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Fred Astaire—Royal Wedding
(Stanley Donan, 1951)

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One could pick just about any Fred Astaire performance and make a valid argument that it is his best, because, frankly, Astaire plays Astaire in just about every film: dashing, sophisticated, witty, sly, and good-natured. Yet, Royal Wedding presents Astaire in the many roles he took on in film—the debonair suitor, in this case for Sarah Churchill; the family man, protecting and battling with little sister Jane Powell; and master showman, performing as part of a brother—sister act in London for the royal wedding of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth. The film’s plot is predictable and forgettable, but Astaire is at his absolute best. Even as we watch him deal with the inevitable obstacles he encounters both personally and professionally, we know that the big show will go off flawlessly and Astaire will get the girl of his dreams. What’s more, he will be his charming, joking self throughout highs and lows.


Beyond showing Astaire’s considerable charm at its best, Royal Wedding features three of Astaire’s—and film’s—greatest musical numbers. The most famous of these, “You’re All the World to Me”, finds Astaire alone in his hotel room, dancing his way around the entire room, including up the walls and across the ceiling, in celebration of his new love. Astaire first mentioned the idea for the scene in 1945, but it took him six years to actually capture it on film. The camera work is standard now, but it was revolutionary at the time and astounded audiences. Although this sequence is the film’s most often mentioned, it is not the film’s only memorable one. “Summer Jumps” finds Astaire alone on stage; lacking a partner (his sister has failed to show up for rehearsal), Astaire improvises, grabbing a hat stand and making it his dance partner. The scene seems to pay homage to rival Gene Kelly, mirroring Kelly’s “You, Wonderful You” number from Summer Stock the previous year. Equally good is Astaire’s number with Powell, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve been a Liar All My Life.” Here, Astaire is at his most playful, as a small-time thug trying to brush off some clingy dame. With Astaire in nipple-high pants and Powell smacking gum, the duo is in perfect sync in a dance that is equal parts contemporary dance, tap, and slapstick. This is the Astaire film-goers came to love—spirited but graceful. Even if Fred Astaire was playing the same character that he played in most of his films, no one could have played it like him. ~ Michael Abernethy


 
Jamie Bell—Billy Elliot
(Stephen Daldry, 2000)


When a film features a young boy (Bell) cowering in the loo as he watches his father take an axe to the family piano to make much-needed firewood, it’s hard to imagine such a film is a musical or a comedy. Granted, there is music and dancing—lots of dancing—but at its core, Billy Elliot is a family drama, focusing on how one father and son deal with gender expectations amidst a labor dispute and growing poverty. An Andy Hardy feel-good movie it isn’t, but then, Jamie Bell is no Mickey Rooney. In Billy Elliot, Bell is brooding, intense, talented, intelligent, inquisitive, frightened, and utterly compelling; consequently, he found himself at the age of 14 as BAFTA’s youngest Best Actor winner and a SAG nominee.


Billy Elliot likes to dance, causing him to abandon the boxing class his father wants him in for the dance classes taught in the same gym. Set against the mining labor strikes of 1984, the film concerns itself with what it means to be a man—does it mean standing up for what you believe or swallowing your pride to support your family? Is it pursuing what is manly or chasing after what you love to do, even if the world may not approve? Even as Billy struggles with the latter question, his father struggles with the former, setting up a clash of identities. At the core of all these struggles is Bell, carefully weaving between the competing forces in Billy’s world, serving as silent observer, absorbing the conflicts and channeling it all into his dance. The film’s highlight number finds Bell dancing through the streets of his town to the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice”, full into his rage after a fight between his father and dance teacher. Bell’s every movement as he dances screams the words he cannot say. The dance perfectly sets up the scene’s pivotal scene, and Bell’s most moving, as Billy explains what it feels like to dance in front of a dance academy audition panel. There is a clarity and maturity in Bell’s delivery that exceeds his age, plus the kid can dance like hell. Whether engaging in a playful dance with his teacher, the delightful Julie Walters, or proving his love of dance to his father, Bell is a joy to watch. ~ Michael Abernethy


 
Björk—Dancer in the Dark
(Lars Von Trier, 2000)


