Kate Winslet in The Reader
Kate Winslet can make a scowl sexy. That's partly physical: her pretty mouth naturally turns down. But it's also because her intelligence as an actress is essentially critical; it gives an erotic taunt and charge to any encounter. Most movie characters have a need to get somewhere else, but Winslet women usually proceed from an enveloping restlessness, a resentment of the status quo. In another December film, Revolutionary Road, her character wants to flee suburbia for Paris, in an attempt to rekindle a happier past. In The Reader, Hanna Schmitz's past was anything but idyllic. Coming of age in the Third Reich, she is part of a generation whose war scars, inflicted or endured, still sting. Now it's 1958, and the carnal, almost feral intensity of a brief affair she has with a teenager (the very impressive David Kross) can't blot out that past. If Hanna is the sum of what she's done, then she is satanic. If she is the repository of Michael's adolescent love for her — and the moviegoer's fascination with her — then she's saved from eternal condemnation. Winslet puts across Hanna's misery and moral blind spots in a performance with very few words, a desperate passion and that laser stare.
Viola Davis in Doubt
There's plenty of Acting, heaven knows, in the John Patrick Shanley movie about a nun (Meryl Streep), the principal of a Catholic School in the Bronx in 1964, who suspects a popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting a young black student. Most of the heavy emoting is done by Streep, whose meanness is pitched at the same near-hysterical level as her giddiness in Mamma Mia! But there's also genuine acting, the kind that opens a window onto a complex, troubled soul, and that's thanks to Davis, in a supporting role as the boy's mother. Drop by careful drop, she pours out her heart, revealing the aspirations and desperation of any parent who'll fight to insure her son has a better life than she has. Davis has said that Shanley impressed on her the deference a lower-middle-class black woman in 1964 was expected to show a nun. That's part of the contained power of this performance: no showboating here, just emotional precision and devastating honesty.
Dakota Fanning in The Secret Life of Bees
Another movie about abused children and nurturing black mother figures in 1964, Gina Prince-Bythewood's version of the Sue Monk Kidd best-seller may cast its characters' miseries in a slightly too-rosy radiance. But that glow helps illuminate some potent star acting from Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Hudson and, above all, Dakota Fanning as a white girl searching for truths about herself and her dead mother. Fanning, 14, was seven when she emerged as a self-possessed little scene-stealer in the Sean Penn I Am Sam. Now she is negotiating early adolescence with the same gravity and poise. She has the eerie ability to lure the moviegoer's eye over to the part of the screen where she is, seemingly doing nothing. (There are few film pleasures as rewarding as watching Fanning listen.) She also has the gift of living inside the character without editorializing about it. She never pushes an emotion; she's like a doctor with a sixth sense for detecting internal ailments. Fanning wills Lily from fictional stereotype into persuasive movie life, and one of the sweet anticipations in moviegoing will be watching her mature into adult roles. Here's hoping the guys of Hollywood provide some good ones for her
Kimberly Rivers Roberts in Trouble the Water
"Katrina, she's a bad chick," observes Kim Rivers, 24, an aspiring rap artist (Black Kold Madina) and unassuming real-life heroine. In August 2005, as the awful hurricane battered New Orleans, Kim and her husband Scott Roberts saved lives by bringing flood victims to the attic of their house in the Ninth Ward. She is also the star, and in a way the director, of this soul-roiling nonfiction film by Carl Deal and Tina Lessin. Just before the storm, Kim had bought a video camera, which she used to document the ravages that nature and an indifferent bureaucracy can wreak. "Me and Scott, we're the last two Mohicans," she says as the street becomes a river, six, eight feet high. "We truly under siege. Nobody left with no valuables, nothin' but our lives." It's because of Kim Rivers that this record of hopelessness and heroism exists. In one of her autobiographical rap songs, she says, "I don't need y'all to tell me I'm amazin', just look at me." Seriously. Just look at the good she did, the person she is, in this movie. Amazing.
