Hillary Swank’s purity of essence is nicely paired with Rockwell, who is more arch and complicated and would look guilty doing mission work in Mumbai. It’s a special quality Rockwell has.

— Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, from a review of Conviction

I fell in love with Sam Rockwell this year. I’d seen the guy in movies before — he’s one of the many wonderful things about Galaxy Quest, made in golden-year-for-movies 1999, and certainly the funniest science fiction movie ever made. (E.g. his meltdown scene where he’s convinced that he’s one of the expendables from Star Trek who will be killed within minutes of landing on an alien planet.) And he really came into his own in 2002 with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind — one of the best movies of the decade.

But this year I rediscovered Rockwell in three movies — Frost/Nixon, Joshua, and Moon — which have SR playing very different guys trying to confront or expose the Truth. Rockwell became one of the special things of the year for me.

In Frost/Nixon, he plays James Reston, one of the investigators that talk show host David Frost hires to prep him for his historic interview with Richard Nixon. He’s wonderful and so is the movie. Watch the trailer for a brief but funny moment when Reston meets his arch-enemy for the first time:

Rockwell is the voice of moral authority in this movie. And yet like LaSalle says, he can’t even do that without tripping up and looking guilty:

The movie is so full of passion and suspense — it’s got to be seen to be believed. Rockwell, in an interview, casually describes it as an Intellectual Rocky, which is about the size of it.

Joshua (2007) is the best scary movie I have seen in a long time. Not since The Innocents have I seen a fim where so much of what is scary turns on pure psychology, on what may or may not be happening in people’s heads. Sam Rockwell plays a regular guy — very different from F/N — basically a successful frat guy who’s become a responsible husband and father, but who is saddled with an intellectual son he doesn’t understand. Every moment Rockwell is on screen is pure honesty, one of the best things he has ever done. My advice is to read nothing about it, not even the Netflix blurb, and watch no trailers, since they all contain major spoilers. Just see it without knowing anything about it.

Then there’s Moon (2009), which is another showcase for Rockwell. Don’t watch it expecting the end to make 100% sense — it probably doesn’t, from the perspective of story logic. But the story is largely a character driven fantasy (I’m the only one in the world and then I hear a knock at the door) — so what matters is the truth of the world of this character. Rockwell is really beautiful in it.

Conviction is his latest film. I haven’t seen it yet and not everybody likes it. But I’ll watch anything with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in it. LaSalle’s opening line in his review couldn’t make it sound better:

If you were wrongly arrested and convicted of murder, how many people would know absolutely for sure, with no doubt or reservation, no matter what the evidence … that you’re innocent?