Because in an era where Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain are considered "supporting" actors, it's important to recognize true-blue and top-flight support when it happens. Because some of the best-reviewed movies of 2006 hit some rough patches in their scripts that required a strong, smart, inevitably under-appreciated actor in a second- or third-tier part to smooth the path and keep things interesting. Because it's hard to create a person when some roles or films only want a silhouette, a stereotype, or a warm body to wear a fabulous outfit; we all know Vera Farmiga made the best of a mechanistic character this year in The Departed, but she wasn't the only one who spun a lot out of a little. And speaking of The Departed, that movie may well have boasted the year's most exciting ensemble, but at least four smaller movies worked comparable magic with their large, stellar casts.

Secret Weapons in Prestige Projects

Gillian Anderson
in The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland was justly celebrated for the complicated duet between its two lead characters, the robust, gregarious, and increasingly maniacal dictator Idi Amin and the boisterous, incautious, gradually disabused doctor Nicholas Garrigan. Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy commit so fully to the failings and attractions of their characters that Last King never reduces itself into a metaphysical confrontation of innocence and evil (despite the worrisomely clichéd sounds and images in the film's second half), nor into the same old milky parable of liberal awakening that we've seen a hundred times. If The Last King of Scotland mostly leaps over these hurdles, however, the credit also accrues to some of its second-tier players. As the monster's most disenchanted wife, Kerry Washington expresses her character's fright and recklessness without artificially raising the volume on her performance. As a doctor in Amin's employ, David Oyelowo follows a doomed but noble journey into drastic moral action with power, efficiency, and palpable intelligence. Still, my favorite among the film's supporting performances is that of Gillian Anderson as Sarah Merrit, the smart, hardworking, and largely neglected wife of a British aid worker in Uganda. From the moment she sees Idi Amin, Anderson's Sarah sees right to the heart and the logical end of his ferocity; the actress manages to respond not just to Whitaker but to the crowds and restive spectacles which Amin excites. Sarah is also quick to detect the much more intimate chaos that Nicholas' arrival will introduce into her life, but she is much more tentative and ambivalent as she wrestles with her own domestic unhappiness and her improvident attraction to this young, inexperienced man. Anderson has much less time than McAvoy does to engineer a character who embodies equal parts conviction and disarray, overlaid with a political maturity that Garrigan totally lacks as well as a yearning loneliness. Anderson, so frisky and seductive in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (see below), and widely fêted for her work in a TV adaptation of Bleak House, may finally be far enough away from Agent Scully that casting directors can imagine rangier possibilities in her rigorous, discerning approach to her craft. Her turn in Scotland mightily eclipses what Julianne Moore achieved in a vaguely similar role in Children of Men, and one suspects that Anderson might have had a better idea of how to put across Jennifer Connelly's part in Blood Diamond or Cate Blanchett's in Notes on a Scandal, or something even less expected, like one of the L.A. doyennes in Friends with Money. Let's hope she keeps getting chances to stretch her gifts and surprise her audiences.

