Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

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Review: “Bad Santa” (2003)

Don't worry -- Mrs. Santa understands that !@#&@! happens when you party naked.

Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) has a very reasonable explanation for why his Santa beard’s an obvious and cheap fake: “It was real, but I got sick and all the hair fell out.” When that answer doesn’t satisfy Thurman (Bret Kelly), the friendless wimp who’s latched onto him like a thirsty tick, Santa elaborates: “I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.” Apparently Mrs. Santa’s sister, though a tomcat in the sack, has a few … faults.

Shocking, isn’t it, to hear such frank, fresh talk in a holiday film? That all depends on your definition of “Christmas movie.” Terry Zwigoff’s warped “Bad Santa” is a Christmas movie only in the sense that it takes place in December. And there’s a guy wearing a Santa suit. And an elf and some reindeer. But all that noise about joy, peace, happiness, sugar plums and fruitcakes? That’s all been replaced by perpetually-recovering-from-the-night-before Santa, offering up pearls of wisdom that include: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” Sage advice indeed. Three sheets to the wind (a given) or stone sober (a rarity), Willie T. Soke is nothing if not philosophical.

“Bad Santa” brims to the top with such observations, shaped to twisted perfection by writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and delivered just as expertly by Billy Bob Thornton and the ace team of comedic actors who play off him. Talk about a match made in heaven — if there exists another actor better suited to play the boozy Willie than Thornton, well, I can’t name him. Thornton, with his craggy face, downturned mouth and vacant but vaguely menacing stare, nails the mixture of desperation and disgust at the core of Willie. Part of that desperation stems from his job: An expert safe cracker, Soke has created a highly profitable scam with fellow con man Marcus (Tony Cox, a potty-mouthed delight). Soke and Marcus, posing as a Santa-and-elf duo, work a different department store every Christmas. In less than a month they case the store, find the safe and rob the place blind on Christmas Eve.

Everything works fine until their latest scam in Arizona, where Willie’s constant drinking — as well as his tendency to diddle women in the plus-size dressing room and show up to work falling-down drunk — raises the eyebrows of the store’s fussy manager Bob (John Ritter, bringing a nice comic flair to his last big-screen role). Store security chief Gin (Bernie Mac) hears of Marcus and Willie’s plan and demands a hefty cut. Then there’s the matter of Thurman Merman (Kelly), a lonely weirdo who plops into Willie’s lap and then proceeds to stalk him. Ever the opportunist, Willie sees a chance to rob the house the kid shares with his grandma (Cloris Leachman). “Is she spry?” he asks, pulling on a face mask. She’s anything but. Before long, though, the house becomes a crash pad for Willie, somewhere to drink himself into oblivion and enjoy nightly hot tub sex with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender for whom a Santa hat is akin to Spanish fly.

The further we follow Willie down into his vodka bottle, the more clear it becomes that Zwigoff has no intention — ha! none! — of softening all this misery’n with a cocoa-and-candy canes last act. Zwigoff isn’t really a happy ending kind of director (see: “Art School Confidential,” “Ghost World”), so he never lightens the mood of sheer, abject hopelessness. In a way, that’s almost admirable, his stubborn refusal to change course. He means to make a bitter, bad-tasting movie about a mean drunk and he does it. The good news is that Zwigoff also makes this movie singularly entertaining. The razor-edged dialogue proves as uproarious as it is profane (Marcus to Willie as Santa: “You probably shouldn’t be digging in your ass”), while the actors — particularly Kelly, who’s all google-eyed creepiness, and Thornton, never better — turn in spot-on performances. These are people for whom “goodwill” is a dirty word. Considering all the holiday mush being peddled this time of year, that’s cheerfully refreshing.

