In order to qualify for our "Most Inspired Choices," an actor or actress could only receive one or two votes out of the 204 critics who contributed to this year's poll. We've also linked to each critic's profile, where you can find all of their ballots at the bottom of their respective Criticwire pages.
One of the best movie moments of the year comes from Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz." Married Margot (Michelle Williams) agrees to an ill-advised coffee run with neighbor Daniel (Kirby), where their friendship escalates from casual conversation to a discussion of what their potential affair would be like. It's an exchange that lays the groundwork for the rest of the conflicted melancholy to follow for the remainder of the film. Kirby's Daniel isn't a charmer in the traditional sense. In fact, if you go back and watch the scene, there's just as much discomfort as there is seduction. Daniel doesn't have Margot's husband Lou's (Seth Rogen) warmth and sincerity, but he's just mysterious enough to plant the "What if?" seed, both for her and the audience. It's a role that could have come across as Portlandia Count Vronsky, but Kirby plays it with enough subtlety to make Margot's struggle a believable no-win situation.
Speaking of affairs: this Danish film, which may just come up one or two more times on the road to February 24th, features the Danish King Christian VII as the exact opposite of Lou, a man who presents no emotional impediment to his wife's choice to seek a relationship outside of their marriage. Unlike Jason Schwartzman's version of Louis XIV in "Marie Antoinette," he doesn't neglect his betrothed queen because of sexual insecurities (he has a courtesan on each arm in a number of scenes). Instead, his desire to seek pleasures outside the established royal framework is an extension of an emotional pendulum that keeps the film's whole narrative on edge. Folsgaard tackles the madness of King Christian with equal parts sincerity and disdain, being a royal pain when he has to while showing periodic spurts of loyalty to his subjects. Going from hysterical to controlled in just a matter of seconds without giving the audience emotional whiplash, is no easy feat. See it for yourself (presented without subtitles if you happen to not speak Danish and are keen on avoiding spoilers):
Speaking of period pieces: "A Royal Affair" co-star Alicia Vikander could also be seen in Joe Wright's version of "Anna Karenina." Instead of a conflicted Danish queen, Vikander played Kitty, a conflicted Russian socialite torn between the attentions of the aforementioned Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). After initially spurning Levin's advances, Kitty reconsiders, leading the pair to become the lovable, adorable couple that Anna could never hope to achieve with her chosen lover. The film's central romance has plenty of sweeping theatrics but all the heat of the Siberian tundra. Levin and Kitty draw their warmth from the simplest shows of affection. Another one of the best sequences of 2012? Those blocks.
Speaking of children's toys: The Avengers picked up three votes for Best Ensemble, but the big green guy in the middle of the alien invasion was the only member of the titular gang to get a nod for his acting work. The Hulk's greatest triumph might be the fabled Loki beatdown, but Bruce Banner is the equally important other half that helps bind Earth's Mightiest Heroes together. Ruffalo was the only newcomer that didn't have the benefit of an established franchise appearance to help guide the audience's affections. (Except for Hawkeye, but he almost doesn't count.) Maybe it was that freshness that made his Banner so entertaining amidst all the mayhem.
Speaking of movies that destroy New York City: as the star of both the film and the marketing campaign in advance of its release, Robert Pattinson got plenty of attention as Eric Packer, the young billionaire holed up in his protective, high tech limo. (If you don't believe me, just look at all the R-Patz dedicated Twitter accounts that shared our Best Performance results yesterday.) Amidst an ensemble that picked up votes for Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon and Mathieu Amalric, one character stood out as a little peculiar. Durand (Keamy from "Lost," anyone?) plays Packer's personal bodyguard, occasionally updating his wealthy employer on traffic conditions and impending threat levels. It's not an obvious choice to put him ahead of the others, but Durand really does embrace the inherently unnatural dialogue that David Cronenberg spreads throughout his adaptation. Like everything else in this dystopian Manhattan, reality is just another lofty concept that people are struggling to grasp. Why not call attention to it?
