Tuesday, January 24, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 2: Supporting Performances

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Supporting Performances:

My Week with Marilyn is completely built around its performances – notably those of Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh. In particular, Williams, who barely missed out making my yearend awards, and Branagh stand out. He has the somewhat daunting task of playing real life screen legend Laurence Olivier, who is very well known (especially in England). The performance is great as Branagh must mask absolute frustration with the situation he has put himself in (having to deal with Marilyn, notoriously flaky and sort of whimsical about her working schedule) while also being completely infatuated with and in awe of her. He also somehow makes one of the great actors of his generation come off insecure, and it is believable.

Drive is another film that is built on its performances (and visual style). Albert Brooks plays the villain of the story, a gangster of sorts who is owed money. While Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan are both very good, Brooks’s performance stands out because of his approach – he is not a very menacing bad guy, at least he does not seem to be. And then, all of a sudden, he is scary, forceful and yes menacing. His scenes with Gosling near the end of the film make the narrative work – the audience is not quite sure if Drive is going to end happily or not (a rarity in cinema). Who would have thought that Brooks would create the best villain of 2011 (runners up: Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help and Ralph Fiennes in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)?

On the female side of the breakthrough aisle, 2011 belonged to Jessica Chastain (on the male side: Michael Fassbender). She appeared in six films, giving very good performances in all of them. However, she is brilliant in The Help, Take Shelter and especially The Tree of Life. While most of the praise seems to be focused on her performance in The Help, in The Tree of Life she has a much more difficult role, and is really the emotional centerpiece of the film. She plays a woman trapped by love and devotion, who is slowly crushed. Chastain is so good because she gives off so much happiness and light that when things get dark it is all the more heartbreaking, as all the energy and life seem to drain from her face. It is an extraordinary performance.

Elle Fanning’s work in Super 8 is probably not going to be on most people’s list when it comes to best supporting performances (because blockbusters and genre films are always gravely overlooked), but it should be. Anyone who saw 2010’s Somewhere saw a young actress teaming with talent. Super 8 gave Fanning a chance to carry a large portion of the emotional weight of the film – making the audience fall in love with her, through the nostalgia of fist love – and thus giving more meaning to Joe Lamb’s mission to save her. Not only does Fanning steal the film, from a performance standpoint (I would like to direct your attention to her scene just before the train crash or her work as a zombie), she also boosts the other young actors around her – all of whom are very good as well.

Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method is probably the bravest and most shockingly physical of the year (especially for an actress considered to be a starlet). She was not afraid to go full out playing Sabina Spielrein, a woman that went from being physically disabled due to mental issues to being the first woman to write a psychoanalytic dissertation and even becoming a psychoanalyst herself. Knightley’s performance of pre-psychoanalysis Sabina is striking and even off putting, as it is hard to watch – Knightley seemingly mutilating her body and appearance. Thus, when she arrives on the other end as a confident powerful woman, it is remarkable and very engaging.

The journey that Christopher Plummer goes on with his character in Beginners is uplifting and sad, for different reasons. Finding oneself seems like it would be easy, but it is often hard due to outside pressures (be them societal or parental or what-have-you). Hal, Plummer’s character, has lived almost his entire life hiding his true self, and finally has the courage to let himself be himself. Seeing the sheer joy in Plummer’s performance is what makes his story so inspiring. The dynamic he has with his son, played by Ewan McGregor, also plays heavily into his performance. There is such a trust and love between them. This chemistry and Plummer’s performance in particular set up the entire narrative and character for McGregor, making the film the brilliant piece it is.

Snape has been one of the most interesting characters in the Harry Potter universe, his background and motives always cloudy. In the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, in a magnificent scene (The Prince’s Tale), all is revealed. It is in this scene that Alan Rickman shines. Snape’s reveal is harrowing, heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time. Rickman, over the course of the series, has built Snape to be seemingly mean spirited, unforgiving and without feeling, thus his performance in the reveal, watching him fragment emotionally, is quite powerful. In a film with many fantastic and memorable moments, this is probably paramount among them.

For many of the characters in The Help, the film is very much about perseverance in the face of flat out hate and/or ignorance. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are given the brunt of the emotional work to do. The film has many standout supporting performances – Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain are both wonderful, but Spencer’s just has more dramatic impact to it. In lesser hands, her Minny Jackson could have been just another stereotypical sassy woman. Spencer brings true humanity and organic strength to the role, giving the film so much more importance and magnitude, as it resonates even today. This would not be the case without her strong work.

Midnight in Paris is a magical film with lots of great (name dropped) characters, but chief among them is Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway. Regardless of what Hemingway may or may not have been like in reality, Stoll’s Hemingway commands the screen and steals every scene he is in. And, he is both laughably eccentric and completely believable (I am still not sure how Stoll pulled it off). Of all the performances on this list, Stoll’s has the least amount of screen time (and probably by a large margin), but his is one of the most memorable of 2011.

Like Jessica Chastain, Shailene Woodley seemingly came out of nowhere (unless you watch The Secret Life of an American Teenager on ABC Family) to give one of the best performances of the year. Not only that, but she stands her own against George Clooney in The Descendants, arguably giving the best leading male performance of the year (and maybe even his career). Every year there are a few actors who give breakthrough performances, capturing our hearts, minds and emotions breathing fresh life into the art form that we love, and it is special to see it when it happens. Woodley’s performance is particularly impressive as she not only must play against Clooney in emotional scenes, but she also has to be his strength in the film.

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