ModFabulous 2006: Best Performances of the Year
Discounting Barack Obama, Suri Cruise, and Britney Spears' suddenly photographable genitalia, these are the performances that fascinated me in 2006:
Ten From The Movies
10. Michael Sheen, The Queen
While others were tripping over themselves fawning over Helen Mirren's reserved performance, Sheen was doing the heavy lifting, carrying the narrative and dramatic burden of the film's pinpricks of emotion. "Mirren has already received much, and justified, praise for making the queen infuriating and likable at the same time. But Michael Sheen deserves equal billing as the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, delicately arbitrating the demands of his constituents and the imperious resistance at the palace." - Denver Post
9. Kate Winslet, Little Children
In an otherwise godawful movie, Winslet proved again why she is the preeminent actress of her generation. "Ms. Winslet, as fine an actress as any working in movies today, registers every flicker of Sarah’s pride, self-doubt and desire, inspiring a mixture of recognition, pity and concern that amounts, by the end of the movie, to something like love. That Ms. Winslet is so lovable makes the deficit of love in Sarah’s life all the more painful." - New York Times
8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick
One of the swiftest pieces of acting this year, the adolescent detective was a study in genre acting for the new century. "It’s great to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin) in the juicy role of a high-school gumshoe on the trail of his estranged girlfriend’s killers. Gordon-Levitt is one of a new breed of brilliantly withholding actors: He makes his characters’ smugness both cool and doom-ridden—they’re shackled by their acts." - New York Magazine
7. Matt Damon, The Good Shepherd and The Departed
Content to let his co-stars (Angelina Jolie, Leo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson) grab the glory, the best actor of Hollywood's under 40-set turned in two powerful, potent, and intricate performances in wildly different works. "Damon's Edward spends most of the movie struggling with his conscience, a state that Damon plays with an array of muted shadings: He gives a gently shaped performance in a difficult, oblique role." - Salon
6. Kirsten Dunst, Marie Antoinette
It's tough work to make history's most decadent queen into a victim of circumstance, but Dunst brings a fresh, winsome melancholy to the role which humanizes the myth. In 2006's most elegant performance, she simply dazzles. "Kirsten Dunst is pitch-perfect in the title role, as a 14-year-old Austrian princess who is essentially purchased and imported to the French court to join with the clueless Louis XVI to produce an heir. She has self-possession, poise and high spirits, and they are contained within a world that gives her no way to usefully express them. So she frolics and indulges herself, within a cocoon of rigid court protocol." - Chicago Sun-Times
5. Peter O'Toole, Venus
The changing natures of love and romance are difficult to navigate at any age, but at the end of one's life, it may be nearly impossible. O'Toole makes it great fun to watch the struggle, though, in this sharply rendered screenplay by Hanif Kureishi. A twilight performance by one of the greats, one that can sit comfortable next to his classic work. "A dream part for O'Toole. The lyricism and grace he had as Lawrence of Arabia have never left him—nor have the superb comic instincts of 'My Favorite Year.'" - Newsweek
4. Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
The most astonishing debut of the year, possibly of the decade. She's got that voice, of course...a virtuosic dynamism that movie musicals haven't seen since the golden age. But her ability to manage convoluted character arcs, demanding emotional spins, and the dramatic intensity of failed dreams makes her a force to be reckoned with. "A pure delight....Hudson's climactic plea in her big song—'You're Gonna Love Me'—seems to have done its job: We do. I'd say she has a lock on a Best Supporting Actress nomination, if not a win. Whatever happens next in Hudson's career, the journey from talent-show reject to this year's discovery is a Cinderella comeback worthy of Effie White herself." - Slate
3. Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
There's a moment when a performance transcends its own sublimnity, reaches beyond its own excellence -- when you realize how thankful you are to have seen this actor in many great roles over a lifetime. Watching Whitaker magnetize the brutal dictator Idi Amin, you realize he's topping himself in a career that includes electrifying performances in Bird, Good Morning Vietnam, The Crying Game, Ghost Dog, Smoke, Panic Room, The Shield and many, many more. "All of this is in service of a truly astonishing screen performance. Like most dictators, Amin is a champion seducer, whether of the masses, who believe his claim that he only wants to help them, or of individuals like Nicholas. Whitaker makes these seduction scenes palpable....you're able to forget that Whitaker is acting. He embodies the role. When clips of the real Amin are shown at the end, it's almost shocking to realize the extent to which Whitaker has become him." - San Francisco Chronicle
2. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Talk about transforming the material: Streep proved in 2006 that she is (once again) the greatest living actress on the planet. How? By taking a worn stereotype of a hard-biting fashionista and transforming it into a wry, arch, textured, comic, and immensely satisfying performance. What can't this woman do? (This doesn't even include her great work in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion.) "Streep dominates the movie in the great comic performance of her career. Setting her face into a mask of composure that suggests Darth Vader by way of a Kabuki actor, the most expressive of American actresses shows how power is expressed in the lack of facial and vocal expression. This makes the brief moment her mask comes off chillingly poignant and eerily funny." - Philadelphia Inquirer
1. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Sure, she's already got more Oscars than any one person needs. Sure, she's already secured her place in cinematic history. But you haven't truly experience Judi Dench, I think, until you've seen her tear the roof off of Notes on a Scandal, an overripe domestic thriller that gives Dench the most deliciously malificent role of her career. Predatory and fragile, terrifying and sad, it's the kind of performance that is impossible for 99% of actors to pull off: a patchwork of contradiction, insecurity, and deviousness. If there was any doubt about who reigns supreme, it's not The Queen...it's The Dame. "If you want to see explosive acting, just watch Judi Dench....This is the bravest, riskiest role of Dench's brilliant screen career. Barbara narrates the film, unreliably, in a voice that is sympathetic mostly to herself. Dame Judi lets us know this is a woman of dark secrets. It's spellbinding to watch her blow the lid off." - Rolling Stone
Honorable Mentions: Adriana Barraza, Babel; Justin Bond, Shortbus; Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat; Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine; Juliette Binoche, Breaking and Enterting; James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland; Helen Mirren, The Queen; Clive Owen, Inside Man and Children of Men; Robin Wright Penn, Breaking and Enterting; Lily Tomlin, A Prairie Home Companion
Ten From Television
10. Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report
The funniest bluster on television works not simply because it's knowing, but because it's rife with detail.
