Dominated by two actresses this year, the supporting actress category was actually quite strong, with a lot of quality work this year.
Runners-Up: Sareh Bayet in A Separation, Jessica Chastain in The Help, Judi Dench in J. Edgar, Elle Fanning in Super 8, Jodie Foster in Carnage, Leila Hatami in A Separation, Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs, Chloe Grace Moretz in Hugo, Sarah Paulson in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Maria Popistasu in Tuesday, After Christmas, Octavia Spencer in The Help, Kate Winslet in Contagion, Evan Rachel Wood in The Ides of March
10. Cate Blanchatt in Hanna
Cate Blanchatt has never been afraid to go over the top – whether it’s as a Commie bad guy in Indiana Jones or Bob Dylan. Here, affecting a strange, Southern drawl, she plays a truly woman, hell-bent on tracking down and killing the title character – a teenage girl. Yes, Blanchatt goes over the top, but would you really want it any other way, considering just as evil her character is? Often times, work in genre films is sadly overlooked, but Blanchatt’s wonderfully malicious performance here shouldn’t be.
9. Marion Cottillard in Midnight in Paris
Marion Cottillard is so beautiful and charming in Midnight in Paris, you have no trouble believing that she could be the muse that inspires practically every great artist and writer living in Paris in the 1920s. With Cottillard, it’s all in the most beautiful set of eyes of any actress currently working – when she turns those big eyes towards the camera, you cannot help but fall in love. She has been used by some directors as merely an object at times in her career, but not here, where Allen gives her a plum romantic role, and she runs with it. It’s pure bliss watching her in this movie.
8. Berenice Bejo in The Artist
It really doesn’t take long to fall in love with Berenice Bejo in The Artist. From her flirty first scene she exudes such sweetness, such charm that you just want to hug her. Like Dujardin, her co-star, she took a real risk here, attempting to recreated silent screen acting, which is miles away from the acting she is normally called on to do, and like him, she pulls it off brilliantly. Her role doesn’t require her to hit as many notes as Dujardin’s does, but with those big doe eyes, she does whatever she is called upon to do wonderfully. A great performance.
7. Judy Greer in The Descendants
Judy Greer has often been stuck in the “best friend” role during the course of her career, in one lame romantic comedy after another – yet she’s always been better than the material deserves. Here, she finally gets a role worthy of her talent. She plays the wife of the man who Clooney’s wife was having an affair with – at first chipper, smart, funny and kind when these strangers show up in her life. Her final scene though, as she visits the comatose woman her husband cheated on her with, is devastatingly good – especially her exit line, which is downright cruel, even though we understand where it’s coming from.
6. Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
I have suffered through a number of episodes of Shailene Woodley’s awful TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager, so no one was more surprised than I was to discover what a great actress was lurking beneath the surface, waiting for a director as skilled as Alexander Payne to draw it out. As Clooney’s older daughter, a wild child who they’ve had to send away to protect her from her own darker impulses, Woodley creates a portrait of a troubled teenager that captures that confusing time in everyone’s life just about perfectly. I don’t know if this performance is the start of a great career, or simply an anomaly, but in this movie anyway, Woodley is just right.
5. Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter
Jessica Chastain had a breakthrough year in 2011, and her brilliant turn in Take Shelter isn’t even her best work. Yet it is much deeper than most “wife” roles in thrillers. Yes she is concerned that her husband is going to ruin their lives, spend all of their money, and perhaps kill them as he sinks further and further into his delusions (unless they aren’t delusions after all). As the movie progresses, she becomes more determined to stand by her husband – to help him, and not abandon him like everyone else, and perhaps that’s the key to understand the ending of the movie after all. This is the start of what should be a great career.
4. Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life
It can be very hard to play a complete character in a movie like The Tree of Life, with all of its stylistics, and hushed dialogue, but that is precisely what Jessica Chastain does in this movie – her best performance in a year where she delivered quite a few. She plays Malick’s view of perfect motherhood – kind, gentle, delicate, sensitive – the opposite of their stern father. She’s also the symbol of her son’s confused sexual awakening, with Oedipal feelings running through him to a certain extent. That Chastain conveys so much, by saying so little in the film, is quite remarkable. Yes, she has gotten more awards attention for her work in The Help (and she is great in that movie, despite my feelings towards the movie as a whole), but it was The Tree of Life where she did her best work this year.
3. Carey Mulligan in Drive
Carey Mulligan’s face has been an inspiration to directors since her breakthrough role in An Education a few years ago. With those big doe eyes, mixed with the intelligence that shines through, and her seemingly fragile nature that makes you want to take care of her, you cannot help but fall in love with Mulligan. And never has that been more apparent than in Drive, where she simply looks at Ryan Gosling, and he melts. She is literally the damsel in distress in this movie, and although she says little, he leaves a definite mark in this film. The look in her eyes when the elevator door closes is wonderful.
2. Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus
There are a number of great performances in Coriolanus – but none quite match the level of Vanessa Redgrave’s bitch of a mother, who drives her son so hard, first into politics, which he isn’t suited for and everyone knows it, and then she destroys him completely when he comes back, guns blazing. I have a feeling that many actresses would have gone big and bold with this performance, but Redgrave smartly does not go that route. She is subtle in her manipulation of her son, even as she pushes him to his doom. Hers is the most complex character and performance in the movie – and it’s the best work this Oscar winning legend has done in years.
1. Carey Mulligan in Shame
Michael Fassbender has deservingly won many awards and hogged most of the acclaim for Steve McQueen’s drama Shame, but Carey Mulligan, as his equally damaged sister, is just as good as Fassbender was. From her far to intimate introduction (naked in the shower) to her slowed down rendition of New York, New York, to her encounter with Brandon’s boss, to her emotional breakdown at the end of the film, Mulligan is never less than brilliant – and holds our gaze, much like she does Brandon’s when singing. She is the reason why Fassbender breaks down – but she’s there to try and find a lifeline, something to save herself. But it’s too late for her; it’s too late for Brandon. Mulligan has quickly become one of the best actresses of her generation, and in Shame, she delivers her best performance to date.