Monday, January 14, 2013

Top 15 Male Performances of 2012

This was a year of fine, eclectic films, and consequently, a year of marvelous and vastly different screen performances. The only further note I want to make is that this list is for the best male performances of 2012, period. Amount of screen time matters none. This is simply the best the men had to offer in ‘12.

15. Richard Gere – Arbitrage
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
as Dan
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
as Dallas
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
as Georges
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
as Anders
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
as Ali
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.


  1. Great list. My favourite of the year is Lavant but I really loved Washington in Flight. He was just spectacular.

    Loved Leo and McConaughey and De Niro as well.

    The Master is going to be something, eh?

    1. Thanks! Wasn't Lavant just a madman? I've never seen anything remotely like that before. So glad you like Denzel in Flight :)

      Have you not seen The Master yet? It most certainly is something. In. Deed.

  2. Great list covering all the key performances of 2012. Although one name I'd throw into the ring is Mark Duplass in Your Sister's Sister. He changed my opinion of him from "that guy in all the mumblecore films" to "that guy who can legitimately act". It's such a human performance, and the scenes in which he is getting drunk with Rosemarie DeWitt are so effortlessly natural.

    1. Thanks man, glad you enjoyed it.

      I agree with you about Duplass in that film. I've honestly never liked him (as an actor or director), but that role really suited him well. Also liked his brief work in ZD30. Good stuff!

    2. I actually watched both Your Sister's Sister and Safety Not Guaranteed the same week when they both came out in theaters and was amazed by how versatile Duplass can be.

    3. I skipped Safety Not Guaranteed because of my slight aversion to Duplass, but I have been meaning to go back and check it out.

    4. Safety is actually one of my favorite comedies of the year and you seem to appreciate small movies and I do think it's a good example of a movie taking an interesting concept and doing alot with it with very little. I will say though that alot of the comedy in the film depends on how much you enjoy the acting styles of Duplass, Plaza, and Johnston so hopefully Duplass will start to warm up on you while watching it.

    5. Definitely going to check it out now, maybe even tonight. You sold me.

  3. Excellent list, Alex. I still need to catch up with a lot of these, but I can't argue with any that I've seen. It's cool to see Daniel Day-Lewis on there given your lukewarm reaction to the movie. Hoffman's performance in The Master was one of my favorites from this year. At first he comes off as totally confident in what he's selling, but the moments you mention show the doubt and anger boiling inside. Only a guy who doesn't completely believe his BS would get that angry about being questioned. It's a fascinating performance.

    1. Nice man, really glad you dig the picks!

      Couldn't agree more about Hoffman, you summed his work up there perfectly. It's that trademarked, PSH intensity that consistently pulls me in. You're right: his anger and frustration boils and builds until its nearly unbearable. Fascinating indeed.

  4. Great post! I am adding Arbitage to my watchlist, based on your praise for Gere's performance. As a totally irrelevant side note, I had a huge celebrity crush on Richard Gere when I was in high school. (The "Officer and a Gentleman" era. Hah!) I agree that his performances are hit or miss.

    1. Didn't EVERY young woman have a crush on Richard Gere ;)

      He's such an inconsistent actor, which can be frustrating, sure, but when he delivers, he just kills it. American Gigolo, Primal Fear, Unfaithful... Arbitrage definitely deserves to be placed among those great performances.

    2. Hmm ... Probably. :-)

      Interesting that you liked his performance in American Gigolo. I don't really remember it. I saw it 30 years ago, and I was only springing for the cost of the ticket because of my prurient interests. ;-)

    3. I really dig that flick. It's a my kind of movie, kind of movie. Focuses on an isolated man in disarray, dark tones, Schrader script. I dig!

    4. Maybe I'll rewatch it someday.

  5. Oh, fantastic choices! Washington is my number 1 of the year too in terms of performances, I didn't love the movie but that hearing sequence totally worked for me and for me it is the most powerful acting moment of 2012 (I have not seen the Master yet).

    My number 2 is De Niro - that moment you mentioned was fantastic but I loved how well he blended the humor in his work - that scene where while wearing slippers and pajamas he chases this kid and then delivers the old school De Niro threats to him was pure gold and I don't think I laughed that hard on any other scene in 2012.

    1. And that's really good to hear. I'm glad that although you didn't enjoy Flight, you were so fond on Denzel's work in it. The Master contains three of the year's very finest performances. All great for such different reasons.

      De Niro, man. That dude broke my heart in the best possible way. I'd love if he nabbed the gold.

  6. My top 5 leading male performances of 2012 are:

    1. Denis Lavant-Holy Motors
    2. Mathias Schoenaerts-Rust and Bone
    3. Jean-Louis Trintignant-Amour
    4. Joaquin Phoenix-The Master
    5. Jamie Foxx-Django Unchained


    1. Christoph Waltz-Django Unchained
    2. Leonardo DiCaprio-Django Unchained
    3. Jason Clarke-Zero Dark Thirty
    4. Philip Seymour Hoffman-The Master
    5. Robert de Niro-Silver Linings Playbook

    1. Ha, Jesus. Look how many similarities we have. Foxx would definitely be in my Top 20 combined, so we're pretty spot on. Obviously, I think all of your choices are great. Thanks for sharing!

