Saturday, January 30, 2010

LowRes 2009 Movie Awards: Part 5, The Lead Actors

My look back at the best of 2009 (and my semi-sad fantasia of If I Had an Oscar Ballot) continues with a look at the lead acting categories.

Previously: 25 Best Moments; Worst Movies/Performances; Best Trailers; Best Supporting Actors; Major Techs

Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart
Matt Damon - The Informant!
Colin Firth - A Single Man
Ben Foster - The Messenger
Joseph Gordon-Levitt - (500) Days of Summer
Jeremy Renner - The Hurt Locker

What a wonderfully packed category this year. Even with my nominations teased out to six, I still feel like any one of the runners-up (below) would be more than worthy of getting a real award (i.e. not a fakey one on Blogger). Not that any of them ever would. Still, it pains me (PAINS! ME!) to leave guys like Rockwell and Kraskinski out of the nomination circle. But I'll try to soldier on.

Bridges and Firth will both be pulling down Oscar nominations next week, and rightly so. They both carry their respective films -- neither of which are bad movies, but they're both so intensely centered around their main characters that the weight gets put on the actors' shoulders anyway. Interestingly, each imbues his respective film with the exact opposite qualities: Firth pulls you deep into George's sadness and grief and fleeting passions, providing a weight of emotion that Tom Ford's vivid artifice can't bring on its own; meanwhile, one of my favorite things about Bridges's performance is how he doesn't let us wallow in Bad Blake's despair and self-pity too long. It's there, of course, but it never feels indulgent, and you never feel Blake is so far gone that you no longer care to see him get better.

Jeremy Renner also might get Oscar-nominated, which would be one of the more underrated miracles of modern award-watching. His performance is all impenetrable angles and distancing bravado, halfway between the James Dean anti-authoritarian model that has persisted for 50 years in American culture and a new kind of Aspergersy disobedience where active rebellion is traded for something more compulsory and instinctual and inarticulate. The answer to "What are you rebelling against?" is less "What do you got?" and more "What are you talking about?"

Ben Foster gives the best performance in his movie despite the fact that he's gotten the least attention for it. He nails his character's blend of heroic impulses (he really can't help himself when he sees Samantha Morton's crying widow) and a baseline revulsion at how little he's actually able to do.

It's interesting to contrast Matt Damon's work in The Informant with JGL in 500 Days... since both performances are so charisma-based. (If you haven't noticed lo these many blogging years, I tend to value well-modulated charisma more than most.) Damon harnessed a kind of anti-charisma as his character blended obnoxious self-entitlement with a dexterous relationship with the truth. Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt got to both sides a romantic apocalypse and combined it with a serious make-me-want-to-be-his-boyfriend-ness.

Runners Up: Sam Rockwell (Moon); Ben Whishaw (Bright Star); John Krasinski (Away We Go); Edgar Flores (Sin Nombre).


Abbie Cornish - Bright Star
Carey Mulligan - An Education
Gabourey Sidibe - Precious
Meryl Streep - Julie & Julia
Tilda Swinton - Julia

What to even say about Tilda Swinton in Julia? It's funny that my mental image of her is this eternally icy, domineering, androgynous creature, because in my two favorite performances of hers (this one and Michael Clayton), she's at her least composed (bad decisions; trembling exterior) and most feminine (whether battling the boys club in Clayton or the mama bear instincts that develop against her will in Julia).

I worry that Streep's general brilliance tends to gloss over the fact that, say, no other actress could have made Julie and Julia quite the effortless-yet-emotionally-satisfying mid-level triumph it is. Strangely, the more I think about An Education, the more I think Carey Mulligan serves the same function for An Education. She's an exciting new actress and she imbues Jenny with a freshness and intelligence that helps her skirt victimization (even if the movie sells her out by the end).

In many ways, Sidibe has an impossible task, making Precious seem more than just a giant canvass to project our feelings of sympathy, horror, guilt, and pity. That she overcomes that by delving not only into the corners of Precious's mind she only dares to hope about, but also her weakness and laziness and silence, is very impressive.

As for Abbie Cornish, it's not that I never saw this coming. For every relatively weak performance (in Stop-Loss, in Elizabeth: The Golden Age), she'd deliver something like 2006's Candy, where she and Heath Ledger shared an electric and alive chemistry, and it's chemistry again that highlights her Bright Star performance. The sweet, delicate on-screen romance that Abbie and Ben Whishaw create has a beauty on par with the film's breathtaking photography.

Runners Up: Rachel Weisz (The Brothers Bloom); Alycia Delmore (Humpday); Helen Mirren (The Last Station); Maya Rudolph (Away We Go).


BeRightBack said...

I feel so weirdly possessive about Jeremy Renner because I love love love him in Dahmer, of all movies. I'm so glad he's getting recognition, although, of course, there's that weird element of "I saw him first!" to it that is so shameful, yet undeniable.

Joe Reid said...

Welcome to my relationship with James McAvoy (I DO TOO have a relationship with James McAvoy!)

whammo said...

@BRB -- I feel the same way about Renner (or, as he likes me to call him, "Jeffy") and may be able to stake a better claim -- Bravo's old reality series The It Factor. It followed around a bunch of struggling actors as they waited tables and got rejected at auditions -- except for Jeffy. He got cast for Dahmer. during the show and was pretty much the only talent on there. If this is news to you, he's mine. Otherwise, we settle it by Thumb War.

BTW, Daisy Egan (child Tony winner for The Secret Garden) was on TIF trying to make a comeback from adolescent obscurity. She was incredibly insecure but still very talented. Don't think the comeback attempt went anywhere.

Abby said...

Thumb war is on, whammo! I, too, remember him fondly from "The It Factor." If I recall, the season ended with him having landed an agent for his work in "Dahmer," and was choosing between offered roles in both "S.W.A.T." and..."Van Helsing"?

J.D. said...

Rachel Weisz! Yay!

mosprott said...

Brothers Bloom shout-out! Yay! Rachel Weisz is awesome!