Runners-Up: Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas navigated some tricky multiple roles – my favorite being her 1970s era journalist in this ambitious film. Gina Carano in Haywire kicked major ass – not sure she can do anything else, but she was perfect for Soderbergh’s underrated action film. Lola Creton in Goodbye First Love is a young French beauty, who was wonderful as a teenager who cannot see her first love clearly. Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom perfectly fit into Wes Anderson’s world as a screwed up young woman who finds the perfect screwed young man for herself. Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina may not have delivered the knockout performance many expected, but she’s still damn good as Tolstoy’s tragic heroine. Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games carried one of the year’s biggest blockbusters with grace, style and toughness. Nadezhda Markina in Elena was a remarkably quiet, subtle performance of a woman who gets out of one bad situation by getting herself into a worse one without even knowing it. Leslie Mann in This is 40 pretty much carries her husband’s movie, and keeps it from flying off the rails with her wonderful, funny, sympathic performance. Robin McLeavy in The Loved Ones is one of the most screwed up female horror movie villains since Carrie. Stephanie Sigman in Miss Bala had a near impossible role that required her to hit many different notes, often in the same scene. Alicia Vikander in A Royal Affair had a breakout year, and was heartbreaking sympathetic in this Danish film. Naomi Watts in The Impossible was better than the movie itself, as a woman struggling to survive, and keep her family together. Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea was heartbreaking as a woman who sacrifices everything – she made this almost suffocating film good. Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed elevated a fairly standard issue story about an alcoholic with her terrific performance. Deannie Yip in A Simple Life is subtle and heartbreaking in the appropriately in this deceptively simple film.
10. Dreama Walker in Compliance
There is no doubt that Ann Dowd steals Compliance with her supporting performance as the fast food manager who allows Dreama Walker to be abused. But in all the praise that Dowd has received, it has rarely been mentioned just how good Dreama Walker is – and how complicated her role is. After all, she goes from a care-free young woman, just working her dead-end job, to trying to defend herself against criminal allegations, strip searched, humiliated and eventually sexually assaulted. And at every stage of the process, the audience has to understand just why Walker is allowing herself to be abused like this. It is a tricky, complicated role and performance, where Walker has to do all sorts of projection with only her facial expressions. Ann Dowd deserves all the praise (and more) she is receiving for Compliance. But Dreama Walker deserves some as well.
9. Juno Temple in Killer JoeThe one thing the rest of the characters in Killer Joe agree one is that Temple’s poor, little Dottie is “a little slow”, and coming from this group of idiots, that means something. When the movie begins, we cannot help but agree with their assessment – Dottie, while in the body of a (nearly) grown woman, does seem to have the mentality of a child. And yet, she doesn’t miss anything – she overhears everything, and understands it, and also understands what is expected from her, and that everyone thinks she’s “a little slow”, which helps her manipulate everyone around her from scene to scene. By the end of the movie, she’s getting ready to do the only smart thing anyone in the movie has done up to that point. Temple has quietly being doing good work (mainly in England) for a few years now, but Killer Joe should be her breakthrough role – the only none American in the cast, fits right in with this trailer trash, and outdoes most of them. Her scenes with McConaghey are the creepy heart of the film.
8. Zoe Kazan in Ruby SparksWhen I look at the films of 2012, one of the biggest mysteries to me is why Ruby Sparks didn’t catch on more with audiences. This is a smart, funny, perceptive comedy from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, and a great, witty screenplay by star Zoe Kazan, who wrote herself a wonderful role. She plays the title character – the invention of Paul Dano’s lonely novelist, who writes himself the perfect girlfriend, and then is amazed when she materializes out of thin air. Through the course of the movie, Kazan has to hit pretty much every note there is, as every time Dano thinks of something he’d like to change about Ruby – poof – it happens just like that. She goes from uncomplicated, “cool girl” – every guy’s fantasy of the quirky, cute, sexual girl who “understands me”, into all sorts of iterations, before finally becoming a real person. This role should have made Zoe Kazan a star – and an in demand screenwriter to boot.
7. Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone
The interesting thing about Marion Cotillard’s performance in Rust and Bone is how internal it is. While many actors faced with playing this type of role – an active, able bodied woman, who has an accident which costs her both her legs above the knee – would rage outwards, expressing their anger in big motions, Cotillard does just the opposite. Sure, she snaps once or twice, but mainly she keeps all her anger and pain on the inside – she doesn’t want anyone she used to know around her, she wants to feel the same way she used to feel when men looked at with lust instead of with pity. She is a wounded character trying to figure out where to go now. In Matthias Schoenarts, she has a perfect scene partner – another wounded character, who doesn’t like to outwardly show everything – and between these two wounded characters, somehow they find some sort of peace. Cotillard has become a favorite of mine in recent years, and this is one of her finest performances.
