I’ll list 10-25 alphabetically and then list the top 10 alphabetically. It seems odd to rank performances to such the extreme degree of “I liked this performance better than this and I liked this better than those two”. What do you think were the most memorable performances of the year?

10-25 (in alphabetical order)

Carla Besnainou – Anastasia – The Sleeping Beauty

Catherine Breillat knows how to get some of the most natural, seemingly effortless performances out of children. Here, Besnainou entirely holds this film with her unyielding curiosity and determination. She is quick on her feet, priding herself on her independence. The film dovetails once she leaves the screen and most of the reason I found myself glued during Breillat’s latest was because of this precocious child. Talented as the child is, the director should get most credit for this kind of performance for finding her (not an actress), capturing her on film and being able to assemble together her performance.

Demian Bichir – Carlos Galindo – A Better Life

An earnest and heartbreaking performance of the first degree, Bichir is emotional and gripping as a man who just wants to do well by his son. He lifts the on-the-nose material with his nuanced and extremely involving work.

Asa Butterfield – Hugo Cabret – Hugo

It was more than a little surprising to see several complaints about Butterfield’s work as the title character in Scorsese’s ode to cinema. Additionally, Butterfield is simply not getting the credit he deserves even from those who found him delightful. This did not feel like acting; it felt like I was watching a child who really had spent months living inside of a Parisian train station. I never felt he was playing a character; he was Hugo Cabret. Unlike Besnainou where you get the sense her charisma was caught by the camera, there are no accidents with Butterfield. This is a fully realized performance where the adolescent knows exactly what he is doing and is fully committed to his character and his motivations and emotions.

Dominic Cooper – Latif Yahia/Uday Hussein – The Devil’s Double

The Devil’s Double has only one ‘see it for this card’ and it is Dominic Cooper. Being called upon to play two roles entirely outside anything I have seen him in, he undergoes a complete transformation as both Latif and Uday (not to mention Latif’s impersonations of Uday). The film itself is too obsessed with its own sleaze to rise above it or be compelling, but Cooper is electric having to act out scenes with himself (with Uday being the most depraved son-of-a-bitch to grace the screen all year). Between the dual roles and the extremity of Uday, it could have gone wrong, but Cooper’s capability and commitment enable him to soar.

Kirsten Dunst – Justine – Melancholia

Dunst, having first-hand experience with depression, makes painstaking connections with Justine that culminate in an uncompromising understanding and loyalty to her. She is unwilling to cater to standard cause-and-effect rules of characterization or to apologize for the frustration and lack of sympathy she can elicit.  For those of us who know what bouts of depression are like, this reveals it in all of its extreme truths and ugliness.

Michael Fassbender – Brandon – Shame

Watching Brandon dissolve right in front of us is quite the spectacle. This has been the year of Fassbender and we are all the better for it. He is an explosive force to be reckoned with, completely giving himself over to the camera for observational purposes.

Tom Hardy – Tommy Conlon – Warrior

This is another performance that never felt like acting to me. I could not take my eyes off of Hardy in Warrior; this is entirely due to his ability to fully transcend the hardened character type he is asked to play. It helps that the screenwriters stay refreshingly true to him, and thankfully do not give him any sort of arc that allows his basic emotional trajectory to change. This is who he is, and his more revealing moments of character shading feels real and honest; in no way forced.  He achieves a kind of introspective intensity that is something to behold. Decades of estrangement and past dynamics have been so clearly defined in his head, that his dialogue evokes a perspective of factual simplicity reminiscent of a child.

Woody Harrelson – Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown – Rampart

Dave Brown is a ticking time bomb in vastly changing times. Harrelson plays him as a brute past his prime in the shifting cityscape. An outcast on all counts, his cruelty covers all possible ground whether he means it or not. He’s like a wild animal trying to feign the practice of civilization.

Viggo Mortensen – Sigmund Freud – A Dangerous Method

Unrecognizable with the ever-present cigar and unwavering dignity, Mortensen gets my vote for best in show in Cronenberg’s latest. He is methodical and precise in his words, always needing to balance maintaining the intellectual upper-hand without losing the insight of discourse. He needs discussion more to keep his own ideas going and to reassert his theoretical leanings. But at the same time, Mortensen’s Freud genuinely connects with others through discussion; seeing how he wades through his thoughts towards Jung throughout is something else.

