*This article was previously published in the January 2011 issue of ICON Magazine. It has been republished with permission.
The Oscars are coming! And though there will be plenty of terrific nominees, there are bound to be some who don't deserve to sit at the big kids' table (that means you, Glenn Close). The Oscars need an ideal ballot, packed with films and performances that truly packed a wallop. Herewith is that ballot, primed and ready for Academy consideration: (* indicates winner)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain, The Debt
One certainly had his fair share of great Jessica Chastain performances to choose from this year, which could quite easily be dubbed The Year of Jessica Chastain. Can anyone remember another recent instance when a superb actor blew up so rapidly and so completely? In 2011, Chastain appeared in The Help, The Tree of Life, Coriolanus, Take Shelter, and The Debt, gracing each with a level of thespian artistry that left scads of filmgoers asking, “Who IS that girl?” While her bubbly contribution to The Help ranks a close second, Chastain's work in The Debt takes top placement, if only because the 30-year-old redhead so vividly outshines everything around her. Playing a spy who's after a Nazi war criminal, she's got beauty, instincts, and steely conviction to burn.
Viola Davis, The Help
Though being campaigned for lead actress, Viola Davis in fact turns in a supporting performance in The Help, and winds up supporting the whole film with her surprisingly nuanced dimension. Playing a maid whose scarred history prompts her to help a plucky white journo pen a book about maids' experiences, Davis deeply enriches the popular story with her believably world-weary face, giving her character a palpable past not so much with words, but expressions. It's the kind of insightful work that allowed this goes-down-easy movie to transcend accusations of backhanded racism.
*Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia
Kirsten Dunst's fine turn in Lars von Trier's Melancholia may be the one netting all the good ink, but it's von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg who truly rattles you to the bone. Playing the level-headed sister to Dunst's unstable depressive, Gainsbourg becomes the character who loses it most tragically as the world comes to an end, unforgettably crumbling into despair―as so many of us would. Down to the last blinding moment, she is searingly, devastatingly great, embodying an upstanding, “normal” woman who just cannot accept that it is, once and for all, time to go.
Carey Mulligan, Shame
Matching beat for beat Michael Fassbender's stunning performance as a sex addict, Carey Mulligan's work in Shame (as Fassbender's character's troubled, nomadic sister) introduces a whole new facet of her ever-rising star―a desperate, unglamorous side that presents a challenge for which the actress is very much game. Her heated and subtext-ridden encounters with her co-star are just as riveting as her much-discussed rendition of “New York, New York,” which she hauntingly croons in a strange, telling, and lingeringly gorgeous scene.
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Previously known only for the ABC Family schmaltz-fest The Secret Life of the American Teenager, 20-year-old Shailene Woodley breaks out in a big way in The Descendants, playing the oldest daughter of George Clooney's distraught dad in a matter that makes you feel as though you're interrupting an actual adolescent's very real life. It's not easy for a young actor to erase every ounce of truth-crippling self-consciousness, but Woodley does it, her work as a fiery 17-year-old as authentic in its bitchery as it is in its undeniable pain. The Descendants is a film oft-distinguished by characters' private anguish, and Woodley makes that anguish feel so private it seems to be the actress's own.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Albert Brooks, Drive
Not long ago, if anyone were to have speculated what Albert Brooks's next project would be, surely very few would have thought, “an eerily ruthless Hollywood gangster who nonchalantly bleeds people dry with straight razors and butcher knives.” But there you have it, and longtime awkward comedian Brooks is so suavely fantastic in his unnerving role that it may just be the one that comes to define his later career. Villains are always more effective (which is to say terrifying) when they exert their malice with very little effort, a sly technique to match their minimal human concern. Brooks makes good on his inspired casting (which is to say he's very, very bad).
Robert Forster, The Descendants
An underrated, underused actor who never disappoints, Robert Forster, like Shailene Woodley, plays a character in The Descendants who invites only the audience to share in his emotional hurt, and Forster makes that pain terribly real and intimate. As the largely unlikable father of George Clooney's character's comatose wife, Forster is tasked to make curmudgeonly ignorance endearing, and he more than leaps the hurdle, bringing pathos to a man whose outwardly strong, but inwardly dying right along with his unrevivable daughter.
Bruce Greenwood, Meek's Cutoff
Largely hidden behind a mess of a beard and beneath a shadow-casting cowboy hat, Bruce Greenwood doesn't have much room to make an impression as the titular, tunnel-visioned tour guide of Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff. So it's something of a small miracle that he's able to put forth such an indelible performance, shaping a striking figure of small-minded bigotry whose role in this volumes-speaking American saga keenly implies so many of his ilk, who are making pivotal, misguided decisions to this very day.
*Rhys Ifans, Anonymous
Another funnyman given the chance to don a dramatic persona, Notting Hill star Rhys Ifans is superb in the deliciously overcooked, history-challenging costume drama Anonymous, which begs the question, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” (call it a “Shakespiracy”). If indeed he was, the film purports that Ifans's urbane duke was the real man behind the masterpieces, a cheeky, brilliant, and privately tormented aristocrat who handed off his work to a simpleton who hoarded all the credit. While it's not a leading role, Ifans proves immensely capable of carrying a film, bringing a kind of metrosexual sophistication to an individual of inherent interest. The film is silly, but he's seriously first-rate.
