Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2015 Year in Review: Best Actress

Easily the strongest year for this category in recent memory – and the strongest of the four acting categories this year by far. I still cannot believe the some of the performances that that didn’t even make my top 10 – and I’d be happy with pretty much anyone in my top 7 as the winner (especially 1-4).

Runners-Up: Any of these performances, in a normal year, would have easily made the top 10 – some perhaps in the top 5. Emily Blunt in Sicario delivers some of her best work as a woman who has no idea what she’s getting herself in for, and is basically used by everyone else in the film (not by the film). Laia Costa in Victoria is the heart of this one shot wonder, and she pulls it brilliantly. Chiara D'Anna in The Duke of Burgundy is the younger half of the lead couple, the more mysterious one at first. Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a tragic character, sucked into her own madness. Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher is excellent as a woman who takes supporting one of her students to extreme lengths. Elisabeth Moss in Queen of Earth unspools brilliantly. Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl is wonderfully comic and intelligent, yet still an immature kid, in the film. Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back delivers a performance of frightening intensity that is far better than the movie. Karidja Touré in Girlhood gives an honest, heartfelt performance as a teenage girl who doesn’t really know what she wants, or who she is.

10. Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What
Arielle Holmes is a non-professional actor, who own experiences of being a heroin junkie on the streets of New York was turned into this movie by the Safdies brothers. Holmes performance in the film is so authentic, real and visceral that she has already booked some other acting jobs – now that she is clean. In the film, she plays a version of herself – a woman in love with one man, who has left her, and now with another – although she is constantly drawn back in to her former relationship. The film likens addiction to love – both over tremendous highs, and huge lows, and Holmes rides along on the film, giving a performance that is heartbreaking as her need is palpable, and pain all too real. Sometimes non-professionals have only one great performance in them – but I don’t think that’s the case here. Holmes strikes me as the real deal – and she already has a terrific performance under her belt.

9. Nina Hoss in Phoenix

Nina Hoss has been director Christian Petzold’s muse for a few films now – and in Phoenix, he has given her a terrific role in his post-war take on Vertigo. In the film, Hoss plays a Jewish woman, who returns to Berlin after the war, having been liberated from the Concentration Camp – but so badly scarred, that she needs plastic surgery. She still looks almost like her old self – and tracks down her husband (who may well have betrayed her) – who doesn’t know this is his wife, but thinks she can pass for her to get some money. What Hoss does in the film is quietly remarkable – she has to hold herself inside, not letting her husband know who she really is, or that she suspects he betrayed her. It all comes out in the end of course – but not in the way you expect, but instead in a heartbreaking scene that represents perhaps the best final scene of any movie this year. This is a tricky narrative, all built around Hoss’ performance – and she nails it.

8. Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy
At first glance, The Duke of Burgundy looks like an homage to 1970s, soft core lesbian films – and it is, to a certain extent. But as the film progresses, it gets deeper and deeper – and turns into a quietly moving examination of love – and the sacrifices it requires. What sells this change more than anything is the terrific performance by Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia – the older of the two women at the core of the movie, who at first seems to be in the one in control (she’s the one giving the orders after all). As the film progresses though, her fear of losing her younger lover becomes more apparent – it’s exhausting keeping up with her – but she loves her, and makes the effort. It’s really a sensitive performance – and the heart of the movie. Like the film itself, Knudsen’s performance starts out pretending its one thing, before gradually revealing just how deep it is really is.

7. Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria
Juliette Binoche gives one of her best performances as Maria – an actress, now in middle age, who has to confront the death of her longtime director/mentor, and the realization that she herself is getting old – when a younger directors wants to restage the play that made her star – but this time with her in the role of the older woman, not the ingénue – which she cannot see herself playing. It’s a role similar to Binoche herself (she did, after all, start off playing the ingénue). In the film she struggles with aging, with playing the new part, with what Hollywood has become (without whining as much as say Birdman does about it), and goes toe-to-toe with two younger women – before perhaps realizing she doesn’t need to. It’s a remarkable performance – another to add to an already stellar career.

6. Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road
It isn’t easy to deliver a great performance in a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road – which is pretty much breakneck action from beginning to end, that never slows down for a minute to allow the actors to say much of anything, let alone develop in the traditional sense. Yet, that is precisely what Charlize Theron does in Mad Max: Fury Road as her Imperator Furiosa into a real, complex character – often without saying a word. The rest of the cast in the movie is fine – Tom Hardy makes a good, silent hero – but it’s Furiosa that is the real heart and soul of the movie, who brings the moments of pain and heartbreak – and finally triumph – to the screen. It’s easy to overlook the acting in a film like this – but you shouldn’t. Furiosa is a character that is going to be remembered for years to come.

5. Cate Blanchett in Carol
That Cate Blanchett is one of the best actresses in the world right now is not news to anyone. She just received her 7th Oscar nomination (she’s won twice), and she can do practically anything. What is astounding about Blanchett is how she continues to find different things to do each time out – she doesn’t rest on a standard bag of tricks, but instead finds different notes in each performance. In Carol, she plays a woman who falls in love (perhaps first lust), with a young woman – and it threatens to destroy her world. Those early scenes are all performance – not just but Blanchett, but by her character – as she’s feeling the situation out. It’s appropriate for a movie set in the 1950s for Blanchett to embrace the style of acting popular at that time as well – even if it is broader than we expect to today - and risky as well, because if it doesn’t work, you look silly – but of course it works, it’s Cate Blanchett. Blanchett is remarkable in the film, and if it’s not her best performance – or even the best in the movie – that’s a testament to the strength of her career – and the other performance.

4. Brie Larson in Room
Brie Larson is young, but she already has a string of great performances behind her – most notably her work in Short Term 12, for which she should have received her first Oscar nomination (she didn’t). Instead, that came for her work in Room – which is the best work of her young career so far. In the film, she plays Ma – a young woman who has been held captive for years, and is struggling to raise her son in the confines of one small shed. Larson plays this woman through the eyes of her five year old son – who doesn’t quite understand everything he sees, or what she does (but the audience does). This is a performance that dives deep into this woman’s struggle – that doesn’t end when she gets out (it actually gets worse). It’s really is a heartbreaking performance from Larson – but one that does end up inspiring. Not an easy task, but Larson pulls it off.

3. Rooney Mara in Carol
Cate Blanchett is the title character of the movie, but Rooney Maras Therese was really the central character (making her nomination for Supporting Actress ridiculous). Her performance is very quiet – as she is discovering who she is, and it both scares and excites her. Even more than Blanchett, her performance is very much in the eyes – the way she looks at Carol, and falls in love with her, with a series of erotically charged glances. Maras work her is quietly mesmerizing – conveying a range of emotions – confusion, love, lust, fear, happiness, while seemingly doing so little. It is a remarkably subtle performance – the best work yet by this tremendously gifted actress. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received in the film – it just should have been in this category.

2. Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years
Charlotte Rampling has been a great actress for 50 years now – and she finally received her first Oscar nomination for 45 Years – and it’s well deserved – it may just be the best performance she has ever given. When the film begins, her Kate is happy – a retired teacher, married to Geoff for 45 Years, planning their anniversary party – and then a bombshell drops on her marriage, that makes her question everything she has ever believed about her life. Rampling’s work in 45 Years is remarkably subtle – she never really lets her full feelings out, allowing us to see the inner workings of her mind. The entire performance is remarkable – but there are two wordless moments that standout – when she is alone in the attic, and finds out something that may rock her even more than the letter, as a look of despair mixed with anger washes over her face, and of course the magnificent finale, when she feels like all of her fears may well be confirmed. Its remarkable work – by a great actress, getting the best role of her career.

1. Saorise Ronan in Brooklyn
Saorise Ronan’s work in Brooklyn is heartfelt, subtle, quiet and utterly winning. Playing an Irish girl, who moves to Brooklyn in the 1950s, who feels homesick, and then falls in love and thinks she has everything figured out – until she returns back to Ireland, and isn’t quite sure she chose correctly. Throughout the film, she remakes herself several times – fitting herself into whatever role she is expected to fill at that time – dutiful daughter, good Catholic girl, etc. It isn’t so much that those around her remake her – like say Vertigo (or Phoenix) – but that she does it to herself in an effort to make everyone around her happy. It isn’t until late in the film – when confronted with the truth – that she finally stands up for herself, and asserts precisely what it is she really wants. It is remarkable work – that makes the audience fall in love with her, without resorting to sentimentality. In a terrific year for this category – where really, any of the top 7 or 8 performances could have taken this top spot, Ronan deserves it. This may well be my favorite performance of the year – in any category.

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