I'm gonna go out on a limb here and assume that Matthew McConaughey is probably not your favorite actor. It's an assumption that I feel confident in making because of the fact that you're reading a film site -- expressing such an interest in the cinema while maintaining Matthew McConaughey as your favorite actor would be like flying to The Louvre because you're a big fan of Family Circus.
Trying to understand why McConaughey is so widely disdained is another matter entirely. The man is certainly not without his charms -- he's got a sly smile and a zen-like nonchalance that combines to make his screen presence something of a reprieve from the anxieties of everyday life. When you Google his name, his personal website is the top hit (a rarity for celebrities), and following down that particular rabbit-hole just leads to a void of good times and smooth surfer jams.
So why do so many people have it out for the guy? Is it because it seems as if he uses the dew from the Tree of Life as his bong-water, or because he hasn't worn a shirt since the Nixon administration? No. Well, yes, but it's also because McConaughey has amassed all of this success and yet it appears as if he's never really taken a single chance as an actor. Sure, in boldly risking romantic chemistry with the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Jessica Parker he practically became the J. Robert Oppenheimer of the 21st century, but more often than not it seems as if the dude gives you plenty to like but nothing to love -- he's pleasant, but never moving, and he's not alone.
That our film industry has empowered our celebrities to be cowards is obviously a sweeping and reductive generalization, but for every John Hawkes, Hollywood gives us five Bradley Coopers. That's just simple math. Even when the performances are bold, the roles themselves are often built above a mess of fool-proof safety nets that ensure a modicum of likability. By and large, our actors are unwilling to go dark without winking or shoulder an unusual burden without hedging the bets in a certain inspirational verve -- James Franco was great in '127 Hours,' but for all of the responsibility that the movie lays at his immobile feet, it's hard to see the role as much of a risk when the movie is so insistent on celebrating his ordeal as a triumph of the human spirit (complete with an anthemic Sigur Ros music cue).
Our cinema is overrun by good actors giving good performances, but we've conditioned ourselves to only reward those which hedge their hardships in an easily digestible package. This is why Colin Firth just won Best Actor, and why Jessie Eisenberg didn't.
This problem is hardly unique to Hollywood, but between commercials for 'The Lincoln Lawyer' and the perennial xenophobic pageantry of the Oscars, it's easy to forget that international cinema is brimming with actors who seem completely immune to the risks of unflattering roles, performers who would sooner publicly embarrass themselves than be privately complacent. The thing is that in the rest of the world, these leading men and women are embraced as part of the system, not apart from it -- they're seen as movie stars, not character actors.
So here's a list of 10 actors from around the globe (read: Not America) who have shaped contemporary world cinema by consistently embracing roles that pose questions with no easy answers, characters whose trajectories don't follow clean arcs so much as they do the jagged lines of real life. This is as insanely myopic a list as has ever been devised, but it's proof enough that sometimes you have to draw outside the lines to make art that really matters.
10. Michael Fassbender
His Key Role: 'Hunger'
The most courageous thing Michael Fassbender can do these days is to walk down a public street, as his ever-growing horde of rabid admirers is always ready to tear the meaty flesh off his chiseled man bones (Fassbender's PR team is free to quote me on that). When was the last time an actor became a sex symbol on the heels of such difficult and unnerving roles? The German-born Fassbender had kicked around for a while, but he didn't really arrive until he starred as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's 'Hunger,' the gaunt and unwashed leader of Ireland's pivotal 1981 hunger strike.
Despite the fact that the (brilliant) film was obviously never destined for commercial success (one of its posters was just a swirl of feces), Fassbender was nevertheless able to use it as a launching pad to global stardom. His brief role in 'Inglourious Basterds' was rather flattering, but the predatory shame of his turn in Andrea Arnold's (brilliant) 'Fish Tank' proved that he Fassbender was interested in perverting his image, even if it slightly delayed his imminent fame. Fassbender will be known as Magneto before the summer is out, but he's already filming another project with Steve McQueen, proving that he isn't willing to be just another pretty face. Or charming accent. Or perfectly honed body. ...God, I hate Michael Fassbender.
9. Bae Doo-na
Her Key Role: 'Air Doll'
There are a bunch of Korean actors on this list -- I'm not exactly sure why that is, perhaps there's something in the water over there. We already knew that Bae Doo-na is ridiculously versatile, her winsome turn as a meek high school rocker in 'Linda Linda Linda' coming three years after playing a luckless anarchist in Park Chan Wook's masterfully grim 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,' but it was her turn in Hirokazu Kore-eda's 'Air Doll' (inexplicably still without American distribution) which confirmed that Bae can do pretty much whatever she wants.
