With political worries and economic woes taking up most of the small screen, 2011 has been a great year for movies because we’ve needed it to be. From big-name blockbusters to the artsiest of indie films, our actors and actresses have taken it upon themselves to give us some much needed distractions, and a lot to talk about. This group is so talented that we’re convinced the Oscars are going to be a bloodbath this year. That’s why we’re sharing our favorite performances of the year, and why we’ll keep talking about them long after awards season is over.
Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne – Bridesmaids
Proving comedy is not just a boys’ club, Wiig, McCarthy and Byrne created one of the year’s best films in Bridesmaids. Wiig plays Annie, a failed baker whose best friend Lillian’s upcoming wedding painfully coincides with her life’s various disasters. To make things even worse, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) seems to have replaced Annie with rich, snobby Helen, played brilliantly by Byrne, who makes Helen endlessly hateable but still sympathetic.
McCarthy rounds out the strong supporting cast, and is responsible for many of the film’s most quotable lines and most outrageous moments. Though McCarthy and Byrne’s over the top characters provide much of the film’s humor, Wiig really makes the film work, tying everything together with a more refined performance (at least more refined than she usually is on Saturday Night Live) that’s as touching as it is hilarious.
Brad Pitt - Moneyball
Though he deserves just as much praise for his portrayal of a struggling father in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Pitt really shines in Moneyball, the true story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. It’s hard to make a good baseball movie without overly romanticizing the game, and maybe without Pitt, it couldn’t have been done. Don’t get me wrong, Pitt can play any dramatic role he wants, but he specializes in fast-talking, funny characters (like Beane) who know what the hell they’re doing. It’s where he excels – and his smart, complex portrait of Beane is what makes Moneyball worth watching.
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Tilda Swinton has an odd air about her – like she never fully defrosted after playing the White Witch in 2005′s first Narnia film. If anything, it only amplifies her appeal. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Swinton plays Eva, the mother of the titular Kevin (Ezra Miller), a nightmare from birth who murdered not only some of his classmates, but his father and sister as well. Swinton’s portrayal of Eva is decidedly cold, emphasizing the battle of nature vs. nurture at the film’s heart. Did she create a psychopath? Could she have stopped him? Swinton leaves it up to us to decide, making her performance all the more fascinating.
Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn
The daunting task of playing cinema’s greatest legend would be impossible, unthinkable for most, but Michelle Williams doesn’t even seem phased. She simply slips into Marilyn, and never lets the audience question her. My Week With Marilyn is just a glimpse at the captivating starlet’s life, but Williams gives us more insight into Ms. Monroe than a thousand biographies could. Williams breathes new life into the enigmatic image of Marilyn Monroe, and handles her with depth and dignity, reminding us that her superstar appearance was far removed from her real life as the insecure and damaged Norma Jean.
Rooney Mara – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
It’s impossible to tear your eyes away from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander – Rooney Mara makes sure of it. Lisbeth, a victim of abuse turned antisocial computer hacker bent on revenge, cannot be an easy character to play, but Mara does it with ease. Her indifference and insolent looks are utterly captivating, but it isn’t just Mara’s obvious strength that wins us over. Lisbeth’s little shocks of vulnerability are what make Mara’s performance so memorable, and what leaves us craving for more. We’re certain we will be seeing much, much more of her.
Charlize Theron – Young Adult
It’s easy to see how anyone but Theron could turn Young Adult from a darkly entertaining film into a doofy romance filled with life lessons. Theron is deliciously bad as a 30-something who returns to her hometown in order to win back her high school sweetheart, destroying his marriage in the process. Diablo Cody‘s screenplay definitely helps her out, but Theron delights in her character’s calculating and unsympathetic nature, and it shows. Theron’s fearless refusal to soften up is what makes her a treat to watch, and left us feeling awful – in a good way.
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
It wouldn’t be a year’s best list without including 16-time Academy Award nominee (and two-time winner) Meryl Streep, whose portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is as flawless as you’d expect. In fact, she is nothing short of perfection. Her performance digs so much deeper than Thatcher’s standard appearances in media, creating a moving portrayal and showing us exactly what standards a biopic should be held to. Streep is a master of character – it’s as if she locks on to her targets and simply inhabits them for a while – as if it were that easy. No one else does it like her, and no one else ever will again.
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Judging Ryan Gosling on his appearance alone, we’d think he’d just be some pretty boy, stuck doing romance movies forever. But this is where Gosling proves us wrong. Sure, he can do cute and sexy, just watch Crazy Stupid Love, but he gives us one of the year’s best performances in Drive. Gosling plays an unnamed stunt performer who moonlights as a getaway driver, and gets in over his head. His reticence is very cool – Gosling plays the driver in such a way that we have no choice but to study his every move, waiting for some hint of emotion, and when it finally bursts out, we feel very rewarded.
Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain and Emma Stone – The Help
There is no better ensemble cast than The Help‘s this year. The movie is strong performance after strong performance, and it would be a crime to honor one without the others. The Help is about Skeeter (Stone) a young writer who wants to expose what it’s really like to be the hired help in Mississippi. Stone handles Skeeter’s naivety and gradual shift to social outcast expertly, but it’s Davis who stands out the most as Aibileen, a black maid who has spent her whole life raising white children.
Davis’ steadiness and occasional bursts of ferocity is what gives the movie its fire – and will hopefully bring her Oscar gold. Spencer’s performance as Aibileen’s best friend Minny is so warm and memorable it’d be surprising if she didn’t earn a nod as well. Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain round out the cast as the villainous Hilly, who Howard makes into the perfect fool, and the sweet but clueless Celia, who Chastain makes touching and strong.
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Though he stunned us in A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre and even X-Men: First Class this year, Michael Fassbender outdoes himself in Shame, in which he plays a sex addict spiraling out of control. Fassbender is stripped – both literally and figuratively – and it isn’t always pretty. He makes sex addiction the opposite of sexy, which makes his character’s actions even more difficult to watch. The utter lack of human contact Fassbender’s Brendan receives, even though technically he’s constantly with other people, is sad and disturbing. It’s a character that hasn’t quite been done before. We have Fassbender to thank for that.
We also wish we could have included:
Albert Brooks, Drive
Woody Harrelson, Rampart
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre
George Clooney, The Descendants
Ameena Matthews, The Interruptors
Who do you think had the best performance this year? Did we miss anybody? Feel free to discuss your favorite performances in the comments or head over to our new forums and sound off.