There were many great performances this year. We had Daniel Day Lewis portraying one of the greatest presidents in American history, Quvenzhane Wallis giving one of the best young child performances in history, and Eddie Redmayne in a criminally unrecognized outing as Marius in Les Miserable. But there can be only one Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. The Academy will make their choices in the coming weeks, but these were the ones that stood out the most in my personal universe, the only universe that matters.
Best Supporting Actor - Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
It's not easy to embody a character whose natural state within the film is to be wildly theatrical and over the top. In The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman does it with ease. You never question that Hoffman fully is Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic and eccentric cult leader, and not simply Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor, showing off for the audience. Lancaster Dodd is such a complex character, so full of energy for the crowd, so caught up in his own hype machine, and yet deep down so insecure and fragile. Hoffman does an excellent job at displaying the subtle nuances of this person, fully developing the public persona while also giving us glimpses here and there to the man underneath. Most importantly though, Hoffman fully conveys this man's complex connection to and attachment with his prize subject, his pet of sorts, Freddie Quell. It is that relationship on which the entire film hinges. Only a great actor could pin down the master/follower, dominator/dominated relationship of this film without either missing the emotional connection with the audience, or twisting the relationship into something it isn't. Hoffman hits it out of the park.
Best Supporting Actress - Ann Dowd in Compliance
No actress so embodied her character, so completely disappeared into her role this year as Ann Dowd, who played the naive Fast Food Manager duped by a prank caller impersonating a police officer in Compliance. Her performance is so complex, so nuanced, that we're honestly not sure what to make of her character. Should we be empathizing with her? Shunning her? Hating her? Mocking her? Learning from her? Many of her seemingly irrational or "moronic" decisions will make you cringe, but Ann plays each one of these moments with 100% earnestness. She is not judging her character. Every gut wrenching beat on screen is filled with such subtle touches of real, genuine, conflicted emotion that flesh out this person into one of the most complex characters of the entire year. It's a damn shame this film, and especially this performance, were never backed by their distributor enough to get more mainstream recognition and awards traction. Compliance is certainly a hard one to watch, but being hard to watch does not mean it and the actress are not deserving of recognition. Simply put, no woman gave a more daring performance this year.
Best Actress - Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
In Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain does an extraordinary job at playing reserved, cold emotion. Unfortunately, doing so may keep her from grabbing Oscar gold, as the academy is more prone to award theatrical, big, obvious performances that draw attention to the star playing them (I'm looking at you, Jennifer Lawrence). Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps a much more plot driven and procedural film than the other big awards contenders, but that doesn't stop Chastain from making Maya a fully three dimensional character. From start to finish, you completely feel Maya's struggle and determination, her push against her superiors, her headstrong and arrogant attitude, her loneliness and isolation, even if the colder style of the film keeps you slightly at distance from her. And though there are many plot points, Bigelow is also careful to sprinkle little quiet bits of character driven beats throughout the narrative, all of which Chastain knocks out of the park. It's honestly hard to talk about this performance, because, unlike some others on this list, there's absolutely nothing "show-off-y" about it. This is a classic case of "do nothing" acting. Just be in the scene and do nothing. Simple looks and glances. Simply being present in every scene. Simply being natural. It's a talent that regularly gets overlooked. Its so much easier to notice an Al Pacino screaming "Whoo Ah!" and mugging to the camera (don't get me wrong, I love me some classic Pacino scenery chewing). Too often we forget that some of the best acting is also some of the most minimalistic.
Best Actor - Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
What can I say? In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix gives undoubtedly the best male performance of the year. In fact, he gives the flat out best performance of the last few years, and what will surely be the best of his career. While I certainly have to give props to another great Master of acting, Daniel Day Lewis, for his fine work in Lincoln (for which he surely will win the Oscar), there really is no comparison between what he did in that film (a great, albeit quite theatrical, outing) and what Joaquin accomplishes here. Mr. Phoenix completely gives himself over to this role, achieving such moments of utter raw emotion that rarely are captured on screen. He lets loose and disappears into the insane world of Freddie Quell. No scene this year even comes close to capturing the emotional power of Freddie's outburst when he is a photographer, or when he engages in the "no blinking" exercise with Lancaster Dodd, or when (in what I can only imagine was an improvised and unscripted moment) Freddie completely loses all control in a prison cell, slams his head repeatedly against the bunk repeatedly and then smashes a toilet into oblivion.
Joaquin even completely transforms his physical appearance with superficial facial ticks and twitches. In another actor's hands, these could be rather shallow transformations, but he seamlessly and naturally works them into the complex tapestry of this character. He displays such a range of emotions, from the most quiet and reflective to the most outlandish and destructive. His performance is not simply "weird" or "Joaquin being his crazy self." It is as deeply layered as the film in which it resides, a film which hopefully will grow to be appreciated with time. Personally, I have no doubt that history will be on The Master's side, and that this will be the performance that is by far the most remembered and studied in the years to come.