As I set out to consider film’s unsung heroes of 2009, I look across lists of honored film achievements from the previous calendar year and ask myself, were any of 2009’s heroes sung? As I noted when listing my favorite films of 2009, I think the Academy largely missed the mark, choosing a lot of respectable films and performances at the expense of outstanding ones. Consider, for instance, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, splendid actors both, nominated for their serviceable performances in the rugby-cures-racism drama Invictus, but in the case of Damon, it wasn’t even his better performance that year.
A couple of months before came Steven Soderbergh’s terrifically tricky comedy The Informant!, in which Matt Damon plays essentially two roles: Mark Whitacre, a buffoonish corporate whistle-blower who is in over his head, and Mark Whitacre, a mysterious personality whose American-dream idealism may be a lie he tells himself. He’s so convincing as the buffoon that we’re taken aback when he starts to unravel. It’s a study in duality.
The Best Actor field was crowded by solid performances in mostly conventional vehicles: winner Jeff Bridges as the hard-drinking musician in Crazy Heart, Colin Firth as a suicidal English professor in A Single Man, George Clooney as a playboy who learns to love in Up in the Air, and Freeman in the category’s requisite biopic. Jeremy Renner was loved by critics for his work in The Hurt Locker, and his inclusion amongst bigger-name celebrities was genuinely refreshing, but I was more taken with his work the previous year as a repentant prison inmate in the little-seen (and sadly much less admired) drama Take.
I count no fewer than nine lead actors who made a stronger impression on me but received little or no recognition on the awards circuit. In addition to Damon, there was Patton Oswalt, making an exceptional venture into dramatic acting in Robert D. Siegel’s Big Fan, playing a man so devoted to sports that he’ll sacrifice his dignity. Watch him during late scenes in a Philadelphia sports bar where his anger and resentment threaten to boil over, generating remarkable tension.
Souleymane Sy Savane and Red West are the central figures in Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, and I don’t think there were two more expressive faces in film last year. As a brightly smiling cab driver and a suicidal old man, respectively, they play opposites, but speak with equal eloquence even when there’s no dialogue.
Michael Sheen was electrifying in my 2009 sports biopic of choice, The Damned United, playing blustery football coach Brian Clough as a charismatic tragic hero with pride run amok. An even more outsize performance was given by Nicolas Cage — whose specialty is outsize performances — in the strange, strange film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, in which director Werner Herzog played up Cage’s rabid energy with often mesmerizing results.
Sam Rockwell performs an impressive one-man show as two characters in the science-fiction film Moon, showing the cabin-fever strain of an isolated research installation while plumbing the angst of lost identity. Rockwell also made my list last year for his great work in David Gordon Green’s tragic Snow Angels and is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most underrated stars.
There may be no better young actor working than Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has proven it in the challenging indie dramas Mysterious Skin and The Lookout and last year did it again as the lovesick leading man of (500) Days of Summer, playing an offbeat romantic hero with a core of plaintive reflection.
Joaquin Phoenix’s possibly-faux nervous breakdown last year distracted from one of the best performances of the year, as a man almost childlike in his naivete but fully adult in his longing in James Gray’s poignant drama Two Lovers. From the same film came another unrecognized performance — by Isabella Rossellini, who as Phoenix’s mother has probably the smallest role on my list but plays it so perfectly — tender, knowing, compassionate — that she elevates every scene.
Sandra Bullock won the Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side. How that came to pass I will continue to work out in long, sad sessions with a therapist. Especially bothersome is that she prevailed in a race where Tilda Swinton wasn’t even in the conversation. As an alcoholic kidnapper in Julia, she blazes across the screen for two-and-a-half-hours of high-stakes greed. Swinton is one of the most ferociously committed actors working; you can’t take your eyes off her in this film.
Certainly the same is true of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who gave an astonishingly brave performance in a film I consider otherwise loathsome: Antichrist, Lars von Trier’s sadistic exercise in self-important snuff. As a mother who loses a child and goes off the deep end — the kind of deep end that makes Swinton’s Julia look like a kiddie pool — she throws herself wholeheartedly into the filmmaker’s vile spectacle. To call her unsung is a bit of a misnomer: she was well recognized in Europe, winning Best Actress at Cannes among other prizes, but the performance gained no traction stateside. I’m ambivalent, however; if there were a way to appreciate her performance without suffering the film, I would recommend it, but there isn’t, so I can’t.
Yolande Moreau was also honored in Europe, in addition to winning top acting prizes in the US from the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. But not many Americans are familiar with her lauded work in the biopic Séraphine. Nor was I until I saw it last month. She plays Séraphine Louis, a French artist working during the First World War and the Great Depression. What first seems like eccentricity masks a deteriorating mental state.
No one tops Peter Capaldi for foul-mouthed venom. His film, In the Loop, earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, proving it was (just barely) on the Academy’s radar, but somehow they missed the actor’s razor-sharp, no-holds–barred take on political bureaucracy. Previously an Oscar-winner for directing the short-film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Capaldi sunk his teeth into the role of Malcolm Tucker, who goes toe-to-toe with the formidable James Gandolfini and comes out his equal.
I love what Alycia Delmore does in the comedy Humpday, in which the dialogue was improvised by the actors. She takes an outlandish premise — playing the wife of a man who wants to make gay porn with his best friend — and gives it a dose of reality. Late in the film comes a scene where she puts all her cards on the table, and her unvarnished honesty adds a dimension of emotional truth to the film’s ribaldry.
A similarly grounding presence, Maya Rudolph, one of the biggest talents to come out of Saturday Night Live in the last ten years, plays the expectant mother in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go, an uneven film filled with overbearing personalities. Listen to her describe her childhood home; Mendes should have aimed for that level of subtle emotion throughout his film.
While Christoph Waltz snagged all the accolades for Inglourious Basterds, a performance equally important to that film was mostly overlooked. As a Jewish fugitive evading Nazis in occupied France, Mélanie Laurent is a worthy addition to Quentin Tarantino’s growing list of strong-willed heroines, following Jackie Brown, the Bride, and the women of Death Proof. Cunning and fierce, she turns victimhood into steely vengeance.
There are surely great performances and films I’ve missed, though I’ve included more on this list than ever before. Below are clips of some of the best performances you may not have seen.
PETER CAPALDI, “IN THE LOOP”
TILDA SWINTON, “JULIA”
NICOLAS CAGE, “BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS”
ALYCIA DELMORE, “HUMPDAY”
PATTON OSWALT, “BIG FAN”
JOAQUIN PHOENIX AND ISABELLA ROSSELLINI, “TWO LOVERS”
MICHAEL SHEEN, “THE DAMNED UNITED”