best performances of 2004: ready for their closeup…

Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
It’s a role that, in the hands of even another very competent actor, could have descended into pathos and sentimentality, but Cheadle’s performance goes way beyond mere competence: As an Oskar Schindler-type figure in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, he approaches incomprehensible horrors in a way that makes us intimate partners with him, taking his Paul Rusesabagina from a willingly blindered denial to stunned recognition to determined, if quiet, rebellion. We are not on the outside looking in — we’re on the inside with no way out, and no room for anything beyond the practicalities of staying alive.

almost as great
Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland
(combining the childlike charm of Peter Pan with the grownup sensibility of Mr. Darling, he treads that brink that productive creativity requires)
Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(with his energetically physical manifestation of the messy confusion of love and attraction, he makes comedy ache with meaning)
Javier Bardem, The Sea Inside
(to play a man who lives entirely in his head, he reveals a world of longing and suffering through only his face)

worth a look
Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite
Clive Owen, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Ewan McGregor, Young Adam

Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
In a story about hidden secrets and secret shames, Staunton brings it all to the surface and makes plain things that women have always known: we keep the world running on a day-to-day basis, doing all the dirty little jobs that need doing. Staunton bustles, with no nonsense and little to-do, through the myriad necessary life-supporting tasks women have performed since antiquity, her stony strength all the defense her character might require — for Staunton knows that few people want to face this level of reality, even if Vera’s never thought about it… until forced to.

almost as great
Annette Bening, Being Julia
(taking Hollywood’s disdain for “older” actresses by the horns, she dares us not to see her Julia as a woman in her prime)
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
(plumbing the complex depths of modern womanhood, her student of life — and of wine — teaches lessons both of the heart and mind, and learns some, too)
Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
(in a performance that goes way beyond impersonation, she brings the Great Kate Hepburn back to life)

worth a look
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Laura Linney, p.s.
Isabella Rossellini, The Saddest Music in the World

Brad Bird, The Incredibles
If I had to pick a single best performance of any type for 2004, this would be it. Director and screenwriter Bird took up the toughest role in his own film, but he doesn’t just lend a voice to an animated character: he creates a world, a history, a future… a whole life for one hilarious, outrageous woman, and all in just a few lines of dialogue. His Edna Mode instantly achieves a singular timelessness that I have no doubt will live in cinematic history as one of the most aggressively individualistic women ever to appear onscreen: a clip of Edna never thinking about the past will show up in Oscar montages 50 years from now, alongside Bette Davis’s bumpy night and Katharine Hepburn barking anything at Cary Grant.

almost as great
Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland
(reaching depths of grief and rage few child actors are capable of, and few child roles offer, he is unexpectedly, unrestrainedly passionate)
Andy Lau, House of Flying Daggers
(sublimating passion to duty, he breaks your heart as the left-out side of a romantic triangle)
Antonio Banderas, Shrek 2
(as fairytaledom’s most dashing and daring pussycat, his claws are out… but sharp only in the witty sense)

worth a look
Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Paul Bettany, Dogville

Lynn Collins, The Merchant of Venice
She came out of nowhere to wow us with a performance reminiscent of the steely presence of a Cate Blanchett and the wit of an Annette Bening, the sly femininity of a Michelle Pfeiffer and the womanly courage of a Susan Sarandon. Her Portia is the tricky heart of one of the Bard’s more contradictory works, required both to play a romantic game with an all-too-solemn outcome and to deliver dramatic gravitas while in male drag… and Collins navigates these dangerous shoals so adroitly that you want to cheer. We may well be witnessing the birth of a future superstar here.

almost as great
Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
(with grace and grit, her “good wife” becomes the conscience of her husband while never becoming just an adjunct to him)
Cate Blanchett, Coffee and Cigarettes
(playing against herself, literally, she proves she’s got range to spare, from elegant diva to pouty punk)
Caroline Aaron, Beyond the Sea
(she takes a role invented for ridicule — the loutish hanger-on — and transforms it into something profoundly moving)

worth a look
Belén Rueda, The Sea Inside
Sandra Oh, Sideways
Alex Kelly, Vera Drake

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
They bop through the film, bouncing off one another like human pinballs bursting with all manner of unspoken emotion but sublimating it, squeezing it out slowly through physical quirks and superficially mean-spirited snipes. All that’s on the surface is deliciously absurd, but warm undercurrents of love and respect buoy the film into a rarefied realm, where it works both as cartoon and drama.

almost as great
(working in a deliberately mannered style, they move together like clockwork to find painful truth in constructed artificiality)
I Heart Huckabees
(with their clowning and their goofing, they have some serious fun with lofty ideas but never lose the underlying discipline)
Coffee and Cigarettes
(see it to believe it: Tom Waits and Iggy Pop almost steal the movie from the likes of Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett)

worth a look
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Incredibles
Vera Drake

Looking back at 2004.
The Best and Worst Films of the Year
Best Writing and Direction
Best Production Design and Other Superlatives of the Year
The Most Memorable Movie Lines
The Funniest Bad Movie Lines
The Year of Activist Documentaries
2004 Films Ranked

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