2011 was a pretty incredible year for movies. We'll get to the best of those tomorrow. Today we're going to take a look back at the best performances in those new potential classics. These are the subtle, grand, funny, dark, powerful and most importantly human – including the two characters who aren't homo sapiens – performances of the year.
10. WALTER in THE MUPPETS
We’re not sure how they pulled it off, but the makers of The Muppets managed to add a new character to the iconic mix and get away with it. Actually, they don’t just get away with it; they pull it off with flying colors. Voiced by longtime Muppeteer Peter Linz, Walter is The Muppets’ biggest fan and suffers all the anxiety that comes from being in the same room as your heroes. His charming, hilarious and sympathetic performance is no small feat: if Walter hadn’t worked as a character, The Muppets would have been an insufferable fan-service fiasco. But Walter’s a welcome new addition to the assemble, and we hope to see more of him and the rest of The Muppets in the future.
9. JEAN DUJARDIN in THE ARTIST
With a smiling veneer that reminds us sweetly of Gene Kelly, French actor Jean Dujardin won our hearts this year with a compassionate, resolved performance in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. As a silent movie star, in a contemporary silent film, Dujardin conveys a full and complex character using nothing but body language. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, trust me. Dujardin’s confident portrayal of a proud silent movie star whose life falls apart after the invention of sound is a powerful one, and he carries the entire film with ease. He’s a frontrunner at the Oscars this year, and with damned good cause.
8. DOMINIC COOPER in THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE
The Devil’s Double really should have come out later in the year. Dominic Cooper would have been a shoe-in at the Academy Awards this year if the film hadn’t been buried in the so-so August drek. In Lee Tamahori’s latest film, Cooper plays a dual role as Uday Hussein, Saddam’s psychotic son, and Latif Yahia, a good man who becomes Uday’s double. With his family’s lives at stake, Latif is forced to endure Uday’s mania, from sudden acts of murder to kidnapping and rape, with a face that can only stay straight for so long. Cooper’s performances seem so effortless that you’ll quickly forget that both men are played by the same actor. He’s someone to watch out for in the years to come.
7. JEREMY IRONS in MARGIN CALL
He doesn’t have the most screen time, but like William Hurt in A History of Violence, Jeremy Irons shows up at the end of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call and steals the whole damned movie. As the head of a major corporation, he’s faced with an impossible choice as the financial crisis looms: to let his company die, or sell off mortgages that he knows are now worthless, ruining his company’s reputation forever. The decision is monumental and his façade never cracks, but if you look really carefully, you can watch it chip away. Irons hasn’t had a role this juicy in almost twenty years, and he absolutely nails it.
6. CATHERINE DENEUVE in POTICHE
Released in March and now tragically forgotten, the French farce Potiche was blessed by a hilarious, human and sexy performance from the great Catherine Deneuve as a housewife who’s forced to take over her husband’s company. The “Aw Shucks” jokes about a woman in a man’s world quickly give way to a in-depth – and always very funny – portrayal of a complex, powerful woman who can do anything she sets her mind to. Suzanne Pujol is one of the greatest feminist movie heroes in recent memory. Maybe ever.
5. JESSICA CHASTAIN in THE TREE OF LIFE
Jessica Chastain came from nowhere to give some of the most incredible performances of the year, in everything from The Help to Coriolanus. But it’s Terrence Malick’s latest masterpiece that gave her the biggest, and most rewarding challenge of all. As the mother of two young boys in Texas, vying for their philosophical upbringing with a jaded father played by Brad Pitt, Chastain embodies the very essence of grace, without a hint of overt sentimentality. The Tree of Life is a spectacular introduction to a performer who instantly became a member of the acting elite.
4. CAESAR in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
I still haven’t decided where I side on the whole “motion-capture acting” debate, so I’m giving this to both Andy Serkis and the whole team of animators who brought Caesar to life in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Certainly Serkis gives a career best performance as an ape whose genius-level intelligence drives him from a caring child to an embittered revolutionary, and the subtleties at play make Caesar’s every look and movement as empathetic as any Oscar-winning performance. Can Serkis get a nomination this year? I hope so.
3. (Tie) – TOM HARDY and JOEL EDGERTON in WARRIOR
I couldn’t pick one over the other. Without Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton working at the heights of their already impressive powers, Warrior would have been just another fight movie. Together, they make it one of the great fight movies. As two underdogs, both coming from the same broken home, they vie for glory in an open Mixed Martial Arts competition. Isolation from his brother and a tragic backstory in the Middle East turned Hardy into a wounded pit bull, unable to turn off his rage long enough for mercy. Edgerton was isolated from their alcoholic father and became a family man himself, making him soft and outclassed but determined to provide for his loved ones. Their climactic bout is exceptionally choreographed, but look in their eyes: they’re giving every punch the dramatic weight it deserves.
2. SEAN BRIDGERS in THE WOMAN
In Lucky McKee’s underseen and utterly brilliant horror thriller The Woman, Sean Bridgers plays the most terrifying patriarch since Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather. His subtle psychological and jolting physical abuse creates an air of tension in every scene, since we’re just waiting for the true extent of his evil to be revealed. When they finally come out in the film’s unforgettable climax, Bridgers elevates himself to one of the great horror villains. The scariest performance in many, many years. I can’t give him enough praise.
1. TILDA SWINTON in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Tilda Swinton has given us incredible performances before – she won a richly deserved Oscar for Michael Clayton, you’ll recall – but in We Need to Talk About Kevin she becomes a legend. It’s the painful tale of a woman trying to figure out how her son went so horrifically wrong that he went on a high school killing spree, and it’s grounded by Swinton’s exceptional performance. We sympathize with her plight, but not so much that she’s free of judgment. There’s a powerful and delicate balance to Swinton’s work in We Need to Talk About Kevin that makes it, without a doubt, the best performance of the 2011.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
ANGELA BETTIS in THE WOMAN
ALBERT BROOKS in DRIVE
MONICA DEL CARMEN in LEAP YEAR
CHRIS EVANS in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
MICHAEL FASSBENDER in A DANGEROUS METHOD
BRENDAN GLEESON in THE GUARD
TOM HIDDLESTON in THOR
JONAH HILL in MONEYBALL
RAINN WILSON in SUPER