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The Best Actors/Male Performances of 2008

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Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary RoadThe Oscar nominations are out, but with the amount of fine performances this year, it didn’t seem right to condense things down to a top ten list. A combination of both the best leading and supporting actors, here are the best male performances of 2008:

  1. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
    Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn are so neck-and-neck for the top spot I continue to waver between the two. However, a perfect example of why Oscar-potential films come out near the end of December in limited release, I lean toward Rourke for two reasons: 1) I saw his performance a couple weeks ago versus two months ago for Penn’s, so the memory is stronger in my mind at this moment, and 2) Rourke’s comeback out of practically nowhere has to count for something considering that Penn has so many opportunities at Oscar gold.
  2. Sean Penn, Milk
    Penn epitomizes Harvey Milk and completely disappears into the role. He is one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood, but I’ve almost grown complacent to this fact. Almost.
  3. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
    Perfect. Enough said.
  4. Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
    This poor guy continues to churn out some of the best performances in Hollywood, but is overlooked time and time again. This year, he doesn’t even garner an Oscar nod, despite his absolutely stunning performance in the Sam Mendes drama.
  5. Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man
    The surprise hit that in some ways came out of nowhere, Iron Man was great in many ways. Still, it was Downey’s performance that really worked wonders. Who knew that playing a cocky, billionaire playboy genius who also likes to blow up terrorists could be so much fun? Downey brings just the right level of intensity and laughs to the role, and he is now, once again, an A-list actor because of it.
  6. Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
    It’s probably not too hard to play a bitter old man who likes to growl, but Eastwood was thoroughly entertaining in his own movie. Unlike many of the actors listed below, he owned his picture in more ways than one.
  7. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
    Another actor who I’ve almost grown complacent to turning in stellar performances, Hoffman is great in Doubt, though compared to some of his other performances, it isn’t his best. Still, that must suck for everyone else that Hoffman can turn in standard performances and still be better than them.
  8. Frank Langhella, Frost/Nixon
    Langhella’s mesmerizing reeanactment of fallen President Richard Nixon singlehandedly elevates Ron Howard’s movie from a simple docudrama to something more. Langhella dominates every scene he’s in, especially the last 30 minutes or so.
  9. Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    This is one of the more understated performances of the year, but given that the film, which revolves entirely around Pitt’s character for three hours, garnered 13 nominations, he had to have done something right. His performance isn’t as dominating as some of those on this list, but when you look back on what he had to do – from portraying a shriveled-up little kid that looks and sounds like an old man to something quite the opposite, it’s pretty damn impressive.
  10. Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
    Shannon, who has earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal as a slightly insane soothsayer, is both disturbing and hilarious in Revolutionary Road. His performance properly throws off kilter what would have otherwise been a straight-arrow movie and gives audiences at least something to laugh at when everything else is just so damn depressing. Of course, it’s his words that cause the depressing events that follow.
  11. Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
    Here’s another understated performance that came out of nowhere to garner an Oscar nod (most likely stealing the placement away from DiCaprio). Most people have never even heard of The Visitor, let alone seen it, but Jenkins, who is generally seen in comedies (including Burn After Reading) shows that he can do much more. It’s one of those performances that work just right for a film like this, even though it may not compare so well to some of the grittier roles that often get more attention.
  12. Colin Farrell, In Bruges
    If you look back to my reviews from years ago, you would notice that I regarded Farrell as one of the best up-and-coming actors of his time. Due to some questionable career choices and a determination by the acting community to seemingly shun him come end-year awards, he hasn’t quite broken through as I expected. Nonetheless, Farrell’s hilarious-but-sad performance in the movie In Bruges really made the picture work. Who else could express such utter enthusiasm about midgets and make it work to his advantage?
  13. Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
    His performance in Tropic Thunder, as a cocky Australian actor who immerses himself so much in his characters that he undergoes a surgical procedure to become “black,” is hilarious – enough so that the gimmick earned him an Oscar nomination. Who saw that coming?
  14. Russell Brand, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
    No one knew who Russell Brand was before the spring of 2008 (outside of the U.K., that is), but people do now. Brand’s completely over-the-top performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was the most talked about part of the surprisingly hilarious movie. The comedian embraces his role as a cocky, sex-fueled pop-rock star with ease; apparently, the character was originally intended to be a yuppy, clean-cut author, but the script was rewritten when Brand charmed the casting crew.
  15. James Franco, Milk
    Franco, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a stoner in Pineapple Express, was overlooked by the Academy for his work in Milk. Strangely, Brolin has been getting more attention, even though his character isn’t nearly as interesting or compelling. Franco is one of those actors who can move between mainstream media and more dramatic material with ease; I expect to see his clout rise over the next few years.
  16. Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading
    Pitt is completely serious in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and is the complete opposite in the latest Coen brothers movie. His portrayal of an idiotic goofball who tries to blackmail a CIA agent is hysterical; he clearly had fun acting like a moron.
  17. Josh Brolin, W.
    While Brolin is getting recognized for his understated role in Milk, most have already forgotten that he played George W. Bush in the latest Oliver Stone movie. While the movie had some things that worked and some that didn’t, Brolin was certainly in the former category: he embraces the flawed [now-former] president with gusto.
  18. Leonardo DiCaprio, Body of Lies
    No one went and saw this CIA film, but DiCaprio turns in another fine performance here. While not nearly as strong as some of his other performances, it’s the difference in characters that impresses me so much. Whereas most actors, even the best of them, tend to stick to at least somewhat similar roles, DiCaprio doesn’t seem to be afraid to do just about anything, whether it’s an OCD-inflicted billionaire, a South African diamond smuggler, a depressed family man, a gang leader or a CIA operative.
  19. Tom Cruise, Tropic Thunder
    Okay, so maybe the performance itself isn’t amazing, but one has to give props to an actor who has seen his star diminish tremendously in the last few years. Cruise’s turn as a bald, overweight studio exec who bashes “washed-up action stars” earned him a lot of respect, and he’s pretty funny to boot. We could have done without the dance, however.
By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Top 10 Movie Lists
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