Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
I loved Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s methodical drama about the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin (and, yes, I literally almost typed “Red October;” that’s not a joke, it actually happened). Chastain’s performance is wonderful and compelling. She’s steely, grim and completely locked down; it’s a minimal, hard-edged performance. When she finally cracks and shows real vulnerable emotion, it’s the last shot of the film and because of the minimalism of most of the performance, it’s doubly devastating. And, believe me, I’ll never forget that she’s the m*****f***** that found the place.
Rinko Kikuchi – Babel
Babel is, in the long view, an intriguing failure; the four stories are compelling, but the connections between them feel forced and uninteresting. But Rinko Kikuchi’s performance in the Japanese section of the movie is stunning. She plays her character with complete commitment; as a sexually confused, grief-stricken, constantly angry deaf athlete she’s chillingly good. It’s a disturbing performance of a disturbed individual. Her pain and brutal sorrow are completely devastating to watch. It’s a star-making performance. Kikuchi continues to be good (the recent Pacific Rim gave her a surprisingly deep character and she did a wonderful job), but she’s never really equaled this dark, grim performance.
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lawrence already got an award from me as part of the American Hustle ensemble, which took home a Best Ensemble award. But she’s worth pointing out on her own. As Christian Bale’s abrasive, manipulative wife, she’s an absolute hoot. The film has lots of big laughs, but she gets most of them. Her introductory scene in which she overcomes Irving’s anger with pure sex appeal; her angry rant about the disastrous “science oven” gift; the unbelievable scene where she spins out an intricate explanation for a dangerous act and the viewer is genuinely unsure of whether or not she’s telling the truth or just trying to explain away her stupidity. It’s a funny, beautiful, sexy, winning performance. Goddess status continues to be confirmed.
Rooney Mara – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
This one also got on my Best Ensemble list, but I’m once again going to single out a female performance. Mara’s role as a young woman raising a child and trying to keep faith that her husband, having escaped from prison, will somehow make his way home to her and her child is brought to life with a minimal simplicity that’s deeply evocative. Mara finds an almost zen spirit, a laconic, taciturn tone that perfectly encapsulates the rural simplicity of 1970s Texas. She’s a woman that rarely shows overt emotion, but in her long still pauses and the quiet warmth in her eyes hits right to the core. Mara made her name with a showy performance in Dragon Tattoo, but she’s just as good, if not better, underplaying.
Lea Seydoux – Blue is the Warmest Colour
I first saw Seydoux in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol as an icy assassin. I didn’t particularly think she was much good at all in that, but she’s won me over with her wonderful, intense performance in this lesbian love story. She portrays her character over a period of years and she shows the passage of time with simplicity and perfection. From the swaggering cool of her university days to the quiet, calm peace of her later years, she doesn’t so much as portray the behavior of the character as exude the emotions from the inside out. Whether it’s deep, sorrowful longing, intense sexual passion or wounded, violent rage, she’s absolutely note perfect for every second of this three hour movie.
Okay, those were some amazingly good performances there, right? So, wait until you see the fantastic performances that actually made my top ten. Next time, it’s the only purely comedic performance to make either my top ten female and male performances. So that’ll be fun, right? We like to laugh.