Not-Oscars 2012: The Year’s Best Performances

(Originally published at JustinPlusSeven on January 10, 2013.)

best-performances-of-the-year-2012 You, dear reader, have the honor of reading this in the future, after the Oscar nominations have been announced.

But I am writing from this from the near past, before we know which five contenders are fighting it out in each category.

Of course, some are shoo-ins; there are only a very small handful of slots that are anybody’s guess at this point, including one in Best Supporting Actress that could really go to anybody and a bit of confusion in Best Supporting Actor as well. Best Actor and Actress, meanwhile, are mainly both six-person races that must be whittled down. Who will be sacrificed ― Bradley Cooper, John Hawkes, or Joaquin Phoenix? Emmanuelle Riva, Quvenzhane Wallis, or Marion Cotillard?

(You future readers are probably laughing at me, because instead, it was an unexpected sweep by the casts of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, Battleship, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green in all major categories.)

Either way, the performers that actually are nominated doesn’t affect the ones I believe should be. There are many years that I vehemently disagree with the nominees and even the winners. Last year snubbed a couple of the best performances at nomination time, Michael Fassbender in Shame and Albert Finney in Drive, then gave another Oscar to (the admittedly fabulous) Meryl Streep for one of the most atrocious movies she’s ever been in. But I digress. This year has been much kinder, and there are very few potential nominees I don’t think should be in the running. In fact, in some of these races my own picks look a lot like the Academy’s, which makes me feel awfully pedestrian. Can it be that the Oscars actually get it right, once in a blue moon?

Well, it’s a little early to start that kind of talk. I’m still speaking from the past.

No matter what the Academy says today, here’s what I say. And what I say is better, because I’m not 3,000 old people. I’m just me.

Here are my Not-Oscars for the Best Performances of 2012! (The winner is at the top, then they’re in descending order of how much I like them.)

best-actress-naomi-watts-the-impossible

BEST ACTRESS

Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Marion Cotillard, Rust And Bone
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Honorable Mentions: Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks; Rosemarie DeWitt, Your Sister’s Sister

Every year there’s one performance that grabs me like none of the rest, and this year it’s Naomi Watts. A large part of it is the movie itself, which does such wonders in making the audience feel every twist and turn of being swept up in a killer tsunami. There aren’t many actresses who’d be willing to go the extremes the role requires — it isn’t just CGI, she’s actually in a water tank holding on for dear life, screaming her lungs out. Yet Naomi often likes to put herself in miserable cinematic situations, for whatever reason, and still I am blown away by her commitment to this role. She really runs the gamut of emotions here.

Any other year, though, I might have picked Jessica Chastain. Divine Jessica Chastain, whose performance in Zero Dark Thirty at first seems kind of weak, until you realize that’s just the character she’s playing. Over the course of a decade, Maya goes from dedicated but naïve CIA operative to a force to be reckoned with, yet Chastain never goes broad or over the top in playing a girl who can not only hang with the boys, but outwork them. It’s that last scene, though, that cements this as one of the defining performances of the year. Since she’s still a relative newcomer, I can’t wait to see more Jessica Chastain in coming years.

Also, kudos to Katniss! Jennifer Lawrence nicely bridged the gap between teen worship and Academy cred this year, turning in solid work in The Hunger Games (take that, K-Stew) and then topping it in Silver Linings Playbook. Her Tiffany is a joy to watch, and somehow manages to steal scenes even when acting opposite a bunch of actors who all have their crazy dialed up to 10 (Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Chris Tucker). It’s also rare to find a screen female who can admit to extremely slutty acts on-screen and then defy being defined by that in the audience’s mind. In a way, it’s a more impressive feat of girl power than anything in The Hunger Games.

And I’m not even done with the female performances I’m truly wild about, because I also would love to see Marion Cotillard rewarded for her work as an amputee and so much more. Cotillard’s utterly convincing portrayal of a whale trainer who has lost her legs is matched by flawless CGI, reason enough to nominate her. But she’s also a full-blooded character who conveys vulnerability without ever having to speak it. It’s a must-see performance.

Last but not least, Emmanuelle Riva. Sometimes the stillest and quietest performances are the greatest of all, and she sells every single frame she’s in as Amour‘s dying wife. The old woman on her deathbed is a great cinematic cliché, yet Riva does things you’ve never seen with her performance.

