I would have been happy to include any of my top 8 choices in the top five “Oscar slots” this year, but there just wasn’t room. A fairly strong year for this category.
Runners-Up: Demian Bichar in A Better Life, Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre, Paul Giamatti in Win Win, Brendan Gleason in The Guard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50, Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March, Tom Hardy in Warrior, Woody Harrelson in Rampart, Peyman Moaadi in A Separation, Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur, Cristi Puiu in Aurora, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.
10. Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method
Michael Fassbender had a great year, and his work in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, while great, isn’t even his best. Here, he plays Carl Jung, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, who will take Freud’s theories farther than he ever did – and then he’ll cross a line. Strangely, the movie reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, and Fassbender’s work here deserves comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Archer – a repressed man, who wants what he cannot have, and tries, hopelessly, to repress it. Keira Knightley goes over the top, Viggo Mortenson has a lot of fun, but Fassbender quietly delivers the films finest performance.
9. Jean Dujardin in The Artist
You have to give credit to Jean Dujardin, who was gutsy enough to take the lead role in a silent, black and white film. He was most likely cast because he has the right look – I had no trouble believing that he was silent action star – but Dujardin goes a little bit deeper than that as well. Yes, he throws himself into the comedy of the movie – and does a wonderful job with it – but he also embraces the melodramatic side. In effect, he has to do three distinct styles of silent movie acting – the over the top action sequences for his film, the deft physical comedy, and the heartbreaking melodrama. That he attempted it means he’s brave. That he pulled it off means he’s brilliant.
8. Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar
Playing J. Edgar Hoover from his early days at the Bureau of Investigation right up until his death could not have been an easy task for DiCaprio, and yet he absolutely nails it. As the older Hoover, covered in makeup, DiCaprio never loses his grip on the character – never allows the makeup to do the work for him. He is a man obsessed with secrets, his own and everyone else’s, and he destroys others lives, while trying to get what he wants. He is a man who loves three people in his life, and cannot sleep with any of them, but needs them close to him. The rest of the cast are not very well defined, but DiCaprio who is the heart of every scene carries the movie. He elevates the entire film. More proof that DiCaprio really is one of the best actors of his generation.
7. Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus
When I think about Fiennes’ performance in his own directorial debut, Coriolanus, it is his eyes that come to mind first. When engaged in battle – against his enemies either on the battlefield or the political arena – they take on a wildness, a rage, almost an insanity. Later, when he has lost everything, and is seeking revenge, his eyes have gone cold and dead – remorseless. Yet, throughout, all he has to do is look at his domineering mother, and his eyes melt, and he becomes a little boy once more. Yes, Fiennes handles Shakespeare’s dialogue expertly, but unlike some actors when he delivers those lines, he doesn’t seem like he’s reading in class – but that he’s feeling every word. This is Fiennes’ best work in years.
6. Michael Shannon in Take Shelter
Michael Shannon has been a rising star for a few years now – the strange, gung ho military man in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (far and away the highlight of the movie), the paranoid veteran in William Friedkin’s underrated Bug, the insane truth teller in Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols’ debut film Shotgun Stories, about two warring sets of brothers were all great performances. But in Take Shelter he outdoes himself, even while he still has the same trademark intensity, and paranoid ramblings he has become known before. Shannon is not repeating himself, but he is doing variations on a theme. He anchors Take Shelter with his performance, and lets us get inside his head, until we are as paranoid as he is. A great performance by one of the best actors working.
5. Ryan Gosling in Drive
Ryan Gosling begins Drive as a blank slate, which is precisely what leads Carey Mulligan to project her needs onto him – and because he loves her, he becomes whatever she needs on a scene to scene basis. Yes, Gosling barely says a word throughout the movie – he doesn’t need to, as he is a man of action, not words. But watch his performance as it takes on one dimension after another as the movie goes along, from sensitive confidant, into avenging hero; this is actually one of the most complex performances of the year. Shame so many seemed to have missed that.
4. George Clooney in The Descendants
Clooney gives his best, most multilayered performance in Alexander Payne’s deft comedy/drama. He plays a lawyer reeling from the revelation that his comatose wife was having an affair – and he is determined to track down the man she was cheating on him with to deliver the news. This is not altruism on his part, but curiosity, and a way to avoid dealing with his feelings about pulling the plug – not to mention the big real estate deal he has to close. Ultimately however, his performance tracks this man as he changes – grows closer to his daughters, becoming a real parent for the first time. Yes, Clooney turns on the charm here, and as always, he can be as funny as anyone else. But his performance has more heart than anyone else’s this year. Clooney continues to evolve as an actor in interesting ways.
3. Brad Pitt in Moneyball
At first, Brad Pitt’s performance as Billy Beane, Oakland A’s GM, seems like it’s going to be another one of his movie star performances, where he exudes charm and humor – and there’s nothing wrong with that, as Pitt does that better than nearly anyone else around right now. But as the movie goes along, Pitt’s performance takes on different elements – anger and resentment at his own stalled career, and how no one seems to want to listen to him, obsession over whether or not he’s ruined his career, and nervousness as he stalks around the clubhouse during the games. There is also a surprising, and welcome, emotional element in the sweet relationship between Beane and his daughter. Pitt is such a fine actor, and he does exude such charm in this movie, that’s easy to overlook just how complex it really is.
2. Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman is very still throughout much of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – his George Smiley spends more time listening and thinking than talking. Hidden behind huge glasses that distort his face, Oldman keeps an even keel throughout the whole movie – only raising his voice once. But this is far from a one note performance. Watch Oldman in his stillness and see what masterful, subtle acting is going on behind those huge glasses. The centerpiece of his performance is inarguably the scene where he looks directly into the camera and describes his meeting with Karla years before. In that scene all of Smiley’s doubts, all of his moral ambiguity comes out in full force. Oldman delivers a subtle, sly tour-de-force in this movie.
1. Michael Fassbender in Shame
In my mind, the best performance in any category this year was Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Steve McQueen’s examination of sex addiction, and the sins of the past haunting the present. Brandon seems to have it all – a good job, good looks and a constant stream of women in his life. He keeps everything compartmentalized until his sister shows up, and throws him into a tailspin of shame and despair. Fassbender’s back-story is not explained, but hinted at. Fassbender does a brilliant job with this role, often wordlessly conveying the complex feelings running through Brandon’s head, as he breaks down again and again, until finally, he goes on a bender to end the film that is the most painful one I can imagine. This was the year Fassbender truly broke out, became star in many people’s eyes, even though he delivered a number of great performances before this year (Hunger, Inglorious Basterds, Eden Lake, Fish Tank). With his work in Shame, not to mention A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre and X-Men: First Class, Fassbender proved himself to be one of the great actors of his generation. This is his finest performance to date.