Many a standout performance has been hamstrung by a weak plot or poor direction over the years. Not that those things specifically are the case with any of the following, but here are ten standouts from several areas of filmmaking that made it worth paying eight bucks a ticket.
And because we've come to expect greatness from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren, and the formidable tag team of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, you won't see their names or performances singled out here. They're worth mentioning almost every time they do something.
1. Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland)
The ferocity with which Whitaker becomes Ugandan President Idi Ami could almost force you to look away. How regrettable that so many did. Despite immediate and overwhelming praise for this Best Actor lock, about half a million people saw this movie in its initial run in theatres. But it's the best performance in a year full of them.
Whitaker, of course, has shown flashes before, but he's always seemed a bit of a teddy bear with his quiet, placid disposition and his enormous size. Should he win the Oscar, which is more probable than not, he'll be the third African-American to win acting's top prize in five years. That he deserves it is probably the best reward.
2. Bond, James Bond.
There were websites demanding Daniel Craig be fired before he even shot a scene of Casino Royale. There were websites heralding better Bonds. And then, everybody saw what he could do.
By astronomical units the most talented actor to ever put on 007's tuxedo, Daniel Craig reinvented Bond as a steely-eyed hitman who might even have woman trouble from time to time. His rough-around-the-edges creation not only resurrected a franchise that had been dead in the water since the late 1970s (GoldenEye notwithstanding), he gave the single greatest James Bond portrayal of the 21 movies. Time will tell, of course, but it appears likely that the Bond nobody wanted will be the best Bond of them all.
3. Ellen Page (Hard Candy)
When the film was released many months ago, I wondered in my review where Page found her inspiration for Hayley, the fourteen-year-old prey of Patrick Wilson's online stalker. There's a little girl in there, which Page herself is not; the actress was 18 during filming. There's a mature woman in there, which Page herself is not yet. And there's another side of Hayley I dare not mention in case you haven't seen Hard Candy.
The best part about this performance is the way Page camouflages the rest of Hayley's instincts when one takes center stage. She turns one side on and the others off like a light switch, but does so with a degree of mastery you don't often see with material that has such a high degree of difficulty. Helen Mirren or no, Ellen Page is the best actress of 2006.
4. The Anonymous Faces in United 93
Having seen the best movie of the year a couple of times now, I've gained a greater appreciation for the things that on first glance may seem like background. There's no lead character in Paul Greengrass's soon-to-be legendary film. There's a pile-up of confusion, from passengers to hijacking terrorists to military personnel to air traffic controllers. And that confusion is the reason this movie works so well.
Greengrass has crafted the perfect rendering of the tragedy (and hopeful conclusion) aboard that flight, and he's done so without the use of movie stars or even much of a script, from the standpoint of dialogue. And amazingly, he leans on an ensemble that has one goal — build panic. It may not look like much, but watch it again, and marvel at the sensational acting from hundreds of people that only gets stronger as the action demands it.
5. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
Comedic performances can be tough to gauge. With drama, there's a specific goal, much as I highlighted with the performances in United 93. In comedy, if they don't laugh – and in particular, if they don't laugh where and when and how you want – it's a failure. Sacha Baron Cohen's performance as Borat is otherworldly. Why do you think he's being sued so frequently now? He convinced everyday Joes to appear in his Kazakh documentary and then made every last one of them look like giant American boobs. And he did it all in character.
Again, this isn't scripted comedy. This is Cohen as Borat approaching people on the street, and none of them were wise to it. So don't be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination. It's not just some of the best filmed comedy of this generation, it's also Peter Sellers-level acting.
6. Zach Helm's Script for Stranger Than Fiction
From the unscripted to what is, for my money, the most ingenious script of the year. Zach Helm is a playwright whose first crack at a Hollywood script earned him a Golden Globe nomination this year, and ought to be listed among the Oscar nominees for best original screenplay. Granted, it smacks heavily of Charlie Kaufman, but it's also much more relatable than a Kaufman script, less exclusionary, and still manages to be crisp, entertaining, and thought provoking.
7. Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
The movie's okay. Beyonce looks amazing. The songs are fine. But if not for former American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls wouldn't be worth much ink. Her performance among stars as bright as Beyonce, Eddie Murphy, and Jamie Foxx does more than steal the show. It is the show. After she sails through "Love You I Do," you don't even want to see anyone else in the movie. After she receives an ovation for "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," you forget that there even is anyone else in the movie.
8. "Gonna Fly Now"
I realized watching Rocky Balboa that hearing Bill Conti's classic theme is an experiment like Pavlov's dogs. The dogs would hear a bell and then get food. After a while, Pavlov took away the food, rang the bell, and found that the dogs salivated because they knew what the bell meant.
When the trumpets kick in and Rocky starts punching the speed bag, you sit up in your seat grinning, just like you're trained to do. But that inner joy of rooting for the underdog had been missing from Rocky movies and from Stallone's career for 20 years. Now, Rocky and Sly are both underdogs again and damn it, it feels good to cheer 'em on.
9. Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness)
I was not overly impressed with this film either time I saw it. It's very good, but it has restrictions, mostly forced by the genre it inhabits, that keep it from becoming a great film. I did enjoy it more the second time I watched it, however. Why? Because I just watched Will Smith that time.
Let the rest of the movie play out as you know it's going to and focus your attention on an actor who truly is worth the money. This guy is such a charismatic movie star that his abilities tend to get overlooked. Not here. Comedy, drama, action, romance — this guy can do it all. Not a great character actor in the Johnny Depp sense, but Depp has his limitations, too. There are two scenes with Smith's real-life son, one of which is a dialogue-free heartbreaker in the belly of a subway system, that just rip your heart out. Believe the hype and go see the movie, even if you're only going to watch the star.
10. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine)
The most selfless cast of the year was the incredible ensemble in Little Miss Sunshine. To make it easier on us, they even keep one character speechless for two-thirds of the movie. But the heart and soul is Abigail Breslin, whose work here is pretty brave. She's not a beauty queen yet that's what she wants to be. So to win, Olive Hoover has to go about things a different way. Well, the movie sure goes about things in its own unique way. So too does Breslin, who could've been overshadowed by the experience and the name recognition of the rest of the cast, but who rises above all that with a terrific display of honesty and an alarming knack for timing.