The Year in Film: 2011’s Best Movie Characters

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Earlier in the month, we spotlighted some of our favorite performances of the year, and we’re not quite sure exactly where the line falls between loving a performance and loving a character. But the people (and non-people) on this list were real and memorable not just because the actors involved played them so well (though they did). Here, the combination of masterful acting, great writing, and sensitive direction gave us a sense that these were real people on the screen. What’s more, they were real people whom we wish we knew — even though, by the end of their films, in many ways we did know them. Our favorites are after the jump; add yours in the comments.

Matt Freehauf in Young Adult

Patton Oswalt, one of our most gifted stand-up comics, made an impressive “serious acting” debut in the great, tiny Big Fan a couple of years back; here, working with Diablo Cody’s finest screenplay to date, he does another seriously skillful turn. Matt Freehauf is the bullied high-school classmate of Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary, who returns to her Minneapolis hometown to take back her high school boyfriend from his blissful domestic life. Matt, who was the recipient of a crippling beating while they were in high school, becomes her unlikely drinking buddy and her (mostly unsuccessful) voice of reason. His finely-tuned character becomes a balance to hers — both of them harbor serious chips on their shoulders, but he seems at least marginally more well-adjusted, if capable of a bit of self-pity from time to time. It’s not a character that reaches for obvious pathos, though; when he tells her, at a key moment, “Guys like me are born loving women like you,” it doesn’t feel like desperation or martyrdom. It feels like truth.

Kyle in 50/50

God knows how you’re supposed to act when your 27-year-old best friend comes down with a rare form of cancer, but you’re probably not supposed to share his medicinal marijuana and take him out to cruise for girls using his illness as a line. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. What’s so good about Seth Rogen’s work as Kyle in 50/50 (yes, we know, we already mentioned it before, but seriously, what a great movie) is that he clearly is making it up as he goes along — trying to do what’s right for his friend, to be supportive in the best way possible, but also to keep things light. And, well, if he gets some pot and some action out of the deal, is that so bad? As played by Rogen (in a role basically inspired by himself — he helped screenwriter Will Reiser through his own cancer battle, and encouraged him to write about it after), the role is, unsurprisingly, “comic relief.” But in a story this heavy, comic relief is welcome, and Kyle’s scenes give the movie a much-needed wry spin.

Megan in Bridesmaids

There’s not much we could add to the love and affection that’s poured from moviegoers since Bridesmaid’s summer release, when the world was introduced to tough, gregarious, outgoing, and riotously funny bridesmaid “Megan,” played to sheer comic perfection by the great Melissa McCarthy. Sexually aggressive (“I’m glad he’s single because I’m going to climb that like a tree”), classy (“I want to apologize. I’m not even confident on which end that came out of”), and inspiring (“I met a dolphin down there and I swear to God that dolphin, looked not at me, but into my soul, looked into my goddamn soul”). Megan/McCarthy was responsible for most of the movie’s big laughs, but she wasn’t just an empty caricature; in her tough-love scene with Kristen Wiig’s Annie (“I’m life, Annie, and I’m biting you in the ass!”) she gave the film an unexpected but necessary dose of pathos. Plus, how can you not love someone who steals that many puppies?

Kenny Loftus in Everything Must Go

Little Kenny Luftus has nothing to do while his mom works in a suburban home, so he rides his bike up the block — where he finds an alcoholic middle-aged man (Will Ferrell) sitting on a lawn, surrounded by everything he owns. Kenny appraises the situation, determines that this is probably the most interesting thing he’s going to encounter, and starts asking questions. Kenny is played in Everything Must Go, writer/director Dan Rush’s adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance,” by Christopher Jordan Wallace — yes, as in Biggie’s son, a fact that this writer didn’t realize until I went hunting on IMDb afterwards to figure out who that terrific young actor was. He’s an unaffected performer, and that quality is present in the character as well; both his arc and relationship with Ferrell have a charmingly casual authenticity. He’s a good kid, Kenny. He’s smart and enterprising. We see good things for him.

Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris

Zelda has always been a figure of fascination amongst literary types, for both her roaring ’20s, flapper-styled high life and the tragedy of her later years. As played by Alison Pill (the chameleonic young actor who also played Anne Kronenberg in Milk), she’s spirited, funny, sexy, and intriguing, yet with a telltale hint of sadness around the edges of her smiles.

Joseph Keenan in Red State

John Goodman is such a reliable comic presence that he doesn’t always get credit for his acting chops. That’s why it’s nice when he occasionally gets a more serious role, like that of Joseph Keenan in Kevin Smith’s controversial (around here, anyway) Red State. As a good-hearted ATF agent who’s in way over his head when a raid on a religious extremist compound goes out of control, Goodman is quietly wonderful; he’s a man who’s trying to do the right thing under very difficult circumstances, and not always certain he’s making the right calls. Goodman plays those doubts as a strength rather than weakness, and ends up turning in one of his most intriguing performances yet.

Libby (aka “Boltie”) in Super

Ellen Page is flat-out terrific as Libby, the comic-book store cutie who helps Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) research the methods of crime-fighting superheroes before appointing herself his sidekick. She’s a charming girl who can’t get over how cool it is to fight crime (“My God,” she yells, “my hand is trembling!“), and even when writer/director James Gunn’s tone is uncertain (which is often), Libby is utterly charming and amusingly enthusiastic. (Also, she looks super-cute in her “Boltie” duds.)

Terri in Terri

Our first real indication that all is not right with Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is when we see him trudging off to school in his pajamas. It’s not a one-time thing; he does it every day. They’re just comfortable, you see. It’s not a decision that’s going to enrich his already unfortunate high school existence; the overweight teen is a frequent target of harassment and bullying, called “Grimace” or “Trash Heap” or worse. But he has decided that if he’s going to be miserable every day, he may as well be comfortable. The entire film traffics in that kind of practical non-sentimentality; don’t make Terri laughable or oafish — but they refuse to paint him as particularly wise or exceptional either. He’s just a normal, socially awkward kid with some problems. That’s almost revolutionary in today’s teen movies.

Joan Ostrowski-Fox in Cedar Rapids

Miguel Arteta’s Midwestern insurance-convention comedy isn’t entirely successful — it’s more odd and quirky than genuinely funny — but it’s full of interesting characters, particularly John C. Reilly’s cheerful vulgarian Dean Ziegler and Stephen Root as the boss back home. But the most intriguing person in the movie is sexy insurance agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox; she’s played by Anne Heche, back from the TV/DTV wilderness with a turn so fresh and complicated, you remember why we were all so excited about her back in the mid-’90s. Joan is a mother and wife who views her week in Cedar Rapids with a Vegas-style “what happens here, stays here” eye, and the character is weird, likable, sexy, and admirably complicated.

The dogs of Beginners, The Artist, and The Adventures of Tintin

So it’s not just us — there were some great dog performances in movies this year, right? In last summer’s Beginners, the Jack Russell terrier “Cosmo” played the role of Arthur, the dog of leading character Oliver’s recently departed father, and yes, we know a dog can’t actually “act,” but you watch the scene of Oliver showing little Arthur around his new home and try to tell us that good boy’s not acting. Then came November’s The Artist, and a performance by Uggy the wonder dog that was so good, it won the “Palm Dog” award at the Cannes Film Festival (no, seriously, that’s a real thing) and prompted our friends at Movieline to start a #ConsiderUggy campaign to get the charming pooch an Oscar nomination. And then there’s Snowy, the performance-capture animated sidekick in The Adventures of Tintin — and Snowy is almost distractingly delightful, as in there were several moments where we ceased paying attention to foreground action because they had Snowy doing something so adorable in the corner of the frame. Your author is and always has been a cat person, but frankly, the felines were big losers at the movies this year.