2011: The Great Performances

When considering all the films I watched and wrote about, or watched and did not ultimately share my thoughts about, I am left with the belief that 2011 was a solid and relatively good year at the movies.  As of this writing however, I have awarded just two films with my highest 5-star review, another half dozen or so a 4.5 star review, and several other films a 4 star review.  While I have added just 8 new films to my “Yes You Should!!!” club in 2011, I had a thrilling time watching movie after movie arrive week after week and 2011 continued to keep my passion for all things cinema burning bright and bold.  I simply take great joy in deciphering the stories being told, being moved to tears, angered into action, and aggravated at the ridiculousness I often see unfold before me.  Those lists which document “The Best I Saw” and “The Worst I Endured” in 2011 will be posted soon.  As I did last year, and hope to do each year going forward, I wanted to pinpoint 15 Great Performances that I will likely not soon, or hopefully ever, forget when I think back to the year just concluded.

Rather quickly you will see that these are not 15 individual performances.  They are more 15 placemarkers for performances, casts, and contributions that I found memorable, moving, and impressive.  For example, one actor is listed for three films he starred in, two actors are cited from the same film, two casts are spotlighted, and in another instance, two actors, a composer, and a director are feted from the same film.  The list has loose rules.  I think once you read my selections for the Great Performances of 2011, you will certainly get a sense of what moved me and impressed me this past year and why I opted to fashion this article in this format as opposed to something more traditional in nature.

As with 2010’s list, the performances are in alphabetical order and are not ranked in any other manner.  Before you make the leap, here a few hints at what you will find after the cut:

  • The fearless portrayal of a man hopelessly mired in a debilitating and stunting sexual addiction.
  • The reinvention and reawakening of one of film’s most gifted comedic writers, satirists, and filmmakers.
  • An entire cast of female actors who defied the odds and delivered one of the funniest films of this or any year.
  • A veteran actor baring his very real personal demons on screen, in a role where his character is never allowed to forget the pain and trauma his struggles have brought to his now-adult family.
  • The audacity of making a 1920’s style silent film in 2011, when YouTube, Facebook, and smartphones keep attention spans and the interest we have in entertainment and pop culture fleeting and almost immediately left in the past.
  • The stunning arrival of an extraordinary actress and filmmaker who fought, struggled, begged, marketed, and fund-raised tirelessly for years in an effort to convert a short film into a full-length feature.

So, with acknowledgment that I have not seen films such as The Iron Lady, A Separation, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, or…sadly…Jack And Jill, here are the 15 Performances I will always have fond memories of from 2011.  And while I did try and avoid them in large part, some spoilers will follow…

Woody Allen as Writer and Director of Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen has released one film per year for the last 30+ years and over the last several of those years and films, it has seemed that while Allen, at 77 years young, still has his creative mind and juices flowing, his biting wit, satiric and cynical view of the world, and extraordinary ability to write and understand his characters seems to have waned and taken largely a disappointing and muted turn.

With Midnight In Paris, Allen surprised everyone, even his most ardent supporters, by delivering his finest effort in decades – a film which brings forward the brilliant sensitivity Allen incorporated into his classic romantic comedies of the past, and a fantastical trip back to 1920’s Paris where Owen Wilson’s Gil Bender interacts, meets, and becomes inspired by the literary icons of the early 20th century.  Allen opens his film with a breathtaking Parisian travelogue, imagines rich and larger-than-life personas for people like Hemingway, Toklas, and Fitzgerald, and then punctuates the comedy and idolatry on display with a romance between Wilson and Marion Cotillard that is as surprising and tender as it is completely improbable.  Midnight In Paris is a film where a laboring filmmaker found himself again and introduced his talents to an entirely new generation.

