By Matt Singer | Criticwire December 3, 2012 at 10:03AM
Q: Forget separating for male or female, lead or supporting. You can just pick one; so what is the best performance of the year?
The critics' answers:
"The best performance of the year comes from Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master.' The actor's turn as Freddie Quell doesn't even feel like a performance, but rather a hidden personality that Phoenix has in his mind at all times. From his drunken stupors and sudden aggression to the desperate, doughy eyes that follow Lancaster Dodd, Phoenix disappears into the role in mind and body, almost as if he's in some sort of fever dream that seemingly might not end after the camera stops rolling. The interrogation scene between Phoenix and Hoffman by itself is worthy of an Oscar for both actors."
"Denis Lavant in 'Holy Motors' satisfies all of the above and then some. Tackling roles male and female, lead and supporting while traversing the spectrum of genres, he gives his all each time to glorious success. Next to this pro, the competition (including quality turns like those of the 'Cloud Atlas' cast) feels paltry."
"Performances are often something that take a back seat when I'm evaluating a film. What can I say, but the director is usually my main focus. But alas, this year has been somewhat defined by a pair of great performances for me, and having thought long and hard on it I'm going to cop out and choose both. Leos Carax's 'Holy Motors' and Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master' are built around awe-inspiring performances from Denis Lavant and Joaquin Phoenix, which in turn hint at one of the wider thesis of the cinema of 2012, which one might mark out as one shaped by a curious commentary on performance in general, with films like 'Cloud Atlas,' 'Tabu' and 'This Is Not A Film' each posing questions on the role of the actor in the modern cinematic landscape."
"Marion Cotillard, 'Rust and Bone.'"
"It's still early December, and there's a three or four prominent features I still haven't seen yet, but I think it's highly unlikely that I'll see two performances this year more memorable and striking than Clarke Peters' incredible portrayal of Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse in Spike Lee's 'Red Hook Summer,' or Michael Shannon's ingeniously over-the-top villain Bobby Monday from David Koepp's 'Premium Rush.' Sadly, I don't think either actor is likely to get an Academy Award nomination. Lee's film slipped under the radar, a quasi-follow up to 'Do the Right Thing' about a middle-class Georgia boy (Jules Brown) forced to spend the summer with his Evangelical grandfather in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Peters' love for his grandson evolves over the course of the film from overeager Bible-thumping to a genuine understanding of their generational divide, but thanks to an unexpected finale, every decision Clarke Peters' makes in the role takes on a shocking duality. And Michael Shannon just appears to be in an entirely different dimension from every other actor this year, hamming it up but feeling perfectly in place in Koepp's fantasy world of New York bike messengers, risking their lives to keep a mysterious envelope from Shannon's corrupt cop character, who needs its contents to survive the day. Shannon doesn't play Bobby Monday as an excuse to be hammy, he plays Bobby Monday as a truly outlandish person, who lives the sort of life that naturally extends from that level of extreme self-involvement. I can't compare these two performances in any tangible way, so let's just call this one a tie."
"Without dwelling too long on the 'as an actor myself, I have strong opinions and piercing insights on this subject' card because nobody cares, I'll proceed directly to submitting Simon Russell Beale in 'The Deep Blue Sea' for your consideration. With a lot of actors, the cuckolded husband character ends up being either simply loathsome or one-dimensionally pitiful, but Beale finds a deeply human complexity within the character, who ends up reading as a pretty decent guy who, given a choice, would rather have beautiful much-younger wife Rachel Weisz be happy and not sleeping with Tom Hiddleston, but ultimately, fatalistically, and British-ly accepts that things are the way they are. Through all that, he manages to not be a doormat, as well, which is a miracle considering that the character is one. Anyway, that's acting, kids."
"I’m temped to say 'The Imposter''s Frederic Bourdain, but he’d get pissed at me, and I don’t feel like arguing why even if he’s being completely truthful he’s still performing to the camera, to a degree. So, I’m going to pick another documentary that definitely involves a convincing performance-as-con: 'Kumaré.' Director/star Vikram Gandhi did a more serious Sacha Baron Cohen type stunt by taking on the persona of an Indian guru and deceptively developing a following in Arizona. It’s a film I have some issues with, but I can’t deny Gandhi clearly gives the best performance of the year."
"For me, it's down to Daniel Day-Lewis as 'Lincoln,' and Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled soul, Freddie Quell, in 'The Master.' In the end I''d have to go with Phoenix, because his performance goes beyond what's expected from him as an actor. Phoenix goes into really dark places within 'The Master,' both physically and emotionally. The best way to describe why I choose him over Day-Lewis, is simple: What character stayed with me long after I saw each film? The winner: Freddie Quell."
"Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master.' In a year of strong performances, his still stands out. It's frenetic and fierce, and he absolutely loses himself in the role."
