Sunday, 1 January 2012

The 25 Best Performances of 2011, Part 2


10) Rainn Wilson, Super

Super was an interesting film in many ways, the kind of bold genre revisionism that people like me really, really like, but the kind of film that at the same time its hard to get a lot of people to see. Regardless, this movie was great, and probably the best thing in the midst of that greatness was the fantastic performance director James Gunn gets out of American Office star Rainn Wilson. He's funny, but he's also terrifying and tragic and it really is one of the stand out performances of the year.

 9) Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids

Prior to this film, I wasn't the hugest fan of Kristen Wiig. What I've seen of her SNL stuff I haven't particularly liked, and her various supporting roles in movies haven't been exactly to my taste either, but I thought she and this movie just killed, perhaps for the main reason that she toned herself down and played a real, credible human being and consequently was much funnier and engaging for it. A great performance by any definition.

8) Christian Bale, The Fighter

The Fighter certainly fits Hollywood's new definition for what a great, award winning movie should be, that is a story we've seen a million times over put together well and starring big name actors, but I'd say amongst the cliches are some terrific performances, as there usually are, but none more so than Christian Bale whose junkie ex-boxer won him a deserved Oscar.

7) Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

While I think True Grit represents a sort of the moment where the Cone Brothers lost a bit of their agency, it's a terrifically realized and directed movie. And Hailee Steinfeld's central performance is nothing short of a revelation, not only holding her own against the likes of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, but arguably eclipsing them.

6) Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

The thing about Von Trier is, I'm not really going to dispute the accusations of misogyny, because I don't really think you can. Not entirely anyway, but at the same time it's sort of equally indisputable that he gets career best, astonishing work from every actress who works with him, and there's certainly no exception with Kirsten Dunst, an actress who's never really done much to distinguish herself talent wise in a 15 year movie career. She's not even the best performance in the movie, but it is still pretty incredible what he gets out of her here.

5) Brad Pitt, Tree Of Life

Being a film student, it's sort of inevitable that I know the kind of people who thought this was some flawless masterpiece for the ages, and while it's probably the most ambitious film to be released at a cinema in my lifetime, that doesn't mean there's not some super obnoxious and intolerable pretentiousness going on here. It probably makes up about 50% of the film, and the other 50% is magnificent, enlightening and spellbinding. Such is the trade. But Brad Pitt's performance as the disciplinarian patriarch at the head of the family the story follows is pretty incredible, and should win him that well deserved Oscar.

4) Natalie Portman, Black Swan

I like to say that this is a great movie made out of a sort of awful script, Darren Aronofsky finding an operatic grace amongst the silliness and hack. Portman factors into that too, taking a character who is mostly symbolic in her purpose and journey and making her really hit home. Perhaps its a very actorly performance, and it's more about the craft than say making you invest in her journey, but regardless, what Portman does here is pretty extraordinary.

3) Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine, I imagine, could well be the kind of film that falls apart on repeat viewings. The kind that without that all-consuming emotional sweep that overwhelms you the first time, maybe begins to look a little overwrought, but having only seen it once it remains an incredible film in my mind.  And Williams, who plays the every-person to Gosling's two-part caricature, is the so much more subtle, so much more haunting side of the film. When Oscar nominated Williams and not Gosling, there's been few decisions of their's I've ever agreed with more.

2) Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia

Gainsbourg seems to have thrown her lot in with Von Trier at this point, and if one is just looking at hard evidence, its not all that hard to see why. Again she's utterly mesmerizing in this film, and though the more reserved character opposite Dunst, there's something about Gainsbourg, in the way she can do so much more with less that is incredibly impactful.

1) James Franco, 127 Hours

Before Franco tanked at the Oscars and began to come off like a huge douche every time he opened his mouth, he did this, a film about a man trapped under a rock, in which he gave probably the best performance anyone's given in the last couple of years. It's the kind of performance that functions in both the big and small, and altogether he made this film a must see, when it quite easily could have been slightly tedious.

Friday, 30 December 2011

The 25 Best Performances in 2011, Part 1

Now to the movies, let us commence...

