My Top Ten Performances of the Last Decade

As promised, here is the companion list to my “Top Ten Movies of the Last Decade” entry.  And now, a new promise: I am done revisiting the 2000’s!  About the nineties, however, I make no such guarantee …

1. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Number one with a bullet, and how could it be otherwise? What Ledger accomplished here deserves a place in cinema history – not just creating a wholly original character, but turning his every scene – his every line, almost – into a virtuoso celebration of humor, darkness, and chaos. Ledger built the Joker from the ground up: that shambling gait, the tilt of his head, the way he rolls words in his mouth like delectable marbles, the lip-smacking delight he takes in every last moment of his warped existence. This performance is more than a tour de force; it defined new possibilities for acting as an art form. Gone too soon? Of course. But what a legacy.

2. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Jack Sparrow became a cultural icon (not to say cliché) so quickly that it’s easy to forget how bracing Depp’s initial portrayal was. Preening, craven, and dashingly amoral, perched on the knife’s edge between lunacy and genius, Sparrow sauntered through the movie with conspicuous relish and befuddled spontaneity; we were never quite sure what he was going to do next, and neither was he. It’s the role that transformed Depp from a star into a superstar, and he seems happy enough to let it define him – as well he should be.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York (2002)

Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the most impressive film actor on the planet, and – not coincidentally, one suspects – he’s one of the least prolific. He gave only four performances in the last decade (down from five in the decade before), and though he was memorable in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, There Will Be Blood, and Nine, his Bill the Butcher stands out as one of the most terrifyingly intense portrayals ever committed to film. Bill is a larger-than-life character with larger-than-life appetites – capable of great violence, but equally frightening in his tender moments. Gangs of New York is a powerful film by a great director, but looking back on it, all most of us can remember is Day-Lewis’s smoldering sneer.

4. Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

For sheer immersion in a character, no one – not even Day-Lewis – can top Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen is a latter-day Peter Sellers: a comedian so thoroughly absorbed in his roles that he makes most dramatic actors look like dilettantes. As for Borat, he’s a transcendently vivid creation – a filthy, lecherous bigot defined by his sweetness and naiveté. The movie is often hard to watch, but Borat is impossible to look away from.

5. Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007)

This is one performance that had to be stunning; the movie simply wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been. Fortunately, Cotillard was up to the challenge of embodying the legendary Piaf – her raffish joie de vivre, her gamine sensuality, her monstrous egotism, her pain, her passion, her charisma, her genius. Tracing the singer’s life from awkward adolescence to premature dotage, with all the triumph and tragedy in between, Cotillard exhibited a raw emotional power that belies her somewhat demure public image. It’s stunning stuff.

6. Rachel McAdams as Claire Cleary in Wedding Crashers (2005)

Like no other actor on this list, McAdams took a potentially thankless role and imbued it with charm, intelligence, and conviction. Yes, she’s a fantasy woman, but not a blandly perfect one; she has doubts and aspirations and frustrations aplenty, and we can see why Owen Wilson longs not simply to possess her, but to lift her up into the life she deserves. McAdams is more than appealing; she’s luminous, and she gives the movie not only heart, but soul.

7. Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

It takes a lot to steal scenes in a movie headlined by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, so bow down before Ben Foster, because steal them he does.  Charlie Prince is a grotesque, irredeemable character, and Foster endows him with a demented intensity that brings to mind a feral cat.  It’s a darkly magnetic performance, cold and twisted and unforgettable.

8. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004)

Blanchett’s electrifying portrayal is like the Katharine Hepburn performance we never got to see, but it’s also something more: the persona of one great actress channeled through the talent of another. It inspires a little shiver of gratitude, and no small measure of awe.  To call Blanchett a chameleon would be doing her a disservice; she doesn’t disappear into a character so much as absorb the character into herself.  It’s quite a trick, and she’s never done it better.  I think Kate would be pleased.

9. Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Boyish, headstrong, sharp-tongued, and fiercely loyal, Elizabeth Bennett is the sort of flawed-but-wonderful woman one can easily imagine falling in love with, and Knightley does equal justice to her playful and serious sides.  Knightley is compelling even in underwritten roles like Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean; here, given the task of bringing to life a much more complex Elizabeth, she shows her true range.

10. Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Hanks’s gift for comedy has sometimes been obscured by his dramatic chops; here he achieves a perfect synthesis of both, delivering a rich, rounded, hilariously deadpan performance.  Hanratty is a dogged, hard-grinding professional of the kind that rarely gets much screen time — a smart man locked in a battle of wills with a smarter kid.  Hanks brings not one ounce of movie-star glamor to his portrayal; from his flat Bah-ston accent to his horn-rimmed glasses, he’s a dour working stiff that takes his jollies where he can find them.  The scene where Hanratty, working late on Christmas, receives an apologetic call from his teenaged quarry and responds with malicious delight (“You have no one else to call!”) is both funny and melancholy, summing up the complex interdependence of the cat and the mouse.


How to Train Your Dragon (3-D)

(Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010)

with Hilary Gietz, City Cinemas East 86th St., 4/16/10


Lovely, no?

