Film Feature: The Best Supporting Performances of 2012

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CHICAGO – A mother trying to protect her son from an assassin, a man who coordinates lap dances for a living, a woman whose dreams have died, a gambler betting on his son, and two people at the heart of Abraham Lincoln’s fight to end slavery and the Civil War — 2012 certainly offered a wide array of memorable supporting characters in motion pictures. These are simply my 20 favorites (and come back later today for the accompanying lead performances).

The Best Supporting Actresses of 2012

Five Runner-ups (in alphabetical order): Samantha Barks (“Les Miserables”), Judi Dench (“Skyfall”), Isabelle Huppert (“Amour”), Shirley MacLaine (“Bernie”), and Emma Watson (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”).

Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd in “The Master”

Amy Adams in The Master
Amy Adams in The Master
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

A lot of actresses might have taken the role of The Master’s wife and merely turned it into a variation on the character Amy Adams played in “Doubt,” the reticent, silent type who stands by her powerful man. What Adams did was far more complex, sketching a woman who knows deep down that her husband is not the intellectual and spiritual powerhouse that he pretends to be. And yet Peggy Dodd is no mere Lady MacBeth (another easy route an actress could have taken with the part). She is the support structure when her husband begins to falter. In many scenes of “The Master,” she’s often the one that catches your eye most, even in moments when Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are giving much broader performances. She has a quiet strength and intense confidence that some people probably didn’t expect a generally high energy actress like Adams to bring to the part. If her performance in “The Master” proves anything, it’s that it’s time for us to stop thinking that there’s anything Amy Adams cannot do.

Emily Blunt as Sara in “Looper”

Emily Blunt in Looper
Emily Blunt in Looper
Photo credit: Sony

For a solid hour, “Looper” is a very good movie, one of the best of 2012, but it becomes a truly great one once Emily Blunt makes her first appearance, holding a shotgun at our complex anti-hero in a field of corn. She grounds the entire second half of Rian Johnson’s incredible sci-fi experience in something emotional and relatable. She’s the heart of a very intellectual piece and she delivers with one of the most fascinating and underrated performances of her career. Sara isn’t a time traveler or some other story point that needs an intellectual understanding or plot-hole dissection — she’s just a mom trying to protect her family. Emily Blunt shows more remarkable range with every role she takes and this is one of her best.

Rosemarie DeWitt as Hannah in “Your Sister’s Sister”

Rosemarie DeWitt in Your Sister's Sister
Rosemarie DeWitt in Your Sister’s Sister
Photo credit: IFC Films

I have some issues with Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister”, but there’s a scene early on when Rosemarie DeWitt’s Hannah is getting drunk and conversational with Mark Duplass’ Jack that is pure joy to watch. DeWitt just keeps asking questions. Is she flirting with Jack? Is she just playing with him? And when Hannah’s true motives are revealed, DeWitt takes this character to an entirely different level. She is such a fascinating character that she actually steals focus from Duplass and Emily Blunt. Whenever the story leaves her, it sags a bit. We want to follow Hannah, even if we know it’s probably not the best thing for us.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln in “Lincoln”

Sally Field in Lincoln
Sally Field in Lincoln
Photo credit: DreamWorks

After years on TV on “ER” and “Brothers & Sisters,” I think most of us had written off Sally Field as an actress of importance in cinema. But, from her very first scene in Steven Spielberg’s epic retelling of the last few months of Lincoln’s life, which were some of the most important in American history, Field gives a powerhouse performance. At first, I was concerned that she would merely capture the “bigger” moments — the weeping over Mary Todd’s lost son, the arguments with her husband, the key speeches — and those all work expectedly well, but what I like about Field’s performance is the way it truly defines the word “supporting.” She makes one of the most acclaimed performances of the last decade stronger in the way she balances Day-Lewis’ acting style with her own. We believe from minute one that she is not just a partner to Abraham Lincoln, but an inspiration for him to lead and someone who challenges him intellectually. That’s not as easy as it looks. Field may have taken some time off from film acting, but she didn’t lose a beat in the process.

The Best Supporting Actress of 2012: Anne Hathaway as Fantine in “Les Miserables”

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables
Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables
Photo credit: Universal

There have been many remarkable screen moments in 2012 – ranging from the deprogramming of Freddie in “The Master” to the plane crash in “Flight” to the tsunami in “The Impossible” to, well, take your pick from “Holy Motors” - but it is one woman, one song, and one camera angle that will define the year cinematically. Three decades from now, when people look back on the history of musical film, Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” will be a part of any montage, any discussion, and any analysis of the genre. It is an absolute breathtaker and the reason it works as well as it does is director Tom Hooper’s trust in his actress. He knew to put the camera on her and let her sing live. It’s not pre-recorded. It’s not lip-synced. It’s heartfelt, painful, and devastating. And, while “Dream” is the peak of her performance, Hathaway is strong throughout “Les Miserables,” to the point that the movie takes some time to recover when she leaves and eventually storms the emotional barricades once she returns. That’s true support — the film nearly falls down without her.

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