Near the end of February there will be four gold-plated statues handed out that purport to recognize the four best performances of the last year in film, and already we know that’s not going to be the case. Whether or not your favorite people win the Oscar, everybody knows that any given year has dozens of other worthy performances, whether they’re the also-ran nominees or names that never even came close to awards consideration. 2010, as tough a year as it may have been for movies in general, has been no exception; actors we’ve loved for decades have turned in some of the best performance of their careers, people who were always background players jumped up and took the spotlight, and names and faces we never heard of came out of nowhere to blow us away. Whether they were in the year’s best movie or the only good part of an otherwise disastrous film, there were tons of actors and actresses out there knocking our socks off this year.
While we’d love to write about the merits of every single one of our favorites, we instead picked 10, each actor or actress someone we felt passionately deserved some recognition on this last day of the year. From a tattooed computer hacker to an Internet billionaire, from a stuttering king to a high school girl with a bad reputation, every one of these people created indelible characters that wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable without them. Check out our picks below, and nominate your own favorites in the comments.
Colin Firth as King George VI (“Bertie”), The King’s Speech
The look in Bertie’s eyes every time he’s about to stammer is every bit as haunting as a horror film’s best terrors. A combination of disappointment in himself, anger at his impediment and fear of what others may think, those eyes window to a divided soul. On the surface he desperately wants his brother to remain King, but somewhere within the dark, unspoken nethercorners, he knows he can’t let him continue on like that. England deserves more than that. As an audience, we couldn’t possibly ask for anything more. So good is Colin Firth in this film that he never once seems to really go for it. Yes, there are scenes where he swears the disorder out, stretches it out, even dances it out, but all feel realistic and honest. Even the King of England needs to entertain his children with a bedtime story if they ask, and as Colin Firth stammers his way through, he earns his Academy Award explaining why penguins have wings but can’t fly. Children don’t care what impediments you have, they just want to hear the end of the story.
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network
Mark Zuckerberg being an introspective and inarticulate type, this is a performance that’s all about inaction-- Mark refusing to smile when everyone else does, Mark rolling his eyes ever so slightly when he should be saying “Yes, sir.” And then when his face breaks, it’s like an explosion-- smiling slightly when Eduardo agrees to come back to California, frowning deeply when he’s dumped and doesn’t understand why. Eisenberg manages the miracle of masking his expressive face behind a stony wall of mathematic formulas and cold, hard business sense, but turning Zuckerberg-- a lightning rod of a real person, and someone seemingly impossible to truly know-- into a sympathetic anti-hero. With none of the familiar crutches for actors trying to relate to the audience, Eisenberg makes us feel for Mark whether we like it or not.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
There’s a long history of weak and helpless female characters in film, but Noomi Rapace, playing the goth hacker known as Lisbeth Salander, spits in all of their faces. An immensely complicated character with a disturbing past, there’s isn’t a single aspect of Salander that Rapace doesn’t absolutely nail, bringing the character to life from Stieg Larsson’s novels. It’s a fearless performance, staying calm and stable on the inside, while a storm of brewing emotion grows to the boiling point within. Accessing every aspect of the character, from her quiet nature to her violent side, Rapace was simply perfect casting. Next year we will see Rooney Mara take on the same character in David Fincher’s English language adaptation of the first novel in the Millennium Trilogy, and while the new film isn’t a remake, there won’t be a single audience member that doesn’t compare Mara’s performance to Rapace’s – it’s an incredibly high bar to reach.
Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, True Grit
Swaddled in an impressive bushy mustache, yards of suede fringe and some everpresent clinking spurs, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf is a comic figure from the moment he appears in Mattie Ross’s boarding house room-- as Mattie dismisses him, “We don’t have rodeo clowns in Yell County.” But as funny as LaBoeuf is, with his anecdotes about rough life on the Texas prairie and endless taunts for Rooster Cogburn, he evolves into a prattish, motormouthed hero, always there in a tough moment, and ready to recognize Mattie as his equal once she’s earned her stripes. He does some terrible things-- hinting at raping Mattie and whipping her being the chief crimes-- but also some truly selfless ones, and Damon gives him a humanity that makes his transition from angry twit to flawed hero a believable, thrilling thing to watch. He’s been funnier and more dramatically impressive, but rarely at the same time, and never at the service of a character who seems so impossible on the surface.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, True Grit
Since True Grit came out on December 22, theater goers attending the newest Coen brothers film have exited with only one question on their minds: who the hell is Hailee Steinfeld? The end result of a country-wide search, beating out thousands of candidates aching to play Mattie Ross is the newest adaptation of Charles Portis’ most famous novel, it’s obvious why she was she was chosen. Never tripping over the contraction-less dialogue and holding her own on screen with Oscar winners and nominees such as Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, Steinfeld is the highlight of a spectacular film with thousands of other incredible aspects. With more self-possession than most adults, the young actress displays an awesome assertiveness that allows her to dominate absolutely anyone who stands in her way. There’s something magical about watching a fourteen year-old-girl outsmart a full grown man that just makes you smile.
Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund, The Fighter
In a career of brilliant performances, Christian Bale’s Dicky Eklund is the best we’ve seen. With a deformed confidence only the pipe can give you, he jumps out second story windows and haphazardly coaxes his brother into an unthinkably bad career decision, smiling and make-believing integrity while he contemplates his next fix. That’s half of Christian Bale’s role in The Fighter. The other half might even be better. Nervous and out of his element, Dicky emerges from prison without his edge. Getting sober may have made him a better, more reliable person, but now he’s also exposed. A lesser actor would have played him as more likable here. Not Bale. He knows the overall story arc will vindicate Dicky. The crack addict is smooth-talking and energetic, the recovering addict is a little more lost and abrasive. Christian Bale nails both and will win his first Academy Award for it.
Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, Black Swan
Black Swan seethes with emotional intensity like no other film released this year. It’s pace is frantic and unsettling, like an ambulance ride or a cheetah hunt. Side characters do their part to increase tension, but always there’s Natalie Portman in the most off-putting and beautiful performance of her career. One moment she’s the white swan, sprawling out underneath her mountain of stuffed animals. A few seconds later she’s the black swan, ruining lives and mangling fingers with a sick relish. Don’t let the plies and pirouettes fool you, Nina Sayres knows the world of ballet is vicious and cruel. She won’t stop until it’s done right. She just wants it to be perfect. With Natalie Portman, it is.
Emma Stone as Olive Penderghast, Easy A
Easy A is one of those imperfect movies that’s completely transformed by an excellent lead performance, in this case Stone’s breezy, pitch-perfect portrayal of high school nobody-turned-fake-skank Olive Penderghast. Stone doesn’t just nail all the witty lines and clever comebacks that no actual high schooler has ever been blessed with, but she blends Olive’s supreme self-confidence with the believable insecurity that plagues every 17-year-old, even one as stunning looking as Stone. From heartfelt conversations with her parents to awkward flirtation with Penn Badgley to a completely superfluous song and dance number at the end, Stone enlivens every frame of Easy A; a star isn’t just born, she’s shot out of a cannon wearing sparkles and a top hat.
Jacki Weaver as Smurf, Animal Kingdom
When we first meet Smurf she’s the perfect, sympathetic grandmother, taking in newly orphaned J and promising to make all the funeral arrangements for his overdosing mother. She’s all “sweeties” and “darlings” and kisses for her sons on the mouth, seemingly oblivious to the vicious criminal activities all of her children are part of. Slowly through the course of the movie the veil is lifted, and Smurf is revealed as a malevolent, manipulate and, yes, maternal figure, doing everything for her little family even if it includes planning the murder of one of them. Pope may be the brother everyone fears and the public face of this criminal family, but there is no doubt that Smurf, with her tight smile and too-youthful clothes, is the one pulling all the strings. Without ever unleashing a sharp word or striking a blow, Weaver turns Smurf into the scariest villain in a movie full of them.
Tom Hardy as Eames, Inception
In addition to being a brain-twisting puzzle and a visual stunner, Christopher Nolan’s Inception was filled with terrific performances by each of its cast members, but nobody stuck out quite like Tom Hardy. Playing the cool, confident forger named Eames, Hardy was energetic and a blast to watch, particularly while he was living his own James Bond fantasy around the ice fortress. He recognizes what a fun character he gets to play and takes full advantage, whether it’s taking down guards with well placed explosives or slightly tipping Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s chair and screwing up his equilibrium. He’s Captain Jack Sparrow in a gray suit, minus the alcoholism. The best part, though? He is only getting started. Hardy has three movies coming out in 2011 and, of course a mystery role in the ridiculously anticipated The Dark Knight Rises. And how could I end this without mentioning the best line of the movie? The dream’s only getting bigger, darling.
To get more of Cinema Blend's Best Of 2010, click here.