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
For director David Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen has played a killer without a past (A History of Violence) and a fearsome Russian gangster (Eastern Promises). In Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, he takes on Sigmund Freud, of all people, and instills in the psychology godfather a sense of dry humor nearly as strong as his sense of personal motivations. Never better at disappearing into a character, Mortensen gives what could deservedly be called the definitive Freud performance. He owns every seasoned observation, every contemplative puff of that omnipresent cigar.
Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is likely the year's most beguiling enigma, a stroll-on-the-street, Tuscany-set tale featuring two people who one assumes to be strangers until they evolve to seem as though they've been a couple for years. A good deal of the film's mystery is emitted from Juliette Binoche's incredible face, which is often looking directly at the camera as it shifts through a plethora of emotions (not to mention multiple languages). Becoming deeply enveloped in poignant exchanges with this man, whose rapport with her may just be an elaborate bit of playacting, Binoche's character feels strikingly genuine, and the actress lets you happily take part in the illusion.
*Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
The most revelatory performance of 2011 came from comedienne (!) Olivia Colman, whose wrenching turn as a religious shopkeeper in Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur would be gobbling up awards if more people actually saw the film. Both heartbreakingly fragile and secretly capable of fierce self-defense (a fact whose unveiling just about sends your jaw to the floor), Colman's character gradually takes center stage in a movie ostensibly about a man, and to say the actress steals the show doesn't even scratch the surface of her impact. Playing the perpetually bruised slave of an abusive husband, her desperate, climactic breakdown is the year's single greatest actorly moment.
Yoon Jeong-hee, Poetry
In Poetry, a 66-year-old woman takes control of her life at a point when most would lose it: the moment she's diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Gracefully and beautifully, she begins to champion the values of vitality and justice, and Yoon Jeong-hee, in her first role since 1994, very quietly steals your heart away in her empathetic, understated approach to the character. As a part of a class in which she tries to challenge herself creatively, poetry becomes the woman's tool to access the depths of feeling she'd previous left uncultivated, and it only makes sense that Jeong-hee's work is highly poetic, too.
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
With her work in The Iron Lady, one of many films this year to be little more than a vessel for a powerhouse performance (see below), Meryl Streep all but grabs you by the shirt collar and pulls you at the screen. As Margaret Thatcher, the Oscar queen unleashes the fury and the sensitivity, too, fearlessly conveying what's made so many regard Thatcher as an irredeemable monster, and just as grippingly endowing her with admirable strength of character. What lingers is Streep's capacity of convincing you of just about anything, a skill that reflects the scary breadth of not just one unflagging woman, but conservative politicians at large.
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
That irresistible shimmy. That infectious, familiar giggle. Those little-girl-lost eyes. Few things induced more movie bliss this year than Michelle Williams's interpretation of Marilyn Monroe, a performance that creates as much a sense of discovery as it does nostalgia. Playing three versions of the same woman (private, downward-spiral Marilyn; public sexpot Marilyn; struggling-actor Marilyn performing in The Prince and the Showgirl), Williams uses her unendingly exciting talents to build an entire complex persona, who may be one of the most famous movie stars in history, but, thanks to one of the current best, is rendered only human.
*Michael Fassbender, Shame
What Michael Fassbender brings to Shame certainly isn't on the page. He injects his sex addict with an astounding supply of brewing disgust, insatiable desire, repressed rage, and crushing, accumulating despair. Where did it all come from? It's amazing to watch if just for how completely it carries the material onto another lofty plane, a plane somewhere out in actor-lovers' heaven. The work is gaining press for Fassbender's ample full-frontal nudity, but that's hardly where the courage of this performance lies. It's the actor's willingness to take a swan dive into every last ugly trait of an addict that leaves you feeling spent.
Hamish Linklater, The Future
Certainly the least talked-about performance on this list, Hamish Linklater's work in Miranda July's The Future is nonetheless exemplary, an affectingly intuitive expression of July's unique writing, and a true, yet idiosyncratic, take on thirtysomething uncertainty. One half of a couple who, in choosing to adopt a cat, proceed to face every fear they've ever had of turning the page, Linklater's good-natured character becomes a suitable avatar for any man even close to his age, and his arduous tog of war with the moon (yes, the moon) is one of the great struggles of 2011 cinema.
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
In tackling the iconic role of super-sleuth George Smiley, Gary Oldman wisely chose to play it extraordinarily cool, and in doing so has crafted one of the very best performances of his lengthy career. Through long stretches of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the grayed, bespectacled actor does not speak, merely hovering around each scene like a well-dressed watchdog. But when he does offer dialogue, you most surely listen, to that singular accent, that rich articulation, and that thrilling commitment to character that's always been present in his work. At least two of Oldmans's scenes boast bits of the year's most unforgettable acting greatness, one of which sees him peer right out at you in an unbroken, unshakable monologue.
