Runners-Up: Emily Blunt in Looper dons a fairly convincing Southern accent, and gives her mother character some real weight. Jennifer Ehle in Zero Dark Thirty was easily the most sympathetic character in the movie. Gina Gershon in Killer Joe was courageous almost beyond belief – especially in her unforgettable final scene. Salma Hayek in Savages was just about perfect as a seemingly amoral drug lord. Cody Horn in Magic Mike was wonderful as the personification of female perfection for our stripper hero. Isabelle Huppert in Amour made the most of her limited screen time opposite a couple of legends. Elena Lyadova in Elena is not nearly as one dimensional as we first think she is. Brit Marling in Sound of My Voice delivers the best performance of her promising young career as a cult leader from the future. Melissa McCarthy in This is 40 is memorable in two short, brilliant scenes. Kylie Minogue in Holy Motors delivers one of the great moments of the year when she breaks into song. Olivia Munn in Magic Mike proved that women can use men as playthings, even though it’s usually the other way. Kelly Reilly in Flight is wonderful as the drug addict who makes Denzel realize his own problems. Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman/Prometheus played two very different ice queens in two summer blockbusters. Kerry Washington in Django Unchained delivered an emotional performance, and also played a perfect genre girl. Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower proved that for her, there should be life after Hermonie. Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings Playbook is pretty much the exact opposite kind of matriarch that she played in her star making role in Animal Kingdom.
10. Naomie Harris in SkyfallThe one thing truly missing for the Daniel Craig Bond films up until Skyfall was a true Bond girl – someone for Bond to shamelessly flirt with throughout. Before Harris, the Bond girls in the Craig movies were either disposable (Olga Kurylenko) or else a real love interest for Bond (Eva Green). But Harris plays her role (you don’t learn her name until the final scene, although by then you’ve probably figured it out) just about perfectly. Craig and Harris have instant sexual chemistry, and one the great pleasures in watching Skyfall is to watch the two of them go toe-to-toe with their flirting, before finally giving into to their urges. Harris makes my list of all-time great Bond girls – and I’m glad that it looks like she’ll be around for a few more movies at least.
9. Doona Bae in Cloud AtlasDoona Bae plays multiple roles in Cloud Atlas – but only one truly leaves an impression – but it just may be the biggest impression any actor in the film makes. As Sonmi-451, Doona is a replicant – basically a clone bred to be a slave – who gradually wakes up and discovers the humanity she was never supposed to have. Out of all the stories in Cloud Atlas, hers is the one with the most special effects and action sequences, and yet Doona does a great job at keeping the segment grounded – of reminding us why this story matters in context with the rest of them. This is a difficult role – it requires her to be blank at the beginning, and slowly show her emerging intelligence and humanity – and Doona plays it wonderful. It also doesn’t hurt that her small role as a Mexican woman is a killer.
8. Sally Field in LincolnMary Todd Lincoln is probably best remembered for apparently being crazy – something she bitterly mentions in this movie. Sally Field does give her Mary an edge of madness – something to make it easy to misconstrue as being crazy. But she also makes Mary into a powerful, strong willed woman, who supports her husband, even when she thinks he may be reaching too far. Who can forget her counting up the votes as the come in, or her best scene, when she goes toe-to-toe with Tommy Lee Jones, and comes out ahead on the exchange – something no one else in the course of the movie can do. Yes, as is historically accurate, she often has to take a back seat in the movie, but when she takes center stage, Field nails the role.
7. Samantha Barks in Les Miserables
If Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the iconic I Dreamed a Dream was the highlight of the first half of Les Miserables, than Samantha Barks’ rendition of the almost as iconic On My Own is easily the highlight of the film’s second half. Like Fantine, Éponine is a tragic heroine who willing sacrifices herself for love. Her own, very personal heartbreak in On My Own, as she longs for the man she knows will never be hers, breaks the audiences hearts right alongside hers. For once, director Tom Hopper allows the song to play out in more than just closeups, that puts the song in a grander context. And her final song is nearly as emotional. Barks, who played the role on stage recently in London, is an actress who audiences didn’t know before Les Miserables – but will never forget once they have seen it.
6. Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight RisesAnne Hathaway had some big shoes to fill when she took on the role of Catwoman for Christopher Nolan. Catwoman has been a favorite of mine ever since Michelle Pfeiffer’s brilliant performance in Tim Burton’s 1992 film Batman Returns – a performance that should have net her an Oscar nomination. And Hathaway does a brilliant job with her version of the character – not as overtly sexual as Pfeiffer’s, but a more realistic character – a woman, down on her luck who turns to crime, and then cannot find her way out again. Hathaway injects some much needed humor into the movie – there was always a danger of the Nolan Batman films becoming TOO serious, especially in this installment. But Hathaway’s flirty, sexy and just downright fun performance in the movie is a scene stealer – the best performance in a movie filled with great performances.
