The Best Movies of 2011: One Year, Three Actors: Gosling, Fassbender, Reilly

These three actors were omnipresent in 2011, and their performances often powered some of the year’s best movies.

Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, Shame): Shame is the role that will win Fassbender the most Oscar attention. The movie is the kind of extreme close-up character study whose success rides entirely on the effectiveness of its leading player. But in all of Fassbender’s roles this year, the actor shows incredible versatility, from a romantic lead in a successful Jane Austen adaptation, to a scrupulous, conflicted superhero flirting with evil in the summer blockbuster X-Men. In A Dangerous Method, Fassbender plays psychologist Carl Jung in a historical drama that draws its central pathos from Fassbender’s performance. If you’re not tired of the rising star, don’t worry, he has two more films set for 2012: Steven Soderberg’s spy drama Haywire and Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller Prometheus. There will soon be few genres left for the actor to explore.

Ryan Gosling (Drive, Crazy, Stupid Love, The Ides of March): The specter of the Gos’s ever-seductive, icy blue eyes was exaggerated in 2011 by the quick release of his two 2010 films, All Good Things and the unforgettable Blue Valentine, in January. Gosling’s “real” 2011 work, though, came in the triple threat of the year’s coolest thriller, Drive, a quality political intrigue, The Ides of March, and a touted romantic comedy, Crazy, Stupid, Love. Sometimes, like in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gosling just had to take off his shirt to win over his audience. In Drive, Gosling had to tap his inner Eastwood, driving (sorry) the film with his stony glare and over-chewed toothpick. If there was any concern that The Notebook star could be both a hunky movie star and a real acting talent, 2011 kicked those doubts’ heads in.

John C. Reilly (Carnage, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Cedar Rapids, Terri): Both Cedar Rapids and Terri are those kinds of quirky, indie-vibe character studies that go down easy and are quickly forgotten. In fact, I had to look up Terri to make sure I wasn’t thinking of another Reilly film from 2010, Cyrus. But later in the year, the actor came through with two fantastic roles, both as fathers. One was a pent up powder keg in Polanski’s Carnage, the other the unassuming rosy-eyed innocent who never quite sees his wife’s suffering in We Need to Talk About Kevin. With a career that includes both Step Brothers and Magnolia, Reilly seems to thrive on straddling a line between comedic and dramatic acting, and in dramatic roles like Carnage and Kevin, Reilly’s easy-going, buoyant style lend humanity and levity to characters that would perhaps otherwise not feel as deceivingly complex – and enjoyable – in another actor’s hands.

Honorable Mention: Brad Pitt (Moneyball, The Tree of Life): Pitt didn’t feel as omnipresent this year as the other three on the list, but his two performances this year rank among the actor’s best ever. It was quite an unspoiled year for Pitt, as long as you block Happy Feet Two out of your mind.

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