2012 in Review: The Best Performances of the Year

From old pros to christened newbies, 2012 saw an impressive range in great performances. If 2012 had some of the best films to hit theatres in some time, this year had twice the number of award worthy actors. I recall having a discussion during TIFF regarding what my imaginary Best Actress ballot would be if I cast it that day. I think I listed roughly eight names that were worthy… and that was only covering performances I saw during the festival. Luckily, though, some of those stars had their films pushed back to 2013, so expect some of their names to come back into the discussion next year. (Cough, cough, Greta Gerwig.) Even though a few names were bumped back, there still isn’t room to give a shout out to everyone who deserves one. After much rearranging and revision, plus changing things again, I came up with a satisfactory list of the ten best lead performances and the ten best supporting performances. There was only one name that was never shuffled around the list, and that name that stayed atop the roster of outstanding lead performances.

The Best Lead Performances of 2012:

1. Christopher Plummer in Barrymore
“There’s a moment that comes once in a lifetime when all the stars seem to gather together and become one,” says Christopher Plummer in his performance as John Barrymore. That moment happens for the great actor in the filmed presentation of his turn as the iconic actor. Plummer literally pulls all the stars together in his wide-ranging interpretation, as he performs everything from Shakespeare to vaudeville and from theatre to film. Barrymore is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to study the minute details that tailor a performance for the cinema. In Barrymore, Plummer deftly transitions between theatricality and intimacy by accentuating his performance with small, subtle details that are discernible through only the acute eye of the camera. Barrymore might be the best performance of Plummer’s career and it leaves little doubt that he is the best actor ever to emerge from this nation.

2. Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina
Keira Knightley has been outdoing herself consistently these past few years. In meaty roles in films such as David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method or in smaller, more subdued affairs like Last Night, Knightley has demonstrated exceptional range and skill. However, Knightley performs best in corset and her inventive turn as Anna Karenina, one of the greatest female characters of all time, provides a career high. Tapping into Anna’s emotional fragility and vulnerability, Knightley shows her audience (both in the film and in the theatre) how Russian patriarchal society suffocates her tragic heroine more fatally than the tight strings of the stiff undergarment of her costume do.

3. Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone
An actress whose performances have been breaking my heart since I first saw her in A Very Long Engagement, Marion Cotillard gives one of her strongest turns yet as Stéphanie, the ill-fated whale trainer of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. Cotillard gives an intense, physical performance that convincingly creates the wounds caused by Stéphanie’s accident, but her character’s psychological healing is even more poignant. Cotillard skillfully captures the art of the dramatic turning point in a beautiful moment of silent acting set to the tune of Katy Perry, which is arguably the single best scene of any film this year. Who over knew that ‘Firework’ could feel so cathartic?

4. Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed
Winstead gives the breakthrough performance of the year as Kate, a turbulent alcoholic who tries to go sober in Smashed. Winstead is so good, in fact, that if one compares the similarity of her interpretation to that of Denzel Washington in Flight, this year’s other AA film, she makes the two-time Oscar winner look like a crash landing. It’s hard to make alcoholism feel so unflinchingly real, yet Winstead turns in the most sympathetic and immensely watchable take on addiction since Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.

5. Suzanne Clément in Laurence, Anyways
It’s too bad that Canadian cinema doesn’t enjoy the same kind of punditry that Hollywood does. If it did, everyone would know that the French Canadian powder keg named Suzanne Clément is the Daniel Day-Lewis of the Genie race. She is simply outstanding as Fred, the tumultuous and tragic lover in Xavier Dolan's Laurence, Anyways. Clément is so good, in fact, that she often had me recommending a film that I didn’t particularly like. (Say what you will about Dolan’s films, but there is no denying that he writes some juicy roles.) For anyone who has ever felt trapped in the frozen hell of suburbia, Clément’s performance is like a punch to the heart. Normalcy sucks.

