Runners-Up: Dorothy Atkinson & Marion Bailey & Ruth Sheen & Lesley Manville in Mr. Turner all had very different roles as the women in the main characters life – none of which are quite good enough to come higher, but all of them are wonderful. Jessica Chastain in Interstellar has the difficult job of anchoring the most problematic part of Nolan’s epic – and does an amazingly good job of it. Suzanne Clement in Mommy is very quiet in a movie that is very loud – but she slowly becomes the most sympathetic character in the film. Rosario Dawson in Top Five is wonderful as a smart, funny, sexy New York Times reporter interviewing the star. Sarah Gadon in Enemy does an excellent job as a woman who no longer believes her husband is the same man she married – and in a key moment, reveals she may not care. Ilinca Goia in Child’s Pose plays the main characters daughter-in-law, who in one of the films best scenes gives disturbing detail into her sex life to her mother-in-law, who eats up every word. Maika Monroe in The Guest seems at first to be just another beautiful, young scream queen in this horror film – but as it goes along she becomes anything but. Elisabeth Moss in Listen Up Philip takes what would normally be the long suffering girlfriend role, and does something wholly unique and different with the role. Alison Pill in Snowpiercer has one scene, as an overly cheery school teacher who turns creepy – but it’s a scene you’ll remember. Vanessa Redgrave in Foxcatcher has just a few scenes, but has a wonderfully withering look that can instantly belittle her son. Melisa Sözen in Winter Sleep plays the main character’s much younger wife – and while he is an asshole, she behaves almost like a child. Mia Wasikowska in The Double/Only Lovers Left Alive delivered two excellent performances – one as Jessie Eisenberg’s love interest, who isn’t as simple as she first seems, and the other as an immature vampire who endangers everyone else in the film – and shows why she is one of the best young actresses in the world in both films.
Top 1010. Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars
Moore is the best thing about David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire, which feels like it’s a decade or two too late to really have much of an impact, or much insight. Yet, Moore, who plays an aging former movie star, with an iconic mother, who is beloved by many, but hated by Moore – because she was abused by her. That still doesn’t excuse the monster that Moore’s character has become – a cruel woman who is nearly giddy to hear of a rival’s child’s death, because it means she may get the role she so covets, or one who pushes her already unstable assistant to the breaking point. The movie itself is merely average – a would be shocking expose of the shallowness of Hollywood that shocks no one – and yet Moore goes for the jugular in the film, showing just what women go through in Hollywood, and how damaged they are when they come out the other side.
9. Emma Stone in BirdmanEmma Stone needed a role like Birdman. As beloved as she has become in recent years, she was in danger of being typecast as the cute, smart, funny girl – something she played variations of ever since her breakout roles in Superbad and Easy A. In Birdman, she is required to do something different – basically be a complete mess. She plays a recovering drug addict, who is trying to hold onto her sobriety, and reconnect with her father, who is losing his mind. Her scenes with Edward Norton – in which they playfully flirt, are some of the best in the movie – but she’s excellent in her big, dramatic moments with Keaton as well. We all knew that Stone was immensely talented – but she needed this role to show she can do more than what everyone thinks she can. And she takes full advantage of that opportunity.
8. Agata Kulesza in IdaAgata Kulesza delivers a stunning, angry performance in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. A Polish Jew, who left her child with her sister and brother in law during the war, while she joined the underground. She survives the war, and becomes a powerful figure, as a prosecutor, then a judge, after, fighting against those who helped perpetrates the crimes against the Jews during the war. Now, it’s nearly 20 years later, and she is yet another powerless figurehead in Communist Poland – yet still angry. She meets the niece she hasn’t seen in years – now a novice Nun, who knows nothing of her past, and opens her eyes as to what happened to her, and her family. Kulesza is great in the film, because she is the exact opposite of the main character – who is shy, quiet and doesn’t push anything – and that’s all Kulesza knows how to do. She feels she has nothing left to lose – she is a complete mess in her personal life, and her professional life has stalled, but she wants to do this one last thing with her life. It’s a performance of righteous anger – and one she delivers brilliantly.
7. Carrie Coon & Kim Dickens & Missi Pyle in Gone GirlI could easily make the case for any one of these performances (or perhaps even all three) being in the top five, but I just cannot choose between them, so I put them just outside the “Oscar” slots. Broadway vet Cassie Coon has the biggest role in the film – and she does a great job as Affleck’s sister, which help the audience see the clueless dolt as a human being. Kim Dickens is the cop who is constantly pushing Affleck – on the surface, it really does seem like just another cop role, but she plays it so well, with undercurrents of sympathy, that it elevates it wonderfully. And Missi Pyle, who got almost no praise for the movie, is absolutely wonderful as a Nancy Grace clone – who isn’t as one note as Grace when she’s on TV, and in her one scene off TV, she shows a real person inside. All three of these performances are brilliant; all of them deserve praise and award consideration. But damn it, I cannot make up mind as to who is better.
