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Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd


Kristin Wiig

Kristen Wiig has been stealing movies in supporting roles for several years now. She did it again back in March’s sci-fi spoof Paul, outshining Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Seth Rogen for the movie’s biggest laughs. But in Bridesmaids, Wiig finally got her shot to be the star. And, as we already know, she nailed it. Wiig, as co-writer, gave herself a lot of the movie’s best comedy bits, but she also made Annie a fully developed character. Annie’s often ridiculous behavior always stems from her insecurity over the fear of losing her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph): to marriage, to another woman, and to another city. It doesn’t help that the stress of being the maid of honor to Lillian comes on the heels of her cupcake bakery going under, getting fired from her day job, and being kicked out of her apartment and having to move back in with her mom. It’s a testament to Wiig’s acting ability that she makes Annie’s lengthy list of issues completely believable while still being hilarious. Chris Conaton


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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer, Joely Richardson


Rooney Mara
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Since she’s the title character, you’d figured she’d be played with bravado. But what Ms. Mara does with the role of Lizbeth Salander is something special. Defying convention (original Goth hacker queen Noomi Rapace was brilliant) and twisting her take into a fiendish freak show of fetishism, the heretofore unknown actress becomes an alien, a literal extraterrestrial among her flat fellow humans. With a personality that matches her chameleon like last name and the courage many of the men around her lack, she embraces everything that is her role in this mystery—cog, scapegoat, catalyst, defiant feminist hero—and since this is the first part of a trilogy, she’s just getting started. Bill Gibron


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A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhad


Sarina Farhadi
A Separation

Directed by her own father, Sarina Farhadi plays Termeh, the daughter of the divorcing Nader and Simin, in A Separation. Often shown solitary in the frame, excluded from her parents’ decisions but having to cope with the full force of their bitter conflicts, she seems to embody the film’s theme of female voicelessness. This all changes in the climax, in which Termeh is asked by a judge to choose whether she will live with her mother or father. Only then do we realize how crucial she is to the film; her overpowering feeling for both parents, despite all that she has suffered through. It’s one of the most rousing and affecting scenes of any this year, and Farhadi carries the moment beautifully. Andrew Blackie


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Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd


Melissa McCarthy

In Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy delivers a completely shameless performance as the brusque, oversexed Megan and nearly walks away with the entire film. While all of the Bridesmaids are a mixed bag of personalities, McCarthy portrays the “anti-bridesmaid”—the gal you need to counterbalance the “bridesmaidzillas” who would find a way to incorporate monogrammed Lilly Pulitzer toilet paper into a wedding if they could. As the bride-to-be’s future sister-in-law, Megan is the odd woman out, drafted into the taffeta-trussed ranks of friends of the bride. Megan becomes not just the bridal party’s booming voice of reason, but a true friend to all of the women in the bridal party. McCarthy’s take on the character comes across as a modern interpretation of the no-nonsense ‘40s “gal pal” archetype, updated with an unchecked libido and affinity for flatulence while still being extremely likeable—and even sweet. Lana Cooper


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The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard


Jessica Chastain
The Tree of Life

It seemed as if Jessica Chastain was everywhere in 2011, and at year’s end, she won awards and nominations for six different films: Coriolanus, The Debt, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help, and Texas Killing Fields. So it’s only fitting that we highlight here the one role that most speaks to her omnipresence: Mrs. O’Brien in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, The Tree of Life. As the mother of the family at the center of the enigmatic film, Chastain is more of a presence than a single person; not one mother, but every Mother.

If The Tree of Life can be boiled down to an investigation of human nature and the choice to live according to nature or the way of grace, then Chastain’s gracefulness seems to provide some answers to the mysteries Malick hands over to viewers. Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien runs his home in a stern and often bitter fashion, which contrasts with the “grace” notes played by Chastain. She begins the film as a grieving mother and is seen in flashbacks as the nurturer and sole source of levity within the home. By the end, she has grown to embody the possibility of salvation and resurrection. These Big Ideas would fall apart entirely without a protean performer like Chastain. In keeping with Malick’s conception of the mother’s role, she’s the force that holds the whole thing together… whatever the thing may be. Thomas Britt

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