Last year saw two amazing movies that cracked the “unconscious masculine myth-making” mold, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. This year… hmmm, the movies didn’t crack much mold, but if there were still plenty of resonant masculine archetypal performances to admire. The performances chosen for this list either transcend their movies (Ledger’s Joker), or in some cases are the movies (The Wrestler) or in some cases just add that certain special supporting something (Franco!) that the film would be lost without.
1. Jon Hamm as Don Draper (Mad Men, season 2)
Yeah, I know it’s not a film but a TV show, but fuck you. Hamm’s the man. You got to get past his resemblance to Kevin (HERCULES) Sorbo and similar TV beefs and dig the fierce gravitas and cagey intellect. To me this show calls to mind whole fields of liberal arts study, as in realizing that “What Dad does at work” is every bit as mythic as the Oedipal primal scene. Hamm’s Don Draper functions at that mythic level. He is a God among men, with that cigarette and that drink he is immortal, the penultimate 1960s-70s dad we all imagined with that alchemical equation of fear plus love that equals loyalty.
2. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man
When Downey’s Tony Stark declares “I am Iron Man” to a bevy of stunned reporters I cheer the way I haven’t cheered since Kevin Spacey “woke up” in American Beauty. In a comic book world gone dead with cliche, Downey brought in speed freak adrenalin, some remnants of Kim Morgan’s macho fey and enough hipster jive moves to launch his own fleet of pirate ship franchises.
3. Heath Ledger in Dark Knight Returns
Time will tell if Ledger’s performance here is actually remembered as genius ala James Dean in Giant or Tim Carey in Head. No doubt about it though, Ledger brought something new and genuinely chaotic and original to the screen. It’s not proven, but it’s mythically proper–in that weird way roles foretell the destiny of their stars–that we imagine Ledger “saw too much” in his pursuit of the core of giddy madness within capitalism’s poker-faced slow burn suicide, and so had to pay the Faustian heavy price, or in more blunt terms, the Joker got him. whether or not that’s true, the man left us a concise howl of rage against the machine that’s hip to its own anachronistic absurdity, Tyler Durden crossed with Mansons both Marilyn and Charles. Stand it on a shelf with Brokeback Mountain and right there you have a body of work that should put him in any pantheon.
4. James Franco in Pineapple Express – If you’ve ever hung out with real dope smokers, you know these types too well: the neurotic/paranoid intellectual loafer (Rogen), the wide-eyed innocent (often a snowboarder, Franco)–and the townie with the secret grow room (Danny R. McBride). Everyone’s good here but Franco steals it all. While Rogen seems to be always struggling to keep up with his over-written improv and McBride is batting low balls, Franco just reacts–moment to moment–at the bright THC-colored world around him with a rapturous stoner innocence that’s hard to fake.
5. Mark Strong in Body of Lies – While Leo sulked and suffered and Crowe minced and beat on his new pot belly, a movie was supposed to going on about the Middle East. Strong alone seemed to have a grasp on this, and played his Jordanian Intelligence official with the same mix of classy intellect and affectionate maturity that we see in the first two Godfathers and Mad Men and not many places else.
6. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler – ( Read my larger praise here).
7. Sean Penn in Milk – Holy fucking shit.
8. Colin Ferrell in In Bruges – I saw this one, and “That’s for John Lennon, you yankee fuckin’ cunt!”
9. Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges – The weird humor of In Bruges just wouldn’t work without the fatalistic poetry and deadpan humor of anchorman Fiennes, as William Hurt from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.
10. Jason Statham in Transporter 3 – And just about every goddamned other fuckin’ movie this year. He rocks! He’s all we have in the badass category now that Vin Diesel is gone. He’s more of a rock than a star, so you don’t imagine him getting seduced into the Euro-jet-set lifestyle and forgetting his badass roots, the way some Diesels have done. For all those Bullit-headed Saxon mothers’ sons, he’s the class struggle vindicator, and for the other lads, he digs on cars and he’ll fuck up your shit in a hot minute. In that sense he’s not only the successor to Vin Diesel, he may even be the closest thing we’ve got right now to Charles Bronson! And just wait til next year!