Art House Powerhouse Actors

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By: Saul Austerlitz, Tim Basham, Carter Davis, Rob Davis, Steve Dollar, Sean Edgar, Kristina Feliciano, Holly Haworth, Katie Heimer, Josh Jackson, Jason Killingworth, Rachael Maddux, Amber North, Tim Regan-Porter and Sarah Schmelling

Welcome to Paste’s 2nd Annual Art House Powerhouse, where we celebrate the individuals and organizations behind the films we love. The past year has been a great one for indie cinema. Oscar and Golden Globe nominations were dominated by films from directors Ang Lee, Bennett Miller, Fernando Meirelles, David Cronenberg, Niki Caro and Noah Baumbach. The Best Actor was truly the best actor (Paste cover subject, Philip Seymour Hoffman)—not the most famous, prettiest or longest-past-due. Linklater and Soderbergh returned to the fold. Little Miss Sunshine demonstrated the sustaining power of word-of-mouth. And—with efforts from Google, YouTube, iTunes and Amazon—smaller films received more exposure than ever before.

Paste’s Art House Powerhouse isn’t simply a list of our critical favorites. These entrants help quality independent film keep operating at the level it’s now achieved. They elevate the craft, draw audiences and keep the engines of commerce running in support of the most skilled, unique voices out there. This isn’t a buzz-list or a box-office tally, though both of those attributes count. We’re looking for those who brilliantly combine art and commerce, powering indie cinema in the process.

Here are the top movers and shakers of the past year’s art house world…

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman
Recent Highlights: Capote
Upcoming: The Savages, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Thanks to a transformative turn as Truman Capote (a feat to marvel at from a former running back more often shaggy than effete), Hoffman finally nabbed the Oscar everyone knew he was due. And no post-prize slump is pending. The actor has a string of roles ahead, including films with old-school A-listers Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet and imaginatively whacked screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman.

2. Gael García Bernal
Recent Highlights: Babel, The Science of Sleep, The King, Bad Education, Motorcycle Diaries
Upcoming: Défecit, Rudo y Cursi, El Pasado
Evolving through roles from a young Che Guevara to an Almodóvar cross-dresser, chameleon-like Mexican actor García Bernal also successfully tried his hand at melancholy comedy this year in Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep. He should expect more Stateside recognition after reuniting with Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel alongside Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

3. Forest Whitaker
Recent Highlights: The Last King of Scotland, Mary
Upcoming: Ripple Effect, The Air I Breathe, Vantage Point
Easy to take for granted, Whitaker’s looming presence and deceptively soft-spoken manner sneak up on one great performance after another. As Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, he’s winning the kind of acclaim that precedes Oscar nominations.

4. Juliette Binoche
Recent Highlights: Caché (Hidden), Bee Season, Mary, Breaking and Entering
Upcoming: A Few Days in September, Souvenirs du Valois
She seemed the reincarnated spirit of Louise Brooks in 1986’s Mauvais Sang, and then, one film later, Binoche was playing opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She’s zig-zagged ever since, from French to English, light to dark, but always with integrity.

5. Aaron Eckhart
Recent Highlights: Thank You For Smoking, The Black Dahlia, The Wicker Man
Upcoming: No Reservations, Bill
In Thank You For Smoking, Eckhart dials the self-confident charm up so high that he has us pulling for the tobacco industry’s arrogant, soulless spokesman. His growing status as a go-to actor for edgy directors—in addition to original patron Neil LaBute—means he’ll likely grace this list many times in the future.

6. Greg Kinnear
Recent Highlights: Little Miss Sunshine, Fast Food Nation, Invincible, The Matador
Upcoming: Unknown, The Feast of Love
Almost 10 years after his Oscar-nominated supporting role in As Good As It Gets, Kinnear, with subtle brilliance, plays a burger-chain exec in Fast Food Nation, and he perfectly quirks it up as the motivational-speaker/dad in Little Miss Sunshine.

7. Julianne Moore
Recent Highlights: Freedomland, Children of Men
Upcoming: Savage Grace, Next, I’m Not There
Passion and intelligence have made Moore a muse for a generation of smart filmmakers as divergent of sensibility as Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Haynes and companion Bart Freundlich.

8. Matt Dillon
Recent Highlights: Crash, Factotum
Rare among handsome fellows in Hollywood, Dillon has slipped into one ugly character after another without denting his charisma. Whether it’s Bukowski’s hard-drinking alter ego in Factotum or the racist cop in Crash, his well-rounded performances give his twisted characters a halo of charm. In his hands, they’re flawed, cocksure and redeemable.

