Top performances of 2011 (in alphabetical order)
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As Razieh in A Separation
The brilliance of Sareh Bayat's work comes mainly from the fact that she makes her character a microcosm of the film as a whole: there will be times when you'll be outraged by her apparent dishonesty, other times when you won't be quite sure whether you're on her side or not, and other times at which you'll feel nothing but pity and heartbreak for the deeply tortured soul that Bayat gives us. She embodies the film's knotty moral framework. It's the finest female supporting performance of 2011.
As Peppy in The Artist
The eternally joyful and regal Bérénice Bejo lights up every scene she inhabits in The Artist. She lives up to her character's name effortlessly without ever entering the realm of corniness. It's a true beauty of a performance. I saw the film earlier today and can't stop smiling each time I think about her.
As Elle in Certified Copy
Certified Copy is a two-actor, dialogue-driven show with a very intriguing twist. In order for a film like this to be great, it's a requirement that BOTH leads give solid performances as the many layers of their personas start to unravel... unfortunately, Juliette Binoche is accompanied by a co-star (William Shimell) whose work is largely stiff and mediocre. The reason why it's such a big shame is that Binoche is stellar - raw, emotive, vulnerable. Consider the scene in which Shimell goes off screen and she's left alone talking to a waitress at a restaurant. The camera focuses squarely on her face as her feelings and demons begin to pour out. That scene alone is a masterpiece of acting, and it's too bad the Academy won't take note, but I'm more than glad to give Binoche the credit she deserves on this list.
As Samantha in Take Shelter
What a year she's had. Jessica Chastain gave acclaimed performances in four films in 2011 (all of which, incidentally, start with the letter T): The Debt, Take Shelter, The Help and The Tree of Life. Over the next few weeks, you'll likely hear her name mentioned a lot for her work in the last two films, specifically The Help. But for some reason, the performance that I can't seem to forget is her courageous turn in Take Shelter. If Michael Shannon plays the bomb that may explode at any minute, she plays the fortress that will collapse if that explosion takes pace. She fares perfectly at mixing her apprehension towards the harm that may come her family's way if the bomb explodes with her inevitable feelings of love for her husband. And she's fantastic in that final act.
As Matt in The Descendants
There's an inevitable sense of relief here, because now I can say that I've finally included George Clooney in a "best performances of the year" list. The harm with being such an obscenely famous actor is that it can sometimes be difficult to separate the actor from the character, and I'll admit to being guilty of it here. He was very good in Up in the Air, but watching him in that film, I felt like I was watching George Clooney. When I watched The Ides of March earlier this year, I still felt like I was watching George Clooney (channeling all his liberal rage, rather than effectively playing a villain). But in The Descendants, I just saw Matt King. He weaved himself perfectly into a family played by unknown actors, and not for a second did I doubt his pain, his joy or his moments of ineptitude.
As Aibileen in The Help
The largely overrated The Help avoids feeling like a Hallmark Movie of the Week because the performances are so strong across the board, but in my opinion, they're all overshadowed by Viola Davis' powerful, quietly brilliant work as the protagonist. While the film, with its cartooonish situations, isn't quite as effective as it should've been at portraying the repression these people experienced, Davis does the heavy lifting by doing a great job at externalizing the trials and tribulations that her character undergoes.
As Adam in 50/50
If you met Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the first time when you saw him in recent years in either (500) Days of Summer or Inception, you've missed out on the fantastic work that this guy did all through the 2000s (specifically, in Brick, Mysterious Skin and The Lookout). Gordon-Levitt is a fierce, committed performer who puts his heart, soul and brain into every movie appearance, and 50/50 is yet another example of that. This is one of the most startingly realistic portrayals of a cancer patient I've seen in a film. Like the film, Gordon-Levitt knows not to succumb to extremes: he portrays a true human being who tries to take his horrible situation in stride, tries to be cheerful and maintain hope, and none of that ever feels sappy; conversely, the moments in which he breaks down are always raw and honest rather than manipulative and melodramatic, and it's all because we suspect that the anger and agony Gordon-Levitt depicts is reflective of the way we'd feel in his situation.
