Here then is Part Two of the 2011 Wertzies. My thoughts on the year’s best performances. As a reminder, all Runners Up are featured in ascending order, with the Winner of each category coming at the end.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The beauty of supporting roles is that they generally require far less in the way of complete development. Where a main character must be fully drawn, and complete his or her arch, a supporting role is intended primarily to further that arch. These characters have room to be archetypal, or even just the sum of their parts, and this often results in a film’s most dynamic performance.
The Runners Up
Amy Adams – The Muppets
There are few elements of objective reality in The Muppets, and Amy Adams’ Mary is no exception. A giddy musical from the get-go, The Muppets offers Adams ample opportunity to show off her talents for comedy and musical theater, a welcome reminder of her true versatility as a performer.
Cate Blanchett – Hanna
Some of the most villainous performances come from the last place you’d expect, though I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that Cate Blanchett is fully capable of bringing the ruthless, dastardly Marissa Wiegler to life. Despite the inherent likability she has brought to enumerable past roles, Blanchett is brilliant as the film’s calculating antagonist.
Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life
Perhaps it’s unfair to recognize Jessica Chastain for a film that some might say uses her as eye candy, but I prefer to think of her as Malick’s visual muse; an exceptionally important role. And while her beauty may be what people remember of this performance, it is her ability to provide true empathy that makes Chastain such a powerful force onscreen.
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants
It’s no small feat to share screen time with George Clooney and hold your own, but that’s precisely what Shailene Woodley managed to do in The Descendants. As Clooney’s 17-year-old daughter Alex, Woodley is strong but not pugnacious, adult but not precocious. Though her character is surely not perfect, she is a young woman taking full ownership of her adulthood.
Carey Mulligan – Shame
With the overpowering nature of Michael Fassbender’s remarkable performance, few people are talking about Carey Mulligan’s Sissy in Shame. But they should be. Mulligan is clearly one of the next big talents, but until now she has played similarly girlish roles. Shame finds her shredding that persona to pieces, assembling the wreckage of a troubled individual into something that can smile and tease and compel. Though underdeveloped, Sissy nonetheless is a huge step forward for the young actress.
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
There are myriad things about Melissa McCarthy’s performance as Megan that make it special: her timing, her subtlety, her ability to bring so much heart to a secondary character, and on, and on. It’s not just that she’s funny, though she is OUTRAGEOUSLY funny. It’s that she’s not a caricature. For too long the niche for heavy comedians has been, and excuse the pun, broad comedy. Big, loud, silly, over-the-top characters who throw themselves around on a set full of breakaway furniture. While McCarthy isn’t afraid to use her size to her advantage, she is just as capable, if not more so, of taking her roundness for granted. No comedian should ignore their god-given talents, but the best comedians understand not to lean on them.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The Runners Up
Patton Oswalt – Young Adult
It’s not at all untrue to say that Patton Oswalt is simply playing some version of himself in Young Adult; a whiskey-loving nerd with some serious grudges. But if that’s what it takes to appreciate how talented Oswalt is as a dramatic actor, so be it. Oswalt’s performance is a first step that brings to mind comedy-to-drama talents like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams.
Andy Serkis – The Adventures of Tin Tin
For years now, Andy Serkis has been the go-to guy for eccentric motion-capture characters, his Gollum/Smeagol enduringly considered a breakthrough. In The Adventures of Tin Tin, Serkis brings wild energy to the plot-centric and oft-inebriated Captain Haddock, with a brash and unbalanced performance guaranteed to help legitimize the technology he has come to be tied to.
Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life
What’s so special about Brad Pitt’s performance in The Tree of Life is how much ground he’s able to cover. While it begins as a standard paradigm of a 1950s, emotionally-detached father, the character ends up far more complex than that. His love for his children goes deeper than the character had ever anticipated, and Pitt’s vacillations between loving protector, disappointed patriarch, and world-weary pessimist make up one of the film’s strongest elements.
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Warrior‘s two leads are inevitably and deservedly conspicuous, but the filmmakers’ devotion to the talent of Nick Nolte is one of their most fruitful decisions. Given ample time and room to build the character of Paddy Conlon–a penitent alcoholic regretfully estranged from his sons–Nolte does some of his best work in years. His grieving patriarch is the emotional core of Warrior, a film which depends greatly on the resonance of emotion.
