I’ve done my best movie scenes of the year, and I’ll be posting my top films of the year in the coming days, but right now I thought it would be appropriate to start a new tradition and talk about my favourite performances of the year.
What makes a great performance? Intense dedication to the craft? Bodily transformation? The creation of a void within the performer that is filled by the character contained within the screenplay? That last one is getting a little esoteric, but such language is always used when discussing things as subjective as performances.
Frankly, there are a million ways to describe a great performance and no two people will describe a great performance similarly. Suffice to say, I believe that a great performance is one that is completely and utterly convincing and moving — whatever that means.
I’ve decided to list my favourite performances much like the Academy does, with Supporting Actor/Actress, Lead Actor/Actress. I’ve also put in a few special mentions at the end, like funniest performance and best performance by a character in only one scene. Like my favourite movie scenes of the year, the performances aren’t ranked. They’re all great and I don’t see the point in ranking them.
Without further ado, here are the best movie performances of 2012:
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg):
Day-Lewis is known for his intense acting transformations so it’s no surprise that he became the living embodiment of the greatest American president in Spielberg’s exploration of the passing of the 13th Amendment.
Jamie Foxx as Django in Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino):
Was there a performance as badass in 2012 as Jamie Foxx’s Django? Nope. Django is the epitome of cool badassery and Jamie Foxx’s performance is the understated heart of the film.
Liam Neeson as Ottway in The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan):
This is a performance born out of pain. When Neeson cries out to God near the film’s climax, you can feel all of Neeson frustration and torment at the loss of his wife Natasha Richardson surfacing in this powerful performance.
Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson):
Erratic and uncontrollable, Phoenix is an animal in Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic film. Freddie Quell may be a bastard and an insufferable character, but he’s also the work of an immensely talented artist.
Denzel Washington as Captain Whip Whitaker in Flight (dir. Robert Zemeckis):
Steely resolve and denial define Washington’s alcoholic hero. Washington is an actor who always keeps his characters bottled up inside, hidden behind his penetrating eyes, which works perfectly for a character as controlling and unrepentant as Whip Whitaker.
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow):
Chastain is this film. A character defined by her obsession. This isn’t the ethereal mother of The Tree of Life, but a cold, hard, dedicated woman whose life is her passion is her work.
Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (dir. John Madden):
A delightful film anchored by one of the best actresses in the world. Dench takes lines that tread the line of being sentimental cliches and bends them into honest statements about facing old age and opening up yourself to the possibilites of life.
Olga Kurylenko in To the Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick):
Kind of the female counterpart to Freddie Quell, Kurylenko’s Marina is all passion and hysterics. She is the medieval ideal of the passionate, spiritual woman, and Kurylenko’s performance turns this symbolic figure into the beating heart of Malick’s film.
Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell):
I never really got the appeal of Lawrence until this film. Not only does she ooze sex and energy, she is equally broken and biting and appealing and fun in every scene. Her performance has star quality, but it never feels anything less than real, like a character you could meet in your life and find yourself attracted to against your better judgment.
Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin):
Wallis is a little force to be reckoned with. I’m not certain whether she is a talented actress or Zeitlin was just able to bend his film to her natural presence. Either way, Wallis dominates this very original, energetic film. Echoes of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven.
Javier Bardem as Silva in Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes):
Bardem has a knack for playing terrifying villains as demonstrated by No Country for Old Men, so it makes sense he would make one of the best Bond villains ever. But what makes Silva so memorable is not just that he’s terrifying, but that he’s a wounded human in a way none of the other Bond villains are.
Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott):
Undoubtedly the best part of Prometheus. Even people who hate the film acknowledge that Fassbender’s David is a fascinatingly uncanny performance, channeling Peter O’Toole to create a character who is both dangerous and sympathetic. He may not be human, but he’s definitely the film’s most compelling character.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson):
Hardly a supporting role, Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a fascinating foil to Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. Hoffman controls his scenes vocally, holding the room and the audience in the sway of his unwavering, illogical rhetoric.
Eddie Redmayne as Marius in Les Misérables (dir. Tom Hooper):
Anne Hathaway has been getting all the adoration for her excellent performance in Les Misérables, but Eddie Redmayne is the show’s true MVP. Not only does he cement himself as a dynamic romantic lead, but his nothing-held-back rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is the most moving song I’ve heard in ages.
Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schulz in Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino):
Some people have complained that Waltz’s performance in Tarantino’s slavery Southern is a rehash of Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds, but they aren’t giving this superb actor enough credit for just how effective and sympathetic a performance he is putting in here. Waltz is an actor who has perfected the Tarantino cadance. He is Tarantino’s perfect muse, and his performance as Schulz may be the most moral, likable character in QT’s entire oeuvre.
Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd in The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson):
The title of Anderson’s drama may superficially refer to Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, but it is Adams’ Peggy Dodd who is the master of her husband. Always hushed, off to the side, watching like a bird of prey, Adams’ jettisons her inherent sweetness and transforms into a terrifying ice queen and puppet master.
Judi Dench as M in Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes):
No M has ever had this amount of depth, or screentime, in a Bond film. What Dench does in Skyfall is take Bond’s cranky boss and transform her into a surrogate mother for the wounded hero. She’s motherly and cranky and just dynamite to watch — especially when she has the rug pulled from under her and is allowed to let her vulnerability show through.
Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan):
All it took to make the pissy fanboys eat their words was one little “Oops.” Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is sexy and strong and catty in all the right ways. She may not be as instantly iconic as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, but she steals the film nevertheless.
Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables (dir. Tom Hooper):
It has been a very good year for Anne Hathaway. This is the one of those so-obvious-it’s-boring choices, but there’s no denying that Hathaway’s heart-rending rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the 2012’s highlights on screen. She may not have much screentime, but her brief performance overshadows much of the film.
Kelly Reilly as Nicole in Flight (dir. Robert Zemeckis):
This is a quiet performance in a complicated film. Reilly’s recovering heroin addict doesn’t get the same money scenes as the other actresses on this list, but she still is the film’s other highlight in a complicated role that is so integral to the film’s message of redemption and control.
Sacha Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen in The Dictator (dir. Larry Charles) and Monsier Thernardier in Les Misérables (dir. Tom Hooper):
Cohen did his usual schtick in both films, but I didn’t mind. Whether he was making controversial jokes about torture or mugging his way through “Master of the House,” Cohen provided more genuine laughter than any other performer this year.
James Badge Dale as the Gaunt Young Man in Flight (dir. Robert Zemeckis):
This is a great character and James Badge Dale knocks his one scene out of the park. Appearing bald and emaciated, Dale lets the strength of the writing shine through. He’s a cancer-patient oracle, speaking nothing but cold, hard truth.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A FILM I DIDN’T CARE FOR:
Scoot McNairy as Frankie in Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik):
I may not have cared for Andrew Dominik’s allegorical obviousness and stylistic excesses, but Scoot McNairy’s performance as the sleazy, idiotic Frankie, one of two low-lifes who rob a mob-fronted poker game, is the this film’s equal to Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford in Dominik’s last film: a shifty, mumbly fool who doesn’t quite understand the consequences of his grasp for power and glory.