Two Minute Oscars 2010

Published March 1, 2010

This is telling tales out of school but, since 1991, when we began this celebration of great but fleeting performances, there have been a few years for which amassing the full ten of these shooting stars has been dicey. (One abysmally thin year, a particularly character-driven mouse in The Green Mile almost had his day, until common sense flooded back.)

That wasn’t the case in 2008, when ensemble casts began to flower, and it certainly hasn’t been this past year, when ensembles almost pushed out star turns. Almost. For collectors like us, it’s been heaven, since directors have found that the quickest way to tell actors in a large group apart is with one quicksilver insight–when you pick precisely the right actor for the job. Here are ten of the most right, whose art and soul made their moments live:     

So fascinating is Jon Korajarena as the hustler who languidly approaches Colin Firth outside a convenience store in A Single Man, you wish the encounter would go on  far longer than two minutes. Korajarena gives tangible depths to this surprisingly soulful Spaniard, whose ability to recognize the psychic pain of Firth’s character is as real as it is rare.

In Every Little Step, which documents the tryouts for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, Jason Tam’s audition for the role of Paul comes after the producers have almost given up hope of filling the role (loosely based on A Chorus Line‘s original director Michael Bennett.) But Tam’s impassioned purity as the dancer whose parents didn’t know he was gay until they saw him backstage dressed a chorus “girl, ” is revealing enough that Chorus Line‘s original choreographer has to turn away to hide his tears…so don’t worry about being the only one crying.

Michael K. Williams comes onto the scene near the end of The Road. Billed simply as The Thief, his appearance is the catalyst for a pivotal moment between Viggo Mortensen’s nearly exhausted, mortally ill Father and his Son (the astonishing Kodi Smit-McPhee). Summoning all his energy, the boy insists that his father behave humanely to the man who has stolen everything from them.  However, it’s Williams’s intensely physical portrayal that gives the encounter an almost Biblical vision of humanity brought low.

Peter Gerety is like a throwback to great old Jimmy Cagney movies. As Louis Piquett, Johnny Depp’s golden-throated lawyer in Public Enemies, he seems to fill a courtroom single-handedly. This is what old-time lawyering, and fine, golden age acting style are all about.  

As Helene in The Girl from Monaco, Jeanne Balibar embodies the very essence of the irrepressible French mistress–lacey lingerie, black garter belt, and all–when she turns up in Monaco, not just unannounced but with the intention of shedding her husband in favor of her lawyer-lover. Trouble is, he loves things as they are, and the last thing he needs is  “Alienation of affection” headlines while he’s trying a particularly delicate legal case, far away from Paris…and her.

Sally Hawkins is the woman we’re dying to get a look at in An Education: Peter Sarsgaard’s wife must obviously be flinty and unloving–why else would he turn with such need to a 16-year schoolgirl (Carey Mulligan), no matter how intriguing? But when Mulligan tracks her down, Hawkins’s intuitive understanding and compassion for yet another one of her husband’s teenage conquests tilts our view of the truth 180 degrees.

Rachel Boston in (500) Days of Summer makes red-haired Allison (day #345) a refreshing splash of cold water when friends fix her up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt after Zooey Deschanel’s Summer has gone.  Allison listens gamely to him talk about Summer, semi-drunkenly, for almost the whole night, until she nails him with the truth about his relationship with Summer from the beginning: “She never cheated on you, never took advantage of you, and she said from the start she never wanted to be your girlfriend…sooooooo???” Ouch!

Alan Mandell’s very old, very sage Rabbi Marshak looms over A Serious Man like the unseeable Wizard of Oz . When we finally get a look at him after the hallucinatory yet triumphant Bar Mitzvah of young Danny Gopnik (Adam Wolff), the Rabbi is nothing less than magical himself, quoting not from the Torah but from that great anthem, “Someone to Love,” from Danny’s own confiscated Jefferson Airplane tape. We live, we learn.     

Adriane Lenox’s almost wordless portrayal of “Big Mike’s” helpless, drug-addled mother Denise in The Blind Side fills in everything we–and Sandra Bullock’s well-intentioned upper middle class Mississippi matron–need to understand about this huge, protective, inarticulate boy and his flight from any kind of human interaction.  

And finally, our first-ever unseen Two Minute candidate: Mary Kay Place as Julie’s mother in Julie & Julia. Initially, she’s just an Oklahoma voice on the phone, but Place lets you know exactly what she looks like. She’s Every Mom, the reason you’re out there in the world and she’s there at home, picking up the phone entirely too often to point out what you’re still doing wrong. In a nutshell.