The Ten Best Performances of 2008

This wasn’t an incredible year for performances. There were undoubtedly some great ones, but when I sat down to compile my list of the greatest, I was surprised by how few sure things there were.

As with most years, there were more great roles for men than there were for women. The supporting actress category at the Oscars was pretty lacking whereas the supporting actor category was loaded (with some fantastic performances being left out).

Speaking of Oscars, the acting awards went to the late Heath Ledger and Penelope Cruz for Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively. The Lead Acting awards went to Sean Penn and Kate Winslet. I admired all four choices; two made the list below. I didn’t think Cruz was the best of the category (although she was quite good). And I thought the Winslet award was a shame. Not because she wasn’t good (the Academy did far worse the following year, awarding the Oscar to Sandra Bullock for showing us that conservatives like black people), but she was so overdue, I wanted her first win to be truly deserved. Her work in The Reader just doesn’t measure up to most of her competitors that year, nor doesn’t it measure up to past Winslet performances, including the work she did the same year in Revolutionary Road.

Below are what I believe are the ten performances from 2008. Whatever I said earlier about 2008 not being a very strong year for acting, that shouldn’t take away from what these ten actors and actresses did. I laughed with them, cried with them, was frightened of them, learned things from them, but above all, I truly admired them.

10.) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Doubt was a terrific movie, but without the exceptional work by the always-great Hoffman, I could have fallen apart. Few working actors can truly hold their own against Meryl Streep, but Hoffman is one of them. His Father Flynn gains our sympathy simply by being against Streep’s Sister Aloysius, but he muddies things up and we begin to doubt his innocence. The performance is great for what Hoffman doesn’t reveal about the character.

9.) Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married
I believe Rachel Getting Married featured the strongest ensemble acting of any film in five years or more. The rest of this list will reflect that. Winger’s performance is for the most part understated, but there’s one big exception. It’s a scene of volcanic anger. Her emotion seemingly comes out of nowhere, but says everything you need to know about the character and her relationship to her daughter, Kym. She has tried for years to forgive her, but some wounds run too deep.

8.) Rosemary DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
DeWitt’s work here is a revelation. Her character is so kind and gentle, although she too has trouble dealing with Kym. But her pain is different. While she will likely never forget what her sister did, she has forgiven. What she can’t forgive is the lying and manipulation of her addicted sister. Yet, her quiet dignity in the face of an imploding family and chaotic wedding is moving and inspiring.

7.) Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
This performance is so great because the brilliance of the film relies on it. Don’t misunderstand—Sally Hawkins was incredible (and will be making her appearance further down). But what makes the film as a whole more than just a goofy character study is Marsan’s misunderstood, socially backward driving instructor. His final confrontation with Poppy is equal parts scary and heartbreaking.

6.) Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
He doesn’t have the look, but he’s got everything else down pat. Langella has been playing disgraced President Richard M. Nixon for years in the stage version of this film. He won a Tony for his work. And while he didn’t take home film’s top prize, he still gave a complex and fantastic performance.

5.) Sean Penn, Milk
It was neck and neck between Penn and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) for Best Actor all awards season. While I liked what Rourke did quite a bit (he just missed inclusion on this list), I loved Penn’s portrayal of slain civil rights hero Harvey Milk. His character is charismatic, funny, and (most of all) determined. Yet, he’s no saint. He rules the roost in Gus Van Sant’s exceptional biopic, and gives another in a long line of sensational performances.

4.) Meryl Streep, Doubt
I recently told someone that the rest of the acting community should just give up. Meryl can do just about anything better than just about everybody else. Why every casting director doesn’t go straight for her is beyond me. She’s head and shoulders above her peers. Here, she creates a character that’s frightening for her unfounded certainty. Sister Aloysius is probably the only character from 2008 scarier than the Joker.

3.) Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Hawkins’ Poppy is one of the most bizarre characters of 2008. She’s grating for quite a while, but somewhere along the way, she grows on you and starts to look more like a human being, rather than a live British version of the Energizer Bunny. And like her co-star Marsan, the film’s climax reveals a lot about her and her way of life. She shows us more in that one scene than most actresses did all year.

2.) Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
I’m not sure what I can say about Ledger’s performance that hasn’t already been said, but his The Joker is a frightening creature. He kills for pleasure and has no discernable weakness. I remember my reaction when I found out Heath Ledger was to play the Joker. I thought it was a bold move that could be a disaster. But I also knew Ledger would go balls-out into this role. Did he ever! He steals every scene in The Dark Knight. It’s a shame that such a talented young man lost his life at so young an age. But at least Ledger went out on top.

1.) Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
I really didn’t think Anne Hathaway had something like this in her. Her performance in Rachel Getting Married is astonishing. Kym is such a flawed human, but she is capable of such love that she immediately demands sympathy. Kym doesn’t have a filter; she says and does whatever she wants. Most importantly, Hathaway brings Kym’s pain front and center. It’s a raw and powerful performance that gets better every time I see it, and it stands above the rest as the single best performance of 2008.

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