As Driver in Drive
Ah, this is a beast of a badass performance. I can't remember the last time that an actor who had already developed such an amazing resume all of a sudden emerged with a turn so aggressively different from anything he'd done before, yet so fucking nuanced and phenomenal. Revealing too much about what Ryan Gosling does with Driver as a character would ruin the Drive experience for anyone who still hasn't immersed themselves in it. If the members of the Academy ignore Gosling's unforgettable work in Drive, or if they try to make up for it by nominating him instead for The Ides of March (a performance he could've done in his sleep), Gosling will have been done a severe injustice, especially after having been snubbed last year as well. He may not be my top choice for the best male performance of the year, but I suspect Driver will be the 2011 character I'll have the hardest time forgetting any time soon.
As Katherine in 50/50
If I were ever going through a dastardly hard time in my life, I'd want someone like Katherine to comfort me. I wouldn't want someone who knows EXACTLY all the right things to say and who can quickly give me a precise solution to all my problems. It wouldn't feel real, and it wouldn't feel like there's an actual human connection there... but 50/50 never lets that happen, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Anna Kendrick, for giving such a graceful and dignified performance. We don't stop to scoff at the fact that Adam's been conveniently assigned a potential love interest as his therapist, because from the moment Kendrick shows up on screen, she's a full-fledged human being rather than a marionette of the script. She doesn't feel like your standard "requisite love interest" who needs to be there, but rather, her presence feels totally organic. I admit that, on a personal level, I could relate to her moments of tentativeness and insecurity as she tries to do her job well whilst balancing her growing feelings, but obviously, the reason why I could relate to it is that she portrays all of it so genuinely. This is the second time I've included Kendrick in one of my "best performances of the year" list, and I don't expect anything short of greatness from her future projects.
As Megan in Bridesmaids
By a mile, this is the funniest comedic performance I saw this year. I'm glad that I recently rewatched Bridesmaids and was able to use a pause button, because what's great about a character like Megan is that even in scenes in which she doesn't say or do anything, her hilarious reactions to some of the things other people do and to the events that take place simply can't be missed. You don't wanna blink and miss her facial response to the line "And I love my new asshole!". I heard some discussion about a Bridesmaids sequel, which I wouldn't mind... but give me an action comedy with Megan, the federal agent, as the star, and I'll be the first in line.
As Elliot in Another Happy Day
I continue to be astounded by how perfectly this kid embodies dark humor. We saw signs of it in both City Island and We Need to Talk About Kevin, but he didn't have sufficient center stage in either of those two films to show it, but in Another Happy Day, which is an otherwise shrill drama that goes overboard in the neurosis department, he makes what could've been a heavily annoying cinematic experience completely engrossing, as he does a pitch-perfect job at balancing gut-busting comedy with dark emotional issues. You may be hearing his name a lot for his work as the malevolent title character in We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is one of the best films of 2011, but sadly, its one flaw is that it never actually looks at things from Kevin's perspective, which at times makes him just a one-dimensionally evil character. Another Happy Day is a considerably less effective film, but it does give Miller all the space in the world to inhabit the type of character he plays so magnificently. I can't wait to see what he does next.
As Martha and as Marcy May at the cult and as Marlene on the phone in Martha Marcy May Marlene
With all the flair of a young Vera Farmiga, Elizabeth Olsen gives a haunting, unforgettable performance as the lead character of Sean Durkin's dark directorial debut. A lot of people consider Martha Marcy May Marlene to be an "incomplete" film - there's a sense of dissatisfaction with the movie's haphazard ending ("I wanted to see what happens next!"). I agree that the film feels incomplete, but not for that reason. I liked the ending. What I wasn't thrilled with was the fact that, while you've got a fantastic lead performance that does an incredible job at exposing the main character's wounds and sense of paranoia, the characters who are supposedly haunting her feel like wooden mannequins rather than terrifying ghosts. Put Olsen in a film that's as great as her performance, and we would've probably had the best film of the year here. Fortunately, this is at least a sign of great things to come from this actress. I hate the fact that, if she does get nominated, most of the media attention will focus on who she's siblings with. But at least this proves that poor acting doesn't necessarily run in the family. Olsen's multi-layered work as Martha is astoundingly raw and devastating.
