Wednesday 21 December 2011

For what it's worth: 2011 Awards special - part one

Best Actor
1. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Alongside Anna Paquin in Margaret (see below), the most three-dimensional performance of the year, both grounding and developing the representations of mental illness this actor attempted in Bug and Revolutionary Road. If you want to get me especially cranky, put Michael Fassbender (or even Gary Oldman's impersonation of a dusty old armchair) ahead of Shannon on your awards season ballot: Fassbender plays the effects, but not the causes, of his character's affliction, which is one of the reasons Shame lapses into privileged boo-hooing, and why that character ultimately makes next to no sense. Shannon keeps his trousers on, mercifully, but his performance is by far the more revealing about who we are, and what we're struggling through right now.

2. Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life and Moneyball
He always was a movie star; this year, the boy proved he could create characters, too - tough and tender as the father figure in the Malick movie, pensive and supremely articulate as the former sportsman in Moneyball. With its hyper-verbose screenplay, the latter is all about the Brad Pitt jaw: among his many other accomplishments, he may also be the best snacker in the movies right now.

3. Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom
A good year for Australian psychopaths: I could just as easily have included Daniel Henshall's blokish killer from Snowtown on this list, but Mendelsohn - as a bloodhound-faced goon in Hawaiian shirts - chilled the blood just that degree further. The writer-director David Michôd deposited all his characters at crossroads, offering them both ways out and back into the immoral maze in which they'd found themselves - but Mendelsohn's choices meant you genuinely didn't know where his Andrew was going to go next, and who he was going to take with him.

4. Joel Edgerton, Warrior
A good year for Australian actors in general. Edgerton had a supporting role as the conscience of the family in Animal Kingdom, but he showed his true class in this underrated MMA drama, playing - as with Shannon - an everyman pushed to extremes by the prevailing conditions. A performer has to be fairly versatile to convince as both a squeezed middle-class teacher and an aspirant cage fighter - which is Edgerton's very real achievement here.

5. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
When Scorsese's Hugo references the past, it does so in terms of nuts and bolts, cogs and wheels, technological achievements that have to be explained in children's terms. (And which risk boring the pants off kids with no real interest in irises and apertures, as the film's humdrum box-office figures only go to show.) The French film The Artist does the same, but with an altogether more sensual (and more immediately pleasurable) emphasis on the human body - there's a reason Dujardin's jaded matinee idol goes under the name Valentin, why he has to rediscover that missing "o", the wow factor that will reconnect him with his audience. (When he does, his first words become this otherwise silent film's motto-by-default.) Deprived of dialogue, Dujardin's performance is all body, all gesture - a technically dazzling display of pantomiming and mimickry, with an innate sense of how to please a crowd. It absolutely deserves our applause, if not a standing ovation.

Best Actress
1. Anna Paquin, Margaret
Amid the chaos of Kenneth Lonergan's unfinished city symphony, Paquin brilliantly nails down what it is to be an adolescent, and - more specific still - what it is to be a privileged adolescent set adrift in contemporary Manhattan
: curious, bolshy, sexually adventurous, resentful, reckless, horribly naive. You may not like the character, but you cannot fail to spot the expertise Paquin brings to the role. In every sense, there's simply much more of her here than there is as Sookie Stackhouse.

2. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
It's the end of the world... Bring it on. In retrospect, this wasn't one of Lars von Trier's better characterised films - all those wedding guests, competing for the title of Biggest Bitch/Bastard of 2011 - but Dunst's Justine was the exception, channelling the own director's experiences with depression, while allowing the actress to work through various stages of self-abnegation and degradation, and to somehow get us to understand why this variably sympathetic character might well want the planet to burn up. The telltale sign even von Trier recognises he has to get serious around her: the whole film appears to be lit by the dying light in her eyes.

3. Michelle Williams, Meek's Cutoff and My Week with Marilyn
Her Marilyn, placing this terrific actress front and centre, was a good shot at an impossible role, but for my money, Williams was better still in the earlier Meek's Cutoff, having to work especially hard to distinguish her open-minded frontier heroine from the bleakly striking landscape that film proved so fascinated by.

