Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Favorite Performances of the Decade: The Actors

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.


  1. Great list. Liotta in Narc and Forsythe in Rejects are two of my favorites. Hope you're having a fantastic week. Cheers!

  2. Wow. Interesting choices... not some people I would immediately think of. I forgot about Riding in Cars... he was pretty good in that.

  3. Keith:

    Thanks, Keith! Yeah, both of those guys were really amazing in their respective films. Both of 'em don't get nearly the amount of decent roles they deserve.


    Thanks! Yeah, I tried to pick some left of center choices and performances that wowed me over the years for various reasons.

    As for Zahn in RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS... it's a performance that a lot of people forgot about as the film didn't do that well but he was really good and deserved more accolades for that one. I've always been a fan of his and it was great to see him go out of his comfort zone and really rise to the challenge.

  4. Great List. Good call on Liotta in Narc...I always liked that movie. Also, I love that you have Sarsgaard on there for Shattered Glass. You're right-on about how he doesn't deliver any histrionic speeches, yet what makes the performance is so brilliant at showing you how crazy Glass' antics are making Lane, and that at any time he's going to go off on the fragile Glass (pardon the pun).

    There are too many performances to mention, but I may have to do something like this over on my blog. Off the top of my head (and not repeating any of your choices):

    Nicolas Cage, The Weather Man

    Jason Segal, Forgetting Sarah Marshall

    Chris Cooper, Breach

    Benicio Del Torro, Traffic

    Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

    Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me

    Thomas Haden Church, Sideways

    Philip Seymour Hoffman, Punch-Drunk Love

    Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus

    Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

    David Carradine, Kill Bill

    Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain

    Collin Ferrel, In Bruges

    I don't know...I'm sure there's more. Great stuff, J.D.

  5. You've posted some excellent picks, J.D. Right off the bat you had me with Adam Beach. Why he wasn't recognized for this haunting role still has me more than sore. All of these are great calls (even the ones I haven't seen, but I'm going to fix that). Love Zahn's work, too (he's so good in Rescue Dawn and Out of Sight, as well). And Forsythe is just a chameleon-like actor! So different is this cop (Devil's Rejects) to the one in THE ROCK (so on with his other roles). Clooney just get better and better (just go see Up in the Air). Great stuff, J.D.

  6. Hoffmann is a hot choice in whatever he does, but I am always brought back to CAPOTE, even if the Oscar he won for it inevitably created somewhat of an artistic backlash. Kevin brings quite a bit to the table there, so I'll add just a few more, led by Bruno Ganz in DOWNFALL, Danirl-Day Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, James McAvoy in ATONEMENT, Marcell Nagy in FATELESS, Hugh Jackman in THE FOUNTAIN, Issei Ogata in Sokurov's THE SUN, Jim Carrey in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF A SPOTLESS MIND, Haley Joel Osment in A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. But there are more.

  7. A fine list. And one that's got me thinking. As if I didn't have enough to do...

  8. Kevin J. Olson:

    Good to see another fan of SHATTERED GLASS. I'm a sucker for journalism movies and this is one of the best. It was really hard picking just on Sarsgaard performance but this one is a keeper.

    I like your list and you really should post it on your blog! In particular, I liked your inclusion of Jason Segal - I just caught up with FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it - Chris Cooper in BREACH (great choice!) and, of course, Benicio Del Toro in TRAFFIC. I almost put that on my list and am now kinda regretting that I didn't. He was so good in that film and maybe even better in CHE.


    Good to see we are in agreement regarding Beach in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. I thought he was so good in that film and really stole the film away from the other 2 leads.

    Good to see more love for Zahn and I couldn't agree with more with his work in RESCUE DAWN and OUT OF SIGHT. He's also quite good in this little-seen indie film FREAK TALKS ABOUT SEX which I hope to write about some day.

    And yes, I must see UP IN THE AIR. It is definitely on my list to see during the holidays. That, and Terry Gilliam's new film.

