Bradley Cooper, Heather Graham, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike Tyson
Comedies often require something special, a secret weapon that is guaranteed to lift even the most mediocre sequence into a moment of wicked wit wonder. Enter stand-up turned comic subterfuge Galifianakis. Already an oddball when he takes the stage for his dada meets dementia act, he takes every single line he’s given in Todd Phillip’s crude, rude Sin City Summer hit and turns it into something offbeat and yet amazing. Even when asking the dopiest of questions (“Is this the REAL Caesar’s Palace?”), he perverts our expectations and finds a way to completely catch us off guard—that is, when we’re not doubled over in unanticipated and uncontrollable laughter. Bill Gibron
Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker
The Messenger is filled with rage, subtle grace notes and an aching poignancy that is often completely absent in other high profile films in which themes of war are the centerpiece and at the reactive, sometimes-volatile epicenter of the story is the recently-returned from combat soldier Will, played expertly by Foster. In an iconic, career-transforming performance, we see a character who is wounded, literally and figuratively. This decorated, multi-dimensional Staff Sergeant, who challenges and often breaks the rules, is guided by his own moral compass and Foster relishes each moment of this actor’s showcase and thoughtfully composes a character shaped by the military that is not a slave to it’s ideals, who instead chooses to march to his own drummer as he tries to figure out his place in a harsh, new world that doesn’t always celebrate the war hero. Matt Mazur
Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Patrick Flueger, Clifton Collins Jr.
In a film where every last performance, right down to the young actors playing the children, is of the highest caliber, it could be difficult to single out one as best. But when we’re talking about Tobey Maguire in Brothers, it’s not hard at all to see why he’s made the awards lists this year. Being surrounded by such strong turns from the rest of the cast surely elevated the game, but it’s been years since Maguire has given a performance of this intensity. One of the greatest pleasures of watching a film (even one touching on unpleasant subjects) is being able to put yourself in a characters’ place, and Maguire’s exceptional portrayal not only makes this possible, it makes it unavoidable. He allows us to peer inside the tortured psyche of Marine Sam Cahill, and to actually feel what it’s like to be trapped in there. He’s brilliant. Christel Loar
Edward Asner, Christopher Plumber, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo
The idea of an animated film with a grumpy widower as its main character instead of a know-it-all whippersnapper is refreshing enough, however, it’s even better when said old man is voiced by Ed Asner. Although Asner defined “loveably grizzled” with the role of Lou Grant, he showcases the power of conveying character solely through voice with Up‘s Carl Fredricksen. Although Carl is “just” a cartoon character, Asner’s characterization manages to wring empathy from an audience of all ages. A septuagenarian dealing with the recent death of his wife, Carl remains sharp as a tack and painfully aware of his changing surroundings. Tones of anger, regret, and sadness can be heard in his voice throughout, making this a very real, very un-cartoonish characterization. Asner gifts Carl with a voice that embodies an adventurer’s spirit that allows you to hear the smile in the character’s voice as he discovers life beyond the existence he knew and loved, and finding joy in new people and friends in his later years. Lana Cooper
Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Emma Thompson
As Jack, the well-meaning but (to quote Lynn Barber) “socially untamed” father of An Education, Alfred Molina achieves a difficult balance. Although Jack genuinely wants his daughter, protagonist Jenny (Carey Mulligan) to succeed at her education and prosper in life, his perceptions of success and evolving society are decidedly antiquated. Both the anti-Semitism that creeps into his language and the chauvinistic perspective through which he views Jenny’s options threaten to drain the character of any sympathy. Yet Molina finds a way to make the character’s heart seem to be in the right place, albeit frequently misguided. Of the many “educations” director Lone Scherfig develops within the film, Jack’s is one of the most effective and realistic. In an early scene, his loud defense of his breadwinner role ends with slamming the door and leaving home. Towards the end of the film, he tries his best to soothe his damaged daughter by speaking words of comfort through her bedroom door. Molina’s toughness and tenderness are than of an old-school man with much left to learn, and that recognition is what ultimately endears the character to the audience. Thomas Britt
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