Frances McDormand has made a distinguished career largely working with the Coen Brothers (one of whom to which she is married) and director Wes Anderson. Both-and the smartest directors for whom she’s worked-have utilized her ability to disappear into roles. You rarely hear people talking about a “Frances McDormand movie”. They talk about the characters she creates. A lot of actors get credit for epitomizing the blue-collar American, but I don’t think any actress embodies that niche better than McDormand, though her range allows her to do pretty much whatever she wants whenever she wants.
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Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks are, in my mind, the two best actors of their generation. Both started in TV, Hanks in comedy with Bosom Buddies, and Washington in drama on St. Elsewhere. Where Hanks’ career has exceeded Washington’s is not in talent, it is in project selection. Washington elevates anything he’s in, no matter how mediocre, but he’s unfortunately had stretches of his career where he’s picked projects way beneath his astounding talent level. Lately, though, Washington has been on a roll balancing commercial successes like The Equalizer and The Magnificent Seven with astounding dramatic performances in films like Flight and Fences. Like the best actors, there is no limit to what he can achieve if paired with the right cast, project, and director. He can be eminently likable, intensely despicable, sympathetic, heroic, noble and fallen all with an ease that lulls the audience until he turns it up and he grabs the screen by the throat and sears a moment into your mind forever. Glory, Philadelphia, The Hurricane, Flight, Fences, all of these films have moments that transcend what even great actors can do, and you realize that you’re watching someone whose work will be remembered as long as they’re showing films. He’s that good, and he keeps getting better. Washington is also a talented director, helming Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters, and Fences
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Ben Affleck has had a number of phases to his career in the 25 years plus he’s been in Hollywood. Starting out, Affleck and a number of young actors first gained notoriety in a number of Kevin Smith’s films (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, etc.) back when Kevin Smith actually made movies. Then he and his best friend Matt Damon had their Hollywood dream come true when their indie film, Good Will Hunting, in which they both wrote and starred, became one of the most critically acclaimed pictures of 1997 and the duo’s Oscar acceptance is one of the best of all-time. From there, Affleck entered a blockbuster phase that didn’t take. The scripts kept getting worse until he hit rock-bottom with Gigli, one of the most mocked films in recent memory.
Affleck, though, didn’t burn out. He started out as a writer, and he started picking quality scripts again. He also began directing, and he showed tremendous talent with Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo. Currently, his career is intertwined with being the current Batman, and while I may not be a huge fan of any of the films he’s been Batman in (funnily enough he played Superman first in 2006’s Hollywoodland), I like his take on the character, but I’m not certain where the DCEU goes with a Batman in his mid-to-late 40s. Whatever’s next, I think Affleck should get back behind the camera, pick projects that highlight his strengths as an actor (he’s not the strongest, but his overall knowledge of the process gives him an edge), and make the movies he wants to make. Getting sucked into commercial Hollywood blockbusters is what broke his career the first time; I’d hate to see it happen again.
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Tilda Swinton is a true chameleon. In her three decades of acting she’s played white witches, greedy corporate shills, eccentric women of every variety, androgynous ancient wizards, archangels, and decrepit old men. Her best known films: Michael Clayton, Narnia, and Doctor Strange, all featured her, but she usually pops in out of the blue made up in a completely different way than you’ve ever seen her before in a small role that always adds something to the film. Her crowning achievements, though, are her Oscar-winning role as the desperate corporate lawyer in Michael Clayton and, they may reboot the Narnia series, but they’ll never get a White Witch as dangerous and cunning as Swinton’s. I always enjoy seeing her name in a cast list, because half the challenge will typically be recognizing which role she played; odds are, it’ll be a standout performance.
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Mark Ruffalo has quietly put together one of the best resumes of any actor out there. He hasn’t just been in really good movies (which he has); he has been in some of the best movies made in the last 15 years. I would easily put both Zodiac and Spotlight on that list, The Brothers Bloom is and underrated classic, and Eternal Sunshine and Collateral are also both “perfect 10” films. That’s before you get to his contribution to the massive ensemble of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stepping in for the fired Edward Norton and making the Hulk his own. He has great range and his characters have in common an earnestness to their own personal sense of what’s just or fair. He’s not flashy, he wouldn’t even be well-known without the MCU, but you’re lucky if he’s in your movie.
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