Actors That Flew Under the Radar

Indie darlings on shoestring budgets, foreign art-house staples, and sometimes straight to DVD (but always straight from the heart), this list includes actors who might be considered prolific stars by some standards, whose work, unfortunately, fell by the wayside.

Indie darlings on shoestring budgets, foreign art-house staples, and sometimes straight to DVD (but always straight from the heart), this list includes actors who might be considered prolific stars by some standards, whose work, unfortunately, fell by the wayside.

Mathieu Amalric

Kings and Queen

(Arnaud Desplechin, 2005)

I find this performance to be as elusive as I do contemporary, a jittery embodiment of a globalized world that frantically, impatiently flits from source to source for constant stimulation. It is the fraught Ismael that breaks the chain in Kings and Queen. He has been over-stimulated and is too sensitive and high-strung to see the benefits of change. He clings to his ideals. He is childish. He is often inappropriately loud-mouthed and foul-tempered. But this is the life of an artist, turbulent mind and all: Amalric’s Ismael is a virtuoso cellist. As such, a certain amount of artistic temperament must be honed by the actor and displayed, to make the character seem as though he is perhaps the diva of his company, and wherever he happens to be at the time (though that is generally his apartment). Working both in English-language and his native French film, Amalric, one of the most exciting working actors in the world, is all jangled nerves and exposed insecurity, an obnoxious, spoiled dilettante who could probably stand to be slapped (his stunning scene with Catherine Denueve might be the most compelling argument for such drastic action).

There is a point, though, at the beginning of Amalric’s performance, where he is just so funny that you can’t help but love him (his break-dancing scene is magnificent). He’s mouthy, stubborn and unpleasant, but there is something very compelling about his nihilism, something hinting at a heart behind all of his cynicism and manic-ness. In the final section of the film, any preconceptions you might have had about Ismael melt away in one of my favorite monologues, perhaps ever given by an actor in a film, as he explains to his ex-wife’s son why he cannot be his adopted father. It is a vivid story he paints for the child, both letting him down easy and breaking his heart – and also doing the same thing for the audience. While it may be sad that he cannot accept this new responsibility, it is actually a triumph for his character: Ismael has, throughout the course of the film, gradually attained the emotional maturity necessary for him to go forth artistically. We know he will survive, that he will be strong, whereas in the film’s initial scenes, it seemed like he could go in a tragic direction not unfamiliar to tormented, brilliant artists and musicians. Amalric’s navigation of this tricky dramatic arc is flawless. Matt Mazur

Gael Garcia Bernal

Bad Education

(Pedro Almodovar, 2004)

Few would describe Bad Education as one of Pedro Almodóvar’s best films: it’s too diffuse, too messily convoluted and almost entirely lacking the wild humor and generosity of sprit of his most accomplished work. But at the dark heart of this tormented and tormenting movie is a simply stunning performance — or, more accurately, a series of performances — by García Bernal. The actor bravely delivers a chameleonic star turn that transgresses gender and noirish genre “norms”. Whether lip-synching to Sara Montiel in a startling dress, performing oral sex on a drowsy pick-up (a scene which earned the film an undeserved NC-17 rating in the States), or participating in one of the sexiest swimming-pool sequences in movie history, García Bernal expertly juggled variant versions of the same (or is it?) character, all the while keeping in view the role of grasping, ambitious actor Angel, a protagonist willing to lie, betray, murder and screw his way to a desired part.

