This blog has been on a hiatus while I wrote about a slew of November-December movies and gave extra reviews to this magazine’s expanded Vulture site, which is also your one-stop shop for all things Oscar. Having happily ceded the awards beat to others, I am pleased to give my own awards for the best performances of 2010 — irrespective of industry politics and gossip.
Annette Bening in Mother and Child and The Kids Are All Right. At a recent meeting of the New York Film Critics Circle, Bening won a prize for Kids, which is fine, great, but the majority of my colleagues voted against citing her even better performance in Rodrigo Garcia’s criminally underrated Mother and Child. As a mother who, at age 14, gave up her daughter for adoption and never got over the loss, Bening creates a tapestry of tics and tremors and false declarations of strength — followed by utter collapse. No one has her genius for illuminating the chink (or moat, or abyss) between the quivering person on the inside and the mask held desperately in place. Her work here (as it is in Kids) is both clownish and emotionally true. And marvelous.
Jim Carrey’s performance as a closeted gay con man in the spotty I Love You, Phillip Morris is a major feat. No actor this year goes so far out on a limb, mining both his strengths and limitations to create a portrait of a man forced to act for his very existence. Carrey’s Steven Russell adopts and sheds his masks faster than the hero of The Mask — without special effects.
Dale Dickey is perhaps best known as the meth head who dropped a stolen ATM machine on the head of her husband in the second season of the peerless AMC series Breaking Bad. Her role in Winter’s Bone isn’t huge, but as the haggard wife of a powerful patriarch she’s bottomless: Motherliness and murderousness have melted together; you can’t spot the line between free will and loyalty to her male-driven clan.
In the same movie, John Hawkes plays Teardrop, a volatile Ozarks addict who knows but can’t bring himself to acknowledge what has happened to his brother — until he's finally compelled to act by the potentially fatal persistence of his niece. It’s a relatively inward performance in which momentous things happen below the surface — unlike, say, Christian Bale’s terrific but extroverted turn in The Fighter, in which what you see is what you get.
More of the most superb acting of 2010:
In The Kids Are All Right, Julianne Moore’s lyric ditheriness carries echoes of Diane Keaton at her hilarious best.
In Dan Ireland’s film of E.L. Doctorow’s Jolene, future red-haired superstar Jessica Chastain plays a pretty — well, stunning — Southern girl with an abusive past who’s picked up by a series of lovers and tossed about by fate and her own lack of agency. In Chastain’s face, you see the joy of every relationship — and the awareness that her happiness is fleeting.
Amy Adams in The Fighter sheds her normal airy-fairy persona and gives us a blazing, mouthy bartender who doesn’t need much to get her Irish up.
Her forehead once more mobile, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole is a revelation. As a grieving mother, she has chosen, shrewdly, to underline two things: righteous anger and the simultaneous awareness that said anger won’t take her very far. Aaron Eckhart plays her husband as overcontrolled one minute, manic the next. Miles Teller, in his minefield of a role as the teenager who changed their lives, is first off-putting, then irrationally endearing, befogged in all the most expressive ways.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone is hauntingly self-contained, unable to afford a show of vulnerability, even to herself.
In Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling might channel De Niro too much, but he and Michelle Williams (as always, perfection) make harshly beautiful music together.
The Brits are more than all right: As a Cockney spitfire in Fish Tank, Katie Jarvis has a feral quality that keeps you watching closely for fear of missing something. Ruth Sheen’s compassionate irony and Lesley Manville’s voluble neediness make Mike Leigh’s Another Year sing.
Jesse Eisenberg has been better than he is in The Social Network, but even reined in by David Fincher he has a stuttery rhythm all his own. Justin Timberlake has a devilish certainty as his opposite number.
Kirsten Dunst as a doomed wife in the pretty-good melodrama All Good Things proves what some of us knew all along: that the snark is unwarranted and she’s some kind of actress.
Catherine Keener is appealingly bedraggled in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, her freak-outs evoking those moments when the fog clears and we suddenly see the gap between what we do and who we think we are.
Kerry Washington has a wonderful, Mary Tyler Moore–ish giddiness in Mother and Child as a young wife who can’t have children and undergoes a grueling grilling by Shareeka Epps as a fierce, pregnant teenager to see if she’s worthy of adopting the girl’s child.
As an aging gangster in A Prophet, Neils Arestrup has a stature that’s nearly Shakespearean: As his cronies leave him behind, his mask of malevolence slips and we glimpse the desperate, perplexed, bereft old fool beneath.
Finally, let’s give a cheer (and wolf whistle) for Wrenn Schmidt in Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Yes, it’s a documentary. But rather than putting Spitzer’s true favorite prostitute, “Angelina,” on camera in shadow and distorting her voice, Gibney gave a transcript of her interview to Schmidt — who’s so good you’ll believe she’s channeling “Angelina.”
You’ll notice that a couple of actors are not on my list — not because I think they’re unworthy but because they’re overpraised. Colin Firth has uncanny moments, most of them in mid-stammer, as King George VI in The King’s Speech. It just bugs me that he’ll win every award in sight for a performance half as searching and inspired as the one he gave in 2009 (the best of the year) in A Single Man. But there I go, intruding on Vulture's turf ...
Natalie Portman, meanwhile, does the kind of acting in Black Swan that wins awards, largely because you see the effort: the extreme weight loss, the yearlong crash course in ballet (which included having her limbs streeetched), the overemoting in every shot. The film is best enjoyed as camp: As SCTV’s Count Floyd used to say, “Ow-oooo . Skeery, kids.”
Extra bonus best: The Year’s Creepiest Villain
Glenn Hubbard, Inside Job
“Scooter” Libby, Fair Game
Roger Stone, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Voldemort, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Randi Weingarten, Waiting for "Superman" and The Lottery
And the winner is
A five-way tie! Congratulations to all!