Best Performances

Click here to see this year’s 20 brightest stars, uncensored and unzipped.

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.

Pitt: Grooming by Jean Black.