Notes on the Atrocities
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Wednesday, February 25, 2004  

Movie Week

Lead Actors

The two performances that have critics buzzing this year couldn't be more different. Bill Murray undertates himself into another zone, while Charlize Theron does her best DeNiro-as-Jake-LaMotta impression. But these weren't the only great performances this year. Many, as you'll see from my list, aren't well-known, either.

So, since I yammered too much on supporting actors, I'll do my best to be economic here. Without further ado, here are my selections for best leads by a woman:

Maria Bello, The Cooler
Hope Davis, American Splendor
Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation
Charlize Theron, Monster

I really wanted to like The Cooler. I like the people in it, I liked the idea of the film, and I liked the way first-time director Wayne Kramer shot the film. Unfortunately, it failed on almost every level. Even Maria Bello's role as a hard-luck casino waitress was deeply flawed. Despite the lack of cohesion from a writing level, Bello sold the role. The heart-of-gold role is usually played either vapidly or with world-weary wisdom. Bello gave it much more--her hard-luck waitress was playing out a losing hand, but she was still naive enough to believe it might change. Her sexiness wasn't played as object, but rather part of her personality. She made me believe that her character could have loved William H. Macy.

Hope Davis had the unenviable role of playing a human who happened to not only be alive, but featured in the very same film. What more can you say than she really became Joyce Brabner? Wonderful.

It's hard to imagine Lost in Translation without Scarlett Johansson. Maria Bello had to make us believe she could love an older man, but Johansson had to show us infatuation. She did it so organically that it almost seemed like not acting. Alas, how often have we seen the other side of that coin?

Charlize. Suffice it to say that the critics are divided. Ebert called it "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema." But the Post's Manohla Dargis was not amused: "Phony choppers and a startling resemblance to Jon Voight aren't enough to transform Theron into Wuornos, and I didn't buy either the performance or the character for a second." I don't know that I'd go as far as Ebert, but almost. After I saw the movie, I wrote that it put me in an altered state of consciousness that persisted for a good 24 hours. The movie itself was flawed, but Theron's performance was so good that I related to her as a person. I felt for her so keenly--not for the actress, but the character. I tend to shy away from the classic "big" performances that often win awards. Not this time. It was amazing.

And the Jeffy goes to: Charlize Theron.

For the men, the winner wasn't as clear. There were five performances I enjoyed, and I could make a serious argument for each as the best performance of the year. The nominations:

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things
Johnny Hallyday, Man on the Train
Paul Giamatti, American Splendor
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
Jean Rochefort, Man on the Train

In a movie almost no one saw (Man on the Train), Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort give two delightful performances. I knew when I started the nominations that it was going to either have to be both or neither, because they were both so good. It's a story of odd couples where the couple are neither really so odd nor, despite appearances, so different. Hallyday plays a noirish thief, Rochefort a provincial school teacher. Their paths cross, and the lives of the other is a balm to each. The movie is itself a balm to anyone with blockbuster-itis.

Chiwetel Ejiofor also gives a very human performance in the similarly un-Hollywood film Dirty Pretty Things. Ejiofor plays an illegal Nigerian immigrant who drives a cab in London, but is in fact a doctor. He becomes the moral center of a movie that swims with immoral sharks. (Review here.) It's a generous character and a generous performance.

I reviewed Giamatti earlier this week, which leaves us with Bill Murray. When a guy like Murray finally gets a nomination, you hope he wins it for a life's work. That's how I feel about him now--except he also deserves to win. For a number of years now, Murray has been playing roles where his humor is a very modest side note. It's a part of his personality, in service to something a little sad or tired. A strange irony that after becoming famous for his comedic roles and his wild SNL lifestyle, latter-day Murray is all in a minor key. When she wrote Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola had Murray in mind for the role, and it brings together all the depth he has had in recent films. It's the ultimate Bill Murray movie.

And the Jeffy goes to: Bill Murray.

posted by Jeff | 12:54 PM |
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