Yes, many people are already writing their Top 10 movie lists for 2012. We're saving ours for the last week of the year, but while we wait for this full, rich, and weird movie year to end, we're going to start looking back at certain highlights. Today, it's our favorite performances that won't be rewarded come Oscar time, but which stuck with us nevertheless.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed
Every actor loves to play a drunk. It's a faux-grit version of the sad clown. You get to ham it up, overact like crazy, make certain that you're the center of every scene ... but, you know, in a tragic way. Playing drunk has a tendency to turn every actor into Jerry Lewis.
So when someone does it right, it feels like a minor miracle. Smashed was a small indie movie that received a miniscule release back in October. If you heard about it at all, you might have thought it was a higher-quality TV-movie, considering its cast of talented TV actors (Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally). But it rises above the usual substance-abuse-movie tropes because it's not really about a drunk at all: It's about someone desperately, earnest trying not to be a drunk.
Winstead plays Kate, a kindergarten teacher who parties so hard with her husband (Paul) that she finds herself needing drinks in the parking lot before school and vomiting in the trashcan in front of her class. (She tells them she's pregnant, which has a certain drunk-talking-to-children logic.) After one wild night that ends up with Kate smoking crack, she groggily snaps to. She begins going to meetings with a co-worker (Offerman), becoming best friends with her sponsor (Octavia Spencer) and pulling her life back to some sense of normalcy.
What's impressive about Smashed is that this where the movie starts, not where it ends. It's clear that alcoholism is only one of Kate's issues, not least of which include her depressed (and also drunk) mother. We see how Kate's recovery in many ways makes her life even more difficult. It's one thing to follow AA's code to the letter, and it's another entirely to admit to your boss that you were drunk in front of a bunch of first graders. And mostly, we see how Kate's fight to get clean affects her marriage. Her husband, played with that winsome charm that Paul has made famous as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, drinks as well and doesn't see anything all that wrong with it; he also doesn't appreciate suddenly feeling like an asshole every time he has a few beers with his wife at dinner. But then again: Maybe he has more of a problem than he realizes himself. Kate and her husband love each other, without question, but that doesn't mean they're good for each other.
That sad love story makes up the heart of Smashed, and the best part of Winstead's performance is how little she reaches for effect. There isn't a moment she isn't believable; it's the type of quiet, non-fussy performance that's easy to miss, because there are no scenes of her throwing plates across the room or histrionically overemoting. It's just a clear, pleading look at a smart, lost young woman who is trying to figure herself out, before it's too late ... and just hoping that knowledge is enough.
Tom Cruise, Rock of Ages
One of the things that makes Tom Cruise a terrific star is the very thing that gets him into trouble: his willingness to make an utter fool out of himself. When he jumps on Oprah's couch or belittles Matt Lauer, there's deep, committed genuineness to his actions. He never half-asses anything—even if it's a throwaway part like Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, he acts like it's the Most Important Role in the World. It ought to be exhausting to watch, but Cruise's fevered intensity make everything he does compulsively engrossing. He will not stop until you are sufficiently entertained.
Rock of Ages is completely disposable, but Cruise gives it some kick because he's the one actor in the whole thing who takes this silly fluff seriously. He plays Stacee Jaxx, a leather-pants rock god of the late ‘80s who's like Axl Rose with a better upper body. But where the rest of the cast seem to be trapped in an extended Saturday Night Live skit—enjoying playing dress up with their bad hair and tight pants—Cruise goes to the trouble of turning a one-joke character into a really funny portrayal of monstrous, deluded ego.
In the original jukebox musical, Jaxx was more of a cretin, so if the defanged movie version isn't exactly a reprisal of Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey role from Magnolia, it at least allows him to be uncomfortably demented and dynamically arresting. His Jaxx is almost a mirror version of his public persona: sexually assertive and arrogantly callous where in real life he's almost always projected a bland, neutered handsomeness. It's clear Cruise understands this guy in a way a lot of us never will.
And then there's his singing. Most of Rock of Ages is content to wallow in glib nostalgia for bad hair metal, but Cruise's renditions of "I Want to Know What Love Is" and "Pour Some Sugar on Me" actually bring something new to the songs. Dueting with Malin Akerman on the Foreigner power ballad while trying to get in her pants, he sleazily mocks the song's declaration of true love to get at the horny, sweet-talking desperation underneath. As for the Def Leppard song, Cruise doesn't just sing the hell out of it—he embodies all of its cocky, shameless excess while strutting around the stage in front of a room of adoring fans. He doesn't ennoble "Pour Some Sugar on Me" because Def Leppard doesn't need to be ennobled. It needs to be embraced as the unsubtle, dopey piece of arena-rock nonsense that it is. Cruise alone in Rock of Ages seems to understand this: These cheesy songs (and the people who made them) wouldn't have become immortal if they weren't on some level utterly sincere in their attempt to show you a good time. That's the only gear Cruise knows.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.