This is the season of awards shows and top ten lists, in which everyone from the yahoos who run this site to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences get to say what they think is the best. We spend plenty of time debating who will win the Oscars for Best Actress and Best Actor-- you can read plenty of that here-- but that's different from the performances you actually think are the best.
The year's best performances may not be the biggest parts or the showiest bits of acting or even in the best movies, but just the actors and the parts that made you feel passionately about what you were watching. Whether it's an all-CGI alien, a single body part or a former bit actor allowed to pilot a starship for 10 minutes, all the actors listed below turned in what we thought were the most impressive performances of the year. These aren't all going to win Oscars, but this list isn't about awards-- it's about awesome.
Jason Bateman as Dominic Foy in State of Play
Jason Bateman always comes off well as the abused nice guy (see Arrested Development), but he’s just as convincing as the selfish jerk (witness Juno). So what can you say when he really goes out of the norm for a stint as the flamboyant PR rep by day, rave sex freak by night, coke-snorting, drug dealing Dominic Foy in State of Play? If you like Bateman, it’s easy to have missed the fact that he was in the movie’s gloriously convoluted storyline at all, buried under names like Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren. But it’s worth wading through to catch him showing off what he can really do if you trust him with more than just the average Joe characters.
Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop
A tornado of swear words, a cascade of rudeness, an explosion of energy, and the funniest character of the year, Malcolm Tucker is both the most frightening person you can imagine working with and the unfettered id we all wish we could be. Whether berating his boss or the upstart Yanks across the pond or even threatening violence against tourists, Malcolm gets what he wants through shouting and violence simply because he's smarter than everyone else in the room. Peter Capaldi doesn't care about giving Malcolm a softer side or trying to get us to empathize with him; like Malcolm himself would do, Capaldi blazes onto the screen with an implicit "fuck you!" to anyone who would dare ignore him.
Jason Cope (plus animators) as Christopher Johnson in District 9
Sharlto Copley is clearly District 9’s breakout star, but he has someone else helping him give the story additional depth. That man-- er, prawn--is Christopher Johnson. Well, actually, there is a man behind Christopher and his name is Jason Cope. Cope voices Johnson and acted as a stand-in until the post-production team laid the animated alien over him, and he's ultimately the individual responsible for developing the character that gives the audience a real view of District 9 When Wikus comes into contact with an alien substance that slowly turns him into a prawn, he finds solace in the enemy, specifically in Christopher. The two share a love-hate relationship to say the least, but what begins as a self-motivated arrangement becomes a genuine alliance. Initially there’s something terribly sad about seeing the mistreatment of the prawns, but it's more like witnessing animal abuse. It’s Christopher’s more poignant moments that humanize the prawns, putting the audience’s connection with the race on a completely different level.
Megan Fox's Rack in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Jennifer's Body
There’s a whole lot of negativity surrounding just about every word that comes out of Megan Fox’s mouth both on screen and off. Michael Bay and Karyn Kusama solve that problem by directing the shirt right off this hare-brained hussy making sure no one in their right mind is paying attention to anything but her heaving rack. Proving to be more dynamic than their mildly retarded owner, Megan Fox’s Rack takes on two very different roles. In Transformers 2, they step easily into the role of “glistening in slow motion action sequences," while in Jennifer’s Body they are used for evil, luring boys to their untimely doom. The performances are Oscar worthy. An honorable mention must be given to Megan Fox’s other ASSet, making as impactful a cameo as Bill Murray. Too bad Shia didn’t use some of that magic Transformers dust to seal her mouth shut.
Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen
It’s easy to play the mad dog, the slobbering, rabies-infested psychopath lashing out at the world, uninhibited by its norms of behavior and unspoken courtesies of conduct. To attack without reason, to aggress without provocation, these impulses are basic, juvenile in their uncomplicated, almost reactionary motives. Adding depth, humanizing the mad dog, scarring him to the point of being familiar, recognizable, to carve out purpose amidst the chaos, that’s the challenge. Rorschach is a self-aware psychopath, a Hannibal who prefers hand-to-hand combat. His life is a slow, painful martyrdom for a cause he knows is not winnable, and it’s all there in Jackie Earle Haley’s frenzied breaths and final scream. Never compromise an inch, even if that inch moves you toward your goal. Rorschach’s methods are brutal, but Jackie Earle Haley’s motives feel human.
Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk in Star Trek
Most actors slogging away at their meaningless “episode by episode” TV career only dream of crawling their way onto the big screen. Few of them even scratch the surface and even fewer of them do it with as big a BANG! as Chris Hemsworth did as George Kirk in Star Trek. In one of the most unforgettable scenes of 2009, the U.S.S. Kelvin comes under attack from a viciously over-powered Romulan cruiser, whose tyrannical captain demands audience with the captain of the Kelvin, leaving none other than young, inexperienced George Kirk in charge. Hemsworth valiantly steers the ship through its final battle, saving countless lives and ultimately sacrificing himself to prevent the escape shuttles, one of them including his newborn son Jim, from being taken down. It's one of the, if not THE most heroic scene to show up in 2009, and spawned one of the best lines of the year. “Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother's and yours. I dare you to do better.” Commence chills.
Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener in Up in the Air
There are only two reactions one can possibly have to a truly great performance. We’ll call the first one The Shining reaction. You leave the theater thinking, wow, I can’t believe Jack transformed himself into that. I can’t believe he was able to embody that. The second we’ll call the John Cusack reaction. You leave the theater thinking, John Cusack must be exactly like that in real life. I feel like I know him. He has to be that dude. Anna Kendrick’s turn in Up In The Air is almost John Cusack-esque. She so thoroughly becomes that girl, that desperate to prove herself, hide her femininity at all costs until it hurdles out without reserve career girl, that my only assumption has to be she must behave exactly like that in real life. I went to high school with that girl. She asked five hundred questions in class, wrote essays on the glass ceiling and cried on my shoulder at prom because her date was making out with the stupid girl who had big boobs. It doesn’t matter that Anna Kendrick has played different girls in different movies, she has to be Natalie Keener when she wakes up in the morning. And if I ever meet her, I will offer her my shoulder to cry on (again).
Bill Murray as Himself in Zombieland
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past four months, you'll have inevitably had the big surprise of Zombieland ruined for you. And what a surprise it was. Bill Murray, coming so far out of left field you can't even see him from home plate, shows up after our heroes invade his mansion for shelter. But he doesn't just appear though. No, no. He stalks out of the shadows wearing full on zombie make up in a faux-attack on our heroes. And staring down the barrel of a shotgun wielded by the wussiest actor since Michael Cera, Bill Murray's appearance fades away into the annals of cinema's greatest cameos. Murray is about as charming an actor as you could ever hope to find, and he brings that same charm on board here. For the ten minutes he's on screen, you get a heaping dose of Murray being Murray in all the best, most hilarious ways. Usually there's not much to say about such a short appearance, but if you asked anyone what the best part of Zombieland was, most people would say "BILL MURRAY!"
Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon
It can’t be easy playing a double role, particularly if one of your characters has a lot of interaction or conversation with the other. So imagine a film where you are the only live actor to actually step on screen. Enter Sam Rockwell’s performance in Duncan Jones’ Moon. Playing the roles of Sam Bell and…Sam Bell, Rockwell creates two separate identities that, for all practical purposes, should be the same performance when you discount their most substantial difference – one has been stranded on the Moon for three years, while the other has only recently woken up and has managed to uncover the secret operation run by Lunar Industries. One is naďve and physically falling apart, while the other is headstrong and angry, and Rockwell’s performance makes us believe that the audience is watching two separate people. So impressed, fans have even created a petition to get the actor an Academy Award nomination, which already has more than 3,000 signers,
In this writer’s opinion, he should certainly be on that list of five.
Paul Rudd as Peter Klaven in I Love You Man
After The Hangover blew up at the box office this summer to become the all-time highest-grossing R-rated comedy, many forgot about the comedy that came out three months prior: John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man. While the cast boasts more than a few of the funniest actors working today, such as Jason Segel, Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, it is Paul Rudd as Peter Klaven, who steals the show. Be it leaving incredibly long voicemail messages, coming up with nonsensical nicknames or staring down a man who just kissed him after a nice dinner, Peter is Rudd’s most awkward character to date and he plays it to perfection. Even in scenes when the character is getting redemption, such as when he acts out against an obnoxious co-worker, Rudd plays it for laughs as he gives him a light slap and explains that he wanted to cause physical pain, but never hit anybody in the face and that it freaks him out. And we certainly can’t forget slapping the bass, can we?
Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar
James Cameron has received more than enough praise for the creation and depiction of the world of Pandora, but what about the woman who actually introduced us to it? Zoe Saldana is Neytiri, the blue beauty who catches Jake Sully’s eye. Most actresses get to don a costume, have their hair and makeup done, then check themselves out in the mirror. Saldana has to settle for a body covered in motion sensors and a computer generated image. She must have one heck of an imagination, because she’s able to create an animated character that feels just as real if not more than her human costars. Neytiri is by far the most demanding character on the roster and Saldana delivers flawlessly. Not only does she successfully introduce and immerse the audience into the Na'vi world, she carries a significant amount of emotional baggage, making Avatar far more than just a 3D spectacle.
