It’s performance time again. For the second year, I’ve picked out the two dozen and a bit best performances of the year. The qualification for this list is as follows: new releases or film festival films in 2012 (excluding some of the films I saw at London film festivals that I hope will get some form of reasonable distribution next year). I also make no distinction between actor or actress, and supporting or lead performance, and only one performance per film. This means that the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams miss out for The Master (so guess who doesn’t), but I’ve tried to spread the love as widely as possible by doing this, rather than allowing a small number of films to dominate. I will try to mention other worthy performances for each film as I go, but in the quite likely event I forget, I’m sure you’ll know who they are.
These, then, are the top performances of the year in my eyes. There are a few honourable mentions: as well as Amy Adams, the likes of Richard Jenkins, Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Keira Knightley, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Mark Duplass and Ralph Fiennes did sterling work across a number of different films, no single performance of theirs quite stood out enough for me to make the list. Without further ado, here’s the top bits of acting from 2012.
25. Tommy Lee Jones – Hope Springs
Giving grumpy old men a slightly better name, Jones has the thankless task in Hope Springs of being the bad guy in Meryl Streep’s loveless marriage, so has to be unsympathetic enough to move the plot forward but not so much that you don’t want the pair to reconcile later. To pull this off, while still managing to be satisfyingly grouchy, is a real achievement and while the plot gears that Hope Springs works through are generally both unsurprising and somewhat unsatisfying, Tommy Lee Jones does at least help that gear change to pass with the minimum of grinding. (In every sense, thankfully.)
24. Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts Of The Southern Wild
They say never work with children or animals, even more of a challenge when neither beast nor child in question has appeared on screen previously. Making it look easier than I’m sure it is, top Scrabble name Quevenzhané Wallis steals the film from the rest of her co-stars with a fierce performance. (Before you all write in, I know you couldn’t actually play her name in Scrabble, unless it turns out that a quvenzhané is a type of French toothbrush for fish or something.) Anyway, it will be interesting to see if Little Miss Wallis has caught the acting bug from this, as based on her performance here, there’s little she should fear to tackle.
23. Channing Tatum – 21 Jump Street
We discovered two things this year about Channing Tatum: he’s apparently quite good at comedy, as seen in 21 Jump St, and he’s also very good at stripping, as seen in Magic Mike. This may have somewhat obscured the fact that in everything he was in last year, he’s been quite good at acting (to the extent it’s rumoured he’s been written back into the GI Joe sequel after having been killed off early on originally). I’ll be totally honest, seeing him strip wasn’t really my cup of tea but any time he wants to do any more acting, I’ll be queuing up.
22. Denis Lavant – Holy Motors
It’s difficult to know whether Holy Motors is a great acting challenge or actually not much of a challenge at all. Given the almost total free rein, it would be easy to think that Denis Lavant really couldn’t go wrong, as how would you know if he did? Could all just be another comment on the artifice of performance or something. But it’s the sheer range of characters that he creates here that stands out, playing the more gentle emotions as well as the more obvious shock and humour. But everything, from fighting to accordion playing to licking a giant cyberalien’s private bits is done with the utmost conviction.
21. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Looper
The main problem with casting a younger version of someone as familiar as Bruce Willis is that we all know what a young Bruce Willis looks like; think just slightly younger than Moonlighting and you’re about there. Sure, there’s a bit of prosthetic work that’s gone in to bridging the more obvious differences, but Gordon-Levitt does such a good job of portraying what you’d imagine the younger version of Bruce’s character to be, it almost makes you wish they’d stuck the fake nose on Bruce Willis to see if he could have done such a convincing job.
20. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard – A Royal Affair
It’s another fine acting line, and the one that Mikkel Folsgaard is treading here is the one which requires him to show both madness and an angry authority. In a film where the quieter performances of Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander could be overshadowed, Folsgaard has just enough fun with the role of King Christian to keep you entertained early on, but exudes enough menace later to make him a credible threat to the other characters.
