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Great Performances 2011: Best Actor

Well, it's here. Our annual Great Performances issue, where we talk to the actors who delivered some of the most memorable performances of the year on film. And this year is a particular embarrassment of riches in the Best Actor category. Right now, it's likely we can assume there will be nominations for George Clooney ("The Descendants"),  Jean Dujardin ("The Artist"), and Gary Oldman ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," you can read my interview with him here.) Nods are also very likely for Brad Pitt ("Moneyball") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("J. Edgar"), but there are some spectacular performances on the fringes just waiting to jump up and take a slot.

Probably at the forefront of this group is Michael Fassbender, who's been earning raves for his turn as a sex addict in "Shame." In this interview, Fassbender talks frankly and hilariously about shooting the movie. He also admits he can get proprietary about his characters, even Magneto in "X-Men: First Class." Fassbender was a terrific interview; candid, warm, and with a great sense of humor. I rarely attend press conferences, but happened to on this day, and there was a very odd moment when someone asked him the following question: "What advice would you have for sex addicts who aren't as rich and good-looking as you?" To his credit, Fassbender gave a polite and serious reply, explaining that sex addicts are members of  fringe society who have ways of finding each other, and money and appearance have little to do with it.

Coming up close behind Fassbender is the magnificent Micheal Shannon, who stars in the drama "Take Shelter" as a man who has terrifying visions of an oncoming destructive storm. You can read the interview here. Shannon regularly blows me away on screen--he was mesmerizing in "Bug" and stole "Revolutionary Road" out from under Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio with just two scenes--and "Take Shelter" is a bravura performance from a true actor's actor.

Also deserving attention are Demián Bichir of "A Better Life," interviewed here. This was one of my favorite movies of the year and Bichir is outstanding as an illegal immigrant struggling to raise his 14-year-old son. It's a quiet, internal performance that sneaks up on you and delivers a gut-punch in the end. When I spoke to director Chris Weitz earlier this year, he said he would do whatever it took to get Bichir an Oscar nomination, and he's been good to his word, promoting the actor at screenings and events--including one this Saturday at SAG Foundation I'll be moderating.

Ralph Fiennes is also on the short list for his work as the title character in "Coriolanus," though I believe his directing deserves some recognition, as well. You can read all about how he juggled both jobs in our interview here.

Finally, there's Woody Harrelson, who is outstanding in "Rampart," playing a corrupt cop miles away from his good-natured bartender on "Cheers." Our interview with him is here, where he talks very openly about not liking the film the first time he saw it because several plotlines were removed. After some distance, he was able to watch the film again and appreciate it for what it was, not what he thought it would be. I'm glad, because he's fantastic in it. The last time he teamed with writer-director Oren Moverman, he scored an Oscar nom for "The Messenger." Would love to see the magic repeat itself.

--Jenelle Riley

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