best of 2009

The Best Performances of 2009

Sure, everyone loved Meryl as Julia, and Morgan Freeman as Mandela, and Mo’Nique as the worst mother in the history of ever. But Great Performances don’t just come from big movie stars in awards-bait flicks. They come from everywhere: stunt-bikers, Broadway actors, rappers, a guy who shoves a $100 bill down his pants, even Ryan Reynolds. Anyone who moves us, makes us laugh, or fascinates us for one concert, one television episode, one song, one viral video. Check out Vulture’s 30 Great Performances of 2009.

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January 16. Somehow, SNL’s Fred Armisen and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss managed to keep their romance private, until they engineered its unveiling in the most adorable way possible: a great New York Times piece about the two of them playing Rock Band backstage with Raul Esparza after Speed-the-Plow. A masterful performance in the medium of image control, the article presented them (probably accurately!) as homey, clever, and perfect for each other. As far as we can Google, no one’s yet coined a single-name term for the best of this year’s crop of suddenly relatable New York super-couples, so we’re nominating “Fredabeth.” Hey, beats “Armimoss.” —Dan Kois
January 18. After An Education’s mid-afternoon premiere in Park City, Carey Mulligan was transformed from “that girl who was good in The Seagull” to an indie star on the rise — thanks to her luminous performance in Lone Scherfig’s coming-of-age hit. —Logan Hill
March 20. As the office wallflower whose seduction by Clive Owen leads to the theft of her company’s secrets, Preston — better known to fans of True Blood as Arlene — makes the most of a small part and completely walks away with her big scene with Julia Roberts. Her grief at losing her job turns to glee as she remembers the tryst: “And it was worth it!” she laughs hysterically. “It was all worth it!” —Dan Kois
April 3. As Mike, the adulterous, sad-faced maintenance man at the amusement park where Greg Mottola’s coming-of-age story takes place, Reynolds paints a sympathetic picture of a small-town stud stuck in an imaginary past — in this case, one in which he “jammed with Lou Reed,” and in which he could sleep with fellow employees with impunity. —Dan Kois
April 10. Committing fully to the role of a totally sociopathic, possibly schizophrenic, fully homicidal mall cop, Rogen gave the best performance of his career in the least-appetizing great movie of the year. —Dan Kois
May 18. Genial provocateur Von Trier was in rare form facing the media after the premiere of his button-pushing, genital-smashing drama Antichrist. Asked to justify his film, he refused: “It’s the hand of God. And I am the best film director in the world. I’m not sure if God is the best God in the world.” —Dan Kois
July 24. The comedy of silent discomfort is more in fashion right now, but In the Loop makes a great case for the opposite style: The comedy of rudeness, in which characters trade elaborately precise insults of the sort that most people are too polite or passive to exchange in real life. No one in the film does this better than Capaldi, playing the prime minister’s chief of staff as a perpetually enraged and fantastically obscene caricature of the classic West Wing–style backroom operator. —Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 31. Subbing last-minute for the Beastie Boys, who had to cancel when Adam Yauch began treatment for salivary gland cancer, Jay-Z and his band opened their set with the massive blast of “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” a classy move that touched off pandemonium in the festival crowd. It epitomized the entire show: tight, well-rehearsed, but also full of spontaneous moments that sent Jay’s home crowd into hysteria. —Ben Mathis-Lilley
August 21. The performances in Quentin Tarantino’s WWII lark toggled between cartoonishly bad (Eli Roth) and cartoonishly great (Christoph Waltz), but Laurent, as Shosanna, was the intense, realistic center of QT’s world. —Dan Kois
August 28. They couldn’t have dreamed up a better fashion world heroine if they tried. Coddington’s crotchety relationship with Anna Wintour gave vicarious power to every editorial and fashion assistant around; she played the soulful diva to Wintour’s elusive ice queen, shuffling around in her matronly black dresses muttering for every inch of aesthetic say … and ultimately winning. —Emma Pearse
September 13. Hip-hop’s most reliable meme-maker finally outdid himself at the VMAs, incurring hell’s fury by taking a stand for art and interrupting an acceptance speech whose bogus humility we were already sick of before it was redeployed multiple times at every subsequent 2009 awards show. Beyoncé was robbed. —Lane Brown
October 2. It’s difficult when your wife leaves you. It’s especially difficult when she leaves you for a pompous, honey-voiced, bearded oversharer who constantly wants to give you a bear hug. In a just world, Melamed’s “No one is playing the blame game, Larry” would be this year’s “I drink your milkshake.” —Adam Sternbergh
October 22. Miller strode right to the edge, fearlessly, of Patrick Marber’s reimagining of Strindberg’s convulsion about power plays between the sexes. At more than one performance, audiences laughed inappropriately and derisively, maybe to prove their superiority over an actress they see as little more than a starlet — not seeing that bringing this much vulnerability and openness to a performance takes brass balls. —Stephanie Zacharek
November 8. In Mad Men’s finale, Don Draper’s out-of-control “your little white nose!” rant at Betty was the climax of a season in which Hamm turned a character who could easily have been a maddening cipher into someone endlessly watchable, even in moments of great cruelty. But we could also point to Joan Holloway’s tragic accordion solo, or Pete and Trudy’s joyous foxtrot of marital collaboration, or the million fabulous lines of dissolute Roger Sterling, including but not limited to the remark “It looks like Iwo Jima in here” as some poor guy squeegeed foot-blood off the office window. —Emily Nussbaum
November 12. Ron Swanson hates government, loves Bobby Knight, and describes his ideal sex as “doing peyote and then slowly sneezing for six hours.” The sound Offerman makes during his shoe shine is his character incarnate: feral, deranged, orgasmic, and 100 percent Ron Fucking Swanson. —Will Leitch
December 11. It’s not easy to serve as an unofficial corporate apology while remaining totally endearing, but Broadway vet Cody pulls it off in Disney’s re-envisioning of their lucrative princess franchise. Man-crazy, sickeningly rich, and desperate to be royalty, Lottie serves as flouncing counterpoint to the movie’s sensible heroine, Tiana — but pretty much steals the show. —Dan Kois
December 18. To say that Next New Action Star Sam Worthington was upstaged by Avatar’s scenery isn’t an insult. Worthington aced his role as a brawnier Harrison Ford, but the thrillingly rendered moon Pandora was James Cameron’s real star. From the bioluminescent plants that glowed under each footstep (in the most unexpected Michael Jackson homage of the year) to the strange flowers that shrunk into their stems at the slightest touch, the cutting-edge effects (and the $300 million or more it cost to make them) did what Cameron’s awful dialogue couldn’t: They made you believe that Pandora was animated by some collective alien unconscious. —Logan Hill
The Best Performances of 2009