19. Darren Beaumont – Frank
Frank picked up a Raindance nomination at the British Independent Film Awards earlier this year, and Darren Beaumont’s performance as the titular character was a fantastic character study, so much so that I hadn’t realised I was sat two seats away from him while I watched the film at the Cambridge Film Festival earlier this year. The film itself is a dark vision and an acquired taste, but Beaumont’s fearless turn at its centre is one of the key ingredients (along with Richard Heslop’s writing and direction) that makes it work so well.
17. Aksel Hennie – Headhunters
The next acting combination to be pulled off on this list is to range from sleazy and confident (the mirror image of Nicolaj Coster-Waldau’s driven Clas) to the petrified, on the run weasel that his actions drive him to be. It’s also another combination that doesn’t easily provoke sympathy, but somehow Rennie pulls it off, despite being a thoroughly contemptible character from the start.
16. Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
It was Heath Ledger that previously stole all of the plaudits for The Dark Knight, for being seen to extend his range to levels not thought previously possible. While Anne Hathaway doesn’t quite undergo the same level of transformation, she absolutely nails her portrayal of Selina Kyle in a way that fits perfectly into the Nolan Bat-verse and stands comparison favourably with the other better screen Catwomen as much as Ledger did. Thankfully Halle Berry’s interpretation is now a distant memory, which I’m sure you’re already thanking me for dredging up.
15. Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Every single department of Skyfall was honed to a point where it felt like a high quality regular movie, rather than the 22nd sequel in a franchise creaking under the weight of its own history. That extended comfortably to the acting, where Judi Dench finally got the chance to show off her skills on an extended basis, but the biggest risks were taken in the bad guy department. Javier Bardem has now carved out two iconic bad guy roles, so let’s hope his natural flair for them doesn’t leave him too typecast in Hollywood-type product.
14. Brit Marling – Sound Of My Voice
Following last year’s Another Earth, another high concept drama with sci-fi undertones featuring Brit Marling, and in this case she was a key reason for its success. Rather than the passive centre of Another Earth, Marling’s Maggie sits on the periphery here, only to gradually dominate proceedings and it’s the ambiguity of her performance that gives the drama much of its power.
13. Willem Dafoe – The Hunter
This quiet Australian drama had an absolute rock in its foundations, with a riveting central character study from Willem Dafoe. Sympathetic but absolutely not warm or fluffy, Dafoe’s brusque hunter serves to keep proceedings just about interesting throughout, and while the movie can’t sustain its success on the strength of a single performance, Defoe gives it a pretty good go.
12. Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Charlize Theron had a pretty good year, although her other main performance in Snow White And The Hunstyawn was somewhat wasted on the material. Not such an issue here as Jason Reitman’s direction and Diablo Cody’s spiky script allowed Theron’s misguided misanthrope to beat a path through all the human kindness and two-faced bitching around her. It’s all the more satisfying that Theron manages to achieve humanity without her character achieving any real redemption.
11. Tom Hardy – Lawless
His most talked about – and impersonated – performance might have been behind a mask in Nolan’s summer blockbuster, but this performance in John Hillcoat’s twentieth century Western was the absolute antithesis, Hardy maintaining power and threat despite mumbling his way through most of his lines. His character’s through line in the narrative and eventual fate are also one of the highlights of a slightly underwhelming script.
10. Matthew McConaughey – Killer Joe
If I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s how to spell Matthew McConaughey without looking it up. He’s followed up last year’s entertaining but lightweight The Lincoln Lawyer with two turns this year, each as magnetic as the other, and while Magic Mike allowed him to show off to his fullest both physically and dramatically, it’s the understated menace that seeps from every pore, even – maybe especially – when he’s armed with nothing but a chicken drumstick that put McConaughey back on the map again. *goes to check McConaughey spelling one more time, just in case*
9. Dane De Haan – Chronicle
Also popping up and showing his range in Lawless, it’s this calling card as the disturbed Andrew in super-powered camcorder flick Chronicle that’s likely earned Dane De Haan the role of Harry Osborn in the Amazing Spider-Man sequel now in production. Let’s hope he can bring that same edginess and defiance to that role as he does to this one, as much of Chronicle’s success stems from De Haan’s willingness to push boundaries and keep it dark.
