Yes, you've probably already heard countless raves about a number of the actors and actresses on this list as many of them have been nominated or won some statues this awards season already. But sharing space with some of the more obvious names are actors and actresses we feel critics missed, audiences ignored and who are deserving of being given a second chance at making a first impression. These are the performances that leapt off the screen even in films we didn't necessarily love, and we can't wait to see what they do next.
Tom Hardy - "Bronson"
Is there any greater validation of Tom Hardy's loopy, loony and outrageously bold take on the notorious British criminal Charles Bronson (nee Michael Gordon Peterson), that after this film, Hardy was snatched up by Christopher Nolan for his cerebral actioner, "Inception" and by George Miller for the lead in "Mad Max 4"? We think not. Nicolas Winding Refn's "Bronson" is a highly stylized and theatrical chronicle of identity — in this case a man who finds his true calling as a sadomasochistic lifetime prisoner — and madness. But at the center of this batshit crazy and hypnotic film is Hardy who centers it all with a performance that's at once grounded, and wonderfully off the rails.
Ok, her small cameo in Tony Scott's otherwise noxious "Domino" was hilarious and stand-out (best moment of that outright disaster), but nothing, nothing could prepare us for the fierce, savage monster Mo'Nique transformed herself into for this manipulative ghetto drama. What's most shocking about "Precious" isn't the awful treatment of the title character; it's the brutal, raw performance from Mo'nique, who was previously best known for her stand-up comedy, a role on "The Parkers," and headmistress duties on "Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School." She beat out Julianne Moore and Penelope Cruz in this year's Golden Globes supporting actress race, and it's an entirely deserved victory. Her Mary Jones is one of the most appalling characters in recent memory, and Mo'nique brings an authentic viciousness that is enough to turn you away, except that you can't stop watching her. Her sad, wicked character conveys so much — her insurmountable insecurity, her colossal-sized fears that make her such an ugly brute — and while they might have been on the page, Mo'nique brings them to fully formed, difficult-to-watch life. You watch, the devastating final scene where she breaks down in the social worker's office will be her Oscar nomination clip. And it will be played about 30 seconds before she gets up on the podium and accepts her inevitable award. They might as well close up that category right now.
Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe - "Precious"
Yes, Mo'Nique is getting all the ink (see above), but Gabby Sidibe's quiet, understated turn as the abused titular character in Lee Daniels' "Precious"is the glue that holds this rickety and dubious picture afloat. Yes, we have three "Precious" actors in a apocryphal and largely counterfeit film we otherwise mostly disliked. It's a testament to their fine abilities that "Precious" is at all semi-tolerable. Lesser actors would have made the iffy movie a total wash.
Mariah Carey - "Precious"
Director Lee Daniels loves to boast that he's an actors director, a coach that can yield results and can push out a great performance out of any actor. "Precious" itself might be vulgar and crass tragedy porn, but perhaps there's no better example of Daniels braggadocio in Mariah Carey's very raw and naked performance as an empathetic, but tough social care worker who is obviously brutalized by what she has to see, hear and deal with each and every day in her job. Daniels just convincing her to not wear make-up and "uglify" herself might be award-worthy in of itself. If Daniels is truly this good with actors (and it's not just their own inherent talents), if he one day learns to get out of the way, he might eventually make a masterpiece.
Daryl Sabara - "World's Greatest Dad"
Arguably a film that deserves to be on our Most Underrated films of 2009 (coming soon!, Bobcat Goldthwait's hilarious and outrageous pitch-black twisted comedy about a pitiful father (Robin Williams) who fakes his son's suicide note to cover up his accidental death and then to profit from the literary hopes it gives him, is a little gem. And Sabara shines loudly as the insufferable jackass son; an hilariously infuriating and ungrateful twit who is contemptuous and insolent at every turn, but that provides the film's black comedy core. He started out as one of the lead "Spy Kids" in Robert Rodriguez's family franchise adventure films and could potentially steal the show as the "vato" character in "Machete" (a wigger-like role about a white kid who thinks he's a Mexican gangster that was initially pegged for Jonah Hill).
