6 February 2010

Year-end lists 2009: Male Performances

Following on from my favourite female performances, here are what I thought were the ten best male performances of 2009. The guys put in some good turns last year, though perhaps there weren't quite as many great performances from the men as I found came from the fairer sex: I'd shortlisted for my ten nearly twice as many female performances. Although these ten men below (and the further ten honourable mentions after that) all in differing ways made '09 a great film year, acting wise, for a multitude of reasons. To me this lot rose to the top of the pile.

top row - left to right: 1 - 5; bottom row - left to right: 6 - 10

There's a fair bit of Heroes love involved in this choice, if truth be told. Having watched that show from the start, Sylar quickly became one of my favourite characters. Zachary Quinto (10) added to it just the right amount of eeriness and complication, which is also why he made such a good Spock in J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot. It was great to see a fresh take on Spock alongside Nimoy's original, and see them interact well; Quinto had great rapport with not only Nimoy but the rest of the cast. He makes Spock even more pivotal to the film than what the script already outlined. He gets the role just right.

Tom Hardy (9) was funny, committed and full of spirit in Bronson. It was inspired casting, too. Hardy has built up his acting persona over the last few years and it's a role like Charles Bronson that's given him a touch more clout. His film choices, mixed with his fierce talent, have no doubt gone toward marking him out as someone to keep an eye on, plus he's avoiding those dodgy movie pifalls that snare actors like Danny Dyer. Hardy's showmanship was champion in the film, and he makes the character both reprehensible and bizarrely amiable with it. A role in Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) is next and a rumour has it that he's the new Mad Max.

Frost/Nixon was the best Ron Howard film since Splash (1984) and Parenthood (1989). (To flip the claim often assigned to Woody Allen later in his career: I prefer his earlier funny ones.) Although the film was still a bit too Oscar baiting and worthy, overall, Frank Langella (8) gave a concrete performance as Richard Nixon. It was just plain great acting: no unnecessary frills and without any pomp. Langella showed the insecurity behind a man not generally associated with such a thing. The acting was entirely plausible, and through subtle means contained great moments of fascinating drama. He works hard here and never falters, delivering value in lengthy, drawn-out scenes mostly made up of just two-way conversations. He should've shared the Oscar with Mickey Rourke last year.

Clive Owen shoots on sight in The International

Clive Owen (7) had two films out in '09. Both featured him jet-setting around the world in pursuit of corporate criminals of one sort or another: Duplicity was smug and tediously chatty, and he got to do his smirking-in-disbelief bit, as he did in 2007's Shoot 'Em Up. But in The International he gave one of his best performances to date - alongside Close My Eyes (1991), Closer (2004) and Children of Men (2006). He's not always the most versatile actor and can veer waywardly on a moment's notice, but when he's as committed as he is here, he can be a riveting presence. He flunked on playing 007 a few years back, but got to kind of perform a pretty nifty imitation of him here (although, incidentally, I thought Owen and the film itself were far better than Daniel Craig in the last two Bond films): he was the best not-Bond in a non-Bond Bond-esque flick. He was never less than believable as Interpol agent Louis Salinger, on the trail of shady international bankers/arms dealers. The way he takes no bullshit from anyone in every scene, and seems to fix his opponents in a grim, determined glare and needle out of them exactly the information he wants, was gripping. I don't agree with those that suggested that Owen and/or the film needed more humour; Salinger has to be hardened and relentless, or else much of the film wouldn't be as intensely rewarding as it is. It's inferred by other characters that Salinger doesn't sleep, eat much or take care of himself, so determined is he at his job. Details like that are easy to script, but Owen takes this and fleshes it out with real, unclichéd characterisation.

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden again show, as they did with Half Nelson (2007), that they have instinct and flair when it comes to getting fresh and unaffected performances from young new actors. Algenis Perez Soto (6), the non-professional lead in Sugar (Fleck's second fiction feature film as director: Boden co-directs and writes) gives a soulful and refreshing performance as Dominican Republic baseball player Miguel "Sugar" Santos. he gets the chance to play in the minor leagues in the US, with the possibility of bigger and better things thereafter. Perez Soto gets the tone perfectly spot on as someone who feels alien in a new environment desperately, and at great cost, trying to rise to others' expectations in a fiercely-competitive sport. For a first-time actor having to pull the film along (he's in just about every scene) he does an amazing job. His unfussy, unfazed and very interior performance allows for no affectations at all. His body language seems to say, 'don't notice me', but I found myself searching his face for what he was thinking; in each instance it is clear because of the innate way Perez Soto composes himself in regard to everyone and every situation around him. He exudes an awkward warmth throughout, not least in the film's affecting last scenes.

Paul Rudd (5) has been due some major credit for his array of great comic characters he's honed over the last five-or-so years. In recent times he's been very funny in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Knocked Up (2007), I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), and last year he was even better in two films: Role Models and I Love You, Man - and it's for the latter role (but with a nod to the former) that he makes my top five. With each of these films he's been gradually refining his comic capabilities and with I Love You, Man he's at his peak. Simply, he's charming, daft in all the right places and good at being the centre of attention here. He really holds the film wonderfully. He's incredibly good at the kinds of embarrassing situations wherein social interaction goes awry - he often very hilariously trails off, after attempts at budding (and buddy) humour, making in the character a tool of comic identification for all of us that have tried to make a mark with a quip or comment only to see it fall flat. Rudd turns these very things into an amiable virtue.

