The Top 5 Performances of 2008

The 2008 movie season has seen more than its usual share of unique and possessing performances -- especially by actors who seem possessed by their roles. Out of the '08 crop of films I've had the chance to see to date (alas not including The Wrestler, Doubt or Revolutionary Road), I've plucked five of the most superb.

Honorable Mention

Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder

Multiple personalities are never easy. Especially when they're different races. From different eras. With different accents. Yet somehow Downey as a prima donna Aussie Oscar-winner who disappears into his part as bad mofo, African American Vietnam War sergeant Osiris -- even when the camera's off -- works, spectacularly.

5.Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino

A pitch-perfect, operatic portrayal of the dinosaur next door or the grandfather on the other (wrong) side of town -- a familiar chip off a crumbling block of civilization. A slice of a society's self-scarring (and healing) soul. With the right mix of tics, growls, true-to-life slurs, beliefs and heart, Clint's Walt Kowalski makes us believe we're seeing someone we know intimately. The faces of the many reflected in one man.

4.Josh Brolin, Milk

Sean Penn is predictably phenomenal as Harvey Milk -- California's first openly gay elected official. Arguably one of few actors who know how to consistently recruit an audience. We forget the actor and believe the character.

Josh Brolin, however, as Dan White, a tightly wound city supervisor trying to prove himself while wrestling with something dark within, casts an unfathomable yet nerve-shuddering shadow over the film. With far fewer lines and scenes than Penn, understated and unforgettable, Brolin makes Dan's presence felt and leaves behind a mystery that you'll mull in your movie craw for quite some time.

3.Melissa Leo, Frozen River

It's not flashy, not pretty, certainly not too funny, but Melissa Leo's journey into the cold, unsheltering universe of Ray Eddy -- an impoverished single mother abandoned and robbed by her alcoholic husband only days before Christmas -- is achingly honest and quietly outstanding. You'd never know Leo hadn't actually spent the last 40 years living out of a rusty trailer dining on Tang and popcorn. In fact, she's had plenty of parts to keep her solvent, from daytime soaps to primetime to rubbing shoulders with the likes of Pacino and Sean Penn (21 Grams). Frozen River could be her ticket to the A list.

2.Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

We've seen the Joker before, but the incarnations have always stayed far away from reality for our comfort -- cautious of getting too close to the batty outlaw's dark side or his humanity. Nicholson was masterful but a bit too comic (and too Jack) to unsettle us too much.

Ledger's luminous, multidimensional madman is familiar, tragic and terrifyingly true. Sanity, pathos and genius mingle with deranged humor. We see ourselves in his bleeding-black eyes, and we can't look away from what might be us had we danced with the devil. A heart of darkness we commiserate with while we cringe.

1.Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

A Nixon who's so alive and mesmerizing, we forget he's actually dead and start thinking up questions we'd like to ask. More than a matter of mannerisms, suit choice, facial expressions, finger waving or warbly refutations -- we don't just think we're seeing Nixon, we believe we're peering into his soul.