Friday, March 25, 2011

The HoG25: The 25 Best Actors of the Past 25 Years, Part I

So this series has taken us the better part of a month -- give or take 18 months -- to get completed, but listen to me now/believe me later when I say we will get it done.

If you're interested, you can browse each of the previous nine two-parters here. If you're not, just know that we draft the pieces of each category, fantasy-sports style, write a blurb about 'em (unless we don't feel like it), rank them (unless it's one of those rather lazy years), and post them. When we rank them, it's usually all three of us, but this time around, only two of us did, which is why you'll see the screwy numbering system. Nevertheless, part one is just past the jump.

24.5: Sissy Spacek

I have no goddamned clue what the thought process was behind my selection of Sissy Spacek as one of the Top 25 Actors of the Last 25 Years. None. We did our draft early in the day, so I don’t think I was drunk, but you never know. I mean…really. Sissy Spacek.

I’m not trying to bag on ol’ Sissy unreasonably. She’s a fine actress who has appeared in a shitload of movies, some of which I have even seen. Like "Coal Miner’s Daughter," for instance. I’ve seen that. She really sells the whole “Loretta Lynn was the daughter of a coal miner” thing. She was also in a film called "‘night Mother," which was supposedly really good. Never saw that one. She was in "Carrie," of course, where she did crazy shit with her mind and got pig blood dumped on her and I only know this because my wife’s seen it and told me what happened. (By the by, only one of those movies was made in the last 25 years.)

Uhm…so…ur…well, she played a ruthless political player on "Big Love" a couple of seasons ago. That was pretty swell. And I once interviewed her daughter -— alongside Tom Hanks’ son, which was weird -— who seemed a perfectly fine young lady, if a bit shy. And she’s got red hair. And her name is Sissy. And she probably doesn’t belong on this list.

22. (two-way tie) Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood is the fucking man. There. If you need to know more, go to the Netflix contraption and fetch yourself "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," "High Plains Drifter," "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven" and "The Enforcer." I don’t care that all but one (the best one, it should be said) of those movies are outside of our timeline; Clint Eastwood’s greatness transcends your prosaic concept of time.

Clint Eastwood was so badass in the ‘70s that he could cast his girlfriend, a woman with all of the charisma and set presence of a Big-Eyed Loris, in every one of his movies and no one would say boo to him about it. He starred with a chimpanzee in at least one film and yet went on to still be Clint Eastwood. He made a biopic about Charlie Parker and everyone was like, yeah, sure he did that, he is CLINT EASTWOOD.

Clint Eastwood would have been Chuck Norris before Chuck Norris was if Chuck Norris wasn’t such a fucking pussy. If Clint Eastwood had played Roy Hobbs in "The Natural," he would have caught that final ball with his bare hands, thrown it straight through the pitcher’s chest and then stared at his side until it stopped bleeding out of pure fear. Additionally, Clint Eastwood coined a phrase that, to this day, brings to mind the heady mid-‘80s far, far more than any “Where’s the beef?” bullshit. Fuck you, old lady. (Clint Eastwood probably did.)

So, when you queue up those Clint Eastwood films later, make sure you pay attention to the scene toward the end of Drifter, where his Man With No Name stands silhouetted against the burning building, whipping the villain to death while the townsfolk cower, and remember: that really happened. To the last guy that talked shit about Clint Eastwood.

Gary Oldman

: So I was looking up movies that Gary Oldman had starred in for this blurb I’m writing about how great an actor Gary Oldman is, and I realize that I haven’t seen most of them. The vast majority, in fact.

No, I never saw "Nil By Mouth," the man’s debut as a director/writer, even though it got fantastic reviews and is evidently just the kind of dark, drugged-up chunk of filmic sociopathy which I’d normally seek out. I never saw "JFK," never saw "Dracula," never even saw "The Fifth Element." I’ve seen "Basquiat," which he was evidently in, but the only thing I recall about it, aside from the titular character pouring syrup all over a table and not cleaning up after, was that David Bowie had a role. Old Gary (see what I did there) played Commissioner Gordon in "The Dark Knight," but all anyone remembers about that movie is Heath Ledger and Why so serious? For that matter, and this might surprise those who have met me, I’ve never even seen his turn as Sid Vicious in "Sid & Nancy." Yes, yes, I know. The barrel for me, stat.