"Woody Harrelson is scary and haunting in 'Rampart' as racist, malevolent cop Dave Brown. Yes, you trolls out there will say it's a 2011 movie. It got shown publicly in a few theaters in December 2011 to qualify for Oscar consideration, but the publicists behind it dropped the ball. And so the film was left in the dust, not really eliciting any kind of attention until February of this year when it got an under-advertised release. I hate it when actors tout their disappointment that they weren't nominated but in this case Harrelson is absolutely right about himself (Academy by-laws disqualify him from 2012 contention). It's the triumph of his career, a role as dangerous as De Niro from the '70's."
"Brandon Cronenberg's 'Antiviral' will undoubtedly be, family name not withstanding, a warped ride and a tough sell for most audiences. Yet, underlying all the weird and macabre elements is a brutally focused performance from Caleb Landry Jones that borders on brilliance. Jones gives everything he has into this role and goes to such deep, dark depths to become his character Syd. So much so that he really makes us feel both the nuance and bluntness in the intense physicality of his role. It's a fascinating and unsettling story that wouldn't have half the effect without Jones' contributions and conviction."
"I've got to give it to Denis Lavant for his role(s) in Leos Carax's 'Holy Motors.' 'Holy Motors' -- which may end up being my favorite film of 2012 (Disclosure: 'Zero Dark Thirty,' 'Django Unchained,' and 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' are the only prestige films I have yet to see) -- is a marvelous film about many things. It's a mediation on film genre, filmmaking, and an acutely and masterfully self-aware thesis on how films react with their audience. But, in the case of Lavant's role, it's also a deconstruction of the acting process. Throughout the film, Lavant is shown getting in and out of different characters -- both physically and emotionally -- to tackle each of his mysterious 'appointments.' This act, and Lavant's brilliant execution of it, is not only a daring and multilayered performance, but one that showcases the emotional struggle actors go through in order to prepare and dedicate themselves for each role. There were many fine performances in 2012, but I suspect only Lavant's is the one that will stay with me for years to come."
"Matthew McConaughey deserves special mention for a range of high-quality performances this year, but as the credits for 'Holy Motors' tell me, Denis Lavant had 11 in just one film. Slowed by age but still acrobatic and balletic, Lavant embodies his director's worn enthusiasm, if not outright cynicism, even as his spry movement and constant reinvention proves how much life cinema still has as it moves beyond 'visible machines' and cameras heavier than us."
"A very hard question to answer, especially in my case when I have yet to see the likes of 'Lincoln' and 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Ones that immediately come to mind are Michael Fassbender in 'Prometheus,' John Hawkes in 'The Sessions,' Quvenzhané Wallis in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games' and the leading trio in 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower.' Additionally Javier Bardem's performance in 'Skyfall' is one that re-energizes and in my eyes makes the film. In my mind 'The Dark Knight Rises' showcases the best ensemble of the year so far and I was tempted to go for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in that film due to the underrated nature of the role and the way in which he makes it look so easy. On the underrated and perhaps rather snobbishly overlooked note, Andrew Garfield gives a very commanding and believable performance in 'The Amazing Spider-Man.' However the best performance of the year so far that I have seen is probably Liam Neeson in 'The Grey.' In that film he had to confront some very raw and very real emotions considering his personal past. It is a film that very much relies upon his performance and in some quiet yet emotionally loud scenes at the beginning and end of that film, he says so much by saying nothing at all."
"In 'The Master,' Joaquin Phoenix isn't acting so much as he's exorcising some inner, enraging distraction in a way that begs for comparison with the last great performance directed by Paul Thomas Anderson: Daniel Day-Lewis's in 'There Will Be Blood.' Freddie Quell is one for the ages."
"For me, it's easier this year than it's been in a long time: Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master.' I think it helps a lot having the counterpoint of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and both performances are great, but Phoenix is nothing short of magnetic. Some might think Phoenix takes the physical tics of Freddie Quell too far, but he's able to capture a seething rage and crippling uncertainty beneath it all. Instead of vast natural expanses (barring one scene), the marvelous detail of 'The Master''s 70mm image is put to use largely in close-ups, and no face is under as much scrutiny, and reveals as much depth and mystery, as Phoenix's."
"Denis Lavant, 'Holy Motors.'"
"Marion Cotillard in 'Rust and Bone.' I was shocked when I met her and realized she still had her legs."
"Without a doubt, Denis Lavant in 'Holy Motors,' doing the work of the entire cast of 'Cloud Atlas,' times ten, in the service of a far more powerful movie. If he were a known Hollywood quantity, the Oscar voters would be shitting themselves over the physical and emotional heavy lifting he does here, and Carax's complicated conceits wouldn't work without him. It's a stunning piece of acting."
