The cinema landscape has become increasingly fractured: Movies are either big-box-office, 3-D extravaganzas or smaller, less technological films driven by character. In 2010 those performance-centric movies tended to be reality-based—it was a year filled with “true” stories, made even more vivid through acting and interpretation. I have no idea, for instance, if King George VI suffered internal turmoil, but Colin Firth made his plight compelling and personal in The King’s Speech. Aron Ralston’s arm may have been pinned under a rock, but in 127 Hours James Franco transformed a terrible accident into an inquiry into the nature of existence. Melissa Leo is only 13 years older than Christian Bale, who brilliantly played her son in The Fighter, yet her portrayal of a real-life boxing matriarch was fierce and persuasive. And the boys of The Social Network—Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, and Andrew Garfield—enlarged the founding of Facebook into an emblematic story of friendship and betrayal.
Last year, even films not based on actual events had the feel of authenticity. Jennifer Lawrence seemed to be starring in a documentary in Winter’s Bone, but instead she was playing a fictional Ozarks girl in search of her missing father. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis trained strenuously to portray ballerinas in Black Swan, and Javier Bardem appeared to be literally wasting away in Biutiful, as a dying man scheming for ways to provide for his family. In perhaps the most current events–esque film of the year, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore portrayed a modern couple with two teenagers who are visited by their sperm-donor father, played by Mark Ruffalo, in The Kids Are All Right.
And there’s more movie truth: Vincent Cassel as the actual gangster Jacques Mesrine, and Michael Douglas as an all-too-realistic philanderer in Solitary Man; Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, the proto-glam rock vixen of The Runaways, and Elle Fanning as the very believable daughter of a lost movie star in Somewhere. While Helena Bonham Carter was comfortable in the skin of the Queen Mother, Robert Duvall seemed just as historically accurate as a backwoods hermit in Get Low.
In the end, the largest measure of these performances is not their adherence to fact but the vivacity and depth of the characterizations. This portfolio is a salute to their greatness. In choosing these actors, we were not trying to guess at nominations or awards. Rather, we were trying to acknowledge and salute the work, to acknowledge and thank the actors for telling the truth—even when the truth was fiction.