Saturday, January 10, 2009

My 10 (well, 14 or 15) best male performances of 2008

Since this is my list, after all, why in the world should I have to get it down to the rather random number of 10 any way?

Already, cutting it down to this collection meant omitting three small comedic performances I really liked, Russell Brand in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," Brad Pitt in "Burn After Reading" (not, mind you, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), and Peter Dinklage in "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian."

So, without further ado and in simple alphabetical order, here are the ones who managed to beat them out. Please, as always, feel free to add any of your favorites or chide me for any glaring omissions.

Josh Brolin
Mr. Brolin, who has really just had back-to-back sensational years, could easily make this list for his portrayal of Dan White in "Milk," but he's really here for his spot-on take on "W." Anyone who has resisted seeing Oliver Stone's fairly nuanced portrait will be in for a surprise if they spring for it on DVD because, oedipal issues aside, it's a surprisingly even-handed work. And most of the thanks for that goes to Brolin, who plays W. as a mostly likable guy who's just clearly in over his head.

Francois Cluzet
The main reason Harlan Coben's work translates onto the French screen so well in "Tell No One" is the style of director Guillaume Canet, but leading man Francois Cluzet deserves a lot of notice too. Like Ricardo Darin in "El Aura" (a simply sensational film noir you should rent right away if you can), he just has that everyman look that's needed to anchor a seriously mind-bending thriller, and the skills to make easily the most harrowing street chase of the year look nothing but natural. And, if you live here in Macon, please go see this one Sunday afternoon at 2, 4:30 or 7:30 at the Douglass Theatre courtesy of the Macon Film Guild.

Robert Downey Jr.
If there was an overall acting award for body of work for the year, I think I'd give it to Downey for his roles as Tony Stark in "Iron Man" and Kirk Lazarus in "Tropic Thunder." The latter, which is at least as offensive as advertised and - when it goes "full retard" - just as funny, should certainly get a supporting actor nomination and without The Joker and maybe Eddie Marsan (more on him later) as competition, perhaps even take the prize.

James Franco
His performance as amiable pot dealer Saul Silver in "Pineapple Express" was the definition of good physical comedy, but he makes this list instead for his work as Harvey Milk's lover Scott Smith in "Milk." It's the tenderness (not that there's anything wrong with that) that he and Penn bring to the early scenes of Gus Van Sant's movie that just make the tragedy we know is coming hit that much harder, and it just shows why Franco is deservedly the most successful of the former "Freaks."

Brendan Gleeson
Though he's gotten little recognition for the feat, Martin McDonagh has managed to direct two of the year's most satisfying flicks in the ultra-dark comedy "In Bruges" and the heist flick "The Bank Job." In the former, he has just the right comic foil in Gleeson, who plows through McDonagh's take on the cliche of the thinking hit man with a sharp wit, and keeps you laughing so that the ending - which is over-the-top in a way I couldn't have imagined - just creeps up on you until it drops the hammer.

Richard Jenkins
I'm still mulling doing a list of the signature shots of 2008, and if I do, that final scene from Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor" when Richard Jenkins' Walter Vale finally lets it all go will certainly make the cut. The reason it's so satisfying is not just because McCarthy has crafted an engaging if occasionally heavy-handed tale about immigration to the U.S., but even more so because Jenkins plays Walter on a perfect slow burn, getting re-engaged with the world around him at just the right pace. He should, and I think will, get the fifth Best Actor Oscar slot for this.

Heath Ledger
Not sure what I can say about his takeover of the role of The Joker that hasn't been said too many times already, so I'll just share my favorite two shots from the late Mr. Ledger's second-to-last flick (don't forget Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," assuming that ever really comes out.) From "The Dark Knight," I can't (and don't want to) forget that signature shot of Ledger's Joker riding away in a stolen police car, his head out the window and just reveling in the chaos he has just unleashed on the streets of Gotham, or when he's walking away from the hospital in that nurse's uniform, playing with the buttons on the detonator with that perfect look of crazed confusion. Rest in peace, Mr. Ledger.

Eddie Marsan
It's fitting enough that the only performance (in my book) that could rival Ledger's Joker for Best Supporting Actor comes next in the list. Mike Leigh is an expert at creating characters who tear at your emotions, and Eddie Marsan's Scott the driving instructor is no exception. You (or least I) want to find some kind of goodness under the rage that keeps building until his climactic showdown with the ever-positive Poppy in Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," and he's just boiling throughout this minor masterpiece.

