Written by Blake Peterson
January 1, 2016
Actors aren't as interesting as actresses simply because they aren't always given oppotunities to really perform. Look at Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert Redford: a lot of the time, they're good, but prove themselves to be a presence, not necessarily an artist stretching their abilities much further than what's comfortable. To impress me ain't easy. Here are some of the greatest performances by actors that I witnessed this year. (Priority is given to most recent ones, with performances in rediscoveries omitted.)
in Snatch & Spy
Jason Statham’s just fine when he’s a serious action hero, but there’s something about watching him comedically showcase himself that really gets me going. Is it the accent? The way his expression never changes when saying even the most ridiculous of a line? He doesn’t get to sarcastically play it straight very often, but when he does, it isn’t hard for me to go down in shambles. He’s an under-appreciated performer in the comedy genre — keep in mind that he gets as many, possibly even more, laughs than co-star Melissa McCarthy in Spy. In Snatch, he’s the deadpan center.
Brad Pitt in Fight Club
Brad Pitt’s ‘90s career contains some extraordinary work, and Fight Club, his last film in a tremendously performed decade, is a highlight. A charismatic but also slightly insane soap maker/Fight Club organizer whose identity isn’t necessarily what you think it is, his Tyler Deardon is a positively explosive figure of ‘90s cinema. Edward Norton might be the lead of the film, but don’t be surprised when you find that Pitt runs away with the whole movie.
Joe Mantegna in House of Games
House of Games is a movie where success relies on the triumphant telling of a lie and the effortless delivery of a con, and, as the film’s leading man, Mantegna is given the difficult task of spreading David Mamet’s tricky sheen without doubt on the viewers’ part. No problem for the actor — so slick and confident is he that telling the difference between a falsity and a truth becomes a head-scratcher. You’d swear he were a con man prior to the film’s events, his showmanship being so invincible.
John Travolta & Samuel L. Jackson
in Pulp Fiction
I don’t know if it’s so much that Travolta’s performance is astounding as much as it is embedded in the memory in the best of ways. He undergoes the done-to-death role of the dimwitted career criminal with conviction that rings with comedic wonder. Paired next to a brassy Sam Jackson, his buffoonery causes sizable guffaws — and let’s not forget his scenes with Uma Thurman, which make for some of the greatest of all time. The former is his better half, a Bible verse throwing badass with a Jheri curl dreams are made of.
in Harper, Cool Hand Luke, & Nobody's Fool
I’ve never thought of Newman as being a versatile performer, more a presence whose very standing in a room sends powerful waves through the air that makes him a godlike figure. Throughout his career, this ability never waned. Cool Hand Luke sees him at his sharpest, his most susceptible, Harper at his coolest, Nobody’s Fool at his most wily. He’s one of my favorite actors simply because he seems like an average Joe (just movie star good looking) thrown onto the screen for everyone to see.
Art Carney in The Late Show
As The Late Show’s central grump, Art Carney is Philip Marlowe without cool or optimism, so cranky and indebted to his beer belly that the screen has perhaps never seen a private dick so annoyed with crime. He seems able to eye roll when looking down the barrel of a gun — sigh, danger again. Carney’s performance is dandily deadpan, and he has terrific chemistry with Lily Tomlin. A delight.
Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon
Pacino has remained a screen legend because he does more than just perform: he becomes. His 1970s contain some of the best work by an actor, and Dog Day Afternoon is among his top moments. As a dumb bank robber more driven by passion than intelligence, he sells the character like a Miracle Mop — instantly and with unbreakable enthusiasm.
in A Fistful of Dollars
The fact that Eastwood is a supporter of Donald Trump and Ben Carson may have been the worst thing I’ve heard about an actor this year, but it won’t change my opinion on his screen personality, which maintains vitality despite awful political views (sorry, you persnickety 85-year-old). His role as The Man With No Name remains his most iconic (second is Harry Callahan), and A Fistful of Dollars, a great spaghetti Western, is the film that started it all.
Jack Nicholson in The Shining
I have a few issues with Nicholson’s casting in The Shining only because his mental deterioration is none too shocking, considering Nicholson has, no offense, a slightly malevolent persona. But once the psyche of his character snaps and he becomes a villain for the ages, few performances ring as startlingly effective as Nicholson’s does — him merely passively sitting down turns our blood cold, and the remembering that he’s playing someone fictional never crosses our mind.
Kevin Spacey in American Beauty
You don’t want to like Kevin Spacey — he’s always so smarmy, so seemingly condescending — but because he so often times seems like a man covering his emotionally bare interior with sly confidence, his performances almost always ring brilliantly. American Beauty contains such a characterization. To play a man going through a midlife crises is a cliché that seems endless, but Spacey gives the stereotype a whole new meaning.