Not many actors get the chance to play an homme fatale and a femme fatale in the same movie, but García Bernal gamely responded to the challenge, with rumors of on-set clashes between actor and director only adding to the masochistic fun. In a brief but telling scene that cuts to the heart of Almodóvar’s concern to blur the border between reality and fiction, García Bernal’s Juan unexpectedly breaks down on a film-set, having just acted out a version of the scenario of his real-life brother’s death. It’s a rare moment of redemptive emotion in a mainly icily cold movie. Alexander Ramon

Chris Cooper

Lone Star

(John Sayles, 1996)

“Forget the Alamo” is one of the best lines from Sayles’ masterful ode to Texas, and serves as a metaphor for the entire film. Using an unsolved mystery as its catalyst, this story about racial divide in a rural border town is driven by white Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) and his pursuit of the uncovering the truth about the disappearance of the town’s hated, bigoted sheriff, Charlie Wade, 40 years earlier. The discovery of Wade’s bones re-opens the case, which has become a local legend. “This country’s seen a number of disagreements over the years,” says Deeds. Through Deeds’ eyes we see the mostly Hispanic town’s history-as he travels to the black community’s “Darktown”, or to the local drinking hole that mostly caters to white rednecks. When someone mentions that the family of a possibly gay black woman would be “relieved” even if she married a white man, the retort is that it’s “always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.” With evidence pointing to Sam’s late father Buddy, who took over as sheriff when Wade disappeared, Sam uncovers some dark secrets about his father. Cooper’s face is a roadmap of emotions as Sam deals with his resentment toward his father (over a forbidden high school relationship), while trying to be impartial in his own investigation. It’s a well-seasoned, mysterious performance and Cooper brings a well of understated strength to the character, not unlike that of the veteran western film actor Gary Cooper (no relation). Tim Basham

Jeff Daniels

The Squid and the Whale

(Noah Baumbach, 2005)

If the best minds of some generations chained themselves to subways and were destroyed by madness, then what became of the merely above average ones of the proceeding years? Those who quietly watched what talent they did have slide away without even being aware that it was leaving them? Who spent so long feeling unrecognized and unappreciated that it became the only way they knew how to see themselves? Besides taking it out on everyone around them, perhaps, having never fully settled into their mortgages, their marriages, and their kids, they end up flat on their back on a Brooklyn street in presumed cardiac arrest, trying to argue their way out of a parking ticket.

In Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, as the controlling, begrudging, father of two who is also an underachieving writer that considers Kafka to be his predecessor and Mailer his contemporary, Daniels makes the difficult character of Bernard completely and sadly understandable. Inscribing a copy of one of his books for his teenage son, he signs it and then, as a perfectly timed afterthought, adds “Dad” in parentheses. He never asks, or even realizes, that he needs to be forgiven, but in the end there’s almost no other way to deal with him. He’s perhaps the hardest type of father to understand and the kind that somewhere in the back of their minds most men harbor a deep fear of becoming — or at least hate that they can relate to. Bernard never intends to be mean, he never intends to be hurtful or undermining, but he consistently is and it serves to alienate him from virtually everyone. Jon Langmead

Bruno Ganz and more


Pink Flamingos

(John Waters, 1972)

The moment John Waters met Harris Glen Milstead, aka delicious drag queen Divine; he knew he had a muse that would take them both to the heights of fame and fortune. Sadly, their collaborations frequently became the stuff of infamy and disaster. Early silent efforts produced mixed results and it was only when Waters dreamt up the story of Babs Johnson, the self-proclaimed “filthiest person alive” that the true Divine persona took root and flourished. With amazing make-up work from Van Smith, and costumes which suggested a bruised and broken burlesque diva driven to the brink of a breakdown. Waters always stressed that Divine was not really a drag act. Instead, he was a male actor playing a woman – and a damn memorable and amazing one at that. Though the performance here can’t match the character crazed perfection of Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos offers Ms. Milstead’s greatest filmic “fuck you” ever – the literal exclamation of “Eat (Dog) Shit” to the cruel conservative Establishment. It’s a brave, brilliant turn. Bill Gibron

Ralph Fiennes


(David Cronenberg, 2003)

Ralph Fiennes utters barely a word of dialogue in Spider. When he does, it’s usually to repeat or precede another character’s line. Instead, most of what we hear from Fiennes is in the form of mutters and mumbles, incomprehensible babble uttered at the decibel level of a whisper. As the schizophrenic title character, Fiennes’s arcane speech, his body movements, and quizzical actions are guided by their own language. Ultimately, director Cronenberg’s aim is not to translate Spider’s affliction to the screen and thereby make it palpable in the minds of audiences, but to instead convey just how unknowable a condition it is. In antithesis to dramatic norms then, Fiennes’s job is to circumvent empathy and understanding for his titular protagonist, and yet still make him intriguing enough warrant 98 minutes of mostly action-free screen time.

