Let's Rank the 10 Finest Screen Performances of 2011

If you're both a movie fan and a consummate statistician, it's easy to love and appreciate the Oscars for shoehorning the majority of film history into a manageable grading rubric. I'm an Oscar apologist myself, and I still have one bone to pick with the Academy -- and all award-spewing organizations: the unnecessary reliance on gender-based categories. Is it not more thrilling to pit all actors against each other? Is there such an objective difference between Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock? Meryl Streep and Robert Downey Jr.? "Actor" is a gender-neutral term, and I think we'd all better off -- and better entertained -- without the meaningless siphoning. Thus, I'm stacking up the best performances of 2011 without categorical regard for gender or role size. It's a winner-take-all affair, and this winner definitely wants it all. Here's my top 10:

10. Albert Brooks, Drive

Albert Brooks is Drive's Oscar-friendliest component, and that's for one reason: eerie, sustained dastardliness. As the Driver's shady foe, Brooks's lovable, aw-shucksy expression hardens into a papier-mache fright. Perhaps he benefits generously from his decision to counteract the lovable schmos he offered in Lost in America and Broadcast News, but his rancor is too real and evil to dismiss. While Ryan Gosling's stoicism helps substantiate Drive's reputation as an evocative mood piece, Brooks's performance steers -- or careens -- the movie into horrifying reality.

9. Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

Knightley's performance in the part-fascinating, part-boring A Dangerous Method embodies the acting trope "big choices," but it's still a triumph: As Carl Jung's histrionic patient Sabina Spielrein, she's a quivering, questioning, repressed and entirely believable intellectual. Even when she's jutting her jaw in spastic episodes like an unhinged Ruth Buzzi, her humanity is apparent and her insight is breathtaking. For playing such an uncomfortable character, I missed her whenever she wasn't onscreen.

8. Jeremy Irons, Margin Call

Irons's very presence summons actorly gusto, so it's easy to write off his commanding performance (or any of his performances) as a mere extension of his Shakespearean bravado. But Irons is no ham as CEO John Tuld in the bracing ensemble drama Margin Call; he's the perfect picture of bureaucratic spinelessness. If you're wondering what happened to the ungodly chill he once emanated as Claus von Bulow, look for it in his delivery of Margin Call's spookiest insight into Wall Street politics: "If you're first out the door, that's not called panicking."

7. Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus

Stephanie Zacharek is on to something when she denounces the relatively ho-hum proceedings of Coriolanus's original text, but let's remember to commemorate Ralph Fiennes's directorial debut for its greatest asset: crackling performances. As the titular veteran who wears his moral conflict like an Egyptian death mask, Fiennes's rage transcends mugging, warps into agony, and projects thunderous depth. Thunderous, I say! He's so thoroughly and bleakly numbed to the strife and fanfare he abandons in wartorn "Rome" that his grisly comeuppance in the movie's final moments feels like something of a relief. You see, Fiennes's performance is an internal bloodbath long before we're confronted with a viciously Technicolor one -- and if there's any justice, he'll be rewarded with the Best Actor nomination that he was snubbed for after Quiz Show.

6. Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

The most revered teenage performances seem to share the same dichotomies: childlike overreaction and burgeoning maturity, self-assurance and bubbling insecurity, sensibility and selfishness. Woodley is no iconoclast in these departments, but she gives Alexander Payne's drippy, but poignant The Descendants its handfuls of urgency and momentum. While I'd hate to whittle her fabulous -- and subtle -- work down to one scene, the most memorable sequence I've seen all year is Woodley's underwater breakdown in her family's pool. It's a heartbreaking and startling shot, but moreover, it's an expression of unadulterated fear that confronts the viewer and challenges him to disbelieve her.

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  • Zachary says:

    No love for Brit Marling in Another Earth? I swear this has got to be one of the most underrated movies of the last few years. The scene where she tells William Malpother the story of the Russian cosmonaut and the scene where she finally confesses are worthy of some serious award considerations. It's a shame this movie waent so far under the radar...not to mention she wrote the darn thing.

