SPOTLIGHT: Tilda Swinton

One of the most wildly talented performers working today, Tilda Swinton brings the utmost care to every movie character she portrays.  Whether it’s glossy Hollywood productions like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, intense indie grime like Julia or a seductive romance like the Italian drama I Am Love, Swinton truly transforms on the screen.  She makes every character, no matter how weird and despicable, inescapably human.  Often pidgeonholed as an Ice Queen after playing them (sometimes literally) in movies like Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton and The Chronicles of Narnia, the truth is that Swinton simply has more emotional range and capacity for risk-taking than anyone else currently working in her profession.

Michael Clayton- Movies like this don’t intend to become a showcase for acting, yet Swinton steals every scene she is in, Clooney be damned.  As cutthroat corporate executive Karen Crowder, Swinton shows us a woman whose every ferocious stroke is driven by desperation.  For every scene showcasing her aggressiveness,  there is one that undermines it, including the legendary final showdown between her and the title character.

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SPOTLIGHT: Meryl Streep

Fresh off her decades-in-the-making third Academy Award victory, now seems the perfect time to take a look back at her unprecedented acting career.  Widely considered one of the finest screen actresses living or dead, her gift with accents is almost as iconic as her darting eye movements.  Streep is one of those performers who are imminently watcheable even if the movies are terrible (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!).  And yes, while she’s shone brightly in her fair share of duds, she does the same in movies that are actually good, too.  Whether she’s playing a notable historical figure like Thatcher or Julia Child or a dry-witted monster like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, you never stop seeing her.  Each performance is a unique creation all its own, but you can still see her underneath it.

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SPOTLIGHT: Kirsten Dunst

Kirsten Dunst is so much more than Mary Jane Watson.  Yes, Spider-Man’s muse is her most famous role, but Dunst gives terrific performances in several other lesser-known films.  She uses her expressive facial features to convey unbearable sadness as well as inescapable joy.  Though her career is thought to have ended when the Spider-Man franchise went up in flames after the third installment, she’s been doing some of the best work of her career since then.

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SPOTLIGHT: Matt Damon

Matt Damon is one of the hardest working, most consistently superb screen actors working in Hollywood today.  He’s one of the few people working inside the modern-day studio system who has yet to fully succumb to a large pay day.  Even looking at his page on IMDB, you see he has 5 films slated for release in 2011, the first of which was The Adjustment Bureau. His name on the marquee was enough to draw studio money to a film otherwise filled with lesser names.  Since his big break in Good Will Hunting, he has evolved into a full-fledged movie star without losing his passion-project sensibility.  Whether he’s chasing down the truth in The Bourne Trilogy or partnering with Clint Eastwood, you have enough faith of his ethic off-camera to enjoy what’s about to be in front of it.

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SPOTLIGHT: Nicole Kidman

Few actresses have matched Nicole Kidman’s hot streak in the early 2000s.  Not that she set the box office on fire, more our imaginations.  People watch this accidental movie star fully embody a variety of characters with not only ease, but technical perfection.  She is a consummate professional when it comes to characterization and the emotional control she displays over her characters.  This perfection draws the audience to her even when she shares the screen with others more famous.  Although now she is a household name, that is only because she snatched it away from those who couldn’t hold onto audiences quite like her.

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SPOTLIGHT: Viggo Mortensen

It’s kind of ironic that Viggo Mortensen has become somewhat of a symbol of rugged masculinity on the screen, because his best characters often undo that image.  Like Michael Douglas before him, Mortensen frequently does movies that put the modern American male through some kind of brutal morality test.  He finds the bruised souls of these characters, and shines even when he’s part of a large ensemble (Lord of the Rings.) However, he is at his best when he is front in center, paired with a director like David Cronenberg who has some mischief cooked up to counter his archetypal characters.

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SPOTLIGHT: Annette Bening

There’s always a little bit of madness lurking behind Annette Bening’s eyes.  Whether this is her character or the real woman is a mystery, one that viewers have been more than happy to be wrapped up in throughout her career.  Bening is an expert at pealing back the layers of characters we would normally dismiss as arrogant, shallow or bitchy.  She does this either with an objective approach to a distasteful character (American Beauty) or by putting herself completely into the role (The Kids Are All Right.)  No matter what her approach, though, there’s always that little bit of madness below the surface, ready to snap.

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SPOTLIGHT: Daniel Day-Lewis

Gargantuan doesn’t even begin to describe a Daniel Day-Lewis performance.  One of the greatest living actors, if not the greatest, he towers over other actors of his generation with a surreal dedication to his roles.  Known as a definitive method actor, he stays in character from the time a movie starts shooting until the time it finishes production.  This practice has won him 2 Oscars out of four nominations.  He only does a project when he can truly commit himself to the grueling experience he goes through to prepare, which is why we don’t see him every year.  When we do though, it’s one goddamn hell of a show.

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SPOTLIGHT: Naomi Watts

Few actresses in Hollywood that are this attractive get famous for their talent.  That’s just how the business works, unless you’re Naomi Watts.  Her career was launched by a David Lynch movie early in the 2000’s, and she’s been on an almost perfect hot streak ever since.  Sure, she does venture into the mainstream (King Kong), but it isn’t because she’s looking for a paycheck.  She is an actress who does movies she cares about.  In 2010, after a couple years out of the spotlight, she makes a return in the new Woody Allen movie and takes the starring role in a thriller about the outed spy Valerie Plame.  On her way to becoming one of the endearing performers of modern movies, let’s hope Watts continues to send volts through the system for years to come.

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SPOTLIGHT: Johnny Depp

Renowned mostly for his mainstream work in Pirates of the Caribbean and by fans of Tim Burton movies, Johnny Depp can be categorized almost unfairly.  I say almost because he does great work in both of those categories, and I say unfairly because there is quite a bit more to this actor’s career.  Whether he be a playwright fighting to get back to his childhood (Finding Neverland) or a sly gangster evading the authorities (Public Enemies), Depp proves time and again to be one of the most diverse, high-quality performers working in film today.  He takes on projects of passion, and they just happen to make a lot of money.  This could be because he works with talented filmmakers with a built-in audience, but it’s not.  It’s because he carries a built-in audience to terrific filmmakers, and then everyone wins.

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