I continue to be in awe of Marion Cotillard’s sublime turn in La Vie en Rose (to give an idea of the extent to which she disappears into this role, the picture on the right shows the actress [top] plus stills from the film of her Edith Piaf as a young girl and older woman). I have little doubt that Cotillard will end up the winner of my coveted “Best Performance of the Year (Male or Female, Lead or Supporting)” award.
When you think about it, the idea of separating acting awards by gender is horribly sexist. Can you imagine the medical industry giving out a ‘Best Female Neurosurgeon’ award? And why do they always save the “best” for last by giving out Best Actor after Best Actress, just as they always give out Best Drama after Best Comedy at the Golden Globes? I’m all for honoring as many performers as possible, but why use gender as the divider?
So in that spirit, I started singling out one actor each year in 1999. Here are my choices since then, chronologically.
1999: Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry)
Swank’s gut-wrenching performance as Brandon Teena was so good it prompted me to create this award. She believably pulled off the woman-posing-as-a-man thing, but the real power came in the combination of thrilling freedom and overwhelming helplessness she conveyed. Incidentally, five of the eight performances I’m listing here were nominated for Oscars — this is the only one that won.
2000: Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me)
One of those performances that rarely gets recognized amid actors playing the famous or the infirm (or both, as in the case of Jamie Foxx in Ray). Ruffalo played a guy… just a guy. A guy with problems who means well but can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing. There isn’t a moment in this film where I didn’t completely believe Ruffalo was Terry Prescott, and I didn’t want to stop watching him.
2001: Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr.)
I can’t say enough about how good Naomi Watts is in this David Lynch mind-bender. She starts out in the Nancy Drew mold, a bright-eyed ingenue trying to make her mark in Hollywood who gets embroiled in a mystery. By the end of the film, she is playing something else altogether (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers). Often actors are praised for being unrecognizable from one film to another — here, Watts pulls that off from one scene to another. Extra credit for pulling off one of the most passionate love scenes I’ve ever seen. And double extra credit for that scene being with another woman.
2002: Daniel Day Lewis (Gangs of New York)
This is a rare case where a performance is so good it actually makes the movie itself worse. To clarify: Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill Cutting is so chillingly larger than life that Leonardo DiCaprio’s softie is never close to his match. We’re building up to a showdown between a lion and a mouse. But that’s no knock on Day Lewis, who emerges from the woodwork every few years to deliver one of these unforgettable chameleonic performances. Word is he’s done it again in There Will Be Blood.
2003: Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl)
The only performance on this list that is now immortalized in a theme park ride. Four years and a billion dollars later, the story has become show biz legend — Depp shows up with his idea to play Captain Jack Sparrow as a fey take on Keith Richards and the Disney brass reluctantly give him the OK. Smart move. Sparrow is one of the few characters in recent years who will go down as a cinematic icon.
2004: Gael Garcia Bernal (Bad Education)
Bernal must have a great agent — he picks one winner after another. Of the six films I’ve seen him in since 2000, four have made my top ten lists (three in the top five). His performance in Bad Education is his best yet. He plays a young man trying to con his way into a movie, and also a haunted transvestite in scenes from that movie. As the homme fatale in this gay noir, he’s a wonderful mix of charm and danger.
2005: Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow)
In a year that gave us Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar and Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, it’s pretty amazing that my award wound up going to a Memphis pimp. I knew from the opening scene that Terrence Howard had knocked this one out of the park. He nailed the speech patterns and mannerisms of this wannabe rap star, but the true magic of his performance is how he sells the theme of redemption — especially in a powerful moment where tears stream down Djay’s face as he listens to a gospel choir.
2006: Penelope Cruz (Volver)
Here’s the second Almodovar movie on this list — a testament to the peerless auteur’s magical touch with actors. I have never been a big fan of Cruz’s, probably because I had only seen her English-language films. Small parts in two other Almodovar films caught my attention, but nothing prepared me for her work in Volver. This is a performance worthy of Hollywood’s golden era. Her huge, expressive eyes (not to mention her huge, expressive chest) sell every tragicomic moment in this very funny, very sad film.