2011 in Review: The Best Performances

After the best Canadian films, come the performances. If there are any clear winners for 2011, it’s the actors. Although I’m having little trouble whittling my upcoming list of best films, it was nearly impossible to cap the lists of the best lead performances and the best supporting performances at ten apiece. For every name that made the cut, I omitted two. Even after narrowing the field, I had doubts: Where are Williams, Pitt, Dujardin, Woodley, Dunst, and Gainsbourg? I forgot Rooney Mara! Which performance by Jessica Chastain? Which supporting actress from The Help? Alas, these are the performances that held strongest.

The Top 10 Lead Performances of 2011
1. Michael Fassbender in Shame
The performance that blew me away at the Toronto International Film Festival and stuck with me all year, Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame is in a league of its own. As Brandon, a New Yorker struggling with sexual addiction, Fassbender offers a raw, revelatory depiction of the hunger and mechanics of the addiction, as well as the psychological toll of his nonstop hunt for flesh. Fassbender has amazing stamina in Shame (pun intended), and he does more with his wandering eyes than most actors do with their whole bodies. Fassbender’s performance deserves the “bravery” with which many moviegoers have labelled it: not for his willingness to perform explicit scenes of a sexual nature, but rather for how far he takes his character. Public transit will never be the same.

2. Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin
All the drama of We Need to Talk About Kevin plays out on Swinton’s face. As her character, Eva, reflects upon her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller – see below), who murdered a dozen of his classmates in a school shooting, Swinton channels an unsettling degree of anguish and resentment. She’s so good, in fact, that director Lynne Ramsay withholds the shooting from the film, and instead forces the viewer to watch Eva as she creates it in her own mind. It’s more painful than any realization of the event could be. It seems like every year I’m dubbing the latest Swinton show a “career performance,” yet the actress consistently merits the kudos because she continually reinvents and outdoes herself. Tilda Swinton makes me happy about life.
3. Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower
The most criminally overlooked performance of the year, I think, is Weisz’s daring work as UN whistleblower Kathy Bolkovac. Weisz registers the perfect tone of urgency into Kathy’s plight, but without sermonizing. Weisz plays Bolkovac as the ordinary woman she is, which is, ultimately, what makes the character so heroic. Weisz exceeds the work that earned her an Oscar for the 2005 political thriller The Constant Gardener. If not for her exceptional work in The Whistleblower, Weisz would be just as high on this list for her showstopper of a performance in The Deep Blue Sea.
4. Viola Davis in The Help
Arguably the most important performance of the year, Viola Davis takes back the “Mammy Role” in The Help. Especially in scenes with co-star Octavia Spencer, in which the help talk plainly in their shabby kitchens, Davis’s performance in The Help reveals a side of a familiar character that Hollywood once erased. By delivering Aibileen’s tired “Yes’ems” with a feigned acceptance and a weary smile, Davis offers a corrective to the simple cookie-cutter roles to which black actresses were subjected throughout the history of cinema. Film students will study and discuss this performance for years to come.
5. George Clooney in The Descendants
Clooney makes his job look easy in The Descendants, but I object whenever somebody deems this role unchallenging. Never has the most charming man in Hollywood let his guard down as much as he does in The Descendants. As Matt King, Clooney plays the antithesis of his star persona: Matt is awkward, flawed, and a women’s second choice. Clooney plays it all, though, with a resigned, self-deprecating grace. Clooney’s tragicomic performance introduces another memorable anti-hero in the wacky world of Alexander Payne.
6. Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
Close offers a Master’s Class in Albert Nobbs. When one hears of a career best effort by the great actress, one expects the fiery gusto of her Eighties triumphs Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons. Close, however, makes acting look effortless with her astonishingly understated performance as Albert Nobbs, the alter ego of a woman who disguises herself as a butler to earn a living. For an actress with such strong screen presence, it’s amazing how well Close’s Albert calculatedly blends in with the crowd.
7. Michael Shannon in Take Shelter
One could interpret Shannon’s performance in Take Shelter has a revised draft of his performance in 2007’s underrated paranoia film Bug. This claim does not do justice to Shannon’s laudable turn in Take Shelter, though, for his performance as Curtis, a young father who suffers from bouts of paranoia is a true original. His fears may be either real or symptoms of schizophrenia, yet Shannon’s face weathers an impending storm regardless.
8. Woody Harrelson in Rampart
As Dave “Date Rape” Brown, Woody Harrelson gives one of the cinema’s best Good Cop/Bad Cop performances. A brooding, unpredictable man, like an angry pit bull with a gun, Harrelson’s cop is an unflinching characterization of the bad reputation earned by the LAPD. During TIFF I wrote, “Harrelson’s volatile and wrathful cop makes Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris look like Little Bo Peep.” I stand by this statement: King Kong, ain’t got nothin’ on Woody.
9. Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene
While everyone else landed on this list for one performance, Olsen really gives three in MMMM. As a young woman on the lam from a cult, Olsen deftly channels multiple personas within the fragmented chronology of the film. She’s Martha one moment, Marcy May the next. Breakthrough performances do not get more impressive than this.
10. Charlize Theron in Young Adult
It’s inconceivable that Theron could ever play a character more unlikable than serial killer Aileen Wuornos. She does it in Young Adult, though, playing a smug, smarmy black-hearted Barbie. With her judgemental eyes and dead-pan dryness, Theron’s Mavis is the one character of 2011 that you absolutely love to hate.