Carey Mulligan – Sissy – Shame

Here is an unhinged and unpredictable performance that ignites the screen. Mulligan elicits unbridled frenzy as Sissy who is much farther along the path to futility than Brandon is, or rather, is farther along the path precisely because she is aware of it. She deserves as much praise as her costar, hurtling off the screen with abandon.

Nick Nolte – Paddy Conlon –Warrior

He is devastating as the haggard father trying to shake his previous actions that all but define him far too late in life. His eyes desperately cling onto his sons for any semblance of forgiveness.

Gary Oldman – George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Seeing Oldman in a role like this is a rarity. He is a stoic centerpiece to the crumbling status quo around him. The frequently loud and bombastic actor (not a knock) goes to the opposite extreme here, with a quiet and largely observational iconic character. He is unwavering in his procedures, requests and investigation, speaking only when he has to.

Kseniya Rappaport – Sonya – The Double Hour

The only truly palpable reason to see The Double Hour, despite it being engaging enough to merit a look, is for Kseniya Rappoport’s performance. She makes the film almost single-handedly gripping. She is morose, racked with guilt, has hidden agendas and is appropriately vague in her emotions.

Ludivine Sagnier – Isabelle Guerin – Love Crime

There is a lot more complexity to Sagnier’s performance and character than she has been given credit for in the underrated Love Crime. She is headstrong in her work, extremely intelligent but also inexperienced, insecure, desperate and a bit of a weakling. The harsh unpleasantness and humiliation she is put through by Kristen Scott Thomas becomes too much and she hatches a complex plan to get away with the perfect crime. Watching Sagnier play all the facets of her character (the willingly seduced, the tantrums that come with heartbreak, the stool pigeon, the mastermind and the nervous criminal) is a fabulous display of range all within a layered character study that she more than follows through on.

Kristen Wiig – Annie Walker – Bridesmaids  

A comedic feat in the extreme, Wiig had me howling with laughter with her perfect timing and teased out awkwardness. At the same time, she creates a layered character who has to overcome her own selfishness and failings, starting with salvaging her cherished friendship with Maya Rudolph’s Lillian. One of the best comedic performances in years; she will be on my Oscar dream ballot without a doubt.

10-1 (in alphabetical order)

Carlos Areces – Javier – The Last Circus

The most fearless, reckless, no-holds barred performance of the year, there is nothing else in 2011 film quite like seeing Areces go from the bespectacled sad sack man to the maniacal gun-wielding clown along with an unhealthy detour into primal beast mid-film. Javier allows himself to be carried away by the unlikely fulfillment of love and the result is an unhinged courageous performance that holds immense confidence and skill. You will not forget Javier the Clown.

Juliette Binoche – She – Certified Copy

Can anybody hold the screen like the great Binoche? She is asked to display a wild but subtle range, always just out of reach but never out of intrigue. She moodily shifts in and out of various emotions, never overplaying and often extremely pleasant. Like the film, rich treasures are likely to be discovered from her work each time it is watched.

Olivia Colman – Hannah – Tyrannosaur

In a word, Colman is devastating. She bears all as a woman who has turned to faith to cover up her miserable existence that hinges on a torturous marriage. Her fragile connection with Peter Mullan’s Joseph becomes a welcome escape. It is the only performance this year that was painful for me to watch. She is an incomprehensible victim and she will stick with you indefinitely.

Ryan Gosling – The Driver – Drive

As much as Refn creates something evocative from a directorial point of view, I would argue that Gosling’s anchoring of the material provides an almost equally satisfying and necessary contribution. The Driver may belong to an archetype, but like many of his previous incarnations, Gosling (with the help of Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini) makes his version singular. His ability to emote layers through silence is not only impressive but transfixing. Gone is the hard masculinity one expects to find with this type of role. Even when taking into account the brutal acts of violence he commits, in large part he is seen as a child.

Rooney Mara – Lisbeth Salander – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’ve thrown around the word transformative several time here so far and I’m going to use is again, because if ever there was one performance of that nature this year, it is this one. Mara is a revelation as the iconic Lisbeth Salander. She plays up the more sensitive aspects of the character, making her a fierce push and pull between hard and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it soft. It is impossible to take your eyes off her and it feels like Mara lived this part through and through while filming. She is incendiary and a force to be reckoned with.

Elisabeth Olsen – Martha – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Olsen carries this film into another realm. In her cult scenes she plays a woman eager to be a part of something, so much so that she discards common sense and allows herself to take part in some truly unsettling activities. Olsen shows layers of conviction, susceptibility and hesitancy through an additional heavy layer of necessary ambiguity. Post-cult Olsen displays societal disconnect beautifully with her bluntness, immaturity and more importantly her train wreck of a mental state. We are inside of her head and yet she remains distant from the audience. We feel her paranoia but cannot break through. It is a performance that has been rightly hailed across the board; simply put, she nails it.