6. Meryl Streep in Hope Springs
You know it’s a strong year for performances when Meryl Streep clocks in at number six on my list. (I will answer for this low ranking at the gates of Hell.) The cinema’s greatest actor gives another impressive performance in Hope Springs. Streep displays remarkable range after her well-deserved Oscar win for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. The scale of Streep’s talent is evident not just through her ability to do comedy just as well as she does drama, but also through how she can turn in such a deceptively natural performance as she does in Hope Springs after such an accomplished mechanical turn as she did in The Iron Lady. With her delightful onscreen chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones, especially in that dinner scene, Streep makes another noteworthy feat of movie magic.

7. Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
Jennifer Lawrence is a remarkable anomaly among Hollywood’s young actresses. Lawrence has made her mark by displaying her talent in roles that are age appropriate, but are far from fluffy. Lawrence’s ingenuity is evident in the range of roles that made her the female star of 2012. She began the year with the box-office smash The Hunger Games and gave young audiences the best female character they’ve seen in some time; however, Lawrence’s TIFF hit, Silver Linings Playbook, displays that she has that elusive “something” that makes a young actor a star. With her snappy banter with co-star Bradley Cooper (who is every bit as good as she is) and her spunky energy, Lawrence’s Tiffany is sure to make Silver Linings Playbook a comedy classic.

8 & 9. Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay in Quartet
“Growing old ain’t for sissies,” quote numerous characters in Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet. It was also Bette Davis who famously said, “I want to die with my high heels on, still in action.” As a pair of old flames/opera singers, Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay show that greatness is ageless and the very best artists deliver right until their final curtain call. Maggie Smith has always been this good and she has never been away from the spotlight, but she proved herself a triple threat by playing cantakerous old divas in Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and TV's Downton Abbey. In spite of the similarity of the three parts, Smith makes one appreciate it as if one is seeing her perform for the first time. She is every bit in her prime as she was when she played Miss Jean Brodie back in 1969. Courtenay, on the other hand, offers the film’s dramatic cornerstone by complementing Smith’s dramedy with his quietly graceful presence as the straight man of Quartet. Smith and Courtenay’s touching, yet entertaining, performances ensure that Quartet is moviegoing pleasure for viewers of all ages.

10. Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
On the other end of the scale from Smith and Courtenay is young ingénue Quvenzhané Wallis. Q-Dubs is a feisty little hurricane in the Sundance smash Beasts, and her dynamic, incredible power defies age and criticism alike. Regardless of whether Wallis actually understands the psychology of her character seems irrelevant for qualifying her performance since that begs the question that Hushpuppy understands the great storm in which she finds herself. The performance is therefore even more impressive if one interprets it all as a game of survivalist make-believe. Whether Wallis is pouring emotions from her soul or miming the actions of her director seems like a redundant question, since great acting is great acting. Period.

The Best Supporting Performances of 2012:

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the Master of his craft. He is always a commanding screen presence, but he has never been quite as forceful as he is in The Master. As the charismatic leader of a movement called The Cause, Hoffman creates a verbose, showy, and larger-than-life false prophet who casts viewers under his wily spell. Especially in his riveting “processing scene” with star Joaquin Phoenix does Hoffman offer the best Kool-Aid you will drink this year.

2. Pauline Collins in Quartet
Pauline Collins’ performance in Quartet absolutely broke my heart. As Cissy, one of the four operatic retirees, Collins receives the most difficult role in the fine quartet of Hoffman’s film. Often falling victim to slips of memory and erratic behaviour, Collins navigates tricky terrain and plays some moments for humour and others for heart. Her delicately well-balanced turn gives Quartet much of its tonal balance and dramatic heft: her final scene Smith is the film’s sweetest aria.

3. Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy
The 2012 award for onscreen bravery goes to Nicole Kidman. Kidman has been pushing herself into challenging roles lately without fear of squeamishness or censure. Kidman will go to lengths to which few other actors have the courage to take a character and she takes white trash to the curb with her gum-mashing, onscreen-peeing performance as saucy Charlotte Bless. Kidman’s fearlessly unflattering turn as the bronze-baked “Barbie hooch” of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy is her gutsiest, most vamped-out turn yet. I’m getting sweaty just thinking about it!

