Just like with Oscar ballots I'm weighting these with #1 as my top choice and so on down the list.
1. Albert Brooks - Drive
It wouldn't be right to say that it was shocking to see Brooks deliver this performance. Those of us who have been fans of his work forever know what a pro he is. No, the shocking part - as Brooks said in my interview with him - was that he was given the opportunity to play this part at all. Hollywood does love to keep actors in their tiny boxes. But in going outside the standard casting playbook for his action-noir's main heavy Nicolas Winding Refn hit the jackpot. This is the male supporting performance of the year.
2. Bruce Greenwood - Meek's Cutoff
You know what doesn't get discussed enough when when the film folk compile their lists? Originality. That, above all else, is the thing that makes Greenwood's work in Meek's Cutoff stick with me as strongly as it has. I have never seen this person in a movie before. I have never seen anybody close.
We all have an assumption how we expect a half-mad, crazy-bearded wagon train guide to behave. Probably some cross between Daniel Plainview and the Joker. Greenwood goes in the opposite direction making him thoughtful, even philosophical. He might be a fraud or crazy or both, but when he speaks his does so with disconcerting confidence and intelligence. We sympathize with the pioneer's inability to get a stable read on him, because we have the same problem. It's such a more powerful choice than the crazy-eyed coot this character might have been.
3. Shahab Hosseini - A Separation
Like everything else in A Separation what shines through the strongest in Hosseini's performance is the humanity. In any other film he would be the bad guy. He's a man with a short fuse, acting on questionable information, threatening the nominal hero of the film and his family with violence. Yet we can't feel anything but sympathy for him. It's a tricky role and Hosseini is attuned to every flicker of suppressed rage, right up until his brutal, heart-rending final scene.
4. Christopher Plummer - Beginners
Christopher Plummer's performance in Mike Mills' Beginners sneaks up on you with its power. All the small choices ("Hello, House") build on each other until we realize we how deeply involved we are with this man and his long-delayed grab at happiness. Then there are the moments where one just sits back and admire the skills Plummer has developed over a lifetime of great performances. Watch the scene where the doctor delivers the bad news again and notice all the emotions that play across his face as he absorbs the news. If he ends up winning an Oscar for this it won't just be a career appreciation gesture. It will be one of the most justly awarded trophies in recent memory.
5. Patton Oswalt - Young Adult
Much like the character Patton played in his great, under-seen Big Fan, Young Adult's Matt Freehauf bears a superficial similarity to Oswalt's onstage persona. And like that performance, Patton trumps any charges of lazy typecasting with the fierce commitment he brings to the role. He is essentially the audience's surrogate, reacting with appropriate horror to Theron's Mavis. But although he has all the self-awareness she lacks, that doesn't prevent him from engaging in the same self-pitying behavior or save him from falling for her despite his better judgement. It's a remarkable, well-judge piece of acting that takes Reitman's sharp dialogue and makes it feel stream-of-consciousness natural.
More Worthy Performances
Brad Pitt's stern disciplinarian father in Tree of Life or John Hawkes' menacing, yet seductive cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene could have easily topped this list. Alas, the category was too stacked this year for them to even break the top 5. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives great contempt in Moneyball but he needed one or two more scenes in the third act to push him over the top. Likewise Robert Forster did wonders with his limited screen time in The Descendants. Nick Nolte did great work bringing depth to a stock part in Warrior, while Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey managed to give a human dimension to all the industry jargon and number crunching of Margin Call. And finally there is Andy Serkis's motion capture performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I hold no prejudice against this type of performance. Hell - Serkis should have won this category in '02 for Two Towers. But there was simply no room for his Cesar on the list this year.
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