23. Ivana Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth
In 1944 Falangist, Spain, fairy tales do not exist with the war going on all around. A young impressionable girl named Ofelia is sent with her pregnant mother to live with the sadistic captain of the Spanish army who also happens to be the Ofelia’s new stepfather. He is abusive, callous, and cruel.
In order to escape from the confines of her new life, she begins to explore the labyrinth hedge maze on the grounds. Lead there by a fairy, she meets a faun who informs her that she is really a princess. In order to prove herself to be royalty, she must survive three insurmountable tasks. This is all for the chance to meet her real father, the king.
The performance from Ivana Baquero is one of the greatest child performances ever. She gives a sweet, but sad portrayal of a girl living in a futile existence who only dreams of escaping with her mother to their savior, her father, the king.
22. Denzel Washington in Man on Fire
Mexico is known for being a kidnapping capital of the world. Children are the unfortunate bearers of this. Enter John Creasy (Denzel Washington), a former CIA operative whose demons have destroyed a once heralded career. He is hired to protect a local wealthy man’s child Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning).
After a failed suicide attempt, Creasy begins to build an almost father/daughter like relationship with Pita. Soon after she is captured and Creasy is nearly killed trying to protect her. Once he comes around the killing begins as he searches the underbelly of Mexico for the angel that saved his life.
Washington has played action heroes plenty of times before this and since. However, none of them are as well written or played to perfection quite like this one. The late and wonderful Tony Scott’s focus is on keeping this jarred and out of focus at times. It mirrors the performance and character created by Washington here. He has one goal and one goal only. He will get Pita back to her family at any cost. We can only think that is a shame that the academy overlooks performances in films like these.
21. Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman
Nicole Kassell’s film The Woodsman, based on Steven Fechter’s play of the same name, explores themes that are taboo in the society. Child molesters are never going to be a big hit with filmgoers, as they should not be, but, Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of Walter is so tragically realized that you cannot help but feel something for the man.
After spending twelve years in prison, Walter returns to his old stomping grounds. With a new job, and prospects of a possible life, Walter tries to overcome the demons that have haunted him all his adult life. Walter has been cut off from his family, no friends, and soon finds that starting over may be even harder than he originally thought.
Bacon plays a man who is shunned by everyone in society for a past unforgettable transgression. He is looking for forgiveness, so much as a chance to begin again. This is a part that, in the wrong hands, could have approached villainy quickly. Walter is a guy who looks to atone for his sins.
Bacon does not play him for sympathy, no, he grapples with terribleness of this man’s actions and past in way that the viewer empathizes with his plight. It really is a tour de force for Kevin Bacon. A man who has ironically been shunned by the academy for his entire career. This performance being no different.
20. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman is probably best known for his wildly strange writing which includes many odd scenarios and characterizations of odd people. In his directorial debut, he has created a world that theater director Caden Cotard (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) inhabits.
Cotard is coming off a great run of the production Death of a Salesman. Now, he is looking for an upstart production, an idea that is fresh and genuinely original. After getting a grant to make his masterpiece. He embarks on a quest that takes many years. He is trying to create the ultimate piece on realism. Cotard finds an abandon warehouse and begins to have a set built that mirrors the city around them.
Sadly, earlier this year we lost an acting giant. Looking back on this performance, we can all marvel at the sheer ingenuity of Hoffman here on display. Armed with only his vulnerability, he gives quite possibly his best performance, of a man who is completely lost in obtaining perfection. As the years rapidly pass on film, Hoffman buries himself deeper into his character and gives a masterful turn as this damaged soul.
19. Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun
Hall Holbrook is one of those character actors that had such an impact on most of us film lovers. Many of you may remember his villainous turn in the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force. As an actor though, he is so much more than just some aging character actor. He is a legend. Just check out some of the videos that have captured his now famous portrayal of Mark Twain in, Mark Twain Tonight. Very few people can effectively carry a one man show. He is one of them.
Scott Teems’ film That Evening Sun showcases the talents of the graceful Hal Holbrook. Here is an aging Tennessee farmer who is living in a rest home after his wife’s death caused his brat son to put him there. No longer able to function within the confines of what he considers a prison. He breaks out and heads to his farm. Once there he realizes that things have change dramatically since he was sent away.
Holbrook’s face has lines and curves on display that show us a man who has lived a long, hard, but earned life. Missing his recently deceased wife, (Holbrook’s own wife Dixie Carter stars in the film as his dead wife, ironically she died right after production), Holbrook manages to create a character that evokes a sense of despair, regret, stubbornness, and hopefulness. It truly is his swan song.
18. Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others
Living in East Germany during the cold war was never easy for anyone, especially for people in the arts. During the early 1980’s, a playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria find themselves to be of interest to the Minister of Culture. It is deemed necessary for them to be observed to make sure they are staying with party lines and are not planning to defect.
Secret service agent Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is therefore giving the instructions to observe and record all of the couple’s doings. As the hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, and then months, Wiesler becomes enamored by the couple’s life and even more so by Christa herself.
Ulrich Muhe gives a nuanced, calculated performance as Wiesler. A man whose own life is full of mundane activities. He quickly finds that his only pleasure in life is to watch this couple and listen to their every word. There is a quiet burning that he feels for Christa and a sadness that Muhe hides so well in every gesture and with every look. Sometimes you can see the actor thinking of a line before it is delivered. Not with Muhe. He is an actor’s actor.
17. Michael Keaton in The Merry Gentleman
Michael Keaton’s character in his director debut, The Merry Gentleman is one of the most precisely beautiful characterizations of his career. From what can only be described as a romantic fable. Keaton creates a world in which all his character becomes unlikeliest of heroes.
A woman (Kelly MacDonald) sees a man about to jump to his death from the top of a building. She calls out to stop and ultimately saves his life. Unknowingly, she has saved the life of a hitman who is tired, broken, alone, and suicidal. Having just completed his “final” hit. She is on the run from her abusive partner and finds herself alone in the city. Interested in seeing if she saw anything the hitman decides to possibly kill her. What follows is the most unlikely of friendships.
Keaton has always been an undervalued performer and he showcases why here. He walks the line between being the conventional “film hitman” and an idiosyncratic meditative individual who yearns for human connections. He gives a dark, soulful, composed, and sometimes funny performance as a man who has nothing and looks to gain everything.
16. Audrey Tautou in Amelie
Amélie tells a story about a girl of the same name who has spent her life, having no real contact with anyone because of her father’s fears of her heart defect. Amélie lives in her own world of fantasy. As a woman, she moves to Paris and dreams of finding love someday. After a chance encounter, she begins to help others around her, find love in other people and within themselves.
Beautiful imagery is enhanced with the whimsical turn of the title character by Audrey Tautou. Showing a world of fantastical dreams and devotion to the love of others around her, Tautou breathes life into every scene she takes part in. Her performance is a one of a kind beauty that few ever get to immerse themselves in.