Year in Review: The Rising and Falling Stars of 2011

With all of the year end lists and overviews, I thought I would focus on some of the breakout actors of 2011; those whose star is on the rise. These performers became some of the most buzzed about names in film and have firmly established their place in the cinema landscape. While I’m sure you could write about a great many actors, I’ve chosen five to highlight. Also, for the most, part I wanted to choose people who appeared in more than one film, in part to gauge their range and demonstrate consistency. So, without any further ado, here are my picks for the actors who have helped shape this year at the movies.

The Rising Stars of 2011

Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender has carved out a name for himself this year with three very different films. Within the mainstream, his turn as Magneto in X-Men: First Class received raves from audiences and critics alike, ensuring him a bright future in Hollywood if he chooses to pursue it. Meanwhile, art house ventures Shame and A Dangerous Method have many supporters (mainly for the former) as well. In fact, Fassbender could cap off the year with an Oscar nod for Shame, his second collaboration with director Steve McQueen.

Carey Mulligan

If Carey Mulligan hadn’t already cemented her name as one of the top up-and-coming actresses working today, this year has certainly proved her talent. Her performances in Drive, while more of a symbol than a full character, embodied the perfect catalyst for Ryan Gosling’s Driver. She’s also received praise for her work in Shame, which I’ve admittedly yet to see. If the buzz is any indication, though, she could receive her second Oscar nomination for the film. Looking ahead to 2012, Mulligan appears to have another solid year with The Great Gatsby and the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

Jessica Chastain

Every now and then, a performer has a year when they seem to become ubiquitous within cinema landscape. This year marked that time for Jessica Chastain who has appeared in films such as The Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter, The Debt, and Coriolanus. She’s received great notices for each; currently having earned a Golden Globe nomination for The Help and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Take Shelter. And with her slate of 2012 films including another Terrence Malick film and Wettest County, the latest from John Hillcoat, we’ll continue to see Chastain quite a bit.

Ryan Gosling

Though he’s already established himself within the realm of movie buffs with films like Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, this year marks a new high for Ryan Gosling. With a trio of movies, each appealing to different audiences, perhaps he’s closer to achieving household name status. First, there’s the genre piece Drive, which may not earn him award consideration, but the film has turned up on quite a few Top 10 lists this year. Second, Crazy, Stupid, Love proved his abilities in a rom-com setting. Lastly, the political thriller The Ides of March allowed him the chance to hold his own against heavyweights like George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. If that lineup of films doesn’t lead to even more high-profile projects and acclaim, I don’t know what will.

Melissa McCarthy

Of all the comedic performances this year, Melissa McCarthy’s turn in Bridesmaids has been the most talked about, go-to example of a standout. Surrounded by other skilled comedians, McCarthy stole each scene in which she appeared. Though she’s acted steadily in movies and television for over a decade, this clearly marks a turning point and her notoriety will undoubtedly continue to increase from here. Case in point: we’ll be seeing her alongside Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in Judd Apatow’s next film This Is 40 in 2012.

Bonus List: A-Listers in a Slump

On the opposite end of the spectrum from these emerging stars, there are A-list celebrities who fell into a slump this year. I don’t want to dwell on the negative too long, so these will be fairly brief.

Natalie Portman

Unfortunately, Ms. Portman has fallen victim to a case of the post-Oscar win doldrums. With uninspired films like No Strings Attached and Your Highness (not to mention a lackluster part in Thor), she’s squandered her accolades for subpar material and paychecks.

Bruce Willis

Even though you could argue that he hasn’t maintained the best track record in recent years, this year marks a real low for Bruce Willis. Of the two features he appeared in, one (Setup) went straight to DVD and the other (Catch .44) barely received a release. Ouch. Maybe next year can make up for it with his parts in Wes Anderson and Rian Johnson’s films.

Ryan Reynolds

If this year has proven one thing, it’s that people are tired of Ryan Reynolds’ shtick as evidenced by the poor performances, both critically and commercially, of The Green Lantern and The Change-Up. Maybe more supporting roles would serve him better in the future.

Tom Hanks

This one is tough because we all love the guy, but Tom Hanks has had a pretty lackluster year. In the summer, Larry Crowne debuted to mostly negative reviews and an overall disinterest from audiences. Now his latest film, Oscar-bait material Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has garnered fairly mixed reactions and most likely won’t earn him any awards consideration. Maybe the upcoming Cloud Atlas can raise him back up where he belongs.