The Cast Of Bridesmaids

The ill-fated trip to the Mexican restaurant.  The competing speeches at the engagement party.  The sibling roommates.  The unfortunate events transpiring on that plane ride to Vegas.  The bridal shower and those party-favor puppies.  When you think of the one film everyone talked about when considering the comedies of 2011 which made everyone laugh, Bridesmaids was a revelation.  Co-writer and star Kristen Wiig is certainly well-respected in Hollywood but never had the cache of being a leading lady and certainly, with her years of service on Saturday Night Live, was never viewed as someone who could open a movie.  Bridesmaids arrived in a rancorous environment where the belief is and has been that films which feature  all-women casts are box office poison.  And then, these largely unknown women star in an R-rated go-for-broke comedy?  Forget about it.

But thankfully, it did not take long for word-of-mouth to spread regarding Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s screenplay and critics began writing about how well Bridesmaids worked; not just as a raunchy, must-see-it-to-believe-it comedy (In the sink? Really?!?!?) but also how the film retained a great deal of honesty, heart, and integrity.  Wiig was stellar in the lead role, but she was simply the figurehead on a wealth of talented comedic female actors, including Maya Rudolph, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy, who is a somewhat surprising, but certainly well-deserved contender for a Best Supporting Actress nomination this year.  When you add in a heartfelt turn by Chris O’Dowd as Wiig’s potential new boyfriend, “Mad Men”’s Jon Hamm as the nasty, heartless, sex buddy that Wiig gravitates back to time and time again, and the WTF? cameo of the year from 1990s pop stars Wilson Phillips, virtually every moment in Bridesmaids works and works extremely well.  Everyone gets their moment to shine and the film never feels or looks desperate to win you over.  The cast of Bridesmaids deserve huge accolades for succeeding amidst the expectation of failure and obliterating the draconian belief, at least for one year, that women cannot open or sustain a hit movie at the box office (Ed. Note: See also “The Help”).

The Cast Of The Descendants

Perhaps he had grown to appear to be too slick, too mannered, too A-list for some people.  When considering recent Oscar nominations for Michael Clayton and Up In The Air, and even with his 2011 portrayal of a hopeful Presidential candidate in his own film, The Ides Of March, George Clooney seemed to be moving into familiarity and mundanity with his roles.  And then he met Alexander Payne, the gifted and caustic Oscar-winning auteur (Sideways) who found a man named Matt King for Clooney to inhabit – a wealthy attorney who maintains his family’s Hawaiian heritage by managing a massive parcel of land for a family trust.  But with Matt King, there is something else he is facing.  Matt’s wife of more than 20 years rests in a respirator-controlled coma following a boating accident and Matt finds himself, for the first time, having to be the single-parent to his 17 and 10 year old daughters, while faced with the very real and immediate prospects of losing his wife.

More happens, secrets are revealed and confronted, but throughout the entire film, George Clooney has never been more vulnerable, honest, and stripped of ego, as he is in this role.  Surrounding Clooney’s best performance to date is a talented and, frankly, confounding ensemble consisting of Matthew Lillard, newcomer Amara Miller, and likely Oscar nominee Shailene Woodley, who matches Clooney scene-for-scene and emotion for emotion, playing the oldest daughter who Matt desperately needs to help him through everything he and his family is facing.  Other performances by Robert Forster as Clooney’s father-in-law, Judy Greer as a woman who learns a sad and untenable secret, and the polarizing performance from Nick Krause as Sid, comedic relief for this searing and moving drama, all strike a chord and make you consider how, in a relative snap of the fingers, everything can change in a moment’s notice for forever and for always.

Viola Davis as Aibileen in The Help

From the opening frame of The Help, Viola Davis centers the emotional core of Tate Taylor’s film with one look and a handful of words.  Davis’ Aibileen is a captivating character to watch and experience, even acknowledging that Taylor’s massive hit film adaptation from the Jessica Stockett bestselling book of the same name, found no shortage of impressive female actors among its ranks.

Octavia Spencer shines as Minny, a trustworthy and loyal housekeeper who tends to the shunned and mocked Celia Foote (a heartbreaking performance by Jessica Chastain).  Bryce Dallas Howard flirts with caricature but pulls off her villainous turn astutely.  Emma Stone broadened her range and played well as a progressive Southern woman in a regressively racist 1960s Mississippi, while other performances by Ahna O’Reilly, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Mary Steenburgen, and Cicely Tyson, along with Mike Vogel as Chastain’s husband document the horror and inanity of the prejudice of the times, the superficiality of the “cause”, and the heartwrenching experiences that maids and housekeepers endured working in these homes and with these families.