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Brad Pitt has never been better than he is in Moneyball, and that's no hyperbole. As one of the great heartthrobs of our time, Pitt, like many such stars, has had to struggle to ditch the pretty-boy image and dig into a character's skin. With visible wrinkles and a near-complete dismissal of vanity, he finally clinches his goal as Oakland A's coach Billy Beane, a man whose skin he wears so comfortably, one can't help but smile at the effortless transformation. That said, this is far from just a skin-deep portrayal, as Pitt taps directly into what makes this man tick―his demons, his hopes, his drive, and most importantly, his flaws.
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
There is perhaps no other working actor better at playing mentally-plagued characters than Michael Shannon, who tops a list of lauded turns in films like Bug and Revolutionary Road with his work in Take Shelter, an ambiguously apocalyptic drama that casts him as a man whose biblical-plague visions begin to dismantle his life. Never do Shannon's tactics of portraying the unhinged feel put-on; he's always able to muster something creepily believable, and here, he pairs it with the relevant anguish of a man whose all-too-familiar paranoia about what's coming feeds a vicious cycle that threatens his livelihood. He's the mentally frayed poster boy of the new American nightmare.
Tomas Alfredson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Nearly everyone will walk out of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at least a little perplexed, as the film offers no handrail with which to guide you through its cryptic, twisty, cloak-and-dagger plot. But surely no one will be unclear about the film's absolutely impeccable craftsmanship, which favors muted colors, gorgeous compositions, and perfectly mounted sequences that occasionally culminate with throat-grabbing visual zingers (Alfredson also helmed the Swedish dazzler Let the Right One In). It's practically impossible to imagine someone offering a finer visualization of John le Carré's classic novel, as this one is a model of old-school style, editorial panache, smart suspense and cool restraint.
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Kudos to Michel Hazanavicius for valiantly pushing forward with his infectious beaut of a film, The Artist, which was most certainly met with a red light from multiple studios. His silent, black-and-white Hollywood homage is as much a current commentary as it is a romantic throwback, taking on the subject of technology's merciless march in about as dreamy a way as one could imagine. The film unfolds delightfully, gaining momentum and universal appeal with each new charming sequence, and the humor is in perfect step with the knowing drama, which finds gravity in both intimacy and relevance. However transparently a crowd-pleaser, The Artist is highly unique―and utterly lovable.
Miranda July, The Future
No one working in film today has a vision for quirk like Miranda July, whose weird ways are always tied to a very real emotion, rather than a cheap attempt at random, look-at-me coolness. With The Future, a clearly personal project that serves as the natural follow-up to her inimitable debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, July contemplates the mid-30s plight of...nearing 40, and in effect constructs a highly individual, yet very universal, tale that explores the resonant fear of what's to come and the meaning of strong relationships. In a way, it's an art-installation version of The Big Chill, warmed up for the young and modern culturati.
Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
No filmmaker this year showed more complete, down-to-the-last detail control of his production than Nicolas Winding Refn, whose crazy-tacky-cool thriller Drive has its director's signature on everything, right down to the hotel wallpaper. The setpieces, camerawork, editing, pacing, polish, sound, and tone of this film are all immaculate, a feast of style that more than makes up for the film's decided lack of substance (its relative hollowness is part of the point). This movie is catnip for formalists, and it should be added to the required-viewing pile for up-and-coming filmmakers.
*Lars von Trier, Melancholia
No one can grip and shake a viewer the way Lars von Trier can. Regardless of what he feeds to the media in his second role as provocateur, the Danish master serves up art films with more shattering visceral power than many helmsmen can muster in a whole career. With his masterpiece Melancholia, von Trier channels his much-ballyhooed depression into a soul-scouring meditation on the end of the world, which, as a process as steadily invasive as personal melancholy, is rendered with spectacular, fall-to-your-knees awe. His worldview may not be the sunniest, but his ability to scan and exploit the dark corners of man's condition make him an unexpected humanist.
A silent valentine to cinema that's hilarious and romantic, and doubles as an industry barometer.
A wonderfully intimate look at family and grief that boasts one of the year's best scripts.
A small masterpiece of craft that features a modern-day hero hidden beneath a shield of apathy.
An artful meditation on young aging, monogamy, success, existentialism, romance and cats.
A stark and brilliant western whose expansive canvas holds unspoken insights on race, gender, politics, maybe even the whole of American history.
The jewel in a year apocalyptic tales, which almost convinces you that, sometimes, when things spin so far out of control, it's better to just wipe the slate clean.
A heartbreaking tale of taking control of one's destiny at any age, and finding artistic inspiration in doing what's right―for oneself and others.
An astonishingly tight tale of inflammatory relationships, whose micro focus holds great macro implications, depicting the massive ripple effect of poor choices and the dehumanization of societal rules.
As potent a socio-economic allegory as any in recent memory, the film thrives on both ambiguity and plainspoken drama, centering on a man living in a world where nothing, and everything, is wrong.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A beautifully made spy thriller if ever there was one, and the cleverest of two in-vogue subgenres: the corporate thriller and the home-invasion nail-biter.
To check out last year's picks, CLICK HERE.