Danny McBride
Mr. McBride may never be considered a great actor by the standard definition, but in one of my favorite categories - comic sidekick - he's on top of his game. Along with playing the comicly indestructible Red in "Pineapple Express" and the blast-happy munitions expert in "Tropic Thunder," he also played the lead in and co-wrote one of the year's most-underappreciated laughers, director Jody Hill's "Foot Fist Way." If you like a good kung-fu comedy (and if you don't, why not?), rent this one right away, and definitely keep your eye on Statesboro, Ga.'s own Mr. McBride.

Bill Milner and Will Poulter
Of the two truly odd 2008 movies about making movies, I'd give the edge by a nose to Garth Jennings' "Son of Rambow" over Michel Gondry's kooky "Be Kind Rewind." As the two young stars of Jennings' at least semi autobiographical tale about a quest to remake "First Blood" (yes, really), Bill Milner and Will Poulter work well as the friends-turned-enemies-turned-friends-again who are crazy enough to undertake this quest during one long English summer.

Sean Penn
I can only assume Mr. Penn will be the big winner at tomorrow night's Golden Globes and again at the Oscars for his work in "Milk," and I have no problem at all with that, though I'd give my vote to the next guy on this list. As Harvey Milk, Penn just captures not only the drive that led Milk to pursue his career in politics after so many failures but also the devilish humor that marked his private life, and does it all in a surprisingly understated manner.

Mickey Rourke
"Milk" and "The Wrestler" are indeed wrestling in my mind for the title of best film of 2008, and I have a feeling Darren Aronofsky's flick will be on top by the time the Oscars roll around. As the aging grappler at its center, Rourke isn't just the only possible person you could see in the role, but just the embodiment of the wounded but still extremely vain warrior, and gives all the edge to this sports underdog flick about the biggest underdog you may ever see.

Brandon Walters
OK, this aboriginal kid may not even be an actor, but he was perfectly charming as young Nullah in Baz Luhrman's "Australia," and each time he said "cheeky bulls" it just made me smile. I see nothing on his IMDB list that says he'll ever manage to appear in another movie again, but here's hoping.

Jeffrey Wright
It's a shame that Mr. Wright is last on this list, because his portrayal of Muddy Waters in director Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records" is certainly Oscar-worthy. I'll keep beating the drum for this underappreciated flick until my arms get really, really tired, largely because of Wright's pitch-perfect mix of anger and wicked humor that made him disappear completely into the role of the iconic bluesman.

And there, after more words than I had anticipated, you have it. As a final matter of business intended for only two people, I promised my friend Marvin Waters, a k a Randy to most of the world, that I would share this poem he wrote for his bride Barbara - who is an appreciated reader of this site - on the occasion of their second wedding anniversary today. Congratulations! Here goes:

10 after 3

All day
This day
Is our day


All day
Each day
Is our day

Not sure what in the world I could say after that, but I hope at least someone enjoyed this best actors list and didn't mind the sappiness that I gladly included at the finish. Peace out.


Linda said...

This is an awesome list of best actor's performances from this year, as was your actress list. Glad you included Son of Rambow, I was really charmed by that film. The poem was sweet, don't ever apologize for sappiness.

Ashok said...

How can you miss Clint Eastwood :-). Granted I just viewed "Gran Torino" but man he kicks ass. He is stunning in the film.

Reel Fanatic said...

You know, Ashok, I just saw it again (for free the second time, mind you), and Clint was indeed pretty amazing in that movie ... I actually like seeing movies like that twice, because, knowing the end, I like to see if there was something along the way that should have given it away ... I still won't discuss that ending for folks who haven't seen it, but it hits just as hard even when you're expecting it

Nell Minow said...

Another superb list. I'd add Columbus Short in "Cadillac Records" (I agree that everyone should go see that movie RIGHT NOW) and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheyney in "W." Those Rambow kids were amazingly natural and endearing.

Reel Fanatic said...

Columbus Short was indeed great too, Nell ... Of all the ensemble casts of 2008 (another list I could do, but I think I've probably done enough), I'd put "Cadillac Records" above "W.", "Milk" and just about any other movie I can think of