25) Matthew McConaughey, The Lincoln Lawyer

The thing about doing lists like this is, it would be quite easy to just slot three or four performances from The King's Speech or Black Swan and walk away. But making a bad film into a good purely on the back of your performance deserves just as much recognition, and rarely seems to get it. McConaughey may be pretty much a punch line at this point, but when he finds it within himself to give a shit, he probably has the most natural movie star charisma around and watching him find a groove again after years of increasingly odious romantic comedies was very, very entertaining.

24) Joseph Gordon Levitt, 50/50

The latest step in JGL's path to world domination was more evidence that he's probably the closest we have to this generation's James Stewart, someone who can just exude likeability in any role, in any situation yet not make it feel false or overly sentimental. I think 50/50 was a movie that could have easily fallen apart without such a steadfast presence at its centre, but this was very much a coming of age role for JGL.

23) Andy Serkis, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

Serkis' second performance as CGI primate was yet more evidence that he's one of the most talented actors who's face we never get see. Apes was one of those pleasant surprise movies that come along once and again, where everything about it says it should suck and somehow it doesn't. And I think a lot of that was Serkis, who takes his 'Birth of man' arc and runs with it. How about we let this guy act without the mo-cap suit now, huh?

22) William Fichtner, Drive Angry

Drive Angry had a rough-house charm and ingenuity about it that would make so many B movies so much more enjoyable. And it's not even an off the hinge Nicolas Cage performance that saves the day here, and if anything Cage takes second fiddle to character actor William Fichtner's moment in the sun, his 'Accountant' a villain out of a better movie, full of charm and awesome, lending smarts and a sense of humour to a film that probably didn't deserve either. It's just a shame Fichtner wasted this performance on a film that the human race doesn't and arguably shouldn't have the capacity to take seriously.

21) John Boyega, Attack The Block

Attack The Block was so much better for not being the super-ironic, condescending piss-take it almost had to be, and instead invested real care and emotion into the characterization of the hoodies who were fighting the aliens. None more so than Moses, played with a calm, commanding authority by Boyega. A performance of the type that makes one a star instantaneously, it reminded of Kurt Russell in The Thing or Vin Diesel in Pitch Black. Horror films can work a treat with a beacon of charisma at their centre, and Boyega really did provide that here.

20) Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a story that has academia written all over it, and when you take it in you can almost imagine the scent of the creative writing classroom in which it came into being. Having said that, I enjoyed this film in spite of its faults, and Swinton is perfectly designed for a movie about existential maternal dread. 

19) Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

People really liked them some Animal Kingdom, and I don't really begrudge them that. It's a good movie, it's just to me it was a lot of people accused Drive of being. A film with not really that much to say, and used shaky camera-work for us to not notice all the gang-family cliches. One thing I can get on board with though, is the terrifically rendered performance by Jacki Weaver as the family matriarch. 

18) Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Movies about dead kids tend not to be the best, maybe they exploit the weight of the tragedy as a back door way to resonance, or maybe they get caught up too much in their thematic bluster, but Rabbit Hole to m, felt like a specific, detailed and honest version of the story, and Kidman gives one of her better performance of recent years here, reminding people who've perhaps forgotten just how good she can be.

17) Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Shannon is in the midst of one of those Kevin Spacey alike transitions from character actor to movie star. Someone whose acting is so good, it elevates him to A list status. It's rare these to see a Michael Shannon film and have him be anything but the best part of it, and in this quiet, thoughtful film he's fantastic as an every-man seeing visions of the end of the world.

16) Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In

I think Anaya had to do most of the heavy lifting in this film, with lead Antonio Banderas' showier, less defined role not having anywhere near the same level of impact. It's a difficult role that required a smart, dignified performance and Anaya provides it in spades. The heart of the movie.

15) Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

2011 award season saw me sort of declare war on The King's Speech, because for all it's competence and expediency, the over-praise it received went to show how our definition for what a masterpiece is has changed, gone are the days when it meant something that redefined, something that challenged. Now it's just giving us what we expect in the way we expect it, and however well one may execute that, to me there's so much less value in it. Regardless. No-one's going to argue with the strength of the performances, and Geoffrey Rush's speech lends this film whatever non-formulaic soul it possesses.

14) Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

This fantastically put together movie was probably was about as good as it could have been considering the material, and Oldman, playing somewhat against type, convinces as the intelligence community's greatest detective, and his under-playing of the material gives the film it's gravitas.

13) Viola Davis, The Help

I didn't like The Help all that much, over-simplification of a complex issue and all that, but Viola Davis was undeniably excellent, and I won't have any resentment when she wins the best supporting actress oscar in february. It's deserved, it's just one wishes that the rest of the film was up to that level of quality.

12) Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

This is one of the comedic performances that just sort of jumps off the screen. It's super broad, but McCarthy sort rises above what she's given throughout, so when she gets the one scene toward the film where her character gets to be an actual human being, it just kills. Quite possibly the funniest performance of the year.

11) Brendan Gleeson, The Guard

Another one of those, the movie isn't great but the performance is type deals. The Guard was sort of an ineffectual, incoherent mess, but by casting Gleeson in the lead role they pulled themselves out of a pretty deep hole. Gleeson's performance in this reminds of Humphrey Bogart in that the effortless cool and intelligence Gleeson displays improves the experience tenfold, so even if the movie isn't the best, the performance locks so much of its shit down, it almost doesn't matter.

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2011

Next up to the wall....

10) Raising Hope

This show is certainly not perfect, but like creator Greg Garcia's previous show My Name Is Earl, there's a charm and genuine feeling about the show, not to mention that it manages to be funny in numerously creative and unexpected ways. Garcia is also pretty great at creating a comedic universe, and being much, much smarter than a first impression might have you believe. That and a winning cast that includes Garret Dillahunt, Martha Plimpton and Shannon Woodward, I enjoy watching this show to an absurd degree.

9) Happy Endings

This one started out OK but not great, which had a lot of people writing it off instantly, but even in its worst episodes, this show always made me laugh. And in its second season, one where it's really found its stride it's become a joy to watch. There's no real desire here to do anything other than make you laugh, but at the moment it's really working for me. I imagine it will become awful quite quickly, due the utterly wafer thin storytelling, but for now I'm enjoying the grace period just fine.

8) Treme

I don't think there's anyone left watching Treme who isn't in love with it, as the ratings will attest to, because I've seen a number of articles of people who gave the show a long time and it never worked for them. I saw the term 'Homework TV' float around, and I sort of see their point. Treme is quite possibly the least accessible show on TV, focusing on a specific place not everyone relates to and a culture that not everyone cares about. To me though, its a wonderful character study of a city, just like The Wire was, but the tones are as different as they could conceivably be. And to me, that's not all that bad of a thing.

7) Parks And Recreation

Probably higher on most lists, it has been still a terrific year for Parks And Rec. Something about it doesn't quite let it work for me as well it does for other people. Maybe the overly twee tone, maybe because while every episode is good, every episode can be quite similar. But the cast of this show is just off the reservation, containing two maybe three all time comedic performances, and the fantastic episode 'Fancy Party' was as good as anything on TV all year.

6) Homeland

Although it sort of flubbed the ending, not drastically but noticeably, Homeland was an intelligent, meditative TV. A psychological thriller of the utmost complexity, and what one would call 'proper grown up TV'. Clare Danes, an actress that has been good before but probably has a strike rate of 60 to 40 the way of negative, is just excellent here, giving what the world can collectively agree is career best work. Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin match her, and the show itself does well not to take the easy way out. Or at least not most of the time. I enjoyed this.

5) Archer

I briefly considered putting at Archer at number 1, just because of how far it came along in 2011, and it managed to achieve at least 3 episodes of out and out comedy genius. The episode in which a cancer/chemo stricken Archer stalks the streets seeking vengeance is quite probably my favourite episode of any show all year, such is the extent of how fucking well that half hour worked. Truthfully though, there maybe haven't been as many stand-out episodes of Archer as some of the shows higher on my list, but please for the love of god watch this show, particularly if you're in your twenties.

