Anyway! My pal Nick Davis has begin posting his annual mid-year "Fifties" posts -- his best-in-movies selections now that he's seen fifty movies from the current year. First of all, read all of it, it's great. Second of all, Nick inspired me to take a look at my own list, and I discovered that I saw my 50th movie of 2011 TODAY (Drive, in case you were curious, and it's violent and dreamy and great).
So with Nick's permission for the blatant thievery, I thought I might toss up my own choices for best of the year's first 50, at least in the acting categories. I'm not sure I've seen more than 5 movies this year that would be worthy of a Best Picture designation, and I think a quick read of the acting categories will let you know what those movies are. (And since I end up seeing twice as many movies in the September-January stretch, this is pretty much a best of the half-year post, at least in spirit.)
Best Supporting Actress
Hayley Atwell for Captain America: The First Avenger. The best thing about Cap was the chemistry between Atwell and Chris Evans, and she used her brisk snappiness to keep the movie humming between the action scenes.
Haley Bennett for Kaboom! I'm going to gloat so hard if Haley Bennett becomes a huge star, but I'll mostly be relieved that we didn't miss out on such a magnetic performer. Her acidic loyalty went beyond mere fag-haggery, and her reactions to all the Gregg Araki fucking weirdness around her let me know I had a fellow traveler onscreen.
Rose Byrne for Bridesmaids. I'm so glad Byrne pulled out of that tailspin she was in after movies like Knowing and Adam. She was given the most difficult role of all the non-Wiig 'maids, and she had to do it while being the lone actress in the ensemble who wasn't a comedienne by nature. By the end of that unbearable dueling toasts scene, she'd already proved her worthiness.
Dagmara Dominczyk for Higher Ground. The type she plays in the first 2/3 of Higher Ground is so familiar that I'd sworn I'd seen her in something else before. Until I realized that she doesn't remind me of other actresses, she reminds me of other real people I've known. More than anyone else in the supporting cast, Dagmara nails the odd balance between blind faith and earthly practicality.
Amy Ryan for Win Win. I'm due a rewatch of this movie when it makes it on DVD, but on a general level, Ryan gets to be so much more engaged in the story than 90% of the women in this kind of role. She reward's the script's generosity with a performance full of specificity, heart, and short-fused energy.
Honorable Mentions: Jessica Barden (Hanna); Jessica Chastain (The Help); Jennifer Ehle (Contagion); Elle Fanning (Super 8); Theresa Palmer (Take Me Home Tonight).
I had too many nagging points of discomfort with Octavia Spencer's character in The Help to really ever get into her performance, but if you were able to (and many people I respect were), then I'm happy for you. I think Chastain worked best because her character seemed to be operating in a different movie altogether. Meanwhile, Theresa Palmer was in a terrible movie where she nevertheless was completely magnetic and sincere, and she should be getting all the roles Rachel McAdams is too old for.
Best Supporting Actor
Albert Brooks for Drive. Don't listen to me, listen to everybody else raving about the guy. I know the easiest way to get critics to praise you is to underplay the kind of role that usually gets overplayed, but seriously, Brooks nails the weary-but-dangerous type, with some of the year's best line readings.
Tom Hollander for Hanna. So deliciously weird and menacing and having every bit as fun with the movie as we are.
Jake Johnson for Ceremony. I absolutely fell in love with this guy this year (he's really good in No Strings Attached NO REALLY), and if more people than only me saw this movie, I would expect that more people would be in love with him too. His alcoholic brother-of-the-bride character is mined for the usual drunk gags, but Johnson adds so many more layers onto the guy. He's menacing, he's sad, he's maddeningly sweet. The year's requisite supporting performance that should have been what the movie was about.
Joshua Leonard for Higher Ground. Seriously, I get so proud whenever I see this guy in a movie. My Blair Witch cameraman made it out of the woods! He takes a super tricky character -- the husband destined for his wife to evolve past him -- and delivers him with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of relatable humanity.
Corey Stoll for Midnight in Paris. The majority of this movie I found to be pretty reductive (oh, poor Rachel McAdams and the harpy she's forced to play), but Stoll makes for a thrilling exception. His Hemmingway embraces the man's otherworldly masculinity as the caricature it is and delivers an endless string of challenges to Owen Wilson's sputtering Owen Wilsonity.
Honorable Mentions: Bryan Cranston (Drive); Bruce Greenwood (Meek's Cutoff); Tom Hiddleston (Thor); Oscar Isaac (Drive); Adam Scott (Our Idiot Brother).
Juliette Binoche for Certified Copy. An endless treasure box of surprises. A long and winding road of a woman whose turns of character are handled so deftly by Binoche that she could be filming a Mercedes commercial. I'm not even telling you about this movie until you see it, because SEE IT.
Viola Davis for The Help. She's holding onto this movie with both hands, and her brow occasionally gets sweaty, but she's never anything less than the sum of her character's accumulated pain and hard-won strength.
Vera Farmiga for Higher Ground. Either Farmiga the director is smart enough to utilize the irrepressible urbanity and unquenchable intelligence of Farmiga the actress to serve a character who is constantly bursting through the cracks in her devout bubble, or else Farmiga the director/actress got very lucky.
Saoirse Ronan for Hanna. So many girl assassins at the movies these days. Saoirse stood well above them by making the most interesting parts of Hanna the parts where she's discovering the scary and wonderful world out there.
Michelle Williams for Meek's Cutoff. As hard and resilient as the prairies themselves, but in a movie where the harshest adversaries are the questions these pioneers will never be able to definitively answer (are we trekking in the right direction? Can this Native be trusted?), Williams's intelligence is almost tragic.
Honorable Mention: Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids).
Rough half-year for female leads, but what else is new?
Paul Giamatti for Win Win. Not the most challenging thing Giamatti's ever done, but he holds the center of a good movie with a performance of a decent guy trying so very hard not to regret the shortcuts he's taking.
Ryan Gosling for Drive. It's a director's movie, Drive. Gosling's character is a nameless man without a history by design, and I wonder how much credit he's going to get for viewers reading any number of things into scenes full of silence and stillness. But I also don't think you can deny that Gosling does end up painting a full picture of a vague man, if that makes any sense.
Tom Hardy for Warrior. I remain thoroughly depressed that this movie is being received as anything better than every other standard sports movie that follows the standard inspirational formula. And that goes double for Nick Nolte's often embarrassingly drooly performance. The exception is Tom Hardy, whose take-no-prisoners physicality really pays off in a finale that works way better than it has any right to.
Paul Rudd for Our Idiot Brother. Rudd gives a shockingly lived-in performance that only underlines what superficial put-ons most hippie characters are.
William Shimell for Certified Copy. Plays off of Binoche brilliantly with another performance that accommodates the twists and turns of the story.
Honorable Mentions: Dominic Cooper (The Devil's Double); Thomas Dekker (Kaboom!); Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class); Hunter McCracken (Tree of Life); Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris).