Film Feature: The Best Lead Performances of 2010

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CHICAGO – It’s the time of year when critics and Oscar pundits like to take a look back at the performances of the last twelve months and pick out the ones most deserving of special citation. As every critics group in the country prepares to unveil their choices for the cream of the acting crop, we thought we’d offer a guide to who they should reflect upon, first in the lead actor and actress categories and then, later this week, in the supporting ones.

The Best Lead Actor Performances of 2010

The very best of the best may be crowded with amazing performances to the degree that picking just five is difficult but the pool gets shallow awful quickly as you swim further away from the deep end. The fact is that while there were a number of truly stellar leading male turns in 2010, it certainly isn’t a long list when one looks at the entire year.

While living legends like Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson continued to slum in unchallenging parts, the new generation of high caliber performers expanded their best-performance filmographies. Aaron Eckhart (“Rabbit Hole”), Ryan Reynolds (“Buried”) and Mark Wahlberg (“The Fighter”) all did arguably the best work of their careers and Leonardo DiCaprio gave not one but two nomination-worthy turns in “Inception” and “Shutter Island.”

In films that shockingly few people saw, Colin Farrell continued to diversify a fascinating resume with Neil Jordan’s “Ondine,” newcomers Ronald Bronstein (“Daddy Longlegs”) and Tahir Rahim (“A Prophet”) gave memorable turns, and Kodi Smit-McPhee carried the emotionally complex weight of “Let Me In.”

Of course, it wasn’t ALL young stars. In fact, one of our living legends did deliver one of the five best performances of the year and Michael Douglas gave one of the best performances of his career in “Solitary Man” while Jeff Bridges can put another notch in the belt of his remarkable career with “True Grit,” even if it doesn’t quite stand up to his work in “Crazy Heart” (or a half-dozen other performances for which he never won an Oscar). George Clooney (“The American”), Jim Carrey (“I Love You Phillip Morris”), John C. Reilly (“Cyrus”), Pierce Brosnan (“The Greatest”), Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”), Javier Bardem (“Biutiful”), and Sean Penn (“Fair Game”) proved why they are regularly-hired by A-list directors but they didn’t quite make the top five either.

Without further ado, the best actor performances of 2010 starting with the four “other nominees” followed by the winner.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in “Shutter Island”

Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio
Photo credit: Paramount

DiCaprio continues to shed the impression that he is more attuned to young roles and can’t handle “adult” parts, giving two of the most notable performances of his career in 2010. The funny thing is how similar the character arcs are in that both Cobb and Teddy Daniels are essentially men dealing with tragedies involving their wives. They are both haunted men facing emotional minefields that they can’t fully comprehend until the final act of the film. But the similarity in the roles shouldn’t diminish DiCaprio’s accomplishments in either film. And, forced to choose, Teddy Daniels is a more-challenging part in that it demands an emotional rollercoaster from one of the best actors of his generation. DiCaprio has replaced De Niro as Martin Scorsese’s muse for a reason — he not only delivers on whatever is asked of him but adds shades of believable, relatable human emotions in a way that most actors of his generation wouldn’t even consider. He’s one of the best and “Shutter Island” is one of his best.

Robert Duvall as Felix Bush in “Get Low”

Robert Duvall
Robert Duvall
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Speaking of “best,” they don’t get much better than Bobby Duvall. Every time it looks like Duvall might slide into the same late-career malaise as fellow “Godfather” alumni Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert De Niro, he pulls out another performance that has to stand with the most notable of his career. Watching Duvall and Sissy Spacek work together again in the best scenes in “Get Low” is a gift from the movie gods. Duvall invests Felix Bush with a world-weariness that can only come from an actor who understands the concepts of regret and the realization that it may not be dark yet but it’s getting there. As Duvall approaches 80, he’s not hiding his age or retreating like so many of his disappointing peers but using it to make his fictional characters more three-dimensional. If only more actors of his generation did the same.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”

Jesse Eisenberg
Jesse Eisenberg
Photo credit: Sony

Will the people who couldn’t keep Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera straight shut up now? And you folks who claimed that Eisenberg was just playing variations on himself in films like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Zombieland” can zip it too. Yes, “The Social Network” is a game-changer for Eisenberg — the kind of part that changes everything for a twenty-something actor — but the reason one of our best directors hired Jesse for the role of his career is because he knew the talent was there. It’s always been there. Eisenberg has that incredible ability to make intellectual characters still feel genuine. He doesn’t over-play the dorky qualities of Zuckerberg like so many actors would. In fact, he doesn’t overplay any of the qualities, never turning him into the raging a-hole that would have been the easy way to personify the youngest billionaire.

James Franco as Aron Ralston in “127 Hours”

James Franco
James Franco
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Franco should have been more strongly considered a couple years ago for his great supporting turns in “Milk” and “Pineapple Express,” but this is the year that he gave the best lead performance of his increasingly-impressive career. James Franco completely carries what is essentially a one-man show and he does it with his unique combination of personality and believability. Think about it — Franco’s characters almost always feel distinctly his own and yet they also feel totally real. The best actors find a way to put a stamp on their roles in a way that makes it instantly impossible to imagine anyone else effectively having taken the part. And yet Franco is not all personality quirks. He finds the realism in Ralston and the film has nowhere near the power it ultimately does without his work. Journalists have buried the lead on the stories about people passing out during “127 Hours” screenings by playing up the true-story gore of the situation when, in fact, the real story is that James Franco is so good that we believe his plight is genuine and feel his pain.

The Best Actor of 2010: Ryan Gosling as Dean in “Blue Valentine”

Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Can we settle the debate on the best actor of his generation now? Leonardo makes a run at it and Franco is climbing the list but no one can touch Gosling, an actor who seems to be unable to shoot one scene that feels false. He’s one of those actors who is so completely in the moment at all times that he melts into his roles, effectively bringing the character to light instead of the performance. And his character in “Blue Valentine” is his most complex yet. Dean is a romantic. Dean is a loser. Dean is a good dad. Dean has no ambition. He is as complex as your neighbor and Gosling takes what could have been a melodramatic tale of the rise and fall of a marriage and makes both arcs feel devastatingly real. We believe Dean falls for Cindy and we believe Dean as he slowly realizes it’s all about to end.

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