Grade: A

Review: “The Sound of Music” (1965)

The best love stories, the ones that strengthen and grow more meaningful with each passing year, are the ones where neither lover saves the other. Rather, these are the romances where two people find their best selves in each other and hold tight to this discovery, knowing how blessedly rare it is. The love story of straight-laced Austrian naval hero Capt. Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and plucky Maria (Julie Andrews), a nun-turned-governess, is one such tale, and for that reason “The Sound of Music” refuses to wither on the vine, standing the test of time in ways that so few romantic comedies can.

Yet the romance of Capt. Von Trapp and Maria is but one reason why Robert Wise’s “The Sound of Music,” adapted to film from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical, wholeheartedly deserves its reputation as a classic. From the stunning scenery (marvel at expansive beauty shots of the Bavarian Alps) to the clever dialogue and the eminently hummable musical numbers (“My Favorite Things,” anyone?) to the memorable, often surprising characters (some nuns, apparently, know their way around the underbelly of a car hood), “The Sound of Music” is all-consuming, all-pleasing experience for the senses. Enchanting doesn’t begin to describe it.

If Robert Wise’s adaptation of the musical seems larger-than-life, maybe even a little self-consciously epic in scope, it is the distinctive characters that ground all that magic. The film, set in 1939 and very loosely based on the story of Georg Ludwig Von Trapp and his singing family, opens with suggestions that the lovable but undisciplined Maria, a postulant at the Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, Austria, has become constant thorn in the side of the Mother Abbess (a wryly comic Peggy Wood). Miraculously, Capt. Von Trapp provides the sisters with an answer to the “how do you solve a problem like Maria?’ dilemma: The widower needs yet another new governess for his seven children. The Rev. Mother pushes Maria to take the job as a way to “experience the world.”

But the abbey, Maria finds out, hasn’t prepared her to deal with someone like Capt. Von Trapp, an extremely strict disciplinarian who forces his children to march instead of play and respond to whistle blasts instead of their names. He has little patience for the new governess, who refuses to censor her opinions or tone down her sunny disposition. At first dismissive of Maria, the children — Liesl (Charmian Carr) and Friedrich (Nicholas Hammond), the oldest, Louisa (Heather Menzies), Kurt (Duane Chase), Brigitta (Angela Cartwright) and Marta (Debbie Turner) and Gretl (Kym Karath), the two youngest — slowly come to see her as an ally, then someone able to bring life back into their home. Capt. Von Trapp sees this, too, particularly when Maria teaches the children a song to sing for The Baroness (Eleanor Parker), a wealthy woman the captain has begun dating. “You brought music back into the house,” he says, stunned and more than a bit shaken. “I had forgotten.” In that moment, he finds something he’s lost at nearly the same time Maria realizes her voice and heart have found their home.

Interwoven into this unlikely romance is a more serious subplot involving Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte), a young courier besotted with Liesl who joins the Nazi party but issues repeated warnings to Capt. Von Trapp that he is expected to serve the Third Reich, which has taken power in Austria. These stories eventually converge, providing a conclusion by turns triumphant and bittersweet.

In sweeping films like “The Sound of Music,” length necessitates the blending of everything from the musical score (here beautifully done) to cinematography and costuming to the acting. All these elements click perfectly, particularly the chemistry between Plummer, who does a fine job showing Von Trapp’s slow transformation from chilly rigidity to warmth and happiness, and Andrews, that rare singing actress whose acting abilities are as strong as her soaring voice. Saddled with the biggest parts, these actors inject enough humor and feeling to give Von Trapp and Maria enough edge to make them seem flawed, vulnerable, nuanced. Leads in musicals rarely seem this real, so it’s impossible not to root for them to find their true purpose in each other.

Grade: A

Review: “Back to the Future” (1985)

Ah, the future. Weight has nothing to do with it in "Back to the Future."

