Inspired by Jeremy Richey's countdown of his favorite performances of the decade over at his wonderful Moon In The Gutter blog, I've decided to join the fray and start posting some of my picks. Following Jeremy's lead, I'm starting off with some of my fave performances by actors from this decade. They are in no real order but just were ones that really stood out in my mind.
Adam Beach in Flags of Our Fathers (2006): Clint Eastwood depicted the famous battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspectives. He had so much material and wanted to give equal time to both sides that he decided to make two films. The first one, entitled Flags of Our Fathers, is from the American point-of-view with the focus on three of the six men captured in the famous photograph raising the American flag in the battlefield. The performances of the three lead actors are all superb, especially Beach as the tormented and tragic Ira Hayes who develops a drinking problem as a way to cope with hypocrisy of what he is doing and as a way to deal with the fact that his fallen comrades, including the other three who helped raise the flag, aren’t there to enjoy this with them. His drinking begins to affect the PR tour and cause a rift between him and the other two men. He is unable to escape his memories of the brutality he witnessed at Iwo Jima. The things he saw and did would make anybody traumatized for life.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous (2000): Any time I have doubts about writing or feel uninspired I just watch Hoffman's performance as the legendary Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's nostalgic ode to his days writing for Rolling Stone magazine and it instantly makes me feel better. He not only steals every scene he's in but conveys a passion for writing that gets me every time. There's a scene where he talks about writing a record review, not for the money, but just for the love of writing that never fails to inspire me.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick (2006): Rian Johnson's film re-imagines high school life through a 1940s film noir lens as he populates it with terse, fast-talking characters and all kinds of plot twists reminiscent of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Levitt had several memorable performances during this decade and this one if my fave (just edging out The Lookout) as he hits it out of the park playing a student moving through a shadowy, noir-ish world trying to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend. He handles Johnson's stylized dialogue expertly, somehow making it sound natural coming out of his mouth.
Javier Bardem in The Dancer Upstairs (2003): While Bardem won a much-deserved Oscar for his work in No Country for Old Men, my fave performance of his (and it was hard to narrow down) is his quietly understated turn in John Malkovich's directorial debut. Bardem plays a thoughtful police detective trying to track down an enigmatic guerrilla leader in an unnamed Latin American country. The actor conveys a piercing intelligence behind his eyes that is really something to watch in this film.
Andy Serkis as Martin Hannett in 24 Hr Party People (2002): Serkis was absolutely brilliant in Michael Winterbottom's fast 'n' loose look at the Manchester, England music scene in the late 1970s and 1980s. He played mercurial genius music producer Martin Hannett with absolute disdain for those around him, culminating in a hilarious kiss-off with Tony Wilson where he tells the talk show personality, "Well, this is goodbye. I mean, we obviously have nothing in common. I'm a genius, you're all fucking wankers. You'll never see me again. You don't deserve to see me again."
Aaron Eckhart in Erin Brockovich (2000): While Julia Roberts received the lion's share of praise for her admittedly excellent performance in this film, for me Eckhart is quietly impressive as the genial biker who lives next door to Brockovich and ends up getting involved romantically with her. The actor instills a low-key dignity to his character who stands by his woman until he feels like a glorified nanny. Their conflict over her obsession with a righteous cause versus their relationship adds a nice layer to the film and fleshes out his character.
Paul Giamatti in American Splendor (2003): This veteran character actor really came into his own during the decade, turning in several impressive performances but he finally got to carry a film in a big way with this funny yet also poignant look at the life and times of comic book creator Harvey Pekar. He perfectly captures Pekar’s curmudgeonly attitude and distinctive physical mannerisms right down to his raspy voice. He wisely doesn’t try to do an imitation; instead he shows the different sides of the man. Pekar is not just a cynic but someone who has dreams and aspirations just like anyone else. Giamatti also humanizes Pekar by showing his vulnerable side: his love for his wife and his fear of death when he is forced to confront his cancer.
Donal Logue in The Tao of Steve (2000): Like Paul Giamatti, Logue has been bouncing around Hollywood playing scene-stealing supporting characters but it was thanks to an independent film that he landed the role of a lifetime playing a very Dude-esque slacker who lives his life according to actor Steve McQueen. I've always been a fan of Logue's work and it was great to see him carry a film and pull it off with ease. Sadly, this film didn't take off as it should have and despite headlining a pretty decent sitcom, Logue has been relegated to supporting roles again.
Steve Carell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004): Before his career really took off with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell played the lovable, yet dumb-as-dirt weatherman Brick Tamland in this great comedic ode to local news in the 1970s. It's the little things he does in this film, like feeding mayonnaise into a toaster or professing his love for a lamp that makes me laugh every time. He manages to steal every scene he's in and that's no mean feat considering some of the comedians he shares screen time with in this film.
Steve Zahn in Riding in Cars with Boys (2001): Zahn is another character actor known for playing lovable goofballs and he finally got a chance to show some range in this criminally underappreciated film. He starts off in lovable goofball mode as Drew Barrymore's love interest but after her character becomes pregnant and his character becomes a drug addict, Zahn gradually shows an uglier side to his character. He is not afraid to look and act and unpleasant, especially when his character tries to kick drugs. Ultimately, one is left with a melancholic feeling about his character as we (and Barrymore) realize that he can never be trusted or relied upon.
Ray Liotta in Narc (2003): After a lull in quality projects, Liotta exploded on the screen by playing Henry Oak, a dedicated cop with a reputation for delivering brutal beatings to crooks who cross his path. He brings a ferocious intensity to the role that is mesmerizing. There is a scene where Liotta interrogates two murder suspects that is scary because his anger and frustration levels build by the minute, threatening to boil over. And then Liotta gets that crazed look in his eyes that he’s showcased in so many of his films but this time he’s entering unpredictable territory.
William Forsythe in The Devil's Rejects (2005): After starring in numerous forgettable direct-to-video efforts, William Forsythe finally got a substantial role playing a sheriff hell-bent on vengeance by any means necessary. He harkens back to a bygone era of tough guys, like Lee Marvin or Robert Shaw who naturally exuded a ferocious intensity that is exciting to watch. With his deep, gravelly voice Forsythe plays an unstoppable force of nature that is just as ruthless in his methods as the Firefly clan in theirs. He brings an air of unpredictability in this film that is really something else.
George Clooney in Syriana (2005): It was really tough narrowing down a performance of Clooney's to pick for this list as he turned so many good ones. His performance in this film just narrowly edged out the one he delivered in Michael Clayton. The actor has improved and refined himself with every subsequent role and relies more and more on what is going on behind his eyes than falling back on his good looks. His performance in Syriana goes beyond the obvious Method trappings – the weight gain and the thick beard – to his expressive eyes and how he uses them to convey his character’s world-weariness.
Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac (2007): This actor really immerses himself in the role of Dave Toschi, the man who inspired Steve McQueen’s character in Bullitt and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan. The actor adopts a specific voice and a distinctive look that sets him apart from the other characters but not enough to be distracting. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got great material to work with and rises to the challenge of playing a man frustrated by bureaucracy. Ruffalo has only gotten better with every performance and this may be his best one to date.
Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass (2003): I've been a big fan of this actor's work for some time and he really turned in some memorable performances during this decade, chief among them his turn as beleaguered editor New Republic magazine editor Chuck Lane. Sarsgaard doesn’t deliver any blustery, histrionic speeches and instead keeps things grounded in realism by applying restraint whenever possible. He doesn’t try to make his character inherently sympathetic. In fact, Lane comes off as a bit distant and humorless but he has an integrity that is admirable.