25 years since his first Oscar nomination (for the mostly forgotten "Street Smart," in which he played a pimp, a part worlds away from the avuncular mentors he more often takes now), Freeman is so consistently good, even in terrible material, that it's hard to pick out an exceptional performance; he's simply the reliably excellent Morgan Freeman. But for our money, it's David Fincher's "Seven" that proves to be his most essential turn. The actor plays Det. Lt. William Somerset, who with Brad Pitt's Det. David Mills is tasked with tracking down a serial killer who's gruesomely recreating the Seven Deadly Sins in a grim, rain-soaked dystopia. It's a premise, and indeed a part -- world-weary cop on the verge of retirement -- that could very easily have become rote. But Andrew Kevin Walker's screenplay (and Fincher's career-making direction) are too good for that, and Freeman elevates the part into true greatness. He's a man who's seen terrible things that have damn near broken him, but they're nothing compared to what he's about to see, and his existential dread as things get worse and worse is immensely powerful. And yet there's real humanity to the performance too -- vital in a film without that much of it -- not least in a wonderful, paternal scene in which Mills' wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) confides in him. By the time he comes to open that fateful box in the climax, his moral dilemma, and desperate attempt to save his partner's soul, are truly heartbreaking.
We predict that it won't be very long until Cotillard's career finds new role that will trump her turn as Edith Piaf -- as our Cannes review suggested, she's extraordinary in Jacques Audiard's "Rust & Bone," which is already out in France. But it won't hit theaters here until later in the year, so it seemed unfair to include it. But that shouldn't diminish Cotillard's once-in-a-lifetime performance in the 2007 biopic "La Vie En Rose." Cotillard had been a star in France for some time, thanks to the "Taxi" series, and had started to appear in Hollywood fare too, cropping up in Tim Burton's "Big Fish". But few suspected that she had a performance like this waiting to be revealed. Playing the singer from her teens to her 40s, while the film itself is somewhat shallow and conventional, Cotillard (often unrecognizable thanks to some Oscar-winning make up) is incendiary, passionate and deeply emotional, so much so that it doesn't matter that she doesn't perform the songs herself. She'll appear in better films, but will rarely have a better showcase than this one.
Like Freeman, Caine has done his fair share of crap, and yet has remained remarkably consistent in that crap (and, it should go without saying, in the many great films he's made too), and as a result, he was the hardest one of all to choose a single performance from. In the end, we went back all the way to one of his very first starring roles: playing anti-Bond Harry Palmer in Sidney J. Furle's still-thrilling adaptation of Len Deighton's spy novel "The Ipcress File." Palmer is an army sergeant transferred to British intelligence, to help solve the "brain drain" of seventeen top scientists, kidnapped and returned with their knowledge of technical matters gone. Palmer is a working class chap, forced to become a spy after being court-martialled for black market racketeering, and Caine plays him as if Jimmy Porter in "Look Back In Anger" had been drafted into MI5. And yet, in his own way, he can be just as suave as 007, womanizing and brawling, but there's much more of an edge to him, as he carries a subtle resentment of his higher-ups (who reprimand him for insubordination). And Caine gets better material than Connery ever did; impressive and heroic as he's kidnapped and brainwashed over weeks, possibly even months. While the film isn't as well known these days as it should be, the influence of Caine's performance (which he'd later reprise four more times, to increasingly poor effect) certainly lives on: Daniel Craig's James Bond owes as much to Caine's Palmer as it does to any previous 007s, and there's a trace of him in Gary Oldman's George Smiley too.