"Matthias Schoenaerts in 'Bullhead.' Like Michael Fassbender in 'Shame,' he can convey a life's story twitching a muscle."
"The best performance I saw this year by anyone was given by Lily Rabe in a Shakespeare in the Park production of 'As You Like It' over the summer here in New York, but since we're talking about just movies and not art in general here, I'm going with Denis Lavant in 'Holy Motors' -- hardly the most outside-the-box of choices, I suspect, but really, the multiple roles he plays, the wide range of emotion he's called upon to evoke and sheer freedom and joy he finds in tackling each role-within-a-role simply beggars belief. (Runner-up: Anne Marsen as The Girl in Jacob Krupnick's glorious 'Girl Walk // All Day.')"
"Hrm. I grant that Channing Tatum was shockingly good in 'Magic Mike,' DDL in 'Lincoln' and those two guys from 'The Master,' but I'm going to cheat here and say that Stephen Root in 'Boardwalk Empire' had by far the most delicious, compelling performance of the year, and provided me with by far the most fun I had watching someone perform on screen."
"Michelle Williams, 'Take This Waltz.'"
"If I were doing best performance in a scene I'd have to go with Matthew McConaughey in the final sequence of 'Killer Joe.' For a more complete performance, though, I have to go with Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master.' His facial work alone, which Anderson spends plenty of close-ups on, is enough to earn him some accolades. Add in the rest of the transforming performance and he has to be the stand out performance of the year. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Helen Mirren's work in the under seen 'The Debt.' Nuanced stuff."
"I'm not a radical progressive, but I do consider myself a liberal, and I applaud you for breaking down the strangely sexist way in which we measure acting performances. I get gender segregation in Olympic sports, but for measuring artistic endeavor it seems like a strange holdover from a less enlightened era. Why not have an award for people under or over 40? Anyway, all this is tapdancing before giving the answer most people are going to give you: the best performance of the year is Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln.'"
"This struck me as a difficult question until I realized the answer is a complete no-brainer: Gina Carano in 'Haywire.'"
"I've got to go with Joaquin Phoenix [in 'The Master']. If only Cassavetes were still alive just imagine the psychodrama they could have made!"
"Truly, I'm not trying to be cute here. I've never previously considered a documentary for a performance award, and very likely never will again; after all, the subject is simply existing on camera. But no 'character' impressed or moved me more than Marina Abramović, playing the role of artist Marina Abramović, in the doc 'Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present.' The film chronicles the famous performance artist preparing for a 2010 MOMA retrospective, which Abramović, appropriately, turned into its own two-and-a-half month, 736-hour exhibition where she sat still, and silent, while spectators sat opposite her and... well, reacted, in a variety of often fascinating ways. What's the point? Is that really art? Exactly. And you thought Joaquin Phoenix was the most tortured soul on screen this year."
"Denis Lavant, 'Holy Motors.'"
"I think it would be very hard for anyone who's seen 'Holy Motors' not to pick Denis Lavant's varied, full-bodied performance as the one of the year. It's almost not fair, frankly. Runner-up would be the heartbreaking Rachel Weisz in 'The Deep Blue Sea.'"
"Even though the film is a mixed bag, Rosemarie DeWitt blew me away in 'Your Sister's Sister.' She speaks more volumes with a glance of her eyes shooting across the room than most actors do in an entire monologue. In that film's improvisational style, she always chooses the unexpected gestures to note her character -- the way a hand moves across the table or takes a uniquely motivated move across the space. Even when she gives a big monologue, it is not the text that is rendered beautifully, but her response to registering the emotions she has been hiding. I do wish the film was better for many reasons, but DeWitt is simply radiant, capturing the fear of the unknown with the flash of an eye."
"There have been dozens of fantastic performances this year, but the absolute best of the bunch, for me, is Liam Neeson in 'The Grey.' Such an intensely vulnerable, emotionally raw piece of acting, especially in the film's final act. Neeson's shouting match with God may be my favorite film moment of 2012, and Neeson deserves full credit for making the scene so emotionally powerful and immediate."
"The same weekend as 'The Avengers,' a very different sort of comic-book movie opened and promptly flopped in U.S. theaters: the Irish-made tragedy 'Death of a Superhero,' starring 21-year old Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the kid from 'Love, Actually') as a spandex-obsessed teen dying from cancer, who escapes into the world of his comics when real life becomes too much for him to bear. Brodie-Sangster's work is piercing and intense, and more than a little troubled -- his penetrating glares, which betray his overwhelming obsession with sex and death, seem to channel a much older actor, and he's very careful to make sure we don't feel sorry for him. In what's shaped up to be a banner year for young actors, Brodie-Sangster rises to the top of the pack."
"Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln.' It's pretty amazing how his Lincoln is both familiar and entirely new. I've been reading about Lincoln since I was four years old, but this, this is how I'll always picture him from now on."