Last year I didn’t attempt to do a year-end round-up of performances. Ranking any artistic achievement is always an arbitrary exercise of questionable worth, and I find comparing the apples and oranges of various films difficult enough; comparing individual performances is like comparing apples and accordions, or aardvarks and oranges, or something equally nonsensical.
So why do it? A couple of reasons. First, like any process of fitting unwieldy thoughts into a rigid system, it forces me to reexamine what I think about the work of actors and actresses in 2012, giving me an excuse to revisit a few performances I might have otherwise overlooked. More importantly, however, as I thought about the characters and performances I truly adored in 2012, I realized that quite a few of them were in films I had not gotten around to reviewing, and which might not make my Best Films of the Year list. (One or two of them, in fact, occurred in films I actively despised.) So this list gives me a chance to talk about a few of them for the first time, and recommend some films I had otherwise neglected.
Finally, it’s worth doing because it’s fun. Yes, ranking them in this way produces some arguably preposterous results—am I really saying a 6-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy are both somehow quantifiably better than Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix?—but I’m okay with that. Let’s just call them my favorite performances of 2012: the ones I most enjoyed, the ones I most admire, the ones that are likely to stay with me in 2013 and beyond.
15. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
While I have considerable problems with the film—and with the failure of Tony Kushner’s screenplay to dig deeper into Abraham Lincoln’s character—I have no issues at all with Daniel Day-Lewis’s characterization of our 16th president. This is a film that would not have worked at all without a convincing lead performance: Lincoln is a figure who seems as familiar as the coins in our pocket, and yet we really know almost nothing about his mannerisms, how he spoke, or how he carried himself. Day-Lewis, therefore, was working almost from scratch in crafting this portrayal of a man who looms so large in our imaginations, and the result is an almost flawless embodiment of The Great Emancipator. If Kushner and Spielberg had taken a more complicated, less worshipful approach to Lincoln—and given him something to work with besides speeches and folksy homilies—Day-Lewis’s subtle, inward-turned performance could have transformed the film into the classic it so badly wants to be. Read my review of Lincoln here.
14. Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games
Yes, I’m giving Lawrence some bonus points for her fine (and more loudly trumpeted) performance in this year’s Silver Linings Playbook. But it was her earlier performance in what was, to me, a much better film that really stands out in 2012. Genre films—and particularly franchise movies—rarely get noticed for their acting, but Lawrence’s performance is one of the things that makes The Hunger Games a huge franchise hit that is completely worthy of its success. Fans of the books decried the absence of Katniss Everdeen’s first-person narration in the film, but Lawrence’s thoughtful, centered, emotionally complicated portrayal is so strong that such voice-over would be not only unnecessary, it would actually be reductive. Go ahead: name me another fantasy or sci-fi film franchise with a lead actor this good.
13. Ann Dowd, Compliance
Dreama Walker’s physically and psychologically abused young fast-food worker in Craig Zobel’s Compliance is the more obviously demanding role, but veteran Ann Dowd gives a master-class in what being a “character actor” is all about. As Sandra, the restaurant manager who oversees the abuse and humiliation of Walker’s character—all on the orders of a voice on the phone—Dowd has the unenviable task of personifying cringing, eager-to-please acquiescence to authority in a way that will make us believe this stranger-than-fiction tale. It had to have been tempting to villify her character, but Dowd approaches Sandra with empathy and honesty, capturing the banality of evil in a performance that doesn’t have a single false note, an ounce of vanity, or the slightest hint of judgement. Read my review of Compliance here.
12. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
I’ve written plenty about why I don’t love The Master, but my frustration with it is in spite of—or perhaps because of—all the things that work so well in the film. One of the aspects that not even I can fault is the performances, and the best of the bunch is Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged, dangerous, utterly confounding Freddie Quell. Phoenix doesn’t play Freddie, he becomes him, fully committing himself—with great physicality and torrid depths of emotion—to the horrors within Freddie and the incompatible impulses they provoke. Whatever my issues with the film, Freddie Quell is one of the great film characters of the year, and Phoenix’s performance is painful to watch, exhausting to consider, and never less than fascinating. Read my review of The Master here.
11. Thomas Doret, The Kid with a Bike
Great film acting makes you feel as though you are watching a person, not a performance, and no character this year has seemed more real to me—or stayed with me longer—than young Thomas Doret’s Cyril in the Dardenne Brother’s The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo). A quiet but troubled young boy abandoned by his no-good father, Cyril is as authentic a child as we’ve seen on film, seeing at times with a child’s trusting eyes, and making decisions at others with a child’s cold, grim logic. He trusts the wrong people, fails to trust the right people, and throughout it all navigates the world furiously on his bicycle with a fierce determination and the kind of heartbreaking resilience that children shouldn’t have to have, but so often do. It’s such a simple, honest performance that you don’t want to applaud this kid: you want to take him home and protect him.
10. Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
The brevity of her role keeps me from placing Anne Hathaway higher on the list, but, honestly: if you can make me cry in a movie I hated as much as Les Misérables, you’ve earned a place in the top ten. Hathaway is on-screen for about twenty minutes in the film, but her almost guaranteed Oscar nomination will be for about four-and-a-half minutes of work: her raw, broken, unbearably moving performance of the song “I Dreamed a Dream.” It will also be completely deserved. If you’ve ever thought it unrealistic that characters in musicals can sing so loudly and proudly when they’re in the depths of despair—or dying from a horrible disease—this is the scene for you: Hathaway surrenders grandeur and vanity and sings from her character’s absolute hopelessness and shame. It’s a perfect marriage of lovely music with devastating acting that not only single-handedly justifies director Tom Hooper’s live-singing experiment, but also provides proof of how good a musical on film could be. One of those rare movie moments that becomes instantly iconic, Hathaway’s performance will be deservedly remembered long after the film around it is deservedly forgotten. Read my review of Les Misérables here.
9. Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31
Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 is the kind of slow, closely observed character study that lives and dies with its lead actor. Fortunately, the lead here is Anders Danielsen Lie, who makes watching what may or may not be the last day of his character’s life a mature, evocative, emotionally riveting experience. Beginning at dawn with the attempted suicide of Lie’s character (a recovering heroin addict, also named Anders), Oslo, August 31 then follows him through the next 24 hours of his life as he meets with friends and family, attends a job interview, goes to a party, and encounters small but devastating reminders of his own flaws and failures. Oslo, August 31 is often bleak, but it’s also remarkably humane, and resists every impulse towards obvious melodrama or cheap sentimentality. Lie—who is on-screen for nearly every moment—delivers a brilliant performance, offering an intimate view of a complex, contradictory man who may be running out of patience with himself. He wordlessly communicates huge internal shifts that turn on tiny moments, and seems to reveal each fascinating new side of his character like a magician producing coins from thin air.
8. Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea is another film that depends almost completely on its central performance; in this case, I think the performance is much, much better than the movie it serves (or the play on which that movie is based), but there’s no denying that Rachel Weisz is astonishing here. Sharing a lot in common with Keira Knightley’s title character in Anna Karenina (a performance that just missed my list), Weisz’s Hester is a philandering wife who has turned her safe life upside down for a man (Tom Hiddleston’s Freddie) who doesn’t turn out to be quite the romantic hero she’d made him out to be. We see her acceptance of that disappointment, and we also see her turning her love, desperation, and nearly hysterical need inward until it becomes a strange and stoic nobility. Neither Freddie nor the atmospheric-but-tepid movie are worthy of Weisz’s Hester, but it’s a wonderful performance.
7. Mads Mikkelsen, A Royal Affair
Denmark’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affære) tells the story of Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), an 18th-century German doctor who became the closest advisor to the mentally unstable Danish king, King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard—also extraordinary), and the secret lover of the Queen (Alicia Vikander). The film becomes a fascinating (and sometimes messy) tale of scandal, censorship, and political reform, but what holds it all together—and elevates A Royal Affair above the average costume drama—is the powerful gravitational pull of Mikkelsen’s quietly fascinating performance. He brings nuance, humor, and incredible depths of soul to a complicated character. Mikkelsen is already considered Denmark’s greatest actor—and is familiar to English-speaking audiences from his roles in films like Casino Royale—but his work here makes me want to seek out more of his Danish films, and makes me cautiously excited about watching him play a very different sort of doctor in next year’s Hannibal TV show.
6. Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
I feel like there is always a bizarre hesitation to give too much credit to young actors and actresses, as though their work—however good—is the product of the director’s art, not their own. I don’t, however, feel like there is any mistaking the extraordinary powerhouse performance of 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s rare for a film to depend so strongly on—and demand so much from—such a young actress, and it’s almost unprecedented to see one own the screen as completely and compellingly as Wallis does here. Natural, stunning, and without a single false note, Wallis’s Hushpuppy—a little girl living with her father in a makeshift bayou community outside the levies of New Orleans—has more depth, sensitivity, and emotional complexity than just about any other character I saw this year. It is one of 2012’s most impressive portrayals by any actor—of any age or gender—and one of my favorite screen characters of all time.
5. Michelle Williams, Take this Waltz
I feel like I fall in love with Michelle Williams every time I see one of her films, and then somehow I forget just how good she is and am surprised again when the next one rolls around. Writer-director Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz was one of my most pleasant surprises of 2012: it looks like a typical indy dramedy —and to some extent it is—but it boasts a sharp, constantly surprising screenplay, and a truly stellar performance from Williams. Margot—a married woman tempted by infidelity—is one of those slightly off-center roles you can imagine being insufferably quirky in a lesser actress’s hands, but Williams transforms this sweet, flawed, quietly out-of-control woman into a character with remarkable clarity, sadness, and luminosity. We may shake our heads or fists at Margot, and try to puzzle out just what is going on in her head, but we get the feeling that Williams knows exactly who this character is. The result is one of the most fully rounded, most endearingly human characters of the year.
4. Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
Not so much a single-performance as a series of startling transformations, Denis Lavant’s work in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors—like the film itself—defies easy explanation. However, like the film itself, it’s a breathtaking, provocative, euphoric high-wire act that thrills even as it puzzles. Lavant plays Oscar, a man who is chauffeured in a single day to a series of “appointments;” we see him putting on his costumes and make-up in the back of the limo, and then stepping out to assume a new identity in a new life. Lavant transforms into a homeless old woman; a mafia hitman; the father of a teen-age daughter; a dying old man; and a deformed, sewer-dwelling wretch who kidnaps a beautiful model—to name just a few. I can’t begin here to get into what the film may be saying—though I read it in part as an exploration of the art of filmmaking, and how the digitization of technology has blended the lines between performance and reality—but Lavant’s work is a tour de force. He leaps into each new identity fully, but each is built on the foundation of Oscar, the weary and wistful artist we glimpse in between each transformation. However you interpret Holy Motors, that consistent core of humanity makes all of Oscar’s identities a reflection of ourselves, and the many roles—lover, parent, villain, outcast—that each of us will play in our lifetimes. In the press-kit for the film, director Carax says of Lavant, “If Denis had said no, I would have offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin.” Based on the evidence of Holy Motors, Lavant belongs in that company.
3. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
The role of a dying and/or mentally ill character is as likely to get an actor unfairly dismissed as it is to earn her undue praise: the extreme physical demands and emotional outbursts required are showy, but they can often overshadow the character work behind the obvious markers of illness. There is no such question about Emmanuelle Riva’s exquisite, heartbreakingly complex work in Michael Haneke’s Amour, however: even as her character slowly—and sometimes abruptly—loses control over pieces of her body and mind, Riva never lets us lose sight of the smart, stubborn, vibrant woman to whom this is happening. Haneke’s intimate, harrowing film works so well, in part, because we see this final illness as just a stage of this couple’s love and life, not as the definition of it: the patient is not an inconvenient object, but a fully realized woman facing the last problem she’ll ever have. That simple, vital distinction—which movies about old age so often fail to make—depends here entirely on Riva, who—with a minimum of dialogue, and from the increasingly constricting confines of her character’s ravaged body—never lets us see Anne as anything less than fully human. We see the shame, guilt, anger, and despair of her illness, but we also see the long and rich life she has lived, of which this is the final affront, and the long, hard-fought love affair with her husband, of which this is just the final phase. It’s a delicate, devastating performance. Read my full review of Amour here.
2. Marion Cottillard, Rust and Bone
This high up on my list I find it hard—and somewhat unseemly—to split hairs between such phenomenal performances, and I begin to wonder why I bother to rank these things at all. But, when push comes to arbitrary shove, I’m forced to admit that I would cast my hypothetical ballot for Best Actress of the Year for Marion Cotillard, whose performance in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os) I watched with slack-jawed amazement. Rust and Bone has more than a hint of melodrama in its set-up—it is, after all, the romance between a bare-knuckle street-fighter and single father who strikes up an odd relationship with a sea-world animal trainer who has lost her legs to a killer whale—but around these elements are built a subtle and surprising screenplay and two incredibly complex performances. Matthias Schoenaerts is excellent as the male lead, Ali, whose carelessness and insensitivity about others is alternately infuriating and endearing. (How did I leave him off this list?) But Cotillard is nothing short of a revelation as Stéphanie, a woman we sense was already damaged and difficult before her accident and one who may, in fact, be only fully discovering herself now. It’s a fantastic performance—at turns haughty, hostile, vulnerable, sexy, funny, and fearless—as we see Cotillard establish this character, shatter her into pieces, and then reassemble her into a woman who is stronger at the very places where she was broken. Indomitable and indelible, it’s the best female performance of the year.
1. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Fifteen minutes into Amour, I found it impossible to believe that I would see a better actor all year than Jean-Louis Trintignant—and I didn’t. Delivering a reserved, precisely controlled performance at the center of a film that is an unrelenting emotional gauntlet, Trintignant’s Georges allows us endure it all because he endures. As the caretaker for his dying wife, Georges is the kind of role that seems tailor-made for “Oscar-reel” moments, and yet Haneke’s minimalist screenplay and coldly observant direction do not—thankfully—allow Georges flowery speeches or showy emotional catharses: his focus on his wife—both selfish and selfless—is so absolute that there is nothing else left to see. Though there are moments of devastating honesty when Georges’s anger and frustration break through, for the most part Trintignant must—and does—convey his character’s compassion, heartbreak, and exhaustion through his face and body alone. By the end of Amour, this stooped, shuffling, prickly old man has become as real to us as a family member, and watching him we know that what we’ve seen is just the final act in one of the great love stories of all time. “The best actors in the world,” Trintignant once said, “are those who feel the most and show the least.” At the age of 82, after a nearly 60-year career, Jean-Louis Trintignant has proven he is one of those actors, and he has delivered one of cinema’s finest performances.