The original screenplay by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the novel, featured voiceover segments from Spider’s journal mapping his interior landscape in vivid, surreal detail. In the journal that is seen on screen, all the writing, like much of Spider’s life, is cryptographic. In fact, the plot plays out like a murder mystery as Spider tries to remember the details of his mother’s death. Fiennes’s every fractured movement, confused gaze, and evasive stance is interrelated with Cronenberg’s evocative mise en scene, from Spider’s unkempt demeanor and his Beckett-inspired haircut to the rotting, crusty old London that Spider’s potentially out-of-body spirit lurks around whilst looking for clues. Fiennes’s master stroke is not to over-perform the disease with silly twitches and hysterical breakdowns. His madness is minimalist, not exactly a state of perpetual distress as much as an existential crisis in an alternate plane of reality, of which the audience only has a telescopic view. Timothy Gabriele

Leonard Frey

The Boys in the Band

(William Friedkin, 1970)

“What I am, Michael is a 32-year-old ugly pock-marked Jew fairy.” Harold’s self-description leaves out a few important characteristics: acerbic, droll, and vengeful, to name a few. Harold is the Greek chorus of Mart Crowley’s 1970 screenplay for The Boys in the Band, not a part of the action but always in the background ready to offer commentary and exposition. Leonard Frey originated the role Off-Broadway, and his performance in the low-budget film got critics’ attention. Boys is frequently hailed as landmark cinema, one of the first films to portray “honestly” the lives of gay men (assuming gay men live in a constant state of arousal and turmoil). Centered around Harold’s birthday party, the film features large doses of histrionics and catty repartee, but Harold rises above it all in demeanor, remaining even-keeled while wallowing in self-loathing and hurtful critiques of others. Many of the characters are in a state of crisis, for various reasons, which provides Harold plenty of opportunities to display his cutting wit.

The rest of the cast “chews the scenery” liberally, but in Leonard Frey’s hands, Harold becomes the standout by not engaging in the heavy-handed hysteria. Frey’s entire performance is delivered in a monotone, the type of lifeless vocal quality that reeks of detached indifference. Yet, his intent — concern, criticism, or levity – is always clear. His performance is controlled, metered, and subtle, the sophisticated queen too insulated to care but too insightful to remain quiet. Thanks to Frey, Harold’s one-note becomes a symphony. Michael Abernethy

Bruno Ganz


(Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

Taking on the role of one of history’s most despised figures is no small task, and few actors have done it as well as Bruno Ganz’s turn at Adolf Hitler in Downfall. More often than not, actors fall into caricature when playing a figure as infamous as Hitler, who has been documented in more published biographies than Jesus. Downfall contains its focus to the last days of the Third Reich, in the claustrophobic environs of the Bunker and the bombed out surrounding landscape of the Wilhelmstrasse.

Ganz and director Oliver Hirschbiegel clearly did their homework for this groundbreaking film that aimed to put a distinctly human face on the murderous regime. The Bunker was recreated down to the last detail and the film was shot in St. Petersburg, Russia, where there are a great many building designed by German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the streets more closely evoke old Berlin than anywhere else on the planet. That attention to detail extends to the actors, as they worked very deliberately to avoid any form of obvious parody. Despicable as it all is, this is a human tale, and we are not allowed to forget it. This shows most dramatically in Ganz’s portrayal of the Führer.

Ganz’s Hitler is a fully developed character, with not a trace of artifice, complete with all of his contradictions — a leader destroying the German nation in Götterdämmerung fashion and yet kind and charming to the women and children within his circle. Ganz shows us a decayed man as near the end of his life and as ill as the country he managed to destroy. It’s evident in his speech, manner and actions, including the Parkinson’s’ hand twitch that we see as Hitler moves through his cellar grave. The performance is a virtual clinic in physical acting as the shakes and rages with contrasting moments of calm evoke the brief interludes of normality amidst the implosion of the nation and its figurehead. Sarah Zupko

Bob Hoskins and more

Ben Gazzara

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

(John Cassavetes, 1976)

In the 50-plus years of his acting career, Gazzara has rarely accomplished the level of greatness he approached with his turn as strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I am convinced that none of the actors of his generation could have done this character as much justice. If anything, it took a less-than-iconic actor to play Vitelli, who is a less-than-stellar businessman. His hours and days are filled with thoughts on his struggling club; he measures his days with “coffee spoons.” Like Gene Hackman’s character Royal Tenenbaum, Gazzara embodies the desperation of Vitelli, who adopts a lifestyle that he cannot afford and once he squeezes out of debt, he finds himself back in it. This time, however, he is given an alternative to paying back a $23,000 debt to the mob — assassinate a small-time bookie. Vitelli doesn’t necessarily volunteer for the mission, but once he takes on the responsibility, he doesn’t flinch — he kills the bookie and then finds out that the mob had expected him to fail, so they start to come after him.

Although The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a vehicle for Gazzara’s acting chops, Cassavetes does introduce a handful of small characters that all play off of Vitelli’s manic-depressive persona, which Gazzara nails. When he’s happy, they are down and vice-versa — creating a kind of emotional chiaroscuro in the film. Although Cassavetes wrote the script, Gazzara’s delivery makes even the purportedly least meaningful phrases come alive. He populates the film with aphorisms like “You’re an amateur” and “My truth is your falsehood” and memorable lines like, “I’m only happy when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when I can play the fool. When I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.” This is made all the more surreal because we don’t expect Vitelli to be this intelligent. And yet this is another reason why Gazzara gives the acting performance of a lifetime, making the viewer sympathetic towards a charming, yet muddling, club owner who becomes an unlikely hero by the end of this underground classic. Shyam K. Sriram

Kamaal Hassan


(Mani Ratnam, 1987)

In a country where actors and actresses are deified, South Indian actor Haasan stands out in some ways because of his success in playing the role of the common man in the juggernaut that is Indian cinema. No where is this more prevalent than his performance as Sakthivelu Nayakar in the Tamil feature Nayakan. Before it became cool to be associated with poverty in India (aka Slumdog Millionaire), there was Nayakan, which is considered to be an epic even by Bollywood standards. The film was based on the life of Varadarajan Mudaliar, a poor Tamil immigrant who became a mob boss. After Nayakar’s father is killed, the young boy avenges his father’s death by killing the perpetrator and then flees to Mumbai (them Bombay) where he becomes a part of Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia. When his foster-father is also killed by police and Nayakar avenges his death, the community looks at him in a new light.

What really stands is Haasan’s deliverance as an encomium to Marlon Brando’s role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Nayakar and Corleone were similar men — both grew up in abject poverty; both became successful businessmen; both developed patronage among the dependent, poorer communities around them; and saw their families implode. It only seems fitting then that Haasan as Nayakar would emulate Brando as Corleone and the results are moving indeed. My favorite scene in the film shows an aged Nayakar, mourning the recent death of his son, wearing the South Indian veshti (loin cloth), his lips smeared red with betel nut and his mouth so full of the narcotic leaves that you can’t help but think of Brando’s mouthful of marbles.

His daughter, distraught over the death of her brother [who died accidentally while helping his father], asks Nayakar, “Who are you to punish? We have a legal system for this. Why you?” To which he replies, “You’re educated and have lived well. But we’re not like that. We suffered for food. And before we could bring back money, we died. Were we ever sure that we would live till night? So we don’t think of the courts and cops. You need to hit back to survive. We need to take up arms to live.” Just as the already iconic Brando cemented his legend with The Godfather, so too did Haasan use Nayakan to convince the rest of India that his prior film success was no fluke. Shyam K. Sriram

Bob Hoskins

The Long Good Friday

(John MacKenzie, 1980)

He’s a feisty British fireplug, the kind of man you expect to be manning a shovel on a construction site, or managing boxers after a faded glory career all his own, not starring in major motion pictures. Still few had heard of Hoskins outside his native UK prior to his turn as Harold Shand, a gruff old school gangster who wants to go legit, with decidedly difficult results. Unusually handsome in a beefy, unmade manner, and deadly with a gesture or a word, Hoskins virtually sits at the center of a London turning inside itself. His desire to get out — albeit with the American mafia’s help — might seem like a standard story arc, but the performance here is so multilayered, so discordant in what we think of hoodlums and the horrors they commit, that it turns Shand into something of a martyr. As he watches his world violently unravel, he still wants to maintain the façade of respectability — even if it kills him in the end. Bill Gibron

Jerry Lewis

The King of Comedy

(Martin Scorsese, 1983)

There has always been the rumor — a Tinsel Town given — that beneath his trained ape juvenilia façade (the one that keeps the French in celebratory stitches), Lewis was a complete asshole. Not just a difficult artist to work with, but a full blown egotist who takes himself, and everything about his comedic craft, way too seriously. So when Scorsese was looking for a talent to essay the role of talk show target Jerry Langford in his satiric spin on Taxi Driver, Le Genius was the obvious choice. No one thought Lewis could do it, especially given the task of matching Robert De Niro in full Method-madness mode. But not only did the former Nutty Professor prove to be every bit the Oscar winner’s equal, he literally lifts the narrative on his oversized, arrogant shoulders and shoves it ever-forward. Many comment on how Rupert Pupkin comes across as an insane force of nature, a man driven directly by his desire for fame. But as Lewis proves here, once you get celebrity, it’s hard to shake its head-swelling tendencies — both on and off camera. Bill Gibron

River Phoenix and more

Sihung Lung

Eat Drink Man Woman

(Ang Lee, 1994)

Only Ang Lee and Sihung Lung could freight the simple act of a daughter serving her father soup with almost unbearable emotion. Eat Drink Man Woman details an eventful season for Chu (Lung), an aging widower and chef who has lost his sense of taste — a problem for a father who has only food through which to communicate with his three grown daughters, at the elaborate family dinners he prepares every Sunday night. Lung shows this closed-in man, merely going through the motions of his professional and personal life, gradually come back to life, and at turns hilarious and poignant. His exact, instinctive actions in the kitchen contrast with his fumbling attempts to connect with his daughters in the rest of the house they share together. He lectures them or converses with them without making eye contact. His eldest introduces her boyfriend at the dinner table as Chu holds aloft the hatchet with which he’s just broken up a salt-crust dish, looking pained and confused and just a little menacing all at once: lips slightly parted, brow furrowed, eyes narrowed. The expression is familiar, as are shots of Chu standing; shoulders slumped, with arms crossed. Chu’s not broken or cowed, just confused that the order he’s maintained in his professional life is unraveling, along with his family life-both due to forces beyond his control. Lung portrays it all with a minimalist repertoire of expression and gesture. When in the final reel Chu’s face finally opens up in a wide smile, marking his reawakening, it’s a revelation. The late Lung was the perfect actor for Lee, who prefers subtlety to bombast, and complementary performances by ensemble casts to ostentatious virtuoso turns by actors. Michael Curtis Nelson

