Thursday, December 3, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Lead Actor Performances

1. Marlon Brando - On the Waterfront

The greatest male performance I've ever seen is this classic from the man often thought of as the greatest screen actor. I first saw this movie on Turner Classic Movies the week that Marlon Brando died. I knew, of course, of the famous "I coulda been a contenda" speech, but I wasn't ready for the depth and sensitivity and power of Brando's work overall. That legendary speech is heartbreaking because of Brando's reading of it. The hurt in his voice when he tells his brother (Rod Steiger) "I was your brother, Charlie, you shoulda taken care of me a little bit" is devastating. I was convinced as soon as it was over that this was the best performance I'd ever seen, and I don't doubt that these many years later.

2. Al Pacino - Dog Day Afternoon

Al Pacino has long been my favorite actor. And he has given us a huge swath of great performances, from Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies, to Tony Montana in Scarface, Lefty in Donnie Brasco, Roy in Angels in America, or even his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But his greatest on screen work, and the one that has seemingly the least amount of Al Pacino in it, is in Dog Day Afternoon. His Sonny (also Pacino's familial nickname as a youngster) is one of the great characters, but the voice, the mannerisms, the vulnerability but also the anger and confusion but with an undeniable intelligence. It's a tricky role to play and I'm not sure who could've really played it but him. In particular, the scenes of Sonny dictating his will, and his phone call with his lover (Chris Sarandon) have lost none of their power in the ensuing 40 years since they came out.

3. Denzel Washington - Malcolm X

Spike Lee has said that Denzel Washington became Malcolm X during filming of the great biopic of the controversial leader. He said Denzel would often go off script for minutes at a time with an assurance and fire that were not his own. Once he would finish a speech and Spike would call cut, he'd ask Denzel where those words came from and Denzel would say "that was Malcolm." And I believe it. As much as we know the faces and voices of movie stars like Denzel, and he changes neither of them for this performance, I never once questioned that I was watching Malcolm, not Denzel, on screen. It's a scorching performance, and Spike doesn't let Denzel down, as the movie is a masterpiece as well.

4. Robert De Niro - Raging Bull

One of the most famous transformations in cinema history is Robert De Niro's dedication to becoming legendary middle weight boxer Jake LaMotta. Getting in fighting shape, including fighting 3 real amateur fights (and winning two of them), and then stopping production to gain 60 pounds to portray the older and out of shape LaMotta, De Niro displayed a remarkable dedication that has served as inspiration for decades of subsequent actors. But De Niro does so much more than transform his body, he seemingly transforms his soul. Jake bashing his head against the concrete wall is one of the toughest things to watch that I've ever seen on screen. It makes for a tough movie to watch too, but a moving one. No one has played animalistic like De Niro did here. Few people have played a more lost soul than De Niro did here. And few people have given a better performance than De Niro did here.

5. Sean Penn - Dead Man Walking

Though his co-star Susan Sarandon took home the Oscar that night (while he watched Nic Cage win his category), Sean Penn's work in Dead Man Walking is the reason the movie is so special. His Matthew Poncelet is a nasty man. He's a murderer on death row and we watch as Sarandon's Sister Helen Prejean becomes his spiritual advisor towards the end of his life. Penn does something that I think is easier said than done. He plays stupid. Well, not stupid so much as aggressively ignorant. He tries to spout off to Prejean certain Bible verses he likes, only for her to counter, and then say something like "well, I'm not gonna get into a Bible quoting contest with a nun." But he reveals Matthew over the course of the movie to be worthy of our empathy. Why? Because he's a human being, and that should be good enough. Not because he's innocent, or smart, or funny, or would be someone we'd want to spend any amount of time with. But because he's a real person. When he thanks Sister Helen for loving him, I broke down bawling like I never have watching another movie.

