Here are the guys that kept us laughing, gasping and applauding all year long.
8. James Franco, Pineapple Express
If you had told me two years ago that pretty boy James Franco would deliver one of the best performances I saw in 2008, I would have called you a pot-smoking fool. Turns out, the joke’s on me, because the star of such wretched drek as Annapolis and Flyboys stepped up to the plate and smashed his role as excessively laid back pot dealer Saul Silver in David Gordon Green’s marijuana-laced comedy out of the park. Put this together with his strong supporting performance in Milk and an actor I was ready to write off seems to be back in a big way.
7. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Redbelt
Hard to believe that it’s only been six years since British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor burst onto Hollywood’s radar with his star turn in Dirty Pretty Things. Since then, the actor has been on a hot streak, landing memorably roles in such high-profile movies as American Gangster, Talk to Me and Children of Men. Despite the steady employment, Ejiofor didn’t get another chance at a leading man role until David Mamet tapped him to play the martial arts instructor at the center of his latest thriller. The movie itself disappoints, but Ejiofor dominates the proceedings with his usual quiet authority. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another six years for his next name-above-the-title part.
6. The Cast of In Bruges
I’m cheating a bit here, but all of these actors are in such fine form in Martin McDonagh’s offbeat crime comedy that I just can’t choose between them. On the one hand, you’ve got a post-rehab Colin Farrell giving what may be the best performance of his career as a novice hitman plagued by guilt over a mission gone wrong. But you’ve also got ace character actor Brendan Gleeson stealing scenes as a veteran assassin and the usually restrained Ralph Fiennes going positively ape-shit as Farrell and Gleeson’s foul-mouthed boss. Individually these performances would still be great, but together they are positively brilliant.
5. Javier Bardem, Vicky Christina Barcelona
Playing the lead male character in a Woody Allen film is never an easy task because his actors often feel the need to try and perform the part like Woody would. Not so Javier Bardem, who brings his own distinct rhythm and charisma to the role of a Spanish artist in the middle of a love quadrangle with three gorgeous women (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson and his real-live squeeze, Penelope Cruz). Freed from the stupid haircut and lumbering gait of his No Country for Old Men character, Bardem smolders like an old-fashioned movie star. Move over George and Brad–I think we’ve got a new candidate for Sexiest Man Alive.
4. Bill Milner and Will Poulter, Son of Rambow
In this post-Dakota Fanning age, it’s increasingly rare to find child actors who can convincingly play actual children, instead of adults in short pants. That’s why it was a smart decision on writer/director Garth Jennings’ part to cast real kids–and not kid actors–in his hugely enjoyable ode to childhood and filmmaking. Neither Bill Milner nor Will Poulter had any film credits to their names before landing the starring roles in Son of Rambow and their unforced naturalism is one of the keys to this underappreciated movie’s success.
3. Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man and Tropic Thunder
Few actors have enjoyed as many career second-acts as one-time bad boy Robert Downey Jr. and here’s hoping that his 2008 comeback is the one that finally sticks. After kicking off the summer movie season in style with his high-flying lead performance as supposedly second-tier superhero Iron Man, he delivered an even stronger turn in Ben Stiller’s Hollywood satire as a method actor so devoted to his work, he actually dyes his skin black to play an African American character. The latter role could have ruined a lesser actor, but Downey had audiences of all colors laughing.
2. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
No doubt about it, Heath Ledger’s interpretation of Batman’s longtime nemesis was 2008′s most iconic performance. In fact, the Aussie actor–who, as everyone knows, died in January–is so mesmerizing, the movie suffers whenever the Joker is offscreen. It’s the kind of outsized performance that walks the edge of self-parody without ever careening over the side. Whoever follows in his footsteps as the Dark Knight’s next villain has his some giant-sized clown shoes to fill.
1. Benicio Del Toro, Che
In direct contrast to Ledger’s larger-than-life turn as The Joker, Benicio Del Toro’s star turn in Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour film about Che Guevara provides a master class in the art of understatement. Offered zero tear-inducing monologues or other showy Oscar-reel moments, the actor nevertheless delivers a career-best performance. The highest compliment I can pay Del Toro is that you never see him acting as Guevara…he simply becomes him.