But wisely, The Help returns to Aibileen time and again, having her serve as our focal point, reminding us of the daily grind, the arbitrary rules, and at the film’s conclusion, allowing us to experience a most bittersweet goodbye, but life affirming walk down a residential road.

A few years ago, when Davis and Meryl Streep shared Oscar buzz and eventual nominations for Doubt, Streep commanded that someone needed to give Viola Davis a movie.  Whether it be her quick smile, shuttered stare, the joy in seeing Aibileen occasionally let down her guard, or fighting through a tearful goodbye, Viola Davis finally got her movie and her moment and perhaps, her Oscar.

Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and Ludovic Bource and Michel Hazanavicius as George Valentin (Dujardin), Peppy Miller (Bejo), the composer of a nearly 100-minute score (Bource) and as the writer and director of a silent film in 2011 (Hazanavicius) for The Artist.

I suppose I could have just cited the cast of The Artist and called it good, but that didn’t feel quite right.  In no way intended as a slight on the supporting cast members, The Artist soars and swells on its two main leading performances, the breathtaking and near flawless score which fuels the film’s rhythm and cadence, and the masterful and bold work of its creator, Michel Hazanavicius, a French director who wanted nothing more than to simply pay homage to a time and an era of eternal fascination to him.

Capturing the spirit and enthusiasm of a Hollywood in its relative infancy, Hazanavicius turned to his friend and collaborator, Jean Dujardin¸to portray George Valentin, the biggest star in the silent era of motion pictures.  Dujardin has an arresting smile, is movie-poster ready and carries a bottomless well of genuine likability and charisma.  Dujardin’s acclaimed work in international comedies prior to The Artist has amplified his ability to project larger-than-life emotion, which is/was naturally a necessity for success as a silent film star.

Hazanavicius turned to his wife, Bérénice Bejo, to star as the woman who signifies the ending of one era in filmmaking and the ushering in of a new and exciting world which incorporates sound and “the talkies”.  Bejo is electric on screen, generates extraordinary chemistry with Dujardin, and perhaps most impressively, never loses us, the viewers, when her star rises and Dujardin’s rapidly plummets.  As someone who symbolically gains everything at the demise of another’s fortunes, for Peppy Miller to be someone we rally behind and warm to, she must always remain in the audience’s favor.  The Artist depends on that switching of status and if Bejo and Dujardin were not able to nail down their performances perfectly, the film would simply fail to succeed.  For Bejo and Dujardin to achieve this without a single spoken word of dialogue in the entire film is almost unthinkable.

And to seal the deal, Ludovic Bource’s thrilling score is as bolted down and secure as any element found in any film this year.  Naturally, as was the case with silent films, the score is in many ways the story, and Bource knows the stories of George Valentin and Peppy Miller as well, if not better, than anyone else.  Bource never foreshadows what’s coming, never undermines the story being told, and in many scenes, provides all the dialogue you will ever need.

Michel Hazanavicius steers this ship masterfully and from top-to-bottom, The Artist is as breathtaking and pulse pounding a cinematic experience as I have had in quite some time.  Call it a gimmick all you want, but every element of the film works and delivers surprises, unexpected drama, and delights around every turn.  In 2011, The Artist’s silence was deafening.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame

Few actors can ever lay claim to the type of year that Michael Fassbender had in 2011.  Sure, Jessica Chastain had a more prolific year starring in, or being featured in, at least six films which saw openings in 2011, but Fassbender led four distinctively different and challenging films with four deeply rewarding and differentiating performances.  As Rochester, starring opposite Mia Wasikowska, Fassbender impressed in the 2011 remake of the classic romantic novel Jane Eyre with a tempered passion that made the love for his younger co-star palpable and real.