4. Khomotso Manyake, Life, Above All
Perhaps 2011's toughest heroine of all - a child struggling to hold onto her innocence amid the poverty of the South African townships. I saw the film early in the year, and Manyake's gaze, both tender and fierce, has stayed with me ever since.

5. Liana Liberato, Trust
It was a fine year for young actresses, all told: Liberato, as the suburban girl pursued by an online predator, grew up before our very eyes, playing the assumed maturity of someone desperate to log into the adult world, while never losing touch with the vulnerability of the innocent lured to an airport hotel room.

Best Supporting Actor
1. Raphaël Personnaz, The Princess of Montpensier
A leftfield choice, but his Duc d'Anjou - a 16th century rock star, in effect - counts as just about my favourite character of the year in anything, and typical of the way Tavernier's costume drama privileges spirited, sparky youth over the greying old guard. (Would that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had found room for at least one character like him.)

2. Nick Nolte, Warrior
Almost a parody of Oscar-bait support - channelling countless Burt Youngs and Burgess Merediths - but his bibulous pugilist-pusher, stumbling over half-empty bottles in hotel rooms and reciting Moby Dick in the middle of the night, is infused with just enough wit and worldly experience to count as the most substantial part Nolte has inhabited in some two decades. Love that final shot of him: even the director, Gavin O'Connor, seems to realise how the character might be used as a punchline, or a summing-up.

3. Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Not a radical departure from the Hill norm - there are flickers of reactive, fatboy comedy in his portrayal of the Oakland As' nerdy new statistician - but just different enough in key to catch the eye; his partnership with Brad Pitt is a winning one, and together, they make scenes which really shouldn't work - like the bit of horse-trading over multiple telephones - not just come to life, but fly.

4. Brian Cox, Coriolanus
A film practically made for supporting nods - Gerard Butler is surprisingly good in it, and you'll see my thoughts on Vanessa Redgrave below - yields typically brisk, efficient work from Cox as the kingmaker Menenius, demonstrating a mastery of his particular part of the text.

5. Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Again, demonstrating the kind of expertise Hollywood routinely relies upon in our homegrown actors: a funny little impersonation of Olivier, not profound, exactly, but agreeably true to the tenor of what is, at its best, a funny little film.

Best Supporting Actress
1. Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus
A vivid glimpse of what it must have been like to see this commanding actress on stage forty or fifty years ago. (Probably best to stay away from her Queen Liz in Anonymous, though, if you want to preserve the illusion.)

2. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Sly, leonine film-stealing - lingering in the den while her pride paw and tear at one another, then pouncing in those moments when it counts. Memorably quiet about it, too: I can't remember her character having to raise her voice once. She didn't have to.

3. Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
2011 was Chastain's year; the rest of us were just passing through it. Even given my natural predilection for redheads, I wasn't entirely convinced by Chastain in The Tree of Life (too floaty, a gorgeous, shimmering idea of something rather than a character), or Coriolanus (where she had a distinctly minor wife role), or Texas Killing Fields (which really was doing nobody any favours), but it all clicked into place here, where her wifely qualities were that much better defined, and added an extra dimension to the drama. You immediately grasp why Michael Shannon's protagonist would seek to protect her from the gathering storm, but if he felt he couldn't turn to this most patient and loving of onscreen partners, then who could he turn to?

4. Rose Byrne, Bridesmaids
If the Antipodean actors on this list teach us anything, it's that their industry teaches them great versatility. Byrne can do city girls and damsels-in-distress (TV's Damages), but she can also do funny, as seen in first Get Him to the Greek, then this runaway summer hit. (Versatility upon versatility: she can even do both - see this year's Insidious.) Somewhat overshadowed by the all-conquering majesty of writer-star Kristen Wiig, Byrne nevertheless marries sharp cheekbones to even sharper comic chops - it's quite the combo.

5. Sarina Farhadi, A Separation
Every performer in her father Asghar's gripping domestic thriller is tremendously good - it wouldn't hold the attention the way it does, otherwise - but a significant percentage of the drama plays out on the younger Farhadi's face: at the risk of sounding ungallant, she's the pet pooch caught between two masters, something the film's tragic denouement - forcing her into making that choice, and setting an injustice down in ink, perhaps forever - recognises entirely.

Awards for British Actor, Actress, Best Screenwriter and Best Director to follow tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment