Films '08: Ten performances

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2008 has been a solid year in films, both for homegrown and English-subtitled films. Heath Ledger's Joker rivaled Sarah Palin as the ultimate Halloween figure everybody wanted to dress up as. Ralph Fiennes starred in three different roles and delivered on all of them, though he seems at this point unlikely to land an Oscar for any of these roles. Ledger, on the other hand, seems set to win a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Mickey Rourke, meanwhile, quietly gave the performance of his career in The Wrestler, and Tom Cruise almost saved his career with a surprising turn in Tropic Thunder. Yes, it was a great year for characters and performances of the male species, and a decent - not great - for those of the female species. There's always this year, right, folks?

Ten memorable performances from the films released officially in Canada this past year (excluding those from films played only at film festivals):

Cate Blanchett
(Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)
Blanchett's rendering a (much better, in my not very humble opinion) Greta Garbo's calculated, woman-of-principles Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939) impression was the highlight of the most anticipated film of the year. Whether she's playing some complex woman in smaller art fares or iconic roles in mainstream blockbusters, the uber-talented and versatile actress always seems to know how to stand out without sacrificing what's needed for her roles. Even in a fluff piece like this one, she stayed collected while straddling the line between cool villainess and campy witch, and allowing her character a bit of vulnerability towards the end.

Emile Hirsch
Hirsch completely disappeared into his role as Cleve Jones, one of Harvey Milk's key supporters in helping him get elected to office and rally support for gay rights in Milk (van Sant, 2008). Yet, this was far from a wallpaper character; Cleve Jones gave a shot of energy to the mild-mannered Milk (Sean Penn, in a surprisingly restrained performance) while staying firmly outside his sexual conquests circle. He was as cautious of probabilities as he was inspired and motivated by possibilities. Witty, savvy and brimming with youthful enthusiasm, Cleve Jones as played by Hirsch reminded me so much of the gay youth I have met and known in my life. What's a better measure of a performance than having the target audience look to the screen and say: "I know you?"

Dev Patel
(Slumdog Millionaire)
Dev Patel carried the emotional tone of this unabashedly optimistic crowd-pleaser just right: appropriately worn, but not beaten. Given the melodramatic story line, it is important that the actors be committed to their role to keep the film from sliding into camp, and Dev's eyes never once winked at the camera, at least not until the credits rolled. Without him, this may have come off a bit of a joke, what's with the overacting from the rest of the cast (save for the delightful little boy). Hopefully the popularity of Slumdog amongst the awards circle would translate to more roles for Dev, who seems like an exciting new face to watch (though I have a feeling this was a one-shot deal for him, unfortunately).

Naomi Watts
(Funny Games)
The Queen of remakes was back at the game with this shot-for-shot remake of the 1997 Austrian horror by the same director/writer, Michael Haneke. While this was no King Kong's Ann, Naomi still brought to her role the same brand of vulnerability that made her one of a handful of go-to girls for directors with a penchant for women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (nobody breaks down on screen more often than she does, except may be Julianne Moore). It wasn't an extraordinary role considering her filmography, but a typical day's work from Naomi was still something to behold (see the scene where she, stripped down to her undergarments, willed herself to survival after witnessing the tragedy befalling her family).

Brad Pitt
(Burn After Reading)
The pretty boy can act, and he's really good at comedic roles. He hasn't been given as thick a character as this one before - the wink in his eyes often hints at something else more insidious going on in his head. For this role, he went completely blank. And by completely dimming the light in his eyes, he gave us one of the most memorable Pitt performances ever (not to mention one of the top 10 of the year).

Ralph Fiennes
(The Duchess)
Quick, name something boring! How about a vegan recipe? Yes. I will pay someone else's good money to see Ralph Fiennes read, nay, contemplate a vegan recipe. I bet I'd actually want to make something vegan by the end of it, only because Ralph Fiennes has a way of making everything he focuses on interesting. In the Duchess, he played this disinterested bore of a husband who was also abusive and cruel. Because it was Ralph Fiennes and not someone else, the Duke of Devonshire managed to be a compelling figure to watch, even though, by Keira Knightley's Georgiana account, he was a man of no interest other than his dogs. Similar to the case of Naomi Watts, even if this was not a particularly outstanding role considering his filmography, Fiennes was still able to deliver a better performance than most this past year.

Penelope Cruz
(Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
This was the role that completely changed my mind about what Penelope Cruz was capable of. I really did not expect that kind of a wild, fierce, uninhibited woman to come out of her. I rarely get the feeling that I'm watching someone special on screen, but Cruz's Maria Elena was almost mythical. Could anyone else pull off this role? May be, but she would have some impossibly big hair to fill.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
(Synecdoche, New York)
For this movie to work, Hoffman needed to be as sympathetic as possible while playing a rather pitiful man. He was always the judge of someone's performance - his partners', his cast's, his daughter's, his own. He lived, but only from a distance. It was a tricky role to play but somehow Hoffman was able to make it seem natural, and in doing so, he made the subject tackled here (existential anxiety) more manageable. Another winner in the bag for one of the best actors working today.

Mickey Rourke
(The Wrestler)
We've seen this character many times before - the sad shadow of a larger-than-life dreamer who hangs on to his glory way past its expiry date. But Mickey Rourke's Robin 'Randy' Robinson was not some important historical figure who lead a terribly glorified, complicated life. He was just part of a fabricated myth in a supposedly fake sport, an entertainer-hero in the WWE, the modern world's pretend version of a blood sport. Yet, no matter how scripted 'fate' was in the ring, the blood shed was real. Even as the toll on his body began to be too taxing for him, he pressed on. Being 'Randy' was his only way to feel love and acceptance, his escape from a real life's worth of very ordinary but very real pain, or so he believed. Rourke convincingly hit all the right spots - he was tender, funny, awkward, courageous, human. This was no one-trick pony, even if he had to play one here.

Heath Ledger
(The Dark Knight)
The late actor's performance benefited from the feel of the film, which was built around his manic, yet melancholic figure. However, the film would not have been nearly as successful as it was without Heath's psychopathic Joker. Ledger's performance was the best of the year not because it was an iconic one, or the flashiest one. It was the best of the year because there was no trace of Heath Ledger, the actor, anywhere in the role. Perhaps it was because The Joker himself was an actor that made it easy for Ledger to slip into the role, or perhaps Ledger really lost himself in all that make-up. His Joker was no comic book character coming to life (Jack Nicholson was there already); he was as close to an approximation of a glorified human psychopath as you can get. And it was probably as close as you'd want to get.


Films not yet seen that could've made an impact on this list:
A Christmas Tale (Desplechin)
Happy Go Lucky (Leigh)
Changeling (Eastwood)
Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt)
Frozen River (Hunt)
Doubt (Shanley)

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