6. Nina Hoss in BarbaraNina Hoss’ performance in Barbara is one of the quietest great performances of the year. As a doctor in 1980s East Germany she is, for reasons we can guess at but are not explained, banished to a small country hospital. From the moment she arrives, all she wants to do is leave. She is cold and even hostile towards her new co-workers, but gradually she warms up to her new community. By its very nature, Hoss cannot reveal too much of her true intentions – you never know who you can trust, and the Stasi are already harassing her. But throughout the movie, Hoss projects toughness, vulnerability, sexuality and warmth, all with very little external movement. After years of solid work in Germany, Hoss is ready for her American breakout – perhaps in next year’s A Most Wanted Man. But for now, her work in Barbara is truly great.
5. Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern WildMost child actors and actresses are artificial – they either try to act too cute or too adult, and they never quite capture real children on screen. But Quvenzhane Wallis’ performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exception. She is a natural, and she carries this difficult, complex movie on her shoulders. The film is a mixture of dark reality and fantasy elements, told from her not quite understanding point-of-view. Her character has had to mature beyond her years, because of an absent mother, and not-all there father, and yet she retains that sense of childhood wonder. When you’re dealing with a performance by an actress as young as Wallis (6), you’re never quite sure if she deserves all the credit, or whether it should go to the director (Benh Zeitlin) for drawing the performance out of his pint sized star. Either way, Wallis delivered one of the most memorable performances of the year.
4. Michelle Williams in Take This WaltzMichelle Williams turns what could have been one of the least sympathetic characters of the year into one of the one of the most sympathetic. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is about a marriage slowly coming to an end – something Williams played in the much harsher Blue Valentine a few years ago. Williams plays the wife who after years with her nice guy husband (Seth Rogen) has grown restless and bored – she wants more passion, and may just find that in their handsome new neighbor. Watching Williams in this movie as she goes back and forth in her mind between these two men is to watch one of the best actresses of her generation at the top of her game. What her character does is reckless and selfish – she loses more than she gains – but at least she makes her own decisions. It would have been easy to either make this character into a heartless bitch, or worse, one of those “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” shallow, sexist characters, but Williams goes deeper than that, and comes up with the real person underneath. She almost single handedly makes Sarah Polley’s film one of the more interesting ones of the year.
3. Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook2012 was the year Jennifer Lawrence became a star with The Hunger Games, and proved herself to be a deft comedian in this wonderfully witty performance. As Tiffany, the dream girl for Bradley Cooper’s mentally ill lead character, Lawrence hit all the right notes. She has issues of her own – and says whatever is on her mind at all times. She and Cooper have a real chemistry together (it makes you forget all about the age difference that is never addressed in the movie), and Lawrence’s comic timing is superb throughout. Her single best scene is when she dresses down Robert De Niro with the facts of how she is not responsible for the Eagles lost juju. Some of the complaints about her character being a fantasy are not without merit, yet Lawrence is so good at playing this role, you forget all about it. Lawrence is finally the movie star she deserves to be.
2. Emmanuelle Riva in AmourI seem to be in the minority who thinks that the best performance in Amour is by Jean-Louis Trintignant, as the husband, because he has much more complex emotional terrain to act. Yet that does not detract for a second just how brilliant Emmanuelle Riva is in Michael Haneke’s sad masterpiece. She plays a woman who has a stroke, and slowly but surely withers away into nothing – both physically and emotionally. As someone who watched a similar process happen to his own grandmother, Riva’s performance impressed me with just how accurate it is, and even when her mind starts to go, you never stop feeling sympathy for her as she withers away. Yes, I think the real star of the movie is Trintignant, who has sadly been mostly overlooked this awards season, but he wouldn’t be nearly as great without Riva’s powerful emotional and physical performance to play off of. Truly a performance for the ages.
1. Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark ThirtyJessica Chastain’s Maya is one of the most interesting characters of the year. She is a woman who becomes obsessed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden, no matter what it costs – either herself personally (since she has no personal life) nor really her country in terms of its moral authority. Chastain is brilliant throughout the movie, with many highlight scenes -the dinner with Ehle where she explains “I’m not the girl who fucks”, the meeting when she responds to the question of who she is by saying “I’m the motherfucker who found this place…sir” – or the moment when Gandolfini asks her what else she’s done in the last 10 years “I’ve done nothing else” are all brilliant moments, and shows how her job has turned into an obsession, and how simuntaneously driven and lonely she is. Maya is certainly a new breed of female hero – smart and tough as any man, but also as flawed. But when I think of her greatest moments in this performance, they are quiet ones – right near the beginning when she tries to hide her shock at the detainee’s treatment, and near the end, when she tries to hide the emotions of what has just happened, and realizes what it is they just did. Chastain’s Maya is certainly a hero – but not an uncomplicated one, or even one that has not become morally compromised.