Right so I did kind of go out of the guidelines here and include a bit more, but oh well! I think I justified myself rather well. Basically these are the top 20 or so performances of the year in my opinion. I aplogize in advanced if there was a movie or two I saw before I saw it with one of you, but I felt it was necessary to finish this before 2013 for… whatever reason. But I would love to rewatch these because, well, I put them on a best of list didn’t I?
So with that in mind, I present to you these fine actors with what I feel are:
The Top 20 Performances of 2012
20. Bruce Willis-Captain Sharp (Moonrise Kingdom)
Bruce Willis kicked some serious ass in Looper this year. He ran with such power, reacted unflinchingly and stared everyone down with the eyes of death. This is a perfectly good reason why he was at his best this year as the one and only… Captain Sharp in Moonrise Kingdom. This is the one and only Bruce Willis playing a cop without any of his usual expected antics. This is Bruce Willis playing in a comedy without being the butt end of jokes and silly. This is the heart and soul I figured Bruce Willis had but didn’t show outside of his comfort zones (in action and science fiction films). What really spoke to me with this performance is just how relatable he was, despite his mental clumsiness at times. He was still full of care and warmth, and Willis conveys this quite well. You never feel that he cannot be trusted, despite the clearly sheltered life this man has. With a great cast in place, Willis shines the most not because he was unpredictably wonderful, but because this is a hopeful sign of the next chapter in his catalogue. Will Willis take on more roles like this, where his characters are full of such vibrant emotion and earnestness that does not have to be verbally described by him? I certainly hope so.
19. Martin Freeman-Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
This was a huge film for Lord of the Rings fans. This prequel has been begged for for years, and people (including myself) even signed petitions to have Peter Jackson on board to direct this film (or trilogy, now). The first movie is finally out, and people are split on the movie. I, personally liking the movie, loved the heart that was in this film, and a lot of that came from Martin Freeman as the younger version of Bilbo Baggins. Amongst the reoccuring cast from the original trilogy (Ian McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, and so forth), Freeman stands out because he is inexperienced as a character. He wants to relax and take the easy road in life. He is forced into an adventurous situation that makes him feel uncomfortable, and when given the option to help dwarves on their quest, we can truly believe that he had a change of heart. We can also believe the amount of times he questions himself on the journey. He questions what he should do in a fight. He questions what his role is amongst the grand scheme of things. He is new to all of this, and we are new to seeing Bilbo Baggins like this, instead of the wise and experienced story teller we remember him as. Freeman makes Baggins charming and not arrogant, curious and not naive, courageous and not flatly developed. With a lot of burden placed upon his shoulders with so much anticipation all over the world, Freeman never cracks, and the film is carried by his sudden love for wonder.
18. Jake Gyllenhaal-Brian Taylor (End of Watch)
This “realistic” film that is meant to document the life of police officers (as it focuses on a pair of cops that end up discovering more than they expected) is anchored down by Gyllenhaal’s down to earth approach. He doesn’t act too passively so the film still works as an interesting story, and he doesn’t act too theatrically to shatter the illusion. Taylor, thanks to Gyllenhaal’s interpretation of the character, is very fond of his line of duty. He is fond of sharing it, he is fond of performing tasks, and he is fond of those who he works with. You can see dedication and even his lust to work as a cop just by the way he stands, the way he talks, and the way he smiles. He loves to lay back, but he is the first to react with instinctive force. His will to serve and protect carries on until the climax, where, without giving anything away, he keeps his reputation close to himself and his loved ones in mind. This guy isn’t all talk. This guy is exactly who he makes himself out to be, and who Gyllenhaal builds him to be. Taylor is all the more real not because of the style of filmmaking, but because of Gyllenhaal’s mission to represent the good people in the police force as best as he can.
