In a new move for this blog, and as a complement to last week’s Top 10 Films of 2011, here are the Top Performances of 2011. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor, which was well and truly coming apart at the seams from so many great scene-stealing and buttressing performances last year. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.
Best Supporting Actress
Mila Kunis (Black Swan) Kunis for me is far more impressive than Portman as she swaggers thru the film as the bad-girl chain-smoking, imperfect but sensual, ballerina – Dionysus in flesh.
Amy Ryan (Win Win) Ryan is fantastic as a loving mother who takes in a teenage waif despite violent misgivings and whose reproaches of his mother equally belie her huge compassion.
Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin (Incendies) Her performance as Jeanne Marwan anchors the film as this ordinary Quebecois becomes ever more dogged in discovering her mother’s unknown life.
Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) Knightley’s bold decision to take the smallest role pays off as she plays cruel and manipulative perfectly before then making us comprehend and forgive her.
Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class, The Beaver) Lawrence has talent to burn, whether depicting real terror and moral indecision as Mystique or Norah’s arc from contemptuousness to compassion.
Hayley Atwell (Captain America) Atwell makes this movie work as well as it does, because if you didn’t believe the slow thaw of her imperious character, the ending wouldn’t be upsetting.
Elle Fanning (Super 8) Elle serves notice that she’s as good as big sis with a startlingly assured turn, the highlight of which is her turning on the star-power on cue for the awful amateur film.
Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, 50/50) Howard redeems herself after Eclipse as a preposterous flirt whose facade is demolished by Matt Damon’s medium, and an unreliable narcissist who fails the ailing Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his hour of need.
Melanie Lynskey (Win Win) Lynskey is tremendously ambiguous as the unreliable mother who loves her son but maybe perhaps loves getting her hands on his grandfather’s money even more.
Marion Cotillard (Little White Lies, Midnight in Paris) Cotillard fleshes out a wonderfully conflicted lover and friend in Little White Lies, and she’s rarely been as out and out charming as in Midnight in Paris.
Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)
Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris) “Who wants to fight?!” Stoll’s Hemingway is a joy; delivering his monologues in an abrupt monotone he’s terse, funny, wise, and (whisper it) warmly human.
Noah Taylor (Submarine) Taylor is hilarious as the disappointed by life father who is awkward to the point of insanity, but also subtly registers both his depression and his amazing compassion.
Liam Cunningham (The Guard) Cunningham is wonderful as the chief drug-dealer, trying to be reasonable when he doesn’t need to be; a show behind a different truth exemplified in his exit.
Mark Strong (The Guard) Strong doesn’t have that big a role, but he walks off with a number of superb scenes because of his hilariously snarling contempt for the idiots he’s working with.
Kurt Fuller (Midnight in Paris) Fuller was funny in Supernatural as Zachariah but here he takes a quantum leap with amazing delivery of great gags and one reaction shot that is just pure gold.
Jason Bateman (Paul) I’ve found Bateman to be stuck in a rut for a while now but this performance shakes things up with a comic abrasiveness that adds a new layer to his usual deadpan and timing.
Seth Rogen (50/50, Paul) Rogen added some nice dramatic depth to his usual clowning, but his reaction to the news that Swayze had not beat cancer is one of my favourite comedy moments of 2011.
Hans Morten Hansen (Troll Hunter) Hansen steals every scene he’s in as the hapless bureaucrat heading the Troll Security Service whose cover-up stories are getting steadily more ludicrous.
Alan Tudyk (Transformers 3) His performance as Turturro’s Dutch assistant is completely insane on every level, and makes no logical sense at all, but it will reduce you to paralytic laughter.
Best Supporting Actor (Drama)
Tom Hiddleston (Thor) Hiddleston totally upends this film by making you prefer his clever, sinuous Loki over the boorish Thor. This is a marker from an actor of great subtlety and wit.
Cillian Murphy (In Time) Ignore all the old soul in young body guff, Murphy is terrific because he invests Leon with a dogged sense of righteousness despite knowing he’s on the wrong side.
