Lindsey Duncan – Le Week-End
People will probably know Duncan mostly from her performance as a divisive character in Birdman: the jaded theater critic. But she’s a veteran British actress with a ton of great performances under her belt. In this film, she and Jim Broadbent are an older married couple attempting to reconnect over a weekend in Paris. Duncan is just fantastic; she’s very subtle and minimal, but effective. Her performance is perhaps the most precise female performance of the year; not the tiniest eyelash flicker is unplanned or out of place.
Kang Hye-jung – Oldboy
Hye-jung plays the young woman that falls afoul of Choi Min-sink’s Dae-su and, for reasons we only truly begin to understand very late in the film, assists him in his quest for vengeance. Hye-jung manages to make Mi-do a character of heavy contrast. At times, she’s deeply troubled, obviously dealing with severe emotional trauma in her past; at others, she’s (occasionally literally) angelic in her innocence and her youthfulness. It’s a performance that could easily be overshadowed by Min-sik’s insane central turn, but she is, in many ways, just as much the heart of the film as he is.
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Speaking of women that could easily have been overshadowed completely by their male co-stars, here’s Felicity Jones who gives a very real, very open performance as Jane Hawking. I didn’t anticipate being as impressed by Jones as I was, but she’s incredibly good; every emotion in the spectrum is allowed its moment. The look on her face as she watched Stephen attempting to play croquet is a moment of pure, raw intuitive acting that I don’t think I’ll be forgetting anytime soon.
Nimrat Kaur – The Lunchbox
As a depressed housewife, lost and isolated in the bustle of modern India, Kaur really gives a fantastic performance here. Over the film, which details a chance connection between Kaur and an Indian office drone, wonderfully played by Irrfan Khan, and the way the encounter changes both of their lives, we get to see Kaur hit a lot of emotional beats and she’s wonderful at all of them. A scene where she contemplates suicide (and I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it’s a particularly disturbing kind of suicide) is a masterclass in despair and emptiness.
Janet Leigh – Psycho
Seeing Psycho again made me appreciate the film in some new ways. I really appreciated Leigh’s performance this time more than I have in the past. She’s only in the first act of the film, but Marion Crane has a complete character arc in just that brief story. She handles the arc perfectly. Her slowly mounting fear as a police officer stalks her implacably; her carefully veiled disgust at a client of her employer; her slow return to calm and peace in the famous conversation over dinner. It’s a flawless performance, really.
Kelly Reilly – Calvary
Reilly is a fine Irish actress and she may be as good here as I’ve ever seen her be as the estranged, suicidal daughter of Brendan Gleeson’s main character. It’s a mostly subdued performance, but she’s really phenomenal. The last shot in the film goes to her and it’s one of the most haunting final shots of the year; her face in that moment is burned onto my brain. What a wonderful performance.
Katee Sackhoff – Oculus
Oculus was a far better horror film that I expected; it’s tale of a haunted mirror and its destruction of a happy family was tense and suspenseful. Sackhoff’s performance as the mother of the family was a big reason why; from a warm-hearted, likable mother, she progresses into a paranoid, frightened woman as we watch. And her progression from there . . . well, the less said the better for those who haven’t seen the film, but the scary part of this character comes from the performance not the makeup. Her final scene in the film is easily the best part of the last third of the film (where the movie does kind of go off the rails).
Jenny Slate – Obvious Child
As a quirky stand-up comic suddenly facing an unwanted pregnancy, Slate gives what should be a starmaking performance. I’ve been a fan of Slate for a while (check out Marcel the Snail with Shoes On, a YouTube series she’s behind and her appearances on Comedy Bang Bang: The Podcast), but her performance here just knocked me out. It’s even more notable because I didn’t care for the film taken as a whole; the film attempts to balance sadness and silliness and raunchiness and the balance just doesn’t work in my opinion, but Slate’s performance is everything the film as a whole wants to be. She nails the quirky weirdness of her character perfectly and also the moments of deep sadness. It didn’t make her a star, but it should have.
Emma Stone – Birdman
Stone is obviously career best in Birdman as the recovering addict daughter of Keaton’s character. It’s a toss-up as to where she’s better: in her tense, angry face-offs with Keaton or in her electric, vivid face-offs with Norton. That Stone, an actor that’s been good before, if not great, can hold her own with two actors of that caliber (and both giving their best performances in years) is testament that Birdman is Stone moving up a level in terms of her skills. That long, long shot that focuses on her as she rips her dad up one side and down the other is brilliant; so too is the moment when she’s given, like Reilly, the final shot of the film. Like Reilly, she kills it. It’s a great performance and while I’ve been a fan for a while, I’m now extremely excited to see where she goes from here.
Kristin Wiig – The Skeleton Twins
Wiig’s turn as a depressed, deeply troubled woman attempting to salvage her relationship with Luke Wilson and reconnect with her estranged brother, Bill Hader, gives her best performance to date. The movie isn’t a comedy, really, though there are moments that Wiig is very, very funny. But it’s the moments of sorrow that she really makes sing; it’s a minimal performance, but her inner pain as she struggles with her demons and the frankly awful things they make her do is raw and powerful. There’s a moment early in the film that finds her staring into a bathroom mirror, her hand already full of pills, preparing to take the leap into suicide. As someone that’s faced depression and suicidal thoughts and stared into a mirror while wrestling with both, I can tell you that no one has captured the moment when you’re as close to suicide as you can get without actually doing it so well.
Reese Witherspoon – Wild
And another deeply troubled female character to close out the honorable mentions. Well, maybe there’s a funny performance in the top ten; I’ve genuinely forgotten at the moment. This film finds Witherspoon playing a deeply troubled woman, racked with guilt, grief, drug addiction and a penchant for risky sexual behavior; she’s living on the edge and trying to find her way back and Witherspoon makes that struggle riveting. It’s a performance that I have trouble placing in context of Walk the Line; is this her best performance since Walk the Line or just her best period? I’m not sure; I’d have to watch Walk the Line again. Either way, it’s probably only the second time in her career that she’s given what I’d term a great performance. Anyway, it definitely indicates that as she ages out of the quirky rom-com roles she’s been known for she has interesting and fascinating places to go. I hope she continues to stretch in roles like this.