It’s been a standout year for movies, which means cinephiles have a lot to be thankful for going into the awards season. After an admittedly poor showing over the last few years, studios have stepped up their game and provided a bounty of films to fit every interest. Whether you’re a stoic action fan, a sci-fi adherent, a political junkie, a rom-com dreamer or an art house denizen, the chances are good that you have seen plenty this year to spark your interest.
Supporting, accentuating, and elevating the list of amazing films that have arrived over the last twelve months are a singular group of performers who have risen to the enormous task of bringing to life this year’s most challenging material. While some of the talent composed on the list below will not come as a shock, this year also saw several breakout performances and delightful twists on old staples.
So, accumulated for your enjoyment, here comes (in no particular order) 2012’s list of best performances in film:
Top 5 Males
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln): It’s getting easier to forget Daniel Day-Lewis’ contributions to film, since most people have simply come to expect nothing but unmatched excellence out of the actor. Those expectations would topple most, but Day-Lewis delivers another in a long line of stirring, uniquely inspired performances. More to the point, he managed to find in one of the country’s most mythologized figures a compelling and relatable human person.
John Hawkes (The Sessions): In the last few years, John Hawkes has received deserving praise for his tough guy performances. The ropy actor with intense expressions can set even the most steely-nerved veteran’s teeth on edge with a simple stare. It’s both startling and extremely welcome, then, to see him masterfully embody a lovably vulnerable quadriplegic in The Sessions.
Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Master): Ok, we snuck two into this slot, but acting doesn’t get any better than the give and take between these two expert thespians. The movie is truly Phoenix’s – and he more than rises to the occasion as the conflicted animal, Freddie Quell – but the soul of the film comes from the scenes shared between Phoenix’s Quell and Hoffman’s effete, troubled and brilliantly complex cult leader.
Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers): While he’ll never receive credit from the Academy for his Supporting turn, Hiddleston distinguished himself among a packed house of stars as the fiendishly unrepentant Loki. What could have been played as just another entitled brat became – in Hiddleston’s adept hands – a conflicted portrait of a man searching for his true place in the Universe. Bonus points for trying to find that place with the help of an invading alien army and a shadowy dictator (who was totally Thanos!) from the nether reaches of dark space.
Jack Black (Bernie): Mr. Black’s presence on this list is no mere honorable mention. The actor, most notable for stoner comedies and heavy metal-inspired goofballery, added to his dramatic resume with a wonderfully affecting turn as soft-hearted murderer Bernie Tiede, a real life funeral director who put some real life bullets in an old lady’s back. The facts of the case seem cut and dry, but Jack Black’s endearing performance turns the kept man into a well-meaning victim of circumstance.
Top 5 Females
Sally Field (Lincoln): History has cast Mary Todd Lincoln as the crazy person who was fortunate enough to clasp firmly onto a great man’s coattails. Sally Field even says as much during her riveting turn as the first lady who came, in her husband’s eyes, to represent the torment that the United States was forced to endure during the Civil War. While the part doesn’t shy away from Mrs. Lincoln’s problems with depression, Sally Field embraces the role and, in doing so, more than holds her own against Day-Lewis’ powerhouse President.
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook): Jennifer Lawrence became a household name as the stubborn, determined Katniss in “The Hunger Games”, but her talent is really showcased in “Silver Linings Playbook”, David O. Russell’s darkly comic look at life and mental illness. As Tiffany, a young woman recovering from the death of her husband, Lawrence puts up the strongest in a collection of excellent performances. Anyone who doubted the legitimacy of her talent – even after her gritty turn in “Winter’s Bone” – would have a hard time trying to find an argument against the idea that she is one of the most promising talents in Hollywood.
Helen Hunt (The Sessions): Helen Hunt is often overlooked in favor of some of her contemporaries (ahem, Jodie Foster), but shines as a sex surrogate in “The Sessions”. Playing opposite John Hawkes’ utterly charming Mark O’Brien, Hunt’s Cheryl is the compassionate professional who finds herself unable to maintain her usual detachment. This stranger than fiction true story is an unexpected and tender tale with much more depth than the premise (a man in an iron lung sets out to lose his virginity and enlists a sex surrogate help from his priest) suggests.
Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables): Tom Hooper did something revolutionary in the filming of “Les Miserables”. Rather than pre-recording and having his cast lip-sync the soundtrack, he recorded all of the musical performances live on set, a first in the history of film. Hathaway takes the opportunity to be startlingly different and delivers a stunning turn as the iconic Fantine. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is even more heart-wrenching than the trailer suggests and is unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house.
Charlize Theron (the villain): Okay, so Charlize Theron wasn’t in any of the year’s prestigious, Oscar bait films (for a change). Instead she held down supporting roles in two films that received lukewarm reception from audiences: “Prometheus” and “Snow White and the Huntsman”. While the quality of each film is debatable, Theron’s presence in each movie is nothing short of commendable. Given the role of the villain, Theron so thoroughly outacts the leading ladies opposite her that it becomes startlingly easy to root for the bad gal instead of the virtuous ones (doesn’t hurt that she plays opposite Kristen Stewart, that’ll make anyone look holy). Thanks are owed to Ms. Theron for elevating what could have been average antagonists to wickedly enjoyable forces of opposition.