Time to look at the dozen performances (six men, six women) that have impacted me the most forcefully while watching 2010 movies. The difference between good acting and great acting is often subtle but unmistakable. Good acting allows the viewer to accept the character and the situations in which he/she finds himself/herself. Great acting not only removes all considerations that "acting" is taking place, but sticks in the mind. Great acting can make a bad movie good, and a good movie great. These twelve performances stayed with me long after the screens went dark and the ushers shuffled in to clear away the trash.
As usual, I am not distinguishing between "leading" and "supporting" performances, in large part because the distinctions made by the Academy for who ends up in which category are determined more by politics than by the size of the role. (Case in point: In The King's Speech, Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are co-lead actors. However, in order to improve both their chances of achieving nominations and possibly winning, Rush is being promoted in the Supporting Actor category.) Curiously, this is the first year I can remember in which the female/actress roster is stronger than the male/actor one. Most years, it's the other way around, with the men getting all the highlight reel-worthy clips.
Christian Bale, The Fighter: Bale is not among the most liked actors in Hollywood, but he is among the most respected and sought after (apparently due to his intense approach to his job). A method actor from the Brando school of total immersion, he submerges himself so deeply in parts that he becomes the character. This results in both physical and psychological transformations. For The Fighter, he dropped dozens of pounds (for the second time in his career), and the weight loss alone is enough to make him almost unrecognizable. That's one weapon he uses to become the character, and he is utterly convincing. We never see Bale playing Dicky Eklund, we merely see Dicky.
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network: Plaudits have been deservedly heaped upon Eisenberg's co-stars, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield, but it's easy to forget the difficulty of Eisenberg's role and the success with which he pulls it off. Putting aside questions about the film's veracity (that's a red herring for almost any fictional feature), we are left with a compelling tale that questions aspects of human nature, with Eisenberg crafting a complex and intriguing anti-hero. It's easy to fashion a mustache-twirling villain but a more daunting prospect to present a human being with an equal number of defects and strengths.
Colin Firth, The King's Speech: If one was to make a short list of the best working actors, Firth would be on it. I first encountered him 25 years ago in a TV mini-series based on J.B. Priestley's Lost Empires; since then, I have followed his career with interest. Underrated until a few years ago, he comes to the end of 2010 as the front-runner for the 2011 Best Actor Oscar. Is this the crowning role of his career? Impossible to say, since he invests wholly in every part, no matter how high-browed or trivial. He stands out as the best Mr. Darcy of all and his work in The King's Speech may make his interpretation of King George VI definitive.
James Franco, 127 Hours: I have never thought of Franco as an exceptional actor, but he does an exceptional job in the harrowing 127 Hours. A tough movie that hasn't found an audience, Danny Boyle's bio-pic of a man who self-amputated his arm as a means of salvation is as challenging a cinematic experience as one can find. Franco's importance to it is undeniable. The movie succeeds because of his performance; he's on screen for the entire running length and, for much of it, he's by himself.
Ryan Reynolds, Buried: Like Franco, Reynolds carries his movie. And, although Franco was aided by other performers in small roles, Reynolds is alone for the entire running length. Trapped in a buried coffin with only a cell phone to connect him to others, Buried barely achieved a theatrical release, which means few had an opportunity to appreciate what could have been a game-changer for Reynolds' career. If this is the performance of a lifetime, it's a shame it will be seen by so few.
Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack: Since winning two Oscars in the '90s, Spacey has been slumming. Nothing on his recent resume stands out and he has had more than his share of "phone it in" performances. That changes with his electric, volcanic portrayal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This portrayal comes out of nowhere - a sudden vault into the Oscar nomination spotlight by an actor who had been drifting for more than a decade. We may not be able to count on Spacey's consistency, but it can be said that when he clicks in a role, there are few better.
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech: Bonham Carter's work in The King's Speech falls into the "supporting" category, but it's as memorable as any performance in the film, including Firth's. Despite more than 50 titles on her filmography, the actress has only once been nominated for an Oscar. The King's Speech represents one of her best portrayals in years and assures that, at least in 2010, she won't be recognized exclusively for playing one of Voldemort's underlings.
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone: Jennifer Lawrence came out of nowhere to stun critics with her portrayal of the lead character in this independent film. I wasn't as awed as some by Winter's Bone as a whole, but it possesses two tremendous qualities: an impeccable sense of time and place and a peerless star. When considering the merits of the film, it's hard to determine which of those two components deserves greater recognition. Buzz about Lawrence's performance has earned her across-the-board recognition and, regardless of whether or not the Academy acknowledges her (my bet is they will), she already has a number of higher profile projects lined up.
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole: Kidman, like Kevin Spacey, has languished in recent years and the blandness of many of her roles has allowed us to forget how good she can be when she sinks her teeth into a character. Rabbit Hole gives her the opportunity to once again be great, and she seizes the moment. Sitting at the emotional center of the film, Kidman gives it her all, and the result is devastating. This is a tough but rewarding picture, and I give the actress a lion's share of the credit for that.
Natalie Portman, Black Swan: Portman is not a great actress, but she is capable of great performances, and this is one occasion when she pours herself into a role. Not since Closer has she been this impressive; Black Swan represents a high point in her career. Her dedication to her craft is evident in every scene and she holds nothing back. She is the early front runner to win the Best Actress Oscar.
Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: For me, Rapace gives the best performance - male or female - to reach the screen in 2010. I'm citing her for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but I could as easily mention her for The Girl Who Played with Fire or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. She is, quite simply, incomparable. A force of nature. In a way, I feel sorry for Rooney Mara. Asking anyone to step into the role Rapace has defined is unfair. The comparisons are unavoidable and Mara will have to be stunning to avoid coming out as a pale copy.
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit: Even more so than Jennifer Lawrence, Hailee Steinfeld is a bolt out of the blue. Picked out of nowhere by the Coen Brothers to fill a key role in their True Grit re-invention, Steinfeld displays the poise, command of the screen, and skill of a veteran. Her performance would be remarkable for an actress with dozens of films under her belt. The fact that this is her first major role makes it all the more remarkable. Kim Darby, step aside.