4) Justified

Justified stands out in the world of dark serialized dramas I think. Instead of being the pitch-black, anti-hero always wins type of thing, in which our protagonist does despicable shit and everything works out for him, Justified feels almost a throwback to the morality of old westerns, only infused with the psychological complexity of modern drama. That and the calibre of the performances on this show were immense, Margo Martindale, Walton Goggins and Olyphant himself all just being ridiculously awesome all the time.

3) Louie

Louie broke all the rules of what TV is supposed to do. When you expect it to be comedic its dramatic, and vice versa, and there's just such a gravitas to so much of it, perhaps because this is the most undiluted a personal vision has ever been on TV, and for that it's defiantly unique. A don't think every episode is a masterpiece like some, and occasionally one might have the capacity to flop completely. But it's just such, rich, rewarding TV to a fault.

2) Breaking Bad

The best drama on TV follows up one of the all time great seasons of TV with one that's just a smidgen worse, which means its still fucking brilliant and anyone stuck on that first point to such an extent to a point that they can't take in the second point is just an idiot. In particular, the fleshing out of Gus as a primo antagonist worked an absolute treat, and I think if it had stuck the landing just a little bit more than it did it would have unquestionably be my number one. Still, I feel privileged I get to watch this show.

1) Community

This is a heart over head choice maybe, but fuck it. The ambition of this show just resonates with me, and in a second season which provided a shockingly high number of all-time classic type episodes, this show is proof that comedy can be cynical without sacrificing its soul, sarcastic without being bitter and breath-takingly ambitious without losing the core of what it is. I love this show, and can deal with a dud every now and again if the mean number of episodes are this fucking spectacular.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Top 25 TV performances of 2011, Part 2

The continuation, again a reminder that I'm only allowing two actors per show. 

10) Sean Bean, Game Of Thrones

I think many people write Bean off, perhaps because they looked at his IMDB page and went whoa, but he came through for this series big time, and while I had reservations about his performance at the start he became my favourite thing about it by the end.

9) Nick Offerman, Parks And Recreation

I think I would find this character irritating if played by anyone else, but Offerman is so militantly deadpan, so uncompromisingly toned down, that it makes his essentially ridiculous character work so much better. High comedy played straight is often the best kind of comedy.

8) Walton Goggins, Justified

Goggins finally got an Emmy nomination this year, something long overdue after his consistently excellent work on The Shield. Regardless, he was a powerhouse in season 2 and while his storyline sort of wandered all over the place and was often disconnected to the main narrative, Goggins made it compelling by sheer will power.

7) Louie CK, Louie

Louie CK often goes on about how terrible his acting is, and for a while there, even in the first season of this show, I would have agreed. But I think by making his show functionally a Drama with occasional comedic elements this year, he rose to that mandate, and was excellent throughout.

6) Toni Collette, United States of Tara

This show sort of died a quiet death, but Collette did her best work on the show this year, not just playing the barrage of usual characters, but this year adding a male teenage serial killer to the mix. Instead of going to Drama school, just watch Collette's performance on this show. It'll cover everything.

5) Claire Danes, Homeland

Danes probably alternates 50/50 between good performances and bad, but I don't think there would be much against the statement that this is the best she's ever been. Just a great first year of this show.

4) Bryan Cranston Breaking Bad

It was devastating to have to choose between Cranston and Aaron Paul for this spot, but I made the stupid two actors per show rule and that's my problem. But I think Cranston's work this year was exceptional, most notably in the episode 'Crawl Space', and you can't pass over that shit. I feel like hell.

3) Danny Pudi, Community

Before y'all go about saying that this role is one note, Pudi is often asked to play so many different sides to Abed that it's a much harder role to pull off than it would first appear. And then there was the whole Cougar Town monologue, which is just too superlative for words.

2) Margo Martindale, Justified

Justified's first season was more good than brilliant, a couple of stand out episodes aside. But in many ways I think it was the addition of Martindale that really made everything click into place this season, and her performance sort of ironed over all the problems inherent in this show and just made it brilliant TV. 

1) Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad

But I could only give it to Esposito. A performance of such precision and craft, that Esposito underplaying everything for a year paid back in spades in this fourth year, where Gus Fring was expanded into a larger than life character, the development of which was certainly my favourite thing about the year 2011 on TV. Just fucking epic. 

The 25 Best TV Performances of 2011, Part 1

So here's how this goes down. In this list, there will be no more than two actors per show. That is all. Onward, to celebrate the year in TV acting.

25) Jane Levy, Suburgatory

Surburgatory is a comedy that's sort of flirting with being something I would really enjoy, but is still figuring itself out too much to really look past, but one thing that's been terrific from the start is the terrifically sardonic, Veronica Mars like performance from Levy.

24) Eden Sher, The Middle

A show that's eternally overlooked, perhaps because it's doing OK what a lot of other shows do great, but both the performance and characterization of Sue Heck has always been the best thing it's had going for it.

23) Jason Segel, How I Met Your Mother

Segel had looked a bit dead-eyed in recent years on HIMYM, but the writers gave something to act with this year, and while the show was not universally beloved this year, Marshall's arc dealing with his dead father was pretty great, enhanced by Segel's performance.

22) Damon Wayans Jr., Happy Endings

Happy Endings is maybe the show I most enjoy watching, and it's got a strong ensemble. But I think Wayans Jr has popped from the beginning, in arguably the least developed role.

21) Garret Dillahunt, Raising Hope

Dillahunt, no doubt most famous for his work in dark, serious dramas is possibly doing the best work of his career in this under-rated gem of a show, and it's probably one of the funniest performances on TV. You'll never watch The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford in the same way.

20) H. Jon Benjamin, Archer

This is sort of a cheat, but see how much I don't care. Benjamin gives a voice-over performance that's remarkably layered, always smart and just endlessly hilarious.

19) Hugh Laurie, House

Look, this may be a terrible show these days. But Laurie's performance is still terrific, and has carried this show alone from day one. He doesn't even phone it in like Michael C Hall does on Dexter these days.

18) Luke Wilson, Enlightened

Wilson never really made it as a leading man in the movies, but I think he's doing something he's never done before in this little curio of a show, and it's really intriguing me.

17) Busy Phillips, Cougar Town

I think people are just about getting over the stigma of watching a show called 'Cougar Town', a show with maybe the most relaxed, fun ensemble on TV and Phillips, who just feels so utterly at home in this kind of thing, just destroys it.

16) Wendell Pierce, Treme

Treme has lost a little favour this year, going from a show mostly watched by artsy, hipster/critic types to a show only watched by artsy, hipster/critic types. Still that;s me all day, and I enjoy this shit immensely. Pierce, who just exudes charm to a ridiculous degree, is the best part performance in a sea of great performances

15) Chris Pratt, Parks And Recreation

Pratt has been my favourite thing about this series from day one, even if my brain tells me that Nick Offerman is the better performance, Pratt's goofy enthusiasm came to a peak in this year's 'Fancy Party' a maginificent episode by all accounts and sort of this guys moment.

14) Michael Pitt, Boardwalk Empire 

For all one could say about the familiarity of some of the ground covered on Boardwalk Empire, there's no disputing Pitt's work here, and I think he's blitzed a cast of some of the greatest American actors alive to become a standout performance compared to anything

13) Mandy Patinkin, Homeland 

It feels brutal to leave Damian Lewis off this list, but after hamming it up for years on Criminal Minds, Patinkin spins the reverse and gives a soulful, quiet performance. And it's certainly my favourite thing he's done in a long time. Heart of this show.

12) Peter Dinklage, Game Of Thrones

The only reason this isn't higher is because Dinklage's english accent continues to not quite be there 100%, but regardless, in a show that could be described as misery porn, Dinklage brings humour and level-headedness to a show that can be the teeniest bit leaden at times.

11) Chevy Chase, Community

In it's masterful second year, Community turned Chase into a full-on villain, essentially, and while it left the show with some structural problems, Chase was always incredible, in a manor that's perhaps under-appreciated in comparison to some of the show's younger, cooler cast members. Just for the dungeons and dragons episode alone.