Blake Lively - "The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee"
How are you supposed to buy that a teenage girl would be in love with a much older, toupee'd Alan Arkin in Rebecca Miller's uneven, but still interesting 'Pippa Lee' (all due to the excellent performances)? The answer is apparently you hire Blake Lively who is so remarkably believable — and disarmingly outstanding — as the young, emotionally damaged Pippa, played as an adult by Robin Wright Penn (also quite exceptional), that it takes you aback. Apparently "Gossip Girl" doesn't really test or show her abilities, but this kid is truly on her way to stardom. And if you're thinking, "what?," well she's already blowing away Hollywood as we speak. She won the romantic lead in "Green Lantern" by reportedly acing her audition and knocking out larger stars (Jennifer Garner, Eva Green) out of the picture. She did the same with Ben Affleck's upcoming drama, "The Town" and he recently raved about her performance. Her moment is now. Mark our words, she will be on the movie A-list soon enough. What's more is she'll deserve to be there beyond her obvious comeliness.
Blanca Portillo - "Broken Embraces"
Yes, Blanca Portillo is consistently good in the supporting roles that Pedro Almodovar gives her (see "Volver") and indeed, the picture is carried by the strength of excellent performances by its two leads Penelope Cruz and the very underrated Lluís Homar (who arguably belongs on this list too), but in the role of Judith, the loyal agent who knows all the secrets in Almodovar's twisty and sprawling romantic neo-noir mystery-thriller, she is an important rock of empathy that grounds the sometimes over-ambitious picture.
Jeremy Renner - "The Hurt Locker"
It’s hardly an easy feat to establish his status as an action star and a dependable serious actor in one film, but Jeremy Renner walks just the right line to achieve that in “The Hurt Locker.” His quiet, simmering portrayal of a fearless bomb squad captain could have easily slipped into either “Rambo” caricature or some “lone wolf” platitude, but Renner dodged both those bullets. Instead, we’re left with a memorable, human performance and a new leading man who will dig into juicy roles like this one.
Charles Berling - "Summer Hours"
Oliver Assayas' wonderful and melancholy family drama is about three siblings that have to deal with the aftermath of their mother's death and what to do about their beloved summer reunion home now that she's gone. One sibling is immature and self-involved (Juliette Binoche), one is too preoccupied with his finances and China-driven family life (Jérémie Renier), but the most difficult role falls to Berling, the straight man — the family member who would love to honor his family by preserving their memories and legacy with the house and all it stands for. He is essentially the emotional core of the picture and the eyes of which we see this story through. When those family memories start to sadly disappear forever it is heartbreaking, yet part of cycle of life and Berling compassionately navigates us through it all.
Hye-ja Kim - "Mother"
Haven't we already waxed breathlessly enough about Bong Joon-Ho's stunning murder mystery procedural, "Mother"? The film is about the odd oedipal relationship between a mother and her vaguely-retarded teenage son who is convicted for a murder he did not commit. The boy clearly being her everything, the tireless mother essentially walks to the ends of the earth to prove his innocence. And of course, therefore the picture rests entirely in the hands of the lead, in this case, South Korean actress Hye-ja Kim. The captivating, twist-filled picture is dramatic, thrilling, absurdly funny at times and Kim outstandingly centers it with her tour de force performance that will make you a believer.
Eric Cantona - "Looking For Eric"
The brilliance of the idea to center a film around '90s French soccer superstar Eric Cantona has to rest at the feet of British kitchen-sink director Ken Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty. The picture, a film we saw at Cannes and will arrive Stateside sometime in 2010, centers on a single-father postal service man having a breakdown trying to deal with his difficult sons. His life in crisis, still mourning the break-up of his relationship some 20 years ago and bordering on suicide, he smokes dope and Cantona — his hero — appears and becomes his life coach, helping him through these tumultuous times. There might be a script in place, but with Cantona, it feels like the cameras are just turned in his direction and the charismatic philosopher just goes off. Obviously it was a huge leap of faith to anchor the picture around this figure, but Cantona not only knocks it out of the park, he's a sheer joy to watch and a big part of why this film perfectly straddles celebratory and feel-good tenors with such deftness.
Carey Mulligan - "An Education"
Last year it was, "Carey Mulligan, who?" And in 2009, ever since Sundance, the film community has been raving about Mulligan's tremendous turn as an effervescently precocious, but naive teenager in Lone Scherfig's coming-of-age tale in early '60s, swinging England. There's some, not completely invaluable, criticisms that the picture is a little too saccharine and hallmark-y, but wherever you ultimately land with it (we generally think it's great, yes, large part due to Mulligan), it's undeniable that her performance, full of flush emotion and genuine awe and wonder — imagine a shuttered-in teenager who finally wakes up to the vibrant adult world around her — is a terrific piece of work that has already turned the actress into a bonafide star. Thank god Mulligan has been discovered, cause she's a gem (watch her two minute performance in "Brothers" and you're like, "damn" cause she still makes a severe impact). We'll say it now: the Oscar Best Actress award is undoubtedly hers.