8. Andrea Riseborough – Shadow Dancer
I still believe Andrea Riseborough is the most undervalued actress working today, and she’s followed up fantastic work in the likes of Never Let Me Go, Resistance and Brighton Rock last year with another memorable role as the troubled IRA member forced to work as a double agent by the British. I’m intrigued to see what will come of her next role, one of the two female lead roles opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion, but I’ve no issues with her pushing her range given the talent she’s shown so far.
7. Jean-Luc Trintignant – Amour
Emanuelle Riva’s role in Michael Haneke’s dark meditation on old age and the inevitable ravages of time might have been the more physically and technically demanding, but it’s Jean-Luc Trintignant through whom the audience experiences the full weight of pain and suffering, and it’s to Haneke’s credit that he managed to tempt Trintignant out of retirement to play the male lead here. He carries the role with incredible dignity, even when faced with extreme suffering, and it’s actually testament to what can still be achieved despite advancing years.
6. Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
As I’ve already said in other posts, I’m not a huge fan of SLP, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the continuing development as an actress of Jennifer Lawrence. Deserving of the Oscar she didn’t get for Winter’s Bone, and showing she can work in the mainstream just as effectively in X-Men: First Class, it was a toss up between this and The Hunger Games for which was the better performance this year, and while this turn just edges it, the subtlety of her work in Hunger Games shouldn’t be underestimated.
5. Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Another in the up-and-coming roster of great American actresses, the good Olsen sister shone on our screen both in Josh Radnor’s self-indulgent and chewy Liberal Arts, but also in yet another great movie this year about cults and their effect. Given her ability to do both charming and distant so effectively, hopefully this is just the start of a promising career. Next up for her, also showing she’s not afraid to take a few risks, is the Spike Lee Oldboy remake.
4. Michael Fassbender – Shame
Baring his body might have gotten all the attention, but baring his soul was what really made Shame the best performance in Michael Fassbender’s career so far. He’s had one of those years when it felt like he was in everything, also cropping up in A Dangerous Method, Haywire and most memorably in Prometheus as the android in plain sight. But it was his driven, desperate turn at the beginning of the year that seared itself onto my memory.
3. Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Another good year for former Bond villain Mikkelsen, with strong performances in both A Royal Affair and this, Thomas Vinterberg’s terrifyingly plausible chiller. Even without the social relevance that other events in this country have unwittingly brought it, The Hunt would still have been completely gripping, and it couldn’t have worked without Mikkelsen’s bewildered and ultimately angry performance as the wronged school teacher. Such a shame that acting in foreign language films is so often overlooked at awards time.
2. Joaquim Phoenix – The Master
It was difficult to decide which of the performances to rate most highly in The Master, and for a film so dependent on the success of its characterisations The Master needs the highest quality of acting to succeed. Phoenix’s performance might be the most showy of the three main protagonists, but it also carries with it the biggest range and his barely controlled rage and what might be one of the most effective portrayals of inebriation on screen of inebriation I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s all try to forget about that Casey Affleck farrago now, shall we?
1. Marion Cotillard – Rust And Bone
Anyone who’d like to claim that Marion Cotillard’s performance wasn’t the best of the year frankly hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
*waits while tumbleweed blows past*
Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, time to give due credit to Cotillard’s superb turn as Stephanie, the killer whale trainer who has to turn her life around after an unfortunate accident leaves her crippled both physically and emotionally. Cotillard makes the transition to rediscovering herself compelling, her unconventional relationship with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) believable and reels out scene after scene of brilliance, embracing both the emotional highs and lows and possibly even winning new fans of Katy Perry in the process. Her more subdued turn as Miranda Tate in The Dark Knight Rises shows she continues to be Christopher Nolan’s muse, and when she’s capable of heights like this, it’s not hard to see why.
It’s the end of another year, when traditionally anyone who thinks themselves to be even the slightest bit important starts handing out awards, statuettes, globes, cubes and all manner of trinkets to the great and the good, and occasionally a few less deserving. Although cinema has been going for over a hundred years, ever since awards were first handed out a division has taken place between actors and actresses, and for most of that time awards have also been handed out for both leading and supporting roles. But who’s to say that any performance by an actress is more or less worthy than that of an actor, or indeed that a role with only ten minutes of onscreen time is more or less important than a role where the performer is in every scene?
