Rewinding 2006: Performances

December 26, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Rather than go through the pointless exercise of splitting performances into different categories, this year I have elected simply to take the ten most memorable performances and give them equal weight. They are arranged alphabetically; no ranking system is applied. Strictly speaking, this is not an attempt to predict Oscar nominations, although I do make more than the occasional Oscar comment. No doubt some of the names on this list will get nominations, but several will not. Additionally, this is a recognition of the performance and does not reflect the quality of the film. Finally, there are no "statement" names on this list - I really believe in everyone. There are no "political" nods. By limiting myself to ten, I have left off several worthy names, so I offer them here as "honorable mentions": Sascha Baron Cohen (Borat), Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Kate Winslet (Little Children).

Here are my picks for the ten most noteworthy performances of 2006:

Abbie Cornish (Candy): There were a lot of "drug" films this year and a lot of good performances in those movies. Many will be citing Ryan Gosling for his work in Half Nelson, but I found both the movie and the performance (while good) to be overrated. The one interpretation of an addict that really got to me was Abbie Cornish's portrayal of the title character in Candy. Maybe it's Cornish's girl-next-door good looks or maybe it's that she embraced the degradation of her character without reservation, but Cornish's acting stuck with me long after many of the particulars of the film faded away. Her co-stars (Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush) are good as well, but both worked in her shadow. Her appearance in A Good Year, while forgettable, allows viewers with an interest to sample her range. It hardly seems to be the same actress.

Zooey Deschanel (Winter Passing): The movie was mediocre, but the performance was not. I wrote the following in the review: "Winter Passing is a classic example of a pedestrian motion picture being lifted out of mediocrity by an arresting lead performance. Zooey Deschanel doesn't just elevate Winter Passing; she carries it." Having re-watched the film, I feel the same. It's amazing to see an actress do so much with so little. The subtle (and at times unsubtle) ways in which she expresses deep, hidden pain make the viewer believe this is a real person, not the joint construct of a writer, a director, and an actress. I have always like Deschanel. This is her best work to-date but there are hopefully better things to come. (I await the Janis Joplin bio-pic with baited breath.)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed): 2006 represented the year the pretty boy finally made good. DiCaprio has always had screen presence and charisma. The Departed, much more than his previous would-be "serious" movies (Gangs of New York, The Aviator), has elevated him to a new level. This is real acting. What's more, it's powerful, gut-churning acting. Throw in his work in Blood Diamond and this year has allowed DiCaprio to turn a corner. At last, he may be able to put the long, deep shadow of Titanic behind him.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger than Fiction): Maggie Gyllenhaal has been all over the cinematic map this year, mostly playing supporting roles. Based on reports, potentially her best performance came as the lead in Sherrybaby but, since IFC only opened it in New York and Los Angeles and was stingy with screeners, I haven't been able to see the movie (yet), so I can't comment upon it. However, while Gyllenhaal was fine in Who's the Man and World Trade Center, the performance in which she shines came in Stranger than Fiction. She steals every scene she's in, pilfering them from a surprisingly generous Will Ferrell. She is radiant in a movie too few people have seen with a performance fewer will acknowledge. She is one of today's finest young actresses, surpassing with consistency and talent the likes of higher-profile stars like Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.

Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls): From fallen Idol to potential Oscar winner, Jennifer Hudson has taken the movie world by storm, flipping a big middle finger in the direction of the judges and voters of American Idol. The thing that makes Hudson's performance memorable isn't just that she's got the voice to do justice to "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," but she's more than solid in the non-singing department. Whether or not Hudson takes home the little gold statue, she has opened eyes and her future on the big screen (should she desire one) is cemented.

Rinko Kikuchi (Babel): It's difficult for a member of an ensemble cast to stand out, but Rinko Kikuchi manages it. She is the star among stars in Babel, a film that is in some ways more about plot than character. Her performance is brave and heartbreaking. She's the only individual in this brilliant film who touched my heart, at times bringing me close to tears. She's that good - pushing the likes of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett into the background. Prior to Babel, she appeared in smaller Japanese films. This represents her first major international exposure; it will hopefully not be her last.

Helen Mirren (The Queen): All hail the queen! Even at this early date, I don't think anyone doubts that Helen Mirren will walk home with the Oscar for her work for director Steven Frears. The competition will likely be weak, and Mirren's performance is so amazing that everyone else will start writing consolation speeches the moment their nominations are announced. Not since Charlize Theron in Monster has so much acclaim been so deserved for a female nominee. And when you consider Dame Helen's entire body of work, it's hard to argue that there isn't a better choice out there.

Jack Nicholson (The Departed): Sometimes with Nicholson, it's tough to say whether it's a good performance or just "Jack being Jack." In The Departed, there's no question in my mind that Nicholson is acting his butt off, not just showing up, flashing his teeth, and picking up a paycheck. His performance is volcanic without crossing the line into camp. He injects energy into the proceedings without forcing the movie to be all about him. Maybe it takes a strong director to reign in an actor with this kind of personality. Whatever the case, Nicholson has given one of his most memorable performances of the last 14 years in The Departed.

Peter O'Toole (Venus): This will likely be Peter O'Toole's swansong as a screen performer, and what a way to go out! He hits all the right notes, reciting Shakespeare and spewing profanity, providing moments of great humor and equally great pathos. Considering all the work he had done over a long and fruitful career, it's astounding to realize that O'Toole has never won an Oscar (although he got an honorary one a few years ago - something he considered to be a cheat). Venus may be his last chance (rumor has it that his health is in a steady decline). Irrespective of whether or not the Academy honors him, his portrayal of randy old Maurice deserves a spot alongside Lawrence of Arabia, Henry II, and Arthur Chipping.

Ellen Page (Hard Candy): Forget her small appearance in the third X-Men movie. If you really want to see what Ellen Page can do, check her out in this disturbing thriller that goes places where not even Chris Hanson has journeyed. Hard Candy isn't graphic but it is profoundly disturbing, and a lot of that has to do with the way Page plays her role as an avenging high school girl who's not as innocent as she first appears to be, but may not be as tough as we are led to believe at other times. There are a lot of layers to this character, just as there are a lot of layers to the movie. For Hard Candy to work, Page has to be phenomenal, and she is.

In two days (December 28): Ten films to avoid at all costs. Run away, far away...