1. Kirsten Dunst– Melancholia– In Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic new film, Dunst creates one of cinema’s most fully realized portraits of numbing depression. In all of her performances, Dunst has shown a skill sometimes greater than the films she is in. Here, she takes the role of Justine, a woman who self-destructs on her wedding night and takes shelter with her sister as the planet Melancholia goes on a collision course with Earth. Key Scene: In the deepest part of her depression, Justine even needs help getting down to the dinner table. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) made meatloaf, her favorite dish. When Justine tastes it, her face crumbles, and she says it tastes like ash. That’s all that will be left of the planet in a couple days, and she can’t wait.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio– J. Edgar– To the amazement of many, the young veteran has only finally reached his first serious chance at an Academy Award win with his colossal performance as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s latest picture. As J. Edgar, Leonardo transcends from young and eager to an old, bitter man that harbors his personal life and the secrets of others to escape his dissatisfaction with his profession and loveless life. Key Scene: Near the character’s inevitable demise, for one small moment he shuts off his obsession with career politics and is confronted harshly by his lifelong friend and colleague. In shock, he sits backs and comes to terms with the pain he has caused and gives the smallest form of affection that releases a lifetime of swelling.
3. Juliette Binoche- Certified Copy– It is one performance that most people probably missed this year, and what a shame that is. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, Binoche is a radiant, headstrong, yet vulnerable art and antique lover residing in Tuscany with her difficult teenage son. After meeting an author of a book also titled Certified Copy, she shows the Brit around and battles him on originality, art, philosophy and child rearing while being mistaken for his wife in this beautifully sculpted puzzle. Key Scene: Halfway through the film the narrative takes a turn when her companion takes a phone call outside a café, leaving Binoche’s character alone with an elderly shopkeeper who mistakes the two for a married couple. Without correcting the woman, her character riddles us with layers of buried emotions and opinions we weren’t ready for.
4. Ben Kingsley- Hugo– As the famous silent filmmaker George Méliès, Kingsley gives his best performance in years. The deep sorrow on his face as he recalls his lost filmmaking days is equally as moving as the ones where he embraces Hugo (Asa Butterfield) as his own. Key Scene: The montage where he is shown filming some of his hundreds of films shows the utter joy it brought him, until talkies came along and destroyed his funding. Kingsley conveys a full array of emotions in this sequence, matching Scorsese’s passion with this film blow for blow.
5. Andy Serkis- Rise of the Planet of the Apes– Motion capture performance has been severely under-appreciated ever since Serkis first wowed audiences with his portrayal as Gollum in the ‘LOTR’ series. Since then, he’s gotten even better at it, taking on King Kong with brute force and this film, where he plays the genetically-altered and human-raised ape Caesar. Beyond being convincing as an ape and even more convincing as an evolving human, Serkis barely mutters a word yet transforms the character from one species to the next without any doubt in his methods. Key Scene: After being placed in a chimp compound, Caesar eventually makes his way through the ranks and plots his revenge and escape. After breaking out he shows his first steps into real human transformation, carrying the burden of deep hate and naturalistic rage while showing human intelligence and mercy.
6. Keira Knightley- A Dangerous Method– Much of the criticism of Knightley’s performance is that she’s overacting. This is misguided. David Cronenberg has gone on record saying that everything about her portrayal of the tortured Sabina Spielren was intentional, and the early outbursts of hysteria were even toned down from actual cases of it. From the Russian accent, the facial tics and the deeply clinical banter she later shares with Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), she nails every aspect of this complicated role. Key Scene: Her initial conversation with Jung is shot almost entirely in one take. Usually editing is used to create the kind of emotional intensity she conveys here, but she attacks the scene with everything she has. As she discusses her dark past, she randomly gives in to spasms and screaming as hysteria takes over her entire body.
7. Christopher Plummer- Beginners- As a 75-year-old cancer-stricken father who shocks his son by coming out of the closet after his wife of 40 year’s death, Plummer’s character Hal takes on life with complete vigor and zest, teaching his son life lessons along the way. Plummer approaches the role in the same manner, giving the film a beautiful optimism. Key Scene: The exuberant character Hal has a sort-of montage narrated by McGregor that shows his acclamation to gay culture and a second shot at life that is wonderfully beautiful and hilarious thanks to Plummer’s commitment to the character.
