Rental Guide: Best Actress and Best Actor 2000

Since we all know by now that the Academy can't be relied upon to select the objective "Best" of anything—and for that matter, who could?—let's acknowledge one of the true Goods their awards do achieve. Each February and March we are prompted to appraise the work of a few select performers and creators, many of whom have been responsible for some very fine movies, and many of those we might have missed without Oscar and his attendant hoopla to remind or alert us. This year, as always, ten female and male actors are nominated as the "Best" in the leading categories. Only two will emerge from the March 25 ceremony with trophies, but if you're looking to investigate further into their careers, especially by renting smaller films from their résumés that are often overlooked, here are some places to start searching, all of them available at middle-to-large-size rental stores:

Photo © 2000
DreamWorks Pictures
Joan AllenBest Actress, The Contender

Why You Already Knew Her: She played tight-lipped wives in everything from the stunning Face/Off and Nixon to the overrated The Ice Storm and Pleasantville. Nominated in 1995 for Best Supporting Actress in Nixon, she received a second nod in the same category the following year for possibly her greatest screen performance so far, in Nicholas Hytner's The Crucible, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.

Where to Go Next: Manhunter—Directed by Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider), this 1986 suspense thriller was based on Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon. Allen plays a blind photo developer who pops up halfway through the movie—and possibly for the first time until The Contender, she gets to play a sexually forward, unrepressed character. Added bonus is that Hannibal Lecter makes his first screen appearance; he isn't played by Anthony Hopkins, but the performance of Brian Cox in the role is worth catching and comparing. B

Javier BardemBest Actor, Before Night Falls

Why You Already Knew Him: If at all, because you follow the Spanish movie scene, where Bardem's been a major, award-winning actor and a staple sex symbol for quite some time. His best known film to American audiences is probably Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh, in which he plays a parapalegic cop.

Where to Go Next: Jamón Jamón—"Jamón" in Spanish means ham, which applies in so many ways to Bigas Luna's astonishingly straight-faced 1993 sex farce. Our adjective "hammy" certainly applies, though on purpose: Bardem shows up here as a mechanic-turned-underwear-model who's hired by the rich-bitch mother of Penélope Cruz's boyfriend to lure Cruz's working-class girl away from her upwardly mobile (and erotically confused) son. There's a little of everything in this movie, from tragic pregnant women to nude bullfighting—no doubt Bardem's most favorable scene. Works best when you realize all the excess is meant with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. B

Photo © 2000
Fine Line Pictures

Photo © 2000
Miramax Pictures
Juliette BinocheBest Actress, Chocolat

Why You Already Knew Her: She won the 1996 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Ralph Fiennes' sympathetic, sad-eyed nurse in The English Patient. She also starred in Blue, the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski's famed "Three Colors" trilogy, and possibly the best of the lot (which also includes White and Red).

Where to Go Next: The Unbearable Lightness of Being—Truth be told, Binoche's English-language debut opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Chocolat costar Lena Olin remains one of her best-known roles; this hardly counts as an "underseen gem" to many film addicts. Yet, Binoche poses the difficult problem of being best known for three wonderful pictures (and now, in Chocolat, for a mediocre one), but mostly having made bad ones. A Couch in New York probably counts as the worst English-language "romantic comedy" of the 1990s, likely because Juliette Binoche and William Hurt are hardly anyone's idea of the perfect match, erotically or artistically. Louis Malle's Damage features a stunning performance by Miranda Richardson, but Binoche admits to having had no idea how to play her cipherish female lead (subjected, too, to some of the most overcooked sex scenes this side of Showgirls). These movies really are unbearable; by contrast, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an illuminating, challenging, and sensual adaptation of Milan Kundera's entrancing novel by director Philip Kaufman (Quills). A

Ellen BurstynBest Actress, Requiem for a Dream

Why You Already Knew Her: Most likely from The Exorcist, the stunning, immortal shocker in which Burstyn gives an absolutely gripping, underrated performance as the possessed girl's distraught mother. Burstyn lost the Oscar for The Exorcist but won the following year for Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, a movie about a single mom waitressing in a Southwestern diner that later provided the basis for the TV series Alice. If you were lucky, you caught her this past fall in the underseen, highly involving urban drama The Yards, which also starred Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, James Caan, Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, and some really lovely widescreen photography.

