Note: I have yet to see Amour, for which Jean-Louis Trintignant could possibly have shown up on this list. I apologize for the exclusion, but I will be seeing the film in early January.
There are always outstanding performances each year, but I can’t think of one in recent memory that has held a stronger five than the leads here. They are such revelatory performances in their own rights, containing little gems of genius that I marvel every time I think of these individual films. Last year, I said Michael Shannon had the best lead in Take Shelter. This year, it goes to the comeback kid. Here’s the top ten of the year:
1. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
One of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, Phoenix’s Freddie is demented, psychologically torn by a war that ravaged his personal connections and sense of self. He’s a lost soul, a man who used to have a lover but had a falling-out that lead him to joining a Scientology-like cult. There are many things that define this performance: his snarled upper lip, his hunched-over positioning, his sexual aggression, and his mumbling, to name a few. Phoenix makes these advance and personify his character, helping us identify Freddie as a troubled man; his tragedy is that his one love came at the wrong time, and he might never find that again. This is a complex film, a tough watch undoubtedly, but this is pure, unadulterated acting. I can’t think of a more defining role for his career, and his performance will stick with me long after this year passes.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was a fragile, tormented individual, according to Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg. He’s a tall, thin man leading a country divided by its core values, and that takes a toll on a man who will do whatever it takes to ensure the country’s stability and future prosperity. Day-Lewis is the greatest actor of his generation, and his performances continue to impress; while some of his others (the mind-blowing Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is defining) were more lively, this one’s understated and methodical. He tells anecdotes, speaks in a somber, reflective manner, but cares for his country more than he probably does himself. I have a lot of problems with the film itself, but the performances are exemplary. Day-Lewis just proves, once again, that he can provide some of the most textured, nuanced performances the screen has ever seen.
3. Denzel Washington, Flight
If there’s an epitome of a single performance making a film great, it’s Denzel Washington’s in Flight. Granted, he’s surrounded by terrific performances by Kelly Reilly and James Badge Dale, but he carries so much of the movie’s weight when it could have easily been bogged down by conventions. He’s a drug-addled, addicted soul, one who we see as deserving of redemption. Should he get it, though? He’s not accepting of his alcoholism, and the impact it has on both his personal and professional life, and his constant deflections lead us to believe that maybe he shouldn’t get a traditional protagonist’s path. This a complex film thanks to Washington, for without him this would be a straightforward, unbalanced narrative. He grounds it, much like the plane he lands to save lives.
4. Richard Gere, Arbitrage
Gere is one of the most underappreciated actors in show business, delivering consistent performances over a career spanning 30+ years that has led to what might be his best work yet. Here, he plays a financial tycoon who accidentally gets in a car accident and kills the woman involved; his attempted avoidance of the law in both his job and personal life lead to his world crumbling. There are a lot of fascinating elements that come forth in the film, which is also terrific, but Gere owns every scene he’s in, commanding with his constant assertion of his strength. Even familial bonds don’t hold up, with him treating his wife and daughter as if they are just pawns in his larger scheme. This is a complex, fascinating character that he advances much farther than expected; that last shot is one of calm brilliance.
5. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Who knew Bradley Cooper could be this good in a leading role? He’s an emotionally unstable man who wants to win his wife back after she cheated on him, and he beat the man to the brink of death. He’s reformed, more controlled now, and still a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan. While Silver Linings Playbook also has three other incredibly strong performances, his is arguably the most important, for he carries this film through the thick and thin. We really want to see him succeed, just not at the thing he’s striving for; we want him to be with Tiffany, the widow he keeps running into. Cooper grounds his character by providing him with endearing qualities. He cares about people, he likes his old job, he’s a man of optimism; he sees the silver lining in life. This is an optimistic man, and Cooper sells him completely.
6. Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Logan Lerman’s performance might be the most emotionally delicate performance of the year, and of many years, for he (and its terrific supporting cast) makes The Perks of Being a Wallflower one of the year’s finest efforts. He plays a freshman grappling with the loss of his best friend to suicide, and he meets a new group of people that accept him. He mentions how he thinks others didn’t notice him, and that people accept the love they think they deserve. The script here is rather brilliant, but his portrayal of this kid is often marked by facial expressions, intonations, and other marks of a great actor. There’s so much to love here, for his character is accented by the supporters, but the movie avoids clichés, as does his character. I could rave more and more about this performance, but it’s grounded, effortless, and a revelation.
7. Liam Neeson, The Grey
The Grey came and went in January, but the film has remained with me for a long, long time. Neeson’s performance is a tour-de-forcé, a truly incredible delivery by an actor who has reinvented himself over the last few years. This is a grounded, dark film, one that left many viewers cold (pardon the pun). His character has to endure after almost deciding to kill himself, finding his own in a world that might ask for him to fight for his own life. It’s a great positioning of character, enhancing both development and the film itself. Neeson gives us a sense of what his character has endured, what he will endure, and he provides us with one of the most memorable closing shots of the year. There’s a lot of remarkable qualities in the film, but the main performance will always stay with me. It’s one of the most understated and underappreciated of the year.
8. Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
What looks like a physically exhausting and emotionally unrested performance is one of the year’s finest, with Hugh Jackman emerging from his Wolverine shell to provide us with emotional tenderness. He reminds us that he can sing (really, really well in fact), and his numbers make up many of the highlights of the film; “Suddenly” is a damn fine original song that he owns. This couldn’t have been an easy film to shoot, but it’s a reminder that singing live was a smart choice, for it forces the actors to make maneuvers and intelligent decisions that most actors don’t have to face. This is an actors’ film, but Jackman is our center, an emotionally strong one that brings out the highlights in the film. There are some slight problems with the movie, even though I enjoyed it quite immensely, but him and Hathaway steal the show.
9. John Hawkes, The Sessions
Hawkes is an actor who has made a career around supporting casts, but he finally got the leading role he deserved in The Sessions. While the film itself plays with conventions a bit, his performance is decidedly grounded yet wonderfully rendered: he plays a man confined to an iron lung, and he decides to meet with a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity before he thinks he’ll die. It’s a fascinating premise, challenging our ideas of sex and what it means to some people. This is a man we feel for immediately upon seeing him; only is it when we finally hear his story that we realize how deeply we care for this individual. Hawkes is lying down for the entire running time, yet he delivers one of the year’s most memorable, heartfelt performances. That’s a testament to his impact on the film and his acting abilities.
10. Jack Black, Bernie
Jack Black has always been a strong actor. Let that statement sink in for a bit, and then we’ll continue. He’s always had dramatic capabilities, and while his acting has been largely physical and loud, he is a strong actor when it comes to portraying quiet, sensitive souls. In Bernie, a minor effort that went shamefully unnoticed, he plays a funeral overseer who ends up accidentally killing a woman. That may sound dark and dreary, and maybe it sometimes comes across as such, but Black portrays this man as one of remarkable care and emotion. He’s a kind-hearted, gentle human being who made a mistake, but he faced the consequences of his actions. I often cite that as the markings of a great characterization; I think it holds true here, as his is quite extraordinary.
Matt Damon, Promised Land
Matt Damon plays an “everyman” in most of his films, and here he’s grounded as a man who truly believes he’s making peoples’ lives better. Only when he realizes the extent of his company’s actions, and the ramifications of what he’s selling, does he decide to work against the group he so often defended. It’s a fascinating split that Gus van Sant demonstrates effectively, but Damon is the heart of this film. He’s the man we’re rooting for when others seem to make more sense, but he’s emotionally sound and his performance, as always, resonates. Damon is one of the most effective working in Hollywood today because he understands how to delve into human emotion even when the role challenges, or rather manipulates, that. His is a great performance, one of the few this year I was genuinely moved by.