It’s performance time again. For the second year, I’ve picked out the two dozen and a bit best performances of the year. The qualification for this list is as follows: new releases or film festival films in 2012 (excluding some of the films I saw at London film festivals that I hope will get some form of reasonable distribution next year). I also make no distinction between actor or actress, and supporting or lead performance, and only one performance per film. This means that the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams miss out for The Master (so guess who doesn’t), but I’ve tried to spread the love as widely as possible by doing this, rather than allowing a small number of films to dominate. I will try to mention other worthy performances for each film as I go, but in the quite likely event I forget, I’m sure you’ll know who they are.
These, then, are the top performances of the year in my eyes. There are a few honourable mentions: as well as Amy Adams, the likes of Richard Jenkins, Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Keira Knightley, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Mark Duplass and Ralph Fiennes did sterling work across a number of different films, no single performance of theirs quite stood out enough for me to make the list. Without further ado, here’s the top bits of acting from 2012.
25. Tommy Lee Jones – Hope Springs
Giving grumpy old men a slightly better name, Jones has the thankless task in Hope Springs of being the bad guy in Meryl Streep’s loveless marriage, so has to be unsympathetic enough to move the plot forward but not so much that you don’t want the pair to reconcile later. To pull this off, while still managing to be satisfyingly grouchy, is a real achievement and while the plot gears that Hope Springs works through are generally both unsurprising and somewhat unsatisfying, Tommy Lee Jones does at least help that gear change to pass with the minimum of grinding. (In every sense, thankfully.)
24. Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts Of The Southern Wild
They say never work with children or animals, even more of a challenge when neither beast nor child in question has appeared on screen previously. Making it look easier than I’m sure it is, top Scrabble name Quevenzhané Wallis steals the film from the rest of her co-stars with a fierce performance. (Before you all write in, I know you couldn’t actually play her name in Scrabble, unless it turns out that a quvenzhané is a type of French toothbrush for fish or something.) Anyway, it will be interesting to see if Little Miss Wallis has caught the acting bug from this, as based on her performance here, there’s little she should fear to tackle.
23. Channing Tatum – 21 Jump Street
We discovered two things this year about Channing Tatum: he’s apparently quite good at comedy, as seen in 21 Jump St, and he’s also very good at stripping, as seen in Magic Mike. This may have somewhat obscured the fact that in everything he was in last year, he’s been quite good at acting (to the extent it’s rumoured he’s been written back into the GI Joe sequel after having been killed off early on originally). I’ll be totally honest, seeing him strip wasn’t really my cup of tea but any time he wants to do any more acting, I’ll be queuing up.
22. Denis Lavant – Holy Motors
It’s difficult to know whether Holy Motors is a great acting challenge or actually not much of a challenge at all. Given the almost total free rein, it would be easy to think that Denis Lavant really couldn’t go wrong, as how would you know if he did? Could all just be another comment on the artifice of performance or something. But it’s the sheer range of characters that he creates here that stands out, playing the more gentle emotions as well as the more obvious shock and humour. But everything, from fighting to accordion playing to licking a giant cyberalien’s private bits is done with the utmost conviction.
21. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Looper
The main problem with casting a younger version of someone as familiar as Bruce Willis is that we all know what a young Bruce Willis looks like; think just slightly younger than Moonlighting and you’re about there. Sure, there’s a bit of prosthetic work that’s gone in to bridging the more obvious differences, but Gordon-Levitt does such a good job of portraying what you’d imagine the younger version of Bruce’s character to be, it almost makes you wish they’d stuck the fake nose on Bruce Willis to see if he could have done such a convincing job.
20. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard – A Royal Affair
It’s another fine acting line, and the one that Mikkel Folsgaard is treading here is the one which requires him to show both madness and an angry authority. In a film where the quieter performances of Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander could be overshadowed, Folsgaard has just enough fun with the role of King Christian to keep you entertained early on, but exudes enough menace later to make him a credible threat to the other characters.
