There is a strange level of unanimity about who put in great performances this year. Daniel Day-Lewis's was lauded even before There Will Be Blood was released. And since then, the adoration is exceeded only by Obamaniacs. His performance won the Golden Globes, SAG, British Oscars, Critics' Choice, and a host of others. Julie Christie won even more uniform praise, if such a thing is possible, for her role in a movie only 49 people saw, Away from Her (released in May, it has made just $4.5 million).
Acting is one of those skills, like writing or painting, about which everyone feels qualified to judge. When it's good, we believe, we can see it just by looking. Well, maybe so, but when people who read John Grisham for "pleasure" report they can spot good writing, the argument grows infirm. But maybe I bring all of this up just as a way of justifying my argument for the two performances I most enjoyed this year--by actors little-recognized.
The first, Tilda Swinton's performance in Michael Clayton, was actually broadly nominated. But the transcendently talented Cate Blanchett was too shiny a jewel for voters--playing one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There, she walked away with the best-supporting actress award every time. Perversely, Swinton had a far harder role. In Clayton, she plays the lead corporate lawyer for the uber-evil U-North agricorp, which knowingly poisoned farmers with its deadly product. Credit director Tony Gilroy for setting aside convention and giving each character three actual dimensions.
As Karen Crowder, Swinton does not play the usual cackling evil corporate stooge so favored by Hollywood. Rather, she's the nebbishy smart girl who has had to navigate the world of wolves by being the smartest and most composed, not the most ferocious. In this narrative, Crowder has recently been hired as the lead counsel, and she desperately wants to vindicate this decision. But the desire to please only adds to the stress of the case, and Crowder spends the movie trying to keep it all together.
In scene after scene, we see her practicing speeches in front of the mirror, or meticulously cleaning her carefully laid-out suits. The performance is still but pregnant, the brace before impact. It's a physical performance, too. We see her in her hotel room in a bra, her middle-age folds bare to the world. This is her performance--bear and painful to watch. In the final scene of the movie, she is so stricken that she finally recoils, falling into a squat like someone who's just been punched. But it's all internal--the damage is inside where we can't see it. The movie, which might have been building toward a redemptive scene, dissipates in this scene. Her character is too human, too naked, too recognizeable. The movie is about the stain of corruption, and Gilroy's not going to let us off easily. The movie succeeds because Swinton makes us see how complicity arises--and we feel implicated.
The second performance was Josh Brolin's, almost completely ignored next to Javier Bardem's scene-gobbler in No Country for Old Men. The story follows the form of a thriller, but by the end, viewers recognize it as a black allegory. Bardem's character isn't a character, he's a malignant force. I greatly enjoyed the performance too, but it was a mythic exercise that, once the grooves were found, required Bardem to do little else but follow along.
Josh Brolin didn't get off so easy. Through his character, Llewelyn Moss, he had to embody the fragility of humanity. Moss is no cupcake--he's a Texas cowboy who consistently thwarts Bardem's assaults. He's even iconically American, as slow-moving and capable as Eastwood's Man with No Name. But as the movie unfolds, we realize that humans, actual people in real life, have weaknesses easy enough for forces of evil to exploit.
Moss has a lovely young wife who shares his trailer, and she's his biggest weakness. We see his demeanor shift from inscrutible to rattled as he realizes that there's more at stake than his own well-being. Brolin gives such a strong performance that you keep looking at him to try to figure out where you've seen him before (nowhere, it turns out--unless you saw Slow Burn, Milwaukee, Minnesota, or DC Smalls). By the end of the movie, you have been pulled into Brolin's bleak state and you feel as helpless and lonely as he does. Bardem's character is an automaton, and the role would slide into Rutger Hauer territory were it not for Brolin's. We fear Bardem because we experience Brolin's state. Most people, apparently, leave the theater with Bardem's face in their minds (admittedly unforgettable with his iconic, Moe-like bowl haircut). But for me, it was the sadness of Brolin's loss that stayed in my mouth.
There were other performances I admired--Bardem's and Day-Lewis's, to begin with. Ellen Page as Juno deserves the accolades, but Jason Bateman, too. Glen Hansard does a wonderful job as a street busker in Once. In another good movie no one saw, Waitress, Keri Russell does a psychologically rich job in the lead (perhaps better--and certainly less appreciated--than Page's). Although it was technically released in 2006, Lives of Others didn't really appear in the US until 2007, and it featured two very strong performances. Ulrich Mühe does an exquisite job as a Stasi spy (something like Swinton's) and Sebastian Koch keeps his character from becoming maudlin. Finally, I'll cop to the performances I have yet to see: Philip Seymour Hoffman in any of his three movies this year; Laura Linney in the Savages; Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose; and Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone.