Friday, February 17, 2012

Best of 2011, Part 3: Acting

Yup, we're still plugging along over here. Today, let's look at acting. I'll try to include clips of the performances, but no guarantees.

Best Actor
5. Tom Cullen-Weekend
Though it's nigh on impossible to choose between the two leads in this movie, ultimately I went with Cullen, whose portrayal of Russell, the quiet, semi-closeted orphan, provides the still center around which the film revolves. The performance is an achievement in naturalism, never straining too much for effect.

4. Jean Dujardin-The Artist
I kind of thought silent film acting was an entirely lost art, until Jean Dujardin tapped into my life. He's endlessly charming, his comic abilities are fantastic, and he doesn't skip a beat when transitioning into the more traditionally dramatic segments of the film. Dujardin is the glue that holds The Artist together and makes it as charming as it is.

3. Brad Pitt-Moneyball
Some actors let their fame or star persona get in the way of their performance. I love what Brad Pitt does here because he harnesses the movie-star thing he's got going, yokes to his already impressive charisma and acting skills, and creates something surprisingly affecting. While I'm not the film's biggest fan, I can't deny that Brad Pitt absolutely owns this movie. His tired, cynical, eternally youthful-looking baseball coach is almost certainly one of the best performances of his career.
(Again, youtube fails to provide a clip that really showcases the performance, but this one catches him in a rare moment of tenderness, which is nice:

2. Michael Fassbender-Shame
Fassbender's got a tricky job here. On the one hand, he needs to portray the farthest gone of addicts; cold, alienating, completely indifferent to everything but his next fix. That being said, his addiction is to sex, so to get that hit he needs to be completely believable as the kind of person who can get a person to bed within an hour of meeting them. That Fassbender can pull off both these qualities at once is pretty unbelievable. The trick is in the eyes, I think. Sure, he's smiling and flirting and buying drinks, but he's got the look of a predator.

1. Ryan Gosling-Drive
Talk about restraint. In the entire running time, Gosling gets maybe 30 minutes of dialogue. Most of this performance he's just watching, waiting, coiled like a snake. The real genius of this performance are the silences themselves; it's incredible how many different thoughts and emotions Gosling can convey with a seemingly blank face. One shot, in which Gosling's character just sits on the couch, perfectly content, knowing he's finally found somewhere that makes him feel like a person, is one that I haven't gotten out of my head, even though I saw this movie more than four months ago. The way he balances this impossible gentleness and cold brutality in his character is just astounding.
Because I said the balancing act was important, here's one nice scene:
And here's one brutal scene (sorry for the naked ladies):

Honorable Mention: Michael Shannon desperately trying to hold onto sanity and an appearance of normality in Take Shelter

Best Actress
5. Kirsten Dunst-Melancholia
As Lars Von Trier's vessel for apocalyptic depression, Dunst plays a psychic bride-to-be with the sparkle of a mutilated corpse. Her wedding scenes are alternately depressing and morbidly funny as she tries to go through the motions of a happy ceremony, before sinking into some well-earned bathtub wallowing. Dunst is fascinating to watch when she's clinically depressed, but even better in the final scenes when she adopts a sort of bloodthirsty stoicism, romping around the mansion spouting things like "the world is evil, we don't need to grieve for it."

4. Elizabeth Olsen-Martha Marcy May Marlene
This performance feels like fancy china: it's delicate and it's exquisitely wrought and when it breaks it's both terrible and almost uncomfortably fascinating to watch. As a young ex-cultist trying to hide from her past, Olsen brings impressive shades of subtlety and depth to what could have been a paint-by-numbers 'scared girl' role. Instead, she crafts a realistically broken woman whose strangely conditioned behavior sometimes floats to the surface in disturbingly routine ways.

3. Viola Davis-The Help
Viola Davis' performance is inarguably the most important performance to its film this year. Davis takes her character--a tired version of the uneducated, tragically noble black maid who needs a white woman to happen along and save her--and turns her into one of the most interesting, compelling characters on the screen this season. She adds layers of depth and truth and honesty that very obviously weren't written into the script, and completely elevates the movie in the process. Most of The Help's quality (however dubious or relative a term that is in this context) can be traced back to Viola Davis' heavy lifting. She grabs this silly little white-savior movie and refashions it all for herself.

