as Robert Miller
I go back and forth with Richard Gere. Then, now, and always. He hits and he misses, and so it goes. Noting that, his role as a temporarily morally void billionaire in Arbitrage marks a career highlight. He played Miller as desperate, conniving, caring, commanding and helpless, often all at the same time. An at-times-subtle, other-times-ferocious performance.
14. Jason Clarke – Zero Dark Thirty
A practice that frequently terrifies me in films is apathy. Hannibal Lecter looks about as interested reading a book as he does cutting the face off cops. Real-life priest Oliver O’Grady (from the documentary Deliver Us From Evil) talks about molesting children with the demeanor that you or I might discuss the weather, and Dan from Zero Dark Thirty tortures people for information in a way that would not be dissimilar to him taking out the garbage. It’s the routineness of these men that gets me. Is Dan a bad guy? Hell, I don’t know. From his perspective, he’s working a job and collecting a check. Whether he’s waterboarding or occupying a cubicle, it’s all part of the game.
13. Matthew McConaughey – Killer Joe
as Joe Cooper
Let’s just focus on that scene. If you’ve seen William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, you know exactly what I’m referring to, if you haven’t, then, well, you probably might anyway. When Killer Joe Cooper sits down at the Smith’s shitty dinner table, he sits with an agenda, but an incomplete one. Slowly, methodically, deviously, he focuses his attention on Sharla (a fearless Gina Gershon) and begins to sneakily interrogate her. Now, if you pay attention, it’s clear that Joe doesn’t actually know the answers to his questions. He’s waiting for Sharla to slip up and stumble over her lies. Which she does. Once. Oops.
12. Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
as Lancaster Dodd
I’m quite taken with the art of the spin. The notion of watching and listening to someone blow smoke up your ass so profoundly, that they actually start to believe in the bullshit they’re selling. That, to me, was Lancaster Dodd. Does Dodd trust that his Cause is actually The Way? I’m not sure. What I am convinced of is that, under the steely guise of Hoffman, this Master is executed to thrillingly hypocritical results. Two scenes sum this notion up beautifully, first when a rather articulate party guest publicly questions the illogicality of The Cause, and second when Laura Dern attempts the same feat, albeit more privately. Witnessing Hoffman’s evolving, eventually volcanic reaction in these scenes is what makes this performance one of the year’s best.
11. Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
as Pat Sr. Solitano
Playing the ludicrously superstitious patriarch of a ludicrously outlandish family, De Niro proved that with the right material, and the proper actors to work off of, greatness is still possible. Take the brief, impossibly tender scene in which Pat sits on the edge of his son’s bed, explaining how and why he’d like to be a father again. I sat in genuine awe of that moment. And when the scene concluded, I told myself that my God, the man’s still got it. It’s far too early to accurately call it, but from where I’m sitting, Mr. De Niro, your Oscar is waiting.
10. Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
as Abraham Lincoln
I took a lot of heat for not considering Lincoln to be the masterwork that many others did. But, as is often the case, a movie is one thing, and the performances within that movie are something else entirely. And save a few exceptions, I found the acting in Lincoln to be universally superb. Day-Lewis is the film’s anchor, and he carries it along dutifully. Day-Lewis set out to do the impossible; he aimed to convey the most famous American president of all time with the actor’s unique dedication and anticipated intensity. Mission accomplished.
9. Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike
Yeah, I thought about combining McConaughey’s two performances on this list as a means of freeing up a space, but that didn’t seem fair. The most hilarious, arrogant, and foolishly self-assured film character of the year deserves its own specific mention. I literally loved everything that came out of McConaughey’s country-accented mouth in this film. From “…Can you touch thiiiis?” to his riotously conceited speech on a sand bar, lamenting the pointlessness of a child’s formal education. He gives that grand speech sitting in a crappy beach chair, drinking booze from a giant, silver cauldron… now tell me, who the hell else could pull that off?
8. Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained
as Calvin J. Candie
No matter the level of fame or seriousness of previous roles, if Quentin Tarantino specifically courts an actor for a role, he knows damn well what he’s doing. Whether it’s Travolta, Grier, Carradine, Pitt – if you trust in the mad genius, brilliance can be achieved. Point is: Calvin Candie is in no way a character we’d expect Leonardo DiCaprio to play, and I honestly don’t know what propelled QT to think otherwise. Thank God he did, because what DiCaprio brings to the film is one of Tarantino’s most memorable and psychotic characters yet. The extended dinner sequence alone should’ve earned DiCaprio a spot with the other Oscar nominees this year, but alas, there is only the dedicated, thrilled audience to marvel at his work.
7. Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour
When we meet him, it’s clear that Georges’ general irritability has dominated his life and marriage for decades. His wife, Anne, understands his plight, so instead of chastising him, the two just go about their lives. But after Anne suffers a debilitating stroke, Georges is bound to step up as a man and turn his coldness into steadfast determination, right? Isn’t that what the majority of similar-themed American films dictate? Possibly, but Michael Haneke isn’t interested in doing things their way. His focus rests on pain and suffering, human indignity and isolation. A former master of the French New Wave, Trintignant was specifically sought by Haneke for the role of Georges. Thankfully for us, he happily obliged.
6. Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained
as Dr. King Schultz
Much like Jamie Foxx’s work in the film, much of Waltz’s performance in Django Unchained is an act. He’s pretending in order to succeed. So, when we initially watch his mildly dismayed reaction to a slave being mauled to death by dogs, we don’t think much of it. But later, some ill-timed Beethoven coupled with a bit of skillful editing, makes us think otherwise. The jig is the jig, so long as you can play the part, which Schultz does convincingly. Until, that is, the jig appears to be up.
5. Anders Danielsen Lie – Oslo, August 31st
Shortly after meeting Anders, we watch as he pathetically attempts to commit suicide by drowning himself. He emerges from the cold waters a new man, determined to keep his crippling heroin addiction at bay. Reality soon sets in, and the remainder of Oslo, August 31st depicts a remorseless disease slowly consuming our hero. I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the fact that Anders Danielsen Lie is in every scene of this film, and somehow makes his work more engaging as the picture progresses, or that Lie is a doctor in real life and merely supplements his income with impeccable performances like this one. That’s one talented son of a bitch right there.
4. Denis Lavant – Holy Motors
as Monsieur Oscar
I talk often about the duality of some tremendous acting performances. I firmly believe, for example, that Denzel Washington plays three different characters in Malcolm X, all to varying effectiveness for completely different reasons. The definition of such a notion can be encapsulated in Lavant’s work in Holy Motors. Playing no less than 11 characters, the exercise of the film was to have Lavant play an entirely different person in each passing scene. The result is a set of thrilling, heartbreaking, terrifying, and utterly mystifying performance(s). If you were able to buy into what director Leos Carax was selling with his confounding film, then much of that is undoubtedly credited to Denis Lavant.
3. Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
as Freddie Quell
Just as he knew Daniel Day-Lewis to be the only man to inhabit Daniel Plainview, Paul Thomas Anderson knew exactly what he was doing when he full court pressed Joaquin Phoenix to take on Freddie Quell. The result is the very finest acting Joaquin Phoenix has ever done. Freddie is a shell of a man, fueled by kitchen sink moonshine and love lost. To pick just one scene to highlight the entirety of this performance would be futile at best. The initial Processing scene, the jailhouse rage, the department store outburst – every word spoken and facial expression grimaced is done with utter conviction. It’s the work of a real, well, you know, master.
2. Matthias Schoenaerts – Rust and Bone
By this point, I have sung the praises of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone as loudly and proudly as I can. Where I’ve possibly faulted is in focusing the majority of my adulation on Marion Cotillard’s work in the film. Her performance as Stéphanie is flawless (as ever), but Matthias Schoenaerts’ animalistic depiction of Ali deserves just as much esteem. I use the word animalistic deliberately, for that is precisely what Ali is. He hunts for money to protect himself first, and his child second. He fucks women on instinct, nearly void of pleasure. He fights, he barks and bellows – he’s a man so engulfed with his selfishness, that it’s nearly impossible for the viewer to become taken with him. Nearly. The fact that I came to respect, appreciate, and long for Ali is thanks chiefly to Schoenaerts’ faultless performance. A performance that is epitomized by a scene involving a man violently motivated to get break through a thick slab of ice. From animalistic loner to merciful man, that’s as fine an evolution as I’ve seen all year.
1. Denzel Washington – Flight
as Whip Whitaker
Whip Whitaker is a man lost. Lost in substances, regret, anguish – he’s a man who, when forced to examine his life under a microscope (simply because the entire country is as well), is mortified by what he finds. Self-help is practiced, but quickly ignored. Subtle interventions are made, and absently regarded. In short, Denzel Washington conveys an addict at his most desperate, to what I will always consider devastating and perfect results.
Yes, Flight has its main character do things we’ve all seen before: the long, studied pause before going off the wagon (again), the blackout night propelled by old memories captured on videotape, the apologies, the anger – it’s all here, sure, but presented in a way I frankly didn’t think Denzel Washington was (still) capable of. I’ve spent this entire time focusing on the addiction drama of Washington’s performance, but that’s really only one aspect of it. Playing drunk (whether happy or vengeful) is one thing, playing desperation and constant heartbreak is another. All of these notions, as executed by one of the finest commanders of the craft, are summed up perfectly in an extended sequence in which Whip is asked to testify before a committee. Some people (hell, many people) didn’t buy the result of that sequence. Me? I found it to be the most honest, gut wrenching, and moving sequence of the year. The man’s still got it, and I humbly stand in awe.