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Saturday, December 31, 2005


ModFabulous: Best Performances of 2005

Acting is the most popular currency in global culture...it's needed in film, theater, politics, dance, publishing, music, television, even on the internet. Why is it that human beings prize so highly the ability to pretend? Maybe because we need our stories and storytellers more than ever. Maybe because acting is the ultimate escape fantasy. Or maybe reality is just too harsh. This year, there seemed to be fewer great performances than in previous years...I combined actors from all the art forms into one category. Greatness is rare, and perhaps it's getting even more so.

Runners-up (in alphabetical order): Dan Fogler (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), Cherry Jones (Doubt), Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice), John Krasinski (The Office), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Katie Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Liev Schreiber (Glengarry Glen Ross), Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), Michael Winther (Songs From An Unmade Bed)

10. FILM: Terrence Dashon Howard, Hustle and Flow
Having toiled in character part obscurity for years, Howard rocketed onto magazine covers with his acclaimed performances in Crash and Flow. In the latter, however, he achieved the near-impossible: gaining audience empathy for an unlikeable character. The key, of course, is the universal struggle DJay faces -- unhappy with his life, and determined to make a change. Music becomes his obsession and his solution, exploding his relationships with an unexpected fury. Howard manages it all like a new incarnation of Olivier or DeNiro.

9. FILM: Choi Min-Sik, Oldboy
Park Chan-wook's film is a marvel: indelible iconography and minimalist mystery play out with an elegant grandeur usually reserved for opera or Greek tragedy. But as the images rush past you like a fever dream, one may miss Min-Sik Choi's jaw-dropping lead performance, a broken man whose attempts to put a life back together end in bloody, silent tragedy. His work has a thoughtfulness that counteracts the film's brazen viscerality.

8. THEATER: Victoria Clark, The Light in the Piazza
If any actor in the world embodies "presence," it is Clark, whose much-deserved Tony Award was a validation of her extraordinary performance. An overbearing mother caught between the destruction of her marriage and the near-adulthood of her daughter, Clark effortless finessed the situation with a quiet calm in songs like "Dividing Day" and "Statues and Stories." She recently extended her Broadway stay to June, which means you can still lose yourself in her Italian journey one more time.

7. FILM: Patricia Clarkson, The Dying Gaul
If Clark gave Broadway a quiet majesty this year, then Patricia Clarkson gave the same to Hollywood. Playing the adoring wife of a film producer in Craig Lucas's astonishing debut film, Clarkson's assured facade slowly disintigrated in the face of her husband's infidelity (and her own snooping). The tiny fissures and cracks that can destroy a relationship have rarely been played with such dexterity.

6. THEATER: Tyler Maynard, Altar Boyz
It should never have worked. A musical comedy about Christian boy bands is a joke already past its due date (does anyone still think N'Sync owns the world?), and the cutesy songs only survive through their earnestness. Mark, the wildly effeminate member of the band, could have been a sad homophobic joke. As played by Maynard, however, it became a stunning tour de force...a charming, daring and -- yes, wholesome! -- reinvention of faith and showbiz.

5. TELEVISION: Tichina Arnold, Everybody Hates Chris
Television has had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stern-but-loving mothers. Taking her place alongside the best of them is Rochelle, a take-no-prisoners queen of her domain. Tichina Arnold is a superb comedienne, but it's her on-a-dime turns from anger to gentility (and back again) that make her an unforgettable presence. Florence Henderson, Esther Rolle, Meredith Baxter-Birney, Roseanne Barr, Isabelle Sanford, Jane Kaczmarek, Felicity Huffmann...welcome Tichina Arnold to the "Best Moms of All Time" club.

4. THEATER: Norbert Leo Butz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Comedy is tough. Great comedy is very tough. And then there's Butz, whose soon-to-be-legendary performance as small time con artist Freddy Benson won the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Astaire and Drama League Awards. Butz is already headed for the greener pastures of television -- he's signed for a CBS sitcom next season -- but there's still time to experience his politically incorrect Great Big Stuff on the Great White Way.

3. FILM: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
It was only a matter of time before this chameleonic virtuoso found the perfect breakthrough vehicle. Inhabiting the needy novelist Truman Capote, Hoffman submerges himself so deeply in the role that it recalls Robert DeNiro's landmark performance in Raging Bull. The merits of the film are debatable, but there's no doubt that Hoffman's performance is one for the history books.

2. THEATER: Michael Cerveris, Sweeney Todd
Cerveris already won a Tony recently, for the 2004 Sondheim revival of Assassins...I hope he's got more space on his mantle. As the demon barber, he is better than he's ever been -- as dark as one could possibly imagine, fueled by a blackhearted revenge that seems to literally eat him from the inside. With this performance Cerveris moves from being one of Broadway's brightest talents to one of its legends. See it, and I promise you'll never forget him.

1. THEATER: Tom Nelis, Score
It's rare in my life when I witness an actor transform not only a role, but the act of performance itself. That's what happened to me with Tom Nelis in his brutally physically, emotionally effervescent interpretation of the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. We throw around words like "breathtaking" all the time...literally, about 2/3 of the way through this intoxicating one-man show, during a discussion about (of all things) Gustav Mahler, I lost the power to breathe. Nelis holds the moment beyond the realm of the safe or the sure, reaching across the chasm between artist and audience to generate a spectacular experience. Thirty years from now, when someone asks about the best artists of my lifetime, one of the first names I'll speak will be his.


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