I may be late in the game, but it’s time for me to close the book on 2011. While some folks are already editing their lists for 2012, my celebration with 2011 is now underway. The unsung performances of the year are first. Then I will celebrate the moments that surprised and thrilled me this year. And finally, I will select my favorite films of the year.
Rather than highlight simply the “best” performances I’ve seen this year, I choose to celebrate the underrated ones because these are the folks who made me laugh or smile or cry or cringe all throughout the year, and yet, neither one of them were singled out for their exceptional work. No acting nominations this year among any of them. You’ll note that I didn’t mention the obvious omissions, like Michael Fassbender in Shame, Ryan Gosling in Drive or, most glaringly, Tilda Swinton of We Need to Talk About Kevin. They were all snubbed and we’ve all rightfully bitched and moaned about them.
But what about these guys?
Bobby Cannavale as Terry Delfino in Win Win
This guy never fails to charm the hell out of me. I’ve been a fan of his for many years (he killed it every week on Will & Grace – remember that?), and I’m always happy when he pops up in a movie or TV show. Win Win was no exception. This beautifully thoughtful dramedy is another winner for Tom McCarthy and actor Paul Giamatti. Cannavale scores the biggest laughs as Giamatti’s overeager best friend Terry who enjoys his volunteer gig as assistant coach a little too much. Not that McCarthy’s droll film needed it, but Cannavale gave Win Win a real burst of energy and charisma.
Kristen Wiig as Ruth Buggs in Paul and Annie Walker in Bridesmaids
The lovely Wiig had a huge year. Her departure from SNL was bittersweet — she was a bright spot on that show but she is so talented that other projects demanded more of her skills. In fact, we demanded it as audience members who crave for talented actresses who can pull off such range as Wiig has done so far in her young blossoming career. Bridesmaids was a high-profile hit for her. It’s a bawdy, funny film and she blended in well with this ridiculously gifted ensemble. But for me, it was her performance in Paul that affected me the most. I think the film is actually funnier and sweeter than Bridesmaids, but Wiig alone was so intoxicating as Ruth Buggs, a religious zealot who gradually changes her faith as she becomes a victim of a kidnapping (of sorts) by a group of nerds that hang out with an alien. Paul is outrageous, and Wiig is the film’s heart and soul.
Saoirse Ronan as Hanna in Hanna
Saoirse Ronan’s performance as the kick-ass Hanna is the most commanding work by a young actor I have seen all year. Before Jennifer Lawrence donned the bow and arrow as Katniss Everdeen, Ronan represented this latest surge of “girl power.” The film’s story is deceptively simple – girl becomes trained killer, uses her skills when rogue agents go after her father – and Hanna is Joe Wright’s best film in his young career so far. Ronan has a lot to do with it. Hanna is fiercely independent, adapts well in new environments and is unafraid to show her true feelings. She is still a teenage girl, after all. Remember her name and learn to pronounce it correctly, because Saoirse Ronan is going to be around for a long, long time.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe in Moneyball and as Paul Zara in The Ides of March
There is a scene towards the end of The Ides of March when Philip Seymour Hoffman is outside smoking his cigarette. A car pulls up and George Clooney invites him in. The camera stays outside of the car; we don’t see or hear anything that happens inside. After about 30 seconds of agonizing silence, Hoffman climbs out of the car and the car pulls away. Hoffman just stands there and says nothing. But does he need to? We understand precisely what just went down and his face is telling us a million things. You know exactly what he’s feeling. That’s Philip Seymour Hoffman to a tee. His two roles this year had one thing in common – he was a pushover. He had firm beliefs, he had strong ideas what was right and what needed to be done. But Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris and Pitt’s Billy Beane went right over his head. See, no one plays the pushover type better than this guy.
Bryan Cranston as Shannon in Drive
When I saw Drive earlier this year, it was before I had seen a single episode of Breaking Bad. So while Walter White was a name I was not yet familiar with, I knew of Bryan Cranston from other various projects. His uncanny performance in Drive really jumped out for me. It was the performance of a true character actor. He had the limp, the tough guy demeanor, the in-over-his-head attitude and that fatherly glint in his eye. He was a nicely rounded character, that Shannon. And when his character met a tragic, untimely fate, my heart sank. I felt the loss of his character. I felt tremendous sadness. And that, my friends, is the mark of a great performance.
Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
He is supposed to be unlikable. That’s what I always say when someone tells me that they didn’t like the film because the kid was so irritating. Yes, that’s how he was written and Thomas Horn, who amazingly had no acting credits before this one, just nails the portrayal of a kid with highly unusual sociological behaviors. Oskar Schell is clearly inflicted with some form of autism (which the film offhandedly mentions but never really fully explains), and Oskar is a very difficult boy with a mind that is nearly impossible to penetrate. When tragedy strikes, he behaves in such a way that is highly unusual but yet oddly empathetic. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of my favorite films of the year, and Horn’s indelible performance is one of the main reasons why.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover in J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is a mess of a film. A lot of it doesn’t work, but what does work is Leonardo DiCaprio’s heartfelt performance as the enigmatic director of the FBI. DiCaprio has always been such a great actor; since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he has consistently proved to us that he is undeniably one of our best performers today. He so completely disappears inside that garish makeup to play this complex character; not for a minute did it feel like I was watching DiCaprio act. I wonder if J. Edgar were a better film, DiCaprio would have gotten his due for this terrific performance.
John C. Reilly as Dean Zeigler in Cedar Rapids, Franklin in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Mr. Fitzgerald in Terri and Michael in Carnage
The always great Reilly scored in four fantastic roles that couldn’t be any more wildly different from each other. You want to see range? Check out Reilly’s work in 2011. In the funny Cedar Rapids, he plays a childish insurance salesman who becomes unlikely friends with the sincere Ed Helms. At first, Reilly seemed to be channeling his outlandish work from Stepbrothers or Walk Hard, but Dean turns into a guy with a soft, chewy interior. It’s an endearing performance, a major highlight of a sweet film. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, his subtle, extremely low-key portrayal as husband of Tilda Swinton’s conflicted Eva is something of revelation for Reilly. He’s reserved, almost walking on eggshells as he attempts to restore balance and stability in a volatile household. As principal Fitzgerald in the engaging indie, Terri, Reilly is at his immensely likable best. Fitzgerald is a human being, as flawed as the rest of us, and you are convinced that he really wants to be your friend. Sounds like the John C. Reilly we’ve come to know and love after all these years. And finally, Reilly is so great as the passive-aggressive Michael in Roman Polanski’s so-so dramedy Carnage. He stood out among this cast of great actors playing a man who is just tired of being polite all of the time. Does he love his wife? Sure. But man, does he have a bone to pick with her or what? A painfully funny performance that comes from a place of real truth.
Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields in Beginners
I’ve been watching Ewan McGregor for many years now and I’ve always liked the guy. I thought he was a solid actor who usually selects interesting and offbeat projects. I began to appreciate him more after the remarkable one-two punch of I Love You Philip Morris and Ghost Writer, but it wasn’t until I saw Beginners when I realized, “Wow. This guy is pretty damn special.” And thus, a man crush was born. In Beginners, he plays Oliver Fields, a guy whose distant relationship with his father is blamed for his failed romances. When he learns that dad is not only gay but also dying, he is forced to take a closer look at himself. I adored this film and especially the fantastic well-rewarded performance from Christopher Plummer. But McGregor here is just as good, if not better. The range and complexities of Oliver’s emotions are on full display and it’s a heartbreaking and inspiring performance. He has shown so much depth as an actor here that gives me a whole new level of respect for him. He has officially transformed himself from being that interesting guy in interesting films to one of my favorite actors working today.