“I’ve seen it all, I have seen the dark, I have seen the brightness in one little spark. I’ve seen what I was and I know I what I’ll be, I’ve seen it all, there is no more to see…” So goes the Oscar-nominated tune written (improbably) by singer-composer Björk and her director Lars Von Trier, evoking the film’s undeniably powerful, melodramatic underpinnings which play out on screen like some mad cinematic hybrid of Douglas Sirk and the Fred Astaire/Cy Charisse musical The Band Wagon (1953). With Von Trier trying on his Minnelli hat, additionally, the spectator is treated to Björk doing her best riff on Giulietta Masina, part child-clown drowning in a well of sadness, part dimunitve dynamo full of pluck and strength; a thoroughly complex creation given the leading lady’s complete lack of experience in acting for the screen.


As Selma, an immigrant single mother living with her teenage son in the 1960s, Björk gives in an impeccably modulated performance made up of such astonishing, seamless details that she not only that grounds the director’s implausible (if brilliant) melodrama in reality, but in fact deep within in the beating heart. Selma’s only reason for living, for toiling away in a back-breaking, dangerous factory job as her eyesight becomes worse and worse, is to save her son from the same hereditary disease by wheedling away every penny to pay for his operation. A Czech woman barely getting by who came searching for the American dream, who daydreams of starring in splashy American musicals, Selma’s only pleasures in life become her undoing as a series of horrible circumstances conspire to land her on trial for murder and finally on death row. In these later scenes, a few of which are shared with the legendary Catherine Denueve to tremendous effect, Björk does the impossible: she makes you forget you are watching Björk.


These moments that find Selma going through a xenophobic, unfair judicial system, crackle with dramatic intensity. As a singer, the command Björk has over the vocal elements of the character—not just the singing, but the powerful attention to every word Selma says and how she says them—is beautiful. Though, to those of us who know her live show well it comes as no revelation that Björk, who once sang so poignantly about feeling “emotional landscapes” on Homogenic, could feel her way into a character through creating just that: the “emotional landscape” through creating a voice for a woman she might not have a lot in common with, but that she can connect with on a divinely synergistic plane through her compositions and singing. Yes, it is sad she won’t take another acting role (though she did appear in Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9), but the strength of her tour performances continues to impress, and to be fair, most of those could stand up against almost any film performance on this list, if we’re really talking “Essential Performances”. ~ Matt Mazur


 
Matthew Broderick—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
(John Hughes, 1986)


Casting was absolutely crucial here. Had high school auteur Hughes stuck us with a generic Hollywood hunk in the role of the school-skipping, fourth-wall-breaking title character, Ferris Bueller might have been unbearably unctuous and obnoxiously entitled, particularly coming, as the film does, from the upper middle class milieu that Hughes’ typical setting. Because the filmmaker regarded ‘80s suburban America with equal parts sympathy and satire, though, he knew better than to alienate even his only slightly less privileged viewers (the ones who may be without either car or computer), and with the choice down to John Cusack (who would land his own definitive ‘80s teen role three years later as Say Anything‘s Lloyd Dobler) and Matthew Broderick, Hughes still wound up with the best possible Ferris.


Importing some of the cocky insouciance that the actor previously displayed as another computer wiz kid in John Badham’s WarGames (1983), Broderick plays Ferris as an impish every-teen, a hilarious literalization of David Elkind’s “personal fable”—note how the entire city of Chicago seems to rally together to “Save Ferris”—locating a quality essential in establishing his easy, witty rapport with the audience. Through Broderick’s winsome performance, we are invited along on his wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than passively observing it, and his (and Hughes’) balance of heart (as the motivation behind the day off is revealed as a last-ditch opportunity to win his hopelessly neurotic best friend some confidence and self-respect) and appealingly good natured sense of comic anarchy keeps the film as emotionally grounded as it is delightfully absurd. In a film rich with beautifully realized comic performances, from Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, Jennifer Grey, Jeffrey Jones and Edie McClurg in note-perfect supporting turns to Ben Stein and Charlie Sheen in brilliantly typecast cameos, Broderick remains both focal point and anchor, ensuring us that even if we are in no position to take a “day off” of our own, joining in on his remains a delightful alternative. ~ Jer Fairall


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