4. Helen Hunt in The Sessions
Hunt is the comeback star of 2012 with her marvellous performance as Cheryl, the sex surrogate who provides invaluable life support to Mark O’Brien (played by an equally good John Hawkes). Cheryl seems comfortable in her skin (big props go to Hunt for being so relaxed in this stripped down part), yet Cheryl’s own vulnerability and humanity make her sessions with Mark as transformative for her as they are for him.

Ezra Miller confirms himself to be the best actor of his generation by following his chilling dramatic turn in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin with his scene-stealing role as Patrick in Perks. Miller, however, provides far more than laughs and gives Perks its most potent dramatic/emotional arc in Patrick’s subplot with his closeted boyfriend and his subsequent celebration of being an outsider. Congratulations, Mr. Miller, you are one of only three actors who made my “Best of” list two years in row. The others are Christopher Plummer and Meryl Streep.

6. Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
Helen Hunt’s claim to the biggest comeback performance of the year is rivalled only by Robert De Niro’s surprising turn in Silver Linings Playbook. De Niro gives his best work in over a decade as Pat Sr., the neurotic gambling addict father to Bradley Cooper’s Pat. De Niro proves in Silver Linings that he can be quite funny (something that has eluded his recent work) and that he hasn’t lost his ability to throw as mean of a dramatic punch as he did back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Welcome back, Mr. De Niro!

7. Judi Dench in Skyfall
Bond might have remained dead if not for Skyfall. Skyfall is one of 007’s best outings thanks primarily to the depth of character revealed within the relationship between Bond (Daniel Craig) and his mentor, M, played by the consistently reliable Judi Dench. Dench has never been as strong during her 17 years with the franchise as she is in Skyfall and she makes full use of a role that puts M in the thick of the action by offering one of the best, if most uncharacteristic, Bond girls yet. Nobody does it half as good as you, Judi Dench!
8. Seema Biswas in Midnight’s Children
The heart of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children belongs to Seema Biswas in her moving performance as Mary, the nurse who makes a fateful decision at the stroke of midnight and changes the course of history. Biswas excelled in her lead performance in Mehta’s Water, but she outdoes herself in her touching, nurturing, and utterly heartfelt performance in Midnight’s Children.
9. Garrett Hedlund in On the Road
On the Road might have been the most disappointing film of the year, but one aspect of the adaptation proved worthy to the great American novel by Jack Kerouac. That stroke of genius, of course, is Garrett Hedlund’s incarnation of the film’s aimless drifter, Dean Moriarty. Hedlund’s rambling eccentricity and rugged charisma bring to life the lost soul of Kerouac’s novel with the kind of beat and grammar that a film of On the Road demands. This performance could—and should—have made him a star.

10. Jude Law in Anna Karenina
The first time I saw Anna Karenina I raved about Matthew MacFadyen’s scene-stealing performance as Oblonsky, Anna’s goofball brother with a Movember ’stache. The second time I saw Anna, however, I noted how much I took for granted Jude Law’s impressively stiff turn as Anna’s unloving husband, Alexei. A model of the patriarchal old guard, Law slides into his character so well that it’s easy to miss just how much he brings to this performance. For how cold and cruel Anna’s husband is, though, it’s awfully hard to dislike Karenin since Law portrays him to be as much of a victim of the times as his wife is.

I would still like to give a shout out to the great actors of the year that narrowly missed the cut are. Honourable mentions, in alphabetical order, go to: Evelyne Brochu in Inch’Allah; Billy Connolly in Quartet; Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook; Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem in Skyfall; Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln; Jane Fonda in Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding; Richard Gere in Arbitrage; John Hawkes in The Sessions; Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild; Joaquin Phoenix in The Master; Saskia Rosendahl  in Lore; Sridevi in English Vinglish; Charlotte Sullivan in Edwin Boyd; Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained; Naomi Watts in The Impossible; and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz.

What were some of YOUR favourite performances of the year?

In case you missed the rest of the '2012 in Review' series:

Part 1: The Worst Films of the Year
Part 2: The Best Canadian Films of the Year

Up next: The Top Ten Films of 2012!