Iconic - The Top 20 Male Performances of 2008

by PopMatters Staff

13 January 2009


10 - 1

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Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall

(Universal Pictures)
US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [5.Dec.2008]


Michael Sheen Frost/Nixon

Michael Sheen, well known as Tony Blair in The Deal and The Queen, brings to David Frost some of the same self-aware energy as his signature role. But as journalist Frost—like Blair, a man who mined the intersection of politics and media—Sheen exhibits a fresh dynamism that communicates the emotional compartmentalization that comes with the territory. Sheen plays Frost as a man so in tune with the façade television requires that he’s rarely without his charming public smile. But Sheen knows that eyes are helplessly honest, and he uses them to seduce, to sell, to justify, and in his final interview with Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon, to defeat. Thomas Britt

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A Christmas Tale

Director: Arnold Desplechin
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Anne Consigny, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto

(IFC Films)
US theatrical: 14 Nov 2008 (General release)

Review [15.Dec.2009]


Mathieu Amalric A Christmas Tale

Nervy, neurotic Henri has serious mommy issues. Matriarch Junon (Catherine Denueve) is dying and she lets all it hang out: she actually doesn’t care for her son at all. He’s fine with that—the two have a tentative, delirious agreement to get along for the sake of the family at what might be their last Christmas celebration. Pill-addled, ill-tempered and wily, Henri does his best to antagonize anyone who crosses his path. Amalric, in concert with his Kings and Queen director Arnaud Desplechin once again, attains a bruised glory and finds the heart of an otherwise ugly man that not even his mother loves. The added miracle is that he is so sharply funny while playing such a scumbag. Amalric proves once again to be one of the most engaging, interesting actors working today. Matt Mazur

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Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall

(Universal Pictures)
US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [5.Dec.2008]


Frank Langella Frost/Nixon

With Nixon, it’s just too easy to slip into caricature. For decades, impressionists and sketch comics have been milking the Milhous for all its “I am not a crook” worth. Following in the footsteps of Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s terrific bio-pic, West End and Broadway star Langella reprises his turn as the formidable ex-Commander in Chief. Savvy without being too smug, dignified with just a hint of desperation, this cagey old politician plays his British press given hand magnificently—until the truth slaps him right in his ‘above the law’ face. While he definitely looks the part, Langella’s triumph is in bearing Nixon’s noxious soul. It’s something no mimic can match. Bill Gibron

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Iron Man

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb

(Marvel Studios)
US theatrical: 2 May 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 2 May 2008 (General release)

Review [1.May.2008]


Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man

Robert Downey’s portrayal of Tony Stark is almost four great performances in one. He delivers a masterpiece of comic timing that makes every snappy one-liner sound spontaneous (“Hey Tony, remember me?” “Sure don’t!”). He has real chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow in a relationship that never feels like a tacked-on romantic subplot. He’s deliriously entertaining as a hard-partying bad boy whose entire lifestyle, from owning a high-tech mansion overlooking the ocean to sleeping with every Maxim covergirl he can fit into his schedule, is a daydream of male wish fulfillment. And at the same time, Downey clues us in to Stark’s innate loneliness and his crisis of conscience when he realizes he’s been living his life on hedonistic autopilot. Playing a superhero who’s both sleazy and inspiring at the same time, Robert Downey Jr. shows once again that he’s an actor without limits. Jack Rodgers

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Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Ioan Gruffudd, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Wright, Jason Ritter, Toby Jones

US theatrical: 17 Oct 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 7 Nov 2008 (Limited release)

Review [17.Oct.2008]


Josh Brolin W.

Josh Brolin’s George W. Bush is a pretty dead-on piece of mimicry, yet as such, it’s only marginally more effective than your run-of-the-mill Saturday Night Live sketch. What elevates his performance is that, through Bush’s tics and quirks and mannerisms, Brolin finds an entry point for embodying what registers as a genuinely human and multi-dimensional Bush. Consequently, it’s in the most familiar of Dubya moments that Brolin sparks revelations. In fact, it’s hard—rightly or wrongly—to shake the feeling that we’re learning more about Bush the man from Brolin’s portrayal and Oliver Stone’s underappreciated film than we’ve been able to glean over these past eight years. Josh Timmermann

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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]


Michael Shannon Revolutionary Road

Like the more than necessary slap in the face the unhappy Wheeler couple desperately need (and deserve), Shannon shows up about halfway through Sam Mendes masterful Revolutionary Road and proceeds to steal the film away from his high powered A-list costars. All DiCaprio and Winslet can do is gawk in discontented disbelief. A powerful performer always circling the main cast, Shannon comes into his own as the insane son of an uptight real estate agent played by Kathy Bates. His final scene, taking on everyone who thinks he’s socially inappropriate, marks the beginning of the end for Frank and April’s dwindling dreams. It’s all horrifically downhill from there. Bill Gibron

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The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest “The Cat” Miller

(Fox Searchlight)
US theatrical: 17 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [30.Apr.2009]
Review [16.Dec.2008]


Mickey Rourke The Wrestler

Sometimes an actor and a character are fated to meet on film. In even rarer cases, these dueling personalities are opposite sides of the same coin. In the case of has-been actor Mickey Rourke and the role of washed-up professional wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, there was quite simply no other actor capable of embodying such a flawed yet emotionally sympathetic character. Each frayed relationship depicted in The Wrestler is written in the crevices of Rourke’s subtly expressive face—a lifetime of professional miscues bubbling just beneath the surface. And yet this isn’t just an exorcism of a careers-worth of demons, but also the performance that Rourke has been building towards over the course of a decade spent in exile. Jordan Cronk

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Tropic Thunder

Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Steve Coogan, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte

(Paramount Pictures)
US theatrical: 13 Aug 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 19 Sep 2008 (General release)

Review [13.Aug.2008]


Robert Downey Jr. Tropic Thunder

Downey was the best thing about the amazing Iron Man, so the fact that Tropic Thunder was his best performance of 2008 should tell you something about just how good he was in Ben Stiller’s comedy. He plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor who dyes his skin to play an African-American sergeant in a wannabe epic Vietnam war movie. Lost in the jungle and far from any cameras, Lazarus doggedly refuses to break character, to hilarious result. His advice to Ben Stiller’s clueless action star on why actors should never go “full retard” is already a film classic. And the layering of acting and confusion in the scenes where Downey, playing Lazarus, who is in character as the sergeant, disguises himself as a Chinese farmer, has to be seen to be believed. 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]


Sean Penn Milk

In a world where the easiest road to an Oscar is playing a real life individual, seeing someone’s biopic performance not consist almost entirely of mockery is absolutely astounding. Sean Penn is absolutely astounding in Milk, anchoring an impressive film filled with equally impressive performances with his serenely happy Harvey. After the first couple of scenes, you never question Milk’s ability to draw votes or the passionate band of boys that the film centers around; he’s just that darn charismatic. Were someone else in this role, Milk almost certainly would not have become the biopic-to-beat it is today. Aaron Marsh

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The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Eric Roberts, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

(Warner Brothers)
US theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 21 Jul 2008 (General release)

Review [17.Jul.2008]


Heath Ledger The Dark Knight

The depth of Heath Ledger’s portrayal transformed the Joker from a cartoonish villain to a painfully self-aware being—both likeable and frightening at the same time. More masochist than sadist, a darkly mirthful madness was constantly reflected in the eyes of The Dark Knight‘s self-proclaimed “agent of chaos”. While the Joker himself is a larger-than-life character, Ledger wisely employed no over-the-top theatrics, his Joker speaking in a delightfully conversational tone, even at his most deranged. His deliberate delivery of even single syllables made for memorable moments. Ledger made his prosthetic makeup more than just a prop, deftly incorporating a slight slurp and subtly informing a voice characterized by facial scars healed sans surgery. More remarkably, his characterization was so thorough that even from behind, the Joker’s distinctive walk and posture produced an aura of one part unsteady toddler and another part menacing Nosferatu, speaking volumes without saying a word.  Ledger’s performance truly constructed the devil from his attention to detail, creating an enigmatic sort of subtext to the Joker mythos. Lana Cooper

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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