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10 Great Small Performances 

Thursday, Jan 5 2006
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Screen time is precious when you’re an actor, and in 2005 these performers knew how to make a moment or two into something beautifully more. Scene stealing isn’t what I’m talking about: That connotes something desperate. We’re talking scene making here.

1. Leslie Mann(The 40-Year-Old Virgin). You could read something psychologically sinister into writer/director Judd Apatow giving his wife the part of a crazy-vomiting drunk chick whose collision-course driving nearly kills the hero. I prefer to see the gesture as romantic: a hilarious one-two punch of a role that a husband knew his beloved could knock out of the park. And she does.

2. The Rock(Be Cool). He wore skintight, soft-blue pants, smiled into a mirror and slapped his ass for us. He re-created a swishes-and-snaps cheerleader exchange from Bring It On for us. He was joyfully gay for us, and in this season spotlighting taciturn cowboys hiding their love, it’s good to remember how embracingly, openly fun this hulking Samoan ex-wrestler’s slice of comic real estate was in an otherwise lame sequel.

3. William Hurt (A History of Violence). It’s been months since David Cronenberg’s masterful suspense flick was released, but I don’t plan on ruining any surprises here. Let’s just say this eccentric Oscar-winner — loved and hated for his stammering patriarchal vibe — looks like he’s having the time of his life playing a Philly mobster. For certain actors like Hurt, loosening up a little can be a roller coaster for an audience.

4. Levon Helm(The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). There are many who make brief appearances in this rich and strange U.S.-to-Mexico odyssey from director/star Tommy Lee Jones. But it’s the veteran rock musician Helm, as a blind, friendly loner with a plainspoken request, who touches most deeply on the film’s themes of borders both physical and mental, and what it takes to cross them.

5. Eugene Clark(George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead). Playing the main zombie Big Daddy in this unjustly neglected masterpiece, Clark elicits a kind of warped sympathy as he leads an undead revolution. His scary cognitive breakthroughs are like something from the days of silent horror. All that’s left is for the veteran goremeister to craft an entire saga from the zombie’s point of view: Clark’s Karloff-ian turn hints at that scenario’s ripe possibilities.

6. Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend ?(Me and You and Everyone We Know). In a movie threaded with the gentle nudging of risky emotional leaps, these two teenage actresses took their sexually charged storyline and turned it into a mini-portrait of the whole of adolescence, becoming twin pillars of frankness, innocence, snarky humor, vulnerability and girl-power defiance.

7. Ryan McDonald(The Ballad of Jack and Rose). He made the awkward turning down of the confused virginal come-ons from his new “sister” into one of 2005’s most memorable and hilarious scenes, carrying in his lumpish frame and dryly witty remarks a wealth of outsider charm. Flesh-and-blood teenagers are hard to come by in movies, and in a film with more than a few such characters, this sweet-faced Canadian actor handily stood out.

8. Maurice Bénichou(Caché). While the story of this remarkable thriller follows a Frenchman’s guilt by way of a mysterious stalker plot — raising more questions than it answers — it makes sure to stop for a moment of undeniable, harrowing truth: Bénichou’s downtrodden, middle-aged Algerian father sobbing alone in his dingy kitchen, his existence again upended by accusations and betrayals, but the fight no longer in him.

9. Ralph Fiennes(Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). The special, grisly kick from this prestige-film stalwart’s debut as Voldemort is that it’s four films in, we’ve read the books, and yet his entrance is a bona fide blood-chiller: It’s as if we weren’t quite prepared for his vile, wraithlike presence or his horrific vitality. As a franchise-pivoting performance, it kills.

10. Sarah Silverman(The Aristocrats). Scores of comics, countless recited litanies of unspeakable acts, but only one true performance: this controversial raven-haired comedienne’s merging of a classic dirty joke with a casting-couch victim’s confessional. Joe Franklin may not be too pleased with Silverman’s poetic license, but for one crazy moment she certainly cured this one-note doc of its talking-headliner’s disease, and made you wonder if a legendarily taboo-busting joke had finally met its match.

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