best of 2011

David Edelstein’s Favorite Performances From 2011

Ewan MacGregor (Beginners), Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), and Viola Davis (The Help), to name but three. Photo: Focus Features, Roadside Attractions, DreamWorks

Given that my space in the print version of this magazine is cruelly limited, I wasn’t able to write about my favorite performances of 2011, as well as some of the runners-up on my ten-best list — and, because I’m such an animal lover, a few dogs. Here are some odds and bodkins.

This is the first year in more than a decade in which I couldn’t pick a “best” film, but one for which I have particular affection is Mike Mills’s Beginners, which is the Tree of Life of romantic comedies — Mills even gestures all the way back to the world’s first unhappy couple. Ewan McGregor is the hero and floored me with the melancholy soulfulness of his voice, which must have been doubly difficult given his British roots. Melanie Laurent makes a deliciously pretty and unstable mate in a role that isn’t entirely filled-in, and, speaking of unstable, Goran Visnjic portrays the father’s youngish lover as both adorable and scary. As that father, Christopher Plummer, whom Kenneth Tynan dubbed “a saturnine young actor” as the Devil in J.B. and who can be as suavely menacing as any actor alive, is light and enchanted, liberated even with cancer after a life of cloaking his sexuality. A marvelous film!

Also rich in repression is Rodrigo Garcia’s extraordinary Albert Nobbs, about which I haven’t yet written. (Many films open for one week in New York and L.A. to qualify for awards and go away for a month — it’s annoying, although I sympathize with the distributors.) I’m not sure what Glenn Close is playing — “Albert” is nothing like any woman I’ve seen and yet is too sexually ambiguous to signal “man” — but she is very moving. What comes through is how unsafe she feels in any gender role, but safer in trousers. Janet McTeer is equally fascinating as a woman far more settled in her masculinity. Are they “gay”? I don’t think the word applies. In turn-of-the-century Irish novelist George Moore’s world, they are more secure (and able to support themselves in a grim economy) in a gender-neutral world of their own making.

Kenneth Lonnergan’s Margaret (shot five years ago, released now in the midst of a legal battle) is a badly photographed shambles, but there’s enough great stuff in it to suggest that his rumored much-longer cut might actually work. In any case, Anna Paquin (looking nothing like her de-baby-fatted self of 2011), gives one of the year’s bravest and most eloquent performances as a teenager trying to make sense of a horrific accident and its aftermath — and taking so many wrong steps along the way that you want to yell at the screen to protect her.

In Tyrannosaur, Olivia Coleman hits astounding notes of anguish as a grievously damaged woman, and Peter Mullan is the perfect degenerate straight man. (Would any actor be able to win the audience’s sympathy after kicking a dog to death in his first scene? Mullan does.)

Nothing Jessica Chastain did this year can touch her performance in Dan Ireland’s Jolene, which was made in 2008 and not released until last year, but the range of her characters (in six films!) suggests her limitless potential. Consider Take Shelter, in which she has the relatively passive role of a wife watching her husband (the ever-febrile Michael Shannon) self-destruct for no clear reason. She holds the screen and then some.

Felicity Jones in the harrowing Like Crazy is beguilingly mad (and beguiling when sane, too). Tom Hardy suggests why he belongs in the pantheon of hurting heartthrobs in both the underrated Warrior and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In the former, let’s call out Joel Edgerton as Hardy’s estranged brother turned opponent and Nick Nolte as their guilt-ravaged father. In the latter, Gary Oldman as George Smiley holds his own against (although doesn’t replace) Alec Guinness, and Benedict Cumberbatch — he of the cool name and odd but likable physiognomy — is terrific as Smiley’s second-in-command (one of many of the film’s closeted gays).

Let’s raise a toast to the whole cast of Margin Call, among them Kevin Spacey in his best performance in years, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons (Boris Karloff would be envious), Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart, Demi Moore. While on the subject of money, hats off to Brad Pitt in Moneyball — and also The Tree of Life, in which his performance is just as fine.

Owen Wilson is extraordinary in Midnight in Paris, his own spacey California rhythms doing wonders for Woody Allen’s gripes, and Corey Stoll is the most enchantingly pugilistic Ernest Hemingway imaginable.

Cheers to Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland, and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia and, speaking of Gainsbourgs, Eric Elmosnino in the title role of Gainsbourg. Ralph Fiennes went out in glory as both Voldemort in the final, excellent Harry Potter installment and in the title role of his directorial debut Coriolanus (along with Brian Cox, Gerard Butler, and Vanessa Redgrave).

Viola Davis deserves every one of her plaudits for not going soft on her character in The Help. Cameron Diaz is adorably anti-adorable in Bad Teacher. Charlize Theron’s aging-alpha-girl alcoholic is the only reason to subject yourself to another round with Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman in Young Adult. Julia Roberts is a great brittle bitch in Larry Crowne (say what you will, it wasn’t that bad). On the more ingratiating end of the spectrum, Emma Stone gets the Miss Congeniality Prize in Crazy, Stupid Love and Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Bobby Cannavale win the Most Congenial Ensemble prize for Win Win.

Albert Brooks is fun as the knife-wielding gangster in Drive, although our affection for his usual ultravulnerable persona is surely the reason for all the awards he’s getting.

To hell with all of you who thought Your Highness sucked. It was funny and Justin Theroux as the evil wizard was ingenious.

Streep, again. I’ve had my say on her performance here.

Hail Andy Serkis for his face and body in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and his voice in The Adventures of Tintin! Is he deserving of, say, a gold statuette? Hard to say. Other artists enhance his raw material at every turn. But what raw material. Is it fair that there’s no way to honor him apart from encomiums like this and a lot of money for his services? Sadly, no.

My big runners-up for the old imperfect ten-best list: Incendies, Three Backyards, Poetry, Buck, Higher Ground, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Kaboom!, Passione, Certified Copy, and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.

All this affection for The Artist is peculiar. It’s charming and way overlong (where is Harvey Scissorhands when you need him?) and doesn’t make much internal sense. (Does he refuse to talk because of his impenetrable French accent?) Drive is the other inexplicable object of affection: genre swill with art-house pretensions that features, like The Dark Knight, a hero with samurailike skills who is also God’s Loneliest Man. In other words, fanboy bait.

My hats off to those who love The Tree of Life, in which Terrence Malick invents his own cinematic syntax to create a kind of Transcendentalist church pageant about the creation of the universe and the fall of man. Just don’t call me a philistine if I find it shapeless and underdramatized and the climax weirdly truncated. I’m not surprised to hear that Malick would like to rework it for a six-and-a-half-hour director’s cut: You could pretty much replace any shot in it with something else …

Worst of the year? Jack and Jill was excruciating but The Hangover Part II was more noxious. I’d see both again, though, before subjecting myself once more to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, one of the most rudderless things I’ve ever seen. (I don’t care how much money it made.) More of the worst: Straw Dogs, The Rite, No Strings Attached. For bad laughs, it’s tough to beat the Sarah Palin hagiography The Undefeated. (Would Andrew Breitbart qualify for a worst-performance Razzie?)

This was not a bad year in film, but I do envy my TV-critic colleagues. For tragic drama, nothing in movies could touch the last third of the season of Breaking Bad, from Gus’s flashback to his jaw-dropping end. And for comedy and horror, there was nothing on the big screen as hilarious or as chilling as the Republican presidential primary debates. Brace yourself for 2012.

David Edelstein’s Favorite Performances From 2011