Friday, November 14, 2008

Best Performances in a Fantasy Film

Fantasy, as previously discussed, can encompass a wide range of characters, worlds, powers and superpowers. They can be light and funny, or dark and deadly serious. The best Fantasy films are the ones tha take us away from the real world, even if only for a few hours, and make us believe in their universes' rules. And the best of those feature all kinds of wonderful performances from some pretty terrific actors. I have to warn you that there are no clear winners here. So, in no particular order, my choices for Best Performances in a Fantasy Film:

object width="425" height="344">Arguably Tim Burton’s second best film (Ed Wood retains that title), Edward Scissorhands is the ultimate outsider movie. When peppy suburban Avon lady Peg (the always delightful Dianne Weist) finds Edward (Depp) living alone in the ruins of a creepy mansion, she brings him home and sets about introducing him to society. Edward soon becomes a neighborhood celebrity, designing garden topiaries and cutting custom coiffures. Along the way, he falls in love with Peg's daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder). Through a series of misadventures, na├»ve Edward is turned upon by the very folks who embraced him and he retreats back where he started, living alone with his art. Depp barely says 20 words in this movie, but his eyes say it all, and we can’t help but fall in love with sad, soulful Edward.
Michelle Pfieffer for Batman Returns:
Talk about sex appeal! Putting an entirely new spin on the role, Pfieffer is simply electrifying as Catwoman in Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel to Batman. Sporting an S&M-inspired pleather suit complete with steel claws and whip, Pfieffer imbues Selina Kyle/Catwoman with the same conflicted qualities of her lover/nemesis, Bruce Wayne/Batman, making her one o fthe most fscinating characters in the franchise. Plus, ya gotta love all that duality! Sexy, funny and over-the-top, Pfieffer’s take on the iconic villainess manages to make us all forget about Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt.
Christian Bale for The Prestige:
The always amazing Christopher Nolan directed this period piece about rival magicians who will go to almost any lengths to create the world’s greatest illusion. It’s a fascinating tale of revenge and jealousy and real magic and features a terrific little cameo by David Bowie as “mad scientist” Nikolai Tesla. But it’s the performances of it’s two leading men that really make this picture. Hugh Jackman (X-Men) is the man obsessed with learning his rival’s trick, and Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) is the rival with a secret he’ll never reveal, even if it means losing his life. The first time I saw this film, my sympathies went to Jackman’s character. But a second viewing found me changing my mind (not something I do often, when it comes to movies). Bale has been known to piss me off (American Psycho) but his performance here is so subtly nuanced, one can’t help but admire his skill as one of modern film’s best actors.
Judy Garland for The Wizard of Oz:
Bizarrely, that clip was the best quality I could find, despite the somewhat distracting subtitles (which I believe may be Portuguese – please correct me if you know better). Who today didn’t grow up with The Wizard of Oz? When I was a kid, it was on CBS once a year, usually around Easter, and it was a huge treat to which my sister and I both looked forward every year (yeah, yeah… get the “Friend of Dorothy” jokes out of the way, now). This film is iconic across cultures and nearly every American child has seen it dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Garland was really too old for the part, and a second choice at that (can you imagine Shirley Temple? Yeuch!), but she made the role her own. Watching The Wizard of Oz is seeing Garland before all the bad stuff happened and her personal optimism shines through to Dorothy Gale, the little girl from Kansas who is whisked away to a magical world so unlike her own. Certainly an apt allegory for the life of Frances Gumm, herself.
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight:

Too much has been said, already. The performance speaks for itself.
Michelle Pfieffer for Stardust:
Pfieffer makes this list again because of her hilarious performance as the witch Lamia in the big screen version of Neil Gaimon’s fairy tale for grown-ups. Once beautiful, the vain Lamia and her sisters have become whithered hags, subsisting on the last bits of the heart of a long-ago fallen star. When another star (Clare Danes) falls, Lamia takes the last of the heart and restores herself in an effort to catch her. The catch is, every time Lamia uses her magic, she ages a little bit. And Pfieffer is clearly enjoying herself here, reacting to every liver spot and sagging boob to hilarious effect. A terrific comedic performance that deserves recognition.
Michael Clarke Duncan for The Green Mile:
Frank Darabount (The Shawshank Redemption; The Mist) is one of the few directors who (along with DePalma and Reiner) has actually managed to successfully translate the works of Stephen King to the screen. The Green Mile is one of the few movies that makes me cry every single time I see it, and that’s because of the amazing performance of Mr. Duncan as John Coffey; the gigantic, gentle and child-like miracle worker wrongly convicted of murder. Surrounded by some top notch talent such as Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Michael Morse, Michael Jeter, Patricia Clarkson and Sam Rockwell (that’s quite a pedigreed cast, folks) Duncan more than holds his own. The scene where he watches Fred and Ginger dancing gets me every time and I can't ever watch (SPOILER ALERT) the execution scene without sobbing like a little girl.
Amy Adams for Enchanted:
Disney finally got around to poking fun at themselves with this delightful 2007 romp about a cartoon princess banished to the real world by an evil witch. The concept is cute, but it wouldn’t have worked at all without Ms Adams pitch-perfect performance as the ultimate Disney Princess, Giselle. She gets cockroaches and sewer rats to help her clean a dirty apartment and breaks into song at the drop of a hat, much to Patrick Dempsey’s consternation. Delightful stuff made all the more so thanks to the delightful Amy Adams. I dare you to watch this movie and not smile.
Gene Wilder for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:
Author Roald Dahl despised the 1971 version of his novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, least of all because it was financed by a candy company looking for a new way to market chocolates. Directed by Mel Stuart (his only “hit”), the movie changed the title, added weird, early 70’s pop-culture references and, as dark as some folks think it was, wasn’t nearly as dark in tone as the book. The one thing it had going for it was a balls-out go-for-broke performance by a true comedic genius. If for no other roles (and there are so many), Gene Wilder will be remembered for his neurotic mad-scientist in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the pan-polar chocolatier Willy Wonka. Tim Burton’s 2005 version certainly came closer in tone and story to the book and Johnny Depp’s performance is, without a doubt, weirder. But Wilder’s iconic portrayal in the original is the reason this film holds up 37 years after it was made.
Honorable Mentions:

Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings. We all know Frodo never would have made it to Mordor without Sam. Their ‘bromance’ is thoroughly believable thanks to Astin’s performance .

Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie. We believed a man could fly (and steal our hearts) when Reeve smiled that amazing smile as saved the world (and his lady love). Sigh…

Tim Curry in Legend. Curry, nearly unrecognizable beneath what must be fifty pounds or more of latex and fiberglass, is the embodiment of evil as Darkness, who plans to kill the last unicorn and banish light from the world forever. I have yet to see the Director’s Cut with the original Jerry Goldsmith score, but Curry (even with his voice electronically enhanced) easily gives this Ridley Scott oddity its most memorable performance.

Susan Sarandon in Enchanted. Clearly having the time of her life, Sarandon plays both the animated and real-world versions of the evil queen Narissa in hilariously full scene-chomping mode.
Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Serkis redefines physical acting with his astonishing stop-motion performances in Peter Jackson's fantasy epics.

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