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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