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Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Best Supporting Performances of 2008

For the best lead performances of 2008, check out the first half of this feature, posted yesterday (The Best Lead Performances of 2008). Today, we move on to the supporting performances. Just as Brett Favre is nothing without his receivers and every Cy Young award-winning pitcher should share it with the catcher who called the pitches, great performances are usually nothing without a great supporting turn to balance it. As mentioned yesterday, I loved Viola Davis in Doubt and Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road, but they're cameos, not supporting performances. One more exclusion - Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a LEAD in Doubt, not supporting, and he was mentioned there in the first half of this piece. A case could easily be made that Kate Winslet is a lead in The Reader and that her placement in supporting is just so she doesn't compete with herself in Revolutionary Road. I'm not going to argue with that but the role feels more supporting to me than other controversial, category-confusions of years past. Hoffman in lead, Winslet in supporting, it may be arbitrary but it’s the distinctions I made on watching the films, so be it.

- Brian Tallerico



A category that can often be tough to fill was not overwhelmingly easy to do so in 2008. Easily the weakest of the four acting categories, most of my favorite supporting actor roles came in two films - The Dark Knight and Milk. The former included a role that will likely earn a posthumous Oscar and that I'll get to later, but also included highly underrated work from Gary Oldman, doing his best work in years, and Aaron Eckhart, doing his best work ever. As for Milk, I'm worried that a split vote between Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch is going to leave all three without an Oscar nomination. They're all excellent but I've chosen my favorite below. Other outstanding supporting roles of 2008 come courtesy of Bill Irwin in Rachel Getting Married and James Cromwell in W., but, honestly, THE supporting actor of 2008 may be Ralph Fiennes, who rocked In Bruges, completely stole The Duchess, and found incredible grace in The Reader. After a slight downturn in his recent output, 2008 stands as one of the best years of this talented actor's career.


Four runner-ups/nominees in alphabetical order:

Josh Brolin as Dan White in Milk

Sean Penn is the centerpiece of Milk but this complex masterpiece from Gus Van Sant is about the impact that Harvey Milk had on the world around him more than the man himself. Milk would have hated a film about a martyr, so writer Dustin Lance Black made one about the movement and its impact on the people around Harvey. As much good as the movement did, it also caused unspeakable damage and pain to the clearly unhinged Dan White, the man who shot Harvey Milk. Why? It's still not completely clear. Public embarrassment over failed initiatives and the quite possible private pain of his own sexuality might have combined for a deadly mix. It's an incredibly complex role and Brolin nails it in every single way. Dan White could have been an over-the-top loony, the villain of the piece, but Brolin never goes there. The choices he makes for Dan are subtle, perfect, and add immensely to the fabric of one of the best movies of the year. It's Brolin's best work. If it wasn't for an already-legendary superhero villain, it would have been the best supporting turn of the year.


Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder

People who write off Downey's work in Tropic Thunder as one-note are not looking hard enough. There's SO much more than a stereotypical impression of an African-American in this fantastic comedic performance. In one part, Downey gets to play with war movie archetypes, racial issues, and the way actors pompously portray both. With a largely-improvised role, Downey rarely goes for the easy joke. Yes, there's the over-the-top stuff, but it's the little things that makes Kirk hilarious. The way he carries himself, his ridiculous Chinese accent, his conversation with Tugg about Oscar winners - all unbelievable scenes and done in a way that only Downey could pull off. Downey has a lifetime of experience dealing with egotistical, stupid actors and it takes a very smart man to make a character in a satire this broad seem so hysterically real.


James Franco as Saul Silver in Pineapple Express

James Franco finally graduated from generic dramas and Spider-Man movies to full-blown actor in 2008 with his great work in Milk and Pineapple Express. I'd be happy if he was nominated for either but there's something about his underrated work in David Gordon Green's excellent comedy that always makes me smile. Franco imbues Saul Silver with a quiet kindness that is really the key to the success of the buddy dynamic at the heart of the movie. His comic timing in Pineapple Express is impeccable and underrated. Just as he does with Penn in Milk, he doesn't try to steal anything from his lead, just adding to Rogen’s performance and the overall tone of the piece. That's a true supporting actor.


Eddie Marsan as Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky

Scott is one messed-up dude. Rigid to the point of insanity - he believes wearing boots effects your abilities as a driver - his cynical and slightly deranged worldview is challenged by the inverse in his latest student, the happy-go-lucky Poppy. The heroine of Mike Leigh's four-star film believes that there's no harm in trying to make everyone happy but Scott might prove her wrong. Her lackadaisical nature kind of drives Scott over the edge but Marsan makes his journey completely believable. I love how Marsan sells the fact that Scott can't deal with own internal reaction to Poppy. His rigid worldview has forced his brain to dislike her but his heart and possibly other parts of his body are drawn to someone unlike anyone he's ever met. Marsan clearly knows this character inside and out and he wisely doesn't just turn Scott into the opposite of Poppy. That would be too easy. Just as Poppy is complex, so is Scott, and the best actress performance of the year wouldn't be so memorable without Marsan's balance.



Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

What is there left to say about Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight? He not only makes decisions as The Joker that other actors wouldn't have made, they never would have even thought they were an option. Everything about Ledger’s work is riveting. It's one of those roles that only took minutes to sear itself permanently on your brain. No one who saw one of the most successful films ever made will ever forget this work, and decades from now, when they hear the words "Dark Knight" on an anniversary or a re-release, what do you think the first image is that's going to pop into their minds? It's not the Batpod. It's not Two-Face. It's The Joker. The word memorable doesn't seem adequate. More like unforgettable.



This one hurts. Unlike many, many years past, there are at least seven award-worthy supporting actress performances from 2008. It's remarkable to me that I'm not writing full paragraphs about Hiam Abbass' work in The Visitor or Elsa Zylberstein's note-perfect balance to Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long. Both would be good enough to WIN in some recent years but this was a strong one for supporting actresses. It should also be noted that Taraji P. Henson gives the best performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Amy Adams is great, not Doubt, that part's too easy and plays into her nearly trademark naivete...Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day. But none of them are as good as...


Four runner-ups/nominees in alphabetical order:

Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel in Rachel Getting Married

Clearly, I have a preference for lead & supporting performance pairs. Sally Hawkins wouldn't be as good in Happy-Go-Lucky without Eddie Marsan. Sean Penn is better in Milk because of Josh Brolin. And then there's Rosemarie DeWitt and Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married. I've made my adoration for what Hathaway accomplished clear, but it's only possible because of one of the best supporting casts of the year, headlined by the fantastic work by Rosemarie DeWitt. The Rachel of the title, DeWitt portrays a woman stuck between wanting to embrace the overwhelming joy of her wedding and handling her permanently damaged sister. What's great about Rosemarie's work is that it's a role that a lot of actresses would have allowed to descend into melodrama, but she never goes there. She's always genuine, adding quiet depth and believability to one of the most important days in her character's life.


Vera Farmiga as Erica Van Doren in Nothing But the Truth

In Nothing But the Truth, which we'll review in-full when it's released, the fantastic Vera Farmiga (who should have been nominated for The Departed and will likely get snubbed again this year for this role) plays a covert CIA operative who also happens to be a soccer mom. Her cover is blown by an intrepid young reporter (career-best work from Kate Beckinsale) and Van Doren has to deal with both the press and the people trying to get to the bottom of the leak. Farmiga is riveting in every single scene she's in. What I love about this performance is Farmiga's ability to go from PTA mom to government agent in the blink of an eye. There's an early scene on a soccer field when Erica realizes that the reporter is about to blow her cover and the sudden transformation from kindly neighbor to a woman that the audience can easily believe has taken a life with her bare hands is fantastic. And it's repeated later in a riveting scene with her CIA colleagues who start to distrust her. The biggest flaw with Nothing But the Truth? That Farmiga's character isn't the lead.


Marisa Tomei as Cassidy in The Wrestler

If Tomei gets snubbed again - she should have been nominated for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead last year - someone should initiate a government investigation. She's doing the best work of her career now and her only nomination is going to be her odd win for My Cousin Vinny? History will laugh about that discrepancy. Once again, this is a fantastic "counter-balance" performance but she's not so much the opposite of Randy 'The Ram' as she is a kindred soul. Tomei fearlessly bares her body and soul as a stripper who's just as far past her prime as her favorite client, the wrestler with the heart of gold. Like 'The Ram', Cassidy is happiest when she's entertaining and she's willing to use her body to do so. When Randy tries to get below the surface beauty and find something deeper, Cassidy retreats. It's one of the best performances of the year, lead or supporting. Can we just change the inscription on the My Cousin Vinny trophy to The Wrestler and call it a day?


Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader

Much more complete than her work in Revolutionary Road, the best actress of her generation (yeah, I said BEST...barely edging out Cate Blanchett) puts another notch on her belt with her work in The Reader. Once again, the word here has to be ‘fearless’. How many successful, young stars are willing to take a role as a Nazi who sleeps with a teenager and is forced to show a copious amount of skin through the film's entire running time? I'm not saying we should give out prizes for nudity, but the shocking amount of it in The Reader just goes to the argument that Winslet is willing to go to any lengths to make a character work. The nudity fits the part of a woman trying desperately to find warmth in her life again, even if it's in the arms of a teenage boy. But the emotionally riveting final arc of The Reader, which I won't give away here, is where Winslet shines. I don't believe this work is as good as her amazing turn in Eternal Sunshine, for which she should have won, but don't be surprised if she finally wins the Oscar for this one.



Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena

in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Kate's biggest competition this year couldn't be further down the film spectrum than Penelope Cruz's sexy, hilarious, and memorable work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Penelope creates a character that not only lives up to her slightly-skewed reputation - we hear a lot about Maria Elena before we see her - but makes her completely three-dimensional. Lots of actresses have played crazy exes in movies, but they're usually stereotypes, over-the-top soap opera characters. I fully believe that Maria Elena exists. I believe she's the kind of woman who you can't take your eyes off when she enters a room. I believe she's the kind of woman that you'd go back to even after she stabbed you during your last fight. Cruz doesn't just take the easy road with this character - she completely blends the crazy and the sultry into one mesmerizing mix.


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