It's been a great year for acting, and narrowing down this list to just ten performances was a difficult task. There are a good many actors who could just as easily have been on this list had we just a couple more slots open for them, and I'm sure many of you will give us grief for our omissions. If we can take a moment to acknowledge some of the other performances that transfixed us this year, we have to give a nod to Jessica Chastain, who showed up in The Tree Of Life, The Help, and The Debt (and was apparently great in Take Shelter, too), each time being almost unrecognizable. Christopher Plummer, as the suddenly gay father in Beginners, grounded some of that film's whimsy with a performance that was both funny and moving. Patton Oswalt surprised everyone with a great turn in Young Adult. Bérénice Bejo was wonderfully attractive and endearing in The Artist. Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks both deserve attention for their work in Drive. And, of course, Charlie Sheen transfixed us all with his Andy Kaufman-esque turn as a coked-out cokehead.
Alas, our arbitrary limit for this list was ten, and we'll waste no more time talking about the losers in the paragraph above. Here's Screened's choices for the ten best performances of the year.
We've talked about the OSS 117 films here on Screened a few times now, and if you haven't seen them yet, well...we can only talk about them so much. You should definitely check them out (they're both streaming on Netflix), in large part due to the performance of Jean Dujardin, who reunited with his lovely Lost In Cairo castmate Bérénice Bejo and director Michel Hazanavicius for this year's most surprising cinematic experiment, the black and white silent film The Artist.
Dujardin is a classically expressive actor, which worked well for his performance as a less-than-super spy in the OSS 117 films, and works even more in his favor in The Artist. Without language to rely on, he has to ensure that his face conveys every shred of emotion that his character feels, and Dujardin is more than equal to the task, radiating both humor and misery in equal measure. The fact that this is a silent film is one thing; the fact that it's a melodrama amps up the pressure on its leads, and they're both more than up to the challenge. Dujardin is rightly being talked about as a leading candidate for Best Actor when the Oscars come around; whether that comes about or not, his career henceforth (he's barely 40) will definitely be a fun one to watch.
Williams' performance in this film was the stuff of hushed whispers well before the film hit any kind of general release. Part of that was no doubt an artifact of Harvey Weinstein's obsessive nose for the pheromones that Oscar statuettes give off, but when the film itself arrived, Williams more than lived up to the hype. Marilyn Monroe is a uniquely American figure, and the story of her stay in England was a fantastic way to approach a life almost too large to examine in her natural surroundings.
Playing Monroe means that Williams had to not only embody the public persona of Monroe that we're all familiar with, but also her interior life, consisting of a scared little girl surrounded by men and women who wish to do little more than take advantage of her. More perhaps could've been done with this plot, but Williams does a remarkable job of bringing it to life regardless, flipping between the Betty Boop-ish public Marilyn and the wounded, vulnerable, private Marilyn in her interactions with Colin, an infatuated young man. (It's telling that I had to think about whether to link to the Marilyn Monroe "person" page or her "character" page in the paragraph above.) In the end, even she doesn't seem to know which is the "real" Marilyn.
Williams has given good performances before, but rarely has she been so transformed as she was here. Embodying an icon, having to portray someone when perhaps literally every single audience member has seen that person on video before, must be intimidating, but Williams wastes no time in ensuring that the audience knows that she's up for the task. It'd be easy to slip into caricature here, but Williams never lets that temptation overtake her; even when she's sexing up her Marilyn for crowds of adoring fans, that little girl still threatens to reappear in the next scene. Williams is fantastic in the film, and she's ably aided by Kenneth Branagh, who turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Sir Laurence Olivier.
It's always a pleasure when an actor in the midpoint of his career shows us something new. That's what Clooney managed to do in The Descendants, the quietly heartbreaking film from director Alexander Payne. Payne has said that he refused to let Clooney act in Sideways, claiming that it was a "slight film" and not worthy of his talents, and if that's the case, he found material more fitting in The Descendants for one of the most interesting actors of the 21st century.
Clooney could've had the easiest career of any actor of the last decade: he's a fabulously good-looking man, and could've made romcom after romcom had he merely wished to be highly paid. Instead, he's chosen a fascinating mixture of commercial projects and more obscure, artistic material (see last year's The American). The Descendants is somewhere in between, with an accessible but painful portrayal of a man coming to terms with many unsettling truths as his wife lies dying in the hospital. It's a film that could've come across as sweeping and epic in the wrong hands, but Payne settles his gaze on Clooney in a way that makes the film feel cozily intimate, and Clooney rises to the challenge with a performance that ranks among his very best. At turns wryly comedic and wistfully heartbroken, his portrayal of Matt King is also among the best of the year.
Viola Davis might be our best actress at the delicate task of crying. She might've come to film acting relatively late (she's had a long stage career, but many of us probably weren't aware of her until her performance in Solaris at age 37), but she's been scorching her way through small roles over the last few years and finally, as she nears 50, seems to be due recognition as one of our finest character actors. It might seem dismissive to celebrate her ability to cry on command, but damn if she isn't good at it, and damn if she doesn't get the chance to break it out in almost every film she's in. (See Doubt; they even put it in the trailer for Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close.)
The Help is no exception to that rule. The film itself might be a bit too simple to give much credence to, what with its white-people-save-the-day moral (even if that white person is the lovely Emma Stone). Davis refuses to let her surroundings affect her performance, though, and Aibileen Clark's midnight confessions to Stone's character are wrenching and powerful. Davis seems all but assured of a Best Actress Oscar nomination, if not a win, and even if those tears feel a little familiar at this point, that doesn't mean that they still don't come across as shockingly sincere.
The old cliché of the Oscar-bait performance is a cliché largely because it's true: all too often we see actors attempting to go "full retard," or submitting themselves to the indignity of an exaggerated character in order to chase Oscar glory. Ryan Gosling in Drive chose another path, as did Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Oldman may be over 50, but he still manages to come across as a performer with a fair amount of vitality left to him in movies like Leon and The Dark Knight. His enervated and understated performance in Tinker, Tailor is a counterbalance to that vitality: his George Smiley here seems almost mummified in his lack of verve.
It might seem easier to underplay a character than overplay one, but I suspect it's more difficult for an actor used to using his or her body to express emotion to suddenly tamp that down and bring everything under control, and that's precisely what Oldman does here. He seems almost ancient in his lack of motion here, relying on younger agents to do his bidding, but still willing to put his life on the line, wearing socks on a hardwood floor to avoid being heard as he creeps around a potentially dangerous house. To say too much about the film would be a shame, as it's a great spy movie, but to say that this is Oldman quite unlike you've seen him before would be both accurate and a bit of an understatement.
Who knew that the Olsen bloodline had such tremendous acting talent running through it? No, I'm not talking about Mary Kate Olsen's staggering performance in Beastly this year, but rather newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, the younger, non-twin sister of the former tween icons who burst onto the scene in 2011 with one of the most talked-about performances of the year.
All that talk is duly warranted. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen is equal parts empty, unknowable vessel and deeply disturbed, deeply guilt-stricken woman as the title character, who inhabits all of the above identities at various points throughout the film. We see her transformation from a merely naive, abandoned teenager to a complicit, almost enthusiastic participant in the subjugating rituals of the cult she's become mixed up with, and back to the same naive girl, trying to forget all the awful things she's been a part of, all within the span of a relatively short run time. It's a tremendously nuanced performance that calls for Olsen to be both frightening and sympathetic, often within minutes of each other. With any luck, this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful career.
It's hard to argue that any one actor had a better 2011 than Michael Fassbender. Apart from playing the most memorable role in one of the year's biggest blockbuster films (X-Men), he also had not only one, but two critically acclaimed roles in major independent films (Shame, and A Dangerous Method) from noteworthy directors.
What's even more difficult is trying to figure out which film featured the best Fassbender performance. Excising A Dangerous Method was tough enough, given how good Fassbender is as a tortured, unsure Carl Jung. But truly the highlights of Fassbender's 2011 were his turn as the young, brash Magneto in X-Men, and the tragically sex-addicted Brandon in Shame.
Both performances showcase a different aspect of Fassbender's on-screen persona. As Magneto, he is fiery, intense, and utterly driven. His need for revenge based on his childhood holocaust experiences is practically visible in every wrinkle in his grimaced face, and the war between his hate for humanity and his desire to help his friend, Charles Xavier, is completely enrapturing. In Shame, Fassbender is still a driven man, and in fact driven by something he hates. Still, the role is very different. His emotions have largely to be portrayed in moments of solitary sadness. He is a man who has almost no one around him, save for the women he treats as sexual playthings. His slavery to his addiction is ruining his life, but his inability to let anyone past his guarded persona of normalcy is making it even worse. The look of sheer pain on his face every time he has an orgasm says more than any lines of dialogue ever could.
It seems unlikely that Fassbender will be getting any Oscar nods for his various performances, and that's a real shame. These are two roles that absolutely are worthy of such acknowledgment--at least one of them should get it.
