A Dozen Top Performances of 2009

December 24, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's that time of the year again. As December winds to a close, critics of all sorts gaze back at the past 12 months and try to provide intelligent, insightful reflections about things that happened, trends, and so forth. You won't find any of that here. I'm simply going to toss out twelve names - six men, six women - whose portrayals stuck with me. I don't differentiate between "supporting" and "lead" performances since the line between the two is often nebulous, and I don't assign rankings.

Like every other grouping or list that appears at this time of the year, the choices are subjective. You won't find Sandra Bullock here - I'm glad she had success in 2009 but I didn't think her work in The Proposal was memorable and, while she did a better job in The Blind Side, I wasn't blown away. Also missing: Morgan Freeman in Invictus. I think Freeman did a credible job re-creating Nelson Mandela, but he didn't make the short list. It's not that I have anything against actors portraying real people (two of the twelve fall into this category); it's just that Freeman, like the film in which he starred, didn't inspire much passion in me. There's little doubt he'll get an Oscar nomination, so I'm sure this snub won't bother him. :)

Ladies first…

The Top Six Female Performances of 2009:

Abby Cornish (Bright Star): I should have known better after seeing her in Candy, but I didn't think Abby Cornish had a performance like this in her. Much has been written about Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria but, for my money, Cornish out-Blunted Blunt in the period piece race. I don't expect to see Cornish get much recognition for this part - Bright Star fared poorly during its limited art-house run. It had some problems, but none of them were associated with the lead actress, who livened up the proceedings considerably.

Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air): In the rush to praise Anna Kendrick's work in Up in the Air , there's a tendency to overlook Vera Farmiga, whose overall performance was arguably better. Farmiga is a chameleon, second only to Tilda Swinton in her ability to change her color to suit a role. She can be creepy and physically unappealing or mind-blowingly sexy. Here, she represents the perfect foil for George Clooney and holds her own opposite him, matching the glare of his charisma with a spotlight of her own. I could see Up in the Air working with a less gifted actress than Kendrick in the role of the ingénue, but Farmiga is irreplaceable.

Mo'Nique (Precious): She's the odds-on favorite to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and I can't argue with her runaway popularity. This is a ferocious performance. For a while, it appears to be one of one-dimensional villainy but, late in the film, there's a scene in which we are given the opportunity to peek behind the proverbial curtain, and it's heart-wrenching. Mo'Nique has received criticism for "not supporting" the film (doing the usual dog-and-pony publicity stops), but who cares? She showed up on the set and did her job, and the record of her work is breathtaking. That's all that matters.

Carey Mulligan (An Education): Mulligan is 2009's answer to 2007's Ellen Page, only with a little less self-awareness and a slightly less sarcastic tongue. Mulligan's credible, intelligent, emotionally fulfilling portrayal isn't the only reason An Education works - it has a lot going for it beside her - but it would be tough to argue that the film would be as good without this kind of star-making turn. An Education's placement in my Top 10 is in large part because I related to the character of Jenny, and that's down to Mulligan.

Gabby Sidibe (Precious): For Sidibe, it is a herculean task to portray the lead character of Precious as more than a hapless victim. Even in the early stages of the film, when she is assaulted both verbally and physically by her mother, a spark of her spirit is evident. Sidibe gives us that, and more. We feel for her at the beginning and cheer for her at the end. Precious is a grim movie, its semi-hopeful conclusion notwithstanding. Sidibe's work is one of the things that shepherds us through the toughest parts.

Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia): Part of me didn't want to put Streep on this list. I mean, isn't she always on every list at the end of every year? Isn't it time for someone new? The problem is, she deserves almost every accolade she gets. She's not only the best actress of her generation, but is among the best of any generation. When someone is this good, she deserves recognition. I wasn't overly fond of Julie & Julia, but found Streep's interpretation of The French Chef to be inspired. There are supporters who will tout her work in It's Complicated as well , but that performance is more workmanlike than dazzling.

The Top Six Male Performances of 2009:

Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart): Jeff Bridges doesn't just play Bad Blake in Crazy Heart - he becomes him. That's always the mark of a great portrayal: an actor disappears so completely into the role that you forget everything except the character. For someone like Bridges, who has been gracing the screen for nearly four decades, such an accomplishment can be more difficult than for a relative unknown, but he achieves it here. I can't say whether Bad Blake represents the best all-time performance for Bridges - he has contributed so many interesting characters (Duane Jackson, Jack Prescott, Kevin Flynn, Terry Brogan, Starman, Preston Tucker, Jack Baker, Jack Lucas, The Dude) - but, if it was up to me, I'd hand him the Oscar now.

Peter Capaldi (In the Loop): Capaldi won't get many mentions for his brilliantly scathing portrayal of a British political figure in In the Loop because so few people saw it. Those who did, however, will have no doubt that he deserves some kind of recognition. His every word dripping venom, Capaldi provided one of the most viciously funny characters of 2009. In the Loop wouldn't have been the same without him. As a side note, Capaldi also guest-starred in the BBC-TV mini-series, Torchwood: Children of Earth, and was equally as good (although without the satirical edge).

George Clooney (Up in the Air): I feel about Clooney much as I feel about Meryl Streep - it's almost cheating to put him on a Best Actor/Actress list. His natural charm and charisma make him an excellent fit for so many roles, and the one he plays in Up in the Air is a case of perfect casting. The thing Clooney does so well in this film is to provide us with effectively timed and well-modulated glimpses into the "human" side of a character who initially seems shallow and rootless. His chemistry with both co-stars, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, is marvelous.

Tom Hardy (Bronson): Bronson has its share of problems and was not ranked among my favorites of 2009, but Tom Hardy's performance is not a reason for my muted enthusiasm. He comes across like a force-of-nature here. It's an eye-opening portrayal and one that deserves to be seen if only to illustrate Hardy's dedication to his craft. Similar comments could be made about Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, but I found Hardy to be braver and more convincing.

Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles): At least a half-dozen actors have portrayed the late, great Orson Welles on-screen, but none has been as eerily convincing as Christian McKay. The physical resemblance is passing, but the attitude and voice are dead-on. McKay transforms Welles into the larger-than-life figure we all believe him to be; the character is an amalgamation of reality and myth combined. The film's lead, Zac Efron, does a credible job, but the only figure anyone is likely to remember from Me and Orson Welles is McKay's Orson.

Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds): Waltz is currently the odds-on favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and that's not surprising. His scenes in Inglourious Basterds are worth savoring. In a movie that has its share of enjoyable (if not always "great" in a conventional sense) performances, Waltz's acting stands out. His work in the first chapter sets the stage for all that is to come. He delivers Tarantino's dialogue to perfection, not only getting the words right, but providing perfect inflection. Waltz isn't showy, but he is nonetheless unforgettable.