Michael Shannon – Curtis LaForche – Take Shelter

Michael Shannon gets to be front and center in Take Shelter as a man who knows what is happening to him but cannot stop it. His paranoia initiates a series of poor decisions that damage everyone around him. Shannon makes us understand why he makes these decisions, and while we cannot stop him from doing so, we sure as hell wish we could.

Tilda Swinton – Eva – We Need to Talk About Kevin

The incomparable Tilda Swinton transfers the fear of apathetic motherhood to the screen through Lynne Ramsay’s abstract spell of a film. She has a difficult job. Her character is icy and disconnected from familial tendencies. She is a free-spirit, a travelogue writer who entertains the possibility of a happy family life even though in her gut she repels against it. Her fears materialize, projected onto the demonic Kevin. She tries so hard to care, to love, and to cherish but that forced effort just builds and builds onto Kevin until he is a monster. Swinton has to play indifference, forced enthusiasm, a woman barely holding herself together with rightfully increasing paranoia. She is so desperate to hold off the inevitable realization of her suspicions. Finally, our starting point sees her as a woman who has nothing left and is a zombie-like shell forced to go on. As you can imagine, Swinton kills it.

Charlize Theron – Mavis Gary – Young Adult

I’m not sure there is enough praise for me to heap onto Theron and her work in Young Adult. She plays a layered nasty piece of work, and it’s a role that is individualistic in film as Diablo Cody has given her unexplored character territory rich for innovation. As sterling as her line deliveries are, I am most enthralled with her as she listens to others and reacts to the situations around her. She is unhinged in her arrogance and delusions. Her best years are long past her and her clinging onto Buddy is a really wretched last-ditch effort to hold onto the popular glory of her teenage years. Her snarly stare when she turns against you would have any sane person running for the hills. It may just be the film performance of 2011 in my eyes.

Yun Jung-hee – Mi-ja – Poetry

Mi-ja is serenely open to life and what it has to offer in her golden years. She daintily goes about her business, wondering aloud why it is she cannot write poetry. She innocently asks others how they come up with the words to describe what they see. Her mind is slowly slipping away from her. She is becoming flighty and vague. Yun is restrained and full of complexity in Lee Chang-dong’s latest.

Complete List of Films Seen in 2011: 13 Assassins, 50/50, A Better Life, A Dangerous Method, Albert Nobbs, American Grindhouse, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Beastly, Beginners, Being Elmo, Bellflower, Bill Cunningham, New York, Biutiful, Black Death, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Captain America: The First Avenger, Carnage, Cars 2, Caterpillar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, Cold Fish, Cold Weather, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Contagion,, Cracks, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Dream Home, Drive, Edge of Dreaming, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hesher, Hobo with a Shotgun, Horrible Bosses, Hugo, I Saw the Devil, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, In a Better World, In Time, Incendies, Insidious, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Kung Fu Panda 2, Last Night, Le Quattro Volte, Love Crime, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mildred Pierce, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, Of Gods and Men, Outrage, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Passion Play, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Poetry, Project Nim, Rampart, Rango, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Redline, Retreat, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rubber, Scream 4, Senna, Shame, Sleeping Beauty, Source Code, Submarine, Sucker Punch, Super, Super 8, Tabloid, Take Shelter, Terri, The Adventures of Tintin, The Arbor, The Artist, The Debt,The Descendants, The Devil’s Double, The Double Hour, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, The Help, The Housemaid, The Ides of March, The Last Circus, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Mill and the Cross, The Muppets, The Rite, The Roommate, The Skin I Live In, The Sleeping Beauty, The Thing, The Tree of Life, The Trip, The Ward, The Woman, Thor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, TrollHunter, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Tyrannosaur, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Unknown, War Horse, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Win Win, Winnie the Pooh, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult, Your Highness, Yves Saint-Laurent: L’Amour Fou


3 thoughts on “List: Top 25 Performances in 2011 Film

  1. If Fassbender and Mulligan don’t get Oscar nominations because of the controversy surrounding Shame (which, in all honesty, is pointless), I hereby christen AMPAS stupid.

  2. I concur with Anna. Along with the ones you picked here, I’d add Ben Kingsley’s performance in Hugo, and George Clooney’s and Shailene Woodley’s in The Descendents.

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