Every year, I find that the toughest end-of-year post for me to write is this one. Picking the worst movies I didn't see is pretty easy (coming up with something to write about each of them without cursing can be difficult) and my top 10 list usually comes down to figuring out the last movie to make the list. But judging performances is much more difficult. So many great films have more than one excellent performance, more than one actor who strikes a chord with me and deserves special mention. When I sat down to lay out the framework of this list, I wrote down 30 names. 30 names that had to be whittled down to 10. I've made my picks but if the years past are any indication, I'll probably want to come back and change a selection or two in a few months. But for now, please enjoy my 10 Favorite Performances of 2011 and be sure to tell me some of your own.
(NOTE: The key to this list is "favorite" not "best." Those two words will blend together a bit at times but it needs to be stated up front. There are a number of great performances from this year that are undoubtedly better than some of those listed here but these are the ones that I personally loved.)
Honorable Mention #1
The Cast of Crazy, Stupid, Love
I couldn't differentiate between the respective work done by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone (et al). And I think that's what makes the film work; none of these characters really stand up on their own without the others. Carell yet again brings genuine heart to his role, Gosling displays a different element to his acting repertoire, and Stone is insanely charming. Loved them all.
Honorable Mention #2
Michael Stuhlbarg - Rene Tabard, Hugo
The only reason I left Stuhlberg off the list is because his character only graces the screen for about eight minutes total. Still, in the midst of an outstanding cast, it is Stuhlberg's work that stuck with me. For me, his character, a film preservationist and historian, represents Scorsese on-screen and his love for the cinema bleeds through in each of his limited scenes.
Most people who saw Warrior would list Edgerton behind Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte as the best part of the movie. Nolte plays the drunk very well and Hardy brings the appropriate anger and detachment to his role, but without Edgerton's quiet desperation, this film becomes just another sports movie. I found his portrayal to be sobering and genuine and I thought he nailed the spirit of the underdog.
9. Anna Kendrick - Katherine, 50/50
Somewhere off in an alternate universe, there's an Anna Kendrick who cashed in her Twilight chips to star in a litany of embarrassingly bad rom-coms and craptastic teenager fare. Thankfully, the Anna Kendrick in this universe made the brilliant choice to exit the Twilight scene and take on movies like Up in the Air and 50/50. She has become one of my favorite actresses and her turn as a therapist in this movie was perfect for the narrative, providing Joseph Gordon-Levitt (more on him in a moment) with an excellent sounding board and a compassionate friend. Their awkward will-they-or-won't-they romance, too, is a real treat.
I've said it before and I'm sure I'll have to say it again: whatever you have against Cruise personally, you cannot deny that the dude brings it every single time. I'm not sure there's any action flick actor who wants his film to be good the way Cruise does. In Ghost Protocol, he goes all out in every scene and creates a presence for himself that he hasn't had in many years. I loved this movie but I think it comes up a bit short with many other quality actors in Cruise's place. Put simply, this is a boss action performance and I'm glad to have Cruise back at the top of his game.
7. Alan Rickman - Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
This one is sort of a cumulative mention. Over the course of the last 10 years of Harry Potter films, fans of the series were treated to a number of quality performances by some of the best actors in the business. None of them, in my mind, had as difficult a task as Rickman. Snape has to be a bad guy without really becoming a villain and his motives seemingly change so many times throughout the films, you can understand why Rickman was hesitant about accepting the role in the first place. Deathly Hallows 2 is Rickman's moment in the sun, his chance to shine and he comes through wonderfully. The scene in which Snape reveals, as it were, the truths about his relationship with Harry is exactly what I wanted it to be and I don't think it could have been nearly as impactful without 10 years of outstanding work from Rickman.
This is the performance that surprised me the most this year and it wasn't even close. If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that the girl from The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a show so bad that even my wife (who loves ALL high school-related dramas) couldn't watch two episodes, would make this list, I would have named you a liar and had you flogged. And now I would regret that action because you were right, friend who could see the future. Alexandra is foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, and embittered but she also displays genuine love for her father and sister. Putting that mix together and making it work is a tall order but Woodley does all of that and more. And her ability to hang with George Clooney throughout a number of one-on-one scenes is what takes this performance over the top. I can't wait to see what sort of future Woodley has ahead of her.
Perhaps this is a bit of an odd pick considering this is, after all, a superhero movie. But as has been proven time and time again, a superhero (or in this case, a group of superheroes) is only as good as the villain he battles. If Fassbender's performance in First Class is any indication, the X-Men better pick up their collective game in future installments of this series. The undercurrent of rage that runs through every action Magneto makes gives new life to a character that had already been done pretty stinking well by Ian McKellen. What I love about Fassbender is that no matter what his role, he forces the audience to pay attention to him. That's a valuable asset in any film but it's an unexpected and especially nice touch in a popcorn, comic book movie.
4. Viola Davis - Aibileen Clark, The Help
There's not a lot for me to say about Davis' work in this movie other than the following: for me, this is the best performance by a lead actress that I've seen in years. This is a strong and powerful portrayal that at times gave me chills. Just a beautiful job by Davis.
I think future generations will look back at the collective, "Meh" our various award shows gave JGL's performance in 50/50 and wonder what exactly our problem was. I really don't understand it. I found his work to be so real, so genuine that at times I almost forgot I was watching a work of fiction, not a very well-cut documentary. JGL brought humanity to a truly demanding role (a 28 year-old cancer patient) and managed to make the audience both laugh and cry, occasionally at the same time. Throughout the film you can tell that Adam is just barely holding it together and that makes his eventual breakdown all the more powerful. I loved this movie and his performance and the fact that it's getting virtually no love makes me want to break things.
2. Gary Oldman - George Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
There's a scene in TTSS in which Smiley is sitting in a dark room with his protege, Peter. He's had a couple of drinks and he begins telling Peter about the time he met Karla, the leader of the Soviet Union. And then he turns to this empty chair and begins talking to it as if Karla was in the room. He even offers the invisible man a cigarette. And it's the best scene in a terrific movie. That's how good Gary Oldman is. Here's this aging spy, surrounded by the furnishings of a crappy hotel room filled with smoke, talking to an empty chair and I was absolutely riveted. Can we please get this man an Oscar nomination now?
Going in, I really didn't think Gosling had what it takes to pull off a good tough guy. He's just too pretty. Well I was wrong. In fact, it's almost impossible to describe how awesome Gosling is in this role. If I had one 2011 movie character to back me up in a fight (super powers aside), it would be Driver. Everything about him is both cool and terrifying. The determined manner in which he takes on a dangerous task, the driving gloves that he only puts on when he means business, and that satin jacket...this guy is a boss and there's no way around it. Gosling is able to convey SO MUCH about his character, his feelings, his intention, while speaking only a few, measured words and that Driver becomes this sort of quiet menace who no one really wants to mess with. It's not like Gosling was some unknown actor before Drive but his performance here served as an eye-opening experience for me, a demonstration as to just what this guy is capable of. It is a masterful performance and one that will stick with me for years to come.