6. Tilda Swinton in SnowpiercerTilda Swinton is one of those actresses who never seems to repeat herself. Every director seems to want to work with Swinton – and it’s easy to see why – she can do anything. In Snowpiercer, buried underneath a horrible haircut, layers of makeup, and fake teeth, Swinton does the seemingly impossible and moves beyond her eccentric appearance, and delivers a performance even stranger than that appearance. She is a politician – a hatchet man, sent to be the face of the fearless leader, and relishes that role as a seemingly true believer – but one who will turn on those beliefs in an instant if she needs to. This is a tricky role – one that could get lost under all that makeup, but Swinton doesn’t allow that to happen. It’s another strange performance on one of the best, most eccentric filmographies in movies today.
5. Carmen Ejogo in SelmaCarmen Ejogo’s performance as Coretta Scott King is quietly masterful – so quiet and subtle, that I don’t think she’s got anywhere near as much praise as she deserves. She makes her Coretta a woman of quiet dignity – a pillar of strength for her husband, even as their marriage seems to be on the verge of collapse. Their masterfully played confrontation, where she discovers he has cheated on her, is brilliantly played by Ejogo – she does not want to be made a fool of, but also wants to save her marriage. Ejogo does a great job with a difficult role – one that disappears for long stretches of the movie, and seems quiet much of the time she is on screen – but every time she does arrive, she commands the screen quietly – like her meeting with Malcolm X, where she does not allow the firebrand to overtake her – or manipulate her. This is one of those performances that grows in your mind long after the movie has ended.
4. Rene Russo in NightcrawlerIt has been years since I have seen Rene Russo in a movie – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as great as she is in Nightcrawler. In the film, she plays the late night news director, of a low rated local news station in Los Angeles. She needs something to put on TV to gain some attention – and when Jake Gyllenhaal enters her life, with footage, that while crudely shot, is the type of stuff they need to get ratings – basically car crashes and murder victims. Russo believes she is in charge of the situation – but it quickly becomes apparent that Gyllenhaal is calling the shots – and Russo is along for the ride. The performance will bring to mind Faye Dunaway’s in Network – except that Russo is more brittle and desperate than Dunaway ever was. The way she tries to play Gyllenhaal is great – and the way he reacts when she realizes that she is being played is even better. The film is about capitalism more than anything else – where as long as it makes money, there’s nothing wrong. But for Russo, once she crosses the line, she continues to need to keep upping the ante – and she does so. Russo is great in Nightcrawler – which among many other things reminds us just how good she can be.
3. Uma Thurman in NymphomaniacUma Thurman’s role in Nymphomaniac is a one scene tour-de-force. Late in Volume I, Thurman shows up on the doorstep of the main character to confront her, as Thurman’s husband has just left her for this younger woman. Worse still, she shows up with the couple’s two kids. What follows is an epic rant that swings from screwball comedy to downright disturbing insanity and back again. Thurman, who hasn’t had a good role in quite some time, swings for the fences here – and absolutely nails it. It’s a wild performance, and one that swings the movie to its most comedic point – which makes the end of Volume I, which ends on a dark note, even more shocking. Thurman is a great actress, who unfortunately has entered that age where Hollywood has little use for actresses proves it once again here. As far as one scene performances this year go, no one top Thurman.
2. Katherine Waterston in Inherent ViceOne of the breakout stars of the year was Katherine Waterston in Inherent Vice. She enters the film in the first scene, almost like a hallucination out of the main characters past – setting him on the investigation that will take up the rest of the film, and then disappears from the film for the majority of its runtime. She shows up in an impossibly romantic flashback for the main character from his idyllic past. Then she has perhaps the single most stunning scene in any film this year – shot in one take, that last five minutes, her Shasta Fay Hepworth seduces her former lover in a scene where she basically explains how she sold out, both angering and turning on the main character. The scene is erotic in a way that goes well beyond the fact that Waterson is beautiful (and topless) for the entirety of that scene. That scene captures the entirety of Anderson’s masterpiece in a few short minutes – and is all because of Waterston’s astonishing performance. Looking over her resume, I realize I have seen her before in several films – but she never left much of an impression before. Here, she leaves on – and it should make her a star.
1. Patricia Arquette in BoyhoodWhat is remarkable about Arquette’s performance is how it sneaks up on you throughout the movie – slowly changing as it goes along. She starts as the movie as a struggling single mother – dead end job, two kids, an ex-husband who isn’t around and doesn’t pay child support. Her taste in men never improves – she goes from one loser to the next, but at the same time she does improve her own career, and give herself more of a chance. And yet, to a certain extent, no matter how far she comes, she ends up in the same place. Her final scene in the movie is heartbreaking – and remains unresolved really. There is no answer for her – she just has to keep plugging along like the rest of us. Arquette has always been a talented actress – one underutilized over the years, but here she is given the film’s most complex role (no, that doesn’t make it a lead), and she gets everything about it just right. It is a great performance – one that gives her somewhat more to do than Hawke, and yet her performance is just as natural. She has dominated this category all year, and she deserved to.