The Year in Film: 2011’s Best Performances

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For all the remakes and reboots and 3-D blockbusters, 2011 was a great year for film actors, with a wealth of terrific performances for us to choose from. What’s more, in sharp contrast to most years in recent memory, there was a bumper crop of terrific roles for great actresses — a trend that we’d like to see stick around for a while. After the jump, we’ll tell you about some of the best performances we saw this year, and why we’re still talking about them.

Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

We’re willing to bet your reaction was about the same ours to the news that the Olsen twins had a younger sister who was in the biz too: a raised eyebrow, a sarcastic “uh-huh,” and maybe some sort of half-assed joke about a sequel to New York Minute. (Just me? Okay.) Then we got a look at Martha Marcy May Marlene. It is in many ways a two-part film, and this is accordingly a two-part performance; she serves as our window into a tightly enclosed collective, both in her initial reactions and participation, and in the troubling way she finds herself broken afterwards. It’s a quiet performance, and much of its genius is found in how she listens — as John Hawkes plays a song to her, or as her sister and brother-in-law argue about her — and regards what she sees and hears. Other actors on this list had showier roles that gave them the kind of big, operatic moments that an actor kills for, but you can’t get Olsen’s haunted performance out of your head.

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor has so many great British actors in supporting roles, you’d think it was a Harry Potter movie. But standing, perfectly still, at the film’s center is the great Gary Oldman in what may be his finest film work to date. It’s certainly his most disciplined; viewers more accustomed to the actor’s, um, excitable side (seen in scenery-chewing moments like this) were bound to be shocked by the restraint of his work as John le Carré’s iconic “Circus” agent George Smiley. He works well in this very minor key, playing a more withdrawn character (he’s so refined that he swims in his spectacles) with grace and a vibrant interior life. As with Olsen, this brilliant actor finds the character in the pauses rather than the big speeches, and in many ways, tha’s the kind of film acting that’s most rewarding.

Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

When Kirsten Dunst all but disappeared from the screen after 2007’s Spiderman 3, there wasn’t much objection from the movie-going community; her choices had become increasingly erratic (Wimbledon?) and her performances were starting to seem phoned-in. Well, we’re not sure what kind of battery-recharging ritual she went through in her little sabbatical, but whatever it was, it worked; her performance as depressed bride Justine in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is simply astonishing, a complicated and multi-layered portrait of a young woman who cannot even be happy on what everyone says is the happiest day of her life. She nails the big emotional beats, but it’s the tiny, throwaway moments that have stuck with us — the way she reacts to her mother’s embarrassing speech, or the way she says to her new husband, “What did you expect?” Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes for her work, and an accompanying Oscar would certainly be fine by us.

George Clooney, The Descendants

After Alexander Payne’s latest seriocomic drama screened at Toronto, a weird criticism started creeping into its reviews: that George Clooney (America’s dreamboat) had been “miscast” as middle-aged, cuckolded husband and family man Matt King. “He’s too good-looking!” went the nonsensical argument (one about as shallow and out of touch with reality as those Knocked Up complaints), as if only ugly people were ever cheated on. The fact of the matter is, this is a knockout turn, full of great scenes. Example: After discovering her betrayal, he has a solo scene at his dying wife’s hospital bed that’s kind of a miniature version of Brando’s centerpiece monologue in Last Tango in Paris, and it’s nearly as revelatory — it’s a set piece, a footlights speech, but one that is set up and played organically and convincingly. Throughout the picture, Clooney is provided countless opportunities to overplay, and waves all of them off (particularly a late scene where he chooses to let something go, which is jaw-dropping in the power of its simplicity). This is a magnificent piece of work, nicely orchestrated by a director who knows when to push in close and when to give the actor his space.

Charlize Theron, Young Adult

Young Adult is the story of an almost-successful fiction writer approaching 40 who returns to her hometown with the explicit goal of breaking up her high school boyfriend’s marriage and family. It is easy to imagine, in lesser hands, what an obvious, cartoonish effort this could have been; it’s the kind of shrill, half-assed comedy that Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl could do in their sleep. Yet it’s a devastating and memorable film — thanks to Diablo Cody’s masterful screenplay, Jason Reitman’s subtle direction, and the inspired leading performance by Charlize Theron. Theron understands this character (she’s got her withering stare down cold), and neither condescends nor apologizes for her; you can’t catch her acting here, not for a second. It’s the kind of character that some actors would kill themselves digging “redeeming qualities” out of; Theron isn’t interested in that, instead plunging into the character’s darkness and daring us to root for her redemption.

Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method & Last Night

Knightley has always been an actor we could sort of do with or without — not bad, per se, just nothing special. That opinion changed sharply in the face of two terrific performances this year. In the spring adultery drama Last Night, she’s simply terrific; the way her eyes burn when she glimpses her husband and a co-worker flirting on a balcony holds the key to the entire movie. It’s a genuinely sexy performance — as much for her wit and intelligence as for the longing that she occasionally allows to take her over. Then came her startling work in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which she owns from the first frame, sounding a sustained howl of of despair and discomfort as her character is brought to the madhouse for study by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). She’s acting at 11 here, but never without motivation or complication, and once she is “cured” (after a fashion, anyway), she peels away the tics while maintaining her earlier intensity. There’s a fierce eroticism in her work that nearly overtakes the picture; the way her eyes burn when she listens to Jung talk about monogamy nearly sends the whole scene into the stratosphere.

