For all of its many, MANY merits overall, I don’t think 2012 stands out as a particularly great year for performances. Whereas 2011 was a seriously weak year for films (see: the Best Picture win for The Artist) but packed full of great performances, I think 2012 was the exact opposite. Despite the number of high quality films that made landfall in theaters, much of the year’s greatness did not depend as much on the performances, per se, as they did on a more well-rounded strength. This is not to suggest that there weren’t a number of excellent portrayals that caught my eye this year, but rather that I was more impressed by, say, Argo as a whole than I was by Ben Affleck’s acting itself, and that’s not always the case. That said, while I didn’t think this was an especially great year for individual acting performances, I openly admit to cheating, not once but twice, in order to get everyone in on this list that I wanted to commend. So perhaps my opening hypothesis is flawed. Regardless, I present to you my 10 favorite performances of 2012. NOTE: Please keep in mind the terminology in that sentence: this is my list of FAVORITES, not necessarily the list of the BEST. More than once the two come together but this is my opportunity to highlight some performances that I truly loved even if they won’t show up in any award nominations.
HONORABLE MENTION Mel Gibson – Driver, Get the Gringo John Goodman – John Chambers, Argo Joaquin Phoenix – Freddie Quell, The Master Each of these esteemed actors did excellent work in their respective roles but fell just short of making this top 10 for one reason or another. Gibson was tremendous in the underseen gritty action piece Gringo but if I’m being honest, I couldn’t decide whether his performance was really that great or if it was just so good to see him getting back to what he does best. American Treasure John Goodman was the most charming presence in one of the best unconventional ensemble films in recent memory but his role was so small that I felt other actors/actresses should be highlighted. And Phoenix truly is the litmus test between “favorite” and “best” because while his performance is magnificent, it’s not one that I ever want to sit through again.
10. The Major Surprises Channing Tatum – Jenko, 21 Jump Street Jack Black – Bernie Tiede, Bernie Mark Ruffalo – The Hulk/Bruce Banner, The Avengers
Obviously I’m exercising my right to cheat here but all of these actors deserve a mention and all of them caught me completely off guard.
Going into the year Channing Tatum was a guy I had very little respect for and of all the reasons to be nervous about 21 Jump Street, he was at the top of the list. Lo and behold, the guy is SERIOUSLY funny and owned his role completely. I’ve thought long and hard and I’m not sure there’s a single name actor in Hollywood who could have replaced Tatum and gotten that much out of it.
Bernie is one of the weirdest movie watching experiences I’ve ever had as it has you rooting for a man who, in real life, killed an innocent woman and was sentenced to life in prison. Yet Black presents him with such charm and nuance that you can’t help but wish him well. Bernie is available on Netflix Instant and is worth watching just for Black, whom I’ve never really been a big fan of, by the way.
Ruffalo was perhaps the biggest surprise for me. I was bummed when Marvel pushed Edward Norton out of the Hulk’s green skin before the production of The Avengers and even more bummed when they replaced him with Ruffalo, an actor whose appeal I have never understood. I was wrong to be upset, as Ruffalo brought BOTH sides of his character to life in ways they never have been before. From an acting standpoint, he’s the best part of the year’s biggest movie.
9. Michael Fassbender – David, Prometheus I may be in the minority but I really liked Prometheus. What I’m not in the minority about is Fassbender’s performance, which even the film’s biggest haters pointed to as a positive. As a curious android, Fassbender is truly magnetic and only left me wanting more. It’s a supporting role but still the one that stands out as the film’s most important.
8. Robert De Niro – Pat, Silver Linings Playbook I have openly pined over the years for Robert De Niro to do something, ANYTHING, significant. He is, in my opinion, the greatest American actor of his generation and it has broken my spirit to see him working on junk like Righteous Kill and New Year’s Eve. His role in Silver Linings Playbook is undoubtedly significant, a weighty piece of acting that takes the viewer through a gamut of emotions. It’s his best work in perhaps 15 years or more and reminds you of just how great the man can be.
