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The greatest living actor? My choice is clear: Javier Bardem

Javier Bardem in THE SEA INSIDE

Have you ever had the “greatest living actor” debate with a friend? It’s a great party game. My answer is always the same, and it has been for decades: Javier Bardem. Lucky for you, you’ll be able to see why in the underrated THE SEA INSIDE, tonight at 8P and 10P and all month long.

The riveting and heartfelt drama, based on a true story, casts Bardem as Ramón Sampedro, a paralyzed man who fought his whole life for the legal ability to euthanize himself. Bardem can do extraordinary things with simple facial expressions: more evidence in the case for Bardem as the best at what he does.

Admittedly, arguments could be made for alternate performers. Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep fans likely are champing at the bit to debate me. Michael Caine and Gene Hackman once could have been contenders for this mantle, but the former is coasting on his reputation and the latter retired from acting.

Bardem, meanwhile, is in his prime and hitting his stride. His gripping performances in such films as Joel and Ethan Coen’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and Julian Schnabel’s BEFORE NIGHT FALLS have earned him recognition from virtually every major film organization. He has three Oscar nominations and one win (for NO COUNTRY). Yet it’s the nomination Bardem almost didn’t get that made me appreciate how unique he is.

Back in 2010, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sullen, moody BIUTIFUL wasn’t gaining much traction in the awards race despite a jaw-dropping performance from Bardem. Unwilling to accept this, fellow actors started voicing their support for the Spanish thespian. Julia Roberts hosted a BIUTIFUL screening. Sean Penn spoke before another organized showing. Their efforts helped secure the nomination for Bardem. In that case, it felt like a win.

Yet Bardem’s greatest strength is his versatility, which all but ensures he’ll never be typecast. How many actors could play a Bond villain and lend support in the latest Terrence Malick film in the same year? The best directors all want to work with Bardem. His last few features boast collaborations with Sir Ridley Scott (THE COUNSELOR), Sam Mendes (SKYFALL), Woody Allen (VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA) and Michael Mann (COLLATERAL).

The reason Bardem’s in demand is because he’s transfixing in any number of characters’ shoes. He’s as credible romancing Roberts in the fairytale travelogue EAT PRAY LOVE as he is threatening Josh Brolin in NO COUNTRY. He’s able to charm audiences in English and his native Spanish. If you only know Bardem from his mainstream successes, explore THE SEA INSIDE, which hints at the actor’s razor-sharp skills and proves why he’ll remain my choice for “greatest living actor.”

Don’t miss Javier Bardem in THE SEA INSIDE, tonight at 8P and 10P and all month long on Sundance Channel.