2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Best Actress

#5: Michelle Williams – Marilyn Monroe, My Week With Marilyn

Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn"
Warning: This write-up will be chock full of backhanded compliments.

With a deeply flawed script and unlikable lead character, the core performances from Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branaugh are basically the only reasons to see this film – and it is a testament to the strength of these performances that the film is actually quite worth seeing. Williams brings a complex vulnerability to the titular icon that I found simultaneously appealing and fascinating, despite not having any previous knowledge of Marilyn Monroe besides her well-known (and highly sexualized) cult of personality. The film relies pretty heavily on the unspoken understanding that Marilyn Monroe is a figure of unquestionable appeal, but Williams’ performance manages to sell this appeal to a much greater extent than the film’s script and story ever does. She presents a difficult, tortured, and uncertain actress in the thrall of a surly acting teacher and under near-instantaneous hostility with her new film’s intense and egotistical director. While her relationship with Branaugh’s character is never much more affecting or complex than a sitcom clash, her romance with Colin Clark owes all of its poignancy to Williams’ performance and chemistry with co-star Eddie Redmayne, whose uneven turn might otherwise have ruined the film.

#4: Rooney Mara – Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
As I mentioned on our “Ladies’ Night” podcast, I was wary about seeing Rooney Mara in this role, because the only other performance I knew her for was The Social Network, in which she is, for lack of a better description, nice and normal-looking. These were both red flags for ruthless cyberpunk heroine Lisbeth Salander, but Mara completely acquitted herself in this role. The highest praise I can give to this performance is that I didn’t once think of Noomi Rapace while watching it. Mara’s performance is both fearless and original, bringing a tender edge to a character that is subject to some rather horrific abuse and dubious sexualization over the course of the film.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

#3: Bérénice Bejo – Peppy Miller, The Artist

Bérénice Bejo in "The Artist"
What can I say? I’m a sucker for actresses playing actresses, and Bejo is a total charmer as up-and-coming talkie actress Peppy Miller. Her chemistry with Dujardin is impressive (even with the film’s silent format to muddy the critical waters), and I found their relationship appealing even as a long-term friendship, despite the film’s half-hearted attempts to paint it as a romance. To see these two friends deal with their competing careers amid the inexorable fall of silent cinema is the heart of this film’s appeal, and is surely the most affecting element of a film that could have been slight and insubstantial otherwise. Bejo’s performance served an essential role, challenging the obstinate artist George Valentin with both the new cinematic medium and the actress’ undeniable charisma within it.

#2: Kristen Wiig – Annie Walker, Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig in "Bridesmaids"
My description of this performance may skew toward the non-specific (I haven’t seen seen this film since theaters), but I can say this with total certainty: Kristen Wiig is a star. Cinema is dreadfully short on believable depictions of female friendship, and Wiig manages to craft several solid (and starkly contrasting) rapports with co-stars Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy. Her “anti-chemistry” with Byrne is particularly impressive, leading to some of the most striking moments of comedic tension in the film. This is a complicated mess of a character (although not quite as much so as my #1), and surely one of Wiig’s finest creations.

#1: Charlize Theron – Mavis Gary, Young Adult

Charlize Theron in "Young Adult"
Speaking of messes, Mavis Gary is the most fascinating trainwreck of a character I saw this year (and she had some serious competition from Mel Gibson). If there is a female equivalent of a manchild, this is surely it – Gary is nothing short of a delusional and self-destructive alcoholic, and Theron managed to bring a wickedly black sense of humor to the character. Her ruthless give-and-take banter with an equally strong and sarcastic Patton Oswalt is an absolute wonder. This is a character that should be utterly unsympathetic, and yet by the end, she completely drew me in, even as the character learns very, very little from her experience.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko in Norwegian Wood
  • Atsuko Okatsuka as Atsuko in Littlerock
  • Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre

Best Actor

#5: Jean Dujardin – George Valentin, The Artist

Jean Dujardin in "The Artist"
From my review:

