Monday, February 12, 2024

Top Ten Things: Well-Deserved Oscars

Welcome to another Oscar-related edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Taking a break from reviewing Best Picture nominees, here's a list of acting performances that absolutely deserved to win Oscars and rightly did.  I've talked before about times the Academy snubbed a great performance, and about shocking upsets, but there have certainly been times the right person won for the right role.  In fact there have been years when I've decided, "Regardless what wins Best Picture and all the others, as long as this person wins this award I'll be happy."  Below are sixteen such examples, in chronological order.

1. Rita Moreno (West Side Story)

Steven Spielberg's West Side Story may have defied expectations for a remake of a beloved classic, but said beloved classic still holds up all these years later, and one of the main reasons is because of the supporting turn by Rita Moreno as the strong-willed, sassy firecracker Anita.  Torn between her independent streak and her loyalty to boyfriend Bernardo and his gang, Anita reluctantly supports her best friend Maria's romantic pursuit of sworn enemy Tony, while at the same time trying to instill upon Maria how futile such a relationship really is.  Moreno lights up the screen every time she appears, bursting with effortless charisma and drawing all eyes to her.  When I discovered this film at age 13, it was Anita, and not Maria, whom I had a crush on.

Key Scene: I've never been a huge musicals guy, but for some inexplicable reason the "America" musical number brings a tear to my eye whenever I watch it.  This scene is just so spectacularly executed, plus the song itself so organically expresses the conflicting viewpoints of the American immigrant experience.  Bernardo and his friends long for Puerto Rico, a place where they aren't treated as second-class citizens because of their ethnicity, while Anita and the girls love the opportunities America affords them.  Such a neat little microcosm of this country's advantages and drawbacks.

2. Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull)

The Academy may have dropped the ball in many other categories from 1980 (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor), but one award that absolutely went to the right guy was the Best Actor statuette.  Robert DeNiro's tormented, violent turn as middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta remains his most noteworthy performance, and it's also the most famous example of an actor altering his body shape for a film (DeNiro gained about sixty pounds for the later scenes in which LaMotta lets himself go and becomes a seedy nightclub owner).  Had anyone else walked away with this award it would've been a crime.

Key Scene: Probably the most purely visceral scene is the one in which LaMotta goes to prison and throws a self-loathing-induced fit, pounding the crap out of the cement wall and wailing like a madman.  I can't imagine an actor having to endure more than a single take of this scene.

3. Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda)

A rare case of a comedic performance outshining the competition, Kevin Kline's brilliantly hilarious turn as Otto provided dozens of quotable lines and managed to steal the show from comedy legends John Cleese and Michael Palin.  Kline brought to life a dimwitted character in the smartest way possible, with an amazingly nuanced, uproarious delivery.

Key Scene: Probably my favorite moment (and my favorite to quote) is the profanity-laced chain of insults Otto hurls at Archie (Cleese) after catching Archie with Wanda.  Such a magnificent tirade.

4. Kathy Bates (Misery)

Stephen King's thriller about a crazed fan taking her favorite author hostage was skillfully adapted by Rob Reiner in 1990, and the main reason the movie version worked so well was the performance of Kathy Bates.  A relative unknown at the time of her casting, Bates adeptly alternates between matronly warmth and terrifying emotional instability.  She is totally effective as this obsessed manic-depressive, but in a very realistic way, making the whole ordeal that much more harrowing.

Key Scene: Upon learning her guest Paul Sheldon has been out of his room, she ties Paul up and drugs him, and explains both her discovery, and his punishment.  The calmness she conveys as she prepares to hobble him is truly chilling.

5. Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs)

Speaking of chilling, Anthony Hopkins brought to life possibly the most famous cinematic serial killer of all time, Hannibal Lecter.  Defying genre conventions, Hopkins portrays Lecter not as a raving lunatic, but as a soft-spoken, well-mannered gentleman.  His tranquil gravitas puts one in mind of a dangerous predator at rest, and we can only imagine how frightening he'll be when he strikes.  That Hopkins won the Best Actor award for only about 27 minutes of screen time is a testament to how effective his performance is, and how his presence can be felt even when he's not in the scene.

Key Scene: Has to be Hannibal's introduction.  We've spent the first ten or so minutes of the film being told about the character and what he's capable of, and Clarice's long walk down the asylum hallway to his cell conjures palpable dread.  When we finally see Lecter, he's standing at attention, waiting for Clarice (and us), and looking directly into the camera.  From that moment on we're petrified of him.

6. Frances McDormand (Fargo)

Another film in which the lead character has relatively skimpy screen time is Fargo.  Frances McDormand crafts a tremendously memorable, likable character who accompanies us through the story, despite not being introduced until roughly a half hour into the film.  Marge Gunderson is shown as vulnerable due to her pregnancy, but also displays fireplug toughness as the intrepid police chief who cracks the mysterious kidnapping case and never wavers even as she confronts one of the culprits.

