2005: Performances Worth Mentioning

December 27, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

In the past, I have tried to match performances with the Academy's four vaunted categories: Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress. However, since who gets into what category is a matter of games and politics, I'm not going to bother. Instead, I'll single out about twenty performances that impressed me, with leads and supports intermingled. What a sense of freedom that imparts - not having to decide whether George Clooney deserves to be mentioned for Lead Actor or Supporting Actor in Syriana.

Since I mentioned him, let me start there. 2005 marks Clooney's move from matinee idol to serious actor, and never has he been more compelling than in Syriana. Although the film is more plot-and-idea-centered than a showpiece for actors, Alexander Siddig deserves recognition, as well. Siddig, who toiled for seven years as a regular on the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine before moving to the big screen, was also exceptional in a film that everyone has forgotten, Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. (In fact, one could make a convincing argument that he acted circles around everyone else in the film.)

Munich is Eric Bana's film. He's our gateway into its ethical morass, with his character trapped by the unpredictability of an ever-shifting moral compass. It's easy to overlook Bana because his performance is low-key. He doesn't go over-the-top, but there's tremendous intensity there. I submit that with a lesser actor in this role, Munich would not have achieved the nearly universal acclaim it has received.

When thinking about this year's crop of real life figures brought to the screen, it's tough to ignore Philip Seymour Hoffman's interpretation of Truman Capote (Capote), Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash (Walk the Line), Reese Witherspoon's June Carter Cash (also Walk the Line), and David Strathairn's Edward R. Murrow (Good Night, and Good Luck). Four remarkable portrayals, all worthy of nominations. (At least one - possibly Hoffman or Strathairn - will likely be left out.)

There will be nominations from Brokeback Mountain, perhaps for both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Perhaps my feeling that the film is overrated colors my perceptions but, although I agree that both gave strong performances, I don't think they were among the best of the year. In fact, I would argue that Gyllenhaal was better in Jarhead. Since that film tanked, if Gyllenhaal's name is going to appear on any rosters, it will be for the Ang Lee feature. If either or both Ledger and Gyllenhaal are overlooked, it will be because of spatial restrictions.

While the Academy may acknowledge Charlize Theron for North Country, I would like to single out Richard Jenkins, who plays her father. Theron was good, but Jenkins was better. This is the kind of role that the "Best Supporting Actor" award was made for. Unfortunately, Jenkins doesn't have a high enough profile to get a nod for a film that no one saw. More's the pity.

Gywneth Paltrow deserves recognition for Proof. She successfully transfered a character from the play to the screen (unlike Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers), and caused movie viewers to become emotionally invested in her fate. From another adaptation (this time book-to-movie), Kiera Knightley has put her name alongside the best with her fiery interpretation of Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. I don't know if this was the best female performance of the year, but it was my favorite. She showed her versatility (if not her taste) by following this up with Tony Scott's Domino.

Members of ensemble casts are frequently overlooked by the Academy, but I'd like to single out Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon from Crash. Long after may details of the movie have faded from the memory, these characters linger, and it's as much because of the performances as the writing and direction. If ever there was a case of two actors doing the most with limited screen time, this is it.

Joan Allen gave what is easily one of the most impressive turns of her career in The Upside of Anger, a mid-year release that could easily fall through the cracks when it comes to nominations. Diane Keaton will steal her spot with a decent, but not overwhelming, turn in The Family Stone. When I fill out my ballot for the OFCS awards, Allen will be there, however. Another "lost" performance belongs to Amber Tamblin from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. She's easily good enough for recognition, but the movie is too easily forgotten. Now that Tamblyn is no longer hampered by a TV series, she needs to make more films. Her name deserves to be as well known as that of Dakota Fanning.

Offbeat choices: Christian Bale as the title character in Batman Begins, proving that it makes a difference to have a great actor underneath the mask. Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Doesn't making us laugh for 2 hours count for something? Andy Sirkis in King Kong. There's a real man behind that gorilla, and he deserves recognition since Kong was one of 2005's biggest screen presences. Will Smith in Hitch - one of the funniest and most likeable peformances of the year, right behind Carell's.

To continue the look back at 2005, tomorrow I'll present the Bottom 10, followed by the Top 10 later in the week.