The year 2011 was not full of happy endings at the movies. Unlike in the previous year, when a monarch with a stutter (The King’s Speech) battled a hugely ambitious geek (The Social Network), the new crop told quieter, less triumphant stories and provided intimate portrayals of individuals who were usually struggling and often lost. If you believe, as I do, that films echo the mood of the culture, the year’s characters bear this theory out: We’re living in a cautious, alienated, somewhat depressed time. Frustration and disappointment are rampant; the economy is a mess, no politician appears trustworthy, and uncertainty prevails.
Instead of a fearless royal determined to lead his people, we saw Brad Pitt as an enraged father in The Tree of Life and as a failed golden boy–turned–baseball manager out to save his team in Moneyball. The fact that both characters push and pull—and, ultimately, fall short—seems to be the point. Pitt, the quintessential movie star, the embodiment of all things American, now perfectly evokes the pain of men everywhere: the startling realization that, after a lifetime of believing otherwise, your best may no longer be good enough.
Similarly, Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary in Young Adult is lost in her past glory. While she can still shine like the beautiful dream girl she used to be in high school, present-day Mavis is, for the most part, a walking disaster: She drinks, she’s delusional, and—most interesting—she has no real desire to change. George Clooney’s character in The Descendants, in contrast, shows subtle signs of growing up. The film is about a man coming to terms with his relationships—with his wife, who is in a coma, and with his two estranged young daughters—and the shock of learning that his wife had been having an affair. And yet The Descendants is not about wrongs righted or familial breakthroughs. Instead, the film is about forgiveness—small acts of understanding that pass, these days, for hope.
That search for compassion is perhaps most vividly articulated in The Help, a movie about black maids in the American South in the sixties. Viola Davis gives a heartbreaking performance as Aibileen, a woman who has dedicated her life to caring for white families. When she’s fired at the end of the film, Aibileen walks into the unknown with a mix of joy and trepidation.
Although they live in vastly different worlds, nearly all the characters in these movies suffer from a swirl of complex desires and fears. Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar is both emboldened and hampered by his refusal of intimacy; Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin is tangled in a web of guilt and love with her monstrous son; Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is simultaneously driven and depressed by his pursuit of a traitor.
And so on. For this portfolio, we picked 20 performers, each of whom has brilliantly inhabited a role that speaks to this moment in time. One of the most delightful depictions of the current emotional climate is Jean Dujardin’s in The Artist. He plays a silent-movie star named George Valentin, who is unwilling to adjust to talkies. Like individuals everywhere who feel replaced by the innovations of the modern world, he fights the system. He loses.
But the movie does have a kind of uplift at the end: Valentin makes a certain accommodation that allows him to return to the spotlight. His role in films will never be the same—he will never be the kind of star he was—but he is back. While it is not the future Valentin imagined or expected, it is the future he will have to accept. And that, in today’s world, passes for a happy ending.
Best Performances: The Photos
“No matter what, people don’t think of me for glamorous parts. I’ll go to an audition or a meeting in a pretty dress, and they still think of me as depressed or embattled. Hopefully, that will change.”
Dolce & Gabbana dress. Camilla Dietz Bergeron Ltd. necklace; Kwiat ring (on right hand); Davis’s own ring (on left hand).
Giorgio Armani tuxedo, shirt, bow tie, and cuff links.
“The movie that made me cry most recently was Silent Light, which is about the Mennonite community. The film is very naturalistic, and then all of a sudden, magic realism is introduced: A woman in her coffin slowly starts to wake up. I thought I was seeing things. I started to cry so hysterically that the person I was with suggested we leave—he said I was disrupting the audience. And he was bored. I think he was embarrassed by my crying. I made us stick it out, but that was kind of the end of that relationship.”
Moschino jacket; Eres bra; Moschino shorts. Ippolita bracelet; Falke hosiery; Manolo Blahnik shoes.
“When I won best actor at the Cannes film festival, Robert De Niro, the president of the jury, gave me the award. I was scared. It’s not my job to win a prize, especially a prize from De Niro. He leaned in and whispered to me, ‘You’re good. You’re good.’ I had grown up loving Goodfellas, and I almost fainted.”
Boss Black shirt and tie. Rolex watch.
“I don’t know how to cook or bake or prepare anything in the kitchen, and my character, Minny, is a fantastic cook. That was the hardest part of playing her. I don’t know how to do anything other than get a plate from the cabinet and stick something in the microwave.”
Elie Tahari sweater. Styled by Lori Goldstein.