Key Scene: The second time Marge interrogates Jerry Lundegaard about the missing car creates a wonderful, shifting dynamic between the two characters - as Jerry becomes more agitated, Marge becomes more surefooted in her questioning, until Jerry flees the scene and Marge is baffled.

7. Denzel Washington (Training Day)

One of the all-time charismatic movie villains, Denzel's Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day absolutely commands the screen.  We first meet Harris as he's introduced to Officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), an ambitious but naive trainee who is instantly blindsided by Harris's no-holds-barred frankness and questionable methods.  As the film progresses it becomes clear that Harris is not the tough-but-fair mentor he initially sells to Jake; Alonzo ruthlessly uses his trainee as a fall guy to save himself from a debt he owes the Russian mob.  Denzel conveys incredible power and intimidation factor in Alonzo, creating a despicable but ultra-compelling baddie.

Key Scene: Midway through the film after Hoyt has a crisis of conscience, Alonzo talks him down from the ledge, expertly selling him on the idea that police detectives need to get their hands dirty to unlock all the career doors.  It's the one time in the film Alonzo seems like a true teacher.  Of course it's all a lie, but the sincerity in Alonzo's eyes makes you believe it for a little while.

8. Charlize Theron (Monster)

The stunningly gorgeous Charlize Theron seemed to literally transform into serial killer Aileen Wuornos for this film, gaining thirty pounds and becoming almost unrecognizable under the impressive makeup.  But it's her performance that shines through; Theron becomes this severely damaged, misguided woman and makes the audience sympathize with her in spite of her heinous crimes.  Wuornos became a serial killer almost by accident, killing her first victim in self-defense, and then realized that murder could be a much more lucrative business than low-level prostitution.  She is motivated mostly by affection for her lover Selby, and is devastated when Selby breaks it off and then helps the authorities convict her.  This is absolutely the performance of Theron's career.

Key Scene: Aileen's final victim shows genuine empathy for her and attempts to plead his way out, making it nearly impossible for her to go through with the killing.  Aileen nearly implodes with remorse for what she's about to do, resulting in a heartbreaking scene.

9. Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)

One of the greatest actors of all time, DDL has the ability to completely disappear into every role.  It's almost impossible to see the actor in any of the characters he portrays, and probably his most admired performance is as oil mogul Daniel Plainview.  Day-Lewis invents Plainview as a cold, calculating businessman essentially devoid of human compassion and whose every decision is guided by greed.  It was amazing to hear Daniel Day-Lewis out of character at the Oscars that year, because in real life his voice and mannerisms are nothing at all like the character of Plainview.  This performance was a complete assimilation.

Key Scene: Late in the film, Plainview's adopted son H.W. announces that he's leaving to open his own oil company, and a perpetually drunk Plainview scornfully drops the bomb that H.W. isn't actually his child.  The hatefulness of Plainview's half of this exchange is palpable and saddening.

10. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

Christopher Nolan created what is widely considered the definitive comic book adaptation with 2008's The Dark Knight.  Its popularity is due in no small part to the iconic performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, a sadistic, gleefully destructive sociopath who duels with Batman over the very soul of Gotham City.  Ledger took this world-famous, over-the-top villain and created a wholly original spin, making him both funny and horrifying (He famously kept an in-character diary for a full month to prepare for the role).  He was also largely responsible for the makeup design, even applying the messy white facepaint himself.  His untimely death sadly limited the character to this one film, but his incarnation of The Joker will forever be remembered as one of the great movie villains.

Key Scene: The proper introduction of The Joker occurs early in the film, at a summit held by the city's top criminals.  The Joker unceremoniously kills one of them with a pencil, emasculates everyone in the room for "going soft," and then has the temerity to demand half of their cumulative savings to rid them of Batman.  I'm not sure there's ever been a more note-perfect establishment of a major character.

11. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

In 2009, seemingly from out of nowhere came this wonderful little Austrian actor to play Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's revisionist World War II film.  Waltz's diminutive size doesn't in any way detract from the character's cerebral malevolence.  Landa is always one step ahead of the protagonists, and as it turns out, his own superiors.  Waltz has created a villian whose powers of intimidation are mostly the result of his prodigious intelligence and deductive reasoning, yet he's also the most charming character in the film.  Discovering the unknown Waltz was truly a coup on the part of Tarantino.

Key Scene: The opening sequence is a masterful example of a script building tension without the audience even realizing it.  Waltz projects humble geniality for most of the scene and suddenly shifts to deadly sternness in questioning a French farmer about whether he is hiding Jews under his house.  When this scene was over I'd assumed this was Waltz's only appearance in the film and I was quite dejected until he showed up again an hour later.

