So now that we’re 9 months into the year 2012, now is a good time to look back at the best of 2011. Why look back at 2011 when there’s only 3 months left in 2012, you ask? Well, let me tell you, faithful reader (of which I’m positive there is only one- maybe two). For one, we’re far enough removed from 2011 to get past all the hype over everything that came out last year; we can look back with clear eyes. Also, we’re coming up on awards season for movies and music, so it’ll be nice to get this out of the way before all that nonsense begins. And, most importantly, I’m not a paid critic, so there were gobs and gobs of movies and music I hadn’t consumed when Grammy and Oscar time came around at the beginning of 2012- at that point, I didn’t think I could give a qualified answer for what the best movies and music were last year.
But now I’ve listened to the majority of the albums (both big and small) that got notice last year and I’ve seen the majority of the notable movies (both indie and mainstream) from 2011, and I can now (somewhat) conclusively say that I’ve got a good handle on what I consider the best of both music and movies from last year.
The real question is, why am I going to all this trouble? Any post on this blog I consider practice for when I truly write creatively, such as when I begin to write short stories or a book at some point in the future (a pipe dream, sure, but the blog does get my creative juices flowing, so it may be more realistic than you might think). And, perhaps more importantly, I love movies and music, so I consider them worth writing about. I believe one way God wants us to reflect His image in this world is to create, and I believe God uses movies and music to teach us and to stir our spirits and, yes, to entertain us. Writing helps me process that better.
So this is how the Bummys* will work- I’ve never done this before, so bear with me. Today, I’m going to list out the best acting performances of 2011. I’ll also throw in the 5 performances from 2012 that I’ve loved so far, and the 5 performances I’m most looking forward to from the upcoming awards season. The next few days will see the top songs of 2011, the top albums of 2011, and the top movies of 2011.
Now, you can read these lists and then forget about them. I’m aware that a million of these lists come out every year, and you already read them all 9 months ago. I understand it would be overwhelming to try and watch every movie featuring all of these performances. But do yourself a favor: choose five that sound the most appealing to you, and check them out. My hope is that you discover you love a few movies you wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
And, with that, we’re off:
Top Performances of 2011
Like Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain is an grounding rod for this out-of-this-world movie. You have to believe that if Brad Pitt’s character was the source of his son Jack’s pain, then Jessica Chastain’s character must have been his source of mercy. Chastain plays a mother who tries desperately hard to obey her husband and love her kids at the same time. They live in a hard house, and director Terrence Malick makes it clear that the mother is trying to shine some light in her kids’ lives. It’s the brightness with which Chastain shines that makes you remember her performance, but it’s the veil that covers that brightness around her husband that makes it great.
The Tree of Life probably doesn’t seem like the typical actors’ movie, but Brad Pitt makes an indelible impression in his precious few moments in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece. When you parse through all the extra footage about dinosaurs and the Big Bang and the afterlife, The Tree of Life is about mercy, and a man struggling to extend that mercy to his father. Sean Penn plays Jack, grown son of Brad Pitt’s patriarch, and we learn that Jack’s father’s effect on him is lifelong and inescapable. Pitt makes that effect clear by giving us a clear, honest, and real portrayal of an American dad. He’s hard on his kids, and maybe doesn’t know how to love them as well as he would like. It’s a testament to Pitt’s challenging performance that in a movie as dense as this one, he stands out. Indeed, I can’t forget how he’s made me consider my relationship with my own father; eventually you see your father not as a hero but as a man, and Brad Pitt captures that perfectly.
I was so frustrated when Meryl Streep won the Oscar this year for Best Actress. Don’t get me wrong- I wouldn’t have put her on this list if I didn’t think she was a great actress. But Viola Davis gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, actor or actress. Say what you will about the subject matter of The Help, if you think it’s just another movie about white people helping black people or whatever, it had a great cast, and Davis was its lifeblood, the fulcrum upon which the whole movie rested. It’s not a flashy performance; you can find that in Rooney Mara’s or Michelle Williams’s strong showings. Even Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter does more than Viola Davis does. But it’s in the way Davis carries herself, the weariness on her face that turns to strength in the clip up above. That strength is borne on a back that has faced just too much from a woman who might as well be evil, but who is really just spiteful and petty. That spite has meant a life of sorrow for a good woman, and Davis carries the weight of that life perfectly.
The year’s best performances were actors playing ordinary men (though Jean Dujardin’s character doesn’t start out ordinary). Clooney and Pitt made this transformation extraordinary, because they are both far from ordinary men. Demian Bichir inhabited his character as the most ordinary of men, a man simply trying to get by. But Michael Shannon outdid them all. Shannon’s Curtis has nothing special about him; he’s perfectly nice, and he loves his wife and daughter. But we watch him slowly descend into a spiral of paranoia and dread, plagued by visions of the word ending. He acts on these dreams, making every effort to protect his family from what’s coming, mirroring our own increasingly futile efforts to avoid tragedy in this real world. Michael Shannon could have easily played him as insane, but he instead comes off as tormented, striving to reconcile these visions with the real world around him. In the end, what we come away with is his deep love for his family, and how that drives everything he does. The clip above is of Curtis finally breaking down, and while his outburst is an impressive tightrope walk on the edge of overacting, it’s his collapse onto his wife’s shoulder that provides the biggest impact.
Top Performances of 2012
Dane DeHaan, Chronicle: This movie wasn’t seen by enough of people, but DeHaan’s performance as a troubled teen with new superpowers gives this film a darkness that other superhero movies lack.
Michael Fassbender, Prometheus: Fassbender joins the time-honored tradition of portraying an android in an Alien movie, and he’s mesmerizing. His David provides insight into some of the key themes of the movie.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises: Christopher Nolan has always had good actors in his movies, but since his movies are more cerebral than most, we don’t often see the best of their talents. Gordon-Levitt gives a heartfelt performance; his character is the moral compass of the film.
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises: If Gordon-Levitt’s character is the movie’s moral compass, Hathaway’s is the sinful pleasure. Hathaway gives a sly, knowing performance, that seems out of character for her, but only on paper- seeing her on screen, it’s obvious she was perfect for the part.
Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: I can’t tell you enough how great Jennifer Lawrence is; she lifts an above-average movie into a great one, because we can follow her thoughts and feelings just by looking at her. If you liked her The Hunger Games, go check out Winter’s Bone– she’s even better.
Most Anticipated Performances of 2012
Javier Bardem, Skyfall: His chilling performance in No Country for Old Men was a villain for the ages. But he had to go subtle in that movie; I’d love to see him let loose, and a Bond movie seems like just the time.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln: He’s already won 2 Oscars, and he’s undisputedly one of the best actors ever. He’s about to portray the greatest president ever. Now tell me I shouldn’t be excited.
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables: My favorite musical of all time. One of my favorite actors; the best performance I’ve seen of his was in a musical. Plus, he’s playing one of the most emotional characters ever written for the stage. If they film this right, his will be a heart-wrenching performance.
Denzel Washington, Flight: Honestly I’m just excited to have Denzel back in anything. Here’s hoping that this goes beyond the stoic, uncomplicated man streak that he’s on (The Book on Eli, Unstoppable, Safe House). Denzel is best when he’s playing a complex character- Training Day, Hurricane, Malcolm X, Glory. Flight looks like it’ll provide the right amount of nuance for a great performance.
*Bummys- like the Grammys, except with Bum! Funny, right? Right?