Not me, that’s for sure. So in looking at what’s made up the best films of the year, I’ve pulled together what I believe are the best performances of the year. There are only two criteria that I’ve applied – I’ve only picked the best single performance from each performer, and I’ve only picked my favourite single performance from a single film. I’ve seen a lot of films this year, so there’s a lot of worthy performances that didn’t make the cut – these are the top 25 that left the biggest impression on me in 2011.
25. 50/50 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
There’s enough of a history of prostate cancer in my family that, even with regular testing, I might end up facing the situation encountered by JGL’s Adam in 50/50, and I’ve often wondered how I’d react. I don’t need to any longer, as Joe’s portrayal of coming to terms with news of The Big C felt pretty much spot on. There’s a number of supposedly brave decisions that an actor can take in the name of their art, and shaving your head is one of them, but it’s to this actor’s credit that the physical quirks never overpower an understated but extremely effective performance.
24. Weekend – Tom Cullen
Weekend has picked up a lot of indie attention this year for its take on relationships, and the fact that it’s a relationship between two men became almost incidental as the central story was so strong. Credit for that must go not only to Andrew Haigh’s strong writing but to the performances of the two leads, and while Chris New has the slightly more showy role, it’s Tom Cullen’s mix of ease and angst that was the slightly stronger showing. Hopefully this will be a springboard for both Cullen and New to go onto bigger and equally good things.
23. X-Men: First Class – Michael Fassbender
Looking for the next James Bond? Daniel Craig seems set on sticking in the role for a few more years, but on his showing in this year’s X-Men prequel, Fassbender has moved to the front of the queue to take over when Craig’s had enough. I’m even willing to overlook the fact that his accent was gravitating strongly back towards the Giants Causeway in the last act, so dominant was Fass’s performance, especially in the early scenes. That he not only matched Sir Ian McKellen’s performance in the role but at times even exceeded that standard is testament to someone who’s had a fantastic track record over the past few years. In the next six weeks, he’ll be in cinemas in films from Steve McQueen, Steven Soderbergh and David Cronenberg, and with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to come in the summer, 2012 looks like it could be a landmark year for him.
22. The Debt – Jesper Christensen
The Debt was a film of very mixed performances, but two stood out above the others, and in particular the scenes that the two of them shared. A number of confrontations in the first half between Jessica Chastain and Jesper Christensen stood out as highlights and that was to the credit of both Chastain and Christensen, the latter simmering with barely contained menace once his true nature becomes apparent. It’s a shame that Christensen didn’t get more of a prominent role in the two recent Daniel Craig Bonds, as on this evidence he could have been a much stronger villain than either of those films actually ended up with.
21. Black Swan – Natalie Portman
I’ll be returning regularly to the theme of how actors can be perceived as brave in order to stand out from the crowd, and Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning turn practically rattled off a tick list including madness, lipstick lesbianism and even some slightly-too-casual onanism. Oh, and more madness. This is one of those “practically-in-every-scene” roles that was also a career best turn in a career that’s had some pretty strong turns previously.
20. Animal Kingdom – Jacki Weaver
In a film as full of testosterone as Animal Kingdom, it takes something special for an actress to stand out, and Jacki Weaver had that special something. After a twenty year period in which she’d been seen very little on screens of any size, a late renaissance saw her take on the role as the unassuming mother figure of the family. Fantastic performances across the board from the likes of Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce and Ben Mendelsohn make Animal Kingdom a compelling watch, but it’s Weaver’s performance that rightly got awards attention this time last year.
19. 127 Hours – James Franco
I never imagined, after his frustratingly one-note performances in the Spider-Man trilogy, that James Franco would be popping up in a list like this, but 2011 was a great year for Franco. He did just well enough as the human lead in the new Apes movie, and also surprised in the Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl, but 127 Hours became his signature role. Having very little to interact with, he still managed to sustain interest throughout the running time, and it was the fault of the structure of the film itself rather than Franco’s performance that led to a little watch-checking while we waited for hour 127; when it came, the final moments continued to show the strengths of an actor who, at 33, is just now coming into his prime.