'Air Doll' is the wistful story of an inflatable sex doll named Nozomi who comes to life in the outskirts of Tokyo. A Pinocchio plot for the sex doll era (surely historians will remember this period of time as "The Sex Doll Era"), 'Air Doll' is a fairy tale every bit as lovely as it is gut-wrenching, a narrative that explores difficult notions of replacement with all the precious charm of an old school Disney fable. Nozomi's Japanese is as stilted as her gait -- for a Korean actress to continually find her way into Japanese films requires a fearlessness of its own. Bae's complete commitment to the fantasy allows the film to transcend the twee preciousness of its premise, her unyielding faith in both herself and her director ensuring that her magical performance is always enchanting and never silly.
8. Edgar Ramirez
His Key Role: 'Carlos'
So Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu saw Venezuelan student Edgar Ramirez in a short film and offered him a starring role in 'Amores Perros,' and Ramirez declined, choosing instead to finish his thesis. That takes a certain amount of guts, considering that there were days during which I would have abandoned my thesis for a hot meatball sandwich (and I don't even like meatballs that much).
But it wasn't until Ramirez finally got his diploma that he was freed to showcase the full extent of his fearlessness -- he first became a recognizable face in the likes of 'Che' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' but it was his mammoth eponymous performance in Olivier Assayas' 'Carlos' that almost single-handedly earned him a spot on this list. The movie is 5 1/2 hours long and the guy is in just about every frame, but Ramirez boldly embodies the 20th century's most narcissistic terrorist Ramirez with a precariously dangerous monotone, striking an uneasy balance between shark-like somnambulism and megalomaniacal rage that imbues his every globe-trotting move with a terrible menace.
7. Sylvie Testud
Her Key Role: 'Lourdes'
Sylvie Testud has quietly lived the kind of life that demands a memoir by the age of 33. She's appeared in several dozen films since breaking onto the scene in 1991, and she's such an inherently talented actress that even her wee Irish clone -- 'Hanna' star Saoirse Ronan -- has become an accomplished actress in her own right. Her excellence has never been disputed, but due to the fiercely unpalatable nature of her work (by "fiercely unpalatable" I don't just mean films adapted from the work of Marcel Proust, I mean Chantal Ackerman films adapted from the work of Marcel Proust), she didn't gain much international recognition until she played a supporting role in 'La Vie en Rose.'
Yet Testud's global success only encouraged the actress to challenge herself like never before -- not only has she recently submitted herself to the Johnnie To experience in 'Vengeance,' but her righteously deadpan performance in Jessica Hausner's 'Lourdes' as a quadriplegic who may have been cured by God is that film's one inarguable miracle. Testud contorts herself into the soul of a woman whose body has rendered her immutably crass and stubborn, and while it's left open-ended as to whether or not her character was imbued with a holy spirit, by refusing to capitulate to easy grabs for pity Testud fills her with a rugged vitality that can't be shaken.
6. Jeon Do-yeon
Her Key Role: 'Secret Sunshine'
Jeon Do-yeon was the initial impetus for writing this list. In Lee Chang-dong's 'Secret Sunshine' she gives the kind of performance that pretty much invalidates the Oscars -- that seems like (and might be) something of a silly comment, but Jeon's turn as a bereaved mother is so complete and unforgiving that it puts into harsh relief just how little we demand of our movie stars before calling them brave. Her portrayal of Shin-ae goes to hell and back, encouraged by her probing director to dig deeper than most actors might ever feel comfortable. Like Emily Watson in 'Breaking the Waves' or Maria Falconetti before her in 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' Jeon Do-yeon doesn't capture a snapshot of suffering so much as she's reborn into a senselessness so profound that it feels like your own -- it's a performance that bulldozes the very notion of egocentricity. That might not sound like so much fun, but her ultimate revival makes for one of those movie moments that will stay with you until your dying day. Earlier this year Jeon could be seen in Im Sang-soo's remake of 'The Housemaid,' in which the actress has a good bit of fun toying with gender roles and throwing her naked middle-aged body around like nobody's watching.
5. Denis Lavant
His Key Role: 'Beau Travail'
Denis Lavant scares the crap out of me. He was born with one of those faces that predestines a character actor, a pock-marked slab of hollow wrinkles that anticipates a certain madness. If Lavant weren't fearless he would never get any gigs (he's not exactly stealing roles from Channing Tatum any time soon), but given the reckless if refined abandon with which he throws himself into his performances, it might require almost as much fearlessness to watch his roles as it does to embody them. His sputtering vagrant in Leos Carax's 'The Lovers on the Bridge' is an especially wild bit of madness in a frenzied love story that's characterized by its complete lack of sane restraint, and in Carax's portion of 'Tokyo!' Lavant plays a subterranean, bomb-throwing menace named "Merde." There's having fun with your work, and then there's publicly channeling some primitive, profoundly disturbing sliver of the human id, forever tainting your image as a thespian and a human being-- I implore you to judge on which side of the line this falls.
