It’s not hard to look back ten years and realize the legacy that 2008’s performances left. It begins and ends with Heath Ledger, of course. Beyond him, though, I found myself preferring a lot of supporting performances to lead performances. The supporting roles provided far more opportunities for interesting work, and those performances have resonated more ten years later.
The Oscars and I generally agreed this year. Twelve performances that were nominated and/or won are represented here. However, one performance you will not see is Kate Winslet’s Best Actress-winning role from The Reader. The Oscar love that movie received is a direct result of Harvey Weinstein, and it was the last time he exerted an outsized influence on the Academy’s proceedings.
2008 was the first year of my life that I became serious about watching a lot of the movies released that year, so it was the first year that I could really have an informed opinion about at the time. As a result, a lot of these movies have existed in my mind as long as they’ve existed, and their legacy is a little more ingrained in my head than movies from previous years. Looking back at these movies was like remembering why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
The links are to clips from the performance. There’s probably some profanity in there.
10. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married: It’s a trope in the film industry for a performer we met as a teenager to take on a more adult role so that we will take them more seriously. Hathaway had a supporting role in Brokeback Mountain, but the most serious part she had played as the star was The Devil Wears Prada, which isn’t exactly a “serious adult role.” Rachel Getting Married gave Hathaway this, but it’s not just a play at respectability. This was the first time we saw Hathaway portraying a real human being. I’m glad she won her Oscar for Les Miserables, but this is her best performance yet.
9. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler: Poor Rourke; after years in the woods, he comes out with the best performance of his lifetime only to lose the Oscar to fellow Brat Pack-adjacent ’80s star Sean Penn, whom Rourke apparently hates. Anyway, Rourke’s work in The Wrestler takes place in rarefied air. It’s the kind of performance that only Rourke could give and that he could never give again. It’s a role perfectly suited to him, a weathered, down-on-his-luck outcast who figures out what his purpose is, even if it doesn’t really set him free. Roles like that are once in a lifetime, and he makes it count.
8. Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road: It’s truly a shame that Winslet won her Oscar for The Reader, which is boring and features her fine performance of a boring role. Revolutionary Road is overwrought from the beginning, but it’s one of Winslet’s best performances. Her April is far stronger than DiCaprio’s Frank, but bound to the same societal norms that drive them both insane. As a portrait of a marriage, Revolutionary Road is limited. As a portrait of a woman, Winslet’s performance is everything.
7. Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder: There’s understandably a lot of controversy surrounding this role, given it’s basically blackface. The whole concept of this blackface is that it’s sending up the lengths Hollywood actors go to win awards recognition, but I understand if it smells too much of white privilege for some people. Regardless, Downey Jr. is completely committed to this performance, and he’s wonderful. This was the same year he returned to prominence in Iron Man, which should have been enough. But in Tropic Thunder, he reaches the bombastic heights that only he is charismatic enough for.
6. Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy: The Oscars are known for rewarding heartfelt performances more along the lines of Kate Winslet’s in Revolutionary Road, in which the words are doing a lot of the heavy lifting and the actor’s emoting is just this side of necessary. They’re less likely to recognize a performance like Williams’s in Wendy and Lucy in which the emotions involved are less obvious and require a quieter approach. Williams has had her share of Oscar love (four nominations and counting, the most recent for 2016’s Manchester by the Sea), but the Academy completely overlooked this performance. It’s cruelly poetic, really: Wendy exists on the fringe of society, the kind of life it’s only too easy to overlook. If the Academy had looked a little closer, they would have seen a whole movie in Michelle Williams’s eyes alone.
5. Benicio Del Toro, Che: Part One and Che: Part Two: Both parts of Che are fascinating movies, if a little too obtuse to be great. Regardless, it’s clear from the beginning that Che Guevara is the part that Del Toro was born to play (it’s either that or The Collector, I’m not sure). Del Toro doesn’t actually look much like Guevara, but he captures his ability to code switch between the elites of the world and the people of Cuba. Playing a chameleon is nearly impossible. Del Toro makes it look revolutionary.
4. Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading: It was so hard to choose a scene from Pitt’s performance in this movie for the link. There are so many little things he does from start to finish that his character, Chad, as ridiculous as he is, feels nothing like the Brad Pitt we know. I like Serious Brad Pitt just fine, but Serious Brad Pitt is rarely given the screenplay to show off the full range of his nuance. If I was Brad Pitt’s agent, I’d kidnap the Coen brothers and have them write movies just for him. In fact, that sounds like a good premise for a Coen Brothers film- starring Brad Pitt.
