Here are my favorite lead performances of the year.
Jean DuJardin, The Artist
This Oscar-winning performance is a lesson in pure charm. This movie would have flopped without a dynamic and engaging leading man. As George Valentin, DuJardin hits it out of the park and more. He effortlessly blends the comedy and pathos of the story and, in a silent performance, says more than most other actors say in dozens of movies put together.
Michael Fassbender, Shame
If you've heard of this performance, its probably for its notorious nudity. What's really remarkable about Fassbender's performance as sex-addict Brandon, though, is how Fassbender can make a character with such repellent behavior so endlessly fascinating and even sympathetic. Shame is a movie that focuses on present behavior, rather than backstory. Fassbender digs so deep into his character, the viewer can't help but wonder and puzzle over the origins of his character's actions. With other very strong 2011 performances in Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method, Fassbender is one of the most dynamic modern actors.
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I was so glad (and frankly surprised) when Oldman received an Oscar nomination. This quiet and inward performance of a British intelligence officer is the type of role that so often gets overlooked. Like Fassbender, so much of Oldman's backstory and motivations are left to the viewer to decipher. When I finished Tinker Tailor, I immediately wanted to watch it again, partly to decipher the plot and partly to just watch Oldman make great acting look so easy.
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Speaking of actors who make it look easy, here's the superstar Brad Pitt playing down-to-earth baseball manager Billy Beane. It's rare that a major star can disappear into his character so easily, but I always felt I was watching Billy rather than Brad. A little abrasive, a little scarred, and with a lot of love for the game, Billy Beane is a great character destined to be remembered for a long time to come.
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Michael Shannon received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 2008 for stealing all his scenes as a schizophrenic visitor in Revolutionary Road. Now here he is in Take Shelter playing....what is arguably a schizophrenic man. This time the movie belongs to him, and he does such a great job of showing us the slow descent and obsession of mental illness. One of the best portrayals of breakdown I've seen.
My pick: Michael Fassbender
Runner-Up: Brad Pitt
Matches with Oscar: 3/5. Oscar did pretty well rewarding Pitt, DuJardin, and Oldman. While I thought both George Clooney (The Descendants) and Demian Bechir (A Better Life) were quite good in movies I didn't love, the snub of Fassbender in particular really hurts.
Viola Davis, The Help
I recently rewatched The Help on a plane, and Viola Davis blew me away even more the second time. Despite the flaws of the movie, I was reduced to a blubbery mess once again by the strength and depth of Aibileen as portrayed by Davis. Simply by fully embodying this brave woman, body and soul, Davis commands the screen every time she is in the stage. Her Oscar loss to Meryl Streep is nothing short of egregious.
Yoon Joong-Hee, Poetry
Poetry is a South Korean drama about a woman coping with Alzhimer's who takes a poetry class and is also dealing with the reprecussions of acts by her grandson. Joong-Hee takes us through the stages of grief, renewal, and redemption and shows the remarkable grace that can come even in (or maybe especially in) the last years of a life.
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Surprised to see a sister of the infamous Olsen twins on my list? I was surprised to see her maturity, depth, and incredible screen presence. MMMM flashes between Martha's time in an abusive cult and her attempt to put it behind her as she spends time with her sister and brother-in-law. Olsen has a voice and a face to remember, and I can't wait to see what she does next.
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Mavis Gary, a YA-fiction writer who returns to her small town, is one of the most pathetic and self-deluding characters to grace the screen in quite a while. Theron goes all out in portraying her, never taking the easy route of showing a softer side. In the end, its Theron's air of self-delusion that makes the movie so intriguingly disturbing.
Kristen Wigg, Bridesmaids
Because she was freaking hilarious and part of many of the best scenes of the year. The most awkward party toast ever..... trying to hold in food at the bridal fitting...... tranquilizers on the plane. Unlike Mavis Gary, this is a pathetic character with the inner strength to do something else. It's both hilarious and occasionally moving to see her stumble through her big moments. A great comedian and the main reason Bridesmaids was a smash hit.
My Favorite: Viola Davis
Runner-Up: Charlize Theron
Matches with Oscar: Oscar and I only overlapped with Viola. I missed Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs. I thought Michelle Williams was good in My Week With Marilyn, but she's definitely been better. Rooney Mara was great in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and easily on my runner-up list. As for Meryl, one of my favorite actresses..... I hate to say it but The Iron Lady is one of her weaker performances, more mimicry than artistry.
Coming Soon...... My Favorite Movies of 2011