Note: I have yet to see Zero Dark Thirty, which supposedly holds a strong performance from Jason Clarke. Pardon the exclusion, for I will not be seeing the film until January 11th.
Actors often find their footing in supporting roles, showcasing their acting potential while essentially auditioning for larger, more front-and-center roles. Most of the ones occupying this list are heavyweight veterans, though, going to the sidelines in hopes of finding a better, stronger performance. And that undoubtedly worked, for this is one of the best years I’ve ever seen for this category. Without further adieu, here are the best supporting actors of 2012:
1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
A tortured soul produced what might be Hoffman’s best performance of his career, one worthy of Oscar and just about every form of recognition it can get. It’s ferocious, terrifying, but mostly the calm before the storm, for he is contained for the film’s running time as an inquisitive man, taking in Phoenix’s Freddie to guide him on the path of enlightenment. These are men meeting at important times in their lives; the homoerotic subtext is uncanny. They are defined by their flaws: Hoffman clearly likes holding power over others, whether that be emotional or physical, and his emotional outburst near the end of the film is one of the most satisfying, unrestrained moments I’ve ever come across. The Master is a masterpiece, something I’ve made clear before, but his performance is one of the prime examples of exemplary acting.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
I forgot Leonardo DiCaprio could be so much fun, but if there were ever a filmmaker to show us so, it’s Quentin Tarantino. Django Unchained is so much fun and so gleefully out-of-control that it takes over half the film’s running time to introduce Calvin Candie, the notorious slave owner who owns the cruelly funny plantation, Candie Land. The joke has been that DiCaprio hasn’t smiled in almost ten years in film, yet this performance is marked by a wild sense of humor, some sickening traits that become apparent as the film progresses, but also a genuine love of the things around him. He’s eccentric about his belongings, about his lovely sister (incestuous relations have to be there), but most importantly about courting guests. It leads to the film’s finest half hour, where DiCaprio puts on display one of his finest performances.
3. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
People have given Robert De Niro a lot of shit lately, primarily due to role choices, and it’s understandable. Let’s not forget, though, that this may be the greatest living actor today, and this performance demonstrates that, yes, this man can choose the right roles, and yes, it reminds us of how much we love him. His performance here is grounded and heartfelt, carrying a lot of Cooper’s character’s guilt as he looks back at where everything may have gone wrong. He takes a lot of blame, places dumb bets (he’s a bookie, after all), but loves his son more than anyone could imagine. So what if he’s not that great at expressing it? We care about a lot of things in life, but family might be the biggest; De Niro reminds us that it’s sometimes more difficult to let them know. This is one of the most understated of the year, but it’s fantastic.
4. Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Here’s a man no one had on their radar before this year, but surely they have to now. Dwight Henry is the emotional anchor in Beasts of the Southern Wild; while Hushpuppy is our fun, energetic ball of emotion, she’s also oblivious to most the world has to offer. She sees things simply. Her father doesn’t. He’s lost contact with his wife, who we see he loves dearly, and he loves his daughter, sometimes finding that difficult to articulate. He builds this little girl up and lets her know that she can take control of her own world, even if forces will try to stop her; his message is beautiful and poetic, much like the film he inhabits. The reason this performance might be so tender is because we hardly know Henry; he’s an unrecognizable force that seems to be emerging on screen. It’s masterful, nonetheless.
5. Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Ezra Miller is the most talented young actor emerging today. It’s truly incredible that he can deliver such a fierce, brutal performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin, debuting as a sinister young man, and then follow it up with one of the most tender, gracious performances I’ve ever witnessed. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was one of those genuine surprises, a film I’ll reference on many of these lists, but it’s Miller’s performance as Patrick that defines the film. He plays a struggling young gay kid who is finding his way in high school, enjoying life but not necessarily thriving. He amounts to some of the film’s heartbreaking moments: the confession on the bench, the saddening cafeteria encounter, you name it. He owns every scene he’s in. I can’t wait to see what he does next, even if this performance may exemplify his young career.
6. Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Skyfall is a great action film, but all spy films are defined by just how good their villains are. It just so happens that here is one of the most exceptional actors working today, playing one of the most compelling villains to come along in years, inhabiting a film that was infinitely better than anyone rightfully expected it to be. Bardem’s entrance into the film still stands as one of the year’s finest scenes, with him slowly walking down a path that leads to Mr. Bond tied up in a chair. Bardem just seems to be having so much fun, wreaking havoc in ways that only incredible super-villains can. His character has motive, going after the place that made him the terrible, vengeful man he is today, and the homoerotic undertones as he talks with Bond make the film all the more intriguing. This is a wonderful performance from a talented actor.
7. Bruce Willis, Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom may have the best ensemble of any film this year, but it’s Willis’s performance in a few minor scenes that grounds this film in its most sincere form of human emotion. Granted, the two lovers make for tremendous chemistry and elevate the film much further than older love interests could’ve, but the sheriff’s connection with Sam as they talk in his trailer is a low-key, incredibly effective scene. It makes the film’s closing moments all the more sincere and believable, even if the film exists in its own heightened sense of odd reality. This isn’t a film of realistic characters, but it is one of realistic portrayals of emotion, and while Bill Murray certainly does a wonderful job on his part, it’s Willis that has stayed with me since seeing the film multiple times. And dare I say it, this is one of his best performances.
8. Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths
Seven Psychopaths was criminally under-seen and under-appreciated, but Walken’s performance here might be the most undervalued of any film this year. His role so largely depends on a man like him to carry this divisive, intriguing character way past his tragic demise near the film’s conclusion. He carries the film’s sarcastic, gleeful manner about himself, living life peacefully and telling marvelous stories that only enhance this movie’s vision. It’s remarkable what all occurs in the film’s final half hour, if primarily because Walken closes out the film with one of the finest monologues I believe has ever been delivered on screen. That’s a lofty statement, undoubtedly, but it’s not pretentious, it’s integral to the story, and Walken carries a sincerity about him that is unprecedented. It’s a remarkable performance, simple as that.
9. Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
Ah, the film that was Prometheus. Say what you will about the film’s structural/sensical problems, of which there are many (that I still admire, if I may add), but Fassbender’s performance is the focal point of the film, a culmination of the series if there could be one in a manifestation of a character. His observance of Lawrence of Arabia in order to find out how to be human, the lack of emotion that is so pervasive for most of the film’s running time, and his lapses near the end of the film that define it, this is a performance of restraint and subtlety, even if the film didn’t impress you. There’s something to be said about a lifeless acting job and delivery that make for the most compelling character in the film; whether that’s a shot at what surrounds it is anyone’s guess, but this is rich material that he utilizes.
10. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
I have many, many problems with Lincoln, but Tommy Lee Jones certainly isn’t one of them. His character is morally divided, stubborn, but also a joy to watch, because he seems to be the only one in the film who’s having fun. This is a methodical, slow-moving film from Spielberg, a toned-down approach that I certainly admire but don’t necessarily enjoy. I think he’s made better films, but his emphasis on this man’s tragic morality tear is one of the film’s strongest suits. Jones plays it convincingly, giving us a sense of what divides this man; at first we think it’s his country and his own personal beliefs, but one of the film’s closing moments properly defines the character for us in ways other films attempt and fail. There’s something admirable in that approach, and the performance is quite exceptional.