Several performers were working overtime in 2011. Brad Pitt planted The Tree of Life, then scored with Moneyball and even had time to lend vocal support to Happy Feet 2. George Clooney multi-hyphenated himself as co-writer/director/co-star of The Ides of March and then vacationed as a mere performer in The Descendants. Even Clooney’s Ides co-star Ryan Gosling got in on the act with additional turns in Crazy Stupid Love and Drive. And let’s not forget Daniel Craig, the not-so-secret agent playing all over the field all year long (Cowboys & Aliens and Dream House, with The Adventures of Tintin and the David Fincher remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo forthcoming).

No wonder the current job market’s so tight. A precious few — Hollywood’s 1 percent — have a stranglehold on the roles, but in all fairness, its time to honor blood, sweat and flowing tears from the best of the year’s premier entertainers.

First off, it is time to take Jessica Chastain seriously. Forget the offensive she has launched on theaters in 2011 — with The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, Wilde Salome and Texas Killing Fields — and the fact that the final three titles have been relegated to “impending” status for regional viewers (although I was able to catch Coriolanus and Take Shelter during the Toronto International Film Festival). Chastain is everywhere. She could even be the author of this article (a dubious assumption only because appearing behind the pen would seem to run counter to her efforts and the very ubiquity of her persona). She is a thing, a force, a creature to be watched, witnessed, admired.

Chastain is the second coming of an order of actresses, in the Cate Blanchett/Kate Winslet mold, imbued with that maddeningly conflicting combination of fiery spirits and ethereal grace that somehow co-exist in them and then, most importantly, are expertly applied to achieve balance alongside a variety of co-stars with their own complex charismatic matrixes.

In Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life opposite Brad Pitt’s domineering authoritarian father, Chastain is the graceful counterpoint, the soft maternal essence that cushions the harsh grip of that male tough love.

And it would seem that she would serve a similar function as Samantha, the mother and wife in writer/director Jeff Nichols production Take Shelter, which has gathered in festival audiences and acclaim at Sundance and Toronto’s fest. Faced with another strong, unsettling male lead — Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), playing another driven, possibly delusional family man — Chastain uses her dual characteristics as an effective one-two punch to complement Shannon’s performance and humanize what could have been rampaging, one-note lunacy.

For all of these elements to come together in a realistic and believable fashion, Nichols relies on the shelter of Chastain’s good nature, which has shined through each and every role of her current charm offensive. Goodness lies at the heart of it, but there is nuanced subtlety that shifts the tone and tenor of each performance. Chastain is the rare performer that can rise to a level of ubiquity that would send audiences scurrying for shelter, but somehow, we sit anxiously through each of these marvelous star-making turns, mesmerized by the thought and consideration that has gone into creating a unique person from mere words on the page. There is distinct life in her characters and humanity in those narrative worlds thanks to her efforts. She is the Everywoman standing by her man and family with shrewd common sense, even when there’s no other rational explanation. That’s what is meant when people talk about “shelter from the storm.”

The guy who came closest to rivaling Chastain in 2011 is Michael Fassbender, the thinking woman’s dramatic heartthrob. Fassbender brooded his way out of the gates in Jane Eyre, then camped it up as the adult version of Magneto in Matthew Vaughn’s comic book prequel X-Men: First Class, before returning to the serious indie realm for A Dangerous Method (playing Carl Jung opposite Viggo Mortenson’s Sigmund Freud) and another hook-up with Steven McQueen (Hunger) in the much-talked about sexual addiction drama Shame.

Fassbender’s icy cool makes him a natural Bond-in-waiting behind Craig, but when it comes to handling their heavy workloads, Fassbender breezes by steely Craig (who seems to have forgotten to find ways to enjoy himself onscreen) to lose himself in the work while making the effort, well, effortless. Craig is all pinched lips and tight squints and oh-so-serious (why so serious, Danny boy?). Whereas Fassbender, in First Class, found a role that allowed him to cut loose, at least during the first half of the movie, and channel his sexy, seductive menace into the pseudo-socially relevant pop-comic fantasy, supplying it with a cheap Bondian thrill or two. For a brief moment, First Class, thanks to Fassbender, felt like a real escapade, a notion lost in the current James Bond iteration.

If Fassbender continues his onscreen run — and it would appear that way, with Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire ready for an early 2012 release — he might have his eye on a repeat as the hardest working performer. After all, it is an entertainer’s entertainer’s entertainer’s world. (tt stern-enzi)