But somewhere in the mid ‘90s, around the time of his turns as Drexl Spivey in "True Romance" (“I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as no titty”) and as the silent, milk-chugging assassin in "The Professional," both movies I’d actually seen, I assigned him Great Actor Status. Maybe that was just because everyone told me he was one beforehand and I was all like, OK whatevs y’all, you’re the ones with the remote and the drugs…but I don’t think so. I think it was because he actually is one.

Take, for instance, his recurring role as Sirius Black in the "Harry Potter" movies, which after an initial burst of candyassed rainbow-fucking (thanks, Chris Columbus) have tracked the novels in their steadily increasing darkness. Oldman’s Black is one constant strained grimace, a man whose wrongful imprisonment and personal losses are etched permanently upon even his occasional, pained smile. If you can stand out in a collection of talent that includes Alan Rickman, Dame Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes without relentlessly chomping scenery, then you win a prize from the HoG, and that prize is this blurb. Why, it’s almost as if it were White Boy Day (it ain’t White Boy Day, is it?)

21. Will Ferrell

Old No. 7:
It’s hard to make a great comedy, and some would argue that it’s much harder than making a great drama. As someone who has tried unsuccessfully to make people laugh my entire life, the idea of attempting a career in comedy is terrifying. If you can pull it off, you have my infinite respect.

I understand that Will Ferrell is not a “great” actor per se. But our standards for measuring greatness in acting talent are drawn almost exclusively from judging dramas. Oscars go to dramas and dramatic actors, while comic actors such as Ferrell are seen as goofballs. Tell me a joke, clown. But I felt that we needed representation on this list from someone who manufactures the funny, and to me Ferrell has had a better career than Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers or Robin Williams.

"Anchorman" is quite simply a masterpiece, and Ron Burgundy is one of the finest characters ever created. "Old School" and "Talladega Nights" are pretty classic, and Ferrell did a ton of great work on "Saturday Night Live" and an endless string of funny cameos. Just like Sandler, he made his single requisite drama. Although "Punch Drunk Love" is a better movie, Ferrell himself turned in a finer performance in "Stranger Than Fiction." He’s made some shit, of course -- "Kicking And Screaming" is a God-awful movie. He can be abrasive and annoying. But all in all Will Ferrell gets it done.

18. (two-way tie) Glenn Close

Glenn Close is a hell of an actress and seems like the kinda lady who’d enjoy slamming back a few whiskey sours. This is important: much like the President of the United States must always be an individual that every American man wants to drink a beer, go duck hunting and then Eiffel Tower a high-priced escort with, my definition of what makes a great actress is heavily reliant on the “would she go out to the bar with me?” factor.

So, for instance: Angelina Jolie is not a great actress. She’d order a bottled water, glance around for any unattended brown children and then, quite possibly, stab me. Cate Blanchett, not a great actress. She’d sip Earl Grey, regard me with a steely contempt, leave without saying a word and then return a few minutes later to stab me. Nicole Kidman, not a great actress. Straight to the stabbing. Plus she’s Australian so she’s probably carrying a motherfucker of a knife.

Now, Dame Judi Dench? Imperial pints of cider in the afternoon. Kathie Bates? Shots of bourbon in a biker bar followed by a spirited game of darts. Meryl Streep? A six-pack of wine coolers beneath the school bleachers, some tonsil hockey and then an unfortunate oh-no-you-just-puked-on-my-new-British Knights. You know, actresses.

Glenn Close fits that bill. Her screen work has been relatively low-key over the last few years -- her biggest star turns were in the mid-to-late ‘80s, in big box fare like "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Fatal Attraction" -- as she’s clearly chosen to do more voice-overs and television (and raunchy Navy videos) but she’s still a five-time Oscar nominee who has embodied some of the more memorable characters in recent film history and is unquestionably deserving of her place on this list. That, and I think she might wanna hoist one after the awards ceremony.

Tim Robbins

If there’s some continuity with my picks in this category, it’d be this: Of all my picks, the actors I’ve selected have really not played a role I’ve seen that I disliked. Tim Robbins is no exception. Boring tidbit about my cognitive capacities: I think it took most of 15 years before I no longer confused the last names and spellings of Tom Robbins the author, and the actor I’m about to discuss. Huh?, you might ask. But…they’re spelled the same. Yeah. I know. Took me 15 years to remember that.

