An almost unfathomable about of great performances in this category this year – any of the top 8 would have been right at home in the “Oscar slots”, and the strength in the runners-up section is unprecedented.
Runners-Up: Maria Bello in Beautiful Boy, Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Viola Davis in The Help, Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground, Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, Felicity Jones in Like Crazy, Lina Liberto in Trust, Miriela Oprisor in Tuesday, After Christmas, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff
10. Saorise Ronan in Hanna
Saorise Ronan had a great coming out party with her Oscar nominated turn in Atonement a few years ago and this young actress continues to do great work in practically all of her films. In Hanna, she plays a the title character, a young girl raised in the middle of nowhere by her father (Eric Bana) to be a killing machine. Yet, while her character starts out as a little robotic, as the movie progresses and she gets out into the real world her character grows before your eyes – underneath it all, she is normal teenager – but one that can kill you. The movie could have so easily flown off the rails had it not been for this great performance.
9. Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy
Juliette Binoche is one of those actresses not afraid to throw herself into any role offered to her, by any director. Here, she teams up with Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, to create a complex portrait that questions the nature of cinematic reality. While her co-star, William Shammell, is a little too stiff, Binoche is fearless, ripping into her dual role – one as a woman on a first date, one as a long suffering wife, as the film fractures half way through and makes us question everything we’ve seen. No matter, because Binoche is our baseline – and once again this great actress isn’t afraid to take chances. That she pulls it off is all the more impressive.
8. Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur
Olivia Colman’s work in Tyrannosaur is quietly mesmerizing. When we first meet her, she seems like a nice, timid woman working in a Christian charity store, when the violent Peter Mullan storms in. But as the movie progresses, and we get to know her own violent life, her performance takes on added dimensions. Colman plays this role like a dog who has beaten repeatedly – meek, shy, timid, untrusting – until one day she can quite simply no longer take it. Mullan is a such a powerful, forceful actor that he can be difficult to keep up with, but Colman handles her role brilliantly – she really does become the center of the movie by the end, and her performance is heartbreaking.
7. Charlize Theron in Young Adult
This is the best work of Theron’s career. One of the most beautiful women in the world becomes a depressed, alcoholic with a sharp wit, who cannot see that everyone in her hometown – who he looks down – no longer, envies her like they did in high school. Now, they feel sorry for the mess she has become. Theron pulls no punches, never tries to make her character likable or sympathetic, but instead embraces her characters flaws, and makes her one of the nastier character of the year – who you would pity, if she wasn’t such a bitch. A great, brave performance by Theron.
6. Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry
Yun Jeong-hie is quietly brilliant as the woman at the heart of Lee Chang-dong’s character study. It is the story of a woman, raising her grandson on her own, who has to deal with the knowledge that he participated in a gang rape (and doesn’t feel sorry for it, even though the girl killed herself) and that she has Alzheimer’s. She bravely carried on with her life, even trying to expand her mind before she loses it, by taking a poetry class. This is a quiet, perceptive movie, that depends on this performance to make it as great as it is. Another triumph for director Lee Chang-dong to be sure, but also one for Yun Jeong-hie.
5. Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn
One of the ways to win an Oscar is to play a famous person – everyone knows that. And yet, Michelle Williams’s performance as Marilyn Monroe goes far deeper than most in biopics. This isn’t Williams simply imitating Monroe’s famous breathy voice, her innocent, sultry sexuality. Williams becomes Monroe, and shows us so many different sides of her during the course of the movie – the movie star basking in fame, the gifted comedic actress, the insecure little girl, the drug addict losing control and on and on. It’s a little bit of a shame that the movie itself is so light hearted, and inconsequential. Yes, it’s enjoyable, but Williams brings another dimension to the movie. If you want to look at the difference between imitation and embodiment, all you have to do is look at the difference between Williams and her co-star Kenneth Branagh, who while doing a spot on Laurence Olivier imitation, never becomes him. Williams becomes Monroe – and in doing so, elevates the whole movie.
4. Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Rooney Mara lobbied hard for this role from David Fincher – and she was quite right that she would be perfect for it. She is not the typical beauty the studio wanted for the role, which we can all be thankful for, since it would have been wrong for Lisbeth Salander. Mara is asked to do a lot – convey a lot of complex emotions, while saying little. Salander has built up walls around herself to avoid getting hurt, and she keeps everyone away. As she digs into the past, she comes alive, and even learns to trust, only to be betrayed once again. This is a magnificent performance.
3. Kristen Dunst in Melancholia
Kristen Dunst has always been a talented actress, but even I have to admit that I didn’t suspect that she had this sort of performance in her. As the depressed, self involved center of the films first part, Dunst fearlessly embraces her characters flaws and contradictions. For some of the second half, she pretty much goes catatonic, but when she comes out of it for the finale, she once again reminds us that she really is the center of this movie. Dunst goes for broke here, and delivers. It’s not easy to work with Lars von Trier, but Dunst manages to give a career re-defining performance in this film.
2. Elizabeth Olson in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Elizabeth Olson delivers an expert performance in one of the most difficult roles of the year. The film flashes back and forth in time to show her both as a member of a Manson family like cult, and her efforts to fit back into society. Because the setting are both so similar – trees play a big role in the visual motif of the film – Olson has to show how disconnected she is in both settings. She is really isolated in both settings, alone with her thoughts, as she thinks what the cult is doing in wrong, and yet when she leaves, she cannot behave the way she is supposed to. Right up until the final, ambiguous frames of the movie, Olson carries this film brilliantly.
1. Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About KevinTilda Swinton is probably the most fearless actress in the world right now. She is not afraid to do anything, work with anyone, speak in other languages, or deliver a performance like this one – where she has to paint a monstrous portrait of motherhood. Is there another movie mother who hates her own child as much as she does here, and yet keeps it as bottled up as she does – that resentment spilling over in everything else? She makes no effort to make her character more sympathetic, and that’s precisely why you do feel some degree of sympathy for her. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the darkest portraits of parenthood ever put on screen. What’s truly scary is how believable it is – and that’s do to Swinton’s brilliant performance.