Leaping for the multiplexes, Fassbender delivered a surprisingly earnest and multi-dimensional turn as the man who would eventually become Professor Magneto in the underrated summer prequel and blockbuster, X-Men: First Class.  Sadly, the film’s disappointing box office performance (in terms of the X-Men franchise, that is…) may leave his thrilling interpretation of the comic book legend as a One-and-Done, but is absolutely the best thing about a pretty terrific comic book adaptation.

In the fall, Fassbender impressed as Carl Jung in the David Cronenberg-directed A Dangerous Method, but surging out of the festival circuit, all the talk in and around Hollywood circles focused on a small and uncompromising film called Shame, which featured Fassbender baring all, both physically and emotionally, as Brandon, a wealthy New York executive who exhibits an insatiable and troubling sexual addiction.  Tagged with the film industry’s Scarlet Letter of an NC-17 rating, Shame is a visceral and staggering view of a man who needs his fix and has no ability in understanding the depths he will have to go to continually achieve pleasure and satisfaction.

Directed by Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender in 2008’s searing and visceral Hunger, Shame incorporates a raw reality that few films dare to present nowadays.  For Fassbender, this did not simply mean that he was frequently nude on screen and shown having a dozen or so sexual encounters over the course of the film.  Fassbender built Brandon from the inside out, transforming his debonair confidence into a crumbling shell of a man who fails to see what is happening around him.  When his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, unexpectedly impedes on his regimented lifestyle, the floors begin to give way and Fassbender’s escalation into addiction-led madness is powerfully intense and soul-baring.

Shame is not for everyone, but is nonetheless a staggering and affecting work, anchored by a great turn from Mulligan, expert direction by Steve McQueen, and a career-defining performance from Michael Fassbender.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam Lerner in 50/50

One of the year’s best films, 50/50 relays the real-life story of writer and director Will Reiser’s discovery, in his mid-20’s, that he had contracted a rare and potentially life-threatening form of spinal cancer.  Reiser aggressively attacked the cancer through chemotherapy and radiation treatment and when healthy, documented his experiences into a screenplay.  Honestly, I easily could have selected the cast of 50/50 to be in this list because Seth Rogen, a real-life friend of Reiser’s who endured this process with him, Anna Kendrick, as a young therapist who has not yet seen a double-digit number of patients, Bryce Dallas Howard as a suspect girlfriend, and especially Anjelica Huston, as an anxious and distraught mother rationalizing the news of her son’s cancer diagnosis and prognosis, are all fantastic.

But for my money it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who makes 50/50 so memorable, moving, and powerful.  Gordon-Levitt is unassuming, real, and instantly engaging as Adam Lerner (Reiser’s cinematic alterego), who struggles with the reality that he did not in fact hurt his back jogging, but instead is facing something much more dire and serious.  Gordon-Levitt goes on a journey with Adam, and his scenes with Rogen, after learning of his diagnosis are some of the most emotionally absorbing and heartfelt scenes of the year.  Will Reiser’s screenplay balances snark, anger, comedy, and melancholic wistfulness deftly, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the thread through which every emotional angle and narrative arc found in the film retain their unique credibility.

When Adam hurts, we hurt.  When Adam laughs, we smile.  When Adam tries to play his situation as no big deal, we want to help him through the process.  But when Adam finally succumbs to the emotional concussion of what he has been dealing with, we are powerless to do anything other than watch him rage, vent, release, and weep.  And so are we.

Ryan Gosling in Drive, The Ides Of March, and Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Ryan Gosling is no longer the hipster favorite who fell in love with a Real Doll in Lars And The Real Girl, or played a crack-addicted high school teacher, which landed him a surprise Oscar nomination in 2006 for Half-Nelson.  What started in December 2010 opposite Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine carried over like a flood in 2011 for Ryan Gosling, with three stunning and star-making performances in three completely different genre films.  Unable to single out Gosling’s exceptional work in 2011 down to one film, I had to cite all three of his films because short of sharing a resemblance with a guy named Ryan Gosling, you might never believe this was the same actor doing this distinctive and amazing body of work.