18. Tomboy – Zoé Héran
If James Franco still has a long career ahead of him, then surely Zoé Héran is also destined for great things. Tomboy was a delightful story of the innocence of youth and the coming of adolescence, carried by Héran’s winning performance at its centre as new girl Laure masquerading as new boy Michaël. It would have been easy to make the role unsympathetic in the wrong hands but Héran carries the film completely, and Tomboy doesn’t shy away from the practical realities of such a situation, but does so without becoming heavy-handed or judgemental. Here’s hoping we see more roles for Zoé in years to come.
17. Oslo, August 31st – Anders Danielsen Lie
Another actor getting a chance to shine in a film gaining recognition on a wider stage this year was Anders Danielsen Lie. Taking centre stage in Oslo, August 31st, the story of a recovering drug addict’s struggles for acceptance and his attempt to reintegrate into society after rehabilitation, Anders was barely off screen and brings both a tenderness and an understandable resentment to his screen namesake. Although it’s already been seen in this country following a showing at the London Film Festival and a limited release, it’s been added to Sundance for 2012, where surely the profile of both the film and actor can surely only rise further.
16. Bridesmaids – Melissa McCarthy
If you want to make things particularly difficult for yourself in Hollywood, try to do whatever you can to not conform to the physical stereotype. Melissa McCarthy has never been, and likely never will be, stick thin but she still manages to do glamorous pretty well in the likes of her high profile TV roles such as the hit US sitcom Mike And Molly. For Bridesmaids, she stripped that away as well, but it didn’t stop her stealing practically the whole film away from her co-stars, and nominations for everything from the Teen Choice Awards to the Screen Actors Guild for her performance are fair reward for her commitment.
15. Beginners – Christopher Plummer
There’s often a sense when it comes to awards time that certain actors reach a point in their career when they get recognition out of courtesy, or as a reward for career achievement rather than the merit of a specific role. It may come as a surprise that Christopher Plummer only got his first Oscar nomination two years ago for The Last Station, but he should pick up his second this year for Beginners. Rest assured, if you’ve not seen it, that this isn’t a career pat-on-the-back, Plummer excelling as the father finding a new lease of life in his final years.
14. True Grit – Jeff Bridges
It’s been a bit of an acting head-to-head over the past couple of years, as both Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth have been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar two years in a row. While Bridges took the first gold baldie for Crazy Heart, Firth won this year for The King’s Speech, and while it was a deserved win when comparing the two, it shouldn’t take away from the sheer joy of Bridges’ grizzly, mumbling turn in the Coen Brothers’ latest masterpiece. Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld both deserve plaudits for their performances, but Bridges took on the hardest challenge, and successfully banished any memories of John Wayne’s performance with another majestic turn.
13. The King’s Speech – Colin Firth
But, when comparing the two, Firth just edged it; possibly justice done after his astonishingly subtle performance in last year’s A Single Man was shamefully overlooked for Bridges’ theatrics. Although a speech impediment and performing a real life character are another two of the “how to bag an Oscar” checklist, Firth is spot on throughout and is well supported by Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. Following this up with another star turn in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it’s been a good year for Firth, and hopefully none of us will ever have to watch him mugging through the likes of the St. Trinian’s sequel again.
12. Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Andy Serkis
There’s one other area where the Academy goes further than segregating and actively discriminates at the moment, and when it comes to a motion-captured performance, awards voters in general still haven’t been bra ve enough to reward a performance augmented by CGI. The computer graphics might be practically flawless, but they’d be nothing without the performers wearing the dot-covered grey leotards acting on green screens, and Serkis gives what may be the best performance yet in a computer-assisted costume; yes, Caesar is even better than the previous benchmark Serkis set, and is revisiting next year, in Middle Earth’s Gollum.