9. Polly Walker, Rome
Not since Joan Collins skulked across the small screen has a vamp been more deliciously played. Two millennia before the desperate housewives, there was Polly.
8. Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, Six Degrees
It's rare when big-screen talents come to television. Scott and Davis were heaven to watch, elevating the sub-par material of this already-canceled drama.
7. Sally Field, Brothers and Sisters
She's understated...she's really really understated. Shocked? Not as much as we are. We think she's having a career renaissance on the ABC show, especially when paired with great talents like Rachel Griffiths.
6. Masi Oka, Heroes
Was there a more joyous performance in 2006? Oka gave voice to the silent dreams of fanboys everywhere with his ecstatic reaction to his time-traveling superpowers. Kewl.
5. Katee Sackhoff, Battlestar Galactica
The secret weapon of this star-strewn drama, Sackhoff took her character, the rebel pilot Starbuck, and put her through hell: psychological torture, a doomed marriage, and scarring self-doubt. Brilliant work.
4. Kristin Wiig, Saturday Night Live
If SNL has any hope of pulling itself out of the creative doldrums, it'll need the help of Andy Samberg and newcomer Wiig, whose delightfully oddball characters recall the best work of Gilda Radner and Jan Hooks.
3. Jon Krasinski, The Office
The lovelorn office sad sack never got better care than in the able hands of Krasinski. In a comedy that often verges on the manically bizarre, Krasinski is the calm weight that keeps a hold on reality...and in the case of his fascinating love non-affair with Pam, it's a reality that manages to break your heart.
2. Tichina Arnold, Everybody Loves Chris
The hurricane of talent at the center of ELC is Arnold, and the writers have her to thank for keeping this show on a short list of must-see television. Her effortless line delivery, comic rhythm, and attention to physical detail make her television's only rightful heir to Lucille Ball.
1. Jeremy Piven, Entourage
There's no other performance quite like it. Brazenly energetic, purposefully erratic, and funnier than ten other sitcom actors put together, Piven is creating a character for the ages over on HBO. There's no way it can be improved upon. Well, maybe one way (say it with me): spinoff.
Ten From The Theater
10. Cynthia Nixon, Rabbit Hole and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
In the years since Sex and the City, Nixon has transformed herself into the theater's most serious young actress. Her Tony-winning turn as a grief-stricken mother in Rabbit Hole was a lesson in emotional restraint, and her Off-Broadway Brodie was just the opposite. Fine work, both.
9. Bob Martin, The Drowsy Chaperone
Spend two hours with The Drowsy Chaperone, and one thing is certain: you will have fallen in love with Martin as the nerdy musical lover known as the Man in Chair. He's the glue that holds the entire work together, and it's his infectious pleasure that propels the musical comedy into greatness.
8. Christine Ebersole, Grey Gardens
What more can be said about this legend-in-the-making performance? Beyond emulation, beyond caricature, Ebersole brings the Beales into glorious reincarnated being.
7. Justin Bond, Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway
The cocktail-infused nihilism of Kiki Durane was an oddity on Broadway -- what is that drag queen doing, anyway? -- but it cut through the bullshit of theatrical nicety and kicked the season into gear. Like Steve and Eydie, they really need their own show palace.
6. Michael Tomlinson, Monuments: Off Stage, The West Village Fragments
This fierce monologue, performed on dark streets near New York University, was one of the most eloquent discussions of loneliness (and homelessness) we've ever seen.
5. Billy Crudup, The Coast of Utopia
In a cast of what seems like thousands, Crudup's fierce and fussy revolutionary stands out like a sore thumb. And in this case, that is a very, very good thing.
4. Michael Stuhlbarg, The Voysey Inheritance
New York's best kept secret is Stuhlbarg, who follows up brilliant performances in The Pillowman, The Mysteries, and Measure for Pleasure with this powerful adaptation (by David Mamet, no less). Can he be named a national treasure, or at least a local city landmark?
3. John Gallagher, Jr., Spring Awakening
There are tons of performances in this daring new musical worthy of praise, but standing above them all is the neurotic misfit Moritz, playing with heartbreaking clarity by Gallagher. The lessons of adolescence have never had more eloquent expression on Broadway...not in Rent, not in Hair, not ever.
2. Julie White, The Little Dog Laughed
A comedienne in her prime, working a plum role to its maximum potential. Despite the rave reviews for Ms. Ebersole, we're of the opinion that Julie White is the only absolutely essential must-see performance in New York at the moment.
1. Ensemble, Stuff Happens
The most important play of the year demanded a great ensemble cast, and Daniel Sullivan's production at The Public was exactly that. I'll never forget Gloria Reuben's gently scheming Condoleeza Rice, David Pittu's clueless Paul Wolfowitz, or Peter Francis James' emasculated Colin Powell. But the real triumph is that the entire 16-person cast worked so effortlessly together -- pulling the complex threads of morality, politics, and prejudice into the most finely woven cloth seen this year.
Previously: Best Performances of 2005
Tomorrow: Best Things in 2007