Best of 2011: 20 Lead Actors

9 Feb

A whole month after 2011 ended I have wrapped up my yearly rankings, having seen 256 films released in 2011, granting 13 perfect A+ scores and a really superb 76 scores in the A range. To remember the year that was I thought I should start a feature that will hopefully become a yearly thing for me and do a few Best of 2011 posts, choosing my Top 20 films, directing efforts, screenplays, and performances (separated by lead male, lead female, supporting male and supporting female) and doing a post honoring them with a brief paragraph explaining what made each of those 20 options so remarkable and memorable and thus made 2011 a great year for films. For the seventh and final entry in the series of posts we have my Top 20 Performances by Leading Actors of 2011:

20. OWEN WILSON as Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris

The lead male character in Woody Allen movies is typically a kind of alter-ego of Woody himself. Such is the case with Gil in his latest film, a rather wealthy screenwriter who can’t quite come to terms with the artistic sell-out he’s become and would much rather live a life just making pure art, being a novelist, and one living on the 1920’s, if possible. Now, Owen Wilson is obviously different than Woody, a West Coast personality and not an East Coast one like the director himself said, so the role was slight re-written to fit him better, and the stuff he does with the role is splendid, he makes Gil his own character and not just a Woody Allen impersonation like many before him have unfortunately done, keeping the Woody sensibilities but putting them into an Owen Wilson character. Midnight appeared in 6 of my 7 rankings: #14 Film, #8 Director, #6 Supporting Actor for Corey Stoll, #9 Supporting Actress for Marion Cotillard, #1 Screenplay and here.

19. PAUL GIAMATTI as Mike Flaherty in Win Win

Paul Giamatti has to be one of our finer actors working today. He’s the man that’s just perfect at playing those characters that kind of feel like losers in one way or another, the stuff he does with his body and his raspy voice adding a lot to the overall effect of his performance, how he expresses exasperation and disappointment, he’s genius. Mike Flaherty is a struggling lawyer who moonlights as the coach of a high-school wrestling team that’s not doing so well. He has worries and anxieties that are faced by many American men, things that are slightly off but that affect Mike in really poignant ways. Mr. Giammati, as always makes the ordinary feel exceptional. Win Win appeared in one other ranking of mine, a #10 mention for its screenplay.

18. MICHAEL FASSBENDER as Rochester in Jane Eyre

2011 was an exceptional year for Michael Fassbender, with spectacular turns in X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Shame and this film right here. He’s fantastic as the iconic Mr. Rochester, a role played by giants before him, and embeds him with that dangerous kind of charm the Irish actor is so good at showing. He’s one of my five favorite working actors, someone who I put in the same league as the Day-Lewis’ of the world, just a beast of a performer who does so many good things while he’s on screen. Jane Eyre appeared in one other ranking of mine, a #15 mention for Mia Wasikowska’s lead performance.

17. DEMIÁN BICHIR as Carlos Galindo in A Better Life

Yes, Demián Bichir got an Oscar nomination over some better actors and better performances, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve it. He’s a stand-up guy who’s been working his way up the (racially-difficult) ladder, and the performance he gives in A Better Life is indeed really good. As Carlos Galindo he plays a Mexican immigrant, living in Los Angeles for the past six years, tending to the lawns of wealthy people only to be able to provide for his family, with a teenage son that seems about to join a local gang. It’s a really human story that’s so well acted by Mr. Bichir and that will certainly get to you.

16. DOMINIC COOPER as Uday Hussein / Latif Yahia in The Devil’s Double

Had this film been better, then we might just be calling Dominic Cooper an Oscar nominee. This film is one big coming out party for his talent, taking on the double role of both Uday Hussein, the crazy son of Saddam, and of Latif Yahia, the ordinary man forced under threat to his family to step into his shoe’s and become the double of a man wanted dead by many. The film may not be that great (I gave it a B) but the performance alone is worth checking it out for, it’s hugely entertaining, reminiscent of Pacino’s in Scarface, and how well he acts opposite himself (thanks to visual effects) is mesmerizing to watch, you won’t be blamed if you think it’s two different actors. But it’s not two guys, it’s just the one, Dominic Cooper, a name you’ll certainly be hearing more about in the future.

15. TOM HARDY as Tommy Conlon in Warrior

Speaking about actors who are poised to hit the big leagues, Tom Hardy is certainly in that discussion, and 2012 should be the year in which he achieves that status thanks to a certain third film he’s playing the villain in. It’s a riveting performance as a man who in some ways is still a child, a child who was marked by the devastating ways and habits his father exhibited as he grew up, and who’s now trapped inside the body of a huge muscular man. His performance has more to do with physical scenes and with looks than it does with dialogue, and it’s just stunning. Warrior appeared in one other ranking of mine, a #9 mention for Nick Nolte’s supporting performance.

14. ANTON YELCHIN as Jacob in Like Crazy

Like Crazy is a brilliant film, and the stuff done by its lead actors is stunning, how much evolution Anton Yelchin takes Jacob through in just an hour and a half is incredible. Improvising a lot of the dialogue alongside the gorgeous Felicity Jones, and delivering a performance that’s quiet quiet, communicating just with some looks that carry in them an exceptionally touching sincerity. Like Crazy had mentions in 4 of my rankings: #11 Film, #18 Director, #9 Actress for Felicity Jones, and here.

13. LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar

Leonardo DiCaprio was denied his fourth Oscar nomination for his portrayal as the legendary J. Edgar Hoover in a film that divided its audience quite a bit (I gave it a low A-, but expected something better). However the film turned out, though, the performance by Mr. DiCaprio is undeniable, one that, I think, may actually be the best he’s given so far in his career (though the greatness of the films elevate the quality of some of his other ones). This performance is just so deep, subtle, so fully realized, displaying across his face all the mannerisms of a really complex man. Yes, the make-up may be distracting, that’s a huge obstacle for this whole film, but this performance just works like gangbusters and is what keeps your attention for over two hours.

12. JEAN DUJARDIN as George Valentin in The Artist

The one that’s supposed to barely edge out George Clooney in a couple of weeks to score himself an Oscar, the very French actor in a very silent movie that’s been charming the pants off of Hollywood for the past couple of months. He is impeccable as he plays George Valentin, a movie star of the 1920’s, everything about him adding to the character; the sleek hair, the classy mustache, the winning smile. It takes really charming and physical performers to hold a silent film together and make it as masterful as The Artist is, and Mr. Dujardin is more than up to the task, embodying both the personna of a movie star in the golden era of Hollywood, and the narcissism of man that lives for his crowd’s adoration and who may just lose that. The Artist had mentions in 5 of my 7 rankings: #8 Film, #7 Director, #13 Leading Actress for Bérénice Bejo (yes, she’s a lead no matter what Oscar tells you), #12 Screenplay, and here.

11. RYAN GOSLING as Stephen Meyers in The Ides of March

Alongside Michael Fassbender it was probably Ryan Gosling who had the biggest 2011 for male actors. In this film he plays a really good press secretary in charge of the campaign mounted by George Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris. He’s brilliant in this role, a film that was just made for really great actors to showcase their talents, going at it with some of the best in the game, including Mr. Clooney himself, whose charm, wit and good looks Mr. Gosling seems to be a worthy successor to. The Ides of March had mentions in 6 of my 7 rankings: #18 Film, #13 Director, twice in my Supporting Actor rankings (#20 for George Clooney and #17 for Philip Seymour Hoffman), #13 Supporting Actress for Evan Rachel Wood, #18 Screenplay, and here.

10. WOODY HARRELSON as David Douglas Brown in Rampart

This is an incredibly fearless performance on display by the awesome Woody Harrelson, one of a highly unlikable character, a monster really, a guy that can get away with the horrible stuff he does solely because of his charm and intelligence, which is why Mr. Harrelson was such a smart choice to play him. This may just be a career-best performance from him, just so raw and intense in front of the camera, and even though he doesn’t get us to like Dave, because that’s impossible with a man like this, he does manage to make him human and get us interested in the stuff going on around him and the stuff he’s beginning to realize albeit too late in life.

9. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT as Adam in 50/50

The performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of a young man recently diagnosed with cancer, was central to making 50/50 succeed. The whole film walks the really fine tightrope of hilarity and really emotional stuff, and how Mr. Gordon-Levitt manages to marry the two qualities is exceptional, delivering what may be one of the two or three best performances of his career, and showing, in his scenes with Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Anjelica Huston, that he has really great chemistry with his co-stars. 50/50 had mentions in 5 of my 7 rankings: #19 Film, #15 Supporting Actor for Seth Rogen, #10 Supporting Actress for Anna Kendrick, #6 Screenplay, and here.

8. ASA BUTTERFIELD as Hugo Cabret in Hugo

I realize putting the fourteen year-old Asa Butterfield ahead of names like Harrelson and DiCaprio may seem too much, but such was the power Hugo had on me. And considering his is the performance at the center of it, of course I would love him as the young boy on a quest to unlock a secret of his father’s. The performance by the young Mr. Butterfield is just so incredibly soulful, he makes you invest in Hugo’s quest, and its his interactions with the rest of the talented cast that really get this movie going. Hugo had mentions in 6 of my 7 rankings: #1 Film, #1 Director, #5 Supporting Actor for Ben Kingsley, #11 Supporting Actress for Chloë Grace Moretz, and here.

7. BRAD PITT as Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life

Another person for whom 2011 was a remarkable year was Brad Pitt, and taking part in this new masterpiece by Terrence Malick is a big reason why. The film pretty much has no plot, it’s just an impressionistic viewpoint of an American family as well as a history of the Earth as seen through the evolution of said family. The Tree of Life wasn’t for everyone, that much is certainly true, but I personally really connected with it, and the emotional stuff in it was just as stunning and the visual parts, and you can thank Brad Pitt for a lot of that. The Tree of Life had mentions in 5 of my 7 rankings: #6 Film, #3 Director, #2 Supporting Actress for Jessica Chastain, #19 Screenplay, and here.

