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10 great antiheroes

citizen_kane

Charles Foster Kane proves money and good intentions do not a hero make.

There’s nothing I love more than a really sneaky, unpredictable, hateful and delightfully ee-viyill* villain. Unless we’re talking about antiheroes. And if we are, well, that’s a horse — or should I say jackass? — of an entirely different color.

Few things are more intriguing than characters who do that wavering, drunken dance on the line between good and bad and seem to stumble onto both sides equally at random. Those are the people, the warts-and-all sorts, we root for because they are human in their imperfections. They are us, and us real-life dwellers can’t seem to resist seeing a bit of ourselves magnified and flung up on the silver screen.

Here’s a list of 10 antiheroes who’ve made me laugh, cry and feel guilty about liking them (just a tiny bit):

1. Charles Foster Kane, “Citizen Kane” — There are many who would argue that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is most certainly a champion of the common man. Look again. Whatever good Kane achieves, there’s always an ulterior motive lurking in the corner: greed, the desire for control, arrogance. His ability to wrap these flaws in the cloak of good intentions makes him the quintessential, iconic antihero.

2. Alex, “A Clockwork Orange” — C.F. Kane may be an antihero for the ages, but Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the focus of Stanley Kubrick’s highly disturbing “A Clockwork Orange,” is nipping right at his heels. Or pointing a gun to the back of his head, more like. A rakehell who swigs drugged milk and patrols the streets of futuristic Britain raping women and revelling in mayhem — what’s to like about a guy like this? Alex has a few redeeming qualities that nudge him away from “villain,” but not so many that they make him good. He’s an antihero for the annals.

opposofsex2

There are nicer people than Dee Dee -- we call them "losers."

3. Dee Dee Truitt, “The Opposite of Sex” — When a narrator describes her mother as “a loser bitch” and seduces her gay brother’s boy toy, you know you’re not in for a heart-warming tale. Savage wit, anything-but-good intentions and snarky condescension are all we get from the unflappable Dee Dee Truitt (Christina Ricci), one of the pluckiest, snidest and most irresistible characters ever created.

4. Rob Gordon, “High Fidelity” — What can you say about a bitter, broke leading man (John Cusack) so self-absorbed he’d rather stew about failed relationships than pay attention to the woman who loves him? It wouldn’t be incorrect to use words like “conceited jerk” or even “rampaging jackass” to describe Rob, a record store owner who elevates wallowing in self pity into an art. He’s not a nice guy, or even a halfway decent one, but that’s exactly why he’s such a compelling character.

5. Lester Burnham, “American Beauty” — Kevin Spacey has made a great and acclaimed career out of playing himself playing people who, uh, seem a whole lot like Kevin Spacey. Lester Burnham, a lumpish, discontent and disengaged spectator in his own life, is no exception, but he is one of the sharpest characters Spacey’s put his sarcastic stamp on. When Lester finally jolts out of his coma, we’re cheering his efforts to embrace life. Or least buy a dime bag.

5. Danny Balint, “The Believer” — “Conflicted” hardly begins to describe Danny (Ryan Gosling, fearless in his quest to take difficult parts), a violent young man who turns on his Jewish upbringing to become a fiercely antisemitic KKK member. And herein lies the contradiction: Brutish as he is, Danny’s also an educated man capable of kindness and intelligent, rational thought. It’s hard to like a character like this, but it’s equally as hard not to find him truly fascinating. 

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

6. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, “The Lives of Others” — Nations that call themselves “Democratic Republics” tend to be anything but, so it seems that a man (Ulrich Mühe) who rises through the ranks of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police, would qualify as a villain. But the rigid, grim Gerd Wiesler finds humanity in the couple he’s ordered to survail, and soon his own humanity emerges.

7. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” — It’s no secret I’m mad for Joaquin Phoenix in most anything, but resistance is futile when he plays men like the manipulative, shrewd and morally flexible Ray Elwood, who tolerates other people only as long as he can use them for something. He’s a real cad, to be sure, though there are moments where flashes of real feeling peek through, and those keep us coming back for more.

8. Sherry, “SherryBaby” — As a rule Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t sign on for parts that have less than 37 layers of complexity, but she outdoes herself here as Sherry, a fresh-out-of-prison ex-heroin addict working to get custody of the daughter she hasn’t seen in years. She’s rude, immature, brash, selfish and confrontational, and her love for her daughter is tainted by a sense of entitlement — Sherry’s hardly her child’s beacon of hope. Yet we cannot write her off because she sees herself clearly and tries, in her small way, to change. That’s my kind of woman: a real one.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

9. Bernie Lootz, “The Cooler” — Look up synonyms for “pathetic” in Merriam-Webster and you’ll likely find photos of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) beside every single word. He’s unlucky to a fault, and what’s worse is that his bad luck is contagious — so much so that casino bosses use him to “cool off” gamblers on a hot streak. Yikes. There are many moments where you wonder what there is to like about this wimpy, hapless sadsack, but it all boils down to Macy, who plays Bernie as a man who accepts his faults and means well. Sometimes, that’s enough. 

10. Dawn Weiner, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — Todd Solondz doesn’t really people his movies with “happy,” or even marginally cheery, characters, but Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) may be a new low even for the guy who made “Happiness.” Dawn’s a clueless nerd, the target of frequent and vicious bullying, which might endear her to us if she weren’t so dismally dull, whiny and downright cruel. She’s the girl you feel sorry for, No. 3 on this list might say, “but in real life you wouldn’t be sitting next to her either.”

 
*Hedley Lamar-approved pronunciation
Honorable mentions: Luke (“Cool Hand Luke”); Miles (“Sideways”); Jim McAllister (“Election”); Ruth (“Citizen Ruth”)

10 great Joaquin Phoenix roles

buffalo_soldiers

Hmmm ... Joaquin's level of craziness must be directly proportionate to his amount of facial hair.

Now that the furor over Joaquin Phoenix’s recent attempts to outdo the Unabomber in terms of sheer weirdness and facial hair has subsided, we fans are left with a few nagging questions. Should we have seen this breakdown coming? Were there context clues along the way that we missed? One day, will we look back at his stunts — and, most memorably, that awkward Letterman appearance — with the same kind of “hindsight’s-a-megabitch” pained insight we feel for “The Sixth Sense”?

Eh, who knows. It’s hard to make sense of this undeniably talented actor’s antics — best to let them run their course. Maybe they have. In the meantime, many one-time Joaquin fans are bailing on this sinking ship. And they’re not wrong. Maybe he’s an egotistical kook looking to become a Personality, someone on par with Howard Hughes. Maybe, after a relatively short career of not that many movies, he’s just not worth the trouble.

But me? I’m not giving up hope yet. The fact that Joaquin has range and enormous talent as an actor cannot be disputed. Once this phase passes, it will be a blip on the radar, a Chris Gaines fiasco that got too much press for no good reason. And we’ll all laugh heartily.

Until then, though, let’s remind ourselves of the good ole’ days, when Joaquin gave us these 10 fiery, pathetic, wickedly lovable, charming and utterly unforgettable characters:

1. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” — Shelving and reshelving on “Buffalo Soldiers” after 9/11 assured that almost no one could see Joaquin work his magic as Ray Elwood, the cynical, opportunistic “guy who gets things” — be it heroin or a truckload of heavy artillery — on an army base in 1989 Berlin. What a shame, for this is his defining moment as an actor. He makes Ray one hell of a sly, fast-talking antihero for the ages.

2. Commodus, “Gladiator” — Let’s agree to move past this unfortunate name? Done. Great, now let’s talk about Joaquin’s performance, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2001. There aren’t many times we get to see the insecurities beneath a villain’s rampaging, unchecked id. Joaquin gives us a bad guy as squeamish, insecure and fearful as he is dangerous. Brilliant.

3. Johnny Cash, “Walk the Line” — Does Joaquin look like Johnny Cash? Have the same rumbling, churning voice? Maybe not, but he has what really matters: the wounded yet sure-footed presence that made the Man in Black a legend. Joaquin, always one to put his stamp on a role, creates not a copy but a tribute, and that makes this role one of this best.

4. The Abbe du Coulmier, “Quills” — That Joaquin can do damaged, conflicted and dark is obvious. But what we didn’t know is that he could make a forlorn, wimpy priest who sodomizes, well, a corpse a sympathetic character. (Believe it.) It’s the kind of thing you have to see to understand. Joaquin pulls it off somehow, giving us perhaps the most unlikely romantic in movie history. 

Too cool for porn: Joaquin as Max California in "8MM."

Too cool for porn: Joaquin as Max California in "8MM."

5. Max California, “8MM” — Joaquin has a way of stealing movies that don’t belong to him. Witness his funny and inexplicably moving turn as Max California, a smartass porn shop worker who provides Nicholas Cage a way into the underground abyss of snuff films. He’s easily the best thing about this otherwise dour, grim film, and his performance leaves you shaken.

6. Lewis McBride, “Return to Paradise” — It’s been said there are no small parts, just small actors. Joaquin drives that one home, and hard, as Lewis McBride, who wastes away in a Malaysian prison while the two strangers he shared hashish with go home unscathed. Watching him unravel bit by bit is painful, but Joaquin makes Lewis’ tragedy so compelling (re: not melodramatic) that you can’t look away.

7. Merrill Hess, “Signs” — “Signs” runs a close second to “Sixth Sense” as my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film, and Joaquin’s Merrill Hess is a big reason why. Who but J.P. could take a popular high school jock who can’t quit reliving his glory days and make him broken-down, reflective and comically self-aware? This is a classic Joaquin move — give him what could be a flat part, and he’ll do beautiful things with it.

Joaquin as devastated father Ethan Learner in "Reservation Road."

Joaquin as Ethan Learner in "Reservation Road."

8. Ethan Learner, “Reservation Road” — Bachelors rarely pull off the concerned parent routine in movies. (Just ask John Cusack about “Martian Child.”) But Joaquin is nothing in a movie if not nakedly emotional, so his Ethan Learner, whose son is killed in a hit-and-run, is the kind of walking wound you can’t ignore. This is Joaquin at his most wounded, and his performance will haunt you for days.

9. Jimmy Emmett, “To Die For” — People have remarked that all Joaquin really does in this marvelously black comedy is play a dumb high school kid. That’s accurate — to a point. He takes it a little farther than that, making Jimmy, who falls for a blonde TV personality and agrees to off her husband, endearingly clueless and menacing in equal measure. It’s a small part, but it has sticking power.

10. Clay Bidwell, “Clay Pigeons” — To be honest, “Clay Pigeons” belongs to Vince Vaughn, who plays funny-creepy-serial killer a teensy bit too well. But Joaquin registers impressively as the ineffectual but well-meaning Clay, a doofy Everyman who gets swept up into the bizarro web of a murderer (Vaughn) and can’t wriggle his way out. That he doesn’t disappear by the scenery Vaughn chews up is a testament to Joaquin’s talent.

(Note: If ole’ Joaq had it in his head to give people just enough roles to make a top 10 list, then he succeeded. Because truth be told, by the end there I’d gotten to the algae and gunk and crystallized remains left at the bottom of a dry well.)