  7. For me my top ten would have to be:

    1. Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
    2. Leonardo Dicaprio - Django Unchained
    3. Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
    4. Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings
    5. Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
    6. Jason Clarke - Zero Dark Thirty
    7. Jamie Foxx - Django
    8. Jack Black - Bernie
    9. De Niro - Silver Linings
    10. Ezra Miller - The Perks of Being a Wallflower

    I was a fan of Denzel's work in Flight but certainly not the same extent as you. It wasn't really a "great" performance in my mind. I feel like he was definitely out-performed by Foxx and Black and would've loved to see either of them get a nomination even though that was extremely unlikely. Of course that's just my opinion and the minority opinion as well. All in all it was great year for acting. Great write up. I've got another 8 films to add to my watchlist thanks to you.

    1. Awesome picks man, love that we have so many in common. I get what you're saying about Denzel but yeah, obviously I flipped over his work there. Always a pleasure to add flicks to your watchlist!!

  8. Denis Lavant is superb!! I was so excited when I knew he was going to be in Holy Motors, cause I'd just seen him for the first time in Beau Travail. Also, not enough people have seen Oslo, 31 August!

    I can't wait to see Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook!! Great list Alex!!!!

    1. Lavant is superb. In. Deed. And yes, more people definitely need to see Oslo... whatta film.

      Thanks for reading, Ruth! Glad you liked the list!

  9. I haven't made a list yet but I think we'll have quite a few commons if I do. Loved Washington despite my reservations, Lavant just killed it - probably my favourite, Anders Danielsen Lee, Trintignant, Phoenix, Waltz - All great choices. However, I am more happy to see Hoffman and Gere make the list. I loved both the performances but hardly anybody talks about them any more.

    1. Nice man, really glad you dig the choices. I think it's cool that Hoffman has received some recognition, but Gere... damn man. Nothing. Real shame.

  10. Fine picks as usual. Glad to see Schoenaerts so high and McConaughey on here twice. Early next week I'll post my personal ballot, but you've listed 4 of my Best Actor nominees. :)

    1. Nice! Four outta five ain't bad, my friend. It was a battle of Schoenaerts vs. Denzel for the top spot, but either way, their respective work just crushed me this year.

  11. Great picks indeed, especially De Niro's being so high. A hell of a comeback.
    But no Bradley? (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻)

    1. De Niro just reaaally rocked that role, didn't he?

      And hey man, it was a great year for acting. Loved the hell out of Bradley's work. Even though he isn't here, I adored what he did in SLP.

  12. Haven't seen Flight/ZD30/SLP in Aus yet (all are being released on the same day - busy week coming up from 31st Jan!), nor have we got Django or Lincoln, so most of these I'm still to see.

    Any love for Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in End of Watch? They'd almost have to be put in under the one entry, so connected were they. Vastly underrated and underseen.

    1. No lie, Peña was number 17. I really wanted to include him here, both of them actually. They were both remarkable. And damn man, you have some damn fine flicks coming your way!

  13. I loved Jason Clarke in ZDT, so glad you included him!!!

    1. Hell yeah! He was so fierce yet blasé. Really exciting stuff.

  14. My Top 5:
    1a). Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
    1b). Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
    3). Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln
    4). Michael Fassbender in Prometheus
    5). Dwight Henry in Beasts of Southern Wild
    Love all the picks here on your list, just I think the dynamic between Hoffman and Phoenix is unlike anything I've ever seen. Who really is 'The Master' in the end?

    1. Fantastic picks. The combative emotion between Hoffman and Phoenix was the best part about that movie to me. Who is The Master, indeed.

      Also, love seeing Fass on your list. Really wanted to include him. Love his work in that.

  15. You make me want to see Flight even more. Surprised to see Matthias Schoenaerts, but I get your appraisal to him. He was indeed animalistic and was more into physics rather than emotional. I guess his turning point might've not drastic, but pretty significant.

    1. I highly recommend Flight. Many do not, but damn, Washington just killed it in that movie. Schoenaerts blew my mind in Rust and Bone. That scene with the ice? I mean... wow.

  16. Wow, bit of a shocker to see Daniel Day-Lewis ranked so low, but I can't argue about any of your choices. Denzel was amazing in Flight, ditto with Joaquin in The Master. Also really happy to see Anders Danielsen Lie recognized -- I would love to see him take on more roles.

    1. Yeah man, nothing at all against DDL, but there were just a handful of other performances that hit me harder this year. Lie is just so good. So so good.

  17. I have to watch Oslo, August 31st! There's been so much love thrown its way on these year-end lists.
    When it comes to the performances out of Django Unchained, I'd rate that of Christoph Waltz as the best no doubt, closely followed by the underrated Samuel L. Jackson and then that by Leo DiCaprio.

    PS. It's nice to see Robert De Niro back on these kind of lists after many years playing forgettable characters in very weak films.

    1. My man, Oslo is so very good. I was late to it as well, but really happy when I finally sat down and watched it. Just a fantastic little movie.

      Those trio of performances in Django were amazing. And I agree, damn nice to see De Niro back in the game.