Álex Angulo
in Pan's Labyrinth

My insurmountable problem with Pan's Labyrinth was that its bifurcated worlds of fascism and fairy tale, for all that writer-director Guillermo del Toro clearly intended to wed their themes or blur their boundaries, seldom exhibited any truly fresh ideas. The plastic and photographic imagination that del Toro has brought to Ofelia's underworld never translated into any thematic excitement, or even any particularly rich characterizations. As Ofelia, little Ivana Baquero simply isn't up to the challenge of fleshing out del Toro's ornate visual conceits, and neither in performance nor in dialogue does Doug Jones' devilish faun seem especially attuned to the emotional textures of the rest of the film. Above ground, the lack of dimension and complexity in the human characters is even more striking; Sergi López and Maribel Verdú do no more than a fine job of bearing out the Bad and Good halves of del Toro's remarkably tame, unchallenging view of almost everything: politics, history, gender, adulthood. Thank heavens, then, for Álex Angulo, who appears to recognize that his character, Dr. Ferreiro, strides the most interesting line between enforced servitude and anxious rebellion. Certainly Angulo is well-served by the fact that del Toro feels less compelled to bind his performance withn the enormous, emphatic close-ups that make Verdú's work rather less shaded than it might have been, and the screenplay doesn't "explain" Dr. Ferreiro's crisis of loyalty and subversion through the sorts of familial bonds that overcode most of the other relationships in the movie. The doctor is allowed to be torn between conflicting impulses—especially those of caution and bravery—for their own sake. In the scenes where he serves the rebel cause, he expresses the fear and panic in his position, instead of just the implicit heroism, and he is by far the most adept member of the cast at assembling a real person—with a doctor's scrupulousness, an avuncular tenderness, a captive's terror and humiliated embarrassment, an aging man's weariness—without violating the more schematic terms of del Toro's conception. Frankly, I would have loved it if Angulo had been cast as the faun, too, linking the scariest figure in Ofelia's private world to the gentlest one in her public life. Angulo's resolute and layered humanism, a soulful and structural cousin in some ways to Michael Caine's parts in The Prestige and Children of Men, would be a credit to any actor in any film, but especially in a film whose pursuit of Big Ideas keeps reducing its actors to mannequins. Angulo's bearing of the torch for complex personality, over and above crude conceit, is itself an act of quiet, eloquent rebellion.

Mark Bazeley
in The Queen

The ads and trailers for The Queen insist that the film furnishes us an "untold story" that was lost amid the morbid circus surrounding Princess Di's death. In two viewings, I never quite figured out what that untold story was, but I think it's this: Queen Elizabeth II isn't an ice sculpture, but an actual person. She had a tough time balancing her own public and private temperaments with the clarion demands that she enroll herself in the national spectacle of bereavement—a problem made all the more difficult and frankly annoying by the new prime minister's wheedling attempts to solicit her complicity while pretending to flatter and support her. I'm always a little suspect of movies whose major trump card lies in "humanizing" anybody, and The Queen offers a perfect example of why: is Elizabeth's taciturnity any more legible or interesting once we remind ourselves that she can't vote, that she once was a mechanic, that she may not like her son and heir all that much, nor he her? Almost nothing in the center-ring plotline of The Queen amends our understanding of this woman with anything more than broad clichés—duty vs. personality, government vs. family, monarchy vs. democracy, reticence vs. emotion—and if the intended audience is made up of people who never stopped to consider that the queen has a beating heart of her own, surely the extreme narrowness of our own thinking does not qualify such a tepid and shallow corrective as The Queen as great, revelatory art? Meanwhile, a nearly untold story within The Queen itself concerns Tony Blair's transformation from a liberal upstart to an ally of the crown, and though the scenes mapping this arc are discontinuous and finally unsatisfying—Blair rhapsodizes over Elizbeth's television address as "something extraordinary," but it's hard to fathom exactly what, or why—Michael Sheen is shifty and subtle enough in the part to keep us guessing about Blair's loyalties, agendas, and insecurities. Within that story there's yet another untold story, about what Blair's staff must be making of their smart, dogged leader whose admirable diplomacy and flexibility is starting to look an awful lot like kowtowing. The much-laureled script of The Queen drops exactly one scene that gets at this question, wherein Sheen's Blair blanches at the "radical" and "revolutionary" rhetoric that his advisors have ladled all over the draft of a speech. They look confused by his own confusion, but The Queen instantly hustles back to its own agenda of watching Helen Mirren pick up her telephone and wipe her eyeglasses. There's also a single scene in which Blair facetiously harrumphs about having nothing better to do as the prime minister of a world power than convincing the Windsors to be a little less nitwitty, but The Queen can't start to guess what else Blair might be doing, or whether he's actually capable of it. Anyone who's desperate for a slightly bigger panorama than The Queen ever offers us has only Mark Bazeley to thank, for being so vivid, smart, arrogant, and impatient as Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's primary speech-writer and wisecracking executive officer. It's Alistair who devises the "People's Princess" slogan, and Bazeley knows that it's a smug and baldly manipulative phrase, but also one worth congratulating himself for. He understandably bucks beneath the Lord Chamberlain's pompous, dusty leadership in a meeting about the Princess' funeral plans, but Bazeley builds some actual rudeness into his physical and verbal delivery of his one-liner response. In all of his scenes, we like and admire Alastair's smarts and his refusal of that stony, aristocratic "decorum" that reads so often as heartlessness, but we also can't help feeling that he is cockier, a little emptier, certainly more ruthless than Blair appears to be. But surely there is some reason why this snide, brilliant rhetorician is Blair's most trusted aide? Except for the witty final shot in the royal garden, Bazeley's performance provides the most salient thread in The Queen connecting the Prime Minister of this movie to the Prime Minister he has since revealed himself to be. Bazeley's is also the most animated performer on the screen, planting the seeds of a certain Faustian glee right into the side of youth, change, and putative good.

