Note: I asked this year's voters to chime in on some cinematic achievements this year that they believe got too little love from the voting body at large. Today, I'll be posting contributions from about great performances and other individual achievements, with the best picture also-rans to run tomorrow with the announcement of the Golden Muriel for Best Feature Film. Enjoy!
"The mask that John Carroll Lynch provides soon-to-be prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen during his first major appearance in David Fincher's Zodiac is a slippery, mutating one. Introduced walking toward the break room of the oil refinery where he works and will be informally interrogated, Allen's entrance is one that emphasizes his working-class "normalcy" and simultaneously undercuts it with vague dread. He sits with three Bay Area detectives (Anthony Edwards, Mark Ruffalo and Elias Koteas) and answers questions, coating his body language with a veneer of assumed confusion and concern that quickly gives way to contempt and a kind of taunting confidence, a nutshell profile of a suspected sociopath whose only real avenue for connecting with people may be through gruesome murder. With crossed legs, a tilt of the head, a shaded roll of his eyes and a hint of condescension toward the detectives, he signals the meticulous, impatient, scornful intelligence behind Allen's feigned nonchalance with brilliant economy. Later, Fincher suggests the crossed wires of Allen's interior landscape with a look inside the suspect's filthy domicile, a trailer home littered with trash, weapons, used sex toys and feral squirrels running loose and hanging upside down inside their cages. And when Allen encounters San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a hardware store, unaware of Graysmith's obsession with the Zodiac case, their eyes meet, Graysmith at once recognizing Allen yet not responding, Allen responding with dulled awareness to the fear he senses in Graysmith. And in a beautifully held shot, Lynch heightens that awareness by returning Gyllenhaal's gaze with perhaps the most frighteningly banal stare in the history of crime films. The rodents rage behind those dead eyes and John Carroll Lynch's brilliantly focused work brings Graysmith, and us, as close as we will likely ever come to the arrhythmic heart of the Zodiac killer's true-life horrors." ~ Dennis Cozzalio
"When you look up Tang Wei’s profile on IMDB you might be shocked to see that she only has one credit – Lust, Caution. Most actresses build up a resume of lesser roles before they ever dream of a role for a director of Ang Lee’s status or opposite an actor as well respected as Tony Leung. Most actresses in their first ever screen role aren’t prepared or brave enough to be part of a 157 minute epic set in a sensitive period of their country’s history with sex scenes so graphic they earned an NC-17 rating here and were banned in China. The role itself is a difficult one by definition - an actress playing an actress who then goes undercover to appear to be something she is not. Deception can be a tricky thing to play. You need the audience to see the face you are presenting but also the real face underneath and in this skillful performance both are clearly visible throughout. During the course of the film we witness her character’s complete loss of innocence be replaced with the ultimate disillusionment and it is Tang Wei’s commitment to giving that transformation its full breadth that separated her in my mind from all the other actresses this year." ~ Bryan Whitefield
"His crimes are many. He launched the most dispiriting franchise in movie history. He was responsible for the worst Cary Elwes performance ever, and shit, that's saying something. He shot a 10-second car chase. I'll repeat that. He shot a 10-second car chase. And yet, I come here not to bury James Wan, but to praise him. Death Sentence should've been an abomination, a Death Wish revenge fantasy by way of the Saw films -- a meatgrinder predicated on sick, self-righteous thrills. Yet from the first moments, it's clear that Wan actually gives a damn about his characters and he's going to make sure that when they hurt, you hurt. Most viewers will remember the one-take chase through the multi-story parking lot, with its floating camera and willingness to simply watch Kevin Bacon panic in real time -- it pretty much announces Wan's growing ambition as a filmmaker. But, surprisingly, it's the non-thriller scenes -- a family meal that simmers with unspoken resentment, a heart-breaking spousal conversation on a staircase -- that stuck out for me. It's ironic that the man who helped usher in the wave of so-called "torture porn" is better at moments of humanistic drama, but it just makes me more curious to see what he does next." ~ Kent Beeson
“So it has come to my attention recently that there are many Muriel voters who aren’t convinced that Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in In the Valley of Elah is awesome. Now, I’m guessing that some among you might have skipped the film entirely due to the Paul Haggis factor, which I can completely understand. But for those of you who did see the movie- what gives? In a year full of fine performances in great films, Jones’ turn in Elah was almost certainly the year’s most distinguished salvage job, distinguishing an average-at-best film by virtue of his exquisite, minutely-crafted performance. As a stoic, war-beaten veteran investigating the death of his son, Jones is masterfully subtle, giving a performance full of small touches- look at the way he stealthily grabs his boy’s cell phone, or how he still makes perfect Army-regulation hospital corners on his bed. Even when Haggis gives him big dramatic scenes- a phone call to his wife, the bedtime story he tells a little boy- Jones never strains for effect, making the character feel less performed than completely lived-in, and all the more heartbreaking for it.” ~ Paul Clark
“Perhaps my guilty pleasure this year would be Hugh Grant's performance in Music and Lyrics, but I can't feel guilty about it. Grant's washed up pop star isn't a huge jerk, a womanizer, a hack, or even pathetic; he's a nice guy who misses being on top of the world and desperately wants to go back. I normally can't crack the 15-minute mark on romantic comedies, but Grant's performance made it difficult to turn away, and certainly carried the film.” ~ James Frazier
“Enchanted bubbles over with good cheer, due in large part to Amy Adams for the wide-eyed optimism and innocence she brings to her irony-free performance. It's a delight to watch her clean up Robert's apartment with the assistance of rats and cockroaches as she sings "Happy Working Song", Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's affectionate tweak of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To Giselle these pests are just as beautiful as her woodland Andalasian friends. The purity of heart and soul with which Adams imbues Giselle can't help but be infectious.