A fantastic and fantastical adventure, set on the imaginary island of Berk, a barren, dragon-infested rock that a clan of Vikings — being Vikings — have staked out as their home turf.  It’s a wonderful setting, savage and beautiful, and the movie does it justice.  The themes are well-trodden — coming of age, fish out of water, don’t judge a book by its cover, etc. — but they’re handled with warmth and humor and imagination, so that’s all right.  Like Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon has just enough violence and mayhem to give it a pleasant tinge of black humor, but not enough to sour its wholesome appeal.  In fact, the design of the lead dragon is reminiscent of Stitch; they have the same fine blend of menace and adorability.  And they’re both in damn good movies.

As for the 3-D: it only annoyed me for the first five minutes or so; then I mostly forgot about it.  (Rapid cutting does not work well in three dimensions, especially early on when the audience is still getting acclimated.)  The flying scenes did get a little extra oomph from the added depth, so we’ll call it a wash.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 1:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Date Night

(Shawn Levy, 2010)

with Dad, Devin, and Christine Gray, 4/11/10


Tina Fey and Steve Carell in "Date Night"

Date Night is a frustrating thing to witness: a comedy that’s rife with potential, but never quite gets off the ground.  The cast is strong, the script is smarter than average, the premise isn’t bad — and yet somehow, the movie doesn’t deliver.  What gives?  My best guess is that Levy was over-reliant on his leads’ improv skills.  The most obvious symptom of this is the movie’s choppy editing, but I think it has a subtler effect too; it makes the whole thing feel rudderless, as if it gets mired in its individual scenes instead of moving confidently through them.  Tina Fey and Steve Carell are gifted improvisers, no question, but if a movie’s going to lean heavily on improvisation, that device had better be built into its DNA (e.g., This is Spinal Tap); otherwise, the film ends up feeling at odds with itself — the plot’s trying to move forward, and the actors are trying to hold it back so they can riff.  Date Night isn’t painful to watch, and it has a number of funny moments, but considering the amount of talent that went into it, it’s hard not to see it as a disappointment.

Published in: on April 18, 2010 at 8:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Runaways

(Floria Sigismondi, 2010)

with Darcy and Lucy Frisch, 19th St. AMC, 3/31/10


Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart are big in Japan.

A fairly standard rags-to-riches-to-recriminations story, featuring some very stylish concert scenes, a joyfully deviant Michael Shannon performance, and a pleasantly abrupt ending.  The Runaways is set at a time when rock ‘n roll still seemed genuinely rebellious — and therefore desperately important, even in its scuzziest and most petulant incarnations.  The movie captures some of that urgency, even as it draws a line between those who are cut out for rock stardom and those who are better off without it.  We leave the theater feeling that things worked out exactly as they needed to; Joan Jett struck out on her own and became the rock star she was destined to be, while Cherie Currie got out in time and survived.

Published in: on April 18, 2010 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Alice in Wonderland (3-D)

(Tim Burton, 2010)

alone, 86th St. Loews, 3/29/10


Johnny Depp as the swashbuckling Mad Hatter

My second 3-D movie in less than a week — and hopefully my last for a while.  Unlike Avatar, Alice is determined to wave its third dimension in your face at every opportunity, proving that 3-D hasn’t grown up much since that scene in Captain Eo where the space queen stabbed at the audience with her knife-fingers and all the kids screamed.  It’s too bad, because this is actually a very charming movie — warm-hearted, imaginative, couched in the form of a genuine adventure.  Johnny Depp is dashing and lovable as the Mad Hatter, who is quite mad but also very sweet; and Helena Bonham Carter makes us feel the desolate loneliness of being an evil Red Queen with a massive head.  Whereas Avatar made 3-D seem largely pointless, Alice makes it seem like an impertinent intrusion.  But the film itself is quite nice.

Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 8:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Green Zone

(Paul Greengrass, 2010)

alone, 86th St. Loews, 3/28/10


In some ways, Green Zone is similar to my favorite film of the year so far, The Ghost Writer; both are conspiracy thrillers that draw their inspiration from the “War on Terror.”  But whereas The Ghost Writer is shamelessly a movie — a dark fantasy riffing on lightly fictionalized real events — The Green Zone is hampered by its own sense of journalistic responsibility — its need to depict things as they might have or could have happened.  As a result, the film feels oddly muted, despite Greengrass’s trademark frenetic editing and shaky hand-held camera.  We feel the strain of the filmmakers’ diligent attempts to amp up and cinematize something inherently uncinematic: yesterday’s headlines about the tenuous case for the Iraq invasion.  It’s a bit like watching Housing Crisis: The Movie.  The climactic foot-chase is choppy and repetitive — a far cry from The Bourne Ultimatum‘s electrifying blend of precision and chaos.  Matt Damon delivers a characteristically strong performance, and most of Green Zone is engaging enough, but the resolution is pretty much a let-down.  We know how this story ends.

(Footnote: I think “cinematize” may be a useful neologism.  If you like it, feel free to spread it around.)

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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