6. Takashi Shimura - Ikiru

Takashi Shimura has his place in cinema history as one of the two favorite actors of my favorite director, Akira Kurosawa. And although he stars as the lead samurai in the more famous Seven Samurai, Shimura's best work is starring in Kurosawa's Ikiru. Shimura's Watanabe finds out he has terminal cancer and begins a journey of waking up for the final stretch of his life. He's been a nameless, faceless bureaucrat but when faced with the end of his life determines to do something meaningful, which ultimately involves getting a children's playground built. The journey that Kurosawa and Shimura take us on is incredibly affecting, as Shimura wakes up from the stupor of his life, searches for his purpose, finds it, and becomes relentless in making it happen before he succumbs to cancer. Shimura's nuanced work carries the story so beautifully, and that iconic final scene, I'll never forget that face or that performance.

7. Toshiro Mifune - Red Beard

Kurosawa's other, and more famous, collaboration was with Toshiro Mifune. Though more famous for his over-the-top work in Seven Samurai, or more iconic in Yojimbo (basically giving birth to Clint Eastwood's entire persona), I've always been more interested in the final of his 16 movies with Kurosawa, the novelic medical drama Red Beard. Mifune plays the enigmatic head doctor of a clinic in a small Japanese town. He acts as the mentor to the arrogant young doctor Yasumoto, who comes in with his fancy medical training, but none of the life experience to actually help the patients at the 18th century hospital. Mifune's gruff voice perfectly fits the cantankerous doctor, but he also adds a depth of understanding. We can feel his years of experience helping people, or simply witnessing the end of their lives when there's nothing to be done (and the sadness that brings). It's the most depth Mifune ever brought to the screen, and it's sad that the troubled production helped make it the last time he made a movie with Kurosawa.

8. Jimmy Stewart - Vertigo

I've always called this the ballsiest star performance in Hollywood history. Jimmy Stewart was the likable Everyman of his times, but Vertigo's Scotty is a different kind of role. Stewart's Everyman qualities help make his descent into obsession, madness, and misguided love all the more disturbing because it feels so real and believable. He's kind of sweet when falling in love with the mysterious Madeleine, but it all becomes more insidious as he starts to try and mold Judy into his lost love Madeleine (unaware that Judy is really the one he loves, Kim Novak giving an extraordinary performance in the roles herself). And Stewart sells every bit of it every bit of the way. The kind of time that an actors usual persona can aid in the turn of character contained in this movie. It's Stewart's best work, and one of the great performances by anyone.

9. Billy Bob Thronton - Sling Blade

One of the most imitated characters in movie history, Billy Bob Thornton's amazing work in Sling Blade is one of those like Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump that has been embedded in the public consciousness so much that I think it's become undervalued. Actually, Thornton is undervalued overall, I think. We all like him, but with the performances he's given in A Simple Plan, Bad Santa, Monster's Ball and others, he should be thought of right at the top of the list of our best talents. And Karl is his best creation. A character wholly new and unique in movies, and one of the most fascinating. Karl thinks and feels deeply, even if he doesn't quite understand or communicate intellectually the way others do. It's simply a perfect performance as a perfect character.

10. Klaus Kinski - Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Now, from all accounts Klaus Kinski was a certifiable crazy person, so maybe his mesmerizing work as a soldier falling into madness isn't as big a stretch as it might've been for other actors. But still, his work in this Werner Herzog masterpiece is amazing. Aguirre doesn't start out as the supreme officer, but through fight and ego and the general oncoming madness of the expedition as a whole, he ascends to the "throne", as it were. But he does so at the expense of everything. Ending up in one of the great final shots surrounded by chattering monkeys blabbering on about himself. It's a haunting performance of great power and often unrestrained violence. Kinski is mainly remembered for his work with Herzog, and this is his greatest performance.

Honorable mentions for:
Jack Lemmon - The Apartment
Humphrey Bogart - Casablanca
Robert Mitchum - Night of the Hunter
Jack Nicholson - The Last Detail
Tom Cruise - Born on the Fourth of July

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