11. Brighton Rock – Andrea Riseborough
One of the most undervalued performers of 2011 has been Andrea Riseborough. It doesn’t quite feel as if she’s had the luck in landing the roles that a younger contemporary such as Carey Mulligan, but Riseborough has been outstanding not once, but three times, on screen this year. She ended the year with a star turn in Welsh alternate-history drama Resistance, and started it with a brief but heart-breaking turn in Never Let Me Go. It was more heartbreak that saw her best effort of the year, and while Brighton Rock the film may not have been the sum of its parts, Riseborough was outstanding at its core. Hopefully Shadow Dancer (with Clive Owen) and Welcome To The Punch (with James McAvoy and Mark Strong) will keep her profile high next year, but she starts with Madonna’s take on the life of Wallace Simpson, which sadly looks to be another case of her performing well in a film that doesn’t showcase her talents as effectively as it should.
10. We Need to Talk About Kevin – Tilda Swinton
Tilda Swinton isn’t afraid of an acting challenge, but how do you follow up I Am Love, where she learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent? Aside from a third turn as Narnia’s White Witch last year, her latest cinema role was front and centre in Lynne Ramsay’s successful adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel. Swinton is magnetic throughout, taking whatever’s thrown at her – most of it symbolically red – and retaining sympathy despite the difficulty of her various situations. Such is the warmth and tenderness that she brings to the role, in the face of almost unrelenting misery, that it makes the inevitability of the outcome still very hard to take, and that’s entirely to Tilda Swinton’s credit.
9. The Fighter – Christian Bale
Sitting through most of The Fighter, as good as Christian Bale’s performance is, you can’t help but think that maybe he’s gone a little too far over the top on the mannerisms. It’s undoubtedly a strong performance, and is complemented by strong work from the likes of Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, but when put in contrast to Mark Wahlberg’s defiantly understated performance as the other brother, the titular Fighter, then it does occasionally feel too much of a good thing. Then the end credits arrive, and with them footage of the real life Ward brothers, and all of a sudden it becomes apparent that Bale’s a genius, absolutely nailing the larger than life persona of his real life counterpart. In 2012? Not much. Just a new Batman movie, that’s all.
8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tom Hardy
If you played cinematic tail-on-the-donkey with the cast list of Tinker, Tailor, listing out the names and then attempting to find a great performance by going at the list blindfolded, you couldn’t not hit on an amazing performance by probably the best cast put together in film this year. When even those getting barely more than a single scene, such as Stephen Graham or Kathy Burke, excel then you know you’re onto a winner. But if forced to pick one, then Tom Hardy just edges ahead of the rest of the cast with his stunning portrayal of the man who calls out the mole. Hardy’s been around for ten years, but has come a long way since the likes of Black Hawk Down and Star Trek: Nemesis, and will follow up his impressively muscular turn in this year’s Warrior with lead bad guy duties in next year’s Batman threequel; hopefully Hardy’s best years are still to come.
7. My Week With Marilyn – Michelle Williams
I was more than a little unsure about approaching My Week With Marilyn, not only because I’d never really have described myself as a fan of Marilyn Monroe, but because the few clips I’d seen suggested that the performances of both Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier were erring more on the side of caricature. I should have had more faith; Williams has been proving for years that she’s one of America’s finest actresses, and followed up her performance at the start of the year in Blue Valentine with this cracking showing as one of the US’s screen icons, by turns an uncanny impersonation and a sympathetic portrayal of a public life that hid more of a private tragedy. Expect Williams to make a strong showing come awards season.
6. Warrior – Nick Nolte
Another name that was being touted for a while as a major contender in the supporting categories this year was Nick Nolte, but the momentum now seems to be with Christopher Plummer. It’s a shame, for as good as Plummer was, Nolte was better. Warrior ran the risk of being a sports movie full of stereotypes, but in each case either neatly dodged them or embraced them to full effect. Nolte’s performance fell into the former category, as the recovering alcoholic father found his loyalties divided between his sons, and he painted a believable character arc without resorting to histrionics. It was almost good enough to make me forget his uncomfortable turn as Jennifer Garner’s father in Russell Brand’s Arthur remake. Almost.