19. Darren Beaumont – Frank
Frank picked up a Raindance nomination at the British Independent Film Awards earlier this year, and Darren Beaumont’s performance as the titular character was a fantastic character study, so much so that I hadn’t realised I was sat two seats away from him while I watched the film at the Cambridge Film Festival earlier this year. The film itself is a dark vision and an acquired taste, but Beaumont’s fearless turn at its centre is one of the key ingredients (along with Richard Heslop’s writing and direction) that makes it work so well.
17. Aksel Hennie – Headhunters
The next acting combination to be pulled off on this list is to range from sleazy and confident (the mirror image of Nicolaj Coster-Waldau’s driven Clas) to the petrified, on the run weasel that his actions drive him to be. It’s also another combination that doesn’t easily provoke sympathy, but somehow Rennie pulls it off, despite being a thoroughly contemptible character from the start.
16. Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
It was Heath Ledger that previously stole all of the plaudits for The Dark Knight, for being seen to extend his range to levels not thought previously possible. While Anne Hathaway doesn’t quite undergo the same level of transformation, she absolutely nails her portrayal of Selina Kyle in a way that fits perfectly into the Nolan Bat-verse and stands comparison favourably with the other better screen Catwomen as much as Ledger did. Thankfully Halle Berry’s interpretation is now a distant memory, which I’m sure you’re already thanking me for dredging up.
15. Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Every single department of Skyfall was honed to a point where it felt like a high quality regular movie, rather than the 22nd sequel in a franchise creaking under the weight of its own history. That extended comfortably to the acting, where Judi Dench finally got the chance to show off her skills on an extended basis, but the biggest risks were taken in the bad guy department. Javier Bardem has now carved out two iconic bad guy roles, so let’s hope his natural flair for them doesn’t leave him too typecast in Hollywood-type product.
14. Brit Marling – Sound Of My Voice
Following last year’s Another Earth, another high concept drama with sci-fi undertones featuring Brit Marling, and in this case she was a key reason for its success. Rather than the passive centre of Another Earth, Marling’s Maggie sits on the periphery here, only to gradually dominate proceedings and it’s the ambiguity of her performance that gives the drama much of its power.
13. Willem Dafoe – The Hunter
This quiet Australian drama had an absolute rock in its foundations, with a riveting central character study from Willem Dafoe. Sympathetic but absolutely not warm or fluffy, Dafoe’s brusque hunter serves to keep proceedings just about interesting throughout, and while the movie can’t sustain its success on the strength of a single performance, Defoe gives it a pretty good go.
12. Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Charlize Theron had a pretty good year, although her other main performance in Snow White And The Hunstyawn was somewhat wasted on the material. Not such an issue here as Jason Reitman’s direction and Diablo Cody’s spiky script allowed Theron’s misguided misanthrope to beat a path through all the human kindness and two-faced bitching around her. It’s all the more satisfying that Theron manages to achieve humanity without her character achieving any real redemption.
11. Tom Hardy – Lawless
His most talked about – and impersonated – performance might have been behind a mask in Nolan’s summer blockbuster, but this performance in John Hillcoat’s twentieth century Western was the absolute antithesis, Hardy maintaining power and threat despite mumbling his way through most of his lines. His character’s through line in the narrative and eventual fate are also one of the highlights of a slightly underwhelming script.
10. Matthew McConaughey – Killer Joe
If I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s how to spell Matthew McConaughey without looking it up. He’s followed up last year’s entertaining but lightweight The Lincoln Lawyer with two turns this year, each as magnetic as the other, and while Magic Mike allowed him to show off to his fullest both physically and dramatically, it’s the understated menace that seeps from every pore, even – maybe especially – when he’s armed with nothing but a chicken drumstick that put McConaughey back on the map again. *goes to check McConaughey spelling one more time, just in case*
9. Dane De Haan – Chronicle
Also popping up and showing his range in Lawless, it’s this calling card as the disturbed Andrew in super-powered camcorder flick Chronicle that’s likely earned Dane De Haan the role of Harry Osborn in the Amazing Spider-Man sequel now in production. Let’s hope he can bring that same edginess and defiance to that role as he does to this one, as much of Chronicle’s success stems from De Haan’s willingness to push boundaries and keep it dark.