Speaking of characters from great ensembles who give periodic updates: more than most other director's films, Wes Anderson movies necessitate buying in right away. For "Moonrise Kingdom," whatever table-setting Benjamin Britten can't do, it's left for Bob Balaban's narrator to pick up the slack. Even though the Narrator comes across as an impartial informer, I get the sense that there's a sly smirk lurking somewhere underneath that Santa beard. His phenomenal headwear is the icing on the cake.
Speaking of characters with difficult-to-determine origins who are tangentially related to storms: hey, we didn't say that performances had to be human. In our poll's version of an Easter Egg, we listed "Richard Parker" alongside multiple-vote-getters Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan as eligible choices for acting categories. This vote is a shared recognition of the efforts of director Ang Lee, Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer and the hundreds (if not thousands) of crew members who helped make the story of a tiger surviving on a lifeboat seem (and look) plausible. Real tiger footage is interspersed throughout (just imagine the DVD bonus features), but the seamless transitions are a truly incredible achievement, whether experienced in 3-D or otherwise.
Speaking of unpredictable and lethal characters: "Seven Psychopaths" may have been too clever for its own good at times, but casting the King of Rasp as Zachariah Rigby lent an instant level of credibility to the character's murky backstory. Three decades removed from Waits' film debut, this is more than just a pat-on-the-head vote for a musician trying his hand at acting. This is a performance that manages to utilize an established persona to wrap together a cuddly, white housepet and a vicious past of violence. All that's missing is the bullhorn.
Speaking of mysterious events in the past: Jean-Marc Valee's latest film didn't have much of a stateside distribution, but garnered a lot of attention on the Canadian awards circuit, with Paradis one of the main reasons why. The overall film is told in two different timelines, but Paradis' work as Jacqueline, the mother of a son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), with Down syndrome, anchors the 1960s half of the story. The parent-child relationship between Jacqueline and Laurent spans a bevy of emotional triumphs and frustrations. Her quiet moments with him on a swingset gently cooing "To heaven..." grow even stronger when followed with the fierceness that fuels Jacqueline's desperation to share the fulfilling life she's tried to make for Laurent.
Speaking of transitions that have clearly worn out their welcome: Unlike many of the other choices on this list, it's difficult to pinpoint a single clip that encapsulates everything great about the entire "Damsels in Distress" ensemble. Greta Gerwig is in her dependable, articulate zone as Violet, the leader of the group of female students who take it upon themselves to reach out to their male "inferiors." But the rest of her army of do-gooders are a real pillar of the film, acting as a bridge between Violet's delusions and the rest of Whit Stillman's stylized portrait of college life. Rose (Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) don't get many of Stillman's playful paragraphs to really sink their teeth into. Instead, they add their respective flourishes with pitch-perfect one-liner delivery, then retreat back to glossy-but-sly onlooker mode. If all else fails, Stillman has a spinoff with that pair dying to be made.
2012 might have been the year of the found footage movie, and "Snow on tha Bluff" is one of the best of the bunch at using the genre to pair content with craft. Using the format to tell much of his own story in a fictionalized form, Snow and director Damon Russell give us 75 minutes of life on the streets of an Atlanta neighborhood. Snow is relatively tight-lipped on which scenes and characters in the film are "authentic," but all elements come together to create a portrait that pulls very few punches. Depictions of drug dealing and gun violence are woven into the fabric of the community's portrayal and Snow delivers his part with the authority you'd expect from someone who's seen it all firsthand.
That guy from "Raging Bull" has his share of screentime, but it's the two men who play Pat Solitano's (Bradley Cooper) friends that really deserve the credit for helping give the audience a clear sense of our main character. In many ways, Tucker's Danny and Ortiz's Ronnie represent different shades of Pat's potential. Danny is the person he might become if he stops trying to regain parts of his old life and Ronnie is who he might end up as if he gets everything he wants and hates himself for it. "Silver Linings" may falter a bit past the hour mark, but these two characters help maintain the film's comic edge through some of its weakest passages. (Kudos also to Anupam Kher who, although limited in his story scope, is equally strong as Dr. Patel, rounding out a solid overlooked supporting actor triumvirate.)
So, there you have it! Some of the most unconventional picks for Performances of the Year. (I wish I had thought of them first.)