  • pete says:

    Everyone is always talking about Spacey's performance in Margin Call but I couldn't agree more. Irons takes all his natural gifts as an actor and takes them to the next level of intensity and subtlety to communicate this snake who is clearly dealing with panic under the surface. I know it's a crowded category this year but I think Irons deserves a shot at Best supporting.

  • Mike Doc says:

    Lists! I love lists! Here goes:
    1. Michael Shannon - Take Shelter
    So successfully pulls you into his character's headspace, by the end of the film you think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could plausibly be outside of that storm shelter.
    2. Elena Anaya - The Skin I Live In
    I mean, come on! Creates deep sympathy for a character in a totally friggin' insane premise. Turns a demented mad scientist plot into the heartstring plucker.
    3. Shahab Hosseini - A Separation
    Peyman Moaadi as the upper-class liar seems to be getting most of the kudos, but Hosseini as the working class husband demanding respect from a legal system and class system tipped against him is the one whose really stuck with me.
    4. Keira Knightley - A Dangerous Method
    It's all about the lower jaw, man.
    5. & 6. Octavia Spencer, The Help & Jennifer Ehle, Contagion
    I'm a sucker for the less-famous actors who walk into a star-studded ensemble and not only hold their own, but walk away with the damn thing. Spencer reaches force-of-nature levels of screen presence ("I need to see you square on at all times."), while Ehle provides a magnetic serenity -- her character practically radiates goodness -- in a not-at-all showy role (she did the same thing with about 5 minutes of screentime in "Ides of March". More from her, please!)
    7. Nick Nolte - Warrior
    Weepy fathers meekly seeking redemption. Oh, for frick's sake...uncle!
    8. Elizabeth Olsen - Martha Marcy May Marlene
    9. Michael Fassbender - A Dangerous Method
    Yep, he was great in everything this year, but my preference lies with the guy who brainily analyzes the reasons why he enjoys spanking Keira Knightley for pleasure.
    10. Jodie Foster - Carnage
    All four actors were hilarious, but Foster's anguished sobs over the breakdown of her white privilege ideals had me on the floor. I even loved her late-in-the-game dive into screeching histrionics, which most critics seemingly didn't go for: "YOUR SON IS A F____CKIIIING SNITCH!"

  • I dunno. I honestly have no idea how this movie even got into Sundance, let alone acquired and released. I know Searchlight likes the Marling/Cahill braintrust, but most folks I talked to could barely finish watching it.

  • AS says:

    Very pleased to see you give credit to Jeremy Irons but shame on you for not mentioning Rooney Mara!

  • Charles says:

    The best performance I've seen this year -- by a mile -- is Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn." Then again, the only performance I've seen from Louis' list is Albert Brooks in"Drive."

  • Charles says:

    Wait, not true. I also saw Jeremy Irons in "Margin Call." I haven't changed my mind, though.

  • TheContext says:

    Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia, man! She's basically playing the same character she played in Antichrist. Her physical performance--face and especially body--is equal to Falconetti's at moments.

  • VanRamblings says:

    Any list of 10 Finest Screen Performances of 2011 that fails to mention Elle Fanning in Super 8, Anna Paquin in Margaret (despite hers not technically being a 2011 performance), or Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene cannot be considered an authoritative, inclusive list of the finest screen performances of 2011.

  • Louis Virtel says:

    I love people who love lists! Consider yourself a successful listmaker, because you have me reconsidering Jodie's work.

  • Tusamann says:

    To be totally fair and equal, your top ten list should not even have numbers.

  • Elias says:

    Just saw this and for the most part I think you nailed it…but you’re going to include Charlize in Young Adult (though she was good, given) and NOT put Mara in for her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander? Come ON! Hers was a ghostly, haunting performance, hardly there one moment, savage and brutal as any woman has ever been in any movie the next. Otherwise, yeah, great list.

  • Jenna says:

    I saw A Dangerous Method recently and Keira Knightley was brilliant in a very risky role.
    I can't believe she is being snubbed for this performance. It's also a shame that Kirsten is getting no love nor Ralph.

  • Charles says:

    I just saw "Young Adult" and I completely agree about Charlize Theron's performance: it's wonderful. The Oscars need to give two lead-acting prizes to women next year and just forget about the men.

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