2005: Best Actor

I sweated out 12 great performances to get the list down to 10. So, most sincere apologies go to David Strathairn for his work in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (sorry Humby), and Nicholas Cage acting deep inside his groove in THE WEATHERMAN.

10. Joaquin Phoenix – WALK THE LINE
Not only does Phoenix seem to invest Cash with every ounce of his being, that steep immersion pays off with some of the most spontaneously electrifying concert scenes put on film. RAY’s performances felt more planned out, but I do think Jamie Foxx gave a better performance. Mostly, I think Cash’s life wasn’t as interesting as Ray Charles, and too many of Phoenix scenes are from the old page book of talented artist on drugs. Still, this is such great work it’s kind of surprising he ended up on the tail end of my list.

9. Bruno Ganz – DOWNFALL
Playing Hitler cannot be an easy task. He was a monster, and there’s no way to get around that. Yet Bruno Ganz somehow found a way into Hitler’s humanity. He’s still just as fierce, angry and crazy as history tells us, but through Ganz we also get the man’s powerful charisma. We understand how he convinced a nation to participate in history’s greatest atrocity. There a wonderful scene in the beginning where he laments his dream of a perfect world dominated by Germany, and you feel his sadness. Ganz is that good.

8. Robert Downey Jr. – KISS KISS, BANG BANG
Downey’s comeback performance shows that he is ready to take on the cinematic world. As a small time hustler thrown into the Hollywood lifestyle of seedy crooks and insane actors, Downey fires off dialogue like a hot tamale. You sense his rediscovered joy of acting, and he plays the hell out of every scene. Downey’s work can often feel mannered or overly improvised, but here he keeps a mature control over his wilder instincts without losing his special edge. (Think Nicholas Cage in THE ROCK, but with more character.)

7. Tony Leung – 2046
Possibly the finest actor us westerners haven’t discovered, Leung’s collaborations with filmmaker Wong Kar Wai always produce something special. Here Leung is a man damaged by love. He obviously wants to heal his heart, but finds it difficult and hurts women he cares about along the way. Leung’s character has a general decency and a sweet nature. We see him make progress, only to fall back again, so while some of actions are cruel and cold Leung makes us completely understand this is not a bad person.

I normally don’t do this, but Christian Bale was so good in two wildly different performances this year, I had to mention them both. First in THE MACHINIST, Bale played a creepy machine shop worker with dangerous insomnia and a severe weight gain problem. Looking past the sight of his unbelievable 80lb trick, Bale delivers a riveting performance as a deeply confused and possibly disturbed man.

In BATMAN BEGINS, Bale gets right to the heart of the fear that created the Dark Night. Bale’s Batman isn’t simply Bruce Wayne in a mask, it’s his vengeance unleashed. With an angry affected voice, he uses his wealth and power to feed his inner demon, never letting us forget that this thirst for justice springs from a fountain of emotional pain.

5. Choi Min-Sik – OLDBOY
At the beginning of OLDBOY, Choi Min-Sik’s character is mysteriously imprisoned, with no outside contact for 15 years. When he emerges, the world has changed severely and even basic physical contact is a moment of uncontrollable joy. Min-Sik was handed one of the year’s most unique characters to play, and he carefully juggles the sudden freedom, the need for revenge and his puzzling quest to find out why. It’s a tough role, full of unpredictable curve balls and a smidge of insanity, and Min-Sik is one of those actors like Gary Oldman who’s not afraid to go BIG.

4. Phillip Seymour Hoffman – CAPOTE
Every year brings a handful of great bio-pic performances with actors playing known historical figures. This year, the cream of the crop was Phillip Seymour Hoffman disappearing into the skin of Truman Capote. He’s actually much larger in size, but Hoffman has the dress, the voice, and the mannerisms of Capote down cold.

Hoffman also does a great job playing a mental chess game with the murderers that would inspire his masterpiece, “In Cold Blood.” His subtle manipulation mixed with charm and even empathy for one murderer’s background provide excellent shading, and I love how Hoffman shows the hard moral choices that will affect Capote’s life later on.

I’ve already written a lot about THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, and it’s hard to talk in detail about a movie most people haven’t seen. Here’s a new angle. You’ve seen Jeff Daniels in many films before, from TERMS OF ENDEARMENT to DUMB & DUMBER to SPEED. He’s possibly the most dependable supporting actor in Hollywood, and he always plays nice and naïve.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE says goodbye to that. That nice quality keeps Daniels’ from coming off as a monster, but his character here is casually cruel, and so full of himself he’s completely oblivious to the pain he’s causing his own family. This character would be very easy to overplay, but Daniels makes him more passive aggressive. He even sometimes asks for sympathy, and is so good that when he gets it, we can understand why.

Heath Ledger went from the next big thing to Hollywood joke in just a few years. His work as emotionally repressed cowboy Ennis Del Mar is a complete career resurrection. Ennis is a man so driven by fear, it runs his life. Words come out haltingly, but his actions are often surprisingly quick and brutal. Ledger must keep all his emotions below the surface. Almost the entire performance is suggested through his eyes and face. Yet we understand him completely, and feel the emotional agony he is going through.

1. Terrence Howard – HUSTLE & FLOW
CRASH was just a warm up to Terrence Howard’s peerless work as Memphis pimp Djay in HUSTLE & FLOW. I’ve talked a lot about actors becoming their characters, but when it comes to giving a complete inside and out performance, nobody can touch the deep understanding Howard brings to his part.
Howard raps his own songs, and he does it in character with a pronounced Memphis accent. There are also shots where the camera just lingers on his face. The scene is over, but Howard keeps on acting. You can feel everything that’s going on in this man’s life. He gives you a feeling for how his music is changing him into something better. He realizes the power of his own art.
Some of the best scenes in the movie are when Djay goes into hustler mode to make things work. In one brilliant shot, we see him failing. He steps back, collects himself and attacks from a new angle. It’s the kind of acting magic that makes the hairs on your neck stand up.


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