People who chance upon the wonder of time travel all tend to want the same thing: second chances. For what is time travel if not the ultimate cosmic do-over, a chance to make a different choice in the past and hope that alteration will improve the future? Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a little different. With youth on his side, he has few real regrets, so his accidental time-travel mission involves changing the lives of others. It just so happens those “other lives” belong to his teen-age parents (Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson) circa 1955.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote “Back to the Future” with Bob Gale, merges these two unlikely concepts to create a film brimming with wit, intelligence, sidesplitting sight gags, more than a little heart and a most creative (if monumentally disturbing) reinvention of the Oedipus complex. “Back to the Future,” then, is a rare movie indeed, one where there’s sturdy balance of science fiction and humor. Factor in the very human and subtly poignant backstory that involves the redemption of a painfully timid character, and the first installment of this trilogy becomes even more rare: a film that does, in the simplest sense of the word, offer something for everyone.*

The story Zemeckis and Gale creates begins in 1985 in Hill Valley, Calif., where Marty lives what he believes is an unenviable life. His father George (Crispin Glover) lacks a spine and spends his days at work being bullied by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson), while his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) glugs vodka at dinner. But there are two things that make Marty happy: his girlfriend (Claudia Wells) and his friendship with scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a kook who sports a ‘do that puts Albert Einstein’s to shame. He’s the kind of chap, we expect, whose inventions never amount to much … until the day they do. Doc Brown’s constant tinkering moves from strange to astounding when he accidentally creates a time machine out of a souped-up DeLorean. Why a DeLorean? “If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Oh, that Christopher Lloyd. Always with the bug-eyed witticisms.

A chase (also accidental) finds Marty rocketing down the Twin Pines Mall parking lot in the time machine and landing somehow in 1955. And Hill Valley in 1955 is as unprepared to experience Marty as he is to experience Hill Valley. The ’80s-centric teen can’t quite believe what’s happened to him until he finds himself sharing counter space at the local malt shop with his father, a hopelessly shy nerd. That meeting leads to a mishap that changes Marty’s parents’ initial meeting (turns out his mother finds her future son most attractive) and threatens to alter his own life permanently.

The clash between 1950s-era ideals and Marty’s futuristic notions — pay attention to the smallest details; they matter — provides some of the funniest moments. Hill Valley’s townspeople see his puffy vest and keep asking him why he’s wearing a life jacket. A much-younger Doc Brown scoffs at the idea that Ronald “the actor?” Reagan could win the presidency. “I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady,” he retorts, and later imagines plutonium is sold like Tylenol in drugstores in 1980s America. At the school dance, Marty rips into a guitar solo that leaves the students speechless. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he observes, but assures them “your kids are gonna love it.”

What’s amazing about “Back to the Future” is the timeless feel of these sight gags. Over the years, every last one of them has refused to age, to seem dated or grow stale. Instead, they feel as fresh and funny today as they did in 1985. That timelessness is a powerful testament to the strength of the actors’ performances (here we see glimpses of the exquisite comic timing that would make Fox a name) and Gale and Zemeckis’ visionary script. Perhaps that’s because “Back to the Future” reminds us that while we can’t predict our future, our choices give us the power to navigate it how we choose.

Grade: A

*Avoid cliches like the plague.

Review: “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989)

Concepts don’t get much headier than the one we find in Valley Guy classic “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Two unmotivated best friends (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) unceremoniously failing their history class who stumble upon a future dweller (George Carlin) and the most bodacious time machine that will solve their academic dilemma? By bringing Important Historical Figures (IHFs, if you will) back to present-day (1988, that is) San Dimas, Calif., to see what they think of the 20th century?

Whoa.

