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Critic's Picks: The Best Film Performances of 2012

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 11, 2012 at 12:20PM

We no longer live in the age of the method. The performances that stand out in current cinema radiate a self-reflexive intensity less impressive for how much they convince us of their authenticity -- although they do that -- and pertain instead to addressing viewers aware of the artifice.
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Abel Ferrara's "4:44 Last Day on Earth."

We no longer live in the age of the method. Setting aside Daniel Day Lewis' brilliantly convincing turn in "Lincoln," the performances that stand out in current cinema radiate a self-reflexive intensity less impressive for how much they convince us of their authenticity -- although they do that -- and pertain instead to addressing viewers aware of the artifice. Coming out of a brutal election season, we have been particularly attuned to the ways moving images capture the constructed aspects of human behavior. The challenge of today's actors is to embrace the tendency of audiences looking for transparent performances and transcend expectations. The best performances of the year dare us not to accept their legitimacy and then declare victory.

Of course, acting is a subjective task that audiences tend to fight over more than any other filmic ingredient. We encourage readers to share their own top performances in the comments. These are mine.
 

Denis Lavant, "Holy Motors"

As Monsieur Oscar, Lavant plays a half dozen peculiar roles over the course of one surreal day dashing around Paris in a limousine. Ranging from phantasmagorically bizarre to solemn, heated and downright insane, these characters convey a wide variety of attitudes particularly enticing for their progressive intensity. Lavant displays remarkable agility on par with his character in each progressive scene, which hammers home the main point: Every movie performance showcases people trapped by the medium recording them, which is why it makes such an ideal encapsulation of life experience.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:

Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"

Last year, Jessica Chastain starred in seven new releases, leading many to deem 2011 as her breakthrough year. It turns out that less is better in this case. Underutilized a few months back in "Lawless," she gets her moment to burst through the domestic mold that held back much of last year's output with "Zero Dark Thirty." As the ferocious, cunning CIA agent Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's marvelously suspenseful accomplishment, she's the center of a supremely ambitious effort. While Chastain showed potential for an aggressive screen presence in last year's underwhelming "Texas Killing Fields," here she gels perfectly with the immediacy of the subject matter, representing 10 years of post-9/11 emotions in the memorable final shot alone.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:


 

Tim Heidecker, "The Comedy"

Best known as one half of the irreverent comedy duo from "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!," Heidecker embodies a supremely obnoxious and over-priviledged Williamsburg resident committed to wisecracks regardless of whether or not anyone laughs. Usually, they don't -- and neither do we. That's the point. Rick Alverson's transgressive character study is a brilliant indictment of today's affluent class, largely because Heidecker excels at getting under our skin.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:

Louisa Krause, "King Kelly"

A grotesque complimentary piece to "The Comedy" that introduces the manias of a social network-crazed suburban youth culture to the equation, "King Kelly" literally assumes the perspective of its demented main character through her sloppy iPhone videos. Kelly annoys the hell out of her family and friends by thrusting her all-seeing phone at them as if it were an extension of her own eyes. And she's not the only one: Her pal Jordan's similar tendency enables director Andrew Neel to shift angles as well as broaden the perception of the entire movie exists within the vernacular of rebellious teens. Whether grinning ear-to-ear and shooting dauntingly flirtatious gazes at her peers or staring into the camera and announcing her insane self-confidence, Krause delivers a diva monster for the ages.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:

Willem Dafoe, "4:44 Last Day on Earth"

An obvious stand-in for director Abel Ferrara, Dafoe plays a troubled actor spending the final hours of his existence in a Lower East Side loft waiting for the world to end. Embroiled in passionate exchanges with his young wife, arguing with his ex-wife and daughter via Skype and struggling to avoid a drug relapse, Dafoe's character displays a full range of emotions gradually coming to the fore in sudden outbursts and sullen asides. His finest role in years, the character is a testament to his capacity for supreme understatement -- in this case, taking a ludicrous, half-baked premise and elevating it to the level of tragic poetry.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:

Next page: The best team-ups of the year (not counting "The Avengers").

This was a great year for onscreen chemistry, and while the following performers didn't make the cut for my very favorites of the year, they still deserve singling out for working so well together.

Kacey Mottet Klein/Léa Seydoux, "Sister"

Ursula Meier's Dardenne-like treatment of a lonely, thieving child and the solitary young woman who cares for him begins conventionally before exploding into a moving showdown between two characters who thought they understood each other in the same simple terms we think we do from the outset. Turns out they're as wrong as we are.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:


 

Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"

Cooper's turn as a mentally unstable man is an admirable effort to deepen his brand, but it could easily devolve into mockery and simple-mindedness without the furious energy that Lawrence brings to the screen. The result is an energized coupling sorely lacking from most contemporary romantic comedies.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:


 

Philip Seymour Hoffman/Joaquim Phoenix, "The Master"

Both Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook" and Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln" prove that old masters are still worth believing in, but the increasingly odd and provocative tension between Hoffman and Phoenix in "The Master" affirms their stature as the best performers of their generation. The movie's intensely cryptic approach to the nature of unfounded belief systems is transformed into a monumental statement through their mesmerizing showdowns.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:


 

Sacha Baron Cohen/Anna Faris, "The Dictator"

Believe it. Cohen's weakest effort behind the camera is still a hilarious satire of tyrannical extremes thanks to his characteristically wacky ethnic cartoon. With Faris' character, however, he's equally willing to poke jabs at the excesses of the American left. These unlikely lovers are absurdly oblivious to their eccentricities, which is Cohen's sly method of making it possible to laugh at them even as the filmmaker depicts a cycle of stupidity with no apparent solution.

Visit the Criticwire page here. Watch the trailer below:


 

This article is related to: Reviews, Best Performances 2012, Louisa Krause, King Kelly, The Comedy, Tim Heidecker, Willem Dafoe, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Denis Lavant, Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Léa Seydoux, Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, The Dictator





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