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Film Feature: The Best Supporting Performances of 2011

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CHICAGO – Kicking off our annual series of year-end film features, we begin with the ensemble players, the supporting cast members who provided the necessary dramatic support to allow their leading men and women to shine.

Would George Clooney be getting some of the most pronounced critical praise of his career without the emotional weight provided by Shailene Woodley? Is Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as powerful without John Hawkes? Could Michael Fassbender get half the attention he’s received without Carey Mulligan? Here are my favorite supporting performances of 2011, the men and women who really stood out in a great year for film. Come back tomorrow for our picks for the best lead performers and next week for our Top Ten Films of 2011.

The Best Supporting Actor Performances of 2011

I’ll be blunt — it has not been a very good year for this category. Sure, there have been a few standouts and it’s not overly difficult to fill the category and list some worthy runner-ups, but very few of these performances are the best of their respective thespian’s careers and even fewer stand out as timeless movie characters. There’s simply nothing here that truly shatters cinema history like Anton Chigurh, Hans Landa, or The Joker. There’s a lot of “good,” but little “great,” in what is easily the worst overall of the four acting categories.

Having said that, yes, there ARE performances worthy of your attention. As is often the case, a few films delivered more than one supporting actor performance worth mentioning as runner-ups, including “Contagion” (Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, & Jude Law), “Margin Call” (Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, & Kevin Spacey), and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, & Mark Strong). Other notable runner-ups to our top ten include Anton Yelchin in “The Beaver,” Bryan Cranston in “Drive,” Christoph Waltz in “Water For Elephants,” Corey Stoll in “Midnight in Paris,” Ed Harris in “The Way Back,” Eric Bana in “Hanna,” Jonah Hill in “Moneyball,” Niels Arestrup in “War Horse,” Paul Giamatti in “The Ides of March,” Robert Forster in “The Descendants,” and Ryan Gosling in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Runner-Ups (#6-10; in alphabetical order): Kenneth Branagh in “My Week With Marilyn”; Bruce Greenwood in “Meek’s Cutoff”; Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Ides of March”; Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life”; and Christopher Plummer in “Beginners.”

MY FIVE NOMINEES FOR BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose in “Drive”

Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks
Photo credit: Film District

Nicholas Winding Refn told me that he cast Albert Brooks in “Drive” because he felt the legendary comedian needed to kill someone. He was (I presume) joking and didn’t really think the star of “Lost in America” was a potential murderer, but the quip is telling in that the filmmaker saw something in Brooks that most other casting directors never would have considered — a coiled energy that could be channeled into one of the most memorable performances in his film. Bernie Rose is a tough part because he’s almost always going to be the focus of attention in every scene in which he appears. We know he’s the bad guy. We know he might threaten somebody. We know he might kill somebody. A lot of actors would have used that spotlight to chew the scenery, but Brooks goes in the other direction — he becomes more subtle instead of going over the top. He makes you lean forward to hear him and rivets with his physical decisions. Like SO many great performances, Brooks’ work in “Drive” is almost more remarkable for what it’s not, particularly given how clichéd other actors would have gone with the same script.

John Hawkes as Patrick in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

John Hawkes
John Hawkes
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Last year, Hawkes became a critical darling, finally getting the attention he deserved for his Oscar-nominated work in “Winter’s Bone.” At first glance, his work in “MMMM” seems cut from the same cloth. It is, once again, a rough character from the wrong side of the tracks, and it is, once again, in support of a debut performance being touted as one of the best of the year. It’s a shame that Hawkes seems virtually guaranteed to be left off most supporting actor ballots since he’s at least nearly as good here as he was last year and accusations that the parts are too similar are simply misguided. Patrick is far scarier - scarier than not just Hawkes’ work in “Winter’s Bone” but than any other performance this year. Hawkes brilliantly understands how to bring to life a man who uses his power of leadership to get whatever he wants. He knows that a cult leader is not an ordinary person. It takes a certain kind of calm charisma to make people follow you, even as you abuse them physically and psychologically. Hawkes is cold, calculating, and mesmerizing. Two years in a row in this category, and I’ll be fine if he makes it three.

Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf in “Young Adult”

Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt
Photo credit: Paramount

Charlize Theron and Diablo Cody have been getting a lot of credit for their work on “Young Adult” (most of it deserved, at least in Theron’s case), but the film simply doesn’t work without the supporting material provided by Oswalt. He grounds the entire piece in a realism that it desperately needed even more of to transcend its limitations. If there’s a theme here in my favorite choices for Supporting Actors of 2011, it’s performances that defy the expectations of cliché. Oswalt could have easily played Matt Freehauf as a sympathy case, the nerd who hangs out in his sister’s garage and laments the day he was crippled by the jocks at school. But Oswalt brilliantly recognizes that it’s Mavis, the popular girl, who’s stuck in adolescence, not Matt. In fact, he constantly tries to bring her back to the real world, even if that’s not a place in which she really fits. Oswalt is funny, charming, and never over-the-top, finding the truth in Matt that brings gravity to the threatened cliché of the rest of Cody’s work here. He’s the best thing about the movie.

Andy Serkis as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

Andy Serkis
Andy Serkis
Photo credit: Fox

No, I’m not merely trying to maintain my geek cred here by picking the trendy mo-cap performance of the year. This is more than a trend or a technical advancement. This is stunning work done by much more than just a computer and a talented visual artist. The fact is that Andy Serkis is leading the way in a performance art that will be more and more common as time goes by… if we’re lucky. I have to admit that I was expecting more performances like this in the years following his equally-stellar work in “The Lord of the Rings,” but it hasn’t quite happened, as most mo-cap performances have flat-out failed to make a mark. You know why? Most actors can’t convey the truth of the character through the special effect in the way that Serkis does with Caesar, one of the most fully-realized characters of 2011. He’s riveting in every scene. Great performances are often the ones in which you can’t imagine anyone else doing the same thing with the same script and co-stars. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was one of the most entertaining films of 2011 and, decades from now, it will be Caesar who stands as one of the most memorable characters of the year.

THE WINNER

Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon in “Warrior”

Nick Nolte
Nick Nolte
Photo credit: Lionsgate

I’ll never understand why Lionsgate didn’t put more of their awards season energy behind this critical darling. Sure, it bombed at the box office, but the fact that it currently resides in the top 200 of all time on IMDB is a pretty strong indication that those who saw it loved it. I’ll tell you that it won’t be the last time you see it in these features (although this is the only “winner”). From his very first scene, the opener of the drama, Nolte completely tears down the potential cliché of a recovered alcoholic filled with regret. Paddy Conlon is a man who lives his life in a constant state of danger. One drink. One outburst with either of the sons whose life he destroyed. One false move and everything he’s worked for could fall apart. And Nolte goes a step further, adding a deep shade of sadness to his character. We’ve seen recovering alcoholics and abusers on film before, but rarely have we seen one so clearly aware that he probably doesn’t deserve redemption. He just wants to do what he can to keep going and help his sons as much as possible. Nolte gives one of the best performances of his notable career and easily the best supporting actor turn of 2011.

Click to page two for the Best Supporting Actress stand-outs of 2011.

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