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Paul Reubens Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985)

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Look up the word “man-child” in the dictionary and you will likely see a portrait of Reubens, grinning like a maniac in spazoid splendor, as the immortal Pee-Wee Herman. Before all of the hoopla surrounding the comedian’s private life made him a near-recluse and rendered him virtually (unfairly) unemployable, Reubens’ career as the lovable, annoying, crazy Pee-Wee enjoyed heights of almost unrivaled success. In addition to being a multi-media mogul, the actor brought this character (first seen on the stage in the early 80s and then on an HBO special), to the big screen in Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The film is signature Burton, with a darkly childish sensibility that melds seamlessly with Reubens’ blend of physical comedy, extreme dork-dom, and annoyingly blithe spirit (“I don’t make monkeys, I just train ‘em” is but one weapon in his arsenal of verbal barbs).


Pee-Wee is on a quest to find his stolen bike, and on the way to the Alamo (it’s in the basement!), the boy who never grew up breaks hearts and makes friends, becomes an unlikely movie star, and giggles his way through misfortune with an ebullience that is at once exasperating and perplexing. He does it all in the name of finding his best friend: a tricked-out, gadget-packed Schwinn DX. But is this really a great performance? Just watch the actor’s full immersion into the skewed, precious world of Pee-Wee: there is never a wavering moment. This is a fully-committed, fully-realized portrait, brimming with measured reactions, pratfalls and good intentions. Pee-Wee remains Reuben’s crowning achievement, a comedic delight in every way that reaches out to both children and adults, and he has done the impossible: made the infuriatingly obnoxious actually endearing and beloved. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” is but one bon mot Pee-Wee might hurl out in reaction to such effusive praise. Matt Mazur


 
Mark Ruffalo You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)


The debate about this character could go on and on. We could ask a psychiatrist for a diagnosis, though he or she would likely opt for extended personal analysis. No doubt the black sheep of his family, Ruffalo’s Terry Prescott was likely the clueless kid that teachers and administrators washed their hands of. Yet, he suffers from more than an attitude problem, something so minimal that it’s hard to perceive. Repeated viewings will only make the question more confounding. We’d guess the dialog of writer-director (and playwright) Kenneth Lonergan is in service. His script brings film drama to the heights of its game (in spite of the film’s shamelessly sappy title); no wonder stage acting workshops across the U.S. have borrowed scenes from it.


Though more directly, Terry seems a near-impossible feat in performance. Stylized showmen do Rain Man and Forrest Gump, but it takes a natural actor like Ruffalo to pull off this strange beauty. Terry’s innocence draws him to nephew Rudy (Rory Culkin) and is undeniable for his sister’s devotion, elegantly realized by the reliable Laura Linney.


So distinct yet subtle is Terry that it’s hard to think of a comparison. My memory goes back Tim Robbins’ eerily believable Dave Boyle in 2003’s Mystic River. Then again, this veteran remains calm, collected behind his nervy Oscar role. Ruffalo’s blank gaze and near mumbling lines open up to a quiet desperation. All Linney’s Sammy can do is ask him, “What’s going to happen to you?”  “Nothing too bad” says Ruffalo, in all honesty and enigma. Matthew Sorrento


 
Campbell Scott Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2002)


Scott is like a steaming cup of hot coffee on a bitter winter evening, prickling your outer layer with the threat of frostbite while keeping your insides warm and protected. Roger Dodger is a bitter comedy starring Scott as Roger Swanson, an advertising copywriter in New York, whose life is suddenly complicated by the abrupt arrival of his 16 year old nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg). Nick begs his uncle to help him lose his virginity and to learn the art of picking up women. The embittered Roger takes Nick on a journey that ends up changing them both for the better. Though a commercial failure, Roger Dodger managed to find a degree of critical success, mainly in the form of resounding kudos for Scott’s the delicious turn as the always-sardonic and often-misogynist Roger. There are instances where a fantastic performance can slip under the radar, failing to generate the applause it so righteously deserves and Scott’s acidic take on the New York professional unfortunately belongs in this category. Boasting an admirable array of films, Scott’s Roger is one of those characters that simultaneously provokes (sometimes) inappropriate laughs and creeps under our skin, which is, in essence, what every performance should do. Courtney Young


 
Ray Winstone The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2006)


Winstone has brilliantly played the hardened criminal more than once—most notably in The Departed—but as Captain Stanley in The Proposition Winstone gives his finest performance to date, mainly because it is also his most broken down, exposed character. At the film’s start, Stanley tries to play the heavy making a Faustian deal with criminal Charlie Burns (Guy Pierce) to kill his murdering brother, but he can’t help reveal his despair as he looks out on the Australian landscape and wonders, “What fresh hell is this?”


His desperate deal with Burns is his last chance to civilize a young Australia, but it becomes clear this is less out of duty than an extension of the quaint homestead his wife keeps, and a way to protect her from that rough land. It’s a fool’s errand Stanley is on, and Winstone suffers it terribly. His eyes are sunken and wet with fatigue, and he bears the pain of constant headaches like a leaden suit. He knows he’s isolated—rumors of his sexless marriage sap him of authority—and his attempts at asserting himself register more as stunned wonder. In the end, Stanley can’t stop the uncivilized from getting to him, and it is Charlie Burns who saves him. As he watches violence unfold in his pristine house, the shame and helplessness in Winstone’s face, the heaviness of his stout body, is complete and devastating. His failures, as husband and lawman, etched into his brow. Winstone can be scary as mob muscle or thug, but this performance, in all its desolate sadness and humanity, is downright startling. Matt Fiander


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