Oscar season is upon us, which means that awards are characteristically doled out to actors who have all given performances that fit neatly into a few narrow categories. First and most sickening, there’s the biopic role: this year, see Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, and Helen Mirren. Then there’s the “showy villain” role, inhabited nicely by Mo’Nique, Christoph Waltz, and Stanley Tucci. Finally, we’re left with the ingénues (male and female), who play that complicated, usually beautiful person who seems too complicated and/or put upon, until it becomes clear to the audience that they’re simply human. These roles often pop up opposite each other in romances, and this year’s crop of nominations belongs to George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, Jeremy Renner, Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Vera Farmiga, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Those who don’t quite fit in are typically a breath of fresh air. This year, it’s Penelope Cruz, Anna Kendrick, and Woody Harrelson (whose pure freakishness qualifies him).
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed quite a few of these performances very much, and no doubt they’re all talented actors. I mean, who doesn’t want to see Jeff Bridges honored, if not for puking in trash cans as Bad Blake, then for the everlasting genius of His Dudeness? (Though I would welcome a Harrelson upset.) Anyway, the Oscars never fail to fill me with a comforting disappointment and indignation. And who doesn’t enjoy that every once and a while? But back to the point of this post. I feel like this year there were so many satisfying, charming, impressively deft performances by actors in small, inconspicuous roles or films. Even if I can’t analyze the key to such performances, or parse the subtext behind every thespian’s eyes, here are six performances and characters who stayed with me this year (honorable mention goes to Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man, who was robbed in terms of Oscars but who has gotten so much critical praise that I can’t think of new things to say…):
Martin Starr (Joel), Adventureland
Adventureland was probably my favorite film of the past year. Everything about it was right, from the period details and the music to the finely wrought characters. Though Jesse Eisenberg’s neurotic, romantic James was the film’s lead character, Martin Starr’s Joel was, for me, the most memorable. Joel is a Russian-lit loving hipster who smokes a pipe and is quick with a clever joke, yet is insecure and drifting in his life. While James finds himself in the midst of the all-American coming-of-age-summer we see so often in the movies, Joel represents what these listless summers spent in limbo usually, more realistically, entail: trying to keep your dignity in the face of a humiliating job and a group of shallow acquaintances. Starr plays Joel with a pitch-perfect mixture of confidence and insecurity, and his affectations mask a growing unhappiness and fear about the future. “Girls aren’t going to go near me when there’s all these fucking yuppies around,” he complains, “Look at me: I’m ugly and I’m poor.” Starr delivers the line with the perfect comic touch. Much like his work in Freaks and Geeks, Adventureland gives Starr a chance to tap into the misfit in all of us. Hopefully we’ll get to see him in more juicy roles like this.
Alia Shawkat (Pash), Whip It!
Allow me to quote Rochelle, Rochelle: The Musical: let the naysayers nay. I was quite fond of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut about a high school misfit (notice a theme here?), played by Ellen Page, who discovers her calling in the hard-knock world of roller derby. What satisfied me most about this movie was its allegiance to female friendship, and gleeful willingness to abandon romance for the sake of it. Alia Shawkat, so wonderfully deadpan on Arrested Development, brings charm and sensitivity to her role as Pash, Bliss’s best friend and partner in crime. Despite the focus on the derby girls, this friendship stays at the core of the film. Shawkat captures her character’s conflicting feelings perfectly: the hurt, the jealousy, and the excitement. Even when Bliss has a dreamy romance with a rocker boy (the miscast and unfortunately named Landon Pigg), the audience is still thinking about the film’s more important relationship. Much like Joel in Adventureland, Pash is the character who doesn’t get to have that life-changing event; she helps us to see teenage friendship as it really is, with all the pain and frustration it can cause.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tom Hansen), 500 Days of Summer
Ever since the middle of the last decade when he released the double whammy of Mysterious Skin and Brick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven he won’t be another washed-up child actor. After a slew of offbeat performances, it’s refreshing to see him play something as straightforward as a love-struck twentysomething greeting card writer whose heart is broken by a flightly (and frankly, kind of heartless) girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Gordon-Levitt’s Tom is a prime example of how an actor doesn’t need a flashy role to show us their chops. Throughout the film, we see in Tom’s eyes his enchantment, insecurity, bewilderment and hurt and he embarks on a frustratingly unfulfilling romance. One of my favorite moments in the film is one of the simplest. Teasing Tom outside the bar, Summer asks, “Is it true? Do you like me?” Gordon-Levitt’s expression transitions from panicked to bravely embarrassed as he grins shyly: “Yeah, I like you,” he mutters.
Alec Baldwin (Jake), It’s Complicated
The rumors are true. It’s Complicated is one of those romantic comedies directed at Women of a Certain Age that features an attractive divorcee and a less attractive older gentleman falling in love, something they previously didn’t know was possible in their crusty, dried-up old lives. But I was shocked to discover that It’s Complicated was really fun, and funny, and actually even kind of ridiculous. And Meryl Streep blah-blah-blah best actress ever, blah blah beautiful and old, still marketable etc., etc., but much of the movie’s success is due to Alec Baldwin’s irresistibly goofy screen presence. Ex-husband Jake is set up to be your typical aging Lothario, a sarcastic good-life-livin’ Jack Nicholson type. But he’s not at all! As Baldwin plays him, Jake is a needy, good-natured teddy bear whose exuberance borders on the pathetic. He’s overweight and rarely shown onscreen not stuffing large amounts of pasta or other savory dishes into his impish face. Unlike, say, Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give, Jake (and Baldwin) has a sense of humor about himself and a willingness to admit that he’s a screw up and a baby and fat and kind of a dumbass. And it’s specifically this kind of lighthearted attitude that’s needed in romantic comedies these days.
Adam Brody & Amanda Seyfried (Nikolai & Needy), Jennifer’s Body
Jennifer’s Body was another underrated film of the past year. Sure, Diablo Cody can be annoying, but her brand of annoyingness is so well suited to tongue-in-cheek high school horror that I can forgive it in this case. Megan Fox got all the press, but it’s thanks to Seyfried, the movie’s real star, and Brody, that it all came together. Seyfried’s performance had a great sense of momentum to it, as she built slowly from the almost comically bashful girl into a swaggering, aggressive juvenile delinquent. Megan Fox was good enough as the vacant Jennifer, but Seyfried was the one who really captured the movie’s twisted take on female friendship. Similarly, Brody was the film’s comic savior as a Wentz-ian emo rocker with a taste for success—and blood. His stage presence, demeanor and singing on mock-hit “Through the Trees” was spot on, and even made me forget about Seth Cohen for a while.
Vincent Gallo (Tetro), Tetro
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Vincent Gallo?? THE Vincent Gallo? He of the conservative rants, the greasy-leather appearance, the onscreen fellatio, the offscreen self-obsession? Yes to all. So, yeah, Vincent Gallo is a ridiculous human. He’s the kind of celebrity that is so distasteful we feel as though he’s putting us on. And maybe he is, but that’s beside the point here. I think I might be one of three people who saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro (at least, that’s how many of us were in the theater), so you’ll have to take my word that it’s a crazy, quirky musical melodrama that’s at times absurd and surprisingly comical. I won’t try to explain the plot, because it tires me. I’ll just say that Gallo plays a character who is very much like his public persona, and like the latter, he plays it seamlessly. He’s an unreasonable, grouchy artistic genius who hobbles around on crutches with a demented, bug-eyed purpose. If you believe that some sense of humor lurks deep in the black heart of Gallo, you might even guess that he is poking fun at himself. Regardless, it’s an energetic and riveting performance worthy of unbiased attention.