”When even children's movies tend to favor the crass, it's startling to see someone on screen capable of convincing us that every day really is filled with sunshine and rainbows. Adams may not get as much credit for her acting in Enchanted because it appears effortless, but I'd wager that this is a taller order than awards bait roles that call for portraying inner torment. And she's funny too. Adams parlays Giselle's blissful ignorance of contemporary cynicism into laughs.” ~ Mark Pfeiffer
“Anna Faris has been terrific in a lot of forgettable films for the last few years (The Hot Chick and the Scary Movie series) and with [Smiley Face she takes a lackluster stoner comedy and turns it into a sublime piece of performance art. She is front and center in every scene and Gregg Araki wisely just focuses the camera on Faris and lets her loose. She attacks the role with a series of bizarre and perfectly judged acting choices that add up to one of the most impressive comedic performances I have ever seen. Anna Faris is a force of nature in this film and she sells every lame joke in the script with the utmost conviction; never afraid of looking foolish as she stares off into space with her mouth agape or rolls around her apartment with no thought to vanity or good sense. The kind of performance that is usually shamefully overlooked by Awards and critics polls, but I will probably cherish it even more in the long run than Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant work in There Will Be Blood.” ~ Jason Overbeck
“Hot Fuzz Co-writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright originally wrote a love interest for Pegg's protagonist, Sgt. Nicholas Angel, before deciding against this and folding much of that character's dialogue into Angel's partner, Danny Butterman; not only did this streamline the plot, it gave Butterman an unexpected emotional resonance. The homoeroticism of the action genre has been underlined many times before but never so effectively, largely thanks to Nick Frost's wide-eyed, nakedly earnest performance as Angel's biggest fan. Frost makes Danny a recognizable small-town type - the overly enthusiastic innocent whose only glimpse of a bigger world has come from the hyperadrenalized action flicks he so adores (his massive DVD collection nearly brought a tear to my eye - attaboy, Danny). Frost never condescends to his less-than-brilliant character, finding real warmth in Danny's attempts to be a real supercop and make his new friend proud. Their relationship is as memorable as the best of the buddy cop movies that Hot Fuzz so lovingly pokes fun at.” ~ Andrew Bemis
“Clarence Williams III isn't listed in the credits of American Gangster, and he's only in it for three scenes, but that's all the time he needs to construct a memorable character--and a rebuttal to the movie's central figure, the seventies-style Harlem drug dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) that's more direct and tougher than anything the moviemakers had the guts to include. Williams' Bumpy Johnson, the old king of Harlem, is seen icily watching as his men to dish out street justice to some fool, and exultantly distributing turkeys to the poor for Thanksgiving—a job that, unlike those requiring violence, he prefers to handle himself. Unlike Lucas, a slick businessman who becomes a predator among his own people, Bumpy belongs to a tradition familiar from Don Vito Corleone's beginnings in The Godfather, Part II. He is a capable man who has made his way outside the law, because the socially sanctioned paths to success are not yet open to those like him. Having risen to the top, he offers protection and and other rewards to those the law couldn't care les about, and he revels in the chance to play Santa Claus, just so long as nobody makes the mistake of thinking that just because he's kept his humanity, he's turned soft. But the world those men knew is slipping away, and one day Bumpy leads Frank into an ugly, impersonal new superstore, sits down, says something about how the city has begun to lose its grace, and then, as if he can bear to see no more, simply dies. The movie dies with him.” ~ Phil Nugent
“You really had to be there. If and when the Grindhouse trailers of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Edgar Wright come to DVD, the experience will seem muted to those who saw it in a theater. The wonderful glimpses of the fictional "Don't," "Werewolf Women of the S.S." and "Thanksgiving" were designed for a movie theater setting, where images of a maniacal Nicholas Cage and a vomit-inducing Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece could be accompanied by appropriate cackles and screams. It's questionable if the bookend Grindhouse entrees of "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" lived up to their genre billing, but the in-between appetizers ended up tasting like one of the best theatrical moments of the year.
“While all three trailers (four counting Robert Rodriguez's introductory "Machete") fall under the Grindhouse z-grade banner, none of them share the same ingredients. "Werewolf Women of the S.S." is a surreal vision of a movie that couldn't possibly exist, looking at times like one of Zombie's music videos. "Don't" is the most audience-friendly of the trio, with quality riffs on bad horror movies and even worse trailer gimmicks. "Thanksgiving" has to be the main course, with a handful of cover-your-mouth-and-maybe-your eyes moments that walk the line between honest satire and barf bag gore. In a span of less than 10 minutes, the three trailer directors may have accomplished more of a grindhouse tribute than Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino did in three hours.” ~ Adam Ross
“Am I the only one who looks at Luisa Williams in Day Night Day Night and immediately thinks, "Bressonian model"? In a remarkable, beautifully subtle debut performance as good as any I've ever seen, she manages to convey a world of emotions, from serene determination to existential despair, simply by knowing how to use her face. Her eyes, especially, are intensely expressive and thereby obliterate the need for overt showiness. Like the best work in the filmography of the late French genius, Williams's work exists precisely on the line between acting and simply being.” ~ Steven Carlson
“Carter Burwell, No Country for Old Men: Let us take a moment to praise the man who scored the film with no score. Like John Cage and his infamous 4’33”, Burwell was serving a higher calling -- the psychology of the audience. He realized that this was the time when a scoreless movie could make the biggest impact, by crossing expectation. I celebrate this achievement in all earnestness, without irony.” ~ Martin McClellan