Ten Best Actors

1999 was such a strong year for leading performances by actors that no matter who has the five Oscar nominations, justice is only being half-served. So here's a tribute to 10 performances, any one of which deserves an Academy Award.

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Jim Carrey Man on the Moon

This was the outstanding tightrope-wall performance of last year-one of the world's biggest and most recognizable comedy stars re-creating himself from the flat feet up as one the late 20th century's strangest cult personalities. Andy Kaufman was a five-alarm spectacle of unflinching anti-entertainment both onstage and off, and in portraying him Carrey continues his astonishing career project (starting with the Ace Ventura movies and evolving brilliantly to The Truman Show) of investigating how the human animal has been shaped, corrupted and demented by the irrational forces of television. Carrey nails Kaufman to the wall with something beyond mimicry and bordering on channeling, thus allowing the crazed wonder of Kaufman to speak more or less for itself. But there are more layers to the onion. Carrey has been a wide-open, read-me presence up to now, and Kaufman was utterly opaque. So when Carry comes before us as Kaufman, suddenly emptied of the cartoonist desire, rage and paranoia we know so well, he somehow appears nakedly innocent and fiercely unknowable at the exact same time. Which makes the movie, and Carry's performance profoundly Kaufmanic. In the meantime, Carrey dives into each of Kaufman's lacerating anti-acts with a vengeance (his Tony Clinton is even sharper and scarier than Kaufman's), and it's no mean compliment to say that very soon in you forget it's Carrey. After all, the two men look nothing alike. Call it the first fully loaded postmodern movie star performance. In the end, it may not be Kaufman that's the holy fool, but Carrey.

Russell Crowe The Insider

It was a tough assignment for any star: play a deeply introverted, ordinary-looking man under enormous real and emotional pressure, and make the audiences palms sweat. As big-tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in director Michael Mann's paranoid j'accuse The Insider, Russell Crowe gave himself over to an unglamorously conflicted character with a wholeheartedness we're just not used to. Crowe's performance in L.A. Confidential told us how good he is at complicated cough-guy brooding, but Wigand's middle-aged corporate worrying is another matter. What Crowe does here is jack us into the hyperventilating brainwaves of a white-collar Nowhere Man who's wrestling with conscience and bracing himself as the world tightens around him. Crowe looks like a real person in this film--no small feat in Hollywood. For his physical portrayal of a corporate research scientist, he aged his gut, his hairline, his voice and his posture. All Wigand has to do is walk across his suburban lawn and we feel like we know him. Crowe's secret weapon is the Soiling intensity he brings to every role he plays, and he puts it to unusual purpose here. Wigand may be paunchy, domesticated, taciturn and flawed, but Crowe assures us he's got a reserve rank that's ever-ready to blow. The effect is that this drab, emotionally buttoned-down family guy becomes the movie's beating heart. It's a panicked heart, and the heating can be heard the whole way out in the street--and in the back row.

Sean Penn Sweet and Lowdown

Actors in Woody Allen films all tend to talk like Woody Allen, and you don't have to be completely led up with the Woodman to be led up with that. This year, though, it's a different story, thanks not to Woody Allen but to Stan Penn. As Emmer Ray, a mythical jazz guitarist who's also a pimp, gambler, lowlife, misogynist and drunk, Penn has created the most credulously egomaniacal fool American movies have seen in a long while. Everything he does here works for him: his eyes seem to rove around independently like a chameleon's, his legs wiggle as if they have extra knees, his hair virtually salutes the film's other characters. Ray's a musical genius who can't hold a conversation without repulsing everyone around him with his egotistical obsession. Penn makes Ray's every self-glorifying utterance hurt pitifully, providing him with mealy enunciation and pathetically lost eyes that tell us this narcissistic artiste is stupid and post but smart enough to Understand how repellent he is. Ray can't help himself from telling everybody he's the second-best guitarist in the whole world and each time he says it, Penn lets us see the phrase fall dead in his mouth, killed by the need he has to keep saying it. With the addition of this deranged nerd monster to the list that already included his characters from The Falcon and the Snowman and Carlito's Way. Penn reestablishes himself once again as Hollywood's most original and indelible character star.