Angelina Jolie in Wanted
Jolie certainly has the skill and, even more, the ambition to be a serious actress, as indicated by her bereaved heroines in A Mighty Heart and Changeling. But the contours of her face and body are so improbable and arresting, her stature and sexuality so imposing, that she's simply not designed to play ordinary people. She's much more satisfying as a fantasy or cartoon character. In Timur Bekmambetov's zazzy action film, she plays Fox, a member of Morgan Freeman's gang of supposedly sanctified assassins. The role is a blend of Jolie's previous adventuresses: the CIA killer lady in Mr. and Mrs. Smith crossed with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the daredevil pilot from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the witch-goddess of Beowulf. (Oh, and her Tigress in Kung Fu Panda.) Densely tattooed, richly skilled in the automotive and firearm arts, Fox reeks of a take-charge sexiness we'll call feminismo. The actress herself might be a saint from some cinematic fertility cult: Holy Jolie.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Ledger's death at 28, six months before his last big movie opened, stoked a morbid want-see. Was his Joker as extravagant and chilling as early reports suggested? Might the performance offer clues to Ledger's demise? Well, it's a wild and meticulous construct: the scourge of Gotham, stalking around like Groucho, talking in a nasal Chicago accent (the film was shot there), propelling every conversation by sticking his face close to that of his listener as if he could take a bite any second. Reviewers evoked Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter — the same mock-ingratiating tone, same sadistic ingenuity — but this Joker is the bigger, gaudier showman, with a sick kid's need to watch the damage he's caused. His ornate facial scars (possibly self-inflicted) suggest a traumatic past, but unlike Lecter the Joker has no backstory; he can't be read as the sum of what his parents, or a girl, or the Iraq War, did to him. He comes out of nowhere, creates chaos, disappears. Ledger thus had the freedom to invent his own nightmare. What a creepy-terrific job he did... before he, too, vanished.
Jean Claude Van Damme in JCVD
The Muscles from Brussels: a best actor? An actor, even? In 25 years of martial arts melodramas, he's displayed fast kicks, a surly-seraphic demeanor and an uneasy command of English. But in this low-budget French-language thriller shot in his home town, Van Damme is superb at playing himself, or, as director Mabrouk el Mechri would have it, a semi-realistic version of same: a worn-down ex-star who gets involved in a bank heist with tough guys eager to exploit his residue of celebrity. The wow moment is a six-minute take of Van Damme confessing his sins to the camera: a brave, bravura exhibition of shouting, tears, emotional scab-pulling. Is this wrenching revelation factual? Is it fake? Let's call it fake-tual, and, for now, call Jean Claude Van Damme a bold, gifted actor.
Vlad Ivanov in 4 months,3 weeks and 2 Days
You need to get an illegal abortion in Communist Romania, 1987, you go to a hotel room and wait for the guy who calls himself, with leaden irony, Mr. Bebe (pronounced bay-bay, as in the French word for baby). In the year's best foreign-language film, Bebe is a monster, no question, but not a screamer. His voice is icily controlled; he could issue a death sentence without inflection. Solidly built and sporting a leather jacket, Ivanov suggests the Brando of The Wild One — just extract the humanity and leave in the sociopathic brutality. I know nothing about the actor except that he's made movies in four languages (Romanian, Russian, French and English) and that his name suggests a Russian heritage. In fact, he has some of Vladimir Putin's glacial charisma and sexual threat. I wouldn't care to be in a hotel room with either of them; but I look forward to more Ivanov movies, to see if he's got the same sick radiance, like a walking Chernobyl.
Brandon Walters in Australia
Baz Luhrmann's swoony historical romance stars Nicole Kidman, hunk de l'année Hugh Jackman and just about every actor who made Australian cinema's coming-of-age party so exciting in the '70s. Yet the focal character of this Gone with the Wizard superproduction is an 11-year-old who'd never made a film before, and who nearly died from leukemia when he was six. As Nullah, the half-aboriginal adopted by Kidman and Jackman, Walters must be strong, winsome, questing, questioning and of course adorable. He doesn't steal scenes, exactly, since they're often built around him; but he magnetizes all eyes and hearts. Goodonya, little mate
Ben Burtt in Wall-E
The lonely robo-boy of Andrew Stanton's fabulous fantasy doesn't say much ("WALL-E," "Eva," "Ta-DA!"), but there's a future-world of humor and emotion in each syllable. Those intonations, and nearly every other sound in the movie — the machines, the weapons, the whole aural environment — are the amazing achievement of Ben Burtt, who for 28 years soundscaped George Lucas films (the light saber in Star Wars, the whipcrack in Raiders of the Lost Ark) before coming to Pixar. WALL-E's voice is Burtt's own, which he stretched, distorted and metallicized on his computer keyboard; he also voiced Mo, the neat-freak droid on the spaceship WALL-E and EVE visit. Hal the cockroach, WALL-E's sole companion on Earth, gets his chirps from "a raccoon, speeded up," and his clicks from the rattling of a cop's handcuffs. (The liquid loveliness of EVE's voice comes from Pixar staffer Elissa Knight.) All these could have been purely computer-generated, but, says Burtt, "The problem with real synthetic voices is that they lack character. You don't get the sense of a soul behind the voice." You do get that with WALL-E, which makes Burtt the Soul Man of 2008