Tuesday, December 1, 2009

10 Years, 10 Performances

In October, I attempted to rank my 100 favorite movies of the last 10 years, and now I'll attempt to single out the ten performances that impressed me the most from those ten years. Ten are much, much easier to come up with 100; on my films list, I completely forgot about one of the most underrated, underseen films in recent memory ("Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"), and omitted a movie that would almost certainly be in the top 10 or 15 had I seen it before this past Saturday ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

I know I'm prone to lists, but hey, who doesn't like reading a list? So here they are, in alphabetical order. (Some of them are pretty obvious, I realize ...)

• • •

Amy Adams as Princess Giselle, "Enchanted"

How did Adams go from obscurity to ubiquity? By completely throwing herself into the role of a Disney cartoon princess brought to life by an evil stepmother's spell. She has a joy of performance in "Enchanted" that elevates what could have been a very slight, very forgettable film; her performance is anything but. (Of course, the combination of Disney and comedy killed her chances at Oscar time.)

• • •

Bjork as Selma Jezkova, "Dancer in the Dark"

SPOILER WARNING: This is the final scene of the film

A performance so devastating that Bjork vowed never to act again, thanks in large part to director Lars Von Trier's demanding methods. Aside from the musical sequences, the film is shot cinema verite style with handheld cameras, and Bjork appropriately never seems to be acting. It supports my belief that Bjork is one of those genius artists who would excel in any medium she worked in.

• • •

Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius, "Gladiator"

Best quality I could find, I'm afraid...

The epitome of a star-making performance, and Crowe even won the Oscar for it. He had the bulk and the menace to sell the action scenes, but he also brought gravitas to the gladiator's tragic personal story. His scenes with Richard Harris are particularly touching, as is the finale in which his wife beckons him to the afterlife.

• • •

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, "There Will Be Blood"

Well, duh.

• • •

Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"

Perhaps the most iconic character of the last ten years, Capt. Jack made a pop classic out of a movie that seemed ludicrous in concept. Separated from the hype, none of the three films holds up -- they're all too long, too complicated, and just too much -- but Depp's work will be remembered by generations of kids (from 8 to 80).

• • •

Dakota Fanning as Pita Ramos and Denzel Washington as John Creasy, "Man on Fire"

OK, I'm cheating a little bit by counting these two performance as one, but this really is the most unexpectedly wonderful on-screen pairing. Amid Tony Scott's frantic, exploitive film, these two actors quickly form a relationship so real that it truly hurts when Pita is kidnapped about 40 minutes into the film. The final scene on the bridge is heartbreaking, between Fanning's all-or-nothing performance and Washington's quiet resignation as she runs toward him.

• • •

Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, "Cast Away"

Tom Hanks' co-star in this movie is a volleyball. And the movie is tremendous. Enough said.

• • •

Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"

For me, the success of the entire "LOTR" trilogy hinges on this one performance. Gandalf is as much our guide and father figure as he is Frodo's, and we can think of no better reason to make the journey than to make him proud.

• • •

Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo, "Kill Bill Vol. 2"

I believe this is what you call a "tour de force." Uma does it all in the second part of Tarantino's martial arts opus: she's a lover, a fighter, a mother, a student and, of course, a rampaging fireball of revenge.

• • •

Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, "Inglourious Basterds"

Maybe Tarantino's greatest contribution to American cinema was bringing this German actor to our attention. Waltz dominates the screen in a film populated by bigger-than-life actors and ideas. His Col. Landa is creepy, yes, but also strangely endearing -- a particularly bitter pill for the audience to swallow, seeing as he's a Nazi. The film toys with our notions of good and evil and with WWII history, and Waltz's sick grin might as well be pointed at us.

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