11 Great Small Performances

You don’t give Oscars to performances like these. They’re too small, or they’re too weird, or they would lose their meaning if pumped up by an awards-crazy -season. Maybe they’re even willfully one-dimensional — a punch line, perhaps. But movies need them as much as they need the names above the title, and here are some of the most memorable from 2004.

J.K. Simmons (The Ladykillers, Spider-Man 2, Hidalgo). On TV’s Law and Order he brings grave authority to a recurring role as the prosecution team’s psychiatric expert, but in movies he’s proved to be a topnotch comic character actor. 2004 was a banner year for him, between his campy Buffalo Bill pop-up in Hidalgo, his digestively challenged, civil rights–obsessed bomb expert in The Ladykillers and, most notably, his letter-perfect J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man 2, which is a gem of old-movie-style screwball newsman crankiness.

Kelly MacDonald (Finding Neverland). When you’re -making a movie about the creation of a -theatrical icon like Peter Pan, whoever’s playing the green guy had better give you an idea of the transcendent qualities of the character. This fantastic Scots waif does exactly that with boyish brio, charm and, in an especially charged version of the clap-for-Tinkerbell scene, a deeply felt generosity.

Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan (Coffee and Cigarettes). The jewel of Jim Jarmusch’s otherwise spotty chat flick was watching these talented Brits skewer celebrity egos by hilariously taking turns poisoning each other’s tea. A short film that not only makes one realize that great actors rarely get to feed off one another in movies anymore, but would have earned an admission price on its own.

Steve Carell (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy). Anybody who can stand to the side in a group of braying oddball chauvinists that includes the gonzo Will Ferrell and steal not just snickers but tear-inducing laughter — here, as a sweetly brain-damaged weatherman — is an actor to treasure. And the comedy gods have been listening: Next year this Daily Show alum will star in his own tailor-made comedy vehicle.

Fenella Woolgar (Bright Young Things, Stage Beauty, Vera Drake). In three different movies, this exciting British newcomer gave us brilliant bite-size portraits of English privilege, as Evelyn Waugh’s euphoria-hungry party girl Agatha in the Vile Bodies adaptation Bright Young Things, a teasing yet vengeful aristocrat in Stage Beauty, and a pregnant rich girl’s condescendingly obliging friend in Vera Drake. Here’s hoping we get larger servings of her in the future.

Brad Bird (The Incredibles). While The Polar Express painstakingly rendered humans only to make them seem neither lifelike nor abstract — not anything, really — The Incredibles gave us cartoon-human heaven: a terrifically absurd German-Japanese clothier (and tough-love therapist) to superheroes called Edna "E" Mode, voiced with "dahlink"-drenched ferocity by her male creator. Let’s hope Edna is the tie-in toy of choice this holiday, because the image of schoolchildren everywhere doing Lotte Lenya is magical.

Sharon Warren (Ray). The flashback that explains everything in a person’s life is a device ripe for misuse in a film biography, and Ray Charles considered his mother a saint, but Warren doesn’t play someone with a halo and wings, just a woman making hard choices. To leech every drop of self-pity in her blind boy, she stands still while her son calls for her after falling. In a scene of wrenching duality, Warren’s words fiercely demand that young Ray help himself while her face betrays the pain of a mother ignoring the basic urge to run to a child in need.

M.C. Gainey (Sideways). The naked guy. Brave, raucously funny, terrifying. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean. If not, I really shouldn’t elaborate.

Orlando Tobon and Jaime Osorio Gómez (Maria Full of Grace). Like bookends, the father figures who facilitate and ultimately resolve a young Colombian woman’s desperate quest for betterment are this movie’s quietly powerful villain and savior. Gomez’s queasily attentive drug dealer serenely handing pellet after pellet to his comely new mule, then caressing her stomach to arrange his precious cargo, is eerie enough to feel like the molestation it really is. And when Maria’s predicament becomes nearly untenable at journey’s end, Tobon brings authoritative melancholy and comfort to the role of Don Fernando, an activist for the Colombian community in Queens, which is what Tobon is in real life.

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