This year I saw three films featuring three wildly different Ellen Page performances. Last year's Juno we are all well aware of, perhaps even sick of due to an omnipresent soundtrack, oft repeated catchphrases and a polarizing celebrity screenwriter. But unlike the contrived quirk of Napoleon Dynamite or the insincerity of Little Miss Sunshine, at it's heart is an amazing performance of a teenager coming out of her shell, growing up and chipping away at the wall of cynicism and angst that all teenagers build and allowing herself to become vulnerable. It's a touching performance that carries the film and makes her awkward romance with Jason Bateman worthy of repeat viewings. But I'll move on to what really wins the Couchie.
In Hard Candy, a mind-boggingly twisted movie from a few years ago, Ellen Page and future Nite Owl Patrick Wilson go tete-a-tete for a blistering 100 minute study of moral ambiguity. The movie is built upon a series of plot twists and reveals so it's best to go into it with as little knowledge of the outcome as possible -- which is to say, here be spoilers. Page plays a 14 year old that meets Patrick Wilson's 32 year old in a chat room out in the wilds of the internets. They quickly set-up a meeting at a coffee shop where a brainy, articulate Page flirts her way into convincing Wilson to play his copy of a bootlegged Squarepusher concert at his secluded house in the hills. But before Wilson can do anything more than allow her to drink some of his booze, he finds himself drugged and strapped to a chair by Page and being accused of being a child molesting pedophile and worse. Wilson points out that Page made all the advances and he certainly seems like a nice enough guy -- but what was he doing chatting with and meeting up 14 year olds in coffee shops? Does she know something we don't or does she have the wrong guy? It's a brilliantly paced psychological nightmare of a movie. Every ten minutes your alliances are shifting -- is she a bonkers vigilante or a righteous crusader or a little of both? Is he just a lonely, confused sad sack or the worst kind of criminal? At 17 or 18 years old, Page gives a performance that's like her character, far wiser than her age should allow for. Both Wilson and Page are frighteningly convincing in what basically amounts to a one-room play, they're in every scene - practically every shot, and Page delivers a force-of-nature performance from her Tiny Canadian frame. To look in her eyes you're both fearful and worried for her at the same time. The movie left me slack-jawed for the duration and about 100 minutes afterward as well.
Another sledgehammer performance was given in this year's The Tracy Fragments. A film that could accurately be described as a dual performance piece. One from director Bruce McDonald's work in creating literally a moving collage of a film and the other being Page's haunted performance as a troubled, delusional, lost girl trying to run away from a big mistake -- a mistake any teenage girl could be caught making. This is not a Great Film. But even on its surface it is infinitely more interesting than the majority of the films that saw wide release in the theaters this year. Just because an experiment doesn't provide every result your looking for doesn't mean it's worthless. There's a lot to like about The Tracy Fragments and Page's performance is right there on the top of the list. For many obvious reasons she has the ability to exploit a viewer's natural instincts to want to take care and not see harm come to her, but the real work is in the commitment she gives to the role. There's a scene midway through where she completely breaks down in a phone booth, lashing out at reality -- kicking and punching the inside of the phonebooth with the intensity of a trapped wild animal. In the hands of a lesser talent it would come off like a desperate bid for attention. Look at me act! But it's pure character work here, even the worst lines of vioce-over narration she's given comes from such an honset place that Page makes it work. I honestly can't think of any other actors her age that disappear into their roles quite like she does and none of these three roles are anything like the other. What's even better is that none are attempting to be a cute, America's Sweetheart type of role. Even though due to her size, Page will probably be stuck with teenager roles for years to come, I hope she continues to leave the sweethearts for someone else.
Runner Up: Isabella Rossellini (Green Porno); Samantha Morton (Mister Lonely)
Last year was owned by Casey Affleck. Similarly, this year, another actor who had a lot of question marks around him, stepped up and with two choice roles hit every note so gracefully it boggled the mind that there was ever any doubt. It all hinges on Pineapple Express for Franco. We knew he had some comedy chops from Freaks & Geeks, but all his roles since then have basically been playing off of that tortured, conflicted, deeply serious guy that may have been perfected in James Dean and was certainly getting old by the time Spider-Man 3 came to town. Knowing that David Gordon Green was directing didn't lessen the surprise that Franco gave a fully-formed, complex, fragile, sympathetic pot-dealing guy named Saul within the confines of an anarchic summer-time action flick. Watching Saul's reactions to being thrown into the middle of a drug war is some of the purest joy I've experienced this year. Saul is the heart and soul of the movie and what's unexpected is that Pineapple Express should have such a big heart. While this is a trait of the Team Apatow productions, doing it successfully and without it feeling phony or forced is still a noteworthy achievement, and surely Rogen and (especially) Green had a lot to do with it but the wild-card is the winner. Like Ellen Page's performances, you don't feel like you're getting a version of Saul -- Franco is Saul.
And in keeping with the theme of honoring an actor who diversifies, you don't get much different than going form Pineapple Express to Milk. Now Milk is an excellent movie for so many reasons that it's obscene and of course up there on that list is Sean Penn. But the reason Penn will probably win the Oscar over Mickey Rourke is that Penn is amazing at sharing the spotlight in this film. Everyone who shares a moment of screen time with Penn in Milk is catching a huge acting updraft and soaring right alongside him. From the moment we meet Franco's Scott Smith on the stairs of a NYC subway station, I'm basically sold on the movie. It's one of the first scenes -- Penn meets Franco, talks him into bed, soon their in a relationship and headed to San Francisco and setting up a camera store in the Castro. A lot happens in the first 15 or so minutes of the film and it's pretty important that you buy the Penn/Franco relationship if you're going to get invested in the story. And as unlikely as a believable romance between characters played by these two actors sounds, it works amazingly well. While the role of Scott Smith isn't a very unique one on film, he's treated with care by Van Sant and Franco. You can see through Scott's eyes what's special about Harvey just as you can see how much Scott means to him. Since we meet these two characters at the same time it's crucial that there's a connection and Franco rolls with Penn with such ease it's practically grace personified. While it's Sean Penn's show without doubt, and Diego Luna and Emile Hirsch turn in showier performances, James Franco does a fantastic job of creating the foundation on which the rest of the movie takes off.
Runner Up: Diego Luna (Mister Lonely, Milk); Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)