The Top 10 Supporting Performances of 2011
1. Carey Mulligan in Shame
As Sissy, Brandon’s fast-talkin’ floozy of a sister in Shame, Carey Mulligan broke my heart with her few scenes. Mulligan and Fassbender have such palpable tension between them that the dynamic of the siblings gives Shame an uncomfortable but truly fascinating subtext. The only thing better than watching Mulligan’s sad, sultry rendition of “New York, York” is seeing Fassbender’s teary-eyed reaction.
2. Jessica Chastain in The Help
If not for her scene-stealing role as the white trash Celia Foote amongst the Southern Belles of The Help, Chastain would have nabbed this spot for one of her strong performances in Take Shelter, Tree of Life, or The Debt. (I have not yet seen Coriolanus or Texas Killing Fields.) Chastain is unrecognizable in The Help: not only are her signature red locks bleached blonde, but her bubbly perf displays yet another facet of the range she displayed this year.
3. Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris
Another ensemble standout, Corey Stoll brilliantly resurrects the spirit of Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Amplifying the drunken machismo for which the great ex-pat author is famous, Stoll delivers homage, caricature, and inspiration, embodying all the greatness of Allen's trip down memory lane and proves that no role is too small.
4. Christopher Plummer in Beginners
Seeing Captain von Trapp as Hal, a gay old timer who comes out of the closet at age 74, only to die shortly thereafter, was one of 2011’s greatest treats. Plummer’s Hal has a flamboyant lust for life, and a remarkable flair for celebrating the shift in attitudes that allows a man to celebrate the feelings that he once hid in the closet. Beginners marks a career triumph for Canada’s greatest actor, who is still going strong at 82, giving another noteworthy performance in 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
5. Martha Burns in A Wake
It’s funny that as Sabina, the only character who is a non-actor in the film, Burns out acts her powerhouse ensemble with laudable zest. With an evil-eye and acerbic timing, Burns makes Sabina a lethal force in Penelope Buitenhuis’s tale of mourning (which also made my list of the Top Ten Canadian films of 2011). The scene where Sabina confronts Danielle (Sarain Boylan) over a longstanding secret is a clip worthy of airtime during every award show this year.
6. Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs
As the yin to Close’s yang, McTeer equals her Nobbs co-star. In an energetic, consistently surprising performance, McTeer is a genuine hoot as Page, Albert’s kindred spirit. It’s a role that could have been fatal if played incorrectly, but McTeer offers the right amount of pep and heart to seal the deal. Think Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, but with a belly laugh.
7. Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn
Seeing the great Shakespearean thesp of one generation bring to life another is a thrill. It is so not only for Branagh’s ability to personify Laurence Oliver’s sharp diction and poncey demeanour, but also Branagh’s skill in bringing out Oliver’s insecurities and inner demons. Especially good is how Branagh echoes his own performance as Iago while conveying Olivier’s jealousy of Monroe’s stardom.
8. Anjelica Huston in 50/50
Another of 2011’s unsung heroes, Anjelica Huston has only a few scenes in 50/50, yet her presence transforms it from snappy comedy to poignant drama. She earns big laughs as a smother-mother, but she anchors the emotional turn of the final act and brings 50/50 to the level of a full-fledged tearjeaker.
9. Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Kevin seems like a monster, but there is a boyish innocence to his demonic grin. Not many actors can hold their own while sharing the screen with Tilda Swinton. It’s impressive When a mature actor does so; therefore, when young Ezra Miller matches Swinton tit for tat as her troubled son, the actor performs a true feat.
10. Uggie in The Artist
In a year full of outstanding pooch performances, Uggie is best in show.

Did any of your favourites miss the cut? Feel free to give them a good word!
Coming soon: The Best Films of 2011