This is the rare year when all five of my favorites could end up being the Academy nominees. I also have to give a little love to Honorable Mentions Rosemarie DeWitt, who lights up every film she’s in, and Zoe Kazan, who wrote herself a surprisingly good role in Ruby Sparks and then acted the hell out of it.

best-actor-Holy-Motors-Leos-Carax

BEST ACTOR

Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust And Bone
Tom Holland, The Impossible

Honorable Mentions: John Hawkes, The Sessions; Channing Tatum, Magic Mike

The year’s Best Actor race has had a predictable outcome ever since we got our first glimpse at Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. And yes, he’s astounding. I’m probably unfairly suffering from some Meryl Streep-esque “But he’s always amazing!” fatigue by not choosing him for my top slot, but I just can’t. It’s too predictable. (As amazing as his disappearance into an American icon is.)

Anyway, Denis Lavant has an arguably trickier role in Holy Motors ― actually, several of them. He plays a number of wildly different characters, from a barbarian sewer-dweller who occasionally bites off people’s extremities to the presumed husband and father to a clan of chimpanzees. (Don’t ask.) In between, he strings it together with a believable (if fantastical) portrayal of a weary “actor” who’d love nothing more than to stop pretending to be other people. If the reward for the year’s Best Performance in a Movie was actually for Most Performances in a Movie, it would probably go to Lavant. (Even in the same year Cloud Atlas was released.)

I also have to give some love to Bradley Cooper, whose career-changing performance in Silver Linings Playbook was endearing in a way he hasn’t been since Alias. Just watch — he’ll get all sorts of other roles offered to him now, whether the Oscar noms favor him or not.

Matthias Schoenaerts, on the other hand, has scarcely been mentioned in any conversation about the Academy Awards, with all the love on Marion Cotillard with the more physically demanding role. Yet Schoenaerts complements her perfectly in a performance I found startlingly believable. His character, Alain, is basically a self-involved prick more often than not; obtuse, but without a mean bone in his body. It’s a rare sort of character to see on screen, but an easy one to find in real life. Schoenaerts exhibits real movie star charisma in the role — a Tom Hardy-like appeal. Here’s hoping we see more of him, whether in French cinema or a crossover role.

And The Impossible‘s Tom Holland, the true protagonist of that movie, wonderfully portrays a character who goes from selfish in his survival of a tsunami to rescuer of those in need. It’s not the sort of arc screenwriters usually give a child, but Holland pulls it off quite nicely.

Honorable Mention-wise, I have to mention John Hawkes, who does what he can to make The Sessions less treacly (quite a task), and Channing Tatum, who proved he can act this year not just in Magic Mike, but also a surprisingly funny turn in 21 Jump Street. Who knew?best-supporting-actress-anne-hathaway-les-miserables

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Sally Field, Lincoln
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Emily Blunt, Looper

Honorable Mentions: Amy Adams, The Master; Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty

I hate to side with the masses, but Anne Hathaway was pretty transcendent in the otherwise botched Les Mis, to the extent that the movie goes downhill once she dies — which is unfortunately less than an hour into it. She shows up most of her castmates, disappears for two hours, and then shows back up to right the ship and bring us home. She essentially saves the movie. If that isn’t a star turn I don’t know what it is.

Also, how much fun was Sally Field in Lincoln? She’s Hathaway’s only real competition in this category, and she injects some humor and surprise into Spielberg’s otherwise stately and staid presidential drama. Never underestimate the power of a hissy fit.

Jacki Weaver is the least buzzed-about of the major performers in Silver Linings Playbook, since she’s also the least crazy ― it’s bipolar vs. depressed vs. OCD vs. happiness. But since I love me some Jacki Weaver (from my favorite performance of 2010 in Animal Kingdom), I can’t not love her in it as she makes her “crabby-snakes and homemades” (whatever those are) and puts a happy face on her family’s constant manic turmoil. She’s the comparatively normal glue that holds all this crazy together.

And then there’s Helen Hunt’s T&A (and V, technically). You may never have asked to see this much Helen Hunt, but here it is. It’s a cliché to say that her emotional nakedness in the role matches her, you know, actually naked nakedness, but it’s true. She weaves a lot of complexity into a role that could’ve been brash and much simpler, to the extent that her “sessions” with John Hawkes are really the only thing that ground the movie.

And how about that Emily Blunt? Her Looper performance isn’t generating any awards season heat, but in a movie featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis trying to out-Bruce Willis each other, someone has to hold it together emotionally, and Emily does just that. She’s surprisingly convincing as a Kansas farm girl and goes above and beyond in conveying her devotion to her unusual son.