Where to Go Next: Resurrection—Burstyn's career has yielded its fair share of big movies and little ones, overrated melodrama and underseen gems. Amidst those extremes, Daniel Petrie's 1980 drama Resurrection is too obscure to be called overrated, but too hokey to be called a gem. Still, Burstyn remains highly watchable as a woman who survives a Dead Zone-style car accident and awakes from a coma with strange, Green Mile-type healing powers. The film plays like an intriguing concept for which no one furnished a plot, but Burstyn's performance, which garnered her most recent previous Best Actress nod, proves how ably she can sustain even those movies that don't know what to do with her—always the sign of a valuable performer. C

Photo © 2000
Artisan Entertainment

Photo © 2000
DreamWorks Pictures
Russell CroweBest Actor, Gladiator

Why You Already Knew Him: From the cover of every tabloid rag and popular magazine in the last 12 months. If you're as watchful in the cinema as you are in the grocery aisle, you hopefully caught him in 1997's L.A. Confidential and 1999's The Insider, though you're pardoned if you didn't recognize that film's paunchy, white-haired corporate type as the Iron John of the Colosseum. By the way, Proof of Life, the Christmas 2000 hostage drama that ignited the whole Meg thing, is a lot better than people (gossip columists and others) may have led you to believe.

Where to Go Next: The Sum of Us—No doubt the most popular films from Crowe's pre-Hollywood Australian résumé are the bruising neo-Nazi drama Romper Stomper (a sort of Down Under American History X) and the intriguing chamber drama Proof (with The Matrix's Hugo Weaving). I'm picking The Sum of Us, though, because this winsome comedy-melodrama shows a Crowe we've rarely seen since: nervous, smiley, lovelorn, and artistically light on his feet. No scowling here as he plays the gay son of an almost too-tolerant father, who keeps dashing Crowe's relationships by trying too hard to befriend his dates. One of those films that isn't all that "good," technically, but its tone is sweet and its performances appealing. C+

Tom HanksBest Actor, Cast Away

Why You Already Knew Him: You have been alive and awake at any point during the last ten years. To say more than that is pure redundancy, but what the hey: Big, A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and You've Got Mail.

Where to Go Next: The Money Pit—A relic from the age when Hanks had not yet been enshrined as the official emblem of Noble America, The Money Pit showcases him in delightful slapstick-comic form as a man trying to restore his dream house without running his marriage into the ground. Again, not a great film, and it feels a little more perfunctory as it goes along, but his chemistry with Shelley Long is good, and there are some great set-pieces, the two best involving a carpet and a bathtub. B–

Photo © 2000
Columbia Pictures

Photo © 2000
Sony Pictures Classics
Ed HarrisBest Actor, Pollock

Why You Already Knew Him: Two of his best-known performances are those which garnered his previous Oscar nominations: he played the cool-under-pressure NASA controller in Apollo 13 and the megalomaniacal TV impresario in The Truman Show. Harris has also lent his signature glower to a whole range of high-testosterone projects from 1983's The Right Stuff to 1996's The Rock, with a few pit stops in undistinguished thrillers along the way (China Moon with Madeleine Stowe and Benicio Del Toro, and Just Cause with Sean Connery and Kate Capshaw).

Where to Go Next: Sweet Dreams—The handful of people who still watch this 1985 biopic of country singer Patsy Cline probably select it either out of affinity for Cline's beautiful singing or to catch Jessica Lange's exceptional, Oscar-nominated performance. Harris, though, making a rare foray into a "woman's picture," is almost equally memorable as Cline's ne'er-do-well husband, Charlie Dick. Sure that name alone is hard to forget, but so is the electricity between the stars (proving, as he did this year with Marcia Gay Harden, that he's a powder keg with the right actress) and the wily charm of a cheating, abusive husband who by all rights should be wholly unsympathetic. B+

Laura LinneyBest Actress, You Can Count on Me

Why You Already Knew Her: Another Truman Show vet (she was his plastic, all-American wife), Linney has been working a long time to get the plum film role she's accorded in the irresistible You Can Count on Me, or even the striking character turn she took in this year's unfairly dismissed The House of Mirth. Much of the film work that preceded her 2000 double-whammy ranged from pretty ho-hum (Primal Fear) to outright hokum (Congo).

