Ten Actors Who Kicked Ass in 2011

actors header 560x309Twenty days from today the nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced. Now, I don’t put as much stock in the Oscars as I used to, mainly because I’ve come to realize in my advanced years they rarely reflect the most deserving films and performances of the year. I mean, are we really supposed to buy The King’s Speech was the best 2010 had to offer? I think not.

Nevertheless, being an admitted cinephile, I do enjoy expert filmmaking and quality acting. When it comes to the latter, I prefer to look at the body of work when evaluating how good a performer was in a given year. That’s not to say an actor must appear in multiple films to be considered great. For instance, Leo DiCaprio’s sole movie in 2011 was J. Edgar, but I wouldn’t classify him as a talentless slacker.

That said, I identified ten actors who in my mind turned 2011 into their own personal showcases by assuming a variety of roles. And here they are.

10. John C. Reilly

2011 Films: Cedar Rapids, Terri, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Carnage

Reilly has been killing it for fifteen years in both comedies and dramas. His disparate catalog of films includes Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Gangs of New York, Chicago, The Aviator, Criminal, Step Brothers and Cyrus. His ability to deftly vacillate between physical comedy and serious subject matter makes him one of Hollywood's most versatile performers.

Although nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Chicago, he's yet to capture a little gold man. But with excellent turns in both Cedar Rapids as a blowhard insurance salesman, and Terri playing an unconventional assistant high school principal, Reilly could at the very least garner a second nomination. He probably won't win, but he's overdue.

actors reilly 560x285

9. Emma Stone

2011 Films: Friends With Benefits, Crazy Stupid Love, The Help

After breaking out in 2010's amusing Easy A, Stone immediately vaulted to "it girl" status. Following up such a well-received performance can be difficult for young actresses, but the 23-year-old redhead raised her profile even more with a pair of blockbuster hits.

As the would-be writer who pens a book based on the stories of black maids in the segregated South in The Help, and as the spurned good girl who falls for Ryan Gosling's ripped Lothario in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Stone has cemented her place among the most sought-out actresses in Tinseltown. (The former did nothing for me, but the latter had its share of laughs.) Look for her natural blonde locks in the new Spider-Man incarnation this summer.

actors stone 560x371

8. Christopher Plummer

2011 Films: The Beginners, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

For someone who's been acting for over 50 years, one would think he'd have at least one Oscar or SAG Award or something. Alas, Plummer has zilch. He was finally nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 2009's The Last Station playing famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy, but lost out to Christoph Waltz.

Plummer could be in line for the let's-give-it-to-the-old-guy treatment for his impressive portrayal of an aging gay man dying of cancer in The Beginners. The Academy Awards love alternative lifestyles and terminal diseases, so his odds of being recognized just increased by 200%. Plummer was equally good in David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo playing tortured patriarch Henrik Vanger.

actors plummer 560x303

7. Michelle Wiliams

2011 Films: Meek's Cutoff, My Week With Marilyn

Hard to fathom the same girl who played little Jen Lindley in WB's weepy teen soap Dawson's Creek is one of today's greatest actresses, but it's true. Her willingness to pursue unconventional parts in independent/low-budget movies has gained her a sterling reputation and a pair of Oscar nods.

A guaranteed third nomination is on the horizon for her spot-on turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. It takes a certain amount of moxy to play one of America's most beloved big screen babes, but Williams pulls it off (and I hate biopics). At the opposite end of the glamor spectrum, she also delivered the goods as a hardened frontierswoman in Meek's Cutoff. There's not much she can't do and she's only 31.

actors williams 560x315

6. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

2011 Films: Hesher, 50/50

The man known as JGL has been consistently hitting acting home runs since 2004's Mysterious Skin. Toss in Brick, The Lookout, (500) Days of Summer and Inception and you've got yourself a bona fide rising star. Who saw this coming after six seasons of Third Rock from the Sun? Anyone?