17. Diane Kruger-Marie-Antroinette (Farewell, My Queen [Les Adieu a la reine])
Diane Kruger is the kind of actress that has tried her absolute best for years and just has not gotten a proper break. The closest she’s gotten so far is with Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and while that is an honour in its own right, I just know that one day she will have a huge turn much like the selection in my number 12 spot on this list has. For now, we have her unpredictable performance as Marie-Antroinette in the French period drama Farewell, My Queen. The film is less about her and more about her servant, so Kruger’s screen time isn’t as long as you’d hope, especially when she is quite frightening despite not really doing many things to warrant that. Marie-Antoinette is experiencing the most damaging and frightening moment of her life, and the way she stares people down (as a cry for help) both scares people away and attracts them closer. She is malicious even during such a time, but she is a master of deception. Much like Kruger’s performance has Marie-Antoinette tricking people by playing with their emotions, she plays with ours. Do we get mad at her? Sure. Can we forgive her? We cannot forgive Marie-Antoinette, but we can forgive Diane Kruger, with her risky, completely unexpected job in this film, as she adds depth to a movie full of chaos much like the events depicted in it and just like the leader herself would have.
16. Michael Shannon-Richard Kuklinski (The Iceman)
Shannon is no stranger to being the scariest person on screen. Naturally, playing a hitman may seem like a walk in the park for him. Shannon decides to add more to the role rather than sit back and just play it, showing yet again that he is one of the more dedicated antihero-actors working today. He stares off into the distance unless someone he cares about is near him. He slowly gets more and more haggard because he cares less about himself, but he fine tunes himself to hide his true nature from his family. They assume that he is changing because of his newly found successes. He grows a social status on the outside, but withers down to a despicable human being on the inside. He still has morals, but what good are morals when you live a life full of murder? Well, they still seem to make some lick of sense because Shannon plays Kuklinski with quite a lot of focus and dedication. You truly believe that he cannot see past not killing some people while killing many others is okay, especially when not killing jeopardizes his life and puts his family in danger. There are some screws missing from his head, and that is why he is all the more scarier. Shannon’s deadpan face of death grows more and more frightening, and his body language changes from awkward to menacing. This is a shocking evolution of a mentally disturbed individual, and Shannon’s performance, of which is essentially the main reason to watch The Iceman, is one that will cause you to squirm in your seat.
15. Jessica Chastain-Maya (Zero Dark Thirty)
What a task. How can one take a real life crisis and become the heroine of it all? In fact, how can someone add depth to this kind of character? How can you take what is proclaimed the “biggest man hunt in history”, and make the lead character somebody with conflicting issues, development, and warmth without being presumptuous? Ask Jessica Chastain; a recent talent that came out of nowhere and is suddenly taking over as many movies as she can. She’s dominated as supporting roles before, and now Chastain has taken on one of the biggest events in American history as the leader. Is she strict? Sure, but only because she has her eyes on the goal ahead. Is she damaged? Well, much like Bigelow and Boal put their own reflections of this moment in recent history into their work, so does Chastain, instilling emotions and feelings that do not seem out of reach. This makes Maya a character that seems like it could have been anybody with the sheer determination and the necessities to fulfill such a task. What she adds to make her character special, though, is the boldness to take on such a position no matter the length, the problems and the fear. But Maya in the end is an everyday person, and that ends up being more admirable than just a figurehead, and personal on such a level that the film becomes more chilling.
14. Jennifer Lawrence-Tiffany Maxwell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Lawrence as Tiffany is, well, weird. Weird, but believable. When we see weird characters on screen, it is extremely easy to distance the audience from the film by smashing the film apart. If someone is too weird, which is extremely close to being just the right amount of unusual, we are aware we are watching someone performing (or rather over performing). Lawrence is, herself, a curious actor because she seems to be able to do anything she wants, doesn’t she? One of the better up and coming actors, Lawrence is very in control of her characters and herself, and her multi layered work as Tiffany is no exception. She is a bit awkward and a bit strange, but she means well and is just socially awkward. Is it because of recent events that she is unsure of how to approach people, or life itself? Or was she always a little bit off center? Either way, her quirkiness adds to her character and is not a lame excuse for whatever happens on screen. Lawrence turns Tiffany into that kind of person we all know (and if we don’t know a person like this, it’s one we want to know). She’s very up front, very to the point, and very natural about it. She doesn’t force a dead pan face to take away from it all, either. Yes, Lawrence is someone who seems to know what to do with her characters, but this is the first time she’s taken a bit of herself and put it into a character, and boy does it ever add to the character’s likability.
13. Tommy Lee Jones-Arnold Soames (Hope Springs)/Thaddeus Stevens (Lincoln)
I rarely include two performances from the same film, or even multiple films in one actor’s entry, but Tommy Lee Jones and his paralleling, superb performances of 2012 could not be taken apart for me (I don’t feel the need to include Men In Black III, though). This is because he is a master of connecting when he acts. He connects with other characters when he acts. He connects with us when he acts. He truly connects with the story when he acts. He’s not just some miserable stick in the mud in Hope Springs. You can see he has love in him still, and yet he has lost all idea of how to approach it as the years have gone by. He fights and fights to help abolish slavery in Lincoln, and he is so committed that you can see, even when he bluffs, he will sacrifice himself to protect others. Both performances are so eternally commanding. Both performances show years and years and years of struggle and hard work, yet also ages of experience and ages of search for his identity. His ability to be such a resourceful supporting character is what makes him great. When he needs to carry a punch, he can. When he needs to work as a catalyst, he does. These two performances work as evidence that Tommy Lee Jones still knows damn well what he’s doing and how to garnish a film to make it served even better.
12. Anne Hathaway-Fantine (Les Miserables)
Remember all of those lists last year that tore poor Anne Hathaway apart? She stars in One Day, after a considerable amount of pretty good-to-wonderful performances, and people start ranking the worst cinematic accents of all time. Considering she broke out of the walls of Disney films and has made a household name for herself for a decade now (time certainly does fly past), it is a bit unfortunate to have that kind of reputation. Which is why she does not have to worry. Her new reputation, as of a year later, is her best role yet in Les Miserables. Unlike some other actors that could be in this position, this role was not fueled on vengeance or with the intent of proving people wrong. This role was fueled by Hathaway’s love for the story, her love for singing, her love for acting, and her love for the movies. We’ve seen Anne Hathaway try to break away from the doubt of the harshest critics for years. She nearly did with her emotional performance in Rachel Getting Married. We’ve finally witnessed her change, much like Natalie Portman changed in 2010’s Black Swan. Hathaway as Fantine is full of pain and agony and the slightest shred of hope. She sings because it is the only way she will be heard. In a movie that thrived on very little apart from its stellar cast, it’s one thing to stand out. It’s another when you stand out amongst broadway showman greats like Hugh Jackman himself, of whom also deserves mention. This isn’t the work of someone who got lucky. This is the work of someone who knew what they were doing but was perhaps too shy to show it until the world turned against her. Good on you, Hathaway.
11. Denzel Washington-William Whitaker (Flight)
Flight is a pretty good movie. Sure, the story is gripping and the events nerve shattering, but why? A movie like this needs a lead actor that can take this situation seriously and also be tangible. How can we follow someone who is beyond our grasp? These subtleties are what make a performance of a “leader” difficult, especially when not many are being lead. In Flight, Denzel Washington leads us, and himself, and those that believe in him. He’s not fighting for a cause. He’s fighting for his reputation. He’s fighting against those that can only point out that he may have been inebriated, not the fact that he saved many lives. As usual, one’s darkest secrets blind everyone from the good one does. Washington, having not been in many good films for a while now, has teamed up with Robert Zemeckis, a director who has put heart and soul into disappointment after disappointment. Both are hard working individuals, and because of their raised bars, both get their share of flack. Flight is a combined effort of Zemeckis proving the world wrong about his capabilities as a director (with his first hit in years; welcome back, Zemeckis) and Washington’s explosive performance, channeling what seems like years of frustration into this character that demanded it. He is commanding, confrontational, textured, and most of all, reflective.
10. Alan Cumming-Rudy Donatello (Any Day Now)
It is never easy to play someone of a different sexual orientation convincingly. It is a thousand times harder to do so when you include legal battles that aren’t going one’s way partially because of their preference. Alan Cumming is an actor that seems to have slipped under the radar for many years, and it is a shame because he is quite a terrific actor. This is perhaps the movie that will finally get him noticed, as he plays Rudy Donatello, a drag queen that celebrates himself in a gay club but hides his relationship anyways due to fear. When Donatello discovers that a young teen with Down syndrome has been left alone, he discovers the will to fight for ones self through this child. He discovers the endurance to fight to render his identity as normal and just like anyone else. His personal growth from stage performer, one of whom pretended to be open, to being someone who is actually open, is astonishing and very gradual. This would be a risky and brave performance for many actors, but with Alan Cumming, it just seems like the normal day at the office. There isn’t an over abundance of guilt tripping. It’s just him trying to help tell the story as best as he can, and in the end, that speaks volumes more than a performance that begs to be sympathized for.
9. John Hawkes-Mark O’Brien (The Sessions)
We’ve gotten used to loving to hate John Hawkes within the past few years. Being a memorable face from Deadwood, Hawkes sadly only got his name heard just recently when he was finally recognized for his outstanding acting in Winter’s Bone. Add Martha Marcy May Marlene to the mix, and many of us have only seen Hawkes as an excellently twisted villainous figure in movies. This is of course not the case, or even close to it. Hopefully now, his newest and biggest role to date will clear his name and repel any typecasting notions given to him. He is a man paralyzed from the neck down who is visibly happy to still even be alive after suffering from Polio. He seeks guidance from a priest and from a sex surrogate about losing his virginity, but in reality he is merely trying to find alternative ways of breaking out of his immobile state (spiritually and emotionally, for instance). He’s accepted his unfortunate circumstances, and Hawkes’s take on this character is a humble, caring one that is guided not by “what now” but by “what next”. It is a rarity to find a performance like this, one about a burdensome disability, that isn’t forced or even borderline offensive, but Hawkes’s work here is exactly what this damedy needed: A little bit of pathos, a little bit of leadership, and a large chunk of reflection that mirrors the movie and its plot through just his facial expressions.
8. Leonardo DiCaprio-Calvin Candie (Django Unchained)
Calvin Candie is perhaps Tarantino’s sneakiest villain yet. We know Marcellus is scary. We see how the boys in Reservoir Dogs behave. Hans Landa starts off being shown as a conniving hunter. DiCaprio plays Candie as a lovable man who happens to be rich for unorthodox and revolting reasons, until you see his true colours. Throughout the entire movie, where walking on eggshells is the only way to continue through the story, dynamite is laid everywhere through plot points and characters. DiCaprio is the lit match working its way to light said dynamite, and his unpredictability is lethal. Yes you know he is the villain and yet you get pulled into his sick ways. That is until he snaps and scares you in a way you never thought DiCaprio, the common American heroic actor, could. He is childish in the way he has fun but he is mature when it comes to making deals. His ignorance seeps through both assets, yet it is clearly deep rooted underneath his greed and his need for success. DiCaprio plays Candie not as a despicable villain but as someone who just happened to have been caught up with the ugliness of the world of slavery and racism who then becomes absolutely revolting as time and power got the better of him.
7. Noomi Rapace-Isabelle James (Passion)
Passion, itself, is a cemented mosaic of many styles and many homages. It’s basically everything De Palma loves about filmmaking and everything De Palma fans love about his movies. Rapace effortlessly meshes with every single change of tone and shift of style in this film, playing a businesswoman whose foreign accent and body language makes her stick out for all the right reasons. She does a good job and is seen as a ticket to worldwide success. She suffers a downfall and suddenly she is made into a mockery, and she has very few people to lean on. Her desire to be a good worker and her heightened sexual frustrations clash in a bagful of ways, ranging from the awkward campiness that works as comedic relief and the foreshadowing of discomfort, to being an emotional wreck whose baggage is written all over her face and even the way she breathes. In a world that is so superficial, hilariously overdramatic, and extremely staged to appear great in a fashion display, Rapace is all we have in order to go past the roller coaster aspect of the film and find something attachable. She does so with flying colours. Whether we should side with her or not, we find ourselves doing just that as the rest of the world is covered in masks to promote themselves as walking businesses and not as people. It is only when Rapace cracks that the rest of the world does so boldly in the open. This clever portrayal of the classic femme fatale may haunt you because it is so rare for someone so humane and so vulnerable to be so dubious.
