There are movie stars, celebrities and personalities that we just can’t stand. Many have the ability to completely ruin a movie for us just by making an appearance. For instance, it is impossible for me to fairly enjoy anything that Anna Paquin is in. I’ll admit that I was able to tolerate the underrated “Open House” this year, if only because her part is tiny, and also she gets murdered. But I’m waiting for the day she turns around and does something I appreciate because of her appearance. Or, at the very least, just doesn’t grate my nerves.
I believe it could happen. In the past year I warmed up to at least 10 people who I never liked at all before. There were also a number of people who fell out of my favor or disappointed me, such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Johnny Depp, and to a lesser extent Michael Cera, but I have no doubt I’ll like something they do in the future so I’m staying away from such negativity in order to highlight those individuals who surprised me in 2010.
1. Natalie Portman (in “Black Swan”)
The most pleasant surprise came from Portman, who I expected great things from after “The Professional” only to be let down and annoyed by her in stuff like the “Star Wars” prequels, “Garden State” and even “Closer,” for which I didn’t feel she deserved an Oscar nomination. But I think she does a terrific job in “Black Swan.” She actually acts. Or maybe Darren Aronofsky is one of those actor’s directors who can get a great performance out of a so-so actor (see Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Marlon Wayans in “Requiem for a Dream”). Regardless, it’s the first movie I’ve thought she was good in since she was 12. Her character annoys the crap out of me, but that’s a different story. We’ll see if she can hold my interest in the rom-com, pot-com and comic book movie roles she’s got for us in 2011.
2. Helena Bonham Carter (in “The King’s Speech”)
This is a tough one, because HBC was still really irritating in 2010, mostly in “Alice in Wonderland.” I can’t even stand her voice in the Oscar-shortlisted animated short “The Gruffalo.” But I will give her credit for being a little less grating in the latest “Harry Potter” movie than I expected her to be. And most importantly I was smiling wide at how subdued she is in “The King’s Speech,” allowing for Geoffrey Rush to do all the hamming instead. I do think HBC is a decent actress, but her relationship with Tim Burton has taken her away from the kinds of roles I prefer her in. The last film I think I really appreciated her in this much was “The Merry War.”
3. Rebecca Hall (in “Red Riding: 1974,” “Please Give” and “The Town”)
Now I should just blame Woody Allen for how excruciating I found Hall in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” She’s really amazing in her minor “Red Riding Trilogy” role and the best thing about “Please Give.” There’s something that still rubs me a little the wrong way about her in “The Town,” but in general I’m suddenly all about this actress. Enough to want her cast as the love interest in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
4. Eliot Spitzer (in “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” and “Inside Job”)
Like most New Yorkers, I was extremely let down by Spitzer after his scandal and resignation from office, and like most moviegoers I finally warmed back up to him through his appearances in two documentaries this year. One is completely focused on him, while the other is like a sequel in which he’s relegated to part of an ensemble. I’m not about to start watching his CNN show or anything, but his frankness in each of those films had me recalling why I liked him, at least for a politician, in the first place.
5. Joan Rivers (in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”)
Another personality who won a lot of us back by letting a documentary crew get up close and personal. Rivers was my favorite guest host of “The Tonight Show” back in the ’80s, but she fell far from my favor over the last 20 years. The film, which like most docs about comedy/comedians can be quite depressing, also reminded me of how hilarious Rivers is. I also — and I rarely think this about old people with plastic surgery who aren’t my grandmother — would love to give her a hug.
6. Cameron Diaz (in “Knight and Day”)
I normally find Diaz untalented and unattractive, two things that aren’t that appealing in a person often cast as the female romantic lead. I know she’s got both in her, though, because she acts well in “Being John Malkovich” and looks pretty good in “Charlie’s Angels.” While in the former she plays against type, here she — like costar Tom Cruise — plays with type, as in she found the fine line between actually being an obnoxious and oblivious blonde and subtly, knowingly satirizing that sort of role. Whereas most celebs think they need to exaggerate when playing on or with their image, and most do so in cameos on “Entourage” and films set in the film industry, Diaz managed to make it seem like she wasn’t doing anything different. That way she can still appeal to the same fans who follow her into stuff like “In Her Shoes” while also impressing people like me.
7. Drew Barrymore (in “Going the Distance”)
Apparently the thing to do with Barrymore is put her in more comedies where she can say the F-word a lot, talk about dry humping and penis tips and smoke from a bong. And yet she doesn’t have to lose her sweetness in going to the R-rated side. I still think she’s a bad actress, but at least she wasn’t a very bland one in “Going the Distance.”
8. Nicole Kidman (in “Rabbit Hole”)
I’ve been a Kidman fan, actually, for years and years, but I’ve begun to grow tired of her more recently. And, due to her plastic surgery, pretty turned off from looking at her. But I did come to a realization while watching “Rabbit Hole” that my love and hate of Kidman comes from the same place, which has to do with my identifying with her. If I can simply accept that she’s always going to be a cold, emotionless and tactless person in every movie, I can accept her. It works better for some films, like “Dogville,” “To Die For,” “Birth” and now “Rabbit Hole,” than others. She just can’t be expected to be lovable, and for some reason when she’s supposed to be completely lacking in feeling (“The Stepford Wives”) that doesn’t really work either. One thing that’s also different with “Rabbit Hole,” is that I believed Kidman’s character probably was a warmer person at one time, before the tragedy, and she does actually emote in ways I haven’t seen from Kidman in a while. She actually got me to tear up at one point, and that’s good for both of us typically uncompassionate types.
9. Dax Shepard (in “The Freebie”)
I never really thought much of anything about Shepard. I figured we’d rarely cross paths anyways as long as he did movies like “Employee of the Month.” Still, his name and face nearly kept me away from giving “The Freebie” a chance, and it was only thanks to my crush on director/star Katie Aselton that I checked it out. And wouldn’t you know, he’s great in the movie, particularly in the climactic argument scene. I highly recommend the movie (especially to people in their 30s), partly because of how great he is in the end.
10. Adrien Brody (in “Splice” and “Predators”)
Like with Portman, I never thought Brody was good enough for an Oscar nomination, let alone a Best Actor win. And he hasn’t done much since to convince anyone otherwise. And after “King Kong,” I never would have suspected I’d buy Brody as an action hero, either, but he does a shockingly good job in the satisfyingly sufficient “Predators.” Meanwhile, I’d like to see him play a mad scientist (not hammy mad, just believably corrupted) in more movies after “Splice.” No more dramas or quirky comedies, though. He’s apparently going to make a great lead after all, just not in anything remotely serious.
Honorable Mentions: Lisa Kudrow in “Easy A”; Julianne Moore in “The Kids Are All Right”; Minnie Driver in “Conviction”; Sean Combs in “I’m Still Here”; Jim Carrey in “I Love You Phillip Morris”