Beginning with the large ensemble romantic comedy, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Gosling was easily best-in-show as a bar-hopping lothario who beds women night after night, all with the ease of breathing.  When newly single and soon to be divorced Steve Carell hops onto Gosling’s radar, Gosling takes Carell’s demeanor and dwindling self-esteem as his personal reclamation project; a kind of Extreme Makeover: Man Edition project.

All is well until…Gosling is knocked dead in his tracks by Emma Stone, a young woman who sends the lothario into a tailspin, singlehandedly reducing Gosling’s nightly textbook-style recitations to Carell on how to meet, bed, and impress women into utter gibberish.  Devastatingly handsome, arrogantly charming, and as undeniably confident as anyone you will likely ever meet, Gosling becomes vulnerable, doubting, and achingly real right before our eyes.  No one else could have pulled this off in today’s Hollywood.

In George Clooney’s political thriller, The Ides Of March, Gosling portrays a political campaign strategist on the rise, working for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) during a fevered and boiling presidential primary season.  Another transformation is handled with great aplomb as Gosling shifts from the “I know everything” expert, envied by everyone in Campaign HQ and the Democratic Party, to a betrayed, confused, and drowning politico shocked to find himself suddenly on the outside looking in after unearthing a damaging scandal.  Steely-eyed and razor sharp in his focus, Gosling could not be more different in Ides, opposite his handsome Crazy, Stupid, Love. counterpart.

And then we have Drive, Gosling’s most talked about work of 2011.  In Nicholas Winding Refn’s graphically violent, intense film, Gosling plays The Driver, a mechanic by day, occasional stunt driver for movie sets when the jobs are there, and secretly, a getaway driver for hire; one who asks no questions, sets explicit rules with his clients, and always states upfront that if the terms are not met, he leaves.  Playing a man of few words, the score and feel of Drive might initially call into mind the Stallone-themed action films of the 1980s.  When everything changes for The Driver as a job goes dreadfully and tragically wrong, Gosling immolates at the discovery that he has become an unwilling pawn in a chess match of loyalties, financial responsibilities, and doing the right thing.  He begins to warm to the separated mother (Carey Mulligan) and young child who live at the end of his hallway, but The Driver is suddenly at risk of losing those connections when he loses his cool, in an elevator, with a potential assailant.

Unflinching in its brutality, Drive works quite well.  However, Gosling’s Driver owns every frame, commands our attenti0n, and be it a Driver, ladies’ man or political strategist, with Gosling we perceive and experience everything his characters do, right along with them.

Rooney Mara in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

In a year populated by Avengers, X-Men, Green Lanterns and Hornets, and several other cinematic superheroes, I might offer that Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander was the year’s biggest and brightest crime-fighting superhero.  Mara certainly embodied the most captivating, engrossing, and layered character out of any of the above-mentioned individuals and portrayed a beloved literary character in an exhilarating reinterpretation of a role inhabited by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, seen in North American theaters as recently as 2010.

When last year I included Rapace in my list of 2010’s Great Performances, I wrote, “Rapace is a cinematic chameleon in these films – juggling emotion, hate and anger, a hardened soul, an unwavering loyalty to those select few she trusts, a tempted heart, bottled up rage, curious sexuality, and a genius-level acumen to navigate her way through a series of mysteries she finds herself entrenched in. You have never seen a character quite like this, teetering on the edge of impulsiveness and reservation.”  Rooney Mara encapsulates much of the same characteristics in her performance, but whether it is the influence of David Fincher, Mara’s instincts, or a combination of both, Mara interjects a real tangibility to her Lisbeth; which in hindsight is curiously absent from Rapace’s revelatory work.

Rooney Mara may forever be known now as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and frankly I find that a bit bittersweet because Noomi Rapace’s turn was so impressively orchestrated.  However, for a new talent like Mara, who verbally sparred famously with Jesse Eisenberg in Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network, her arrival on screen is a cannon shot across the bow of every action hero who crossed our eyes in 2011.  The talent hinted at with Rooney Mara in The Social Network is no longer a secret and Mara’s performance is as fearless and brave as anything brought to the multiplex in 2011.  Rooney Mara is a force and even if she treaded waters previously trolled here, she shows a talent that comes along once in a lifetime.

Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon in Warrior

I missed Warrior in theaters and caught up with it with just a couple of days remaining in 2011.  I had heard Nick Nolte was pretty great in the film, but assumed that as a sports drama taking place between two brothers competing in a high-stakes Mixed Martial Arts tournament, Nolte would be relegated to a few key scenes and a handful of nice lines of dialogue.  And you see, that is why we must watch these movies before we comment on them.

Frankly, Nick Nolte owns Warrior, with a performance more honest than anyone would perhaps care to admit.  As Paddy Conlon, estranged father to equally estranged brothers Brendan and Tommy Conlon (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, respectively), Nolte arrives home to find his son Tommy, half-drunk and on his doorstep for the first time in 14 years.  Where some might feel as if they are seeing a ghost and recoil from the sight, Nolte cautiously creeps towards his home; a home long since abandoned by his family, and simply engages his son.  Seeking any sign of acceptance, Nolte keeps his distance and as Tommy tosses back swigs from the bottle and throws a healthy amount of digs and barbs at his Dad, we learn that Paddy was an abusive husband to his wife and children, a successful but ruthless high school wrestling coach, and was hopelessly mired in an addiction to alcohol that ultimately left him alone and eternally sad.  When considering the real-life situation that Nick Nolte has found himself in over the last decade or so, Nolte is no longer giving a performance in Warrior, he is reliving a life far more real and present than any words he was given on the page.

Paddy takes a ton of anger and ferocity and watching Nolte internalize those words and all that vitriol, with a simple nod of the head, a pained half-smile, or a softly-spoken “I know” or “Okay” is heartbreaking to watch.

I was reminded of the transformative performance Mickey Rourke gave in 2008’s The Wrestler, which nearly won him a Best Actor Oscar.  I have no idea if enough voters watched Warrior and whether or not Nolte will land a third Oscar nomination for his Supporting Actor work in Warrior, but few, if any, could have anticipated such a real, raw, and emotional performance in a combat-sports drama.

Adepero Oduye and Dee Rees as Alike (Okuye) and as Writer and Director of Pariah (Rees)

Dedication and commitment to a message have made many film projects become realities, but for Dee Rees, it was her own life’s experiences which made her 2007 short film, Pariah, become a feature-length film of the same name in 2011.  Pariah is a visceral and insightful study of a 17-year old teenager aware that she is a lesbian, but having to navigate choppy and stormy waters in the social maelstrom of high school and home life, fighting an uphill battle to simply be who she truly is without fear of retribution or hatred.  Rees lived this experience and her impassioned screenplay and directorial debut is one of the most exciting and moving breakthroughs of 2011.

Dee Rees’ life is not just beautifully illustrated via words and images, but Adepero Oduye’s lead performance as Alike (ah-lee-kay) is as insightful as it is compelling.  Alike knows exactly who she is, but struggles to be.  To be an A student.  To be the daughter her parents hope she will be.  To be the young woman, close to graduating, who can make a difference in the world.  To be comfortably out as a lesbian.  To simply be who she is and see her acceptance reciprocated back upon her.  Sadly, Alike sees this acceptance in her best friend, a few other classmates, and even her 15-year old sister.  But her parents refuse to acknowledge or accept that Alike could ever be who she truly is, with everything culminating in an extraordinary disclosure which elicits a bold and ugly response but also the final step towards self-acceptance, love, and freedom.

“I’m not running, I’m choosing.”  Alike shares those words when faced with a pre-collegiate opportunity that sees her incredible academic gifts recognized and allows her the opportunity to shed those ties which bind her progression.  When she boards a bus and travels towards her future, she is free and Dee Rees and Adepero Oduye’s collaboration makes Pariah a liberating cinematic experience.