George Clooney Three Kings

It's not the type of role (or movie) you expect the Academy to notice, but George Clooney's performance in Three Kings is remarkable business. Having proved himself to be the most charming and unaffected leading man in Hollywood with Out of Sight, Clooney took this fast, angry, absurd film right into his head. As Archie Gates, a jaundiced Special Forces captain looking out for number one at the end of the Gulf War, he signals his steely confidence and bitter self-interest with every swing of his jaw, every unshakable pull of his gaze and every decisive utterance. It's astonishing how few other leading men are convincing as men, but Clooney is one of them--in a film that argues war is acted out by dangerous boys. Here he etches an unforgettable portrait of an iron man of action provoked by moral imperatives that threaten to go off like grenades. Interestingly, Clooney makes his performance net about "arc." Gates's battered priorities do shift, but Clooney knows people don't necessarily change as their actions do, and he keeps his character in perpetual, self-serving motion. And all of this he does with his characteristic under-statement. Gates often sweats without actually swearing and displays panic in his eyes by, literally, holding them absolutely still. Clooney is also savagely funny. In a line that somebody else would easily have ruined, he wastes no time getting back to goofy costar Spike Jonze's question about gold bullion: "No, it's not the little cube you put in water to make soup." Performances like this one keep Hollywood greased and fueled, and are the ones most likely to be underrated.

Denzel Washington The Hurricane

In many ways, Denzel Washington is what movies and movie stardom are all about. You can't help but be in his thrall, regardless of what he's doing. Even in this less than brilliant biopic, Washington proves himself to be the most magnetic and powerful film presence on the continent. Without apparent effort, he holds your attention with gravity like force, and playing cosmically screwed race-politics martyr Rubin "Hurricane" Carter gives him a practically limitless field in which to exercise his steely strength. Can any other actor but Morgan Freeman exude righteousness so believably? Washington uses his naturally noble persona here judiciously--without even raising his voice, he's the most intimidatingly fearless person you ever saw. Then he subverts it in shocking ways, as in the scene where Carter, stuck in solitary, fractures into three personalities, including a bad-ass sociopath looking to cut open some white meat (seeing Washington do irrational and violent perfectly is upsetting as hell). Movie acting is often more about what you don't do than what you do, and Washington knows that better than most. He never wastes movement or expression--he makes a little go a long way, well aware that the reserves we imagine are scarier than what we can witness. Denzel finds himself in bad movies, but has he ever spent a misjudged moment on-screen?

Eddie Murphy Bowfinger

Eddie Murphy's double-time rip as a fame-deranged action movie star and his half-witted misfit brother in Bowfinger is easily the funniest comic performance of the year. Both characters are brilliant 3-D creations, and yet each is hilarious for different reasons. Murphy even makes sure brothers Kit and Jiff Ramsey don't physically resemble each other more than brothers might. It's not simply a matter of giving each brother a distinct voice and posture--he nails down different reaction times and provides each of the men with his own stand of hysteria. Megastar Kit's hyperventilating power-trip-turned-mad-scramble from unseen predators exists on one planet; Jiff's dim, slackjawed attempts to meet the workaday world on its own terms are on another. Murphy actually inspires you to conjure the poisoned brotherly relationship that must have preceded the story. Being brilliantly funny with two fully realized characters in one movie is some-thing we haven't seen since, well, ever.

Terence Stamp The Limey

In a single-minded, character-driven movie designed and built to house his performance, Terence Stamp livens up The Limey without dispelling our certainty that the wholly enterprise would be a vapor without him. Nobody looks or sounds anything like Stamp. He has life experience you can real like road signs all over his face, and, like a bald eagle with a cockney lilt, he commands attention. He's one of those been-around-for-30-years actors who have historical fright, so as an embodiment of postwar promise and disappointment, he's fully equipped to animate The Limey. Playing Wilson, an avenging angel Brit touching down in L.A. to go after whoever's responsible for his grown daughter's death, Stamp's elegant pugnaciousness gets a workout. Wilson is an aged criminal trying on put something right, and although he's ferociously dedicated to his mission and willing to dispose of anybody in his way, stamp knowingly fills him with remorse and quit desolation. Having no future, Wilson only looks backward. Everything he does might be the last thing he does. So stamp gives him the appropriate resources of bullshit, chutzpah and savvy, as each occasion demands, but then brilliantly plays him sadly. Stamp's formidable allure has a lot to do with style-few actors fill a suit, or occupy a set, so gracefully. This performance exploits all of that, and then puts it to work with an understanding the precision that are equally powerful.