But is there anything in life that requires more courage than dancing? Sorry, Libyan fighter pilots righteously defying your evil orders to kill innocent civilians, but I think not. The last scene of Claire Denis' 'Beau Travail' provides one of film history's most disarmingly powerful endings, a head-bopping ambush that appropriately caps off Denis' woozy and carnal militaristic jamboree. This is what Ron Howard would call, "A dilemma." See, this little clip reveals absolutely nothing of the plot, but the sideways satisfaction of the film's finale is obviously lessened if you've seen it before. So I'll just leave this here with that awkward disclaimer, teasing you that these are four of the most joyful minutes the cinema has ever known, and contain within them everything you would ever have to know about the wild ecstasy of watcing Denis Lavant do his thing.
4. Isabelle Huppert
Her Key Role: 'La Ceremonie'
What's left to say about Isabelle Huppert? All I can really do is link to the final scene in Michael Haneke's 'The Piano Teacher' (the clip reveals the ending only in the most literal sense). A YouTube by the name of "Jeumort" says of the moment: "It's like her soul is leaking out of her face," and that sounds just about right. Huppert has been an innervating if hostile screen presence since she first hit the scene in the early 1970s, and despite her enormous worldwide success she continues to rage at expectations. Taking a quick glance at her performances in recent work like Claire Denis' 'White Material,' it would seem as if Huppert is now actively preying upon her own twisted image, gobbling up all the roles that other actresses might find too unseemly or chaotic to make real. Huppert isn't interested in eliciting your approval, she wants your awe, and she appears intent on coming back until she's got every last bit of it.
3. Olivier Gourmet
His Key Role: 'The Son'
Olivier Gourmet has a name that suggests a man with a discerning palate and a taste for the refined, but there's something palpably industrial about this gruff and stout be-speckled Belgian actor. Often found anchoring the films of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Gourmet is a thick and stocky little man who boils with intensity like a soup heated directly by the fires of the sun itself -- the leather strap worn by the carpenter he plays in 'The Son' doesn't support him so much as it contains him, a notion underscored by how ordinary and almost nerdy he typically appears. Gourmet is the primary weapon in the Dardenne's arsenal of poetic realism, and he's quick to embrace the paternal characters they provide for him despite the fact that each role he inhabits seems more brute and unlikable than the last (Gourmet is the master of unrepentant tough love). By that logic, it's his recent turn as a giggly Faustian impresario in Abdellatif Kechiche's 'Black Venus' that resonates as his most unsettling performance.
2. Juliette Binoche
Her Key Role: 'Certified Copy'
Juliette Binoche might have the greatest resume of any film actress who's ever lived. Her body of work is so incredible that even after she co-starred in 'Dan in Real Life' a Cinematical article confidently suggested that she "Might have the greatest resume of any film actress who's ever lived." Something about her screen presence -- an energy somehow sophisticated and earthy -- has appealed to legendary filmmakers the world over. Binoche has worked with Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, Kryszstof Kieslowksi, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Michael Haneke, Patrice Leconte, Leos Carax, Chantal Ackerman, Olivier Assayas... It's insane, and even now at the height of her fame Binoche refuses to settle for easy paychecks.
In Abbas Kiarostami's imminent 'Certified Copy' (quite possibly the best film of this young decade), Binoche might have found her greatest challenge yet, portraying a deceptively simple mother who spends an afternoon pretending to be married to a visiting writer. Binoche's role eventually requires the actress to confront the performative nature of identity while still maintaining a warm and full-bodied character, a tightrope walk that Kiarostami has never attempted with such an eye towards the traditional conventions of movie romances. It's a part reliant upon mirrors and make-up yet completely devoid of all vanity (Binoche's character is referred to only as "She"), and Binoche is so unafraid to challenge the fundamental precepts of what it means to "act" that she walks away with the performance of a lifetime.
1. Choi Min-sik
His Key Role: 'Oldboy'
Choi Min-sik is a man without limits. Choi Min-sik so limitless that I remain convinced that 'Limitless' is really just an imaginative biopic about Choi Min-sik (it's there in the subtext). Against all odds, Choi has become the heavily jowled face of the Korean New Wave and one of the most famous stars in his home country -- it's like if Michael Shannon gained forty pounds and became our new Tom Cruise. Choi doesn't act so much as he surrenders to some primitive internal force, his performances -- even in relatively tender films like 'Failan' and 'Crying Fist' -- are imbued with the kind of primitive virility that renders subtitles almost irrelevant. Choi specializes in sociopaths, his feral elasticity and complete physical abandon are so hypnotically palpable that he's grounded some of recent cinema's most outlandish uber-violent morality plays in an unshakably human reality. His landmark performance in 'Oldboy' is animated without ever being cartoonish, and in his supporting role in 'Lady Vengeance' manages to be at the same time both profoundly evil and uncomfortably empathetic.
When Choi felt as if his national cinema was being threatened by Korea's screen quotas, he put his convictions before his checking account and protested by taking a five-year hiatus from film acting. These days you can see him in Kim Jee-woon's symphony of violence 'I Saw the Devil,' in which Choi imbues his impossibly purpose-driven serial killer with a giddy inertia that holds the movie together. When some actors cut off their tongues it's the stuff of schlock, when Choi does so it's practically Shakespeare. The difference? Showmanship.