The 1990s in Review: Best Performances
Commentary by James Berardinelli
A good performance does not necessarily make a good movie, and a great performance does not necessarily make a great movie. As a result, it's easy to overlook majestic acting in any end-of-the-decade overview because that work did not occur in one of the Top 10 (or 20) films. Without giving much away, I can say that most (although not all) of the performances discussed below occurred in movies that will not be listed on my "Top 10 of the 1990s" roster. These performances all took place in good films, but, in many cases, other aspects of the production were not up to the level of the actor or actress' efforts. For simplicity's sake, I have not attempted to break things up into the Oscar categories of Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
Additionally, it should be noted that this is a list of Best Performances, not of Best Performers. My purpose here is not to rank actors. Admittedly, there is some synergy between the performance and the performer, but it's not a one-to-one correspondence. The list is intended to highlight a single instance, not a body of work. (Otherwise, one might legitimately complain about the exclusions of such top-notch actors as Kevin Spacey and Susan Sarandon.)
As usual, the list is presented in reverse order.
An * indicates an Oscar nomination for this actor in this part. A ** indicates a nomination and a win.
#9. Romane Bohringer, Savage Nights (1992): Few people have seen this performance (or the movie), and it's a shame, because it's forceful and stirring. Bohringer has done other films, but her work has never reached the level it did in this, her debut feature. The actress won a French Cesar as Best Actress for this role, in which she plays a girl whose twisted psyche causes her to risk her life by having unprotected sex with a man she knows has AIDS. Bohringer brings to the screen a stunning portrait of a self-destructive young woman who courts both love and death.
#8. Gong Li, Raise the Red Lantern (1991): Inarguably the best-known Chinese actress, Gong Li has starred in a number of powerful films (most by director Zhang Yimou), but this is her most wrenching performance. Gong shines as Songlian, a woman who struggles to be cold and calculating until a tragedy destroys her composure and her sanity. The actress' seemingly effortless work in this role makes it easy to sympathize with Songlian; she is the face of humanity and our guide through a strange, ritual-saturated world.
#7. Ralph Fiennes*, Schindler's List (1993): In the last few years, Ralph Fiennes has become known for strong, heroic roles; in fact, many women regard him as a sex symbol. But Fiennes first entered the spotlight with his haunting portrayal of Amon Goeth, the conflicted Gestapo officer who is befriended by Oskar Schindler. Fiennes stuns with his intricate, savage portrayal of the Nazi commander, a man fascinated by power and murder. Goeth has the rare ability to both mesmerize and repulse, and this performance will long be remembered. The character could easily have become a conscienceless monster, but Fiennes' performance shows unexpected depth and complexity to this character
#6. Denzel Washington*, Malcolm X(1992): If there was ever a doubt about Denzel Washington's versatility, he shattered it by transforming himself into the title character of Spike Lee's controversial Malcolm X. Taking on the part of an historical figure - especially a well-known one - is no easy task. But, like George C. Scott as Patton, Washington doesn't just wear the character's clothing, he wears his skin. There's not a moment in this three-hour epic when we aren't completely convinced by this performance. We're watching Malcolm X, not Denzel Washington.
#5. Lara Belmont, The War Zone (1999): Every once in a while, an actress bares herself so completely to the camera (both physically and emotionally) that it's impossible not to notice. Such is the case with newcomer Lara Belmont in Time Roth's The War Zone. Belmont's portrayal of the tormented, conflicted Jessie astonishes with its bold power. The 18-year old actress gets everything right, from the heartbreaking pain evident during a rape scene to the subtle nuances of her interaction with the other characters. Her ability is the most evident during a scene when a disconsolate, uncontrollably sobbing Jessie sits at the kitchen table, and Belmont brings character's torment to the audience with full force.
#4. Emily Watson*, Breaking the Waves (1996): Like Lara Belmont in The War Zone, Emily Watson hides nothing from the camera. The actress' raw courage has made this a memorable performance. She seems willing to do whatever is necessary to convey the director's message, and, in the process, develops Bess into one of 1996's most unforgettable characters. Breaking the Waves has the power to disturb mainly because of the strength of Watson's portrayal.
#3. Valentina Scalici, Il Ladro di Bambini (Stolen Children) (1992): When I reviewed this film, I stated that Scalici's performance was "the best... I have ever seen by a child actor," and nothing since then (except Victoire Thivisol's work in Ponette -- see below) has changed my mind. As the 11-year old Rosetta, Scalici brings to the screen all the complexity we would expect from a girl whose own mother has sold her into prostitution. The actress is a master of dialogue, body language, and facial expressions. It's a shame that the film is so obscure, because, while there are other things to recommend it, Scalici's performance (the only one in her career) transforms Il Ladro di Bambini from a solid film lnto an exceptional one.
#2. Victoire Thivisol, Ponette (1996): It wouldn't be hard to argue that Victoire Thivisol gave one of 1997's most astonishing performances. In fact, her work as the title character of Ponette is heartwrenching. The actress, only four years old at the time of filming, is so natural and believable that it's impossible not to be amazed. Had Thivisol shown a hint of artifice, Ponette would not have worked. The strength and consistency of her acting keeps this film on a high level. Even if the movie was not so moving and evocative, it would be worth viewing simply for the character that Thivisol brings to life.
#1. Anthony Hopkins**, The Silence of the Lambs (1991): Hannibal the Cannibal. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of the character. To his dying day, no matter how many roles he plays in the interim, Hopkins will forever be known for this part. I can throw out any number of superlatives, but none of them do this chilling performance justice. Want to feel the icy fingers of terror stroke your heart? Watch this mixture of brilliant eloquence and inhuman cruelty. As portrayed by Hopkins, Hannibal is both a suave, cultured gentleman and an unspeakable fiend. He is gracious and monstrous at the same time. Hopkins is not the only actor to play Hannibal (Brian Cox initiated the role in Manhunter), but he is the only one whose interpretation will be remembered. The actor's expected Best Actor Oscar win was one of those occasions in recent history when the Academy got it right.
© 1999 James Berardinelli