“The first movie I remember seeing is Pal Joey. Frank Sinatra could do no wrong in my book, and when he sings ‘The Lady Is a Tramp’ to Rita Hayworth, I wanted that to happen to me. I longed to be in his song.”
Calvin Klein Collection dress. Verdura earrings. Styled by Lori Goldstein.
“When I read bedtime stories to my three sons, I try to do funny voices, and I immediately get a lot of crap for it. They say, ‘Papa, what are you doing? Just use a regular voice!’ They’re not impressed. They don’t find me funny.”
Derek Rose pajamas. Ferrell’s own ring.
DiCaprio came to this shoot sucking on an electronic cigarette. “I have an oral fixation,” he explained, as smoke engulfed his head. He had recently arrived from Australia, where he was shooting The Great Gatsby in 3-D, and became upset when someone asked him for an autograph. He seemed much more interested in leaving than being in the studio. As he rushed out the door, he noticed a toy Smurf that belonged to a child on the set. “I played with these when I was your age,” DiCaprio said, as he stopped suddenly to talk to the little girl. For a moment, he was genuine—kind, even—but he was late for a party or a dinner or a plane. It was time to be somewhere else. And then he was gone.
DiCaprio’s own suit and shirt.
Olatz slip. Dunst’s own earrings.
“For a year, I was Lisbeth Salander—I only wore black; I lived her life. Before this movie, I didn’t even have pierced ears. They put four holes in each ear, and my eyebrow and nipple were pierced. The only thing that concerned me was riding the motorcycle. I wasn’t nervous about the anal rape scene, but the motorcycle had me worried.”
Nina Ricci top.
Tom Ford shirt and bow tie. Brooks Brothers suspenders. Styled by Patrick Mackie.
Tom Ford vest and shirt. Pitt’s own watch and ring.
Burberry Prorsum jacket and trousers; Tom Ford shirt, bow tie, and cummerbund.
Tom Ford shirt. Dolce & Gabbana tie; Pitt’s own necklace.
“I call The Sound of Music ‘S&M.’ I did the movie for practical reasons: It was big bucks. And then I thought it would be bye-bye. I don’t sing—not even in the shower—and I thought, This will be a great lesson. But I didn’t think it was a very interesting part. I was determined to drink a lot and be sarcastic and cynical. S&M needed a bad boy to remind everyone how sluggishly gooey it might become. I may have kept the movie from becoming a sentimental bore.”
Plummer’s own suit, shirt, and bow tie.
“When I watch Up, it makes me weep like a lunatic. I was pregnant the first time I saw it, and the first six or seven minutes destroyed me. I’m not allowed to watch it anymore because I turn into a complete wreck.”
Helen Yarmak coat; Va Bien bustier. Cartier earrings and necklace. Styled by Lori Goldstein.
“As a child, I felt like a changeling at odds with the planet I arrived on. I didn’t understand the world I was born into, and that feeling of dissonance colored my youth. I saw that rigidness existed, and as a result, for me, rigidness got a bad name. Looseness was far better. And I gravitated toward a different life.”
Swinton’s own blouse; Dolce & Gabbana bra and briefs. Falke hosiery; Christian Louboutin shoes. Styled by Marie-Amélie Sauvé.
“I got Drive because I told my manager that I thought I could make an interesting villain. I read the script, and they asked me to go to the director’s house to meet him. We chatted, and on my way out I pinned him up against the wall by his front door. He’s Danish, and he’s already very pale. ‘What are you doing?!’ he asked. I was very quiet: ‘I just want you to know that I have great physical strength.’ So he gave me the part.”
Giorgio Armani tuxedo jacket, shirt, and bow tie. Brooks’s own glasses.
“When you work in a different language, your emotional state changes. In Spanish, my mother language, words not only have the meaning they have—they also have a personal meaning. For me, it is more difficult to say ‘Te quiero’ than ‘I love you.’”
Emporio Armani tank top. Banderas’s own necklace and ring.
“I did a ton of commercials growing up. My friends would go to soccer practice, and I would go to an audition. It was just a fun hobby. It’s still a fun hobby—nothing more.”
Eres bra and briefs.
Marchesa dress. Gilan ring; Harry Winston bracelet.
Dior dress; Fleur of England bra and briefs. Harry Winston bracelet; Bulgari ring.
Oscar de la Renta gown. Harry Winston bracelet; Gilan ring; Gucci shoes.
Pitt: Grooming by Jean Black.