The Best Movies of 2011: One Year, Three Actresses: Chastain, Wasikowska, and Mulligan

It was a revelatory year for a couple of young actresses, including Mia Wasikowska and Carey Mulligan, while Jessica Chastain just seemed everywhere.

Jessica Chastain in 'The Tree of Life'

Jessica Chastain (The Debt, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Tree of Life, The Help, Texas Killing Fields): The sheer quantity of the films that featured Jessica Chastain this year might make you think that the actress just agreed to every script that flew across her agent’s desk. But then you look at depth of quality, not just in the works she chose (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, Coriolanus), but in the individual parts, and Chastain emerges as an actor who knows what shape she wants her career to take. While she is a highlight in both The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, it is her performance in The Debt that remains memorable — and not because it was her best role of the year, it wasn’t. Rather, Chastain showed she could take an action intrigue and bring to it the same depth of feeling she demonstrated in better scripted movies. Watch for her in 2012 with another movie that debuted at the festivals in 2011, Al Pacino’s cinematic adaption of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

Mia Wasikowska in 'Restless'

Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre, Restless, Albert Nobbs): Perhaps Mia Wasikowska was best cast this year in Gus Van Sant’s macabre teenage romance, Restless. In that film, all of the actress’ pure charm was on display, her soft, adorable beauty and a melancholic sweetness that is so readily available to the camera. But it was her performance in the title role of Jane Eyre that showed off Wasikowska’s dramatic breath, especially in how she submerged her character’s dynamic elements – Eyre’s intelligence, fiery sprit, and innocent sexual sense – for a performance that was muzzled and under pressure, ready to explode.

Carey Mulligan in Shame

Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go, Drive, Shame): We’ll tag one of Mulligan’s 2010 films onto our 2011 credits: the powerfully moody Never Let Me Go, released locally early in the year, in which the actress was a standout highlight. That performance was the first in a trio that include two of year’s better movies, Drive and Shame. In Shame, Mulligan broke up the film’s claustrophobic insularity with a simmering extroverted role – a shift from her withdrawn character in Drive – that provided just enough emotional turbulence without slipping into parody.

Honorable mention: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene): Most of Elizabeth Olsen’s year is still under wraps. She appeared in Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s Silent House; the ensemble comedy, Peace, Love, & Understanding; and shot Josh Radner’s follow up to happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts. But what we did get to see from the actress, who is perhaps still better known for being the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, was spectacular. She shouldered Martha Marcy May Marlene and infused the film with both its heart and hair-raising psychological tension. It was perhaps this year’s singular talent revelation.

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