It has often been said that it’s not the amount of screen time an actor receives, but what he or she does with it that truly matters. Just ask Beatrice Straight, who took home the Best Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar for Network, though her total time on screen only amounted to a record-setting 5 minutes and 40 seconds.
Now, I’m not saying these 10 performances are Oscar-worthy--- and because they're so small, they likely won't be considered for any of the big prizes no matter what. Yet these memorable turns by the following supporting players always enhanced their finished films, and often were the topic of conversation as we exited the theaters. Below are my choices for the Ten Best Tiny Supporting Roles for 2011-- take a look, and let me know in the comments who I might have missed.
WARNING: Some of these are cameo or surprise appearances you may not want revealed. Be warned!
#10: Anjelica Huston 50/50
Summit mistakenly branded 50/50 as the “cancer comedy.” And for a while, it acted as such. But Jonathan Levine’s underrated drama ultimately surprised audiences with its authentically honest treatment of terminal illness, thanks to Will Reiser’s personal script and a jaw-dropping performance by Huston. Cast as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s mother, she was at times worried, supportive, terrified and strong. Brace yourself for her finest scene, a tender interaction with her son right before his complicated surgery. Odds are better than 50/50 you’ll be crying by the end of it.
#9: Sigourney Weaver Paul
The shadowy supervisor ruthlessly pursuing Paul, the wisecracking alien on the run through Greg Mottola’s sci-fi comedy, goes by the code name “The Big Guy.” So of course it’s Sigourney Weaver – the statuesque Oscar nominee with such sci-fi classics as Alien (and its sequels), Galaxy Quest, WALL-E and Avatar -- who steps off that helicopter to threaten Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kristen Wiig. The fact that she’s taken out by an equally spectacular Blythe Danner is pure icing on this geek cake. Weaver routinely delivers excellence. In Paul, she’s out of this world.
#8: Jack Black The Muppets
Jack Black? On a list of Best Performances?? Yes, because this isn’t Gulliver’s Travels or the atrocious Year One. By playing himself in James Bobin’s inspired Muppets reboot, Black went for the easy anger-management joke alongside the drum sensation Animal. But Black kept the jokes flowing by playing along with some truly tasteless skits as the reluctant celebrity host of the Muppets’ ill-fated variety program. I might have laughed the hardest in Muppets when Black pleads to the audience that he and Fozzie aren’t a comedy team … and for a movie with multiple laugh-out-loud moments, that’s saying something.
#7: Philip Seymour Hoffman Moneyball
Hoffman first collaborated with Moneyball director Bennett Miller on Capote, earning himself the Oscar for deftly portraying novelist Truman Capote. Instead of lobbying for a featured role in their reunion, however, Hoffman happily glowers in the background as Oakland A’s manager Art Howe, who reportedly despised MG Billy Beane’s revolutionary method … until it started working. Hoffman’s brilliant as the perturbed baseball manager, who begrudgingly blocks Beane’s progress at nearly every step. But it’s in the small moments, when Miller keeps the cameras rolling a second or two longer than is necessary, where Hoffman finds the uncomfortable gold in each tense scene (and earns his spot on this list).
#6: Gwyneth Paltrow Contagion
Who do you blame for the virus that decimates huge chunks of the Earth’s population in Contagion? The bat? The pig? I blame Paltrow, who (Spoiler Alert!) was cheating on her husband and deserved every last bit of tremor-inducing nonsense that came her way. Paltrow wasn’t in Steven Soderbergh’s all-star thriller long, but she nails a shockingly disturbing death scene, and her abrupt departure serves as a welcome throwback to the days when stars could be bumped out of films without warning. Plus, we get to see her brain, which is better than any possible Talented Mr. Ripley reunion that could have happened on screen.
#5: Stanley Tucci Captain America: The First Avenger
Father figures in superhero origin stories – from Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben to Superman’s Jor-El -- aren’t long for this world. So the minute we saw Stanley Tucci’s brainy Dr. Abraham Erskine mentoring the milquetoast Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in Captain America, we had to know the Nazis would get him. Until they do, though, Tucci brings the perfect blend of scientific know-how, parental concern, and sarcastic patter to counterbalance Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff military supervisor. Rogers certainly bulked up once Erskine flipped his switch, but First Avenger deflated a tad when Tucci had to go.
#4: Eddie Marsan Tyrannosaur
What kind of animal could get underneath Olivia Colman’s skin in Paddy Considine’s directorial debut, Tyrannousaur? I mean, we see her take the worst that Peter Mullan has to dish out, and yet her optimism and misguided faith in a higher power help her stay immune to his anger. That’s because she has her own personal devil waiting at home, and Marsan never lets her forget it. There’s something about unhinged jealousy that creates such tension in a scene. When Marsan is on screen in Tyrannosaur, you’ll simultaneously feel compelled to watch and turn away in horror.
#3: Corey Stoll Midnight in Paris
Sure, Michelle Williams was vulnerably sexy in My Week With Marilyn, and Meryl Streep single-handedly saved the British Empire in The Iron Lady. But they had it easy playing real people compared to Corey Stoll. Not only did he have to live up to the legend of author Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris … he had to play Owen Wilson’s trumped-up image of Hemingway in the imaginary Parisian landscape. Larger-than-life literary icons offer difficult shoes to fill, but in a fanciful production peppered with creative geniuses like Picasso and Dali, Stoll was the brightest bulb in Allen’s City of Lights.
#2: Amy Ryan Win Win
Ostensibly, Tom McCarthy’s winning Win Win is about a struggling lawyer (Paul Giamatti) and the little white lies he tells to try and better his suburban family’s financial standing. But the immeasurable heart – and sturdy backbone – of McCarthy’s family unit is Ryan, playing Giamatti’s supportive wife with the maternal instincts of a mother lion protecting her den. Ryan’s caring Jackie is expertly counterbalanced late in the film by the flighty Cindy, played to perfection by the equally excellent Melanie Lynskey. Ryan and Lynskey in the same movie? Talk about a win-win situation.
#1: Judy Greer The Descendants
Three scenes. That’s how many Alexander Payne gives to Judy Greer. And she strips away the fluff to drill right to the heart of each one. George Clooney’s grieving husband, Matt King, spends the bulk of The Descendants searching for Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the real estate agent who’s having an affair with Matt’s wife. It’s not an accident that Matt – and, by extension, us – meets Brian’s unsuspecting wife, Julie (Greer), and her children first. These individuals are collateral damage in Matt and Brian’s “war.” And Greer earns the Purple Heart for entering that hospital room and saying the difficult words virtually every character managed to avoid for the bulk of Payne’s film. Her cathartic performance was the best “tiny” supporting turn I managed to see all year.