8. Rooney Mara- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo– Mara scored one of the most desired movie roles in recent memory, and she nails it. The troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander is a character of endless fascination, an often violent wild card in the otherwise-conventional trappings of this murder mystery. Key Scene: Her revenge on her state-appointed guardian after he chains her to a bed and brutally rapes her conveys the rage buried beneath her often-silent facade. With wide eyes ablaze with insanity, she tattoos “I Am a Rapist Pig” across his chest and warns him that she will kill him if he ever touches another woman again.
9. George Clooney– The Descendants- Clooney’s strength has always been taking his own persona and traits and using them to craft a new version of himself that fits seamlessly into stories that play on is charm, humor and connection to real life characters. This Alexander Payne film about a divorced father reconnecting with his kids while his ex-wife is in a coma and rushing to close a deal to sell his family estate isn’t any different. Key Scene: Clooney’s usual underplayed scenes are usually his better, even if less memorable, but his big shot at an Oscar-bait scene near the end of the film the hospital does nothing to disappoint.
10. Yun Jeong-hie- Poetry– Jeong-hie’s sensitive portrayal is a huge part of the success of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry. Mija is a woman succumbing to Alzheimer’s at the worst possible moment: when the grandson she is raising as her own is facing blame for taking part in the brutal gang rape of a young girl that drives her to suicide. Key Scene: When Mija is sent by the fathers of the other kids involved in the crime to talk to the girl’s mother, she forgets why she was sent there. Instead of talking to the mother about the crime, she mentions her poetry class and then walks away. Halfway through this walk, she remembers, but her pride makes her keep walking away.
11. Charlize Theron- Young Adult– This is Theron’s best performance since Monster. She plays Mavis Gary without an ounce of sympathy, showing an alcoholic former Prom Queen at her most sinister and desperate as she goes back to her small town to try and steal away her former flame from his happy life with a wife and newborn child. Key Scene: The big confrontation scene between Mavis and her former boyfriend’s wife at a party for their baby. Theron unleashes a delusional rage at the entire party, which also includes her parents. We look at her with astonishment like the rest of the crowd at that party while remaining at a safe distance.
12. Tom Hardy- Warrior– In a somewhat conventional if still emotionally effective fighting movie, Hardy gives a raw, destructive performance. As a disgraced Army soldier propped up as a hero when he enters a winner-take-all fighting tournament, he shows us a tortured soul whose only solace is to stand in a ring and beat other men within an inch of their lives. Key Scene: The final fight at the tournament between him and his brother (Joel Edgerton) shows Tom Conlon at his most vulnerable both physically and emotionally. Being thrown in the ring to pummel his own flesh and blood opens up and ultimately heals some old family wounds. 13. Brad Pitt- The Tree of Life- While many critics and publications are hailing the megastar for his role in this year’s Moneyball, Pitt hits a homerun in a much smaller, simpler role as an iconic 1950’s American patriarch that preaches to his sons that, “it takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” Pitt’s embodiment of Terrance Malick’s “nature” — pitted against Jessica Chastain’s “grace” — hits close to home and distances Pitt from his hard-to-bury star persona. Key Scene: There is a brief scene where Mr. O’Brien begs his child to hit him in the face that displays the character’s sternness and ignorance. Pitt puts himself in the position with perfect uncomfortable ease as he does most of the film.
14. Michael Fassbender- A Dangerous Method- We may not have gotten a chance to see Fassbender in his much-buzzed Shame, but we did catch him in a handful of his other astounding roles, including this David Cronenberg film depicting the relationship of Freud and Carl Jung as they give birth to psychoanalysis. Fassbender is morally conflicting, methodical and interesting as hell to watch on screen. Key Scene: While Fassbender’s character gives an overly-personal survey to his wife and lets Knightly’s character observe, his slow reactions to her hesitance and uncertainty are executed with perfection.
15. Viola Davis- The Help- Davis gives a towering performance in this otherwise preachy Oscar bait. Without her sensitive, deeply moving portrait of the tormented maid Aibileen, The Help would’ve fallen flat. Key Scene: The interview with Skeeter (Emma Stone) where she reveals the source of her torment: that she spent so much time raising other people’s children, that she didn’t have time for her own son, who then tragically died.