1. Annette Bening- The Kids Are All Right– The kids might just be all right, but Annette Bening as a modern lesbian mother seeing her family spin out of control no matter how tightly wound her controlling character may be is more than all right, she’s fantastic. Her ability to play the character with such effortlessness and ease makes the audience forget they are watching film and instead submerse themselves into the troubles, anxieties and and love that her character Nic feels as she undergoes a common, but crucial stage in life. Key Scene: Even with so many to choose from, one scene one can’t forget after watching the film is the humorous yet explosive scene of seeing her daughter come home on a motorcycle with “donor-Dad” and finally releasing her feelings about his unwanted parenting.
2. Christian Bale- The Fighter– Bale steals scenes left and right in The Fighter, much like they were stolen from him in The Dark Knight. As the crack-addicted former boxing star of Lowell, Mass., he must now watch as his brother Micky chases after the dream with a clearer head. Adding in humor only makes his character the sad clown, one that, unlike The Joker, you really feel for. Key Scene: Bale singing a song with his mother (Melissa Leo) in the car after the two had just had a big argument. The full spectrum of these two characters’ relationship comes to light thanks to this explosive and charming scene.
3. James Franco- 127 Hours– It’s been quite the year for Franco, who has found ways to impress the public and tackle his career without all of the celebrity hoopla. Finally earning his PhD at Yale University in English, something that only has taken a few short years and countless different schools and degrees to lead up to, Franco has transformed himself from a TV actor into a published writer, artist, student, doctor and now, hopefully, award-winning actor. His performance as Aron Rolston is the perfect summary of his year and career. He takes us on a thrilling, exotic joy ride that shocks us as much as it makes us laugh and cry. Artful indeed. Key Scene: No scene will have audiences laughing uncomfortably more as his fake radio broadcast scene. His impressive ability to deliver cheeky humor in this moment leads to a heart wrenching and apologetic, “Oops,” which we will never forget.
4. Colin Firth- The King’s Speech– Colin Firth will likely win Best Actor for his portrayal of the stuttering monarch on the brink of World War II. Who’s to say he shouldn’t? He brings such a ferocious feeling to this role, that the long underrated actor may finally get his due much like Bridges did last year. He gives his all even when his movie is content with reveling in how Oscar worthy it is. Key Scene: The part where he explains to his speech coach (Geoffrey Rush) all the torments he went through as a child and how his many other faults were trained out of him is haunting as you look into Firth’s tortured eyes.
5. Natalie Portman- Black Swan– Just as crucial as her character Nina ‘s performance(s) in the ballet Swan Lake is the performance of Natalie Portman as a frigid, perfection-obsessed ballerina who finally gets a chance to headline her own show. With her own securities tearing away at her, she must put up with her overshadowing mother, her competitive peers, her creepy director and most off all, her worrisome, hallucinating self. Her dream may have came true, but dreams turn to nightmares and Portman convinces us every step of the way that she can be frail and paranoid just as well as she can be seductive and destructive. Key Scene: The most haunting, beautifully dark and twisted fantastic scene in the film is the finale. While it’s all Portman driven, the film making follows and even though the audience already knows the ending, they are still left in utter awe.
6. Jesse Eisenberg- The Social Network As Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg, Eisenberg delivers screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s scatter-shot dialogue with rapid-fire precision and creepy eloquence. He captures the essence of his character while still surprisingly garnering sympathy for him. We follow him through frat parties, lawyer interviewers and endless double-crosses as he launches his online empire, eyes fixed on Eisenberg the entire time. Key Scene: Watching him snap after his girlfriend dumps him in the film’s opening scene is not only brilliantly written and acted, it allows us to see the man who would be king at his lowest and lamest.
7. Nicole Kidman- Rabbit Hole– In a film where the only real attraction is the performances, Kidman delivers one hell of a great one. As Becca, the anguished mother of a dead child, she struggles to keep herself together. Since she refuses to take part in grief counseling or take solace in religion, she’s almost entirely on her own. Key Scene: The heart-to-heart she shares with the teen who hit her son with his car is more resonant than any of the uproarious confrontations she shares with her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart).