Jean Dujardin is forced to convey a great deal of emotional nuance through Valentin’s slightest glance or gesture, and the film resorts to techniques and shots that, in any other film, would have seemed incredibly manipulative. There’s a scene late in the film when Valentin confronts a room full of his old belongings, covered in sheets. As the music swells, he dramatically rips down every sheet, revealing the vestiges of his former success, finally staring heartbroken at a prized full-body portrait of himself in a tuxedo. His tears come forth, and Ludovic Bource’s score swells to overpowering heights, just as it does in many other scenes. But somehow, the tense crescendos of music that punctuate this film manage to craft a believable emotional arc of their own, even lacking the additional tones of a wailing, tormented man’s voice. The score supplements the visible emotion and physicality of Dujardin’s performance. These scenes worked, and in this medium, they seemed entirely appropriate.

#4: Ryan Gosling – Driver, Drive

Ryan Gosling in "Drive"
It would be easy to say that Gosling is doing very little in this performance (and many people have), but this understated performance is exactly what the taciturn unnamed driver needed in this film. The driver is a vision of restrained and intense masculinity, seeing himself as equal parts valiant knight and unattached mercenary. As this veneer starts to crack over the course of the film, the stakes of the story rise palpably. This is completely Gosling’s film, and his overpowering chemistry with Carey Mulligan led to one of the most bizarre and operatic romantic beats I’ve ever seen on film.

#3: Michael Fassbender/James McAvoy – Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier, X-Men: First Class

Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy in "X-Men: First Class"
Each of these performances is individually strong, with Fassbender’s intense and ruthless physicality contrasting nicely with McAvoy’s poise, charm, and control. But what makes this film work is the relationship between the two – the yin and yang that is so central to both the development of Magneto as a character and the film’s powerful climactic moment. This is an intense and complex relationship – utterly unmatched on screen this year, and it owes heavily to both actors’ performances. More on their individual performances in my review.

#2: Mel Gibson – Walter Black, The Beaver

Mel Gibson in "The Beaver"
From my review:

This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.

#1: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Adam, 50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50"
There is a precarious balance of tone at work in this film. Adam is a young man who has been struck with cancer, and a performance that hits too many hopeless notes would have easily driven audiences screaming from this film. Gordon-Levitt’s comedic performance is nothing short of remarkable, engaging in both credible friendly banter with co-star Seth Rogen and bringing a constant barrage of levity that the film sorely needed to avoid falling into crippling hopelessness. And yet, when the character is forced to confront the fragility of his present existence, Gordon-Levitt delivered once again. Adam’s confrontation with mortality is one of the most powerful and resonating aspects of this film, and Gordon-Levitt brought an intensity to the struggle that I haven’t seen since Andrew Garfield in Never Let Me Go. He is sympathetic, memorable, and hilarious, and to hit all of these beats in a single performance is an astounding achievement.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Super-duper-honorable mention: Michael Shannon as Curtis in Take Shelter (saw it too late to qualify)
  • Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf in Young Adult
  • Ed Helms as Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids
  • Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields in Beginners
  • Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in Shame


2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” – Sprawling, epic, and thoughtful

X-Men: First Class had a tall order to fill. We’ve already had two solid films examining the fantastic mutant powers, conflicting ideologies, and disillusioned friendship of Charles Xavier (“Professor X”) and Erik Lehnsherr (“Magneto”). To return to that friendship at its inception could have seemed little more than a cynical cash-grab – a storytelling dead-end whose fan-service ending was a foregone conclusion. Instead, Matthew Vaughn has delivered a film that proves he is as adept at delivering an earnest, character-driven superhero film as he was at superhero parody. This film may or may not be the best in the franchise, but it certainly belongs in the same conversation as X2, and perhaps even The Dark Knight, if not quite ascending to the standalone appeal of those films.