9. Cate Blanchett
Recent Highlights: Babel, The Good German, Little Fish
Upcoming: I’m Not There, Notes on a Scandal, The Golden Age

10. Natalie Portman
Recent Highlights: V for Vendetta, Free Zone, Goya’s Ghosts
Upcoming: My Blueberry Nights, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Portman shaved her head for Vendetta and spawned dozens of YouTube tributes with her satirical, foul-mouthed rap on SNL. An obvious candidate for the art house she’s not. But she was a revelation in Closer, and her preternatural ability to turn on the waterworks electrified Free Zone, so we’re not surprised director Wong Kar-wai is calling for My Blueberry Nights; we’re just thrilled she’s answering.

11. David Strathairn
Recent Highlights: Good Night, and Good Luck, The Notorious Bettie Page, We Are Marshall
Upcoming: My Blueberry Nights, Fracture
Grizzled character actor Strathairn grabbed the opportunity to play a paragon of moral rigor, starring in George Clooney’s Edward R. Murrow biopic. Having snagged an Oscar nomination and a boatload of goodwill from frustrated liberals, he’ll appear next in My Blueberry Nights.

12. Felicity Huffman
Recent Highlights: Transamerica
Upcoming: Georgia Rule
In between TV gigs (Sports Night, Desperate Housewives) Huffman gave one of 2005’s best and most transformative performances in Transamerica, as a preoperative male-to-female transsexual finally getting to know her long-lost son.

13. Heath Ledger
Recent Highlights: Brokeback Mountain, Lords of Dogtown, Casanova
Upcoming: I’m Not There, The Dark Knight
Ledger finally made good on his promise with his affecting turn as Ennis del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. Laconic, crabbed, disinclined to speak, Ledger’s Ennis nonetheless compressed decades of suppressed emotion into a single glance, the caress of a blood-stained shirt, or a lone, choked-off oath. Without Ledger’s remarkable performance, it’d be hard to imagine Brokeback Mountain at all.

14. Maria Bello
Recent Highlights: A History of Violence, Thank You for Smoking
Upcoming: Butterfly on a Wheel
At once tough and tender, Bello brings a refreshing, grown-up sexuality to the screen, and a sense of inner strength that allows her characters real emotional exposure. At 39, her career has only begun to hit its stride.

15. Parker Posey
Recent Highlights: For Your Consideration, The OH in Ohio
Upcoming: Fay Grim, Spring Breakdown
As the youngest member of Christopher Guest’s esteemed comedy troupe, Posey is the raison d’etre for DVD outtakes. Her career choices are as unpredictable as her grinning, gum-chewing, fast-talking characters. And she seems game for anything. So Fay from Henry Fool will return to the screen in an espionage thriller? We’re there.

16. Zach Braff
Recent Highlights: The Last Kiss, Garden State
Upcoming: Fast Track, Open Hearts
Braff embodied 25-year-old angst in Garden State (which he also wrote and directed) and then 30-year-old angst in The Last Kiss. But he returns to comedy alongside fellow small-screen stars Amanda Peet and Jason Batemen in Fast Track, and is rumored to be stepping into the shoes of Chevy Chase in the upcoming Fletch prequel.

17. Maggie Gyllenhaal
Recent Highlights: Stranger Than Fiction, Sherrybaby, World Trade Center, Monster House
After her breakout role in Secretary, it was only a matter of time before Gyllenhaal took on something meaty enough to generate Oscar buzz. A dozen films later and the actress’ portrayal of an ex-con single mom struggling to keep straight for the sake of her child in Sherrybaby could finally give her a chance to meet the Golden Boy.

18. Amy Adams
Recent Highlights: Junebug, Talladega Nights
Upcoming: Enchanted, Barry Munday, Charlie Wilson’s War
Oscar-nominated for her firecracker turn in Junebug, Adams articulated complexities where many would’ve settled for caricature. She has nuance to burn, as wider audiences will learn as she moves into bigger dramatic roles—including a part in Mike Nichols’ arms-dealer saga Charlie Wilson’s War.

19. Daniel Brühl
Recent Highlights: The Edukators, Joyeux Noël, Ladies in Lavendar
Upcoming: Salvador, In Transit, Two Days
For his breakthrough role in Goodbye Lenin! in 2003, Brühl received best-actor honors at the European Film Awards, and was also nominated in 2004 for his performance in The Edukators. Next up for the Barcelona-born, Cologne-raised talent is the Cannes-nominated Salvador, in which he plays Spanish anarchist and bank robber Salvador Puig Antich.

20. Catherine Keener
Recent Highlights: Friends With Money, Capote
Upcoming: An American Crime, Into the Wild
Her early performances in under-the-radar fare like Your Friends and Neighbors and Walking and Talking still hold up. And her current ones—in Friends With Money and Capote, which earned her a second Oscar nomination—are consistently knockouts. She does comedy; she does drama. The only thing she doesn’t do is disappoint.