It may be a bit early for this, but I wanted to get my two cents in on some of my favorite performances of 2007 so far, especially since most of these will probably get overlooked in the great Oscar crush of December. The awards almost always go to actors who are involved in biopics, message pictures, costume movies or epics, so let's start with the wonderful Alan Rickman, who has yet to earn a single Oscar nomination. This year, he can be seen toiling away once again in the small role of Severus Snape in the fifth "Harry Potter" film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (283 screens). In the third film, he practically stole the entire movie with the way he read the line "turn to page 394," but in this fifth film, he actually has a scene with some meat to it. In training Harry to block his thoughts, Harry takes a peek into Snape's own mind and finds a disastrously sad childhood. When the flashback ends, the camera lingers on Snape's face for a moment, and Rickman renders an astonishing expression of hurt and hatred that broke my heart and sent chills through my spine.
One costume movie, Becoming Jane (32 screens), was unfairly judged, perhaps because it was too much fun and not somber enough (or not based on a literary source of proper merit). The lovely Miss Anne Hathaway usually lends a kind of smart energy to her best performances, as if she were slightly ahead of the game, and she does so perfectly as the budding Jane Austen. She's playful, but tough, beautiful but restrained. And when she falls in love with her man (James McAvoy), she does so breathlessly and with her whole heart; the movie more or less explains through fantasy how Austen was able to write so passionately from such a dull existence. The real Jane was said to be rather plain, but I'd much rather imagine her like this. Add to this Maggie Smith's delightfully wry supporting performance as the wealthy aunt, who can't understand the impudent youth of today and fires off comically nasty barbs at their expense.
Laura Linney was nominated for a biopic performance a few years ago as the do-nothing wife of Alfred Kinsey, but this year she has three fantastic, take-charge performances, in Breach, the upcoming The Savages and the current The Nanny Diaries (40 screens). I wasn't fond of that movie, but Linney added unique layers to her underwritten character, an upper East side mom trying to do it all without actually getting to know her son. I also wasn't very fond of Ang Lee's rudimentary Lust, Caution (125 screens), but I'd sure love to see Tony Leung get an Oscar nomination. If for nothing else, it would recognize his work in all those great Hou Hsiao-hsien, John Woo and Wong Kar-wai films.
How about the voice-work of Dan Castellaneta or Julie Kavner for The Simpsons Movie (194 screens)? Castellaneta does tons of different voices besides just Homer (Mayor Quimby, Krusty, Barney, Grampa, etc.), but his performance as Homer is consistently, truly spectacular. He manages to portray a dumb ape, whose sole purpose is the pursuit of pleasure, and somehow make him not only sympathetic but also heroic. That goes double for Kavner, who is married to the brute; she has one moment in the movie of pure heartbreak that would make Meryl Streep sit up and take notice.
Even though it's not the Oscar type, Eastern Promises (185 screens) actually has a shot at some awards love. Everyone loves it, everyone loves director David Cronenberg, he's never had an Oscar nomination and gangster movies sometimes do well (see The Departed). Also, Viggo Mortensen gets to do a doozy of an accent in the movie, and that always impresses the voters. But my vote would go to the quiet, commanding performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl as the "godfather" character who seems more interested in food than he is in sex or killing; he uses fine cooking to lure the heroine (Naomi Watts) into his lair. Mueller-Stahl has the benefit of a previous nomination (for the biopic Shine), so he's not entirely out of the running.
Then there's Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck for the already underrated, misunderstood The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (301 screens). Trashed by the country's most powerful critics, it's already disappearing before it ever had a chance, even though it's one of the year's best films. The problem -- which could bite the movie in the behind -- is which actor, Pitt or Affleck, gets Best Actor consideration and which gets Best Supporting Actor? Or do they both get Best Actor consideration, which would certainly short-change Affleck's chances against Pitt, the beloved icon. (Pitt also has a previous nomination.) It's certain that they both deserve something; neither one's performance would be quite the same without the other. Pitt has a commanding presence, quietly aware -- and perhaps amused? -- of his profound affect upon the people around him, while Affleck plays a weak, unsympathetic weasel with a hint of humanity, just enough so that we understand why Jesse would like him.Finally, how about Robert De Niro or Michelle Pfeiffer for having so much darn fun in Stardust (143 screens)?