Abbie Cornish - "Bright Star"
Jane Campion's sumptuous and beautiful tale of the chaste romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne presents a difficult obstacle for the leads: as Keats and Brawne spent a good portion of time away from each other, how do you transmit the growing passion of their relationship? Up-and-coming actress Abbie Cornish faces the challenge with a delicately nuanced performance that wears the expectation, disappointment, desire and pain of the doomed relationship across her beautiful face. Aided by Campion's breathtaking shot compositions, Cornish reveals the depths and complexity of her feelings in the subtlest of movements, crafting one of finest, mature and measured performances of the year. The fact that it's likely to be ignored by Oscar this year, is down right criminal.
Paul Schneider - "Bright Star"
Yet another sadly overlooked performance from a criminally underrated picture. Wait, that's not entire true, there were raves for Schneider's performance; many from people who otherwise didn't enjoy the film (silly nitwits), but regardless, award season talk has been negligible. Schneider arguably broke out in his first starring role in David Gordon Green's "All The Real Girls," but sometimes an actor has to re-remind audiences he or she exists. Most "tea-cup dramas" are sorely lacking in a sense of humor, but Jane Campion's 18th century romance tale has a beguiling sense of playfulness that Schneider runs with in his depiction of John Keats' jealous best friend. He shows his unexpected range in the picture and, despite his sometimes wonky and vacillating Scottish accent, he practically steals every scene he's in.
Christoph Waltz - "Inglourious Basterds"
Whatever you think about Quentin Tarantino's hellzapoppin' World War II fantasia one thing is undeniable: Christophe Waltz, as Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa, is fucking brilliant. From the opening sequence, where Landa interrogates a French farmer suspected of harboring Jews, Waltz showcases all of the aspects that make him such an unforgettable villain: his sideways humor, his verbosity, his sly ability to seem compassionate when conducting evil, and his cunning intelligence. And Waltz pulls it off gorgeously, in scene after scene, a worming agent of deceptive evil. A couple of years ago, Waltz was a nobody, appearing mostly in German television productions. Now, combining this performance with a big role in Michel Gondry's "The Green Hornet," and he's all anybody can talk about — in English, German, French or Italian. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar is his to lose.
Tahar Rahim - "A Prophet"
Jacques Audiard has directed some of France's most interesting actors — including Romain Duris, Vincent Cassel, and Mathieu Kassovitz — and his star in "Un Prophete," Tahar Rahim, seems poised to join their ranks. Rahim is in almost all of the gangster drama's scenes, and he inhabits the role of an inexperienced criminal who makes a dramatic transition during his prison sentence. One scene in particular stands out, where the nervous, tightly wound character of the title prepares to make his first kill, and tension radiates from every muscle. Hollywood already beckons, and he's set to star in Kevin Macdonald's "The Eagle of the Ninth" next. Keep an eye out, he's off to the races.
Christian Friedel - "The White Ribbon"
For this his first ever film role, Christian Friedel is given the difficult task of being the emotional core of Michael Haneke's otherwise austere and chilly "The White Ribbon." Playing the school teacher who slowly becomes enveloped in the mysterious happenings in a German village in the onset of World War I, all while wooing a nanny who works for village's landowner and benefactor. Acting as a surrogate for the audience to allow us into the story, Friedel's carefully shaped performance powerfully turns from tenderness to outrage as the truth behind the incidents becomes revealed.
James Nesbitt - "Five Minutes Of Heaven"
James Nesbitt is certainly not a newcomer (his great turn in Danny Boyle's underrated "Millions" come to mind), and has been a solid character actor for years, however, in the overlooked "Five Minutes Of Heaven" he gives the kind of performance that launches sideline players into leading man status. In the revenge thriller (which was barely released in the United States and that we ended up seeing on a plane of all places), Nesbitt plays a man haunted and nearly destroyed by the murder of his brother in the religious wave of violence that gripped Belfast in the 1970s. When he's given a chance, decades later, to confront the murderer he grapples with the decision to avenge his brother's death. Nesbitt practically leaps off the screen with a snarling, menacing, raw-nerved performance that let's us see the emotional burden that has nearly rotted him to the core. As we wrote in our review, while we may not see him toplining any films, we hope it puts him on the radar of some of Hollywood's finer directors.