Gordon-Levitt's incredible range was on full display in 2011. A tattooed anarchist has very little in common with a young man battling a rare cancer, which makes his eye-opening portrayals of each that much more noteworthy. Oscar has yet to come calling, although it seems only a matter of time before it does for the 30-year-old. He's not slowing down either with four films, including The Dark Knight Rises, slated for release this year.

actors jgl 560x293

5. Kristin Wiig

2011 Films: Paul, Bridesmaids

Not being a fan of Saturday Night Live, I wasn't very familiar with Wiig until I saw her in 2009's Adventureland. I proceeded to seek out some of her SNL sketches and came away feeling lukewarm about her as a comic actress. She was okay, but nothing special. Well, I changed my tune in 2011.

Her one-eyed virgin, Ruth Buggs, was goofy good in the uneven Paul and her breakout performance in Bridesmaids justifiably increased her demand as both a writer and actor. Melissa McCarthy stole several scenes, but Wiig's Annie represented the movie's pathos and therefore made her the most identifiable character of the bunch, in my opinion.

actors wiig 560x325

4. Brad Pitt

2011 Films: The Tree of Life, Moneyball

Pitt could've taken the Nic Cage route and become a cash grab action star if he so desired. I'm sure he's been on the short list of every big budget tent-pole for the last twenty years. But he didn't. Instead, he gravitated toward more challenging roles for acclaimed directors like David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Bros.

2011 might've been his best year on a critical level. He delivered two memorable performances in two completely different films: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Bennett Miller's Moneyball. In the former, he toes the line between likable and hateable as the stern father of three sons in 1950s era Texas. In the latter, he is disillusioned baseball general manager Billy Beane. He's the best attribute in both films and will likely receive his third Oscar nomination for one of the two.

actors pitt 560x284

3. Jessica Chastain

2011 Films: The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, Coriolanus

Hands down the breakout and busiest actress of the year. Chastain, who had completed only two movies prior, appeared in six in 2011. And these weren't just any six either. All have been recognized by critics across the globe as being among the year's very best. Needless to say, she is the definition of an overnight success.

Be it a doting mother in The Tree of Life, a social outcast in The Help, a conflicted Mossad agent in The Debt, a frantic wife in Take Shelter or a driven detective in The Texas Killing Fields, Chastain is able to create emotional depth in all her characters. She's one to watch for sure, although I'm not sure how she can duplicate such a satisfying year of work.

actors chastain 560x349

2. Ryan Gosling

2011 Films: The Ides of March, Crazy Stupid Love, Drive

I never really understood all the Gosling love before 2011. I mean, I liked him in Half Nelson and appreciated his weirdness in Lars and the Real Girl, but other than that, he always struck me as just another pretty boy actor with puppy dog eyes and granite abs. Then I saw Drive. My bad, the kid has skillz.

To be honest, I liked him even more in The Ides of March as an ambitious political adviser. It was a better written part and watching him morph from well-intentioned amateur to professional prick was fun stuff. That being said, anyone who can scare the piss out of me as a hammer-wielding sociopath "Driver" warrants my undying praise. And yes, he's even charming in Crazy, Stupid, Love, a movie I wanted to despise but ended up kinda liking. Bottom line: Gosling earned an Oscar in 2011.

actors gosling 560x277

1. Michael Fassbender

2011 Films: Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Shame

Fassbender is one of those guys we've been waiting to take the next step. Well, he did that very thing in 2011 having starred in four uniquely different projects. If versatility is a sign of quality acting, then the 34-year-old German belongs in the conversation of the best thespians in the business.

Taking nothing away from Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method, Edward Rochester and Carl Jung are bold, if not altogether compelling choices. However, choosing to take on a classic superhero previously played by one of the greatest living actors, and a deviant sex addict that isn't particularly sympathetic, is pretty damn gutsy. Fassbender isn't afraid to strip himself naked, literally and figuratively, which is why he stands apart from the crowd.

actors fassbender 560x304