Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Top Ten Performances of 2011 So Far

Forget about awards, forget about everything sad and dismal that this years offerings at the movies have been, it hasn't all been bad.  Well, mostly yes, it's been fairly terrible, and the fact that third rate junk like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now the eighth highest grossing motion picture in box office history doesn't settle well.  But, there have been good things out there too, just most of which were hard to find, but good things nonetheless, things worth celebrating.  Here on my favorite performances of 2011 at the halfway point:

10. Nick Thurston, White Irish Drinkers- A blink and you missed it little coming of age tale set in 70s-era Brooklyn, the film concerned two brothers trying to eke out of their working class background while staging a phony Rolling Stones concert.  The movie is well made and effective enough, comfortably trapped by its influences, but there's one striking element that makes the film just interesting enough to slightly transcend its familiarity and it's in the exciting and warm presence of newcomer Thurston, playing the recessive, good Irish boy more interested in art than his thuggish older brother's crime sprees.  He brings a nice and balanced naturalism that helps deflect the moments when the movie, confidently made, if poorly scripted by John Gray.  Hopefully this young actor will breakthrough in a major way soon.

9. Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy- The best roles of Binoche's immense, multi-lingual career (think of Cache, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Code Unknown, Trois Couleurs: Bleu) have such a tough, austere quality to them that it's jarring (at least for me) to notice how light and versatile she can really be on screen.  In Abbas Kiarostami's twee mediation on art and relationship, Binoche is given an opportunity to simply glow on screen.  The film may be a bit too clever for its own good, but Binoche (who won the Best Actress prize for her work here at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival) has never been so charming or alluring on screen before.

8. Elle Fanning, Super 8- Perhaps she's the easiest to fawn over in the Super 8 ensemble because she's ostensibly playing the "muse" type character-- one in which the other characters fall madly for, and by design the audience must do so as well-- another performance I quite liked this year (that just missed the top ten) that may also appear to be guilty of this is Marion Cotillard's performance in Midnight in Paris.  That may be true-- many of the boys in the Stand By Me lot of Super 8 are quite smitten by Fanning, but she also has a preternatural poise and refreshing lack of precocity that it's easy to understand why.  She brings an warmth but also a mystery to her portrayal of a young woman on the wrong side of the tracks taken in by the power of the movies.

7. Hunter McCracken, The Tree of Life- Like Elle Fanning above, McCracken (making his film debut with a wallop of a motion picture that will be obsessed over the cinematic powers that be for decades to come) plays Jack, 1950s youth with such delicate ease and graceful naturalism, it hardly appears like acting at all.  Much of that may have to do with the fact that director Terrence Malick is always the major star of his movies, but McCracken manages to outshine even the masters most grandstanding of sequences with a humanity and curiosity only an eleven-year-old could possess.

6. Michelle Williams, Meek's Cutoff- In Kelly Reichardt's life on the Oregon trail art house epic, there's a lot of walking and waiting and experience might be akin to what the real thing was like: long, slow, insufferable, but full of meaning.  A great deal of that meaning comes courtesy of Williams' face-- achingly expressive, brittle and tired.

5. Ewan McGregor, Beginners- McGregor plays Oliver in Mike Mills' adorable dramedy about a man coming to terms with his father's homosexuality and cancer, while forming a new relationship on his own.  There's such a quiet, bittersweet tenderness to McGregor's work that's sharply recessive, but always in tune.  He grounds the film in the more outrageously syrupy sections, makes a formidable net partner with Christopher Plummer who plays his father, and brings back memories to the joyous late 90s\early 00s days when McGregor regularly charmed the cinema into a joyous state of enlightenment.
4. Christopher Plummer, Beginners- Playing a man who comes out of the closet late in life and finding the joie de vivre in the idea of liberation at last, Plummer gives a wonderful, late in the game performance.  And whether carrying on with his much younger boyfriend or agitating his son about gay aesthetics, Plummer never loses a grip on his character, while nicely shading him with warmth, compassion, and abundant humor.  The refreshing thing about Beginners is that Plummer's character (named Hal) is never once reduced to a pitying martyr, nor a flamboyant caricature and the honest pathos that an actor with the stature of Plummer makes Hal and the film, quietly revelatory.

3. Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids- For years Wiig has been a charming cut-up with her Suzie Orman impressions on SNL, childish histrionics briefly and hilariously on display in Knocked Up, and bit parts all over the moon that have gathered up an impressive rap sheet.  Wiig may have found a classic with Bridesmaids, playing Annie, a neurotic single woman who begins to slowly and hilariously lose it when her best friend becomes engaged.  In Annie, Wiig may have created a sort of iconic comedy character, one that, while loopy and charmingly off-kilter, is grounded in such intense reality that it would hard for anybody (male or female, perhaps all in the animal world) not to identify with her.  The classic scenes of a bridal party's fitting after some not very Kosher Brazilian food and an ill-fated plane trip to Las Vegas (all creations in the warped brain of it's star and co-writer) are already permanently stamped on the pop cultural mindset.

2. Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class- After years of being a complete badass on the international independent scene (films like Hunger and Fish Tank are must sees for anyone craving rich filmmaking), the imposing and dangerous Fassbender finally gets a real chance to take on mainstream Hollywood as young Magneto in the prequel to X-Men.  If only the movie were as raw as Fassbender himself, then this would likely be one of the best superhero films ever made; instead it's a serviceable movie with a grand, awesome performance as its anchor.

1. Ellen Page, Super- An odd choice for my favorite performance of the year at it's halfway point for sure, but there's reasoning here.  Page's bouncy, absolutely loony performance of a comic book store nerd turned homicidal superhero sidekick is without question of the single most fun performance so far this year.  In a role that's such an about face from Juno, and more unhinged than her breakthrough in Hard Candy, Page owns the role of Libby (aka Boltie) from the second she's on screen and in one of greatest go-for-broke acting endeavors put on screen in quite some time, Page has such an uncanny ability to make crime and immorality not only cute, but also kind of sexy.

What are your favorites so far this year?

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