But fret not, for the concept is the only thing remotely highbrow and pretentious about “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a zany postmodern romp through history that became something of a pop-culture phenomenon. (It’s the question of my generation: Without Bill and Ted, would there have been a Wayne and Garth? Would Keanu Reeves have made the Ted-Logan-to-Johnny-Utah transition so critical to his burgeoning film career? “Nay” on both counts, I say.) Not surprisingly, the movie hardly presents a serious look at how history’s leaders see modern-day America. Instead, scriptwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon create what, essentially, is a fish-out-of-water comedy on two levels, with both groups of fish — the bonehead team of Ted and Bill, the big-namers they kidnap — flopping toward a comical and surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

Let’s not get crazy with the Serious Film Talk, though. Bo-ring. What matters most in “Bill & Ted” is the way all that flopping generates some a series of most excellently comical escapades. The fun really gets cranking when the mysterious Rufus (Carlin, at the height of his laconic powers) materializes in his time-travel elevator outside the Circle K where Bill and Ted are boning up for their history final. (This scene spawned the genius line “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”) He’s come from the future, he says, to help Bill and Ted pass their final. To prove his claims, he transports the stunned duo back to the 1800s to see Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) — remember him? that “short, dead dude”? — ready himself for battle. Quite a feat to witness, but things go haywire almost immediately and Napoleon ends up back in 1988 San Dimas. Bill and Ted see this as a most bodacious opportunity to create a killer history report. Why speak for the likes of So-crates* (Tony Steedman), Sigmund Frood* (Rod Loomis) and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron) when they can speak for themselves?

Mass kidnapping commences, and then come the real laughs. Matheson and Solomon see fit to place all these conquerors, philosophers, adventurers and thinkers into the touchstone of ’80s culture: the shopping mall. Given this choice, the potential for comedy is limitless, and the culture clashes epic. Ludwig van Beeth-oven* (Clifford David) discovers the electronic keyboard and the joys of Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet”; Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin) muscles in on a Jazzercise class and Ghengis Khan (Al Leong) lays waste to dummies in a sports store. So-crates and Frood discover the difficulties inherent in picking up mall babes while wearing togas and tweed jackets. Elsewhere, Napoleon gets a second chance to conquer Waterloo, this time in the form of a water park populated by foes far shorter (and less intimidating) than the Seventh Coalition. Really, can anything top watching the world’s biggest legend in his own mind shove kids out of the way so he can blast down a waterslide? Seeing Freud psychoanalyze his arresting officer with “why are you so certain I’m not Freud?” runs a close second.

Matter of fact, it’s scenes like these that get right to the point of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” This is not a message movie or a treatise on ’80s consumerism/yuppie culture; it’s entertainment served straight-up. There is a point to Bill and Ted’s journey — something about them forming a band, Wyld Stallyns, whose music will change the world, and their realization that they need to, like, learn to play their guitars for that to happen — but that point never obscures perpetually quotable lines like “you medieval dickweed.” Or the radiantly funny moment where Ted attempts to “philosophize” Socrates with none other than the chorus from Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind.” Now that’s heavy.

Grade: B+

*Mispronunciation. It’s a pip.

Welcome, Mr. Non-Denominational Winter*

Is it a flagrant cheat to write a post promising to write more posts in the unknown, untold future?

Maybe.

Am I chucking caution into the wind like Donny Kerabatsos’ ashes and doing it anyway?

Definitely.

The semester’s end has come (none too soon, I might add), and so the flurry of holiday press release/story writing has ceased. Now it’s time to get back down to the dirty, unforgivin’ and really fun business of reviewing movies.

Here’s what’s on the docket this week: retro reviews of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Back to the Future” and “The Sound of Music” as well as reviews of nos. 18-20 in the Top 100 Films. My feelings about “The Sound of Music” — yet another brick in the Now-You-Can-Call-Yourself-a-Film-Buff wall — can be summed up thusly:

*If you don’t watch NBC’s “Community,” start now.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006); dir. by Adam McKay; starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amy Adams, Leslie Bibb.

The moment: After a rockin’ concert by the King of Country Western Troubadors, one M. Carter @ the Movies got a most unusual — one might even call it “mammar-able” — autography.

The correlation: Unknown Hinson’s response to my brazen request for a signature would have made Ricky Bobby proud: “Absolutely. I’d be happy to sign your chest.”