The list of best lead performances of 2011 is forthcoming. In the meantime, without further ado…

Albert Brooks
It’s hard to discuss his performance in Drive without giving too much away, but there’s no wonder why even the members of the old guard who hated the film are lining up behind this performance. We used to regard Brooks as a comedian, but as a former movie producer-turned-genial mid-level mobster in this film, he forces us to see him in a whole new light. We’ll never watch anyone picking up a fork in a restaurant in quite the same way again.

Bobby Cannavale
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Win Win, but the caliber of the acting was pretty great overall. This is especially true of Cannavale as a wealthy divorced best friend who throws himself into his new role as an assistant wrestling coach so he can avoid obsessing about his ex-wife and her new guy. Funny, chipper, and New Jersey at its most likable, Cannavale provides a spark whenever he’s on screen.


Eva Green
I’m puzzled why no one else seems to have noticed Cracks, or Green’s work in a demanding role as a free-spirited teacher with a cadre of slavishly devoted students who turns out to be a very bad role model. This is a character unlike any we saw in this year’s movies, one whose façade of worldly sophistication hides a slimy nest of deceit and self-serving impulses. Her performance makes this a necessary corrective to all those movies about inspirational teachers.

Mélusine Mayance
There was a whole half of Sarah’s Key that didn’t work, the one that took place in the present day. The other half of this French Holocaust drama involved this newcomer as a 1940s Jewish girl who escapes from her captors and get back to her little brother, whom she told to hide in a closet from the Nazis. Mayance’s performance was the entire reason for the film’s considerable success. The French don’t seem as interested in developing child actors as the English-speaking countries are, but a talent like this is a dazzling prospect.

Melissa McCarthy
The whole ensemble of Bridesmaids deserves recognition, especially Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne. Still, you’re more likely to remember McCarthy’s turn. At first you think you have her bridesmaid pegged as a tough free-swearing vulgarian with unabashed appetites for food and sex, but only later in the film do you see her perceptiveness and loyalty, not to mention her hilarious weaknesses for puppies, Wilson Phillips, and fruity cocktails. They’re even talking about a Bridesmaids sequel built around this character, and with McCarthy on board, you wouldn’t bet against it.

Janet McTeer
In Albert Nobbs, McTeer portrays an Irishwoman who, like the title character, goes through life masquerading as a man but, unlike Albert, has a louche confidence and swagger as well as a woman of her own. This English actress, who has mostly confined her efforts to the stage, winds up stealing the film clean away from star Glenn Close.

Viggo Mortensen
He’s not the first actor you’d think of to play Sigmund Freud, but he does it very well in A Dangerous Method. In contrast to Michael Fassbender’s ethically tormented Jung and Keira Knightley’s ferociously twitching mental patient, Mortensen makes a smooth and urbane presence. More than that, though, he captures the psychologist’s distrust of non-Jews and his jealousy of his younger colleague’s independent wealth.

Patton Oswalt
What is it about this shlubby actor that he seems to develop such great chemistry with hot actresses? In Young Adult, he’s the sarcastic, grounded counterpart to Charlize Theron’s antiheroine, but he’s also a sad case who’s crippled as a result of a brutal beating in high school and (as the main character points out) has allowed his condition to define his life. The role’s snotty, self-aware sense of humor is a perfect fit with Oswalt, who was born to play such characters.

Alan Rickman
Warner Bros. is only now starting to make an Oscar consideration push for the Harry Potter series, but where’s the Oscar buzz for this guy? Only in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 did we finally see the truest depths of Professor Snape, who did so much to make Harry’s school years hell and yet is revealed as a hero after his death. The character development belongs to J.K. Rowling, but it was Rickman’s work, cagily built up through eight films and culminating in a devastating finale, that made Snape such a moving figure.

Kim Wayans
There isn’t the same “who knew?” factor of Mo’Nique’s turn in Precious, but still, anyone who remembers Wayans as a sketch comedy player on TV’s In Living Color will still be surprised at her strong dramatic turn in Pariah as a pious middle-class meddling mother who can’t bear the thought that her daughter might be a lesbian. A role that could easily have come off as monstrous becomes something more pitiable in her hands.

Shailene Woodley

Everyone (including me) noticed the scene in The Descendants where her character learns about her mother’s terminal condition and then drops underwater so no one will see her cry, but watch the scene immediately afterwards when she tells her dad how she came to know about her mom’s affair. This girl immediately grasps that all her issues with her mom will now never be resolved. Woodley plays it impeccably. Somebody remind me to rent The Secret Life of the American Teenager on DVD. I need to know what I’ve been missing from her.