6. MICHAEL SHANNON as Curtis LaForche in Take Shelter

Few people have better screen presence than Michael Shannon, I think. He just commands your attention, and in Take Shelter, in which he stars as a man having apocalyptic hallucinations, he gives a truly spellbinding performance that’s just so, so powerful. He’s been cast as the creepy character before, and while in Take Shelter he plays a blue-collar family man, a loving father and husband, as he starts having these visions that leave him disturbed those qualities that made him a creepy character lend themselves for him to masterfully convey those heavy emotions, his eyes showing the underlying sense of unease within him. The energy, the tension, the intensity of his performance, this is just a masterclass in acting. Take Shelter had mentions in 4 of my 7 rankings: #17 Director, #8 Supporting Actress for Jessica Chastain, #20 Screenplay, and here.

5. BRAD PITT as Billy Beane in Moneyball

That’s right, Brad Pitt gets a double mention in this ranking. And the performance he gives as the Oakland A’s GM, Billy Beane, is one of the two or three best he’s ever given. This is the perfect Brad Pitt performance in a way, as he embraces both his movie star charisma and good looks, charming us like crazy when he has to, but also showing us the thespian Brad Pitt, delivering a deep and finely nuanced performance in which he says a lot with just his eyes. This guy is entering the prime of his career, trust me on that, we’ve not seen the best of Brad Pitt yet, as amazing as his two performances of 2011 already were. Moneyball had mentions in 5 of my 7 rankings: #7 Film, #9 Director, #4 Supporting Actor for Jonah Hill, #4 Screenplay, and here.

4. GARY OLDMAN as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The performance that finally (fiiiinally) got Gary Oldman his well overdue Oscar nomination. And boy was it deserved, Mr. Oldman puts on a clinic in acting on display in this film, showing us why he’s a master of his craft. He gives a very silent performance, his character, the lead in the film, doesn’t actually utter a single word until we’re about twenty minutes into it. But that’s part of the greatness of his portrayal of George Smiley, it’s just so brilliantly nuanced, and he does so, so much with just his eyes and his face, this is sheer perfection. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy got mentions in 5 of my 7 rankings: #9 Film, #10 Director, #19 Supporting Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch, #8 Screenplay, and here.

3. RYAN GOSLING as Driver in Drive

Another double-mention in this ranking. This is just such a sublime performance, delivered by an actor who clearly had so much trust in his director. And much like Mr. Oldman’s performance cited above, this is such a masterful portrayal because of the silence in the performance Mr. Gosling gives of the unnamed Driver, he takes some pauses here that seem to last forever and that you just want to last longer. And when he does speak, boy do you linger on every word, not to mention that when he isn’t speaking he’s either delivering a killing stare, or actually exacting some (really brutal) violence. Drive got mentions in 6 of my 7 rankings: #4 Film, #2 Director, #1 Supporting Actor for Albert Brooks, #6 Supporting Actress for Carey Mulligan, #16 Screenplay, and here.

2. GEORGE CLOONEY as Matt King in The Descendants

George Clooney, an Oscar-winner already for Syriana, should get his second Academy Award this year even though it seems the #12-ranked Frenchman will prevent him from doing so. This man, at 50 years-old, just keeps getting better and better, I thought he couldn’t possibly be better than he was in 2009’s Up in the Air, and then look at what he does here in The Descendants, this is his show and he makes the most of it. He just exposes himself, emotionally naked to the camera, getting some really touching moments that will certainly get to you. He’s just a smart actor that brings a lot to his characters, and we believe Matt King when he shares his thoughts and worries, we believe him because Mr. Clooney, alongside with director Alexander Payne, makes him a tremendously human character, who just happens to have Mr. Clooney’s looks. The Descendants got mentions in 5 of my 7 rankings: #5 Film, #6 Director, twice in my Supporting Actress rankings (#12 for Judy Greer and #3 for Shailene Woodley), #7 Screenplay, and here.

1. MICHAEL FASSBENDER as Brandon Sullivan in Shame

The performance of the year; male or female, lead or supporting, no one came close to doing what Michael Fassbender, who also got two mentions in this ranking, did in Shame. This is also, the single most egregious Oscar snub in recent years, but my dismay upon that has been documented in other posts. The stuff Mr. Fassbender brings to this role is just insanely stunning to watch, baring it all, both literally and figuratively, to play the sex addict Brandon, a man who’s life is a living hell as he can’t seem to get the connection he wants from people, trying to hide his inner demons through an external quest for physical satisfaction. He plays a man in a downward spiral of addiction, and you feel his internal fears as you watch him go through his life, it’s such a bold and brave performance by one of the best actors we have working today. Shame got mentions in 5 of my 7 rankings: #2 Film, #4 Director, #1 Supporting Actress for Carey Mulligan, #14 Screenplay, and here.

Those are my Top 20 performances by actors in leading roles. All 5 of the Oscar nominees were included in my ranking, though if I ran the Oscars only Clooney, Oldman and Pitt would remain nominees. The actual race, however, is a battle between Dujardin and Clooney, the French against the American. And even though Dujardin seems poised to win right now, let’s hope the Academy backs up its homegrown product and rewards Clooney with his second Oscar.


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