Russell Brand

After building up his career over the past few years, Russell Brand took some missteps in 2011. The live-action/CG hybrid Hop was thoroughly trashed by critics and the remake of Arthur, though perfectly suited for Brand, was largely ignored.

Well, that wraps up my picks for the actors of 2011. Who do you think is most worthy of recognition on either list?

  • Jessica

    So regarding Natalie Portman…she did No Strings, Your Highness and Thor long before Black Swan was released and the award season ground swell began. Let’s wait to see what she does now before puting her down eh?

  • JohnnyGoodTime

    Regardless of when they were filmed it’s still been a bad year for releases from Portman. Anyway, interesting piece to read.

  • indianamcclain

    I agree with Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Chastain.

  • rob

    I havent seen any of the pieces including Chastain but other than that I would largely agree, other than Russel Brand, I may be British but for me he is still riding off of his performance from Get Him to The Greek and Arthur is simply a roadbump slowing him down sightly from that level :P will be interested in his future

    Neither would i traditionally count Fassbender and Mulligan as rising stars but given your reasoning I can’t dispute

  • Andrew

    Can anyone name anything Natalie Portman has been in that either the movie was good or she was good besides Black Swan?? Closer yes, is a good choice but man she has a pretty bad track record if you take Black Swan out of there, even with Black Swan it’s kind of a shit storm.

  • indianamcclain

    @ Andrew I’m sure there are more but off the top of my head The Professional, and Mars Attacks. And I don’t think episodes 1 and 3 are terrible like everyone else.

  • Lainey

    Drive was not so successful financially after all, considering the money they must have spent in advertising the film. The Ides of March made exactly the same amount of money all George Clooney films make, probably even less, notwithstanding the presence of Giamatti and Hoffmann, if you compare it to Michael Clayton. Let us not even examine Gosling’s bankability in relatioon to his previous ‘hits’. I am in a charitable mood today. Fassbender’s Shame made 1M, not to mention A Dangerous Method. Shall we talk about Tree of Life? When it received the prize at Cannes, critics and public were furious. Are you serious in comparing Portman to Chastain or Mulligan? Reynolds already a falling star? Considering that Buried, which cost 1M USD and was not publicized AT ALL, made 20M internationally and Green Lantern around 240M worldwide, having been bashed by the critics and fanboys, I would not be in such a haste to consider him on the wane. Make up your mind. Either one is considered a star in relation to his/her bankability or not. Plus, I hate this habit of thrashing some to boost others. Really objectionable.

  • Kasper

    I completely disagree regarding Portman. Your Highness was great, you fucker.

  • The point of the article is to spark discussion, so if you disagree feel free to chime in with your own rising and falling stars. No need to attack Aaron.

    For the record I think he’s totally on point with Ryan Reynolds, this year proved that he can’t headline a blockbuster. Green Lantern was a bomb no matter how you want to look at it.

  • Jacob

    Well said Sean.

  • I agree with the other commenters that you can’t really count Portman’s 2011 releases against her, as they were all in the can before “Black Swan” hit, which could have gone either way. Financially, she didn’t have too bad of a year, better than most as far as her filmography is concerned, so if she wouldn’t have won the Oscar or if “Black Swan” hadn’t made as much as it did, would she be on this list?

    This reminds me of when “Norbit” came out during Eddie Murphy’s “Dreamgirls” run, how people that really should know better were talking like it had magically materialized out of nowhere to hurt his Oscar chances. I’m sure that Academy voters, industry professionals who have all worked on stuff they’re less than proud of, probably wouldn’t hold something like that (something more indicative of what Murphy had been known for in recent years anyway) against him.

  • Kasper

    I guess I could have ended the sentence off with a winking smilley or something like that to make my point that I wasn’t exactly taking great offense, but anyway, sorry, “you fucker” wasn’t meant as an attack on you – I still disagree about Your Highness though, which is the best fantasy flick I’ve seen in ages and I think Portman is great in it.

  • Jessica

    Nobody’s attacking Aaron. It’s only fair that his choices be analysed just as he is analysing the choices of the people on this list.

    I think people generally criticise actors too much for the choices they make. Sure some seem to be making better choices than others but sometimes despite best intentions projects fail or you take what’s available to you.