Where to Go Next: Tales of the City—The vagaries of her movie career being what they are, a safe bet is to catch Linney's career-starting turn as Mary Ann Singleton, the dimpled, fresh-faced, and wholly unprepared Midwestern lass who moves to decadent 1970s San Francisco in the popular, groundbreaking 1993 miniseries. It seems fair to say that the ground being broken is more often in the terrain of content (drug use, homosexuality, pornography, etc.) than of quality, since at heart Tales of the City bears more than a passing resemblance to Family Album, Danielle Steel's multi-generational chronicle of Bay Area life. (I mean, I've heard…) Still, Linney's uncanny ability to play apple-cheeked virgins is deployed to perfect effect, and the soap aspect could hardly be sudsier over the entire 6 hours. (Look out, too, for Billy Campbell and Thomas Gibson, now the stars of TV's Once & Again and Dharma & Greg, playing noticeably different types than we're used to.) B

Photo © 2000
Paramount Classics

Photo © 2000
MCA/Universal Pictures
Julia RobertsBest Actress, Erin Brockovich

Why You Already Knew Her: She's the female equivalent of Tom Hanks: the other movie star you simply couldn't survive the 1990s without recognizing. Between having the first $100 million blockbusters of 1990 (in Pretty Woman) and 2000 (in Brockovich), Roberts churned out some well-deserved hits (my favorite is My Best Friend's Wedding), some god-awful chores (The Pelican Brief feels anything but brief), and everything in between. In recent years, I've been strangely partial to mid-grossers like Conspiracy Theory and Stepmom…but then she had to go and make The Mexican (see "god-awful" above).

Where to Go Next: Mary Reilly—The middle of the 1990s, between Pelican and Wedding, was a commercially fallow but highly intriguing span for Roberts, who chased around genuine, reputable directors while other actress's agents were hounding Jan De Bont and Michael Bay. The movie most often condemned out of this era by fans of Roberts' comedies was perhaps her most fascinating choice. As Mary Reilly, the dour, sexually neurotic, and strangely un-eyebrowed chambermaid to John Malkovich's Dr. Jekyll, Roberts is frequently sneaking around corners trying to figure out why her boss is such a schizo. Audiences stayed away, and many who went were unmoved—but I gotta tell ya, beyond even the campy pleasures (Glenn Close as a Cockney brothel manager!), we see in Mary Reilly the first glimmers of the committed dramatic actress who came into full bloom in Erin Brockovich. Don't expect miracles, but also don't believe the (non-)hype. B–

Geoffrey RushBest Actor, Quills

Why You Already Knew Him: He's the bulbous-nosed Australian who came out of nowhere in 1996 to swipe the Best Actor prize for Shine and hasn't left the Oscar ballot since. (Between then and now, he was also nominated as the harried playhouse manager in Shakespeare in Love). Rush attempted a curious side career for a while as mastermind villains in berserkly braindead junk like Mystery Men and The House on Haunted Hill, but we're all hoping that's out of his system.

Where to Go Next: Children of the Revolution—Worried you're going to live your whole life and never spot Geoffrey Rush in a single moment of not overacting? All of his excessive, grandiloquent impulses (can you tell I'm not a fan?) are kept well in check by this bizarre Australian black comedy about a married woman who, in the 1950s, takes up the Communist banner and even conceives a love-child with Stalin himself. The project sounds preposterous on paper, and in some respects it is, which is why it works—playing this material any other way would have spelled doom. The film's crowning joy is Judy Davis' eccentric, exemplary work in the starring role, but a whole range of top-notch Aussies pop up in the supporting cast: Rachel Griffiths, Sam Neill, and, as Judy's confused and introverted husband, a for-once sedate Rush. Not for everyone, but good fun for the Monty Python or AbFab crowds. B

Photo © 2000
Fox Searchlight Pictures

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