What constitutes a great performance? It's an interesting question that should be addressed when one considers best/favorite performances of any year (or other period). For me, a good performance is when an actor/actress does his/her job with aplomb, offering a character that is credible and well-realized. A great performance is when the actor/actress explores beyond his/her comfort zone and "nails it." That is to say, not only does he/she do something surprising or daring, but presents a character that is 100% believable.
Actors are paid to seamlessly become their characters. When they succeed, they are doing their job. But when they take the performance to the next level, drawing us into their world and forcing the portrayer to disappear completely beneath the character's fašade, that's when something extraordinary has been achieved. It's when we forget Marlon Brando and are left only with Don Corleone. Or when the refined Anthony Hopkins has been replaced by Hannibal the Cannibal. One of the most celebrated performances of the year, Brad Pitt in Moneyball, is to me a "good" performance but not a "great" one. He's an actor who does what he's paid to do but, in accomplishing this, he never ventures beyond his comfort zone. Pitt is playing an ordinary guy and, while it can be considered a challenge, it's hardly remarkable. I think Pitt's work in The Tree of Life is more impressive - he just missed this list for that movie; I never considered him for Moneyball.
I don't differentiate between lead and supporting actors because the line of separation is often drawn as a result of politics and jostling for a category where a nomination is more likely. For me, acting is acting. Five of my choices are male; five are female. That's a result of happenstance more than intentional balancing. It just so happens that when I narrowed my list to ten, there was an even split. Also, the names are presented alphabetically - the men happen to fill up the first half of the alphabet and the women the second half. That's purely coincidental.
I have left off a few "great" performances and many "good" ones. The Oscar nominations will no doubt look considerably different. For what it's worth, here are my choices for the best/most memorable portrayals of 2011. (Some actors are listed for multiple films when more than one movie contributed to my opinion.)Jean Dujardin, The Artist: How difficult is it for a 2011 actor to accurately replicate the style and approach of a screen icon from 80 years ago? Judging by Jean Dujardin's work in The Artist, it's a breeze. The film succeeds in large part because it looks and feels like a silent film from the 1920s, and Dujardin's acting is a huge reason for this. Kudos to Dujardin's co-stars (Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, and the dog, in particular), who aid in the illusion, but this is his film from start to finish.
Michael Fassbender, Shame and X-Men: First Class: Shame is the kind of film Fassbender can put on his resume to remind filmmakers that there's virtually nothing he won't do in service of a performance. Much has been written about his full frontal scenes, but the physical nudity is secondary to the psychological nakedness, which is in many ways more daring. Fassbender's work in the otherwise unremarkable X-Men prequel also lodged in my memory. He was - pun intended - magnetic in a thankless role. That he could do so much with so little is proof of his charisma and talent.
Tom Hardy, Warrior: Hardy is among the most volcanic actors working today. His stunning turn in Warrior, coming on the heels of Bronson is evidence of how much a force of nature Hardy has become. You could see some of that in early roles (like his villainous turn in the tenth Star Trek movie, Nemesis), but the force of his personality has now fully blossomed.
Thomas Horn, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Discovered after winning on Jeopardy, Horn proved himself to be more than a capable actor. His character is at the center of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and his performance is one of the things that keeps it from becoming a mess of sentimentality and manipulation. Even those who despise the movie (and there's no shortage of those) have generally been effusive in their praise of Horn. For me, he represents one of the great acting "finds" of 2011. He is one reason why Extremely Loud hit me hard rather than leaving me cold.
Robert Forster, The Descendants: It's easy to praise George Clooney's work in this movie but, for me, the real star is Robert Forster. Despite being in only a small number of scenes, the power of this performance - as the gruff, unlikable father of the dying woman - is the kind of work that can transform a very good movie into a great one. His scenes are so true, so poignant, and so real that it's difficult to keep from tearing up when watching them.
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Mara's interpretation of Lisbeth Salandar is radically different from Noomi Rapace's, and that's a good thing. Rather than subjecting viewers to a carbon copy, she gives us a fresh interpretation - a Lisbeth who is both more fragile and more lethal than Rapace's. The nudity is evidence of Mara's commitment to the role, but it's the way she handles the clothed scenes illustrates the strength of performance. Her Lisbeth is a remarkable individual - a unique character whose wounds are hidden beneath an asocial shield and who is forced to confront the stirrings of real emotion as she delves into a situation unlike any she has previously faced. There are those who have argued that Mara's interpretation of Lisbeth is "too sexy." And, while I'll admit that she is sexy (in a goth sort of way), that in no way detracts from the character's lethality.
Carey Mulligan, Shame: Mulligan put on weight, intentionally got herself out of shape, then bared her entire body for the camera. That's dedication. As with Michael Fassbender, however, it's the chances Mulligan takes with her character emotionally that represent the backbone of her performance. Consider, for example, her lengthy rendition of a famous Sinatra song and the way the camera lingers on her face. When I think of her work in Shame, that's what I remember more than the full-frontal shower scene.
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene: Before this, Elizabeth was the "unknown younger sister" of twins Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Now, she's being referred to as the "talented younger sister." This is the kind of low-key, honest performance that easily wins raves. Olsen plays an outsider desperate for a sense of belonging who never really finds it. Her work here is not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence's turn in Winter's Bone - captivating and unforgettable. It should open eyes and doors.
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk about Kevin: Swinton, like Meryl Streep, almost always gives a top-drawer performance, but this is one of her most emotionally draining. There's nothing fun or entertaining about this movie, but Swinton is riveting and makes the depth of the tragedy all the more painful. The actress tends to gravitate toward dark and difficult productions, but often in supporting roles. In this case, she is in the cross-hairs and she does not disappoint.
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn: Two of Williams' 2011 performances remain locked in my memory bank. The first is from a 2010 "leftover" (which didn't open here until early 2011) as "the wife" in the un-Hollywood autopsy of a romance, Blue Valentine. She later topped that by becoming pop icon Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. The remarkable thing about the latter performance is that Williams is not a physical dead ringer for Monroe. Doesn't matter. One minute into her first scene, we have forgotten about the differences and we're watching Marilyn. Williams' accomplishment illustrates the difference between a re-creation and a copy, between acting and mimicry.