Do Oscar nominated performances have to emerge from good movies? It's a bias so taken for granted that it's almost never spoken of, but the category reads Best Actor, not Best Actor in a Movie We Already Like. Who's to say that performers don't deserve recognition for triumphing over weak scripts, sloppy direction and productions flying apart at the seams. In a way it's more of an achievement. Anyone can do their best work in a Scorsese film. It takes a real actor to do it in Showgirls.
Val Kilmer in Alexander - Here is a perfect example. No three films on this list combined equal the elephantine mess that is Oliver Stone's Alexander. Lumbering along for three punishing hours, Stone's tale of Alexander the Great brought down a slew of great actors, making pros like Colin Farrell, Rosario Dawson and Angelina Jolie's seem like they were acting for the first time in their lives. Rising above the dreck is Val Kilmer who gives a memorably raging performance as Alexander's father. Kilmer was clearly reaching for greatness with the role, going all out, packing on weight and make-up and bellowing his lines to the Gods. This marks the second time after The Doors that an Oliver Stone mess has smothered potentially award winning work from Kilmer.
Mike Myers in 54 - Myer's performance as Studio 54 was a naked grab for serious actor credibility. Uglied up with a make-up job, he affected a voice, did drugs by the handful, and graphically propositioned Ryan Phillippe. That the film was a debacle, edited into near incoherence by the studio, obscured the fact that Myers actually did a pretty damn good job in the role. Like a lot of work on this countdown it's easy to imagine it grabbing an Oscar nomination if one were able to airlift it out whole and drop it down in a better movie.
Rhada Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda - All Woody's late career bad habits are at flying full-mast in Melinda and Melinda. The stilted dialogue, the undercooked drama, the situations recycled out of two dozen better Woody flicks - it may not qualify as terrible but it's all so thuddingly disposable. Cutting through the mannerisms is Rhada Mitchell, riveting as Dramatic Melinda and charming as Comedic Melinda. If Woody can pull it together for another masterpiece he should give Mitchell a chance to shine in one of his great female roles, not merely rescue one of his minor ones.
Jackie Earl Haley in Watchmen - Zack Snyder's carefully mounted Xerox of the classic graphic novel is such an airless adaptation that most of the actor's seemed more concerned with hitting their marks than with filling their scenes with something resembling human emotions. Haley's Rorschach is the exception. He's the only character who seems like he has real blood pumping through his veins, the only one who's actions seem dictated by his choices, not by the script.
Emma Thompson in Love, Actually - I might anger some people including Love, Actually in the list since a lot of people have great affection for this movie. Personally, I couldn't take it. Not only does it indulge in a whole buffet of romantic comedy cliches but it can't even be bothered to invest those with any attention, skipping merrily from character to character to pick off all the easiest emotional beats. I don't mind a little cinematic trifle but watching Love, Actually is like eating the frosting off an entire wedding cake. The only scenario that registered some genuine feeling was Emma Thompson as a wife coming to grips with her husband's betrayal. She imbued her scenes with such real pain it's as if Robert Altman grabbed control of the helm for a few precious minutes.
Irma P Hall in The Ladykillers - On the other hand, I doubt anyone will come to rushing to the defense of this movie, which is pretty much universally acknowledged to be the Coen's only total misfire. One of the many problems with the film is how erratic the tone is, shifting violently from scene to scene, and from performance to performance, and almost always landing way over the top. The whole cast and crew would have been wise to stop and observe Hall who is an island of professionalism and control amidst the chaos. It's a career capping triumph squandered on a dud.
Peter O'Toole in Troy - Troy is an unabashedly cheesy B-movie, which would be no great crime except that it insisted on wasting a boatload of Hollywood's finest actors on material unworthy of Adam West. Few escape with their dignity, but only Peter O'Toole escapes with a good scene. The moment when O'Toole confronts the man who murdered his son to beg for his son's body is so well acted by the old pro it almost makes the whole bloated money-waster worthwhile.
Josh Brolin in W - Stone again wasting some stellar work, this time blowing a solid lead performance from Josh Brolin in his shallow take on George Bush the II. Brolin clearly brought his A game to the set but the script seems to intentionally side-step the most interesting aspects of W's rise to power and focuses instead on W's greatest hits with little more depth than a Jay Leno monologue. Any resonance the film maintains as the years leave this movie behind will be entirely due to Brolin's masterful work.
Sheetal Sheth in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World - A surprisingly flat effort from the usually reliable Albert Brooks, Comedy has Brooks missing the heart of his material. Instead of focusing on finding the common ground in an alien culture, Brooks focused obsessively on why they did not find his act, specifically, hilarious. It makes for a strangely lifeless movie, but in it Sheth shines out brilliantly as Brooks' relentlessly positive assistant. She steals the whole show just by standing behind Brooks, beaming her thousand watt smile, and attacking every line with the energy the rest of the film lacks.
Hugo Weaving in Matrix Revolutions - The Matrix wasn't exactly an actor's piece to begin with, but by the final leg of the trilogy any trace of charisma from Fishburne or Moss had been swallowed up by the endless philosophical gobbledygook and the interminable, monotonous actions scenes. In the end, Hugo Weaving was the only actor who managed to find amusing little character moments amid all the apocalyptic sturm and drang. Weaving could even putting an entertaining sinister spin on lines as leaden as, "I'm going to enjoy watching you die." It's an instructive example of how a skilled actor can make a character interesting despite having practically nothing to work with.
Nick Nolte in Hulk - It's definitely stretching it to call this a great performance but damned if it wasn't entertaining to have Nolte show up after long, dull stretches of Ang Lee's failed Hulk flick, stomping in like a cross between a tasmanian devil, the Unabomber, and late-period, crazy Brando. Nolte sputters, growls, and generally flails about like he's on fire. It doesn't take long for Nolte's weird performance art to become infinitely more interesting than the film around it. The audience sits wondering, "Just how insane a performance can one manage to sneak into a major Hollywood franchise flick?" By the time Nolte is literally chewing on the scenery at the film's finale the answer turns out to be, "Much, much more insane than anyone would have guessed."