Rumplestiltskin Awards for Spinning Gold from Straw

Karen Chilton
in Half Nelson

Would you want the job of playing Shareeka Epps' mother in Half Nelson, structured into a script such that the audience will implicitly grasp a young, smack-addicted schoolteacher and a suspiciously affable dealer as tempting options for caretaking and comfort outside the home? The most obvious options for the actress playing Karen are to emphasize the woman's negligence or to make her subtly distasteful. Chilton, marvelously, does neither of these things, supplying her character with a fatigue that by no means discounts her warmth and affection but isn't entirely innocent of a certain brusqueness and willful naïveté. You catch Chilton's Karen wondering whether her daughter is really okay, and nurturing her as well as she feels she can manage, which still may not be enough. Karen is banking on Drey's maturity, perhaps to a self-indulgent degree, but perhaps she is too worn out to do anything more. She is obviously still smarting, too, from the disappointment of her son's incarceration—and from her police officer's uniform, we know that she sees this basic story play out every day, and may suddenly be thinking of herself as a statistic, a cliché, an unfair victim. Consistently with the rest of Half Nelson's terrific ensemble and smart, nonjudgmental direction, Chilton discloses the shortcomings and passivity in her character while making a strong case for her sound intentions and best efforts.

Shia LaBeouf
in Bobby

Why did Emilio Estevez make Bobby? Or, more specifically, why did he make the Bobby he did instead of the elegiac documentary that—based on the photo, video, and audio collages that open and close the film—he seems much more inclined to have made? Estevez is clearly convinced that Bobby Kennedy embodied a political gestalt of hope and broad-based coalition, even in the shadow of escalating war and preceding assassinations. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Bobby, the spirit behind this sincere if superficial hypothesis only reaches the audience when Estevez drops his flotilla of one-track characters and arbitrary montage and cedes his movie to Bobby's actual voice, his actual words, his fleeting image. Otherwise, the film has a hell of a time getting its sentiments to translate in dramatic terms, and it's emblematic of the movie's basic dilemma that the second best performance in the movie, Sharon Stone's, has almost nothing to do with Bobby Kennedy's campaign, his political platforms, or his arrival in the hotel. All the more impressive, then, is Shia LaBeouf's small but witty achievement as a campaign volunteer whose work gets waylaid before it has even begun. LaBeouf's comic timing and winning frivolity, which he constrained to powerful effect in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, make him an engaging breath of truly fresh air, even in the played-out part of an adolescent on a drug high. Stuttering his way through the purchase of the drugs, spryly but delusionally interacting with his favorite waitress, sprinting right into and over the net during a hopped-up tennis match, LaBeouf is the only performer (except, perhaps, Joy Bryant) who doesn't seem couched into solemn, obedient posturing. The rewards for the audience are considerable—just a spoonful of Shia helps the Helen Hunt go down—but he also supplies the movie with its only genuine source of the youthful energy that Estevez keeps attributing to Kennedy's legacy without actually conjuring on screen. Given that LaBeouf only supplies this battery power while relying on narcotics and jettisoning his responsibilities adds a pleasing if narrow irony to Bobby's rarely self-critical nostalgia, but it's the velocity and personality of the performance, not a boilerplate politics passing itself off as a character, that saves every scene LaBeouf is in.

