Richard Brody on the Best Performances of the Twenty-First Century

I’m Richard Brody.

I’m a film critic at The New Yorker,

and today I’m gonna talk about the best performances

of the 21st century.

I’m gonna highlight American performances today.

Maybe the chance will come up soon

to talk about international ones.

Number five is Mahershala Ali in Moonlight.

What he does with his character and with his bearing

in embodying this character sets the tone

for the entire film.

[dramatic orchestral music]

Feel that right there?

You in the middle of the world.

Ali plays the role with a wry, sarcastic,

yet involuntarily vulnerable undertone.

It’s almost as if he’s whispering,

murmuring the role of Juan.

My mama. She do drugs, right?

[birds chirping]


[footsteps falling]

Yet at the same time,

Ali’s very presence is commanding, decisive.

It’s as if throughout the entire film,

not just the first sequence,

even when he’s absent, his power dominates the entire movie.

Number four is Miranda July in The Future.

She actually plays two roles in her movie.

In one of them, she lends her voice

to the character of a talking cat.

But what I’m most enthusiastic about is her performance

as Sophie, a 35 year old dancer, who feels

that her best creative years are on the verge

of slipping away, and that she needs

to seize the day, take control of her life.

Well, 40 is basically 50, and then

after 50, the rest is just loose change.

Loose change?

Like not quite enough to get anything you really want.

Oh, God!

As a dancer and even more as an essentially creative

and imaginative person, Sophie has a kind

of obsession with a shirt she calls Shirty,

and when she has an affair with a man she meets

by a strange series of coincidences, she creates

a dance with, for, and because of Shirty.

That is, for me, one of the most profound

and moving moments in the modern cinema.

[melancholy music]

Miranda July, well, she’s a great writer,

but it’s her balletic grace.

It’s her performance as a dancer

in her own movie playing the role

of a dancer that, for me, makes this movie transcendent.

Number three is Anna Paquin in Margaret.

Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, an Upper West Side teenager.

Lisa inadvertently causes a bus accident

in which a woman is killed,

and soon, this case takes over her life.

The entire point of the lawsuit was

to get the guy fired so he doesn’t kill somebody else.

Lonergan writes and directs the movie

as a city symphony, filling it with the grand passions

of urban life, and Paquin handles the intricate dialogue

that Lonergan crafts for her with a deft,

almost a rope dance-like precision

that nonetheless is filled with the energy that expands

to fill the city as the images do.

I think you’re very young.

What does that have to do with anything?!

If anything, I think it means I care more

than someone who’s older because this kind

of thing has never happened to me before.

No, it means you care more easily.

There’s a big difference.

And Paquin invests this character

with a precocious authority and a preternatural sense

of command that makes it one of the great teen performances

in the history of cinema.

Number two is Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline.

The character of Madeline is a theater prodigy who has

a significant role in a major theater company in Manhattan.

Yet this very advanced young actress is also dealing

with the regular problems of a teenager.

[kissing smack]

[Date] Where are you going?


Are you goin’ home?

I mean, can I get a kiss

without the hair in it? [Madeline laughing]

The movie pivots on the relationship between art and life,

between creative drive and personal problems.

It’s as if the continuity between Helena Howard

as a teenager off screen, and Helena Howard

as a prodigious young actress on screen is itself

the essence of the dynamic that Decker captures in the movie

Evangeline is gonna-

[liquid splashing] [Regina gasping]

And what Howard does as an actress in the life

of Madeline and in the stage presence

of Madeline reminds me of the great Gena Rowlands,

who in John Cassavetes’ film Opening Night, delivers

the most remarkable performance of acting

on stage in a movie that I’ve ever seen.

My hand! [screaming and wailing]

[Madeline sniffing]

This troubling, unsettling, ambiguous dynamic between life

onstage and life offstage, between family life

and creative life gives the movie, and above all,

gives Howard’s performance a terrifying power.

The best performance of the century is

by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street,

which for my money, is also the best film

of the century so far. [lively big band music]

Do I look like the cat

who caught the canary? [people offstage laughing]

When Scorsese won his Best Directing Oscar

for The Departed, his 2006 film, I felt

that it liberated something in him,

that some of the crazies that came out

in Shutter Island went on full blast

in the Wolf of Wall Street.

[Jordan and Mark pounding and humming]

[whistling] Yeah. [Jordan chuckling]

It’s one of the great outpourings of creative energy,

from a director and from an actor, in the history of cinema.

It’s a story of greed as, essentially,

a form of original sin.

And Jordan Belfort has the unique skillset

to make that greed seem eminently desirable.

[Donnie] Excuse me.


Is that your car on the lot?

[Jordan] Yeah.

[Donnie] it’s a Jag? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

How much money you make?

I dunno. $72,000 last month.

You show me a pay stub for $72,000 on it,

I quit my job right now, and I work for you.

Hey, Paulie? What’s up?

No. Yeah, no, everything’s fine.

Hey, listen, I quit.

What’s more than two sides of his character, hedonism

and a kind of consummate, slick professionalism,

come together in an absolute fury of destructive,

yet completely appealing energy.

And it’s that very appeal that lends the movie its heart

of emotional and intellectual,

and even religious authority.

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