compile a list of what I consider to be the best films and performances (and occasionally the odd technical credit) from each year. There's also a list of the worst, or, to perhaps be more diplomatic, disappointing films of 2005. I started doing write-ups for these lists last year, but have since put together basic lists for films from 2000 to 2004 as well, which I'll include when I've (hopefully) written something on them. I wanted to put these older comments on here (initially from '05, '06 and '07) in the lead up to my 2009 list (for the films from this year - as, of course, these things need to be done retrospectively). I include all films I got to see during the year that essentially received a UK release between Jan. 1st and Dec. 31st '05.

So, I'm starting with what male performances of 2005. The best '05 female performances will follow; after that the best and worst '05 films, and so on. The 2008 lists will be done at the end of January '09. Right, enough intro - on with the first batch:

Top row: 10 - 6: Bottom row: 5 -1

10. Alan Arkin as Gene in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Even though I didn't like the film as a whole, Arkin's performance was greatly measured and affecting. It was one of those character-driven, multi-plot-strand kind of affairs, where the cast is individually designated an appropriately emotional storyline. It got boring quickly, but was worth seeing if only for Arkin. He comes across as completely unlikeable as a difficult, workaholic office manager in a tight spot, but on a few rare occasions the camera follows him home alone too, where another side to him is discovered. He has to fire a co-worker due to company regulations and the man to get the chop is the one that Gene resents for being funnier and more popular than he is. Never have the words "I'm letting you go" felt so awkwardly put across. The conflict and pain in Gene was right there, but never overstated. His plot strand takes up a bigger chunk than the rest; this surely goes to show that the filmmakers ensured Arkin’s great work not get sidelined.

09. Sean Penn as Samuel J. Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Penn was great in two films in 2005: The Interpreter and The Assassination of Richard Nixon. The latter had the edge; it was the far more rewarding film. It's a very Willy Loman-like act that Penn pulls off, but he's always had a vast default range of variably emotive expressions and a plethora of tics and traits that could even see him through a performance as a lamppost. Even when Bicke is staring blankly, you know that he's seething deep down inside about the state he's found himself in. All that interior fury gets distilled right up until the end where it erupts in a really bad way. The great thing is that Penn maintains a cool-headedness throughout, managing to convey both the very much evident decency in and the mounting resentment regarding the collapse of his dreams. Bicke’s no (Travis) Bickle but comes close enough to warrant at least a small comparison.

08. Birol Ünel as Cahit Tomruk in Head-On

Sibel Kekilli was great in Head-On, but she was more than perfectly complimented by Ünel as her husband. Whether he's recklessly driving into walls like a stroppy teen with a death wish or chugging down one too many beers in a club, Ünel brilliantly manages to be a self-destructive teenager trapped inside the body of a forty-plus-year-old has-been. Cahit clearly doesn't want to let go of his former self, but can't seem to function as he is either. When he gradually gets to know Kekilli's character - after she makes an indelible mark on him - the side of him to emerge was something truly unexpected. His journey felt real and entirely plausible, but it could've been portrayed so badly if Ünel missed a beat. He doesn't at all and creates a man that I wanted to see succeed.

07. Banlop Lomnoi as Keng in Tropical Malady

The two distinctly separate parts of Weerasethakul’s audacious, dreamy film are tied together through thematic hints and strange parallels. But also through one fixed character. As soldier Keng, Banlop Lomnoi has to translate the emotional arc of his character without the use of much dialogue: for a large amount of screentime he is alone in the jungle. He is pursuing what he believes to be his lover (a farmhand, Tong), who may or may not have been transformed into a mythical creature. As Keng searches, sleeps, waits and wanders around, Lomnoi made me believe that every single minute of his search either had the potential to be fraught with danger or filled with the joy of discovery. He perfectly captured the idea of loss and trepidation being at a complete remove, as if it were somehow outside of a person, following them around, but Lomnoi manages it effortlessly here, and is totally mesmerising. Just like the film itself.

06. Issey Ogata as Tony Takitani in Tony Takitani

The eponymous lead character played by Ogata was a quiet type who works as a technical illustrator. Lonely and solemn, he gently goes about his existence without much in the way of emotional interaction. That is until a woman brings him out of his shell. It’s a highly-guarded performance completely atypical to showboat-style acting (we rarely ever seem to even see his face fully) but the way Ogata plods along and shifts about reveals a great deal about his character. The film deals with death and loss as its main theme, but never in an obvious or clear-cut manner. To play a man who has to show closed-off longing and regret through the subtlest of means must be difficult to achieve without much dialogue, so the fact that Ogata convinced me of his grief with nothing more than a few words at a time and a forlorn, inexpressive face was astounding. The scene where Tony enters his late wife’s walk-in wardrobe, and how he responds to the emptiness inside, was intensely moving.

05. Topher Grace as Carter Duryea in In Good Company

Grace doesn't seem to get a lot of praise, probably because some of his films aren't too good (or maybe that he's been in so few films), but in In Good Company I thought he was simply great. His character was incredibly pushy, awkward and foolish, but these aspects of his character were shown as awkwardly sweet-natured traits of a man who obviously went about things the wrong way whilst actually trying to get it all right. I could tell that Carter didn't really believe in all the corporate speak as it came out of his mouth, he was just trying to do what he thought should be done, what would advance his career. When Dennis Quaid's character obligingly asks Carter to dinner with his family, he didn't expect a quick-fire response of, "Oh yeah! That'd be great!!" This brief exchange showed me everything I needed to know about Carter Duryea, and began the best romantic relationship between two straight men that cinema offered up in a long time.

04. Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda

I loved the way that in the more desperate and terrifying parts of this film Cheadle's character kept a level of professionalism totally in keeping with his job as a hotel manager. The terrible events of the film, that detail the effects of the Rwandan Genocide, are shown through the struggles of a man who really only wants to keep his family safe, but ends up doing much more because of the nature of his job and the environment he's in. I sweated alongside Cheadle here; I just wanted him to get through the ordeal. He managed to get the right amount of fear, frustration and panic across, whilst making it all seem like another working day. Considering the circumstances, a massive feat. It was a tightly controlled performance, without any any false grandstanding. Everything Cheadle did was expertly played.

03. Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall in A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen plays Tom with a careful reserve and intense conviction. You have to study his face hard to see that underneath the gruff façade an altogether different man could be lurking. At first he's the Average American Man who is as everyday as the apple pie he serves in his diner, but the unforseen violent circumstances that creep into the story change him into someone else altogether. It's like Tom has stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting straight into Interzone. I'd love to see Mortensen get awarded for this performance, although it's an unshowy and subtle piece of acting likely to be overlooked. The expression on his face as he calmly washes his hands in the river at the end of the film - just after the fatal encounter with William Hurt, and well before he returns to the family fold - wasn’t easy to forget.

02. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil in Mysterious Skin

Not since River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho has the wandering gay with a price tag on his ass been so brilliantly portrayed. Gordon-Levitt is in pretty much every scene of the film (and his presence still felt in scenes without him in). He makes each one count. I hadn't seen him in anything prior to Mysterious Skin, so there was an element of true discovery to his performance. Gregg Araki didn't skimp on the icky details of the story, and Gordon-Levitt boldly took the role by the reigns. The final scene was brilliantly handled by both the main actors (the other being Brady Corbet). The position Neil found himself in - taking into account the deeply sad experiences of his life up to that point - was heartbreaking to watch. It's worth noting that a great many younger actors wouldn't surely have taken a role like this for fear of career damage, but I'm glad that there are still actors – like Phoenix before him, and Ledger and Gyllenhaal after him – who still take risks. They do sometimes pay off.

01. Romain Duris as Thomas Seyr The Beat That My Heart Skipped

For both the No.1 male and female performances of '05, I chose characters that in some respects – in either small or large ways - I've related to on some level. I've never been a piano prodigy nor have I beaten people up for not wanting to be evicted from their homes, but something about Romain Duris' performance as Thomas personally appealed to me. Other than that, it was just plainly great acting: Duris was endlessly watchable. It was all in the way he conveyed the wildly different extremes of Thomas' personality. His outlook on life was largely conflicted through two things: music and crime. These things were blurred to a degree that any attempts to simply rationalise Thomas’ actions came off as near pointless; one begat the other too closely to differentiate their cultural conflict. Thomas was an inherently complex guy caught between two worlds neither of which he was sure he belonged in, both pulling him like a tug-of-war. Ultimately it was his family loyalty and the neccessity to be a better person that affected him most - the punctured look on Duris' face in the concert hall scene at the end said everything in one deflated expression. Nothing ever got answered fully, but this was a brilliant decision on Audiard's behalf; decisions like this aren’t simplistic in art, as in life. Duris is an actor to keep an eye on. His performance here was the best by a man that I've seen all year.

The subs - 11. Jeffrey Wright / Broken Flowers, 12. Bruno Ganz / Downfall, 13. Nick Nolte / Clean, 14. Michael Pitt / Last Days, 15. Tadanobu Asano / Café Lumiere, 16. Chiwetel Ejiofor / Kinky Boots, 17. Sam Worthington / Somersault, 18. Ashley Walters / Bullet Boy, 19. Steve Carell / The 40 Year Old Virgin, 20. Stéphane Freiss / 5x2

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

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