Sharon Leal
in Dreamgirls

Look up the word "thankless" in Webster's Dictionary of Musical Theater and you might find the role of Michelle in Dreamgirls. Not only does she get even less to do dramatically than third-wheel Lorrell, but Michelle is the Spammy, cynical chosen replacement for Effie White, the character that the whole show is designed to champion. Michelle's recruitment into the singing group precipitates Effie's big, big number, the one that's currently playing on every iPod in the United States, and she never gets a solo vocal or a single dramatic scene to stake her claim as anything but a plot necessity. Given what little she has to work with, to say nothing of how aggressively Dreamgirls the movie serves itself on a silver platter to Jennifer Hudson, it's impressive that Leal makes any impression at all. The reason I noticed the performance was that, in contradistinction to blurry Deena and silly Lorrell and diligent C.C. and silent Wayne, Sharon Leal's Michelle keeps telegraphing her lucid, immediate grasp of Curtis Taylor's perfidies and her disenchanted willingness to keep doing what's asked of her. In her "biggest" scene, as she strides into a rehearsal and faces Effie's wrath, she refuses to sell herself out to an audience ready to hiss at her—or, in fact, to play anything but a decent woman making the best of a big break and, through no fault of her own, facing the fury of an exploding harpy. She avoids the trap, somewhat epidemic among this inexperienced cast, of ceasing to act when a shot isn't framing her. Later, she has a scene where she and C.C. get up to leave Curtis' office, as he reminds her that she's stuck with this group and with his own petty management, and the look of contempt and resignation on her face beats anything that Beyoncé or Jamie Foxx or Anika Noni Rose or Jennifer Hudson come up with in any of their reaction shots across the film. Leal has the look of a real film actress, and perhaps because the show doesn't really care about her, she's freed up in the performing scenes to nail her choreography, to move gracefully in her splendid costumes, and to sell the songs without mugging. It's still not much to go on, but I responded to these traces of Leal in a way that made me wish she had a bigger part—Beyoncé's even, or at least Anika's.

Jamie Parker
in The History Boys

In a piece obsessed with interesting but overdetermined dichotomies—Hector's passion for knowledge vs. Irwin's emphasis on tactics, Posner's timidity vs. Dakin's braggadoccio, the freshness of youth vs. the Songs of Experience, the melodramas of masculinity vs. a rafter-friendly and oh-so-Second-Wave monologue about the subservience of women—Jamie Parker's sunny, devout, piano-playing Scripps is an utter anomaly, lending his ear to Dakin and to Posner, refining his musical technique while staying loose and uncramped as a performer, lambasting Irwin's principles while buzzing from the intellectual excitement of debate, rolling his eyes at Hector's lechery while rejoicing in the liveliness of his classroom. Parker is by far the most animated History Boy when the camera isn't on him, and he communicates the most complete personality without shaping his performance toward some thematic, pre-given intent. He's the only one of these eight young actors I'd be eager to cast in something else, and swiftly.

And the Exalted Ensembles Are...

Maggie Cheung and an uncharacteristically quiet Nick Nolte take top honors for their showcased performances, but look how much emotion and backstory Martha Henry milks out of her scenes as the dying mother-in-law, or how stringently Don McKellar struggles to do right by the career and, soon enough, the memory of his friend Lee (James Johnston is a rare weak link) while frankly loathing and blaming Lee's wife. McKellar's Vernon doesn't seem overly disposed to hasty or injudicious reactions to other people, which makes his responses to Cheung's Emily all the more informative. Elsewhere in the movie, Jeanne Balibar and Laetitia Spigarelli impart the neurosis, menace, and silly egoism of the music industry, and the always-transfixing Béatrice Dalle does beautifully with her role as the hospitable, unflappable friend of a walking mess. Rémi Martin is coarse, practical, and a little bit charming during a key sequence when he finds one of Emily's drug suppliers dead inside an apartment. Real musicians like Emily Haines and Tricky fold elegantly and believably into the film's version of the alt-rock universe.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Ion Fiscuteanu has to do an awful lot of acting with a bloated, achy, and prostrate body rendered in all sorts of constraining poses on sofas, gurneys, examining tables, and X-ray machines. The documentary realism of his own performance matches that of the photography and the art direction, without denying itself some opportunities for more conventional and obvious humor. Surrounding him are the inquisitive neighbors, like Doru Ana's Sandu, who wants to help Mr. Lazarescu without getting too terribly involved, and Sandu's wife Miki (Dana Dogaru), who seems to be using Mr. Lazarescu's plight as a staging ground for her own desperate, somewhat addled performance of usefulness. Gabriel Spahiu and the heroic Luminita Gheorghiu blend empathy, proficiency, weariness, and haste into their performances as the ambulance medics, allowing themselves some poignant, tentative flirtations with each other. All of the doctors and nurses are uniformly excellent, especially the giddy Mariana (Monica Dean) and the venal nurse at the subsequent hospital who barks at Gheorghiu for presuming to diagnose her patient. Every actor in the movie behaves in a way that makes some medical and procedural sense, and speaks appropriately to their weariness and impossible burdens, while nonetheless affronting our sense of justice.

Reviewers may have had a point that the screenplay and basic premise of Sherrybaby didn't break any new ground, but the performances are pretty exemplary across the board, achieving some semblance of that Cassavetes-inspired realism that eludes so many movies that strive much more obviously for it. Maggie Gyllenhaal's praises have been justly sung, but look how much help she gets from Brad William Henke as the brother who has clearly enabled her for most of their life, even as he recognizes her self-destructive patterns and promises his wife that he'll eventually draw a line. Bridget Barkan is brilliant as sister-in-law Lynette, often abrasive but clearly devoted to Sherry's daughter (a credible Ryan Simpkins), and indulging little morsels of curiosity about the kind of woman Sherry is and that she, Lynette, will never allow herself to be. Danny Trejo refuses to divulge whether Dean Walker is the supportive friend that Sherry so badly needs or a lurking danger just waiting to pull another rug out from under her. The reliable Giancarlo Esposito does some great work as the parole officer who oscillates between a strong disdain for Sherry and an impulse to root for her, and the staff members as well as the fellow residents of Sherry's halfway house (including Sandra Rodriguez and Anna Simpson) do a quick, superlative job of coloring in their characters without impressing them too much into Sherry's spotlight.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are a loose, brilliant, and tireless comic team throughout Tristram Shandy, all the way from their jealous exchanges and time-killing chatter at the makeup table to their duelling Al Pacino imitations underneath the end credits. During the intervening hour and a half, the film set within a film is delightfully populated by smart shoestring filmmakers Jeremy Northam and Ian Hart; by the indefatigable screamer and cryer Keeley Hawes, who spends virtually the entire film giving birth in abject, howling pain and still manages to endear herself; by Shirley Henderson, so well used in Winterbottom's earlier Wonderland, and a hoot as Elizabeth Shandy's dizzy servant; by the hysterical Dylan Moran as the grouchy, barely-there Dr. Slop; by the touchingly sweet Kelly MacDonald as Coogan's wife, still not much of a priority despite bearing his child and traveling to visit him; by Gillian Anderson as the celebrity who is willing to work for peanuts, and who makes us believe Uncle Toby's tongue-tied adoration in her brief scenes as Widow Wadman, and who then makes us believe her own mystified, laughing displeasure as she discovers how little of her performance remains in the completed Tristram Shandy film; by Kieran O'Brien, keeping his clothes on and his seed unspilled as a sleazy tabloid reporter who arrives to blackmail Coogan; and by the stunningly versatile Naomie Harris, who followed up her turn here as an earnest, film-loving line producer with her cheeky hoodoo-voodoo caricature in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and her sleek, sexy, and vulnerable cop in Miami Vice. That's a one-woman ensemble right there, unrecognizable from her harshly unsentimental survivor in 28 Days Later, and just waiting for her big, breakout success.

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