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as Husband and Wife in The Tree Of Life

Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life is a polarizing film, with many hailing it as a masterpiece and others calling it self-indulgent garbage.  As someone who was moved and struck by the boldness and enormity of the project, I pulled back from trying to understand the infinitely rhetorical journey that Terrence Malick was taking and instead doubled down on two performances that are as impressive and affecting as anything I saw on screen in 2011.

If you enter the cave of wonders that is The Tree Of Life, you will see the creation of the universe, hear numerous moments of thought-bubble dialogue in narration, and see a seemingly disjointed tale of Sean Penn lost in the labyrinth of modernized architecture, reflecting back on a difficult childhood from the 1950’s.  However, that 1950’s sequence is the story that everything in The Tree Of Life branches out from and provides the film with its heart, its pulse, and its life.  And in that story, you find Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, as husband and wife of two young boys, having just recently lost a third.  Pitt is the prototype of the 1950s dad – button up shirts, crewcut haircut, mostly emotionless, and working long hours away from his family, desperately trying to find a way to lead his family into financial comfort and freedom.  However those travels begin to break him down and when he comes home, Pitt is no longer the nice, fun-loving dad.  He is stressed, angry, desperate, and begins altering the emotional consistency of the lives he is so desperately trying to keep together.

As Pitt’s wife, Jessica Chastain is in the firestorm of what has become the new normal.   She is a mostly a single mother now, with her husband traveling for work constantly, trying to find the same excitement and energies that made her whole and complete as a supportive wife and mother.  With her husband gone more often and for longer stretches of time, the life of her oldest son begins to unravel and escalates out of control.  Losing her oldest son and, in turn, losing her husband for long stretches of time, defeats her and Chastain’s performance is staggering to process and watch evolve over the course of the film.

To underestimate The Tree Of Life is as equally understandable as it is folly.  Along with his impressive and against-type performance as Billy Beane in Moneyball, Brad Pitt has never had a better year of performances than in 2011, and the range he exhibits between both performances finally has earned him the credibility and industry-wide respect he has frankly deserved for a long time.

With Jessica Chastain, The Tree Of Life may be my personal favorite performance she gave in 2011.  However, along with the aforementioned The Help, The Debt, and films as diverse as Coriolanus, Texas Killing Fields, and Take Shelter, she proved that there is not a role that she is unable to play.  Perhaps she benefits most from the ethereal and omnipresent tone which embodies much of The Tree Of Life, but Chastain is clearly captivating on screen with Malick’s vision and has proved with all of her work in 2011, she is here to stay.

Christopher Plummer as Hal Fields in Beginners

He has been acting for more than 7 decades on stage and screen, and in 2011, Christopher Plummer’s performance as Hal Fields, afforded him the biggest and greatest reviews of his storied career.  Portraying Hal as a 75-year old father, recently widowed and diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 4 cancer, would be enough for any actor to want to dive into.  However, drawing on writer and director Mike Mills’ real-life experiences with his own father, Hal reveals to his only son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), that is also gay and has been his whole life – through his marriage to Oliver’s mother, the birth and raising of Oliver, and the life after Oliver left home.  The passing of Oliver’s mother has freed Hal to finally live the life he has wanted to live his entire life and at once, he is youthful and as alive as Oliver can ever remember him.

Inhabiting Hal, Christopher Plummer does not just give an over-the-top campy gay performance, nor does he play for the heartstrings as a widowed, terminal cancer patient.  In his scenes with Ewan McGregor, he conveys a clashing sense of regret that he has lived in the closet, but utter joy that he has had the thrill of being a father.  He willfully opens the door to an out life, but is ill equipped to believe he matters to anyone; largely because of generational changes, realities, and perceptions.  Adopting a “let’s just live this life” approach, Hal has a zealousness and freedom that Oliver respects and admires, but also must process and account for.  Whether he is buying copious amounts of expensive books, attending a gay club and dancing to the techno music for the first time, Christopher Plummer’s exceptional performance is full of heart, emotion, and reminds us that life is for the living, no matter who you are.