The highest praise I can give to James McAvoy’s take on Charles Xavier is that at no point did I doubt that this man grows up to Patrick Stewart’s version of the character. Tackling a role that has been so completely defined by another actor is a difficult undertaking, and the result is no mere imitation of Stewart’s Xavier, but neither is it a complete reimagining (à la Chris Pine in Star Trek). This Xavier is reserved and wise, but hardly unafraid to use his powers in the reckless milieu of a younger man. In fact, this Xavier is downright arrogant, using his powers to convincingly sweet-talk coeds and other mutants alike, all while playing fast and easy with the most intimate details of their minds and memories. This Xavier might make a fair psychologist, but his approach to friendship is downright invasive. His banter with Erik (Michael Fassbender) ends up striking a note somewhere between therapist and Yoda, trying simultaneously to make the other man come to terms with his most painful experiences and unlock the full potential of his mutant powers. It’s a fascinating interaction, to be sure, and it certainly drives the second half of this film despite being established through a rather hasty montage. I wasn’t sure how much I would buy this friendship, but it cascaded into a brilliant finale. More on this later.

First, I must touch on the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), which is certainly one of the reasons this film belongs in the same conversation as The Dark Knight. Not only is Shaw a thoroughly memorable and well-written nemesis, but he also represents an achievement that few films have managed to accomplish in recent years – an utterly terrifying villain (or set of villains, in this case). Shaw expresses his affinity for Nazi tactics early in the film, and the reason quickly becomes evident. Scene: A tornado spontaneously erupts outside a building, and a guard vanishes in a puff of crimson smoke. He reappears 100 feet in the air, instantly falling to his death. The attrition continues as buildings rip to shreds and it literally starts raining men (hallelujah!).

This is just a snippet of one of the many brilliant action set-pieces, but it demonstrates two of the great strengths of this film. First, it makes full and clever use of the array of mutant powers at its disposal (from heroes and villains alike). And second, Shaw and his associates carry out their malicious plans with such brutal and relentless efficiency that it’s simultaneously horrifying and captivating to behold.

Also terrifying is the man-who-would-be-villain, Magneto. After narrowly escaping the Holocaust (and the brutal experimentation of Shaw), Erik passes a brief stint as a Nazi hunter, ruthlessly pursuing the worst offenders who have fled to Argentina. This plays almost like a sequence from Fassbender’s other best known film, Inglourious Basterds – and the parallels seem fairly deliberate. Fassbender speaks several languages and visits unflinching brutality upon his malefactors. Given that Xavier’s central conflict with Erik is the extent to which they should wage war upon humanity, this makes for a compelling backdrop for their burgeoning friendship later in the film. Xavier’s other relationship – a childhood friendship with Raven, AKA “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence), is quite fascinating at the beginning of the film, but gets short shrift as soon as Magneto enters the picture. Given Raven’s character arc, this seems somewhat deliberate on the filmmakers’ part, but it is unfortunate, given that these early scenes are the best opportunity for Lawrence to show off her acting prowess. Her later interactions with Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are less interesting, even though Beast’s Jekyll-and-Hyde story turns out to be a compelling subplot (or at least a showcase for a brilliant bit of first-person camerawork).

Still from "X-Men: First Class"

There is a host of other characters in this film, which may leave prospective audience members questioning the extent to which this film is just for the fans – suffering from character and villain overload like so many other late entries to a superhero franchise. To that, I would simply say that this film is an achievement in both casting and storytelling. It brings a great many disparate characters together and manages to tell us a little something about each one without leaving the film feeling bloated. And in the end, the mutants – heroes and villains alike – do their dance as the humans look on in terrified awe. The American and Russian observers are then forced to act in a way that doesn’t feel entirely believable, but nonetheless forces Erik Lehnsherr to become the villain that he needs to be. In the blink of an eye, he is Magneto.

And indeed, this is the problem with origin stories. If you’re explaining the origins of something simple, like radioactive spider powers, your explanation can be equally rudimentary. To explain something as complex and multifaceted as Magneto’s decades-long disillusionment with mankind is a bit more difficult. But while such a protracted explanation may have been slightly more believable, I’ll grant that it’s not particularly cinematic. And all of these elements, along with McAvoy and Fassbender’s performances, brought together an action-packed and thematically pitch-perfect finale that felt almost completely earned.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10