5. Melancholia – Kirsten Dunst
What, then, of Kirsten Dunst, denied the opportunity to make further Spider-Man sequels? Dunst has always felt as happy in the art house as the blockbuster, so it made sense that when Penelope Cruz dropped out to make the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel, Dunst was recommended to Lars von Trier as a replacement. It’s a film of two halves, and Dunst shines in both; in the first half, her wandering mind and frustrated countenance completely at odds with the order and formality of the wedding reception, giving way to a serene presence as others try to understand events to come in the second half. It’s the ideal performance for von Trier’s art house blockbuster.
4. Drive – Ryan Gosling
If I was giving out awards for actor of the year, then there would probably be only one contender. If you consider the magnificent four-hander that he’s put out this year: the lover at the end of the doomed relationship in Blue Valentine, the smooth charmer who struggles to commit in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and the young buck looking to make a name for himself politically in The Ides Of March, but it’s the role as the almost silent stunt driver in Drive which is likely to define Ryan Gosling for years to come, a masterclass in how much can be done with so little. I received some Gosling in my stocking for Christmas this year, in the form of Lars And The Real Girl, and it’s an indication of Gosling’s supreme quality that he’s so good in all of these roles. I would fancy there’s a fair few movie buffs who had scorpion jackets in their stockings this year.
3. Take Shelter – Jessica Chastain
If Ryan Gosling has been one of the year’s hardest working actors, then Jessica Chastain has been even busier, and we’re spoiled for choice in picking a role to define her talents. While she stood out among the tone poem madness that was The Tree Of Life, and excelled as the ditzy blonde with hidden depths in The Help, it was two other roles that really showed her talents. The first was as the young Helen Mirren in The Debt, showing her class and dignity even as Jesper Christensen foraged in her unmentionables, but for me her best showing of the year is the one which has her mentioned in Supporting Actress categories as Michael Shannon’s wife in Take Shelter. Not to dismiss Shannon’s powerhouse performance, but it would have been nothing without Chastain to play off, and their scene together at the dinner table as Shannon confessed to the full extent of his problems was the most powerful two-hander of the year. Not resting on her laurels, Chastain is up next as Ralph Fiennes’ wife in Coriolanus.
2. Biutiful – Javier Bardem
I mentioned earlier the injustice of the Oscars, that Jeff Bridges should’ve been beaten by Colin Firth in last year’s Oscars; I also stand by the view that neither Bridges or Firth should actually have won the big award this year, as the best performance by far from an actor in a leading role came from Javier Bardem in Biutiful. Bardem’s portrayal of Uxbal, a man attempting to juggle too many facets of a life with few days left in it was stunning, and despite the misery and melancholy Bardem rooted the film in reality amid elements of the supernatural and turned a good film into a genuinely great one simply by the power of his performance. The fact that he’ll be a Bond baddie by this time next year fills me with more glee than I can possibly share right now.
1. Tyrannosaur – Olivia Colman
But the performance of the year was that of Olivia Colman in Paddy Considine’s directorial debut. It was a conscious departure for Colman, who was well known – in her own view, too well known – as a regular collaborator of Mitchell and Webb, in both their sketch show and Peep Show, and also for her lighter supporting roles such as the dirty-minded Doris in Hot Fuzz. But taking these as a polar opposite to Tyrannosaur, it’s difficult to know which is sublime and which ridiculous, so utterly convincing is Colman’s portrayal of the charity shop worker tested to her limit by both abusive husband Eddie Marsan and by Peter Mullan’s troublesome drunk who stumbles into her life one day.
It’s a performance that’s not only remarkable given Colman’s previous body of work, but it also stands on its own terms as an absolutely astonishing piece of work. Mullan and Marsan are no slouches, and Mullan especially delivers some of his best acting work here, but Colman, under the guiding hand of first time director Considine, is the star of the show and is absolutely mesmerising from start to finish. Like Lesley Manville’s performance in Mike Leigh’s Another Year last year, sadly this doesn’t have the profile or the momentum to get the awards attention it deserves, but don’t let that detract from what is a performance so strong and so strong in the face of her character’s adversity, that if you ever saw Olivia Colman in the street, you would be unable to suppress the need to give her a great big hug.