There are two types of characters who are often highlighted in female-oriented performance awards year after year. One, the hyper-vulnerable types, the women subjugated, beaten down, and otherwise tormented who eventually rise up over their oppressors, or women who are simply in positions of extreme power and privilege who maybe learn something about those beneath them, or overcome most of the same challenges as the subjugated, but from a much higher tower.
In this regard, Saoirse Ronan's performance in Hanna is kind of a unique snowflake. As the titular character, Ronan is neither exactly vulnerable nor is she exactly powerful. She's been programmed, to be sure. Broken down by her CIA agent father almost from birth, she's been designed as a killing machine, aimed to take down a former CIA handler (played with an almost psychotic eeriness by Cate Blanchett). In this regard, she has been oppressed, in that she has never led a real life. At the same time, she's also a fucking bad ass. She escapes CIA hit squads and goons with an almost effortless abandon, operating on a level that even Jason Bourne himself would have to be proud of.
What's most remarkable about Ronan's performance is how she so carefully balances the two sides of the character. The teenage girl who wants to know more about the real world is just as believable and transfixing as the girl who can tear a dude's throat out using whatever happens to be laying around on a nearby desk. Ronan's brilliant work here is a big part of the reason we're dying to see more from this character in the future. Here's hoping.
Put yourself in Andy Serkis' shoes: you've been in movies that have made something like five billion dollars worldwide, and yet only a fraction of a percent of the people (Americans, at any rate) who've seen them would actually be able to recognize you on the street. (And, if they did, they'd probably be Christopher Nolan fans who know you from a small part in The Prestige.) Despite Robert Zemeckis' best efforts to creep the hell out of us with motion captured acting, Serkis repeatedly reminds everyone that it is an art form, and one that he seems to be the only true master of at this point in time. From Gollum to King Kong to Captain Haddock to Caesar, he's brought some intensely memorable characters to life on the big screen, despite rarely being on it.
The preparation work for King Kong no doubt helped prepare Serkis for the role of Caesar in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, but his work in Rise is in an altogether more subtle vein. Whereas Kong was an avatar of sheer physical might, Caesar is an ape that is forced to come to terms with a sudden intelligence that he can't quite get a grasp on at first. The process of watching Caesar realize his intelligence, and realizing that he has to hide it from his overseers, is a fascinating one: he puzzles things out, begins to learn how to control his fellow apes, and effectively becomes a mob boss in his simian prison, before, of course, starting the ape revolutions. Serkis brings him to life with the smallest possible facial and eye movements.
Rise had a difficult marketing campaign, with a title change and an international trailer that effectively spoiled the entire movie, but it's telling that the first trailers for the film ended with nothing more than a close-up of Caesar's face. He's not doing anything; he's just sitting there, thinking and plotting, rotating his eyes in a way that allows you to know precisely what's going on behind them. A lot of that is due to WETA's groundbreaking work on the CGI behind Caesar, but if WETA helped bring him to life, then Serkis is doubtlessly his other parent.
Certified Copy is, tragically, one of the films we here at Screened didn't get a look at until it (finally) made its way to Netflix Instant Streaming this past week. That said, we are certainly glad we got the chance to check it out, as Juliette Binoche's incredible performance was every bit worth the wait.
Certified Copy is a tough film to really dig into. It's purposely vague in its telling of a tale of a middle-aged French woman and a slightly older British man journeying through the Italian countryside one fateful afternoon. Early on, the film signals that the British fellow (William Shimell, also great) is a writer taking a brief sojourn in Italy to accept an award. The woman (Binoche) appears little more than a fan, offering to take the man on a tour of the area while discussing the theories of his book, which addresses art, forgery, and the concepts of "originality."
Then, somewhere around the halfway mark of the film, the pair are "mistaken" for a married couple in a small cafe, and begin indulging this mistake, behaving like a true married couple. After a time, it becomes utterly unclear as to whether this was even a mistake at all. The reality of their relationship morphs wholesale into that of a bickering married couple, and we are left to ponder what the true reality of this story even was.
So much of Certified Copy's ability to work rests on the shoulders of Binoche and Shimell, and while both are fantastic, Binoche's performance is something close to otherworldly. She's been a great actress for a very long time, but this easily counts among her best works. She slips into the role of the married woman almost sight unseen, completely transforming over a matter of screen minutes without letting slip a single sign of said transformation. It's completely camouflaged within the context of the film's storytelling. It takes a true actress to pull something like that off, and Binoche is nothing if not one of the truest actresses we have working today.