Michael Fassbender, A Dangerous Method & Shame

Knightley’s Dangerous Method co-star Fassbender had himself a very busy year, with starring performances in three films in addition to that one: X-Men First Class (good popcorn!), Jane Eyre (didn’t see, but probably good!), and the controversial Shame. If he doesn’t get nominated for something, it’ll only be because he cancelled himself out. He gives a measured and marvelous performance in Method, underplaying with Knightley (knowing he can’t top her, it seems), choosing only to show only the cool, hard surface. But in the third act, he cracks that surface elegantly. Much of the ink over Shame was in regards to Fassbender’s full frontal nudity (which doesn’t get near the screen time that the hype would indicate), but he’s not just naked physically — it’s an emotionally stripped performance as well. Director Steve McQueen’s long takes and lingering close-ups leave Fassbender nowhere to hide; there’s a tight shot on his conflicted face at the end of a particularly hedonistic sequence late in the picture that leaves the viewer gasping.

Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

One of the key moments in My Week with Marilyn shows the title character’s transformation from the private to the public persona — the way she tarts it up, putting her hand behind her head just so, moving in that distinctive way, playing up the persona of Marilyn that was, it seems, quite removed from the real person in there, the damaged girl named Norma Jean who wrestled her entire short life with crippling insecurities and terrible addictions. Before she does it, she asks her companion, “Shall I be her?” Michelle Williams’ thrilling work as Monroe almost seems like the same kind of simple decision, a flick of the switch; she’s playing perhaps the most famous movie star of all time, one of the true 20th century legends, but she refuses to be intimidated by the considerable iconography. She just becomes her, and from the moment we see her, we nod and accept her as such. It’s a thoroughly convincing performance, and because she doesn’t get tripped up selling herself to the audience, she’s able to plumb the character’s considerable emotional depths with skill and precision.

Ryan Gosling, Drive

One of the year’s most engaging movie-going pastimes was watching Ryan Gosling — the literal act of watching him, and specifically him, in his films. It’s easy to name the intense and iconic actors whom he recalls (Brando, Pacino, Penn, Depp) without examining exactly why he brings them to mind: because he possess that intangible, elusive quality — call it magnetism, charisma, heat, whatever — that draws us in, whether we see it in the panther-like prowl of his ladies’ man in Crazy Stupid Love, the not-yet-corrupted idealism of his political operative in The Ides of March, or, most of all, his seemingly opaque man of action in the unforgettable existentialist action picture Drive. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is just as interested in looking at Gosling as we are; long takes hold on the actor’s face as he takes in his surroundings, contemplates a situation, and reacts. Or doesn’t, whichever. By regarding his lead actor in such a way, Refn makes us hone in on him even more keenly than we otherwise might — we’re paying precise attention to him, searching out his face for clues, hints, indications. As a result, when he finally is catapulted into action, we’re tuned in to him, alive to him, and the way this startlingly talented young actor opens up the character — and the film — is astonishing.

Leila Hatami, A Separation

As Simin, an Iranian woman so desperate to leave her homeland that she has to divorce her husband to do so, Hatami provides the quiet moral compass for Asghar Farhadi’s brilliantly complicated morality play. It’s a supporting role, really (her screen time is limited), but her presence is felt in every scene — her strength of character, her intelligence, and, in later scenes, her desperation. Hers is the least recognizable name on this list, but hopefully that won’t stay the case for long.

Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Swinton has become one of the most intriguing actors in the current cinema — unpredictable, nonconformist, and, time after time, brilliant. She appears (if memory serves) in every single scene of Lynn Ramsay’s placidly terrifying We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film that should be carefully avoided by anyone contemplating parenthood. The title character is the son of Swinton’s Eva, and he is a nightmare — from infanthood on, an emotional terrorist whose dire fate seems a foregone conclusion. But Ramsay and Swinton push further than that, allowing for the possibility that Eva is also spectacularly ill-equipped for the trials of motherhood, enabling certain behaviors, allowing others. Swinton isn’t a terribly warm actor (fine by us, frankly), and as a result, she makes the character infinitely more fascinating; without an easy way in to a sympathetic performance, we are forced to deal with the nature vs. nurture question in very specific terms.

Full Cast, Margin Call

Debut filmmaker J.C. Chandor assembled the year’s sturdiest ensemble cast for his tense drama about the run-up to the 2008 financial collapse — there’s not a weak link in it (no, not even Demi Moore). There’s Stanley Tucci, out early but not before a memorable little aria of desperation. There’s Paul Bettany, explaining with shrugging logic exactly how he went through his $2.5 million salary. There’s Zachary Quinto, doing his very best to explain patiently how utterly frightening this all is. There’s Simon Baker and Demi Moore, well aware of what’s coming, each subtly tossing the other under the bus. There’s Kevin Spacey, proving that a modicum of humanity doesn’t really do any good. And, most of all, there’s Jeremy Irons, ice running through his veins, explaining coldly and calmly exactly how they will survive, and how they always have: “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.” Chandor throws these fine actors into a pressure cooker, and brings them to a boil; the picture could have been terribly dull, people in suits reciting numbers, but his tense direction and intelligent script gives these actors all the juice they need.

Those are our picks — what about yours? What performances thrilled and surprised you this year?