2. Kristen Wiig-Bridesmaids
Here's the funniest performance of the year in the best ensemble of the year. For starters, Kristen Wiig is absolutely hilarious, but never looks like she's trying to be funny. Playing the straight partner to the bigger characters is tough, and stealing laughs from them is even harder. But she also nails the abject depression, the absorbing self-pity, the quietly angry failure of all her endeavors. Kristen Wiig creates an incredibly believable human being, both funny and vulnerable.
1. Charlize Theron-Young Adult
Here's a performance that doesn't want you to like it, and isn't going to work for your approval. Theron has the guts to go for broke with this addled alcoholic heroine, playing as cruelly as possible; she can cut diamonds with that glare of hers. The impossibly large ego, the hellish determination to ruin other people's lives to benefit her own, the way she converses with other people like she's playing at sarcastic bear-baiting, and then that unbelievably brutal and vulnerable breakdown on her old flame's front lawn. This performance has it all, and then some.

Honorable Mention: Meryl Streep's perfromance in The Iron Lady was honestly in the top five, but then I started writing about it, which reminded me that I hate the movie too much to include in a top anything. Meryl was great in it, but not great enough to redeem a quickly sinking ship.

Best Supporting Actor
5. Tom Hardy-Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Cocky, self-assured, casually seductive, and ultimately beaten down and made pathetic. The whole cast shines, but Tom Hardy's newbie spy-in-love lingers.
(No clip, sorry.)

4. Albert Brooks-Drive
Brooks plays this role like a politician who's been given free rein to do anything he likes. He keeps his public relations smile going, even when he's stabbing someone in the eye with a fork.

3. Brad Pitt-The Tree of Life
Pitt is a compelling portrait of bruised masculinity and harsh fatherhood, as a man who lets the world turn him into a violent stranger in his own house.

2. Corey Stoll-Midnight in Paris
Stoll plays Ernest Hemingway, but doesn't go for impersonation. Instead, he plays the man as the complete distillation of his written work: aggressively masculine, sweepingly broad, like how a bear would speak if it were a little tipsy. His performance is far and away the best thing in this movie, though, admittedly, it's better if you're familiar with Hemingway and his writing.
(this clip cracks me up like crazy:

1. Christopher Plummer-Beginners
Here's a delicate, lived-in, finely observed performance from Plummer as an older man who's just come out of the closet. He's sweet, he's funny, he's a little petulant, and he vibrates with a joy for life and a love for his son that nothing can kill. It's a very impassioned, moving performance.

Honorable Mention: Bryan Cranston is a memorable boss/mob connection-cum-father figure in Drive.

Best Supporting Actress
5. Melissa McCarthy-Bridesmaids
Raunchy, somewhat bizarre, blunt to a fault, but full of genuine heart. McCarthy's deserved Oscar nomination was one of the most fun surprises on nomination morning.

4. Carey Mulligan-Shame
The chaotic, explosive Yang to Michael Fassbender's frosty Yin, Mulligan's achingly vulnerable performance is as critical to the success of Shame as Fassbender's more talked-about work.

3. Jessica Chastain-The Help
Chastain's white-trash-turned-society-wife is one of the standouts of The Help's admittedly accomplished ensemble. She's quick, funny, and surprisingly tough, turning (like every woman in The Help has to do) an underwritten caricature into a living, breathing individual.

2. Angelica Huston-50/50
Huston gets approximately 3 scenes in this film, but she completely blows everything else away with her performance as a fussy, overbearing, but ultimately loving mom. She's both hilarious and incredibly moving; her "I only smothered him because I loved him" is one of the movie's funniest one-liners, and if the scene between Huston and Gordon-Levitt before surgery doesn't put a lump in your throat, you're probably not a real person.
Here's the pre-surgery scene. So 50/50's not perfect, but having just watched this scene again (twice), I've realized how totally remiss I was in not including this in the 'best scene of the year' category. So chalk this one up as an honorary member.

1. Rose Byrne-Bridesmaids
Rose Byrne shows a hitherto-unsuspected comedic gift, turning her role as Helen--a pretentious, competitive Bridesmaid--into just about the funniest thing in an already funny movie. Whether she's toasting in Thai, smiling at her step-kids, or denying that she's an ugly crier, Byrne never once makes a false move.
This clip's long, but worth seeing:, but if you feel like something shorter, I'll never understand how Byrne's face from 1:23 to 1:32 in this scene didn't earn her an Oscar:

Honorable Mention: Berenice Bejo's spunky, charismatic work in The Artist.

Well, that's it for today, which is a good thing, since I've been writing on this post on and off since around 8:15 this morning. Finding all those clips took a really, really long time. Anyway, what do you think? Where'd I go wrong? Should I have given more slots to Bridesmaids than I did to Hugo, War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and The Help combined? I think so, but I could be wrong.*

*totally untrue.

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