We’ll start, though, with a film that severely messed with my mind—Wait a minute: Time. Out. Tim Robbins was Merlin in “Top Gun?” Well, screw me gently with a chainsaw. Never knew it. (Side note: He was also in “Howard the Duck,” “Bull Durham,” and “Jungle Fever,” if that “Top Gun thing caught you off guard.) (Side note to side note: Dude was also in “St. Elsewhere,” “Hardcastle & McCormick,” “The Love Boat,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “Moonlighting” on the TVs.) But back to my forever-scarred brain: “Jacob’s Ladder.” Side note to side note to side note: How in Christ’s heav’n’above did we leave Top Gun out of our HoG25 movies installment? The horror…

I’m no film expert, but I’d guess that this might’ve been his first major leading role. And he crushed it. I won’t get into plot specifics because I might wind up like old boy from “Fire in the Sky” just thinking about it, but Jacob Singer was in Vietnam. The U.S. government had a chemist create some form of acid that would bring out immeasurably aggressive tendencies in soldiers. They took it in an experiment, and there were a few adverse effects. This film is about Singer feeling the aftermath of said of said effects, and it is wicked, frightening, and unnerving. I can’t imagine a more perfect actor to play Singer than Robbins.

We’ve mentioned “Jungle Fever,” and covered the “Hudsucker Proxy," but perhaps his most famous role came as one Andy Dufresne. Yes, we’ve all seen that one. It’s on the TVs eight times a week, and I’ll go on record as saying it’s one of those films I never turn the channel away from. And I freaking own a copy of it. Great story. Rock-solid delivery. There are numerous other Robbins roles to cover, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll note performances in “Arlington Road” and “High Fidelity,” and we’ll move on to “Mystic River,” where I think is a recent enough point that we -- at least us semi-regular movie-goers -- can all agree that we’ve seen it and remember it fairly well.

The trio of Sean Penn, Robbins, and Kevin Bacon in this film deliver a punch-packed dynamic I doubt any other three actors could replicate. Naturally, Robbins’ role is the confused character, the guy who cannot, in an effort to try and understand his circumstances, possibly exert another ounce of mental energy without collapse. His performance as Dave Boyle is spot-on, and, as it turns out, he won an Oscar for it.

17.5. Patrick Swayze

Old No. 7:
In recognizing The Swayze on this list we are not building a monument to his talent. This is The Swayze we’re talking about here, not Brando or Olivier. Nor are we overvaluing him out of sentimentality due to his untimely death. If that were the case this list would be littered with the likes of Christopher Reeve and Michael Landon, and I didn’t wait in line to buy tickets for those dudes before they croaked. No, in honoring The Swayze we honor watchably bad cinema of the highest low caliber.

And when it comes to good-bad movies, it’s difficult to surpass "Road House" and "Point Break." This award could have just as easily gone to Keanu Reeves, except "Bill & Ted.." was actually awesome and some would say that "The Matrix" saga is as well. Plus, with Keanu it’s a little bit hard to tell if he understands just how awful he is or when he’s immersed in a completely craptastic movie.

I guess this is always the question, are people like The Swayze or those that help make his movies aware of their awfulness? I was listening to some radio program a while back, I’d give credit if I remembered to whom to give it. The hosts discussed Nicolas Cage in general and "Con Air" in specific, wondering if Cage and the filmmakers are in on the joke. If you haven’t seen it, "Con Air" is stupendously, spectacularly, literally laughably bad, and the consensus was that, yes, the guys that made it know it.

I don’t know if The Swayze acted in "Road House" with the knowledge that it would become a classic for all the wrong reasons. If you held a gun to my head, I’d say that he was sincere, that he honestly tried to make Dalton the most bad-ass bouncer in Hollywood history, and I think that’s totally awesome.

17. (two-way tie) George Clooney

Old No. 7:
I was derisively mocked by my colleagues for selecting Clooney (and later Brad Pitt) after DiCaprio. These guys, obviously, are widely seen as hunks first and seriously talented actors second. But if you’ll allow me to craft my spirited defense of the thespian skill of one George Clooney, I’ll deliver you both a spot-on analysis of his worth and a reason to believe Cecil and Bank don’t know beans about the film game.

Clooney, you see, is a throwback to another age in cinema. A time when Cary Grant, Clark Gable and John Fucking Wayne took no shit and dictated to the world what an American man was. Smoking, banging broads and littering were required, and no killjoy wet blanket fun police were around to send everyone home.

