Just like with Oscar ballots I'm weighting these with #1 as my top choice and so on down the list.
1. Gary Oldman - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I can't shake what Oldman's does with his voice in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is somehow entirely unlike the voice we've all grown familiar with, yet I can spot no trick, no impressive Streep-like mastery of a new accent. It just emerges, more subdued and precise than we expect. Like everything else in his performance as master spy George Smiley, Oldman has developed such control over his craft as to make it invisible.
An actor who has gone big in the past, playing everything from Sid Vicious to Dracula to Beethoven, Oldman now captures our attention by seeming to doing almost nothing. His Smiley is a collection of tiny gestures, an inflection here, a pause there. The cumulative effect is to show a man whose milquetoast exterior conceals one of the world's most dangerous minds. A spy who knowingly sacrifices a piece of his soul in order to operate at the level he does. It is the best leading male performance of the year.
2. Ryan Gosling - Drive
The most dramatic action in Drive is unspoken, roiling beneath the deceptively calm surface of Ryan Gosling's Driver. At first appearing to be the classic, man-of-few-words hero, Gosling slowly lets the crack in his facade deepen until we realize there is a violent, unhinged killer lurking just below the surface of this guy. A monster he barely has under control. It is riveting, can't look away work. One of the most original lead performances since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.
Gosling was my silver medalist in 2010 as well, I fully expect to see him back near the top of the ballot this time next year.
3. Chris New - Weekend
It can be tough, amidst all the Oscar bait acting stunts, to get noticed for delivering a knockout performance as a recognizably normal human being, like Chris New does in Weekend. Playing one half of what is easily 2011's best romance, New give a performance so convincingly three dimensional you feel his character could walk right off the screen and into the bar across the street to grab some drinks. We in the audience can relate to his on-screen love interest, because, like him, the more we learn about this charismatic, guarded man, the more we want to know.
If I listed him and not his equally impressive costar, Tom Cullen (see below), it is only because New brings an extra spark of movie star excitement to his role that lingers even when he's off screen.
4. Michael Shannon - Take Shelter
In case it wasn't already clear, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter settles it. Michael Shannon is shaping up to be one of the all-time greats.
Just like a good actor will play a drunk as someone trying to be appear sober, Michael Shannon takes the role of a man whose sanity is unraveling and portrays him as a guy clinging with increased desperation to the appearance of normality. As his certainty grows that his premonitions of doom are the real thing, Shannon shows a cautious, thoughtful man gripped not with madness but with fear. Fear that he is losing his mind and fear of the even more disturbing possibility that he isn't.
5. Tom Hardy - Warrior
Hardy is not exactly playing Hamlet in Warrior, but man does he do amazing things with the material he's given. He takes a somewhat thin character on the page and responds with a ferocious, fully-formed transformation that deserves comparison with the man at the top of this ballot. Hardy's is also an astonishing physical piece of acting. His body language is all brooding, coiled intensity outside the ring followed by shocking, lightning bursts of violence inside. If Hardy can do all this with Warrior, I can't wait to see what he does with a role equal to his abilities.
More Worthy Performances
Brendan Glesson is the whole show in The Guard, and he carries it well with his rumpled charisma and impeccable comic instincts. Brad Pitt and George Clooney gave a pair of winning star turns in Moneyball and The Descendants, respectively. Either of them would make a worthy Oscar winner (Forced to choose between them my vote would lean Pitt) Tom Cullen is every bit Chris New's equal in Weekend as the introverted balance to New's extrovert. Not every actor can hold up to the unblinking gaze of Steve McQueen's camera, but the closer the director pushed in on Michael Fassbender in Shame the more depth he found. Demian Bichir's single-handedly elevated A Better Life with his minimalist intensity. And finally, if performances were awarded solely by how much fun the actor appeared to be having then David Hyde Pierce's gonzo work in The Perfect Host would be cleaning up this year.
More 2011 Ballots