3. Viola Davis, Doubt: Holding your own against Meryl Streep is no small thing. Doing it for eight straight minutes and stealing the scene is another thing altogether. Before this movie, Davis was a supporting character in movies and TV shows. After this movie, even though she’s only onscreen for the one 8-minute scene, Davis became a star, an Emmy-winner, an Oscar-winner, a history-maker. That should tell you all you need to know about how good that scene is, and Davis deserves her place near the top of this list.
2. Sean Penn, Milk: When you look at the two Oscars that Penn won in the 2000s, the disparity between the two roles’ dispositions is stark. In Mystic River, Penn is the embodiment of stereotypical hypermasculinity, grieving for his daughter, burning for revenge. In Milk, Penn is a proud queen, a gay man who inspires, a generally jovial gentleman. Anytime I see Penn give an interview, I’m floored that he is the same man whose smile changes hearts in Milk. Harvey Milk’s story resonates because of its specificity to its time and place, and Penn nails the specifics of both.
1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight: You can’t separate this performance from Heath Ledger’s death. This isn’t because the performance caused the death, contrary to the rampant, irresponsible speculation that occurred in the media and the business in the months between Ledger’s passing and the movie’s release. By all accounts, Ledger was a joy to be around on the sets of The Dark Knight and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the movie he was making when he died. He reported struggling with anxiety and insomnia, but never cited the Joker’s “darkness” or anything like that as their origin.
No, you can’t separate his performance from his death, because we knew he had died when we saw the movie. We haven’t ever seen this movie in a world in which Ledger had not passed. I had forgotten how much mourning his death was a part of the movie’s promotion- not in an icky way, as if his death were a marketing tool, but because, like all deaths, it was an inescapable fact. The cast and filmmakers had to talk about it in interviews, and that’s the light in which we have always seen the movie.
What all the talk about the darkness of the Joker seems to neglect is that Ledger’s performance is so fun. There are so many little things that he does, even beyond the storied lip-licking: the range of his voice from a deep bellow to high-pitched giddiness, little glances mid-sentence that show he’s thinking about other things while reciting his anarchic speeches, the genuine confusion on his face when his social experiment doesn’t go as planned.
There was talk around the movie’s release around the idea that The Dark Knight‘s Joker had to go a complete different direction than Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. But Jack Nicholson’s Joker is just Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson. It’s iconic because it fits him so perfectly, like a glove, filled with acid. Ledger becomes an entirely different person. He would be unrecognizable even if he weren’t wearing the makeup. We had never seen Ledger do anything like this before.
I don’t buy the idea that a superhero movie is defined by its villain. We don’t call them supervillain movies, after all. The Dark Knight has plenty of worthy non-Joker aspects: the breathtaking action scenes, the love triangle, some great Gary Oldman work. But truth be told, Ledger elevates this movie past a well-made superhero movie and into greatness. So not all superhero movies are defined by their villains, but this one is.
Another Fifteen (alphabetically)
François Bégaudeau, The Class: The naturalism of the amateur performances from the teenagers in this French Oscar-winner is built on the foundation of Bégadeau’s inner conflict.
Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Brad Pitt is the star of this underrated David Fincher Best Picture nominee, but Blanchett’s radiance holds the central romance together.
Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Cruz won an Oscar for this performance, which she probably deserved for better movies, but her fiery Cristina throws everyone’s balance off whack.
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married: Playing the straight-laced sister could have been a thankless role, but DeWitt shines with a bride’s love and a hint of darkness.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road: DiCaprio is always great, but he’s the perfect partner for a spiral into despair with Winslet.
Colin Farrell, In Bruges: We didn’t know Farrell could be funny before this offbeat comedy, and he’s never been this funny since.
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges: Ditto for Gleeson, who should always be allowed to be this interesting on screen.
Isamar Gonzales, Chop Shop: There were a lot of great indie performances in 2008, but Gonzales’s is among the best amateur performances I’ve ever seen, and by a child actor no less.
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky: Nine years before The Shape of Water, Hawkins broke out as a shining beacon of grace who is much more than just a cock-eyed optimist.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt: The movie doesn’t work without Hoffman’s tightrope-walk between sinner and saint.
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor: Like Hawkins, 2008 was Jenkins’s breakout year, garnering him a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this underseen indie gem.
Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In: Children’s performances are difficult to judge, but Leandersson finds the right mix of child and monster that makes me wish the Swedish film industry had made better use of her since.
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky: The polar opposite of Hawkins’s character, Marsan is great when his fuse reaches its limit, but even better in the underlying tension before.
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road: Another breakout performance from a Shape of Water cast member, Shannon introduced his one-of-a-kind brilliance to audiences as a troubled man who sees things for what they are.
Meryl Streep, Doubt: One of her more severe performances, Streep is a nun who is terribly committed to a justice based on her own intuition rather than any sort of truth.
Future Top Fives
Lesley Manville, Another Year
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Viola Davis, The Help
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Tom Hardy, Warrior
Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida