Highlighting those overlooked performances from 2008 that deserved greater accolades.
The Last Mistress
Set in 19th Century France, Catherine Breillat’s film is not about love — it’s about addiction. Because as played by Argento, Spanish seductress Vellini is not a romantic heroine but a creature of obsessive need and hunger. The actress shows ferocious commitment in a performance that ventures into some of the ugliest realms of human desire. She is frequently nude, but it is her emotional nakedness that distinguishes her.
KATE BECKINSALE & SAM ROCKWELL
As Annie and Glenn Marchand, Beckinsale and Rockwell inhabit an estranged marriage with great attention to detail, from the frazzled disappointment in her voice to the desperate fumbling of his religious faith — he’s going through the motions in the hopes that things will get better, and, well, so is she. A terrible event shakes them to their core, and the actors bravely follow their characters down a dark, dark path that is chilling in how inevitable it all seems.
High school drama teacher Dana Marschz, he of the unpronounceable name and indefatigable enthusiasm, is at the heart of a ribald film that threatens at every moment to spin out of control, but Coogan anchors it with a performance of such giddy comic abandon and unflagging sincerity that we come to admire him and root for him, no matter how ill-conceived his endeavor.
With tremendous urgency, Driver plays Ana, but really she plays a dual role: the Ana before her son’s death, a lioness who fiercely defends her developmentally challenged child, and the Ana after, cold, cynical, and subdued as she travels to confront his killer. As the film cuts between the two time periods, she poignantly expresses the deep-seated anger and anguish of her struggle to reconcile her past with her present, in the hope of clearing a way to the future.
The best scenes of the film are the ones in which Marsan spars with Sally Hawkins’s unflappable Poppy. He plays driving instructor Scott, the yin to her yang, who is as hopeless about the world as Poppy is hopeful. Their conflict culminates in one of the best acted scenes of the year, in which Marsan reveals Scott’s wounded soul. His cynicism, we see, is not a stubborn choice, but the result of a long-suffered pain.
Mortimer’s placid, angelic face is the ultimate misdirection of Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian. She plays Jessie, a good-girl Christian missionary who conceals some sinister bad-girl inclinations. The actress’s performance is cagey, suggesting an inner wickedness, and she revels in Jessie’s dark, ambiguous psychology. We’re never quite sure whether the angel or the devil on her shoulder will prevail.
LEE PACE & CATINCA UNTARU
The Fall would be just a pretty picture if Pace and Untaru weren’t able to bring such emotional resonance to it. As a depressive Hollywood stuntman and an injured fruit-picker, respectively, Pace and Untaru develop a natural rapport through heavily improvised scenes, creating a friendship that is at first based on deception but eventually turns towards redemption.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Segel’s performance as sad-sack Peter Bretter, a composer recently dumped by his TV-star girlfriend (Kristen Bell), is uncommonly endearing in the current comedy climate, which favors mean-spiritedness, but it’s his screenplay for the film that deserves special notice. Attentive to character instead of to formula, he has written the funniest and most emotionally true film to come out of the Judd Apatow factory since The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
The Edge of Heaven
We don’t notice her at first as Susanne (pictured, left), a disapproving German mother whose daughter has taken an immigrant lover, but in the third act she becomes key to the film’s themes of culture shock, grief, and compassion. When she meets a man connected to her daughter he tells her, “You’re the saddest person here.” We recognize it too, but there is also a tremendous warmth in her that rises to the surface when we least expect it, and it fills us with hope.
Mitchell Lichtenstein’s graphic satire doesn’t quite live up to its lead performance, but Weixler, as Dawn O’Keefe, a devout Christian horrified to discover that she is afflicted with vagina dentata (“toothed vagina”), gets to the heart of the primal sexual anxiety of adolescence. Addressing an abstinence group after discovering her condition, we see in her wide, disoriented eyes the mortal terror of standing under the light of God’s judgment.
Wendy and Lucy
We know that Wendy is traveling from Indiana to Alaska to find a job to support her and her dog Lucy. We don’t know what she’s running from or why she’s placed all her hopes on the distant north, but in this small-scale drama we see her tenacity. Williams gives a mostly internal performance that nevertheless conveys the toughness of living hand-to-mouth. The only breach in her resolve comes when she makes a crucial decision about her dog, who I suspect is the only creature in the world she loves with her whole heart.