As Abin in Red State
I don't let my negative opinion of a film, even of something as sophomoric as Red State, impact my ability to recognize some of its strong points, particularly when a performance manages to stand out remarkably, in spite of the director's idiocy, as is the case here. The middle third of the film consists almost entirely of a frothing-at-the-mouth sermon by the character played by Michael Parks, who speaks with all the conviction of a televangelist, yet the hellish bile that Parks spews through his performance is terrifying. What I find incredible is that he never allows Abin to become a caricature, as easy as it could've been especially once Kevin Smith allows everything else in the film to become totally ridiculous. Scoff all you want, but with apologies to Albert Brooks and Christopher Plummer, this is who I'd give the best supporting actor Oscar to. If you do a great job at something, it's not your fault if you're surrounded by a pile of shit, is it?
As Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
You can sue me for it, but I'll defend Andy Serkis to the death. The motion capture isn't everything. Serkis infuses a wallop of emotional power into his renditions of Smeagol/Gollum, King Kong and now Caesar, and as much of a hugely entertaining summer movie as Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, I suspect the reason I considered it to be an above-average film had a hell of a lot to do with Serkis' supremely powerful work as the central character.
As Curtis in Take Shelter
As I said before, Michael Shannon's Curtis is like a bomb that may explode at any given moment. What Shannon accomplishes with his work is a rarity in the realm of performances, because he can make mere moments of quietness feel suspenseful as all fucking hell. The extraordinary Take Shelter hinges on the question of whether what Curtis sees are mere delusions or actual auguries, and Shannon's eye movements and other facial expressions keep that question consistently seared into our minds throughout the running time. It's the best performance I witnessed in all of 2011. If awards were based more on merit than on campaigning, the best actor Oscar would already have Shannon's name on it.
As Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Since this list is alphabetical, it's a mere coincidence that what I consider to be the best lead male performance of the year is immediately followed by the best female one: Tilda Swinton's harrowing, tortured turn as the protagonist in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Powerlessness, frustration and utter heartbreak have rarely been conveyed as effortlessly and fluidly as it's done here by Swinton, one of today's finest working thespians. She's a go-to actress; one whom you can always expect greatness from, and she has the weight of the world on her shoulders in this particular film, having to tackle some horrendously dark and terrifying material. She's astounding.
As Marilyn in My Week with Marilyn
We've known for years that Michelle Williams is an extremely qualified actress, mostly because she's chosen difficult dramatic roles and has done top-shelf work on each occasion. What My Week With Marilyn proves is that she also has a wallop of range. When we watch her as Marilyn Monroe, we forget about all those quiet, minimalist performances she's given during the past 6 years or so, and we're instead exposed to a beautiful, triumphantly regal performance: she shines magnificently, and her voicework is particularly extraordinary. This isn't a memorable film, but Williams' delightful turn is one I'll remember fondly.
As Alexandra in The Descendants
If you haven't seen The Descendants yet, I ask you to look at the above picture and remember it, because when you finally watch the film, you'll notice that the scene captured by that picture features some of the most nuanced and emotionally powerful work done by any young actress this year. Shailene Woodley has the arduous task of portraying a character who's navigating issues no teenager should have to deal with. The young actress communicates heartbreak and frustration with utter ease, and conversely, in the funnier moments, when she's trying to convince her dad to do something that's gonna take balls, it never comes across as a forceful gag that's desperately aimed at making you laugh - it feels entirely authentic.
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