8. John Hawkes- Winter’s Bone– In a film of quiet performances and a deafening look into the quaint and humble rural Ozark region, John Hawkes walks into the film with the proper grimy toughness and self-created mystique that men named Teardrop are expected to hold. He doesn’t have a lot to say, which is how it has to be. The rest is said through his actions and mannerisms. Key Scene: When the audience is first introduced to Teardrop, it would be easy to misjudge is character with his stern, abusive shell that hides his underlying devotion to family.
9. Michael Douglas- A Solitary Man– Douglas gives one of the boldest performances of his career as a down-on-his-luck schmuck of a used car salesmen whose life is falling apart around him. He has plenty of sex, including with the teenage daughter of his girlfriend, but he finally begins to realize his age. A gleeful deconstruction of this actor’s typical “concerned father” image, Douglas still finds the bruised soul of Ben Kalmen. Key Scene: The final conversation he has with his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) on the park bench where they met hits all the right notes of humor and emotion, and then goes directly to the movie’s satisfyingly unsatisfying conclusion.
10. Marion Cotillard- Inception– There doesn’t seem to be a movie she cannot steal away from a veteran, A-List star. Her performance in Inception is no different than last year’s Public Enemies, while she outshines Leonardo DiCaprio in each scene they share. Even for having such a warm, beautiful face, she channels a more chilling, haunted and broken character than Nolan could have dreamed up. Key Scene: There can’t be a more heart shattering and chilling showcase of her talent than her scene in the end where she attempts to convince Cobb to stay with her.
11. Tilda Swinton- I Am Love– Speaking Italian with a Russian accent is an act all in itself for this native English-speaker, but Tilda Swinton is never content with doing the commonplace. She gives soul to her character in both languages as Emma, a woman who discovers her love of a chef and her discontent with life through his exquisite dishes. Swinton is often associated with the “Ice Queen,” image, but here she peels back those layers to reveal a bruised character of endless complexity. Key Scene: Her slow seduction to the chef while eating a plate of prawns is more erotic than any of the film’s several sex scenes because of Swinton’s brilliant pacing of the moment.
12. Vincent Cassel- Black Swan- Though his role isn’t given the same importance in the film as Portman’s, Cassel takes the role and does something he is always telling Nina to do, convince us. Every turn he takes in the film, whether it’s playing the dark, creepy and seductive director that makes his muse’s his sexual objects or whether he is just the brilliant and shining director who knows how to evoke beauty and perfection out of his stars is something that is made uncertain because of his commitment to the character. Key Scene: When he makes Nina stay late after class to show her seduction, he silences the film with his own talent and takes the scene away along with Portman’s breath.
13. Jennifer Lawrence- Winter’s Bone- It was clearly a film for newbies to shine, even if the film was dull and dreary in tone. As caretaker to her siblings and daughter to her crazy mother she embarks on a journey to find her disappeared father all at the age of 17. She is often humble, but must learn to become stubborn and as cutthroat as the landscape around her to survive. Key scene: For as much as we don’t want to be cop-outs here at CyniCritics, we really couldn’t put a key scene into words. Maybe that was part of the appeal to her making our list. Her acting never shined or stuck out, but in those parts, who would want to?
14. Melissa Leo- The Fighter– As the mother of two boxers, Leo plays Alice Ward with emotional depth and grit. She manipulates Micky (Mark Wahlberg) into doing fights he’ll lose just for the money while also making sure he never gets better than his brother (Christian Bale). As with the best maternal monsters though, there’s more to her cruelty and manipulation than meets the eye. Key Scene: Intent on taking back her son from the girlfriend teaching him to be his own man, she rides with her many daughters intent on kicking ass. You feel like you’re watching a gang hit about to go down, but it’s only emotional bullets that fly as she finally feels true rejection from her son.
15. Delphine Chaneac- Splice– Creature roles often go unappreciated. While Delphine is no Serkis, her role as the clone creature Dren is certainly challenging. As she puts humanity, charm, humor and sexual desire into the child of a scientific experiment gone array, we see a speechless wonder of a being who can’t find her place in the world. Key Scene: The image of Nicoli teaching her to dance is a beautifully subtle scene that brings to mind Beauty and the Beast. Her innocence and confusion sends shivers.