I’m doing something different this year for my list of the best acting performances. I figured that you don’t need me to tell you about the greatness of the three principals in Up in the Air or Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. Instead, I thought I’d run down the terrific work done by actors in 2009 that, for one reason or another, are distant longshots at best to be announced during tomorrow’s Academy Award nominations. While everybody forgets these performances in the Oscar hoopla, we can remember.
The 40-year-old Brit had his 2009 bookended by his appearances as a snarling werewolf leader in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and as a dainty vampire overlord in The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Sheen’s dissimilar performances in them are remarkable enough in themselves, but his real great performance this year was in The Damned United. He portrayed Brian Clough, the 1970s English soccer coach who briefly derailed his glittering career to take over Leeds United as a way of pursuing his own personal vendetta against the outgoing coach. Clough’s remorseless ambition, innovative mind for soccer and business, charismatic media presence, easily wounded pride, and downmarket Middlesborough accent are all magnificently captured here. Sheen is worth watching just for three locker-room pep-talk scenes, each with its own character. How has this actor never been nominated for an Oscar?
Judd Apatow’s leading lady (offscreen as well as on) gave two performances well beyond the call of duty in the likably disposable teen flick 17 Again and in her husband’s flawed Funny People. Watch the scene midway through the latter film when her character visits her dying comedian ex-boyfriend and crumbles as the meeting ends and she realizes she might never see him again. This actress has had a renaissance starring in comedies, but some enterprising director might want to give her a shot in a straight drama. Honorable mention in this space for Adam Sandler in Funny People, who was magnificent when the messy script allowed him to be.
Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
The Oscars’ acting categories are all about individual achievement, so there’s no way to recognize when two actors generate something greater than the sum of their parts. As innovative as this film is in terms of structure and technique, it would have been severely diminished without the chemistry between these two young leads. Sadly, the Academy tends to overlook romantic comedies, even though acting well in them is no less difficult than heavy dramas. It makes no sense, but then, that’s how irrational biases work.
The 51-year-old confronts the demise of her youthful beauty as the aging courtesan in Chéri, and in doing so makes us confront the end of our youth. That’s why this costume drama is so powerful, leaving us with the chill of the grave. The final scene of this unjustly overlooked film is absolutely searing, thanks to Pfeiffer’s interpretation of a woman letting her young lover go to someone more age-appropriate, thus sealing both their fates. Let everybody else hail Sandra Bullock and her cheery “movie star confronting mid-life” role. I’ll take this performance any day.
You’re thinking, “Who?” He’s the English stage veteran who portrays Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s film Me and Orson Welles, and does terrific work in a lightweight vehicle. He has the impersonation of the well-known movie star nailed shut, but he also captures the selfish, ruthless, charismatic artist underneath all the Wellesian tics. Relatively new to the big screen, this actor has a bunch of movies in the pipeline, so remember his name.
Another entry in the “Hollywood doesn’t know who he is” category. This 50-year-old Italian star had the help of some great age makeup to portray the elderly prime minister Giulio Andreotti in the political satire Il Divo. (Look at photos of the real Andreotti and you’ll be astonished by the resemblance.) Servillo doesn’t do a whole lot of emoting in the role, but you won’t forget his embodiment of the bespectacled, calculating overlord at the center of the movie’s hijinks, presiding over the wacky, murderous proceedings with the jaded demeanor of a modern-day Roman emperor.
What Oscar buzz there is around him this year is going to his supporting turn as a rugby player in Invictus. His much more interesting work as the pathologically lying corporate executive in The Informant! has been completely ignored. Too bad; he’s really funny, and he captures this shallow, wonkish, too-eager-to-please personality type in all its dangerous glory.
Some of the Oscar handicappers are actually giving Laurent an outside shot at a Supporting Actress nomination for Inglourious Basterds, but she still lags behind her co-star Diane Kruger because of her German co-star’s Hollywood connections. That’s a shame because it’s Laurent who does the heavy lifting here. Watch the restaurant scene where her character maintains her composure while sitting across the table from her family’s killer (and has him order strudel for her). Laurent’s wiliness and steely resolve that makes an impression on you. For good measure, check out her contrasting low-key performance as a present-day grad student in Paris.
You know her from Saturday Night Live, but nothing you saw of her on that show can prepare you for the unobtrusive, quietly beautiful performance she gave in Away We Go as an expectant mother trying to figure out how to raise a baby during a road trip that shows her all her friends’ mistakes in that area. The final scene of this uneven film is terribly moving, and it’s all because of Rudolph and her tears of joy at finding a proper home for her new family.