12. Christian Bale (The Fighter)

After years of being ignored by the Academy, cinematic chameleon Christian Bale was finally rewarded with an Oscar for his portrayal of former boxer Dicky Ecklund in The Fighter.  Now addicted to crack, emaciated, and missing several teeth, Dicky works as a trainer for his brother Micky, but his drug habit consistently gets in the way and creates family tension.  Welshman Bale adopted a flawless Massachusetts accent and dropped thirty pounds for the role, and at times is unrecognizable.  It was great to see this remarkable actor finally rewarded by the Academy.

Key Scene: I was blown away by Bale's performance from the opening scene, where an HBO crew is interviewing Dicky and Micky for a documentary.  Bale's adopted accent, body language, and mannerisms feel startlingly authentic, and this scene sets the tone for the entire performance.

13. Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)

12 Years a Slave is a modern masterpiece, depicting in brutally honest detail the atrocities of slavery in pre-Civil War America, and should really be required viewing in US History classes.  In a film full of great performances, the most striking is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, the most prized slave of sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (an unhinged Michael Fassbender).  Mousy and soft-spoken, Patsey consistently outperforms every other slave on the plantation, silently enduring both the inhumanity of her bondage and also Epps sickening affections.  Nyong'o punched her ticket to stardom with this stunning performance, winning the film's only Oscar for acting, and incredibly outshining co-stars Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Key Scene: After Epps discovers that Patsey has acquired soap from a neighbor, Patsey finally confronts him about the lack of dignity with which she's been treated, despite being his most productive asset.  All the righteous anger she's been suppressing for years comes pouring out, leaving Epps speechless.  And of course his response is to punish her for insubordination, leading to the film's most harrowing scene as he whips her nearly to death.

14. J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

This accomplished character actor finally earned Academy recognition with his scorching performance as austere music professor Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle's spectacular feature debut Whiplash.  Starring Miles Teller as a first-year student at a prestigious New York jazz conservatory, the film plays out as a battle of wills between teacher and pupil, Fletcher verbally and sometimes physically beating greatness out of the promising young drummer.  Simmons rides the line between humorous putdowns and abusive behavior, rationalizing his methods by claiming it's the only way to push students to greatness.

Key Scene: The student's first day in Fletcher's class serves as the blueprint for Fletcher's teaching style, for lack of a better phrase.  Fletcher yanks him around like a yo-yo, repeatedly counting him off and stopping him within seconds, claiming "Not quite my tempo," before hurling a chair at him and berating him to the point of tears.  Simmons is both funny and terrifying in this scene.

15. Brie Larson (Room)

Our final entry is another starmaking performance, Brie Larson as Joy in the traumatic, heartbreaking drama Room, about a woman and her son Jack who have been kept prisoner for years in a kidnapper's shed.  Having never known anything outside "Room," Jack contentedly believes it encompasses the entirety of reality, while Joy understandably battles crippling depression and malnutrition.  She becomes increasingly desperate to escape as her captor Big Nick informs her he's lost his job and soon won't be able to afford food and supplies for them, necessitating a plan to fake Jake's death so he can get outside the shed.  Once reunited with her family however, Joy struggles to reassimilate in the outside world and her depression comes crashing down on her.  Larson conveys with incredible pathos the calloused toughness of a woman held captive for seven years, and later the shellshock of having to adjust to a normal existence.  She was the only choice to win this particular award.

Key Scene: As a way to make some money, Joy agrees to a TV interview about her years in Room, but becomes increasingly uncomfortable talking about her experience as the interview progresses.  Larson communicates her mental state throughout this scene entirely with facial expression, a masterclass in internalization.  

16. Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

I'm not sure Brad has ever played a more fun, likable character than Cliff Booth, and Cliff Booth kills two people at the end of the film.  Such is the amazing blend of laid back affability and latent violence imbued by both Pitt and Quentin Tarantino into this character.  OUATIH is heavy on the theme of the 1950s Hollywood tough guy being on the outs, and stuntman Booth is the physical embodiment of this idea.  Cliff once worked on one of the most popular TV westerns as the double to his best friend Rick Dalton, but now runs errands for Rick, who's struggling to find work himself.  And Cliff is totally fine with this arrangement.  He's Jeff Lebowski crossed with John Maclane, and Brad Pitt brings this character to life wonderfully.

Key Scene: Has to be the ridiculously over-the-top martial arts contest with Bruce Lee, the moment when Cliff basically tanked his own career by letting his machismo get the best of him.  Pitt somehow threads the needle between coming off super cool and like a complete buffoon.

Well that about wraps it up for today.  Comment below with any acting Oscars you think were well-deserved.  Thanks for reading!  Join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and YouTube!

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