    In Natalie Portman’s case just look at the projects; No Strings was thought to be based on an excellent script (it was on the black list). Clearly that project got lost in production. Your Highness was highly anticipated (certainly was on film junk), honestly that looked like a hit in the making, it comes out and bomb. Thor? Well comic books can go either way but with Kenneth Branaugh at the helm it had a decent chance and actually while not great, it’s not bad either.

    Natalie Portman has not made the most successful choices in her career but I feel you could always see the logic in them.

  • Aaron

    Just to clarify a few things:

    The choices for the “Rising Stars” are not based on the box office performance of the films they were featured in. Those are based on the amount of buzz the actors have garnered throughout the year. Perhaps a more accurate title would have actually been “Most Buzzed About Actors”.

    The choices for “A-Listers in a Slump” aren’t meant as an attack on those actors. I’ve enjoyed each of them in numerous films and I’m sure I’ll look forward to watching them in many more. I’m just saying that they each had lesser efforts in 2011, regardless of when they were filmed.

    If anyone has some alternate choices for either list, I’d love to hear about them.

  • Henrik

    Natalie Portman had one of her best years ever with adorable and interesting performances in both Thor and Your Highness!

    Bruce Willis has been in a slump since Die Hard, and was no good before it.

  • How about Jennifer Lawrence for the Rising Stars list? She started the year with an Oscar nomination, followed it with what will probably be a recurring role in one successful blockbuster franchise (X-Men), while being a big part of another potential blockbuster franchise in the making (Hunger Games). She started the year like Carey Mulligan did the year before, but has been more commercially successful so far.

    I like Reynolds, and while this hasn’t been a great year for him, things can turn right around for him at any time really. Didn’t he have another film in the works with Sandra Bullock or something? Lainey, 240 million worldwide for a blockbuster film certainly isn’t what it used to be, especially when Green Lantern cost a ridiculous amount of money and was supposed to be a franchise starter. If there IS a Green Lantern sequel, it will almost certainly do less business, no matter how much of an improvement it might be. It will pay for the negative reaction to the first. I’m really hoping that GL’s underwhelming performance will lead to Reynolds finally being available for “Deadpool”.

  • Scuv

    While I agree with the names above, I thought I might chime in with a few others.
    The first would be Elle Fanning, who with ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Super 8′ had a great year. Especially with ‘that’ acting scene from ‘Super 8′. The kid’s got skills and it bodes well for the future with great young talent like Chloe Moretz, Saiorse Ronan, Kobi Smit-Mcphee and Joel Courtney as well as Elle.
    Another name could be Colin Farrell, who while not blowing everyones minds, has earned himself a nice little run of performances with ‘Horrible Bosses’ and ‘Frightnight’. It took a while but since ‘In Brugges’ he’s been on a roll.
    A couple of names I would also add are Kirsten Dunst who has taken a bit of a kicking the last few years, and with her Cannes victory for ‘Melancholia’ has forced people to take notice. I’ve also got to be a touch biased and choose a Brit for my last contender, but John Boyega was great in ‘Attack The Block’. While these actors have not caused ruptions in terms of box-office, I think heads have been turned and reputations have either been born or rejuvinated. And that can only be a good thing.

  • Kasper

    While Willis has made one poor choice after the other in recent years I think he’s about to have a string of either critical or mainstream succes. The Expendables 2 will probably earn a lot of cash, Looper has excellent early buzz and could end up both being a critical and mainstream succes, Moonrise Kingdom will probably end up getting critical praise and GI Joe 2 could go either way, when it comes to mainstream succes. Then ofcourse there’s also 2-3 other completed films from Willis which I haven’t heard much about.

  • Henrik

    Man, Bruce Willis is just so boring. Other than Unbreakable and Die Hard, I can’t think of anything he was good in, and that he didn’t make worse.

  • Mason

    I’ll admit, Bruce Willis has a certain charm that I like. He’s fairly versatile, and maybe that’s his downfall. Every once in a while he puts together a good dramatic role in a M. Night film (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) sci-fi/drama/action (12 Monkeys, Surrogates, Armageddon), or in an ensemble piece (Four Rooms, Pulp Fiction, Sin City). What I disliked about Die Hard 4 was more the script, and not Bruce’s performance. Don’t care for his straight up comedies- I prefer when his characters have a darker edge somehow. He obviously works a lot so he’s bound to have some slumps, and I doubt he gets the same kind of scripts as Pitt and Clooney.

  • Henrik

    I admit that he is also fine in Pulp Fiction, I forgot about that. Not a weak spot in that movie!