Worst Female Performance
Anita Kravos – The Great Beauty
You guys. I frigging hated this movie like I can’t remember hating a movie in a long time. Kravos plays a performance artist; the entirety of her art is to strip naked and then fling herself headfirst into a brick wall. And scream. Scream just a whole heck of a lot. She isn’t in much of the movie, but the bit she’s in is dreadful (as the rest of the movie is so).
Best Female Performance
Veerle Baetens – The Broken Circle Breakdown
As a small-time country-western singer facing a deep, deep tragedy in her family, Baetens gives a performance of absolute incredible rawness. I saw The Broken Circle Breakdown in January of 2014 and it is the earliest movie to make it into my year end awards. As I saw great female performance after great female performance, Baetens was the sun around which they all orbited. There was no way she was going to be off my list. As the film moves through the story of her and her husband, she is perfect with every emotion. But it's her devastating grief that will haunt you; there’s a moment when she sings Wayfaring Stranger in a concert and it is only later (thanks to the non-chronological treatment) that we will understand what is behind the aching sorrow and fragility she brings to the song.
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
I rewatched Blue Jasmine in 2014 and Blanchett’s performance just knocked me out all over again. As a wealthy woman brought to penury, she’s absolutely, consistently compelling. Her performance wasn’t the best of 2014, but it was hard to argue with her winning an Oscar for it, so absolutely masterful is it.
Marilyn Burns – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
As horror movie performances go, I think I’ve never seen one to top the absolute, terrifying, brutal, raw conviction of Marilyn Burns’ work in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As the film moves toward its conclusion (read: “after everyone else has been dispatched”), she becomes the central figure of the film and for what feels like an eternity, all she can do is scream and scream and scream. Whether it’s a full body shot of her convulsing in terror or just one eye wildly rolling as it fills the screen, the performance is as riveting and disturbing a performance as I think I’ve seen.
Jessica Chastain – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them
Chastain isn’t just an actress that I love; she’s an actress that I think should already have an Oscar (Zero Dark Thirty, if you’re wondering). So take that for what it’s worth when I say her turn in this film is by far the best work of her entire career. She and James McAvoy are a romantic couple; the film captures them in the bliss of love, the despair of sorrow and everything in between. Chastain’s performance is an often ambiguous one and she’s consistently good; but a late night conversation in an apartment neither of them can stand to live in any longer is acting like one rarely sees.
Essie Davis – The Babadook
Speaking of horror films, this one gets a nod too. As an emotionally disturbed mother dealing with raising her young son alone and the trauma of her husband’s death, Essie Davis is superb. The last thing this woman needs is an evil supernatural threat in the form of a mysterious monster from a children’s book, but that’s what she gets. Davis makes the mother’s slow descent into paranoia, terror and madness palpable and intense. It’s a deeply, beautifully characterized performance; from the first scene to the last, Davis is nothing less than brilliant.
Jodie Foster – The Silence of the Lambs
Speaking yet again of horror films, Clarice Starling remains the high water mark of Foster’s career. As a deeply troubled young woman, she strikes just the right balance between the vulnerability that Clarice struggles to hide and the genuine strength and toughness that she has when push comes to shove. It’s a nuanced performance and a genuinely great one. Foster won an Oscar for this performance, a surprise given the dark subject matter of the film. It remains richly deserved.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Belle
As a mixed race girl being raised by a wealthy English family in the early eighteen hundreds, Mbatha-Raw gives a starmaking performance. She holds the screen with an easy and unforced charisma, but also digs deep into the character to demonstrate the confusion and fear of a woman facing a world in which she is an outcast from every group. Mbatha-Raw gave a great performance in Beyond the Lights as well, though I didn’t see that one until early this year; but it’s a wonderful, often subtle performance in Belle and one that signals great things to come.
Sheila Vand – A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
But seriously, speaking of horror films, Sheila Vand stars as an isolated young vampire stalking the residents of a dilapidated slum town in this striking, haunting Iranian film. Vand gives a genuinely phenomenal performance here; she embodies the loneliness and existential sorrow of this young girl vampire, but when the times come for her to be menacing and frightening, she succeeds in spades there too. It’s an odd performance, with very, very little in the way of dialogue, but she makes the character absolutely clear and if it seems weird to you that this frail, tiny young woman could be terrifying and menacing, well, watch the movie and it’ll make more than a little sense.
Shailene Woodley – The Fault in Our Stars
Woodley is a nice corollary to Jenny Slate in Obvious Child from my honorable mentions list. I found a lot of this film about teens with cancer to be much more clichéd than it thought it was and occasionally just downright silly (Willem Dafoe . . . dude). But Woodley remains an incredibly engaging and talented actress. I first encountered her in The Spectacular Now, a performance that just missed my top ten last time. But this performance is a genuinely powerful one, even if the movie as a whole doesn’t equal it. She’s raw, tragic and absolutely wonderful. Spectacular Now was a movie that equaled her performance; after this film and Divergent I’m hoping she gets a film like that again. For now, I’ll take performances like this.
Lee Young-ae – Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
But, come on, seriously, guys, let’s talk about horror films. In the final film in Park Chan-wook’s masterful three film exploration of revenge, Lee Young-ae plays a woman wrongfully imprisoned for murdering a child. As the film opens, she’s finally being released and rehabilitation isn’t what’s on her mind. Young-ae gives a phenomenal performance, finding both the dark mercilessness of this woman and the aching sorrow at her heart. You wouldn’t really think you could sympathize with a character that cold-bloodedly kills a puppy (seriously, you guys!) but you ultimately find yourself feeling deep empathy for the tragic events that have driven her to madness. It’s a performance for the ages.