What’s wrong with an old-fashioned leading man? A guy’s guy? I say nothing. And Clooney plays that part as well as anyone. But I don’t think this highly of him simply because he can function as Daniel Ocean in a tuxedo and swill Scotch. Uh, I can do that, and at weddings across America I have. No, Clooney sold me on his actual chops in a pair of Coen Brothers’ pics, "Oh brother Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty." In these, Clooney showed he can do musical and slapstick comedy, genres outside the range of many actors on our list. He’s not just a pretty face, you cynical jerks.

Samuel L. Jackson

Lemme just say that it’s probably a shame that I was able to nab Samuel Leroy with the 11th pick in the 12th round of this HoG25 buffoonery. My colleagues are superior wordsmiths, and would’ve assuredly done the man better justice. Having said that is Ess Elle Jay really that elite of an actor, or has he simply been chosen for some remarkable roles, and really delivered on them? We’ve talked about Harvey Keitel’s role in “Pulp Fiction,” and it would be a sin to omit a sermon of equal praise for Jackson’s stunning part in the film, but we can’t spend too much time on one piece, so we’ll actually leave Jules out of this write-up. He played Carl Lee Haley in “A Time to Kill,” which was a good movie, even if we were made to suffer through Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock. Jackson’s role was key to the storyline, but since he spent the bulk of it in the can, there’s not a ton we can say about it.

I’ve also discussed episodes I, II, and III of the "Star Wars" sextet, and it would be silly to rehash those films, even though I thought it cool of Jackson to take interest in a series whose original three parts predated his prime. Also, it sucks that he had to be another black guy in another film that gets killed off, but let’s not pick nits. I didn’t see “Shaft,” but I know it had a small cult following, so I can assume his Pulp Fictionesque mentality was similar, only heavier on the pimp juice. “Kill Bill Volume II” featured Jackson in a miniscule role, and then there was “Coach Carter,” which I’ll refrain from commenting on.

“Snakes on a Plane” was a God-damn abortion. Period. Like Keitel, he had an off-screen role in “Inglorious Basterds,” and beyond that, I didn’t see “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” or “Unbreakable.” I will give him props for “True Romance,” “Menace II Society,” “Juice,” “Do the Right Thing,” and of course, “Goodfellas,” but none of those roles were, by any means, massive. Hell, I’ll even give him some for “Coming to America.”
What remains, though, is either a question or a statement. If it’s the latter, it’s this: Someone more qualified on Jackson’s big-screen career should’ve written this, and if it’s the former, then: Does Samuel L. Jackson belong in this category?

15.5. Steve Buscemi

Mere words aren’t enough to communicate the man-love I have for Mr. Steve Buscemi, which blows for me because I don’t have another way to get this information across to you. Semaphore flags or hand signals might work, I guess, but I’m not on a ship and you’re still tied to the sofa. So, anyway.

Giving Steve Buscemi the credit that Steve Buscemi deserves should be the business of the United States Government, not all this foreign entanglement bric-a-brac with the Libya and the Wikileaks and the Godless Japanese. We should be praying to Steve Buscemi’s image five times daily, orienting ourselves toward "Fargo" at each. Forget the fact that he’s really only a featured performer in a handful of films, that’s a handful we should be celebrating: "Reservoir Dogs," "Fargo" (see what I did a sentence earlier? Eh?), "The Big Lebowski." Brilliant cameos too numerous to count. So much voice work that it’s easy to forget that syrupy kid-animation you’re dozing off to is being voiced by Mr. Pink. Several seasons of "The Sopranos," currently Nucky Thompson on Scorsese’s excellent "Boardwalk Empire," even a spot on "The Equalizer" in 1987. Fuck, I loved that show.

Steve Buscemi, for all of the instant physical picture the name paints, with the teeth and the sallow and the murderous smile, doesn’t get his just desserts as an actor. This list is heavy on pretty people with long strings of box office smashes on their resumes: let’s make room for an odd-looking dude who steals every film he appears in.

14.5. Brad Pitt

Old No. 7:
Brad Pitt I've liked most of the movies that Brad Pitt has made, particularly what he's done with David Fincher. Fincher's right up there among the greatest directors working right now, and for a while he and Pitt collaborated closely, like Martin Scorcese did with Robert DeNiro and then Leonardo DiCaprio. Benjamin Button was no great shakes, but "Se7en" and particularly "Fight Club" were excellent. I don't get too deep into what the most "important" movie of any particular generation might be, but in my movie-watching life I can think of three contenders: "Fight Club," "The Social Network" (both by Fincher) and Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."

