Film Feature: The Best Lead Performances of 2012

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CHICAGO – I worked my way through the best supporting performances of 2012 earlier today and I’m back with the much-stronger array of actors and actresses who challenged themselves with great leading performances in film this year.

Both of these categories were incredibly difficult to whittle down to ten candidates (five runner-ups and five nominees). In many years of the past decade, my runner-ups in each category would be a solid top five. I wish I had more space to write about them all but these were the best of a very good year for acting.

The Best Actors of 2012

Five Runner-ups (in alphabetical order): Ben Affleck (“Argo”), Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”), John Hawkes (“The Sessions”), Jean-Louis Trintignant (“Amour”), and Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained”).

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln”

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Photo credit: DreamWorks

We’ve heard the stories. He stayed in costume all the time. He texted with Sally Field in vernacular that would only be consistent with Abraham Lincoln. He made everyone call him Honest Abe. Well, that last one might not be true, but, whatever it took for arguably our best living actor to so completely embody one of the most famous Americans of all time, it worked. What’s so remarkable about one of the most acclaimed performances of all time and the work that will very likely earn Daniel Day-Lewis a VERY rare third Oscar (joining a very small club of three with Walter Brennan and Jack Nicholson) is how completely this great actor disappears mere minutes into Spielberg’s epic. We’re not looking at the method, we’re not looking at the actor, we’re totally and believably looking at Abraham Lincoln.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables”

Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables
Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables
Photo credit: Universal

It’s the part he’s been waiting for for years. With his Tony Award-winning stage career often overshadowing some of his less-advisable film decisions, one wondered if Hugh Jackman would ever get that one role that would really show off his full range of talents or if his film career would merely be associated with Wolverine now and forever. Fortunately, from the very first scenes of “Les Miserables,” you know that Jackman has finally found that role that destroys everything else he’s ever done. He bites into the part of Jean Valjean with everything he’s got and completely gives it his emotional all. You feel his grief, his anger, and his passion through song. He’s not just singing, which is what most people do in musicals, he’s acting while he does it. And the way he pours every ounce of his physical and emotional energy into the role of his career has had some audiences cheering when the film is done.

Denis Lavant as M. Oscar in “Holy Motors”

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors
Denis Lavant in Holy Motors
Photo credit: Indomina Group

Director Leos Carax knew he had a physically adept actor in Denis Lavant and that his lead role in the daring “Holy Motors” demanded an actor willing to give all that his body could give, but he reportedly expressed concern regarding whether or not Lavant could handle the emotional rollercoaster of fully sketching a dozen characters in one film. Carax quickly realized his concerns were unwarranted and the result is one of the most memorable and completely mesmerizing performances of 2012 with Lavant playing a man who drops in and out of various characters, ranging from a homeless woman on the street to a dying man to a beast from underground. He’s impossible to take your eyes off of in every moment, finding truth in both the small beats of less flashy chapters in Carax’s film and truly knocking the big ones out of the park. This category is arguably more crowded than ever when it comes to the Oscars, but I dream about Lavant making the Academy’s final five. There was arguably no more fearless performance all year and there was only one memorable turn in this category I liked just a tick better.

Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in “Flight”

Denzel Washington in Flight
Denzel Washington in Flight
Photo credit: Paramount

Critics who argue that Denzel is just “being Denzel” in Robert Zemeckis’ incredibly accomplished drama simply aren’t looking at what’s on the screen. They’re bringing in preconceived notions and crafting pre-written reviews. The truth is that Washington is more convincing and risk-taking here than he has been in twenty years, finding the soul of a man who crashed a commuter plane and still hasn’t found his rock bottom. We walk a tightrope with Washington, unsure of whether or not we’re supposed to be rooting for Whitaker to bottom out or save himself. Unlike so many actors, Washington is willing to make his character unlikable. Whip Whitaker is kind of a dick. And yet Washington keeps us engaged in his story from beginning to end, never sure what we’re supposed to think of this guy, but riveted to his every move.

The Best Actor of 2012: Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in “The Master”

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Phoenix is reportedly on the outs with the Academy for comments he’s made about their awards and it could cost him a nomination. But, please, Academy members, please judge the performance, not the man. Nothing in film in 2012 was as original or unexpected as Joaquin Phoenix’s characterization of a man just this side of primitive coming back to civilization. The best movie performances often share one difficult-to-attain characteristic — they don’t just feature an actor making the “right” decisions, but rather they feature an actor making the decisions that none of his peers would have even considered. So much of what Phoenix does in “The Master” is jarringly unique. He’s on edge constantly, looking as if he could implode or explode at any given moment. He’s a ticking bomb of a man and it’s the unpredictability that Phoenix brings to the film that makes him so memorable.

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