5. Nicole Kidman in The PaperboySome roles are so good that all an actor needs to do show up and not screw it up to deliver a great performance. And then there are the roles an actor really needs to work at to deliver a great performance. Nicole Kidman’s work in The Paperboy is the second type. The movie itself an over-the-top mess with moments of brilliance eventually drowned out by the ridiculous plot. But Kidman’s performance in the movie is daring in the extreme, and while she certainly goes over-the-top, she does so brilliantly. She plays a woman obsessed with convicts – who has started a pen pal relationship with a man on death row who she is convinced, is innocent. In short, she is pure trailer trash. And yet Kidman makes this woman into a sympathetic character – even after we see her and her would-be lover mutually climax just by looking at each other (a scene that is brilliant, because of Kidman) or pee on Zac Efron. Kidman has always been a daring actress – making Dogville with Lars von Trier or Birth with Jonathan Glazer or Margot at the Wedding with Noah Baumbach – roles that seem ill-suited to a movie star like Kidman, but also gives her great roles. The Paperboy, despite all the problems the movie itself has, is another great Nicole Kidman performance.
4. Judi Dench in SkyfallJudi Dench has become one of those actresses who can get nominated for an Oscar for practically every performance she gives – which is why it stings a little bit that one of the very best performances of her career is pretty much being completely overlooked this awards season. Dench’s work as M in Skyfall is brilliant – starting the movie as an ice cold bitch, willing to sacrifice Bond in the opening scene, and that sending him back out into the field when she knows he isn’t ready. Javier Bardem’s character may be a psycho, who got what he deserved, but he does have a legitimate gripe against M. Therefore it’s all the more impressive that Dench turns this character she has played a few times now as coldly emotionless, into a sympathetic character as the movie moves along, and especially in her final scene. Dench is an immensely talented actress – and she shows why she is in this performance. I guess the fact that she’s being overlooked for this evens out some of the nominations she didn’t really deserve (Mrs. Henderson Presents anyone?).
3. Anne Hathaway in Les MiserablesAnne Hathaway’s performance of the iconic song I Dreamed a Dream is one of the most thrilling, emotionally draining scenes of the year. Shot almost entirely in a close-up that reminded me of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Hathaway makes Fantine’s heartbreak and anguish real. The fact that she did her singing live on set, rather than lip synching to a pre-recorded track, makes the moment feel even more genuine. By their very nature, movie musicals are artificial in the extreme – but Hathaway’s performance in this one scene is so genuine that all the artifice drains away. Yes, the role and song are designed to be awards bait, but it is so perfectly played, you forget that. Les Miserables may have its problems, but if every scene would were as good as this one song it would be one of the very best films of the year. And the rest of her short performance is pretty heartbreaking as well.
2. Amy Adams in The MasterAmy Adams is usually the perky bright spot in any movie she’s in – even when she played the foul mouthed bartender in The Fighter, she was still the kind, perky, foul mouthed bartender. But in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Adams is all controlled anger – exerting her power over her husband only when she needs to. She is in the background in a lot of scenes simply watching – analyzing everything that is going on, so she knows precisely when to pounce. When she does take control, she does so subtly (for the most part), controlling all those around her while never losing her cool. While the two lead actors in the movie – Phoenix and Hoffman – take very obvious command of the movie, Adams gives one of the best quiet performances of the year- subtly pulling the strings of the master himself. Most people will talk about the masturbation scene – and as brilliant as that scene is (even while doing it, her face is a mask of calm assurance), every scene she is in, you notice her, sitting in the background, watching, waiting.
1. Ann Dowd in ComplianceAnn Dowd is one of those actresses who seem completely familiar, although you’re not sure where you’ve seen her before. In her case, it’s as a guest role on pretty much every TV show of the last 10-15 years. But with Compliance, Dowd finally gets the type of role that all character actresses dream of – her chance to shine, and she doesn’t let that opportunity slip away. Dowd plays a middle aged assistant manager of a fast food joint – whatever dreams she had for her life have long since passed, and she’s stuck where she is – a dead end job she takes too seriously, with a loser boyfriend she hopes will propose to her soon. And then the phone rings, and the person on the other end says he is cop, and he really needs her help – the pretty, young cashier has stolen some money from a customer, and they need Dowd to hold her until they can arrive. And then slowly, he asks for more. Dowd is brilliant because we can see her mind moving at every turn of the movie. Why does she do what she does, and allow this to go as far as it does? Her motivations are complicated – partly because she believes the man is a cop, partly because she finally feels important and doesn’t want to let go, and partly because she’s jealous of the pretty young thing with her life still ahead of her. Dowd does all this acting subtly – her face is a master class in acting in this film. This is one of the most unforgettable performances of the year – one that makes you see just how easy it can be to manipulate someone.