8. Andrea Riseborough – Shadow Dancer
I still believe Andrea Riseborough is the most undervalued actress working today, and she’s followed up fantastic work in the likes of Never Let Me Go, Resistance and Brighton Rock last year with another memorable role as the troubled IRA member forced to work as a double agent by the British. I’m intrigued to see what will come of her next role, one of the two female lead roles opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion, but I’ve no issues with her pushing her range given the talent she’s shown so far.
7. Jean-Luc Trintignant – Amour
Emanuelle Riva’s role in Michael Haneke’s dark meditation on old age and the inevitable ravages of time might have been the more physically and technically demanding, but it’s Jean-Luc Trintignant through whom the audience experiences the full weight of pain and suffering, and it’s to Haneke’s credit that he managed to tempt Trintignant out of retirement to play the male lead here. He carries the role with incredible dignity, even when faced with extreme suffering, and it’s actually testament to what can still be achieved despite advancing years.
6. Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
As I’ve already said in other posts, I’m not a huge fan of SLP, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the continuing development as an actress of Jennifer Lawrence. Deserving of the Oscar she didn’t get for Winter’s Bone, and showing she can work in the mainstream just as effectively in X-Men: First Class, it was a toss up between this and The Hunger Games for which was the better performance this year, and while this turn just edges it, the subtlety of her work in Hunger Games shouldn’t be underestimated.
5. Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Another in the up-and-coming roster of great American actresses, the good Olsen sister shone on our screen both in Josh Radnor’s self-indulgent and chewy Liberal Arts, but also in yet another great movie this year about cults and their effect. Given her ability to do both charming and distant so effectively, hopefully this is just the start of a promising career. Next up for her, also showing she’s not afraid to take a few risks, is the Spike Lee Oldboy remake.
4. Michael Fassbender – Shame
Baring his body might have gotten all the attention, but baring his soul was what really made Shame the best performance in Michael Fassbender’s career so far. He’s had one of those years when it felt like he was in everything, also cropping up in A Dangerous Method, Haywire and most memorably in Prometheus as the android in plain sight. But it was his driven, desperate turn at the beginning of the year that seared itself onto my memory.
3. Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Another good year for former Bond villain Mikkelsen, with strong performances in both A Royal Affair and this, Thomas Vinterberg’s terrifyingly plausible chiller. Even without the social relevance that other events in this country have unwittingly brought it, The Hunt would still have been completely gripping, and it couldn’t have worked without Mikkelsen’s bewildered and ultimately angry performance as the wronged school teacher. Such a shame that acting in foreign language films is so often overlooked at awards time.
2. Joaquim Phoenix – The Master
It was difficult to decide which of the performances to rate most highly in The Master, and for a film so dependent on the success of its characterisations The Master needs the highest quality of acting to succeed. Phoenix’s performance might be the most showy of the three main protagonists, but it also carries with it the biggest range and his barely controlled rage and what might be one of the most effective portrayals of inebriation on screen of inebriation I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s all try to forget about that Casey Affleck farrago now, shall we?
1. Marion Cotillard – Rust And Bone
Anyone who’d like to claim that Marion Cotillard’s performance wasn’t the best of the year frankly hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
*waits while tumbleweed blows past*
Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, time to give due credit to Cotillard’s superb turn as Stephanie, the killer whale trainer who has to turn her life around after an unfortunate accident leaves her crippled both physically and emotionally. Cotillard makes the transition to rediscovering herself compelling, her unconventional relationship with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) believable and reels out scene after scene of brilliance, embracing both the emotional highs and lows and possibly even winning new fans of Katy Perry in the process. Her more subdued turn as Miranda Tate in The Dark Knight Rises shows she continues to be Christopher Nolan’s muse, and when she’s capable of heights like this, it’s not hard to see why.