As for my Honorable Mentions — Amy Adams felt underused in The Master, but she held her own with the boys, and Jennifer Ehle made a reasonably small part in Zero Dark Thirty more memorable than it might have been, as the woman who didn’t find Osama, but was a casualty along the way.best-supporting-actor-Matthew-McConaughey-Magic-Mike

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike
Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Ezra Miller, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

Honorable Mentions: Ewan McGregor, The Impossible; Michael Fassbender, Prometheus

Alright, alright, alright! 2012 may be remembered as the year Matthew McConaughey stopped being a joke and started being a real actor. He turned in solid work in Bernie and Killer Joe, but he also brought a level of professionalism to the rowdy crew in Magic Mike, showing up lookers like Channing Tatum, Matthew Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer. It’s like he’s saying, “See, boys, this is how you do it for two decades and counting.” If taking your clothes off works for the girls, isn’t it about time it won the boys an Oscar nod, too?

Next to Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne was Les Miserables‘ other saving grace. The movie felt like amateur night at the Broadway movie-musical karaoke bar, but Redmayne was one of few who could sing and act simultaneously. If there were more justice in the world, he’d have an Oscar nod to match Hathaway’s.

A not-so-unheralded actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, towered in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a movie I expected to enjoy more than I did. But that’s because I couldn’t get into Joaquin Phoenix’s character, while Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd was just about everything you could want from a master. I mean, he screams “Pig fuck!” at a stranger, which for me, personally, is the most quotable line of the year.

And though he’s made a career out of parodying his former glory of late, Robert De Niro does good work in a comeback to actually acting as the OCD father who can only express himself through sports. There are a number of slyly funny moments, as when he shows his son his lucky handkerchief in such a manner that you know he’s trying to avoid the inevitable discussion about how a handkerchief could possibly help a football team win.

Ezra Miller, meanwhile, is the scene-stealer in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, which is one part ordinary high school movie, one part extraordinary high school movie. The best bits of it tend to feature Miller as the jolly outcast, the sort of gay character we need to see more of. (And less of the bitchy gay friend, please.) The movie would be almost nothing without him.

In the Honorable Mention category, let’s have a shout-out for Ewan McGregor, who has less screen time than Naomi in The Impossible but acts the shit out of one scene in particular, and Michael Fassbender, whose chilling synthetic human in Prometheus was by far the most compelling thing about that uneven Alien prequel.

kathryn-bigelow-zero-dark-thirtyBEST DIRECTOR

Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Juan Antonio Bayona, The Impossible
Rian Johnson, Looper
Leos Carax, Holy Motors
Tom Tykwer, Andy & Lana Wachowski, Cloud Atlas

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard, The Cabin In The Woods
Rian Johnson, Looper
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Sergio G. Sánchez, The Impossible

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Kay Cannon, Pitch Perfect
Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier, Oslo, August 31st
Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain, Rust And Bone

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, Cloud Atlas
Alexandre Desplat, Zero Dark Thirty
Nathan Johnson, Looper

*

ALL 2012 RANKINGS

1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. The Impossible
3. Silver Linings Playbook
4. Rust And Bone
5. Magic Mike
6. Looper
7. Holy Motors
8. The Cabin In The Woods
9. Amour
10.Girl Walk // All Day
11.Pitch Perfect
12.Lincoln
13.Oslo, August 31st
14.Django Unchained
15.Cloud Atlas
16.Ruby Sparks
17.Arbitrage
18.Skyfall
19.Bernie
20.The Master
21.The Imposter
22.Your Sister’s Sister
23.The Avengers
24.Flight
25.Chronicle
26.The Grey
27.The Dark Knight Rises
28.The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
29.21 Jump Street
30.Savages
31.Compliance
32.Beasts of the Southern Wild
33.The Hunger Games
34.The Sound of My Voice
35.Klown
36.The Queen Of Versailles
37.Argo
38.Haywire
39.Les Miserables
40.The Sessions
41.Friends With Kids
42.Bachelorette
43.Safety Not Guaranteed
44.Take This Waltz
45.Sleepless Night
46.Moonrise Kingdom
47.Prometheus
48.Killer Joe
49.Life Of Pi
50.Headhunters
51.The Deep Blue Sea
52.Ted
53.American Reunion
54.The Snowtown Murders
55.Promised Land
56.Lola Versus
57.The Raid: Redemption
58.Jeff Who Lives At Home
59.The Paperboy
60.Cosmopolis
61.The Bourne Legacy
62.Mirror Mirror
63.The Loneliest Planet
64.The Amazing Spider-Man
65.Snow White And The Huntsman

Thoughts?

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