Alan Rickman – Harry Potter
Through the eight Harry Potter movies, the arch of Severus Snape is one of the most dynamic and engaging portrayals ever seen onscreen. It’s a product of the amount of time we’ve been able to spend with these characters, surely, but just as much credit goes to Alan Rickman. For over a decade he has embodied Hogwarts’ most mercurial professor, providing as much sneering maliciousness as the character, and audiences, could handle.
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Undoubtedly, Christopher Plummer benefits from playing a character audiences have never seen before: a 75-year-old, gay cancer patient with a 30-something lover and a heart of gold. He benefits from the inherent likability of Hal Fields, and he benefits from the script which is so intent on championing him. But handicapping a performance for Plummer is like spotting Lebron James 20 points. Simply unnecessary. He is so supremely talented, and so prepared for a role like this one, that he simply shines in every last scene. Beginners is a wonderful film, with plenty of good things to say about it, including a number of other strong performances, but Plummer is, unquestionably, its strongest component.
Film’s history features all manner of leads, from the individuals that develop their craft like technicians–Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman–to those with the innate gift of pure, domineering presence–Kathy Bates, Jack Nicholson. While performance can surely be graded with a scorecard or measured by the minutes spent onscreen, far more often we simply know good work when we see it. In fact, taking advantage of our initial reactions, our emotional responses, our intuition, is often the only way to compare what so often amounts to really good apples and oranges.
The Runners Up
Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids
No one was caught off-guard by Kristen Wiig’s all-around wonderfulness in Bridesmaids. She has, for years now, been one of the lynchpins of a resurgent SNL, and done so with alarming versatility. Her’s is the kind of talent spotlights cling to, and so long as she maintains a creative presence in whatever project she happens to be a part of, we should be able to expect more and more good things.
Mia Wasikowska – Jane Eyre
Despite having seen and appreciated a number of her performances, there’s something about Mia Wasikowska that’s hard to buy into. She is youthful to the point of androgyny, and hasn’t yet had a role that truly defined her style as an actress. Nonetheless, she is an inspired Jane Eyre. Using a tenuous balance between soft and hard, she doesn’t simply counter Michael Fassbender’s passionate Rochester, she rivals him.
Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
I’m a little concerned that years from now, the conversation surrounding Elizabeth Olsen will be something along the lines of, “What happened to the actress we saw in Martha Marcy May Marlene?” It’s hard not to feel as though this role is helping Olsen as much as she is helping this role, but even past that, this is just a phenomenal rookie showing; the kind of performance that will be hell to live up to. That’s not to suggest she doesn’t have it in her to become a household name, but with a breakout like this one, she has severely raised the bar on herself.
Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Far, far more than Juno, this is the film Diablo Cody was made to write, and Mavis Gary the character. Self-possessed and rotten, villainous and just a little bit sympathetic, Mavis is easily the best thing Young Adult has to offer. And in no small part thanks to the work of Charlize Theron, who’s clinical beauty is better used here than perhaps any role she’s ever taken. With a character nearly impossible to root for, Theron and Cody (and, I suppose, Reitman) remind their audience that not every story wraps up all neat and tidy.
Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn
Nobody could ever truly be Marilyn Monroe. Particularly now, when she has become an untouchable icon built of the boldest details of her person. Still, Michelle Williams gives as close an approximation as we’re ever likely to see, while simultaneously giving us a sense of Monroe’s emotionally-volatile drug years. Though her Monroe is nearly a cipher, Williams still somehow channels the undeniable allure of perhaps the most desirable woman of all time. Aggravatingly subdued, My Week with Marilyn depends almost entirely on the energy and equity of Williams’ performance.
Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I don’t believe that transforming oneself for a role–i.e. losing weight, gaining weight, tattoos, scars, etc.–is, in and of itself, an accomplishment. It certainly has played a part in some great performances, but a physical transformation should only ever lend itself to a complete transformation. Which is exactly what we see from Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A complete transformation. For those who don’t remember, Mara played the endearing ex-girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg in Fincher’s The Social Network. She was excellent in the film, but it in no way indicated how capable she would be with a role like Lisbeth Salander. Mara is a force, and not for any other reason than she seems to inherently understand Lisbeth and her grind. As a slight, lonesome female, Mara is exhaustingly sympathetic. As the aggro, physical heroine, she is a fury equal to Kill Bill‘s The Bride. And while any number of actresses would have killed for this role, it in no way diminishes the depths to which she’s willing to go. There can be no question that this film, for this character, is a relentless gauntlet. A few other women have been hailed for their breakout performances this year, and not undeservedly, but in terms of sheer explosiveness, there is no other young actress who so effectively inserted herself into the game.
The Runners Up
Asa Butterfield – Hugo
When a child actor is the titular character and lead of a feature film, it encourages a different kind of scrutiny. In simply acting well enough for us to forget the fact that they’re acting, many child actors have garnered acclaim. Asa Butterfield goes past this, bringing dimensionality to the character of Hugo Cabret. There is innocence and hardness here, and Butterfield, more than just the right face for the job, comfortably works between the two.
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Much like the film he stars in, Ryan Gosling isn’t fully-drawn in Drive. He is, however, an onscreen presence as strong as DeNiro’s Jake La Motta and as unhinged as his Travis Bickle. Very few words are spoken by The Driver, yet the audience understands him better than any other character they meet. This is no small accomplishment. In Drive, Gosling is raw power, restrained by little more than the tenuous grasp he has on himself.
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Few of us have any real first hand experience with silent film, and therefore can’t speak in detail to the differences between a great performer now and a great performer then. But I have to think Jean Dujardin’s performance in The Artist would be a great place to start. Not simply because he is a joy to watch, but because he is our tonal compass. The Artist is certainly not a complex story, but it nonetheless depends almost entirely on Dujardin’s George Valentin to get where it’s going. And to be sure, it gets there in style.
Joel Edgerton & Tom Hardy – Warrior
The best moments in Warrior are the ones that find Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy sparring in one form or another. Certainly the two actors give solid performances from beginning to end, but the weight of this story lives in the broken bond between two brothers, and Edgerton and Hardy bring their most to the few heated exchanges they’re allowed. Making these exchanges all the more potent is the distinct difference between the two characters. Hardy’s Tommy is an animal, doing his best impression of a man, while Edgerton’s Brendan is a man who possesses power, but uses it only to better serve his family. What could have been a fine script and an intriguing concept is a fully-formed film, precisely because of its two stellar leads.
Michael Shannon – Take Shelter
Take Shelter, an admittedly minor film in this year’s landscape, holds the sort of role actors wait their whole careers for. There’s not a minute of screen time that doesn’t feature Michael Shannon in some capacity, which allows him to develop the character as gently and thoroughly as he can. We’re with Shannon’s Curtis on every step of his psychologically taxing descent, and in the sparse moments of breakdown the film concedes, we’re with him even more. What’s interesting is that this is one of the most straightforward roles Shannon has ever played, and he is still able to provide one of the year’s most dynamic and rewarding performances.
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Similarly to Take Shelter, Shame is a film devoted unflinchingly to its lead performance. But where the former is tempered and vague, the latter is an onslaught of ego and intimacy and, well, shame. I’ve yet to see a role that Michael Fassbender doesn’t capitalize on, and that includes some downright shitty films that don’t have much else going for them. He’s the kind of talent it’s impossible to ignore, and we’re sure to see more of him in the coming years. And while Shame may not be everything it could have been, Fassbender is still at his best, not only raising up a script that’s just ok, but putting himself through the unflinchingly agonizing ordeal of playing this role. Brandon Sullivan is a trainwreck of a human being, despite being functional enough to convince everybody otherwise. His sex addiction leads to one of the darker portrayals of an addict ever put to film, and is probably the most visceral; while some of us have tried hardcore drugs, far more of us have had, and enjoyed, sex. When Director Steve McQueen and Fassbender work together in the future–which they surely will–they’ll have to reconsider the style of filmmaking they want to pursue, as Shame is sloppier and less fulfilling than it should be. What they don’t need to worry about is Fassbender’s ability to transform himself into whatever Job-like character McQueen is next interested in portraying.