Jason Segel tells Paul Rudd he loves him, man

Paul Schneider (4) is the epitome of faded rakishness in Bright Star. He is the film's third, understated star, and the character is a gem of a role for him. Some found his Scottish accent a bit wavering, but I didn't notice anything odd about it (he may well have watched some Billy Connelly clips as practice). The way his Charles Armitage Brown robustly and jauntily puts himself into all social situations, and talks a mile-a-minute to all around him, suggests a man open to adventure and the pleasures of the day ahead. But there's a brewing sadness hovering around the edges of his demeanor. An unforeseen hidden emotion spills out of him at one particularly crucial moment in the film and Schneider masters his line delivery whilst desperately attempting to swallow down a life's worth of sorrow. He was truly amazing in this scene and indeed in every minute of the film he appears.

I, like a lot of people I'm sure, when they finished watching Armando Iannucci's brilliant political satire In the Loop, half found myself wishing I had the ability to fire off the quick banter, sharp wit and verbally creative put-downs of the Peter Capaldi (3) creation, Malcolm Tucker. A lot of it is due to Iannucci's adroit writing, but having shaped and perfected the character over five years of The Thick of It Capaldi clearly knew by heart the kind of delivery and flow of cadence in which to deliver the lines as if he were projectile-vomiting poison darts. From the start it is evident that Tucker has an oh-so-thoroughly grounded knowledge, from the inside out, of British and American politics, and he knows how to egregiously control every one of its twists and turns to his advantage. It's the pure pleasure of watching him do this, scene after scene, that stuck with me by the end (and a lot of the writing and acting is exemplary that it sticks in the mind). Ultimately, Tucker is a reprehensible creation, but by doing and saying the kinds of things that most of us won't dare say - and by appearing to be hilariously spot on a lot of time - he becomes a kind of misanthropic hero, however morally dubious that may sound. Capaldi is pin sharp here, and entirely memorable. To wit: after a disagreement with Gina McKee's political aide about a cancelled (by Tucker) appearance on Question Time, Tucker replies to McKee, who mentions that getting to air time 'falls within her purview': "Within your 'purview'? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!" So wrong, but so funny.

Alex Descas on a break from his 'Night Shift' in 35 Shots of Rum

Alex Descas (2) was one of four acting wheels that motored Claire Denis' latest masterpiece 35 Shots of Rum - a deeply heartfelt film about Lionel (Descas), a widowed train driver living with his daughter in an apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Singling him out of the brilliant quartet of lead actors (the others being Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue and Grégoire Colin as, respectively, the daughter, neighbour and unrequited love interest, and the daughter's suitor, also a neighbour) is perhaps a tad unfair as all four worked gloriously together and were equally excellent in the film. But Descas was the pivotal character, and he took to the role in an unforced and beautifully delicate manner. As usual with Denis, the dialogue is sparse and the way characters exist through looking (and merely being), and how they manoeuvre themselves through life, is the key focus. Much is given to us via Lionel's body movements - one small look, without words, and directed in just the right way tells us just how much he cares for those around him. Descas is exemplary at telling us everything we need to know through such deft, often silent actions - whether merely walking through his apartment after work, smoking a cigarette whilst gazing at the train tracks or quietly eating dinner. The incremental building up of minute details and gestures all create a lasting sense of the man he is. It was a sheer joy to watch Descas, either alone or gently interacting with his fellow actors. His strikingly handsome face was the most fascinating to look at of all actors on screen last year. Lionel is a character simply played yet difficult to define, but this is why Descas has an abiding appeal.

As soon as James Gray's excellent fourth feature, Two Lovers, ended I knew that Joaquin Phoenix (1) would most likely end up on this list. It was only when compiling it that it emerged he was top of the heap. He was amazing as Leonard Kraditor, a probably bipolar and certainly suicidal Jewish guy living with his parents (due to the peculiar difficulties of his life) in their Brooklyn apartment. But all that information is what we get within the first five-or-so minutes. From there on in Phoenix fleshes out and inhabits the role with great tender flair. He achieved the perfect balance of naïve wonder and awkward dysfunction in the role, without any hint at all of falling into the trap of being a typical 'movie misfit' (as what may have happened if one of those regulation hip indie actors had played Leonard). On paper, the role doesn't make the heart leap, filled as it is with some potentially irritating quirky traits, but Pheonix has the smarts to know just what to do when and where; he makes it all work perfectly in every scene. His strange behaviour - not so much with either of the two women in his life (played brilliantly by a surprising Gwyneth Paltrow and an excellent Vinessa Shaw), as this is the main plot focus, but more so with his immediate environment and the everyday objects and periphery characters within it - is narratively structured to enhance his actions (though it never obfuscates them) and it wonderfully clarifies who he is (whether, for example, inspecting a pair of discarded gloves, oddly gazing at the subjects of his photographs, the way he flicks a coat off a hook on his way out the door, and so on). Phoenix manages to be both endearingly accessible and distanced at the same time; the camera observes him closely but he's a charming enigma to the end. In one particular scene, when he's in an upmarket hotel bar nervously waiting for Paltrow's character, he sits fidgeting with the cutlery but affects an air of suave importance and machismo in doing so. It's a wonderful small moment that speaks volumes about Leonard, and one of many great miniature instances where you can see Phoenix creating this defining role.

Also good, in order:

Karra Elejalde Timecrimes/Los cronocrímenes / Alex Macqueen The Hide / Michael Stuhlbarg A Serious Man / François Bégaudeau The Class / Sharlto Copley District 9 / Anthony Mackie The Hurt Locker / Mickey Rourke The Wrestler / Kåre Hedebrant Let the Right One In / James Marsden Sex Drive / Jean-Claude Van Damme JCVD

Next up: best and worst films

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