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The Ten Best Performances of 2009

Below are my ten favorite performances of the year. I wouldn’t dare say they were the ten best, but for one reason or another, I preferred these above any others in 2009. Some will be nominated for Oscars; others won’t be. But these actors and their outstanding work helped make 2009 such a strong year in film.

One caveat: I have yet to see the following films which feature performances which I think could make the list or ones which I’ve seen singled out on other lists – Up in the Air, In the Loop, A Single Man, Bad Lieutenant, Nine, Crazy Heart, The Blind Side, Broken Embraces, Me and Orson Welles, The Lovely Bones, and Julia.

I hesitate to make this list considering there is so much I have yet to see, but it is the end of the year, the perfect time to do lists like this. I will re-evaluate this list, as well as my favorite films list, after I have seen my customary 100 films from 2009. I expect this to happen around May or June.

And without further ado, here’s the list:

10.) Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) – What a heartbreaking performance this is. Gabby Sidibe, in real life a bright, energetic person, makes us feel for Precious but never makes her seem like just a victim. It’s a courageous performance that makes us root for Precious all the way through.

9.) Adam Sandler (Funny People) – I realize I might be one of five people in America who loved “Funny People,” but I did, and most of that love stems from Sandler’s terrific performance. Here, he proves “Punch-Drunk Love” was no fluke with a very layered, complex performance of a comedian who gets a second chance at life. Sandler’s George Simmons represents the dark side of the people who make us laugh – the people who we expect to be infallible, confident, and always smiling. The performance is enhanced, in my opinion, by the film’s changing (arguably uneven) tone. He must balance the comedy and drama from scene to scene. I understand why the performance (and the film) might not work for some, but I thought it was fantastic.

8.) Matt Damon (The Informant!) – This was a complicated performance because it requires Matt Damon to be one step ahead of the audience, but he must also to a certain degree believe everything he says. Damon, who packed on about 20 pounds for the role, is up to the task. He also shows great comedic timing. I really liked the film, but it wouldn’t have been the same without Damon.

7.) Ben Foster (The Messenger) – Foster, who was so good in 3:10 to Yuma, delivers his finest performance as a soldier forced to deliver casualty notices to loved ones. It’s a job he wants no part of, yet he ends up getting involved with a woman whose husband is one of the casualties. Foster is a portrait of restraint, but we get glimpses of the pain he is carrying around. Assisted by the excellent work of Woody Harrelson, this performance (and film) is worth seeking out.

6.) Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) – It’s unbelievable to me how perfect this man is for a Tarantino film. He delivers the magnificent lines with such relish and charm. He makes Col. Landa so captivating that we almost root for him. He dominates every scene he is in, usurping the likes of Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, and Melanie Laurent, who are all excellent as well. It looks like Hollywood has taken notice of him. He has a starring role in the upcoming “Green Hornet” film. I hope the Academy takes notice as well.

5.) Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia) – Meryl is Julia Child. We shouldn’t be surprised by the strength of this performance, for Streep only seems to get better as the years go by. But such high expectations only make the success of this performance more astounding. Streep talks like Child, walks like Child, everything except perhaps cooking like Child (and I wouldn’t doubt if our greatest actress could do that as well). She elevates the somewhat mundane story into must-watch territory with her exemplary work.

4.) Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) – Our window into the Coens twisted treatise on God, fate, and consequence, Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik is about as sympathetic (emphasis on the pathetic) as characters get. Stuhlbarg plays Gopnik as a man teetering on the edge of losing his mind. It’s a note-perfect performance from the stage acting veteran. “A Serious Man” is all about Larry and wouldn’t succeed the way it does without such a fine performance from its lead actor.

3.) Mo’Nique (Precious) – Mary Jones is a monster, and Mo’Nique presents her just that way. She doesn’t pull any punches. This is dark, powerful stuff. And in the final revelatory scene, we sort of understand her, but she for many (understandably) she’s only more monstrous for her twisted reasoning about why she abuses her daughter. Goodbye, Charm School. Hello, Oscar.

2.) Sam Rockwell (Moon) – I always thought it must be really difficult to play off oneself, but Sam Rockwell takes that one step further, for he has nobody else around him to work with. This really is his show, and he deserves all the credit in the world for “Moon” being such a fine film. He must play two characters: one burnt out, the other fresh, while both are confused and struggling to survive. It’s remarkable stuff. I wish the awards voters would take more notice.

1.) Carey Mulligan (An Education) – What a revelation. I patiently waited all year for a little film called “An Education” to be released near me so I could see if the comparisons to Audrey Hepburn were true. I expected so much out of this performance I thought there was no way I wouldn’t end up disappointed. Luckily, I was wrong. This is the kind of performance most actresses dream of giving. Mulligan’s Jenny is infinitely relatable. We feel for her because we know what she is going through (to a certain point). She’s spunky and clever but also naïve and somewhat overconfident. Mulligan just missed placement on my best-of-the-decade list, but she shouldn’t be too disappointed. I expect she will collect a slightly greater honor (just slightly) this March.

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