The Best Male Film Performances of 2011

by PopMatters Staff

17 January 2012


10 - 6

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Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer, Anjelica Huston


Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gotten a lot of accolades over the past few years, from his breakout role in the high-school noir Brick to the sad-sack hero of (500) Days of Summer to the unlikable title character of this year’s indie Hesher. But his performance as Adam in 50/50 may be his best work yet. Levitt has the difficult job of playing a man who gets cancer at age 27 and selling all of those emotional beats while still being in a comedy. His chemistry with both Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick is great and fun. But it’s the subtler stuff that makes Levitt so good here. It’s the way he displays such ambivalence when getting chemo with a group of guys old enough to be his father, or his frustration with his overbearing mother (a great Anjelica Huston), and even the extreme awkwardness of having a one-night stand when the cancer saps most of your energy. Levitt’s ability to slide between light and dark and good days and bad days without letting Adam descend into a maudlin, woe-is-me sympathy magnet is a big part of the reason why 50/50 is so good. Chris Conaton


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Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, Francis Capra, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Wisdom, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi


Woody Harrelson

A raging racist, assassin-for-hire, violent thug, horrible husband, worse father, lying drunkard, self-aggrandizing liar, and inveterate womanizer, the character Woody Harrelson plays in Oren Moverman’s elliptical corrupt-cop drama is a scumbag par excellence. But what makes the (depressingly little-seen) film and Harrelson’s performance so memorable is not the sum total of his badness—we’ve seen this guy and his ilk before, particularly in the work of co-writer James Ellroy, who specializes in tough good-bad guys like him—but the oily vehemence with which he inhabits it. The zooming spiral into a hell of his own creation is pure Dante. Chris Barsanti


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Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks


Albert Brooks

It’s a cliche by now—the comic who wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. Bill Murray’s done it. So has Eddie Murphy. Even as far back as Don Rickles and Jerry Lewis you have funnymen putting on the air of danger for a new sense of self. So it’s no surprise to see Mr. Brooks, a man whose made his name as the “Thinking Man’s Woody Allen” to suddenly turn sinister. What’s shocking is how effective he is as the foil to Ryan Gosling’s neo-noir hero. As part of Nicolas Winding Refn’s update on the ‘40s and ‘50s genre type, Brooks bathes in a combination of silly and splatter. One moment, he looks like a schlub. The next, he’s metering out murder in a way that will chill you to the bone. Bill Gibron


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Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie


Michael Fassbender

Naturally, and unfortunately, the controversy of the NC-17 rating given to Steve McQueen’s second film Shame cast a pall over the film. To many, Shame is just “the film with a lot of sex” or “the film where you see Michael Fassbender naked a lot.” Both are true, but neither truly define what the movie is about. Yes, Fassbender’s character Brandon is a sex addict. That addiction, however, is not his problem but the primary symptom of his problem. The strength of the film, as well as Fassbender’s performance, is that whatever it is in Brandon’s past that leads him to do what he does is never quite clear. His character is an enigmatic cipher, one that at the film’s conclusion still leaves the viewer rife with questions. Like the scars on the wrist of Brandon’s sister (Carey Mulligan, giving an equally powerful performance), his lust is only the superficial layer of his deep emotional issues. Brandon is not just distant in his cold sex life; he’s distant to everyone, even to his own sister. Fassbender’s engrossing performance is one that reminds us that what can seem to be our worst problem may be only a red herring for the lingering wounds that shape our lives. Those wounds often cut so deep that we even stop telling ourselves that they’re there, just like Brandon does. Brice Ezell


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Meek’s Cutoff

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Hendereson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux


Bruce Greenwood
Meek’s Cutoff

Bruce Greenwood defined “chameleonic” in 2011: he was completely unrecognizable as the monster from outer space in Super 8 and practically disappeared behind a huge beard and hat to play, real life, fur trapper/explorer Stephen Meek in Meek’s Cutoff. Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Western loosely recreates one of Meek’s most adventurous journeys through the Oregon desert and Greenwood plays the part of group leader with a hint of cockiness and bravura. As the travelers realize they might be lost, Meek unleashes upon them a xenophobic distraction to keep them from finding his flaws and rebelling, reminding us of the Obama administration’s tendency of entertaining instead of governing. Throughout, Greenwood turns Meek into a superb performer, who hides behind the impenetrable shield provided by his symbolic authority. At a certain point in the movie we understand that Meek’s group will probably never reach their destination but Greenwood’s paradoxical charisma makes us feel we would follow him anywhere. Jose Solís Mayén

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