Xavier Dolan - "I Killed My Mother"
The twenty-year-old Xavier Dolan became the toast of the Canadian press when his directorial debut "I Killed My Mother" (which he also wrote and starred in) took home three prizes at Cannes: C.I.C.A.E. Award, Prix Regards Jeune & SACD Prize (Directors' Fortnight). And with good reason. His film, a tender gay coming-of-age story that is also a profile of a difficult mother/son relationship comes vibrantly alive due to Dolan's absolutely magnetic performance. We haven't seen a young screen presence like this in years, and his portrayal of gay youth trying to find his place in the world hit all the right notes.
Margareta Levieva - "Adventureland" - The sexpot role in a teen comedy is usually fairly thankless and requires very little from an actress aside from being able to look hot. While Margareta Levieva is certainly a looker, it's her work with Greg Mottola's smarter-than-usual script in "Adventureland" that grabbed our attention. While the character of Lisa P. is there to function as the pinnacle of teenage male desire, Levieva finds the right balance of sexiness and vulnerability, crafting a role that presents a surprisingly strong female character that is as complex and interesting as the male lead. Levieva's resume isn't that extensive and from what we can see, there isn't much on her plate but we hope that changes soon.
Michael Stuhlbarg - "A Serious Man"
For some perplexing reason, the Coen Brothers' darkly comic period film "A Serious Man" came out this year and… nobody really gave a shit. While this is a pretty standard response to the Coens (there is usually a lag time between one of their films coming out and it being appreciated), it was a real shame that the film's star, Michael Stuhlbarg, couldn't capitalize more or his outstanding lead performance. A Tony-nominated stage actor, Stuhlberg delivered a finely tuned performance that, at any moment, could have veered into caricature or parody. As a Jewish college professor in the Midwest in the mid-'60's whose life is coming undone, his high-pitched hysteric, mixed with a deeper crisis of faith, imbibed what could have been coldly Coens-y, into something genuinely real.
Anna Kendrick - "Up in the Air"
Anna Kendrick had kind of a banner year. Not only did she reprise her role as Bella Swan's human teen sidekick in the hugely successful "Twilight Saga: New Moon," but she also got to, you know, act in Jason Reitman's downsizing drama. A lot of the movie's quick-fire wit is supplied by Kendrick's excellent handling of the script's ratatat dialogue. But more than that she supplies the movie's emotional center, anchoring, however momentarily, George Clooney's brash corporate ax man. It's her fragility, her ability to slip from a well-manicured corporate ladder-climber to a messy human being that makes all the snarky back-and-forth actually worth something. For a great example of her heartfelt comedic command we refer to the scene on the pier, when she tells Clooney he's an asshole.
Bailee Madison - "Brothers"
In Jim Sheridan's adaptation of Susanne Bier's film about a man who is shattered by his experiences in Iraq and the effect it has on its family earned attention for the strength of the performances by its three young cast members. Overlooked, however, was the vital role played by Bailee Madison as the family's eldest daughter Isabelle. In the second half of the film, she is given scenes with the kind of depth that would test even the most seasoned of actresses and with jaw dropping confidence, she more than capably stands her ground with the rest of the cast. The frightening metamorphosis her character sees in her father is expressed with trembling eyes, body language and anchored by a dinner sequence that is central to the entire picture. It's remarkably assured and crafted work from such a young actress, and is one that should be a career changer for her.
Alden Ehrenreich - "Tetro"
Francis Ford Coppola's might have been frustratingly uneven as it was always on the verge of greatness — Francis, know that we love you, but the stylized homages to Powell & Pressburger didn't really work — but thankfully this very personal family drama about a young adult (Ehenreich) who goes to track down his MIA older brother in Argentina (Vincent Gallo) was rich in humor and bittersweet emotional textures that often hit very close to home. Arguably, the film was another stand-out performance for the hilariously and constantly annoyed Gallo, but Ehrenreich is a revelation and a wonderful discovery as the young boy who doesn't understand the complex family history, nor why his brother no longer loves him. His desire to reconnect with him at all costs is so humanly heartbreaking. This kid is definitely going places. It's only a matter of time.
Honorable mention goes to Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster for their amazing work in "The Messenger." We've had our eye on Foster for sometime now and included him in our Breakthrough performers of 2007 (three great turns that year: "3:10 To Yuma" "30 Days of Night" and "Alpha Dog," even though some of those movies are very spotty). Harrelson has obviously been around for a while, but it's nice when he reminds us just how bloody good he can be. We'd love it if either of them were at the Oscars this year.
— Kevin Jagernauth, Jace Brittain, Kimber Myers, Drew Taylor, & RP.