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The year's best characters

Some years it can be hard to come up with enough stellar lead performances to make an awards minyan. But every year is a good year for supporting roles, and not just because the field has grown so wide since independent film became a force to be reckoned with. Many a savvy character or chameleon actor has built a powerful and lasting career on a solid bedrock of ancillary work without a hint of look-at-me grandstanding. That's particularly true for women — Catherine Keener, Laura Linney, Lili Taylor, and Tilda Swinton, to name but a few, and just watch Amy Ryan go this year — whom casting directors might otherwise cross off their lists at the first sign of a crow's foot. The best supporting actors have said there's little more satisfying than working in concert with a well-oiled ensemble. And little more fun to watch, which is why a package deal and a duet top my list of the 10 best supporting actors of 2007.

1. Seldom has an ensemble conspired more artfully and with less ego to help Julie Christie's radiant star shine ever brighter than the Canadian cast of Sarah Polley's Away from Her. Gordon Pinsent flags dismay, anger, grief, and finally quiet devotion while barely moving a muscle as an errant husband trying to cope with his wife's decline into Alzheimer's. Kristen Thomson is alternately sympathetic, perceptive, and unsparing as a nurse at the plush facility to which Christie consigns herself, and Wendy Crewson turns in a subtly intelligent performance in the thankless role of the home's briskly heedless director. Crewson's husband Michael Murphy plays against his customary chattiness as the all but catatonic inmate Christie falls for, and Olympia Dukakis exudes lonely dignity as Murphy's prosaic wife.

2. In Eran Kolirin's gently incisive comedy The Band's Visit, Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai double up as improbably coupled strangers thrown together in a one-horse Israeli development town. Their brief encounter reveals two kindly, sensitive souls who temporarily come out of their protective shells — she's a Sephardic slattern, he's a tight-assed Egyptian police officer — and complete each other in ways that leave you wondering whether their night on the town is a missed opportunity, or what's meant to be.

3. The often-chilly Tilda Swinton unravels wonderfully in sweat and love handles as the oedipally crippled corporate attorney in Michael Clayton who will do anything for the boss, up to and including serial murder.

4. Don't let Paul Dano's pimply ruin of a face fool you into thinking he doesn't work at playing devious types. His charismatic holy roller in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood struggles to appear pious even as he hungers for riches and power. It's no mean feat for any actor to stay out of Daniel Day-Lewis' shadow, but Dano holds his own, and more.

5. Amy Ryan finally breaks through the helpmeet-wife and bitter-ex roles to play the hopelessly ill-equipped working-class single parent of a child who has disappeared in Gone Baby Gone. Hard but not cold, Ryan's serially defaulting but loving mother complicates all smug definitions of "in the best interests of the child."

6. It's never easy to play back-alley abortionist without sprouting horns, but Vlad Ivanov's cunningly ambiguous, ruthlessly interrogative portrayal in Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days slowly peels back to reveal both a ruthless exploiter of vulnerable young women and just another black marketeer trying to scratch out a living in Soviet-era Romania.

7. Leslie Mann, wife of Knocked Up director Judd Apatow, brings to the controlling-bitch-wife role that makes women squirm a kind of cathartic, rhythmic lyricism so full of hilarious menace, I wished it was me spitting the invective.

8. I can't think of an actor alive who does so much by doing so little with his face and body as Philip Seymour Hoffman does. What a year he's had, pathetic and dangerous in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as a larcenous broker and heroin-head who talks his younger brother into robbing their parents' store, all for love of Marisa Tomei; inaccessible as the tuned-out brother of Laura Linney struggling to care for a senile father in The Savages; and comically explosive as the CIA agent helping Tom Hanks arm the Taliban in Charlie Wilson's War.

9. Meryl Streep. Yes, I know, but here's one superstar who knows how to play second fiddle without commandeering the show. In 2007, Streep redeemed two bad movies: first as the ruthless CIA foreign-operations honcho (Anna Wintour in bad twinsets) who blows off Reese Witherspoon in Rendition; then as her inverse, a liberal veteran journalist in Lions for Lambs firing hard questions at Tom Cruise's presidential wannabe. Cruise wasn't half bad either.

10. And last but never least, Peter O'Toole, aka Anton Ego, the desiccated food critic in Ratatouille who has seen it all and likes none of it until a bunch of culinary rats converts him, prompting the mea culpa speech that surely all filmmakers who have been burned one too many times by movie critics can recite by heart. Take that, us!

 
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