Jason Schwartzman as Ash in Fantastic Mr. Fox
You could argue that Jason Schwartzman's role as Ash in The Fantastic Mr. Fox is the same schtick he's been doing since Rushmore, the teenager frustrated by his awkwardness and just brilliant enough to get around it. But there's something in the way that his character is shorter than everyone else and wears a cape, in the way his whiny voice turns mean when talking to his cousin Kristofferson, or the joy in his voice when he finally shouts "Hot box!" that makes Ash the most fully realized among a jewel box of wonderful characters. Schwartzman is an adult now, a married man, but when stripped down to just his voice he captures the most painful and beautiful things about adolescence.
Gabby Sidibe as Precious Jones in Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire
Gabby who? If you don’t know who Gabby Sidibe is now, you certainly will by the time the Academy Awards roll around. Sidibe plays the titular character in Precious, an obese 16-year-old girl pregnant for the second time by her own father. If you think that’s terrible, wait until you see her other misfortunes. Precious rides a relentless emotional rollercoaster from beginning to end. She’s plagued by illiteracy and beaten by her mother, but gets a helping hand from a kindhearted teacher and manages to find the good in the birth of her second child. The fact that this is Sidibe’s first feature film, let alone her first starring role, is astounding but completely overshadowed by the sheer power of her performance. As Precious, she breaks your heart into a million pieces and then sews it back together to help you see a ray of light in her supremely shitty situation. Firsts are great, but soon become things of the past. Sidibe’s performance will be remembered for years to come.
Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds
Coming up on five months after its theatrical release and two weeks after its DVD release, it is still fairly difficult to describe how incredible Christoph Waltz’s performance in Inglourious Basterds truly was. Believed by many to be a shoo-in for the Best Supporting Actor award at this year’s Oscars, the actor stunned audiences in his first English-language role, terrifying audiences while ordering a glass of milk, smirking all the way through the end of the Nazi party and conversing in no more than four languages (three of which Waltz is truly fluent in.) The role has already furthered the Hollywood leg of the actor’s career, landing roles in Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the play The Talking Cure. While we can’t know how long Waltz plans on sticking around (at least in American cinema), one thing is for certain: in 2009, as the villainous Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, Christoph Waltz gave us all a little something we can’t take off.
Tilda Swinton as Julia in Julia
Julia is a strange and shaggy movie, starting as a character study of a professional and unrepentant alcoholic and evolving into a chase movie through the drug-ruled underworld of Mexico. But through it all Tilda Swinton is an anchor, devoted to her character's own vanity while displaying none of her own, fearlessly transforming into a woman who's finally discovered one thing worth hanging on to. Julia has deep and obvious flaws, and while Swinton never asks forgiveness for them, she creates a character so magnetic and surprising that it's worth sticking around to see what she does next. With a minimum of showiness and self-aware talent, Swinton creates one of the most complicated and fascinating screen characters in years.
Steve Zahn as Mike in Management
I love Steve Zahn. While he’s been involved with some pretty crappy movies, he’s never had a bad performance. But he’s usually relegated to sidekicks, cameos and comic relief, rarely having the chance to show his real chops. So, to get to see him take his quirky comic style and feather it into the awkward, honest, and passionate heart of Management’s leading man Mike was a rare treat. One moment you’re laughing at his hilariously awful attempt at small talk while uncomfortably trying to enjoy a pity grasp of Jennifer Aniston’s butt, and the next you’re silently sighing in pain as he tearfully ejects her from his basement after one of the harshest rejection scenes ever. This may not be the best movie you didn’t see this year, but missing Zahn’s performance is a real shame.
Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie & Julia
When you have a celebrity personality who is regularly and irresistably spoofed, it's hard to envision finding someone who could genuinely portray them in a biopic. Imagine trying to find an actor to play Barbara Walters who didn't send the audience into snickers with every roll of the ‘r’. I had those exact doubts when I heard Nora Ephron was planning to bring cooking’s biggest star, Julia Child, to the screen. But all fears were drowned in a sea of heart-warming and heart-breaking talent as I watched the unequalled Meryl Streep embody the larger-than-life Child. Besides capturing Child’s iconic voice, sans spoof, Streep manages every ounce of the woman’s vibrancy, courage, sadness and joy without missing a beat. If Joaquin Phoenix deserved an Oscar nomination for his turn as Johnny Cash, and Jamie Foxx deserved an Academy Award for portraying Ray Charles, Streep deserves a lifetime achievement award for Julie & Julia.
Written by Eric Eisenberg, Scott Gwin, Will LeBLanc, Perri Nemiroff, Mack Rawden, and Katey Rich.