Iconic - The Top 20 Male Performances of 2008

by PopMatters Staff

13 January 2009

Like the gladiators of old, 2008 resembles a battle of formidable acting gods, especially when looking over the 20 choices presented below. Indeed, if anything, choosing a winner requires more of a leap of faith than any amount of critical skill - they all were that good.

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Rachel Getting Married

Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe

US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (Limited release)

Review [7.Oct.2008]


Bill Irwin Rachel Getting Married

In Ordinary People, Donald Sutherland played the perfect example of a parent unhinged by a horrific tragedy. In a 2008 revisit of a similar storyline, actor and clown Irwin shows how far/low the American father has come/gone in 28 years. Part pro-PC doormat, part symbol of post-millennial male ineffectualness, there’s a deeper element to Papa Buchman, a creative man plagued by simple doubt, that keeps us sympathetic and engaged. While he may not have the answers to a family falling apart, his open hearted attempt to heal his children’s wounds indicates a man of untapped potential—and significant vulnerability. Bill Gibron

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Tell No One

Ne le dis à personne
Director: Guillaume Canet
Cast: François Cluzet, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Kristin Scott Thomas, Nathalie Baye

(Les Productions du Trésor)
US theatrical: 2 Jul 2008

Review [27.Apr.2009]


Francois Cluzet Tell No One

Plots surround pediatrician Alexandre Beck (Francois Cluzet) when he gets a chance to recover the wife he thought he lost eight years earlier. Whereas other actors might have approached Beck with a grizzled sense of sorrow or acquired affectation, Cluzet locks into a tricky balance of optimism and caution. At once detective, suspect, and victim, Beck is defined by loss, and Cluzet wisely plays him like there’s nothing left to lose. There is a refreshing romanticism to his dedication that steadies the more improbable tangents of the story and keeps the action moving forward in a quest for justice and lost love. Thomas Britt

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The Visitor

Director: Thomas McCarthy
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass

(Overture Films)
US theatrical: 11 Apr 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 4 Jul 2008 (General release)

Review [17.Apr.2008]


Richard Jenkins The Visitor

Richard Jenkins is a career “That Guy,” known for playing small character roles and never really sticking out much. Even this year, he showed up as the dad in the Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly comedy Step Brothers and as the gym manager in the Coens’ Burn After Reading. But he finally got his chance to shine in The Visitor and seized upon the opportunity. Listless college professor Walter Vale discovers a foreign couple squatting in his little-used New York City apartment, and decides to let them stay, even beginning to learn the art of African drumming. Jenkins is in nearly every scene, and he carries the movie wonderfully as Walter begins to discover joy in his life, and later deals with tragedy and even tentative, tender middle-aged love. Chris Conaton

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In Bruges

Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jérémie Renier, Zeljko Ivanek, Eric Godon

(Focus Features)
US theatrical: 8 Feb 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 4 Apr 2008 (General release)

Review [8.Feb.2008]


Brendan Gleeson In Bruges

A variation on his character from I Went Down, Gleeson’s Ken is a hitman in a holding pattern. Stuck in Bruges with Ray (Colin Farrell) and under the thumb of boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Gleeson calmly and coolly attempts to mediate between the two hotheads. Many actors of Gleeson’s stature fail to convincingly square their ursine exterior with the delicacy some roles require (compare for instance Hoffman’s Capote to that of Toby Jones). Gleeson, however, endearingly conveys a big man who wants nothing more than to enjoy life’s small pleasures even as his criminal commitment unavoidably draws him back in. Thomas Britt

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Midnight Meat Train

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart

US theatrical: 1 Aug 2008 (General release)


Vinnie Jones Midnight Meat Train

You’ve probably seen Jones, the former English soccer star, playing tough guys in the films of Guy Ritchie and in various other movies over the past decade. He definitely has a comfort zone, and he always does solid work inside of that zone. Still, his performance as the silent, creepy killer Mahogany in Midnight Meat Train may be the role of his career. There’s no mask or grotesque makeup here, but Jones doesn’t need much to be imposing. In this movie, he’s frightening just walking on the street in a business suit, and when he shifts gears to attack unsuspecting passengers on the New York City subway, it’s absolutely terrifying. Jones makes a hell of an impression without saying a word. Chris Conaton

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Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Jamesw Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, Diego Luna

(Focus Features)
US theatrical: 26 Nov 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [26.Nov.2008]


Josh Brolin Milk

After tearing up the screen thrice in 2007, and wowing as Dubya himself earlier last year, Josh Brolin has accrued one of the best strings of roles in a long time. And best among them is Milk’s killer Dan White. Opposite some of the most sublime acting of last year courtesy of Penn, Franco and Hirsch, Brolin works a minor miracle by nearly stealing the film away from everyone with about a tenth of their screen time. His White is sympathetic without being obvious in any way. Is it hot in here or is it just this dude’s career? Aaron Marsh

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Burn After Reading

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons

(Focus Features)
US theatrical: 12 Sep 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 17 Oct 2008 (General release)

Review [12.Sep.2008]


Brad Pitt Burn After Reading

If Javier Bardem and that hideous haircut resonate as the signature touch from last year’s No Country for Old Men, then a shamelessly Coen-ized Brad Pitt should stand as Burn After Reading’s indelible image—especially that last expression we see on the face of Pitt’s character, an awkwardly effusive grin, like a jack-in-the-box popping up out of cue. In a movie full of vintage Coen sleazebags and schemers, Pitt’s jamba juice-chugging, bike-riding gym rat is the one that’s sort of inadvertently endearing, mostly because you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Whoa, wait a minute: this is Brad freaking Pitt we’re talking about here—the guy who won the genetic jackpot, then got charisma and talent thrown in as a bonus. No statement, then, could more highly attest to Pitt’s degree of in-character “transformation” here. Josh Timmermann

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Pineapple Express

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Amber Heard, Rosie Perez, Gary Cole, Craig Robinson, Kevin Corrigan, Bill Hader

(Columbia Pictures)
US theatrical: 6 Aug 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 12 Sep 2008 (General release)

Review [27.Jan.2009]
Review [6.Aug.2008]


James Franco Pineapple Express

If you’re of a certain age, from a specific generation, you probably had a stoner friend. Maybe you were the one waking and baking on a consistent basis. Whatever the case, there are certain Mary Jane inspired clichés that come with the concept, and amazingly enough, Franco transcends each and every one of them. He’s intelligent when stupidity should rule. He’s loyal when self-preservation should be the focus. And when the time comes to pack heat and kick some ass, he’s initially reluctant - proving that marijuana doesn’t really impair one’s better judgment. Instead, friendship and loyalty - not THC - turns him into something almost heroic. Oh, and he’s hilarious as well.  Bill Gibron

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Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (General release)

Review [12.Dec.2008]


Philip Seymour Hoffman Doubt

In 2008, the pedophilic priest is an alarming non-event. It’s something we expect whenever the church and children are mentioned. John Patrick Shanley takes such a tripwire reality, teleports it back 40 years, and rediscovers the title concept. Hoffman’s turn as Fr. Flynn seems to fit the profile—he’s a tad too personal with the students at St. Nicholas Church School, taking a particular liking to the only African American kid on campus. When the boy is found with liquor on his breath, Flynn must undergo a series of interrogations and inferences in order to clear his name. At every turn, Hoffman seems to hide the truth, leaving the audience ambiguous as to whether or not he’s guilty, misunderstood, or something far more personal. It’s spellbinding to watch. Bill Gibron

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Revolutionary Road

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn

(Paramount Vantage)
US theatrical: 26 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 30 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [31.May.2009]
Review [24.Dec.2008]


Leonardo DiCaprio Revolutionary Road

My favorite thing about Yates’ masterful novel Revolutionary Road is how keen an eye for deconstructing masculine ideals it has. That probing eye has not been lost in the translation to the screen but has somehow transfered almost entirely to DiCaprio’s performance. Despite his lack of buzz, he has the heavy lifting in this film, though you’d never know at a glance. He makes it look entirely too easy. And as he proved to be her great romantic match in Titanic, DiCaprio again meshes with Winslet perfectly again, but this time they’re rivals. And when she calls his manhood out, it gets magnificently ugly. Aaron Marsh

Topics: a christmas tale | aaron eckhart | alison pill | amber heard | amy adams | anna deavere smith | anne consigny | anne hathaway | ben stiller | best film of 2008 | bill hader | bill irwin | brad pitt | bradley cooper | brandon t. jackson | brendan gleeson | brooke shields | burn after reading | catherine deneuve | chiara mastroianni | christian bale | clémence poésy | colin farrell | craig robinson | danai gurira | danny mcbride | david harbour | david rasche | debra winger | diego luna | doubt | elizabeth banks | ellen burstyn | emile hirsch | eric godon | eric roberts | ernest "the cat" miller | ethan coen | evan rachel wood | faran tahir | françois cluzet | frances mcdormand | frank langella | frost/nixon | gary cole | gary oldman | george clooney | gwyneth paltrow | haaz sleiman | heath ledger | hiam abbass | ioan gruffudd | iron man | jérémie renier | j.k. simmons | jack black | james cromwell | james franco | jamesw franco | jason ritter | jay baruchel | jeff bridges | jeffrey wright | john malkovich | josh brolin | jr. | kate winslet | kathryn hahn | kathy bates | kevin bacon | kevin corrigan | kristin scott thomas | laurent capelluto | leonardo dicaprio | leslie bibb | maggie gyllenhaal | marie-josée croze | marina hands | marisa tomei | mather zickel | mathieu amalric | melvil poupaud | meryl streep | michael caine | michael shannon | michael sheen | mickey rourke | midnight meat train | milk | morgan freeman | nathalie baye | nick nolte | oliver platt | philip seymour hoffman | pineapple express | rachel getting married | ralph fiennes | rebecca hall | revolutionary road | richard dreyfuss | richard jenkins | robert downey | robert downey jr. | roger bart | rosemarie dewitt | rosie perez | sam rockwell | scott glenn | sean penn | seth rogen | shaun toub | steve coogan | tell no one | terrence howard | thandie newton | the dark knight | the visitor | the wrestler | tilda swinton | toby jones | tropic thunder | tunde adebimpe | vinnie jones | viola davis | w. | zeljko ivanek
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