Every year a handful of performances by young actors are remembered for their complexity, originality and depth. Here are the top 10 of 2001, which have been nominated for Movieline's Fourth Annual Young Hollywood Awards.
BRITTANY MURPHY in Don't Say a Word
The only reason Brittany Murphy isn't more famous is that she's such a chameleon. Not many people realized that the actress playing the zoned-out, suicidal nut job in Girl, Interrupted (a performance that was every bit as good as Angelina Jolie's razzmatazz Oscar winner) was the very girl they'd seen turned from a shlump to a swan by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Murphy's turn in Don't Say a Word as the twisted loon Dr. Michael Douglas is forced to pry open didn't make her a star, either--the by-the-book thriller had a lot of predictable plot twists and little bang at the box office--but that takes nothing away from the quality of her performance. Murphy gave her character a fiercely unearthly imbalance--it was as if a demented demon was crawling around inside her--then, in reverse-Edward-Norton-in-_Primal-Fear_-style, revealed a vulnerable, childlike girl beneath the freak. It was double duty and double good. Can somebody give this girl the film she deserves, please?
JENA MALONE in Life as a House
As Alyssa, the preternaturally self-assured teen who jumps in the shower with Hayden Christensen in Life as a House, Jena Malone brought a dry, underdone wit, which actresses seldom inject into teen girl portrayals. Much as she did in Donnie Darko, Malone suffused a small role with a lovely vulnerability and an irony that didn't turn into smugness. Her brief resume already includes genuinely memorable performances--especially as the abused little girl in Bastard Out of Carolina--but her turn in Life as a House provides evidence that she's capable of navigating the pivotal transitional period on which her career's foundation will truly be built. She's an unusually mature talent full of restraint, and surprises, too.
THORA BIRCH in Ghost World
Ghost World capitalizes on some of the same qualities that Thora Birch first showed us in American Beauty, particularly the wry, seen-it-all-beforeness that she has managed to differentiate from Christina Ricci's masterful version. But American Beauty was ultimately Kevin Spacey's movie, and Ghost World is Birch's. Her character, Enid, a too-hip-for-the-room misfit who could easily have alienated the audience immediately, became a memorably sympathetic girl traversing the mysterious period after high school but before your life. Birch made Enid's fascination with a middle-aged oddball (Steve Buscemi) not just believable but poignant. Opposite Scarlett Johansson--who played Enid's cohort, Rebecca--she also managed to convey the unusual turbulence between best friends growing apart.
SHANNYN SOSSAMON in A Knight's Tale
With all the anachronistic rock 'n' roll and fast bantering going on in the genre-splitting adventure A Knight's Tale, it was a tall order to ask a complete newcomer to come off as more than the appropriately beautiful girlfriend in a guy-ridden flick. But Shannyn Sossamon rose to the occasion opposite newly minted heartthrob Heath Ledger and brought as much aplomb to this good-hearted silliness as he did. Writer/director Brian Helgeland showed his keen casting eye throughout this film, Sossamon included. Her extraordinary look, which has been compared to Angelina Jolie's, would have been quite enough to get her the girlfriend part in teen fare. When the initially aloof aristocrat she plays finds that Ledger is a peasant in disguise and sticks by him, Sossamon makes that fairy tale turn of events seem plausible through sheer grace and conviction. More impressively, she understood the playful modern-medieval tone Helgeland was going for, and added a pleasantly of-the-moment edge to that sleight of hand.
JULIA STILES in Save the Last Dance
When Julia Stiles played the intelligent but tough teen malcontent of 10 Things I Hate About You, she displayed an uncanny ability to give an authentic performance in a piece of fluff. She has never really had to make the transition out of teen films because her acting was not of that world anyway--there's much more complexity, experience and wisdom in her eyes than that of most young actresses. In the surprise hip-hop hit Save the Last Dance, she had a better-written part than what most films aimed at girls have to offer. Playing a prissy ballet dancer who's dropped into the thick of Chicago's meanest streets after her mother suddenly passes away, she had the kind of meaty role usually given to teen boys because she was able to play strong and uncompromising. She ran with it, adding more threads of doubt, fear, fascination and pleasure than most coming-of-age tales ever have woven into them. She was so good that no one seeing her hold her own on-screen opposite Stockard Channing in The Business of Strangers should be the least surprised.
MICHAEL PITT in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The Michael Pitts of the world should not be taken for granted. They may not have the likable center-stage roles, but they make movies tick. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch-, a showy film about a transsexual wannabe rock star whose operation didn't go according to plan, many missed just how difficult a job Pitt had in his supporting role as Tommy Gnosis, who goes from the God-fearing teen Hedwig baby-sits to a goth/glam rock star who has stolen not just Hedwig's heart, but her songs as well. All the while he remains a sexually confused boy-man who doesn't know where to put his feelings. Pitt's beginnings on "Dawson's Creek," in which he played the football player who was smitten enough to sell his blood to pay for a date, gave little warning that in Hedwig he would be capable of ease and--not to be taken lightly in a movie such as this--subtlety. Tommy Gnosis could have been a cartoon, but in Pitt's hands, he became a seething, humane ball of rage, naivete, confusion and longing.
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