Jason Segel as Co-Writer, Co-Producer, and Star in The Muppets

I am not entirely sure if it is the opening number (“Life’s A Happy Song”), the boyish interaction he has with his girlfriend of 9+ years (Amy Adams), or the fact that he simply has a Muppet-brother named Walter, but no one, and I mean…no one…could have had more fun than Jason Segel when it came time to make The Muppets; Segel successfully reinventing and reintroducing The Muppets to a whole new generation.  But Segel expertly chose not to just bring The Muppets back and make them seem cool and vital again.  He dug deeper, bringing forward memories and emotions from his childhood while, in turn, presenting those memories in a way which transcended brand or identity.  Impressively, Segel found a way to take his love for The Muppets and connect that love into everyone else’s childhood memories of that one thing or item you loved more than anything else.

The joy of sharing something you love with an open and attentive audience is an opportunity that Segel is afforded because of his talent and celebrity.  However, it is impossible to not get caught up in the music, the tone, the detail, and the flat out respect that Segel shares for and with his felt-based co-stars.  Along with Nick Stoller, Segel fashioned a screenplay that makes us long for the days of loving the simpler things in life, embracing our eternal child, and keeping a dose of youthful enthusiasm always close at hand.

Andy Serkis as Caesar in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

He was Gollum.  Then he was King Kong.  And late in 2011, Andy Serkis portrayed Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin.  However, for all the films which have utilized performance-capture or motion-capture technology previously, Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar in the summer blockbuster Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is groundbreaking, historic, and the finest performance to date in a still relatively new technology.

The cry for Serkis’ work to be recognized by the Academy is not necessarily a new one, but the drumbeats have grown to a deafening swell with his work in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.  Playing the ape named Caesar from infancy to toddler to fully grown in size and stature, Serkis seized the opportunity to completely create and invent the internal workings of the eventual ruler and leader of a Simian revolution.

Serkis’ accomplishments are not simply that he can say a lot with his eyes or bridge the gaps of communication by simply tilting or cocking a head in an endearing way.  Serkis’ work is all encompassing and every movement, every emotion, every decision made by Caesar is vividly brought to life alongside the conventional acting performances by James Franco and the rest of the cast.  Credit should also be given to director Rupert Wyatt and his production team for creating the landscapes which surround Serkis’ brilliant performance; one which recently made history by scoring a nomination with the Broadcast Film Critics Association and their upcoming Critics’ Choice Awards.  Andy Serkis is extraordinary in making the impossible seem possible and never moreso than with Caesar, who will be a stunning character to watch Serkis develop and grow with over the next several years.

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn

A few have tried to portray Marilyn Monroe in the past and even fewer have ever really had any kind of success.  Steeped in the mysteries of who Marilyn Monroe truly was comes the difficulties in balancing the sexually charged public persona she gleefully inhabited in the heights of her stardom, with the well-documented self-destruction which occupied Monroe’s off-camera lifestyle.  Bravely assuming the challenge, Michelle Williams passionately tackled the role of the iconic actress for the British film My Week With Marilyn and she simply disappears into the role; one which all but guarantees her a third Oscar nomination, and second in as many years.

Michelle Williams has proven over and over again that she is on a very shortlist of the finest female actors working today, able to transition in and out of a wide range of captivating roles and characters.  While there are some obvious physical barriers Williams cannot overcome in playing Monroe, she pushes forward undeterred in a performance that is transformative.  The body language, the breathless voice, the mannerisms, the awkwardness that was Monroe is recreated expertly and those that knew Monroe have given high praise to Williams’ interpretation.

In My Week With Marilyn, Monroe latches onto a Third Assistant Director on a film she is working on with Sir Laurence Olivier, and despite loud and affronting proclamations to leave her alone, Eddie Redmayne’s Colin Clark is beguiled and dazzled by Monroe’s charms.  Frankly, so are we and whether you buy into the Colin Clark story as presented or not, it becomes extremely easy to understand just how the world became so enamored with Miss Marilyn Monroe.  And now that insight, thanks to Michelle Williams, can finally be experienced and understood.

2011 ADDITIONAL LISTS:

THE BEST OF 2011
THE WORST OF 2011

 

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