2011 was an incredibly fertile year for great performances by actresses in leading roles. I'll get to them last.
Let's start with the best performance by an actor in a supporting role. As a CEO roused from sleep and forced to make instantaneous, life-or-death decisions about his company's future, Jeremy Irons in "Margin Call" got his biggest and best film role in years and hit it out of the park. As the ridiculously toupeed, profoundly jaded editor of the San Juan Star in "The Rum Diary," Richard Jenkins showed a hilarious, previously hidden comic side; his bug-eyed reaction to Johnny Depp's minibar bill alone was worth the price of admission. In the diamond-in-the-rough summer comedy "30 Minutes or Less," Danny McBride, Nick Swardson and Michael Pena gave us a lot of big laughs, the latter as a tough-talking hit man who has to psych himself up to pour rubbing alcohol on his wound: "You mama said you was a pimp." In "Beginners," Christopher Plummer delivered his best performance in decades, embodying the joyful, never-too-late freedom of an older man finding his bliss after finally coming out of the closet. Best of all was Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan in Roman Polanski's "Carnage," infuriating everyone around him (including his wife) with his cell phone conversations and tossing off little verbal stink bombs that - perfectly unintentionally, he would say - ignited the movie's hilarious conflagrations. Waltz proved his stunning performance in "Inglourious Basterds" was no case of beginner's luck.
As Waltz's wife Nancy, Kate Winslet in "Carnage" is also one of my nominees for Best Supporting Actress. Who could ever forget the sight of this typically reserved, capital-A actress picking vomit out of her hair and snarling of the other couple, "Oh my god, they're awful!" Young Jessica Barden brought delightful comic relief to "Hanna" as the American girl who first meets and befriends the title assassin: "I found her. She doesn't speak English. She's from Sri Lanka." Barden, when her mother inveighs against plastic surgery, saying, "This is my face, take it or leave it," looks at Hanna and mouths, "Leave it." If "Hanna" cuts like a knife (it does), then let it be said of Barden that, in the words of Jane Child, "You make the knife feel good." In just a few scenes opposite Michael Fassbender in "Shame," Nicole Beharie brought the movie out of its reverie to sharp, crackling life - and captured its theme: the impossibility for a sex addict of meaningful, loving human connection. As Claire in "Melancholia," Charlotte Gainsbourg evinced both a deeply loving sisterly generosity of spirit and later the unspeakable terror of the movie's softly apocalyptic vision. A lesser performance in this role could have derailed this magnificent film; Gainsbourg brings it to a higher level. Best of all was Melissa McCarthy, who as Megan in "Bridesmaids" created a wholly original, unforgettable character that defined the year in film comedy and opened new possibilities for its future.
The pool of great performances by actors in leading roles was as shallow as a wading pool in 2011. I have eight great nominees for Best Actress and only four in this category, none as good as any of the women. In "The Devil's Double," Dominic Cooper portrayed both Uday Hussein and his childhood classmate, Latif Yahia, whom Uday plucked from his everyday life and "offered" the job of Uday's body double for public appearances. Cooper deftly walked a tightrope of fear, revulsion, and faux fraternity, physically a perfect match, yet always distinguishable by behavior. Ryan Gosling was badly overexposed in 2011, and seemed to sleepwalk through some of his releases, but as the strong, silent type in "Drive" embodied one of the seminal characters (known simply as Driver) of the movie year. In "Blackthorn," Sam Shepard played Butch Cassidy 20 years later, after making a new life for himself in Bolivia. Shepard made Cassidy - then going by the name James Blackthorn - practical, rugged, ornery, at times profane; in other words, alive, not mythic and staid. But I'll go way outside the box and give my vote to Rhys Ifans in "Mr. Nice," "Paperhouse" director Bernard Rose's story of Howard Marks, an accidental hashish dealer who in the 70s and 80s became a free-wheeling, high-living, identity-morphing kingpin never more than a step ahead of the law. Ifans threw himself into the role like a hockey player into a vicious check and emerged bloodied and scuffed-up but triumphant.
Saving the best for last, let's get to eight great leading performances by eight superb actresses. First, imagine being the mother not of one of the victims of a school shooting but of the killer. Think where your head might be. Think how much mental energy you'd have for little things like, say, your marriage - or your work. In "Beautiful Boy," Maria Bello brings such a mother searingly to life, managing to make her a real person rather than a set of circumstances. Nothing in Kirsten Dunst's career prepared me for her towering performance as Justine in Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia," who never screams out her eschatological, almost catatonic depression but, all the more terrifyingly, expresses it with a serenely confident hush. As a woman searching - groping - for spiritual fulfillment in her tremendous directorial debut "Higher Ground," Vera Farmiga is nothing less than incandescent, drawing us in by having the courage to play big moments quietly. There is no surer sign of a consummate actor. In the lovely French film "Tomboy," Zoe Heran plays 10-year-old Laure, who with her unformed, vaguely androgynous physique and tomboyish hair and clothes decides to pass herself off, in the new town her family's just moved to, as a boy. It's a highwire act that could come crashing down at any moment, but Heran shows us more than a fear of being unmasked, conveying in precious few words the full spectrum of thoughts, feelings and moods behind the charade. I wrote yesterday of Adepero Oduye's career-making performance in "Pariah"; it's every bit the equal of any on this list. Also making a stunning debut in 2011 was Elizabeth Olsen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." The camera loves Olsen, and she holds it in her thrall; as it lingers upon her visage, she wordlessly conveys myriad infinitesimal shifts and gradations of thought and feeling. As the titular child assassin in "Hanna," Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (pronounced "sear-shuh") commands the screen as grippingly as Franka Potente in the similar "Run Lola Run." Her unblinking, balls-to-the-wall performance carries the movie on its back and takes it to top-ten heights. Finally, no list of 2011 actresses would be complete without Kristen Wiig's star-making turn in the year's seminal comedy, "Bridesmaids." Each viewer will have his or her own favorite scene, but mine involved Wiig on an airplane, trespassing drunkly into first class. When Rose Byrne told Maya Rudolph about "this great little restaurant where we know the owners," Wiig contorted her face up and said, "Oh, you doooo?" in a voice that just slayed me. What could be more timelessly funny than bursting someone's balloon?
And which of the eight was best? That, dear reader, is for you to decide.