John Cameron Mitchell

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

(John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

John Cameron Mitchell had one of the rarest of opportunities in film acting for Hedwig and the Angry Inch: practice. A character Mitchell first began inhabiting at drag shows around New York City in the early ’90s, Hedwig was refined over hundreds of performances in rock clubs, off-Broadway theaters, and more, with ever more structure and dialogue. By the time Hedwig the film landed in theaters in 2001, Mitchell had about as deep an understanding of his character as is possible. It was the role of a lifetime for Mitchell, who has as of this writing not even attempted to act in another film. As Hedwig, the ambiguously gendered glam-rock powerhouse, Mitchell is hilarious, moving, petty, selfish, pitiable, and, above all a fearsome rock powerhouse. The partly-animated set-piece for the band’s song “The Origin of Love” is a particular show-stopper, in which Hedwig recounts the mythology of a long-dead third gender. The tune, a mournful rocker that also mirrors Hedwig’s bruised life, allows Mitchell to perfect the character once more by combining expert facial movements, grand gestures and his singing voice in a uniquely harmonious way. The fact that he actually directs himself doing all of these things only adds to the performances allure — you wonder how much of “John Cameron Mitchell”, the person, is in this characterization, this embodiment of sorrow, wit, and ferocity. Life has beaten Hedwig to a pulp (it’s not easy for a glamorous transgender d-list rock goddess), but despite her flaws, it is her heart and talent that triumph in the end. Try and tear her down! Chris Chafin and Matt Mazur

Ulrich Mühe

The Lives of Others

(Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

On its face, a crackling international thriller, The Lives of Others is, upon closer examination, a thoughtful and deep meditation on the power of art — both in its ability to transform the individual and an entire society. Ulrich Mühe, as East German Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, stands at the center of this tale as a petty bureaucrat known for his loyalty to the state and his highly effective interrogation techniques. Wiesler has the assignment of spying on suspected dissident playwright Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland, a highly regarded stage actress. The experience winds up being transformative as peering into the lives of these artists shows Wiesler another path. A passage of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry from a book he pilfered from Dreyman’s artsy Prenzlauer Berg flat moves him deeply. It’s at that pivotal moment that the ever-so-true Stasi officer begins to question his role in the state apparatus and the effects that it has on the human soul.

Mühe plays the cold, stark loneliness of his role with a vast knowingness. He engages in sad and rather pitiful sex with a prostitute to grasp for some missing warmth and inhabits his dingy, cheap, cookie-cutter apartment (the polar opposite of Dreyman’s warm flat filled with life and culture) like the robot he was trained to be. Mühe’s startling honesty in this performance is positively revelatory, putting a human and ordinary face on the “coolest” brand of state fascism ever invented. It helps that Mühe knew this world intimately. As an actor in the former East Germany, he had been denounced to the authorities in a manner that parallels quite closely with the story of the film. In the end, it really doesn’t matter that there are no known historical instances of a Stasi agent turning dissident, as the message the film conveys is timeless and powerful and a masterful actor at the top of his game delivered the performance of his life. Sarah Zupko

River Phoenix

My Own Private Idaho

(Gus Van Sant, 1991)

“I could love someone even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it. I love you, and you don’t pay me.” It was almost as if every one of Phoenix’s prior performances were all leading to this revolutionary turn for queer auteur Van Sant. Phoenix’s Mike Waters, the narcoleptic gay street hustler in search of his long lost mother in this modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, is a coming-of-age on screen for the ill-fated young actor. He was only 20 when he proved here that he was much more than a pretty face with some acting chops. This sensitive, experimental take, in a time where it was still career suicide for a young straight man to “play gay” came after receiving an Oscar nomination for Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty three years prior. There’s a haunting emptiness in his eyes, need in his face, a plea for consideration in every word he utters. Mike is searching, ultimately, for a home, a stable place to lay down his head, making him a quintessential, relatable “everyman”. But as he learns, the yellow brick road just goes on infinitely. This is the role that defines Phoenix as a smart, sympathetic actor; capable beyond his age and experience, and, in fact, captures and defines the restlessness of a generation reared on the Northwestern grunge sensibilities so vividly on display in Van Sant’s film. Nikki Tranter

Mark Ruffalo and more

Paul Reubens

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

(Tim Burton, 1985)

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