5. Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Full of posturing and homage, Johnny Depp truly captured lightning in a bottle with his now pop culture icon in Captain Jack Sparrow.
Single-handedly selling Disney’s theme-park-originated multibillion dollar series, Depp saved a sure flop and earned an Academy nod in the process for his turn of drunken rock star swagger, clever one-upmanship and accidental escapes, which appealed to the most average viewer and critics alike. But for as much pleasure as there is to be had from watching Depp mascaraed as the loveable scoundrel, his consistency for caricature has revealed the minimal depths Depp has been capable of from the start.
His performance is affected, unconvincing if often hysterical in execution, and his charms are about equal throughout Gore Verbinski’s original three films, though some would say otherwise. The consensus was that Depp’s performance lost its luster after The Curse of the Black Pearl, but he’s essentially remained the same and maybe there wasn’t much to commend so fervently from the offset.
The Davy Jones Locker sequence from At World’s End might be his best scene, a surreal and hilarious bit tuned precisely to Depp’s quirks. This strange character was not unlike Depp’s roles of the Tim Burton ilk – and without the gothic extremities you have one of the defining characters of 21st century blockbusters.
But broken down to his performance alone, all the catch phrases, hand waving and grimacing boil down to more of a Looney Tunes cartoon than a character for the ages.
4. Michael Keaton, Birdman
The adoration of Michael Keaton’s acting in Birdman was always baffling. It was labeled a comeback, an effect the film’s meta-narrative certainly intended. But attempting to film a story of a washed up actor’s career redemption as played by a similar washed up Hollywood has-been is more than self-defeating. The allure of its obvious reflection of Keaton’s own life just makes the vanity and self-deprecation of his efforts that much more pompous and pointless to watch unfold.
Michael Keaton can act, but the frustrating performance he exerts here come off as desperate, an attempt to dig up long-buried glory and to be treated like an artist and not a just a fading star from another decade. Keaton has almost always appeared smug onscreen, and offering to strip the façade down to show his true nature only showcases his own bloated ego and shallow self-obsession.
This Best Picture winner has captivated many, but beyond the problems to be had with Iñárritu’s own filmmaking, the character of Riggan Thomson is a fatally flawed protagonist to begin with. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are just two examples of actors in this film that possess more conviction than Keaton, and yet Keaton is one who is programmed back into the limelight while greater talent is ignored.
3. Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
Steven Soderbergh’s most Cameron Crowe-like film turns the real life underdog tale of one woman versus a giant corporation into the something as close to complete sentimentality as Jerry Maguire.
At the titular center, Julia Roberts feels real enough as a struggling mother, quick to anger and enamored with a stubborn sense of righteousness, but the values and characteristics of the real Brockovich are lost beneath the veneer of Roberts’ own movie star spotlight-bathing.
The working woman’s fairy tale angle of Erin Brockovich puts Roberts’ in a position of playing to the masses as a smart-mouthed push-up-bra-touting hot mom when she should have been digging beyond the romance and moral monologues. But her crowd-pleasing performance was deemed great as recent popular history knows it.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Leo’s performance in The Revenant transcends acting to a point of non-acting – he engages in the cinema vérité of Emmanuel Lubezki’s immaculate visuals to just end up being a guy filmed grunting in the cold woods.
Can it still be called acting if you’re doing it for real? This was obviously a Hail Mary attempt for the most Oscar-repellant man in Hollywood to make his final plea for recognition, but climbing into a real dead horse and eating actual raw meat doesn’t define you as a legendary thespian. It is still fairly impressive in theory but quite pitiful on celluloid.
Of course, one could point out the list of toils and snares DiCaprio and the film crew had to overcome in order to create the scenic harshness of The Revenant, but noble efforts mean little when the results are pretentious and tiresome. The look DiCaprio gives to the audience in the final fourth-wall-breaking shot of the film cements his role of Hugh Glass as one of the most self-serving performances of the age, unsurprisingly directed by a filmmaker of equal delusions related to the reaches of his artistic gifts.
1. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
A case of being in the right place at the right time, J Law locked down a Best Actress win at only 22, just as her career as a new A-lister was taking off following The Hunger Games’ Potter-like success.
But was this performance in one of the better of David O Russell’s Oscar-yearning flicks actually worth all the fuss? mother! earlier this year seemed to confirm both the abilities and the borders of Mrs. Lawrence’s talent, though what she leaves on camera there and elsewhere is often very convincing.
It’s no surprise the Academy is privy to rewarding actors portraying those afflicted somehow, but in Silver Linings her bipolar character doesn’t require Lawrence to do much more than shout a bunch and make her scenario look kind of cute. Lawrence handled the monotone character of Katniss Everdeen with more grace than she could in this unconventional romantic comedy.
The ensemble film doesn’t really have a single performance to enhance anyone’s credentials save for Bradley Cooper who was at least a little out of his element. Though her stardom has waned as her private life has become more public, this moment of Lawrence’s early adulthood saw the divine pairing of popularity and project in order to win her Hollywood glory seemingly overnight. Rather undeserved as it was, nothing can take away from how full her career will likely be for decades to come.