Pitt did his turn with Tarantino too, of course, in "Inglorious Basterds." Like most all of Pitt's films, it's pretty funny, pretty interesting, and pretty cool. Pitt's not the funniest comic actor, but he's not bad. He's not the most bad ass villain or most heroic good guy either, but he's competent and gives enough weight to each performance to make you feel like you're not wasting time watching it.

14. Harrison Ford

Drafting Harrison Ford for this installment was tough because, if you stick with the 25-year window, you’re not allowed to include episodes four, five, and six of “Star Wars.” Nor are you allowed to include “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” These are serious handicaps.” Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was not a good movie. I mean, we all loved Short Round, and we were all creeped out by the heart-removal scene, but it was pretty bad. I’m also a bit handicapped because I haven’t seen a fair amount of his films, but the ones I have are good enough to warrant placement in this group.

Let’s start with “The Mosquito Coast.” A bit of a different role for Ford in some senses in that it did not receive the accolades that many of Ford’s projects did, it was called boring by some, and at the same time, it rode high on emotion, which will sell the tickets to the heavy-hearted. “Regarding Henry.” Great flic. A little sappy, and maybe slow in parts, but who better an actor would you nab to portray a selfish, semi-egomaniacal doctor who gets shot, and must relearn to live his life in, basically, its entirety. Lots of good life lessons, the catchphrase “gotta get me some o’ that,” and really, just a feel-good story, for which I will always be first in the hook-the-sap line.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” restored the Jones trilogy to the level it deserved with the initial installment, and Ford, along with co-star Sean Connery, was nothing shy of fantastic in it. Ford delivered compelling roles in both “Presumed Innocent” and “What Lies Beneath,” and some would argue his bits in the Tom Clancy novels-turned-films were above-average, but it is the role of Dr. Richard Kimble that warrants ultimate inclusion for Ford on this list. Yes, “The Fugitive.” One of the greatest films of the last quarter century. If you haven’t seen it a solid half-dozen times, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

13. (two-way tie) John Cusack

John Cusack didn’t start out as a great actor, he started out as a nerd in John Hughes movies and as the star of Savage Steve Holland vehicles ("One Crazy Summer," "Better Off Dead") that, while idealized by tousle-headed geeks such as myself, were hardly cinematic triumphs. Sure, his role as Hoops McCann in "Summer" was poignant and reminiscent of the best of Olivier, but Bobcat Goldthwaite was in that movie. Sir Laurence never had to work with Bobcat Goldthwaite.

The genius of Cusack’s career has been that he didn’t just grow out of those movies, he grew upward -- he’s notorious for not taking big money crap roles (uh, you leave "Con Air" and "2012" out of this) over the smaller, artier stuff, and his personal canon reflects that: "The Grifters," "Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil," "Being John Malkovich," "High Fidelity." He started honing that outsider/everyman persona as early as 1989’s "Say Anything" --a movie that will still drop the panties of most any straight woman in her mid-to-late ‘30s -- and by the time of "Fidelity" he could teach a master class on it. More than any other actor on this list, with the exception of DeNiro, Cusack’s work evokes a certain type.

Even when his movies are bad -- and lately, they have been -- John Cusack is almost always the best thing in them.

Meryl Streep

Old No. 7:
I'm not trying to make some sort of social statement by selecting Meryl Streep on a list that's dominated by dudes. She's no Jackie Robinson, just a damn fine actor. While she's taken some goofy roles in a few chick flics, all in all she just flat out kicks ass in dramas with immaculate preparation, intense manipulation of dialogue, and an underrated knack for comedic timing.

Meryl Streep has been nominated for 16 Academy Awards in the last 22 years, which is kind of incomprehensible. Her finest role was probably in "Sophie's Choice," but she's fantastic in her more recent efforts: "Julie & Julia," "Doubt" and "The Devil Wears Prada." And with that, I'm pretty sure I qualify as a full-fledged homosexual.

There's our first installment. Next up: The top ten. I mean, 11.


Tiffany said...

Not bad so far guys. I have to strongly disagree with Sissy Spacek, snooze fest, but the rest were pretty good. It's crazy to see how much better Samuel L. Jackson's movies used to be. One other thing: the links were confusing. I thought i was going to click on an extra long opinion about the actor in question but instead was just redirected to their IMDB page. Just a bit disappointing. Overall, pretty good and funny.