7. Jennifer Lawrence – Tiffany, Silver Linings Playbook It takes a talented woman to play a teenage heroine in a tentpole blockbuster and troubled widow in an awards-bait drama (and I think we can all pretend House at the End of the Street never happened) in the same year. Obviously Lawrence is that woman. Her character is a mixed bag of ups and downs, highs and lows, and with each shift in behavior or attitude, Lawrence is perfectly balanced and spot-on in her performance. You could make a case for Lawrence as the biggest actress in Hollywood right now and I wouldn’t argue with you.
6. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Joe, Looper In the future it’s likely that, given the chain of events in the closing act, JGL’s turn in The Dark Knight Rises will be remembered as the one that launched him into a different stratosphere as an actor but for me, his performance in Looper is the one to remember. Not only was the film an incredibly cool sci-fi action piece, JGL drove it most of the way with a powerful portrayal that took it to a higher level than even I would have expected, and I expected a lot quite frankly. And while the prosthetics and effects helped to make him look like a young Bruce Willis, it was his painstakingly meticulous method of adopting Willis’ mannerisms and facial expressions that really set his work apart.
5. Martin Freeman – Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey This is probably an unconventional choice for anyone who hasn’t spent a significant amount of time immersed in the literary version of The Hobbit. But since I have, let me just say that stepping into the shoes of an iconic character who many people, including (and perhaps especially) myself, have been looking forward to seeing in real life is a tall order. To absolutely and completely nail said character in every way, shape, and form is another thing entirely. Freeman’s interpretation of Bilbo Baggins was, to be blunt, PERFECT and I can’t wait to see what he does with the character in the following installments.
4. Quvenzhane Wallis – Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild It doesn’t get much better than what Wallis gives the audience in Beasts and the fact that she’s able to do it at nine years old is almost unbelievable. This is a movie, and by proxy a performance, that cannot be properly summarized in a space like this unless you’ve seen it for yourself (so…like…maybe you should do that) but suffice it to say that the mix of vulnerability and power that Wallis demonstrates is both haunting and inspiring.
3. Daniel Day Lewis – Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln What can you say about a performance that is almost assuredly going to score not only a Best Actor nomination but a win in the category? DDL does not bring to life the most important president in the history of the United States; instead, he really and truly BECOMES Abraham Lincoln to the point that if you were to send him back in time to 1864, his own family might not have been able to tell the difference.
2. The Cast of Django Unchained Alright, so here’s my second instance of cheating. I opted for this route because otherwise, at least three spots on this list would be taken up by actors from this film and then what sort of boring list would it be? Django Unchained won’t wind up as my favorite of the year (though it’s close) but it is undoubtedly my favorite from an overall acting standpoint. Other than a casual cameo by Mr. Tarantino himself, there is not a weak link in the varied cast and if it were up to me, just about all of the main cast members would receive Oscar nominations.
My hunch is that Leonardo DiCaprio, as a light-hearted plantation owner with a mean streak, and Samuel L. Jackson, as his diabolical house slave, are the most likely to pull in nominations. These would, of course, be well deserved. But while Jamie Foxx, in the role of the titular character, is at times overshadowed by his supporting players, the dynamic flair and ruthless power that grows within Django as the film goes on is spectacular and builds the momentum exquisitely. And Christoph Waltz, in a role so very different from his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds is an absolute joy to watch. That’s not to mention the smaller but still strong performances by Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Don Johnson, and Jonah Hill. In a year that stands out for well-rounded, ensemble casts (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, etc.), Django Unchained takes precedence at the top of the list thanks to a collection of great actors who all turn in memorable and incredible performances.
1. Jessica Chastain – Maya, Zero Dark Thirty Hers is the most recent in my memory, having just seen Zero Dark Thirty, but I imagine I’ll still be thinking about it many months from now. Chastain’s performance is powerful, passionate, and almost overflowing with intensity but more importantly, she serves as the voice for an entire nation. I saw myself in her character and it is that trait that makes this such a remarkable piece of work. Get this woman a Best Actress trophy right now and while we’re at it, let’s just put her in all of the movies from here on out.