Film Feature: The Best Lead Performances of 2011

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CHICAGO – Yesterday, we brought you some of the most engaging and memorable supporting performances of 2011. As much as I love some of the acting work in that feature, it’s nothing compared to the talent on display below. The fact is that the Best Actor and Best Actress categories this year are arguably more crowded than ever, with an amazing number of performances that will be remembered for years to come. My runner-ups, in both categories, could have easily beaten most other years’ top five lead nominees. It actually pains me to list some of them outside this year’s top five, but we’ve had an embarrassment of riches in 2011. What an amazing year for acting.

The Best Actor Performances of 2011

There is a staggering level of variety and depth on display in this list of performances from some of the best working actors today. I loved the sheer range we saw this year - the willingness to push audience expectations or the willingness to dig deeper and offer new shades, new kinds of performances that we hadn’t seen before. Great actors like George Clooney and Brad Pitt didn’t exactly break away from their audience expectations in 2011, but rather used them to give arguably the most complex performances of their career. There were also a number of extremely strong lead actor performances this year that were clearly the work of men inspired by some of our best directors, whether it was Banderas returning to Almodovar, Wilson finally returning from comedy hell to work with Woody, Damon vibing with Crowe, Craig proving perfect casting for Fincher, or DiCaprio proving skeptics wrong for Eastwood. But they were all runner-ups. Like I said, it was an amazing year.

Before we get to the best of the best, a wide array of notable runner-ups deserve mention, including Antonio Banderas in “The Skin I Live In,” Bradley Cooper in “Limitless,” Brendan Gleeson in “The Guard,” Christoph Waltz in “Carnage,” Clive Owen in “Trust,” Daniel Craig in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Hunter McCracken in “The Tree of Life,” J.K. Simmons in “The Music Never Stopped,” Jake Gyllenhaal in “Source Code,” Joel Courteney in “Super 8,” Joel Edgerton in “Warrior,” Lambert Wilson in “Of Gods and Men,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar,” Matt Damon in “We Bought a Zoo,” Mel Gibson in “The Beaver,” Michael Fassbender in “Jane Eyre” & “X-Men: First Class,” Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris,” Paul Giamatti in “Win Win,” Peter Mullan in “Tyrannosaur,” Ryan Gosling in “The Ides of March,” and Woody Harrelson in “Rampart.”

Runner-Ups (#6-10; in alphabetical order): Demian Bichir in “A Better Life”; Jean Dujardin in “The Artist”; Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “50/50”; Ryan Gosling in “Drive”; and Tom Hardy in “Warrior.”

MY FIVE NOMINEES FOR BEST LEAD ACTOR:

George Clooney as Matt King in “The Descendants”

George Clooney
George Clooney
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Can cynical critics stop pretending that Mr. Clooney isn’t one of our best working actors? There seems to be a bias against people who started on TV, which makes their mountain path to critical recognition much harder to climb and, when I tell people that the star of “Michael Clayton,” “Syriana,” “Solaris,” and “The American” would easily make my list of today’s best actors, I often get a raised eyebrow. There’s also a sense that dashing leading men never get the recognition they deserve, and Clooney certainly reminds me of Cary Grant in that regard, an actor often seen as a marquee topper but not the versatile genius that he actually was. With all that in mind, I think this may be Clooney’s best work to date. Emotionally deep but not clichéd, realistic at every turn, Clooney perfectly sells Matt King as someone in the moment. You can see him listening, thinking, and responding in ways that actors often don’t do. He’s always completely in the moment. He may win another Oscar for this one and, if he does, I won’t be upset.

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman
Photo credit: Focus

One of our best living actors has been undeniably typecast in the last few years due to his larger-than-life personality and so it makes it somewhat more special that the performance he considers the best of his career is so understated and refined. George Smiley is the kind of character that an actor dreams of playing – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone but Oldman could have delivered. Perhaps the greatest actor to never have been nominated for an Oscar takes the subtle road with Smiley, perfectly portraying a man dedicated to his country and his craft. Oldman’s work here is so subdued that people might mistake it for less than his typical output. It’s not until the days and weeks after, when you can’t shake Oldman’s face or the saga of George Smiley, that one realizes that the small decisions he made here lasted long beyond the film’s running time.

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in “Moneyball”

Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt
Photo credit: Sony

Speaking of internal monologue, few actors were required to play one as completely as Pitt in “Moneyball,” his dream project realized. I joked with Jonah Hill that there probably wasn’t another script in 2011 that featured as many pages with shots describing different ways to present a protagonist thinking. The daring thing about Bennett Miller’s film (and Pitt deserves credit for guiding and supporting the decision as a producer as well) is the director’s refusal to externalize what is basically a very cerebral film. So many actors and directors would have given Billy Beane a few monologues about what he was thinking as he took massive risks to make his team competitive, but Brad Pitt was willing to do what so many other actors refuse to do — play a complex, realistic man through subtle decisions instead of broad dialogue. This character is full, well-rounded, and completely believable, not just another notch in Pitt’s resume, but arguably the best performance of his career.

Michael Shannon as Curtis in “Take Shelter”

Michael Shannon
Michael Shannon
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Michael Shannon playing another crazy guy. Surprise, surprise. Seriously, I kind of avoided the buzz for Shannon’s work in this Sundance darling because it felt too familiar. We’ve seen this unusual actor play slightly demented before. But never like this. In, what is actually, one of Shannon’s most restrained performances to date, the actor easily delivers the best work of his career, playing the humanity instead of the potential insanity. There’s a delicate balance in this character as he’s keenly aware that he’s facing only two awful possibilities in his life — either the visions he’s been having are prophetic and the world will soon end or he’s just going crazy. Shannon plays the sadness of a family man caught in a situation that has no easy conclusion and gives one of the most memorable performances of 2011, second only to…

THE WINNER

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in “Shame”

Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Fearless. It’s the word I keep thinking of it when it comes to Fassbender’s work in “Shame.” Totally f**king fearless. And it’s not just the well-publicized nudity, although baring yourself so completely certainly takes a level of confidence that would have killed this project in pre-production for most actors. It’s the emotional rawness of Fassbender’s work that makes it the best of the year, without question. Brandon is a complex guy. He’s not the traditional sex addict as the role is often portrayed. There are no clammy hands or tattered raincoats. He not only passes at work, but he’s the guy at the bar that most women want to go home with. How do you play that? How do you play the confident addict when you don’t have the tricks of addiction, the broad behavior on which to fall back? Fassbender is devastating in the third act collapse of this character, but he’s almost more remarkable before that, as just an average guy with a serious addiction but one that has yet to really derail him from anything he’s desired. In a year filled with stunningly subtle performances, it’s the minor beats and the small choices that this incredible actor made during the production of “Shame” that earned him the title of Best Actor of 2011. As noted, this category is insanely crowded this year. If the Academy follows suit with SAG and doesn’t recognize this performance, you can probably predict what will top my Oscar Snubs piece in a few weeks’ time.

Click on to the second page for the Best Actress performances of 2011…

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