Richard Farnsworth The Straight Story

Some actors need technique or character accents or Method mind-melding or on-set massages to get their juices flowing. Others don't need much of anything except their own faces and their own knowledge of the world. Richard Farnsworth has been one of the latter ever since he first made himself known on the big screen 30 years ago, when he was already a crinkly old-school ex-stuntman with a voice like fine-ground coffee and an effortless way of delivering dialogue that makes you remember conversations you had with your own grandfather. In David Lynch's The Straight Story, he plays red-life oddity Alvin Straight, a Mid-western codger who stubbornly and heroically road-tripped over two states on a riding mower to make peace with his long-estranged brother. At 79, Farnsworth isn't quite as crackerjack at bouncing lines off of others as he used to be, but that suits his purposes here just fine. His presence is unshakably real, and age has a lot to do with it. Traveling the world at five miles per hour, Alvin is looking at the tail end of his life dead in the eye. Every one of his setbacks has the potential for aborting his journey or even being terminal. Farnsworth registers this fact with reactions counter pointed between geriatric exhaustion and been-there acceptance. Just listening to this actor's worn-corduroy voice as Alvin exchanges pleasantries with the various people he meets on the road is a healing lesson in being human and humane. Even when the ghosts come out of the closet in a monologue Alvin delivers over a beer with another World War II vet, Farnsworth just speaks the words, and plays it with a matter-of-factness only 79 years will buy you. Seventy-nine years can buy you more men-acing things than matter-of-factness, let's not forget. For a reminder, imagine Jack Lemmon or Kirk Douglas in this role.

Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense

It's usually hard to judge who's really responsible for a child s performance. You put a kid blessed with a powerful inborn screen presence together with a sensitive director and you'll get something magical that is nevertheless not what we strictly refer to as acting. But performances like Haley Joel Osment's in The Sixth Sense leave no doubt as to the accomplishment. This portrayal of an eight-year-old who seems emotionally disturbed, but is in fact being traumatized by ghosts, is what made The Sixth Sense a hit--people were shaken rigid in their seats by the all-this-and-hell-too conviction Osment brought to his role. The boy actor's pitifully scrunched brow, choked silences and curdled voice suggested tortures so dreadful no parent could watch him without being tied in knots. He delivered half of his lines in a frantic whisper that read as an instinctive effort to avoid the "dead people" and simultaneously suggested the deep damage these experiences would cause a child. Here's a portrait of a child-hood that doesn't promise things will end up happily--we know this kid will never be set right. The layers of meaning that Osment's conviction supports--his character's ordeal begs to be seen as a vision of the mute anxiety and torment of all preadolescence--are not really his concern. But the eloquent details of the performance--the agonized pauses, the huddled walk, the breathless confrontations with the horrific, even the frustrated, full-bladder dance in the dark hallway after putting off leaving his bedroom safety for as long as possible--these are all Osment's.

Kevin Spacey American Beauty

The movie may be a little smug, and more than a little overrated, but at its canter Kevin Spacey reaffirms his status as one of the most entertaining and confident line readers in Hollywood. Just as his character, Lester Burnham, spirals out of control in a midlife masculinity crisis that sends shockwaves out toward everybody around him, Spacey occupies the hysteria of American Beauty like a blessed-out saint lost at sea. Spacey is at his best playing articulate characters who are getting a great big kick out of being very bad, and Lester is the classic suburban lug turned self-indulgent neighborhood anarchist. Employing his ironic grin and plummy way with speeches, Spacey makes sure we know Lester's transgress-strategy for self-preservation. Irony is, in fact, Spacey's trump card; he's got timing like a stopwatch, and every word out of his mouth carries multiple intent. The key moment is the irresistible, sell-congratulatory calm-fist-in-the-air "I rule" Lester nonchalantly addresses to his frazzled wife after quitting his job and buying in absurdly expensive sports car. It's a glib gesture, but it defines an inner moment of this wayward character in a way only Spacey could've brought off.

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--Michael Atkinson



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