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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.

Streep delights in charming but flawed “Julie & Julia”

Not even the French can resist the formidable charms of Julia Child/Meryl Streep.

Not even the French can resist the charms of Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia."

Sing. Dance. Pyschoanalyze. Charm. Interrogate. Make like Hitler in a habit. Cook. The more I watch Meryl Streep, the more I wonder: Is there anything in the whole wide world this actress cannot do?

Short of invasive brain surgery, all signs point to a hearty “no way.”  (Still, if you gave her a copy of “Gray’s Anatomy” and a scalpel, well, who knows?) In “Julie & Julia,” Streep proves anew that she’s an actress undaunted by the prospect of playing any character — even if said character is none other than the legendary Julia Child. Streep dives cheerfully into the role, nailing the shrill rhythms of Child’s famous voice and injecting so much spirit and life into her part you can almost taste the butter in her sole meunière. The fact that she’s no dead ringer for the departed French chef — Streep, in fact, is six inches shy of Child’s 6’2″ — means absolutely nothing. Minutes in, she’ll make you believe she’s Child incarnate. Bon appétit, indeed.

Problem is, Streep is so good that her performance only magnifies one of the film’s biggest flaws — namely, director Nora Ephron’s failure to create two-dimensional husbands. In fairness, “Julie & Julia” is a movie about women, not men, and directors have pigeonholed women in these parts of decades. But Paul Child (Stanley Tucci minus his usual snark) in particular comes off like some sort of smiley angel. Perhaps this is an accurate depiction of his nature — any man who tolerated Julia Child for more than five-minute intervals had intestinal fortitude to spare — but where are the flaws, the humanity? Warts are verboten in such a heart-warmer, but they’d be a welcome addition.

Let’s get back to the good stuff, though. For much of its length “Julie & Julia” succeeds in charming viewers with the story of Julie Powell (the ever-delightful Amy Adams), a government worker who decides to make every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and write a blog about her exploits. What begins as a way to escape the strain of dealing with 9/11 victims becomes a journey toward creating something meaningful for Julie, even though she alienates her husband Eric (Chris Messina) in the process. Interspliced with this story is the real-life tale of how Julia Child, newly relocated to Paris in 1948, turned a cooking class into a career that revolutionized French cooking for American women.

Ephron relies on finesse and the interspliced plot method to connect the lives of Julie, a New Yorker dealing with 21st-century problems, and Julia, experiencing fine cuisine in post-World War II Paris. Julie and Julia never met in real life, so this reality demands such creative cinematic contortions from Ephron. The splicing works well enough to be convincing but not so well that we feel as though Julie and Julia share a real connection. Here, suspension of disbelief is a necessity, not a luxury.

The truth? For food cinematography (oh, Bœuf bourguignon, how marvelous thou art) and lead performances as touching as these, I’ll play along. Since this is a foodie film, special attention gets paid to the dishes. There are beauty shots aplenty of everything from sole meunière to pastries to cakes, the kind that almost communicate the life in the dishes as much as the flavor, and there’s a shot of Streep at work in the kitchen that feels like visual poetry, all feeling.

Which takes us back to Adams and Streep. Adams gets short-changed a bit here as Julie, whose story is affecting but not nearly as intriguing as that of the unconventional Julia Child. Ever the intuitive actress, though, Adams manages to squeeze more raw feeling from her part than a weaker actress could, letting us see how Julie’s project is a way to give her life meaning. We can’t help but cheer her on. It’s Streep, however, who commands our attention by creating a woman of intelligence, fearlessness and great passion. Child understood that to enjoy food was to embrace life. This, in the end, might be the force that makes “Julie & Julia” such a treat for the senses.

Grade: B-

Sacha Baron Cohen sells out (sort of)

He did it. I can’t believe he did it. If you’d asked me a month ago if I thought it was possible, I’d have listed things more likely to happen: a) Pat Robertson agrees to a Barbara Walters interview in which he announces he now supports gay marriage and has legally changed his name to “Banana Hammock” to prove it; b) In 2009, Meryl Streep acts in a movie and does not get nominated for an Oscar; or c) South Carolina gets voted the smartest state in America.

I’m talking, of course, about Sacha Baron Cohen’s decision to retool and revise “Brüno,” a much-hyped, highly controversial film based on a character he created for “Da Ali G Show,” in order to squeeze an “R” rating out of the MPAA.

Mr. Cohen, if I may, a question: Is you on crack or somethin’?

Sigh. I suppose in Hollywood, selling out is the norm. But Cohen always operated a little left of center, which is why I — and everyone else who loved “Da Ali G Show” — am more than a little surprised and disappointed. I mean, this is the guy who didn’t flinch during an interview (insert air quotes to undermine the seriousness of that word) with Andy Rooney in which Rooney, angry at being duped, unloaded a sack of insults on Cohen. Cohen never broke character. In the outtakes of “Talladega Nights,” he never smiled, or even looked like he thought about smiling. The man doesn’t flinch. He’s that good.

Though I’m a tad miffed at his self-censorship, I can’t help but pine for July 10, when Cohen unleashes his outrageous Austrian fashionista upon the world at large. Judging by the crazy-sexy-weird promo shots, it’s bound to be the movie release heard ’round the world.

I just pray that it will show everyone the healing powers of house music. I mean, it did wonders for the end of apartheid.