    Sam Juliano:

    The problem I had with Hoffman in CAPOTE is that I saw it after all the hype had been built up and he won all the awards so it was kind of a let down. He was brilliant in it but it wasn't one of my faves of his

    I almost put Daniel Day-Lewis on the list but I figured that his performance (as amazing as it is) has been praised and written about enough. Nice inclusion of Hugh Jackman in THE FOUNTAIN. He was excellent in that film. Man, I really need to watch that one again.

    Mark Salisbury:

    Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  9. Haven’t seen all you mention but there are good choices here. A couple I remember and would include

    Chris Cooper in Breach

    Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

    Albert Finny in The Devil Knows Your Dead

    Ethan Hawke in The Devil Knows Your Dead

    Robert Downy Jr. in Zodiac

    Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me

    Jack Nicholson in The Departed

    Stanley Tucci in Joe Gould’s Secret

    ….an many others

  10. Great, great list JD and thanks so much for the shout out! I love how we have some of the same actors on our lists but in different roles, a real tribute to their talents...and how I wish I hadn't left out Zahn, Forsythe, Giamotti and Hoffman.
    Can't wait to see your actresses.

  11. Interesting list. Nice to see some choices other than the usual Oscar-y picks. I definitely agree with Ruffalo in Zodiac, though you could throw a rock and hit a note-perfect performance in that film. Glad to see Sam mention Osment in A.I.: I never bought The Sixth Sense but it's a shame that he'll be remembered for that "dead people" line and not one of the all-time great performance by a young actor. He hit all the right notes in a role that required him to hit a number of them.

    And, while this is a new performance and, moreover, obvious, I think Christoph Waltz's performance in Inglourious Basterds was absolutely phenomenal and glued together both the surface-level thrill of the movie and its deeper statements. I also loved Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker and (going back a bit) Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, and Shareeka Epps would easily make my list of best performances by an actress.

    I'd also give a shout-out to actors who seemed to be good in everything: Mathieu Amalric, Gael Garcia Bernal, Sam Rockwell (oh Sam, how I love you).

  12. A very idiosyncratic list, and I mean that as a compliment.

    I would add Nicolas Cage in BAD LIEUTENANT and Benicio Del Toro in both parts of CHE.

  13. John:

    Some fascinating choices! I haven't seen THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD yet and your picks of Finney and Hawke remind me that I need to track this one down. Good call on Nicholson in THE DEPARTED. Man, was he the personification of evil in that one. So good.

    Jeremy Richey:

    Thanks for the kind words, my friend! I love seeing other people's lists. It reminds me of other performances that I either forgot about or have yet to see and must do so.


    You're right about ZODIAC. Such a uniformly great cast - easily one of the strongest of the decade.

    You make a good point about Osment. I wasn't really a fan of A.I. but he was very, very good in that film.

    Alas, I have not see INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS yet but I've heard that Waltz is something else and it looks like he might get an Oscar nod out of it. I also really, really want to see THE HURT LOCKER. I've heard that Renner is really great in it. Plus, I love Kathryn Bigelow's films (well, except for the sub movie with Harrison Ford).

    I thought about putting Gosling on there for either HALF NELSON or THE SLAUGHTER RULE. He just missed the cut but now I'm thinking I should've had him on there. D'oh!

    Tony Dayoub:

    Thanks for the kind words. I really feel bad that I didn't put Del Toro on there... either for TRAFFIC or CHE. Man, he was so good in both films. I still have yet to see Cage in BAD LT. It's on the list of films to see...

  14. Another fantastic list. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Javier Bardem are five of my six favourite actors of the decade. Paul Schneider being the sixth. I thought he was great in Elizabethtown, All the Real Girls, Bright Star and Lars and the Real Girl

  15. filmgeek:

    I like Paul Schneider as well. He can bring a lot to a throwaway role - case in point: THE FAMILY STONE. Small role but he makes the most of the limited screen time he has. Good call!

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