6. Michael Fassbender-David (Prometheus)
All of the things David knows, he knows by research. He speaks and looks like his idol Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, as he spouts quotes from the film and meshes Lawrence’s love for danger into his own “life”. All of the bad he does is for insight, not just to obey orders. Is it likely that David actually has emotions and feelings? We won’t know, but David sure takes what he can presume will connect with humans and studies it well. Fassbender’s take on this unpredictable android is shockingly realistic, and we don’t even have the technology to make an android this advanced, so really we shouldn’t have anything possible to compare him with. He works because he seems possible. This kind of android does seem likely do exist. The way he conjures drinks without even looking and with such precision, how he can ride a bike and launch a basketball right into the net as if it were nothing, everything. You can almost see equations being written across his face, knowing the calculations he is computing in order to achieve such feats. You forgive him because of his still chilling face that knows not what he has done. You fear him because he does not react to any sort of tasks he performs. His voice is a fine tuned version of Hal 9000’s (another man made creation that, ironically, finds solitude in a man named Dave) that cloaks any sort of chance for evil yet shows just enough to remind us that it exists. Fassbender’s David is both a walking time bomb and a technological marvel.
5. Jean-Louis Trintignant-Georges/Emmanuelle Riva-Anne (Amour)
These two have to be placed together. The entire movie works by their chemistry and their loss. Georges slowly emerges as the glue trying to piece back together the shattered Anne as the movie progresses. Anne is Georges’s brain, as she works as his thought process for the entirety of the film, even when she is well. The more decrepit Anne becomes, the more Georges strives on to better the situation. It’s frightening because Trintignant and Riva play their respective characters with the fear, the discomfort and the togetherness that this movie demands so naturally. The more Georges clings on, the more Anne drifts off into another time and place. This realism is absolutely damaging, but it works because of how well balanced these performances are. Riva plays Anne with such devotion and emotion, creating a character that is so scared of what is to come and yet is completely unable to even show it past her eyes. Trintignant plays Georges as a determined man who is clearly used to living life normally and, especially at his age, has no idea how to handle his wife’s severe illness. It’s jaw dropping just watching Trintignant force himself (or Georges, rather) to be more agile and more alert and more resourceful with all of his might. Both performances are steered by a dive into the unknown at such a late step in life. This pairing is a perfect example to learn how acting is reacting, and they do this flawlessly.
4. Quvenzhané Wallis-Hushpuppy (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
I am the first to be critical of child actors. I often get complaints that I should be lenient as they are “only children”, and to be fair this is a good point. But at the same time, this really takes away from the child actor that truly takes your breath away, the child actor that is so fantastic that you cannot even imagine how good he/she will be when they are older. Every time someone would complain about how I treat child actors the same way I treat adult actors, I would tell them about Aleksei Kravchenko in Come and See, Anna Paquin in The Piano, and even Natalie Portman in The Professional. Now I can recommend Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Wallis, only five during this production, is absolutely impossible to write about without missing something truly remarkable about her performance. She’s already captured the subtle nuances that even good actors struggle to achieve, a perfect grip on handling emotions, and a commanding presence whilst being shorter than a metre stick. Any child actor could have made this film likable because of how commanding the story is and how masterful the directing is, but Wallis is the reason why this film has become a treasurable gift to everyone. We see our childhood through her, so we connect with her. We see our frustrations and battles with confidence that we face now, and cannot understand how such a young girl can face them herself. With Wallis’s performance, it actually seems possible.
3. Marion Cotillard-Stéphanie (Rust and Bone)
Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a whale trainer that loses her legs after a stunt at Marineland goes terribly wrong. You barely see her experience as a trainer before this incident, but you don’t have to. You see her passion in photographs of her career’s past, and her miserableness mixed with love the day of the accident, as she is angry with life but wishes to get back to what she loves the most. Once she can no longer work there, the one place that gave her comfort, she is depressed and her will to care about life is shattered simply through facial expressions alone. Her body shakes with frustration while her face remains still from surrender. When she moves along the ground, her thighs move as if she is swimming because it is the only flat-body movement she knows. Her hand movements resemble the hand gestures she used to command orcas. Cotillard’s subtleties that give Stéphanie such a history as a whale trainer are remarkable, and her ability to truly be in the now are what makes this the best leading female performance of the year. She becomes so fascinated with Ali’s life as a boxer, as she loved whale training for its ability to take her out of the current world, and Ali’s way of life does just that. She is experienced by past, entranced with the present, and sadly very in tune with both the good, and the bad, to come from the future.