Colin Farrell (Fright Night) Farrell is gloriously over the top in this role; you can see him almost tasting his dialogue as he says it in certain scenes as he milks it for laughs and suspense.
George Clooney (The Ides of March) Clooney paints Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic, but perhaps he’s just a weasel at heart.
Maxim Gaudette (Incendies) Gaudette’s turn as the resistant twin Simon Marwan is crucial as his unwillingness to dig into the past and his later shock at what he finds stands in for the audience.
Anton Yelchin (The Beaver) Yelchin is fantastic in capturing the mixture of dread and anger that powers this character’s fear and hatred of his depressed father’s traits which may be his traits too.
Albert Brooks (Drive) Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his ‘nice’ mobster in a performance that is more terrifying because it’s so often quite charming.
Tommy Lee Jones (Captain America) Jones can do this sort of nonsense in his sleep but it looks like he’s woken up in order to really enjoy his great one-liners and fun cliché gruff soldier role.
Sebastian Armesto (Anonymous) His Ben Jonson is a wonderful creation; wise, funny, and yet capable of stunning betrayal when his ego is burnt by the success (fake and real) of Shakespeare and the Earl of Oxford.
Guy Pearce (King’s Speech, Justice) Pearce is immaculate as Edward VIII; nonchalant, wilful, narcissistic, irresponsible; and shows great range with his ruthless, rational, and psychotic villain Simon in Justice.
Lubna Azabal (Incendies) Azabal plays Nawal Marwan, the dead mother whose life we uncover in flashback, and is amazing in keeping the audience’s sympathy with this victim, even as she becomes a perpetrator of violence, due to her defiant air and remarkably independent spirit.
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Mara perfectly embodies Lisbeth Salander in the detached delivery of dialogue and the perverse code of honour. She seems at points to be able to change her very size; tiny and delicate when being victimised, and then long-limbed and terrifying when revenging.
Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) Wasikowska is almost unrecognisable from her Alice, and her Jane is wonderfully nuanced; there’s a great fire and determination behind the submissive exterior.
Evan Rachel Wood (Ides of March) Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock amazing to watch as her seductive facade just crumbles.
Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) Blunt manages to take what could be a manic pixie dream girl role and invest it with some realism as she’s charming and funny but also pragmatically aloof.
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) Holding her own against Bridges and Damon she’s very impressive.
Amy Adams (The Fighter) Adams superbly brings a lot of hard toughness to her usual warmth.
Olivia Wilde Thirteen (Cowboys & Aliens) Thirteen does enigmatic very well as the woman who fell to earth.
Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) Fassbender turns his gleefulness into dark charisma to make his globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik a dark superhero capable of retaining audience sympathy even if he kills people. The philosophy that Magneto represents is thus given incredibly persuasive flesh.
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) Shannon is incredibly subtle handling the cognitive dissonance of a man taking risky actions to safeguard against an apocalypse only he has foreknowledge of, while also tackling the possibility that it’s merely his inherited schizophrenia manifesting itself.
Francois Cluzet (Little White Lies) Max’s nervous breakdown at the hands of elusive weasels and unwanted gay crushes is epically entertaining but Cluzet is able to do dramatic catharsis too.
Mel Gibson (The Beaver) A bravura performance that’s oddly humble. You hardly look at his face, and his vocal performance as the Beaver is spectacular; jumping from charming to menacing in a sentence.
Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) Gleeson is hysterically funny as a deranged guard whose ethical compass, despite all the drugs and prostitutes, still points true north when his partner is killed.
Rhys Ifans (Anonymous) A rare thoughtful performance from Ifans as the 17th Earl of Oxford, the real writer of Shakespeare’s plays. He convinces as a learned renaissance man of great wisdom and an incredibly passionate soul.
Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Craig is perfect casting as Mikael Blomqvist. He nails the ethical integrity and the womanising charm and wonderfully plays against type when called upon by the plot to be physically brave.
Otto Jespersen (Troll Hunter) Jespersen is wonderful as Hans the Troll Hunter. He finds much mordant comedy in essaying a man who is equal parts battle-weary and still stoically efficient.