For the second straight year, I thought this was actually a rather weak category. Yes, my top 3 would have been in the “Oscar slots” in almost any year, but after that, the quality drops quite a bit.
Runners-Up: Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn, Brian Cranston in Drive, Vincent Cassell in A Dangerous Method, Brian Cox in Coriolanus, James Cromwell in The Artist, Jonah Hill in Moneyball, Ben Kingsley in Hugo, Viggo Mortenson in A Dangerous Method, John C. Reilly in Carnage, John C. Reilly in Terri, Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris, Mark Strong in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
10. Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Jonah Hill brings a much needed humor to Moneyball – but not the broad sort of humor for which he is known. He matches Brad Pitt’s wittiness in their scenes together, going from a super smart, shy guy afraid to open his mouth, into something much more confident. There isn’t all that much depth to his character, and yet Hill makes him seem real – and likable throughout. Great comic actors can usually do great dramatic work if they are given a chance to – Jonah Hill was given a chance with Moneyball, and he made the most of it.
9. Tom Hardy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
It was a very good year from Tom Hardy – who channeled Marlon Brando in the MMA epic Warrior, and left an impression in the trailer for the new Batman movie as Bane – giving fans hope that perhaps Heath Ledger’s Joker could be replaced by another villain. But it’s his small role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that impressed me the most. Here, he plays a man that everyone thought had gone rogue, but was really just hiding out, licking his wounds. He has become disillusioned with his role in The Circus, but wants revenge for the wrong done to the woman he loves. Chain smoking his way through the movie, Hardy once again reminded me of Brando – and unlike most actors who try to channel the acting legend, he actually pulls it off.
8. Benedict Cumberbatch in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, like that of Gary Oldman’s, is all about subtly, and watching what happens when he isn’t talking. He plays a man who has essentially been written off by the Circus, who sees a chance to move back into its good graces – and he’s not going to let it go. When he’s called in to see his bosses, he has a masterful scene as he defends himself. But there is one moment in this performance that I will never forget – it last only a few seconds after he’s had to kick his gay lover out of his house to protect both of them, and he breaks down and cries in a moment of heartbreaking simplicity.
7. Christopher Plummer in Beginners
Christopher Plummer has been a great actor for decades now, and in Beginners, he gets one of the best roles of his career. He plays a man who has been in a loveless marriage for more than 40 years, but when his wife dies, he is finally “free” – and he uses this freedom to announce to his son that he is gay. He only has a few years left before cancer will take hold of him, but he uses them to full advantage – it’s never too late to find happiness. Yes, I thought the movie was perhaps a little too much of a fantasy (and I couldn’t help but feel more sympathy for Plummer’s late wife than anyone else in the movie – as she is the only one who doesn’t get to find happiness before she dies), and yes, Plummer’s role seems to be written with the idea of winning an Oscar in mind – he’s gets to the play gay and die of a long gestating illness – but Plummer transcends these clichés to find the humanity inside this character. A great performance by a great actor.
6. Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Ezra Miller has been forgotten for most of this awards season, and I know why. Many people see his Kevin, as horrifying as it is, as a one note monster – a cynical, cruel, sadistic asshole who has does everything possible to piss off his mother – including killing his classmates. But Miller’s performance is more subtle than that – he matches Swinton’s performance with his own, and holds up a mirror to her, which is why she is so terrified of him. Yes, outwardly, Kevin is a monster, but if you pay attention and look closer, there’s much more to his character, and Miller’s performance, than that.
5. Patton Oswalt in Young Adult
A quiet performance by Oswalt, as a man who was beat up and permanently disabled in high school because everyone thought he was gay (he wasn’t), who has become a man who will never grow past high school. While everyone else can see what a train wreck Charlize Theron’s queen bitch character has become, he still idolizes her as the personification of female perfection he envisioned in high school. Yes, he tries to get her to see things clearly, but his own vision is so clouded, he can’t. Unlike Theron’s character however, we can’t help but feel sorry for him. A great performance by an under rated actor.
4. John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene
There is no creepier moment in any 2011 film than when John Hawkes sings Marcy’s Song to Elizabeth Olson. The song is outwardly beautiful – a sweet melody – and yet when you listen to the lyrics, you realize just how little he thinks of her (“She, she’s just a picture, that’s all”). This describes the entirely of Hawkes’ brilliant performance in one scene – where he puts on the guise of wise, older leader to his “family”, he’s really just exploiting them. Hawkes, who had a breakthrough last year in Winter’s Bone, delivers an even better performance this year. A great character actor finally getting the roles he deserves.
3. Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I have a feeling that a few decades from now, Andy Serkis will be looked upon as an acting pioneer. It started with his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, got better with his work as King Kong, and has reached its peak with his role as Caesar in this film. Yes, Serkis is covered in CGI, but it’s not that much different than being covered in makeup is it? Watch how they did the special effects, and you will see their efforts were made to try and give Serkis’ performance more, not less, importance. Caesar is one of the most fascinating, and yes, complex characters of the year, and while the special effects wizards certainly deserve recognition for that, Andy Serkis is the man who deserves the most credit. Yes, he should be eligible for an Oscar for his brilliant turn in this film.
2. Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life
It was a great year for Brad Pitt – his movie star persona shone through brightly in Moneyball – but his quiet, restrained work in The Tree of Life is equally brilliant, in a completely different way. His stern, strict father is not a monster – but a man who loves his children and wants the best for them, but who is unable to express his more tender feelings towards them. His performance is quiet and subtle – from the tense moments around the dinner table, to the few moments he does let that softer side through. Pitt is brilliant in The Tree of Life, and he deserves a little more credit for it than he has gotten so far this season.
1. Albert Brooks in Drive
I always love it when an actor with a seemingly set screen persona gets a role that allows them to turn it on its head. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this, turning Cary Grant into an asshole and Jimmy Stewart into a creep, while all the while outwardly, they were the charming movies stars they always had been. For Albert Brooks’ in Drive, he still plays a fast talking, self absorbed man as he always had – but this time, he’s not charming or funny, but heartless, cruel and violent. His lines sound like they should be funny, but somehow you don’t laugh, because his delivery is blood chilling. Brooks’ has played the same basic character in pretty much every movie he has been in for his entire, brilliant career. But in Drive, he gets to take that screen persona, and turn it inside out. The result is not only the best villain of the year, but also the best performance of Brooks’ career.