2. Joaquin Phoenix-Freddie Quell/Philip Seymour Hoffman-Lancaster Dodd/Amy Adams-Peggy Dodd (The Master)
I really tried to limit this to one actor (Phoenix), but there was absolutely no way I could make a best performance list without mentioning the other two powerful actors in The Master.
Amy Adams has pushed herself yet again as the severely brainwashed wife of a cult icon. Her still eyes and passive way of speaking seem robotic yet sincere. Her pain in trying to help integrate Freddie into their family is deeply rooted; a combination of all of the frustrations she has held over the years of her beliefs being pummeled and her husband being called out. Her hope is what makes her likable and forgivable, despite her absolute ignorance and her insanely detached ways of life. She is the figure head of all of the members of The Cause.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, continuing his consistent streak of excellence, is the husband and the iconic figure of the movie, the worshipped Lancaster Dodd. He speaks so boldly and with such earnest wisdom that even we, the audience, are hooked on what he says, despite how unbelievable they may seem. Does Lancaster believe his own religion? Does he willingly control people to feel loved, or has he successfully convinced himself that even his own words are real? When cracks in his preaches appear and he has no idea how to solve them. He explodes and he bluffs. He winces and he stares. Whether or not he is crazy, he is undoubtably highly educated. Determining if he is a master manipulator or an ambitious day dreamer is ambiguous, and Hoffman’s empowered performance makes either or likely.
The spirit of the film comes from Joaquin Phoenix, who started acting from scratch and has given his best performance by light years. His capabilities were unpredictable. His character is impossible to gauge. When a man so mentally skewed as Freddie enters a movie about mental control, you have to be on point in order for the film to experiment with possibilities, and Phoenix gives the film an endless amount of reasons for either side of its argument about cults. His jaw sticks out like he grinds his teeth at night. He is hunched over like he is broken. He walks stiffly like he is lazy, and he has to force himself to be a human being. He stumbles more when he is sober because he cannot function without additional help. He is self destructive and manic to a point where his own downfalls and self harm become punches in an intellectual scene. In the best acted scene of the year (the questionnaire scene), you will squirm in your seats watching a man punish himself under the influence of guilt, as he crashes and burns inside, melts on the outside and speaks volumes with his never-closing eyes. Freddie Quell is the antihero of 2012 that should not be sided with, but his brawn mixed with Lancaster’s brains and Peggy’s heart co exist as not just a question of beliefs and mental stability, but also ways of living and ways of self respect.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis-Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln)
The movie cuts no time revealing Day-Lewis as Lincoln, because we’ve come to expect the real deal at this point. We don’t have to question if it will be pulled off and how. We just trust Day-Lewis at this point, and we were ever so right to do so. The world around him screams and yells but Lincoln himself speaks softly yet with so much more authority. He doesn’t have to stomp his foot to be heard. He only stomps his foot out of frustration, which is rare. You never feel threatened when he shows his stress, and oddly enough you actually feel more inclined to be around him when he does. Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln is so wisely put together. When Lincoln fights with his wife, he clasps his hands like he has no idea what to do with himself; losing it is not something he is used to. When someone commends him of his work even as a side note, a wide smile beams across his face and you can almost literally see the spark that caused it inside of him. He acknowledges all as he speaks, and he speaks so profoundly. He walks with such grace and such unpracticed whimsy. He is playful at heart, taking the time he wishes he could spend with his sons and uses it to play with the people that depend on him not foolishly but as means to ease pain. He’s a father just like any other that only wants to do the best for his sons. He is a husband who faces issues with his wife like most. He is a historical icon that soundly changed the ways of the United States without being hateful about it. Day-Lewis has accomplished both a commanding position as an effective leader in a film and the worrisome task of bringing a famous figure to life in a biographical picture. He does so so easily that you may find yourself observing how other actors are doing because he blends into the entity of the film so well. Day-Lewis’s performance as president Abraham Lincoln is the best of the year for his technical skill, his artistic flair, his respect, his significance, and his realistic depth to a hero we could only wish to have witnessed in our lifetime.