Jessica Chastain – Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak is flawed and there are still myriad pleasures in it. One of the best pleasures is Jessica Chastain’s increasingly unhinged performance as the mysterious, menacing lady of Crimson Peak. She knows better than any of the other performers what kind of movie she’s in and she commits to the eerie, seventies-style gothic-romance-horror vibe of the film. Chastain is typically excellent; this performance isn’t her most restrained work, but it’s exactly the jolt of ferocity that the film needs.
Olivia Cooke – Me & Earl & the Dying Girl
Olivia Cooke has a rather difficult part to play: a vivacious young girl stricken with cancer – it invites every possible cliché. But Cooke finds a gorgeous truth in her performance, crafting a genuinely charming and funny performance at first and tracing the downward spiral with honesty and empathy. Her final scene in the film is entirely wordless and her performance in that scene, the looks that flit across her face, still haunts me.
Greta Gerwig – Mistress America
There was some fear that this reteaming of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach would be a rehash of Frances Ha, but it’s quite a different film, in tone, in style and in characterization. Gerwig’s performance here is a definite thing of beauty and her character here is more complicated than in Frances Ha; she’s a young woman not so much optimistic as determined to be optimistic, a woman who resolutely lives as if she’s not bitter even though she is and Gerwig layers all of that into the performance. It’s a comedic screwball performance to be sure and hilariously so, but there’s depth there and Gerwig mines it beautifully.
Brie Larson – Room
Larson’s performance as a mother trying to raise her five-year-old son in desperate situations is raw and brilliant. There’s a real truth to every single moment Larson’s on screen; she never feels like less than a real human being. Room is ultimately a film about moving beyond the past and into the future and Larson makes that struggle deeply real, painful, but ultimately winnable without a single moment landing falsely.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Belle
As a half-black woman raised in luxury, struggling to find her place in life and her identity, in eighteenth century England, Mbatha-Raw gives nothing less than a star-making performance. The character is complicated, uncertain, angry, sad, confused and, perhaps above all, filled with strength. Mbatha-Raw’s performance wasn’t seen by many people as the film didn’t do well and that’s deeply frustrating. It’s the kind of performance that should be seen by everyone.
Carey Mulligan – Suffragette
Suffragette had clunky moments and didn’t entirely land, but none of that was the fault of lead actress Mulligan who gives another in a string of solid performances as a young mother/factory worker forced to confront the cruel realities of the world and discover a cause along the way. It’s an emotionally raw performance; Mulligan makes you believe the horrible pain of a woman suffering an unconscionably harsh life and the exaltation she feels upon finding a cause to believe in. Even when the dialogue isn’t the best, Mulligan makes you believe every word.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez – Tangerine
Rodriguez is nothing short of a force of nature in this film. As a transgender prostitute, newly released from jail, she’s on a mission of vengeance against the pimp that betrayed her. The sassy, fast-talking character could easily be a cliché, but Rodriguez treats her with the dignity of being a real person, even as she commits completely to the ridiculous humor and the absurdity of the situation. It’s a performance deeply comic, but also deeply pathetic, in the best meaning of the worst, as in filled with real pathos. It’s layered, energetic, totally committed and super effective. Rodriguez is a trans actress, so will she ever be a star in Hollywood? Not likely, unfortunately. But hopefully we’ll see her again soon in some indie or other.
Barbara Stanwyck – Baby Face
This shocking pre-code film about a woman who sleeps her way up the corporate ladder gives the iconic Stanwyck a shot at her best performance in a career full of them and she’s brilliant. As a destitute woman who discovers that the path to success can be found in the power of her sexuality, she’s absolutely wonderful in a way that’s quite disturbing at times. She’s nearly sociopathic in the way that she manipulates every man she encounters, switching personas at a moment’s notice to be most appealing to the one in front of her at the moment. It’s a brilliant performance, one you won’t soon forget, one that makes Baby Face a film for the ages.
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
As the mysterious Ava, a robot perhaps gifted with the holy grail of artificial intelligence, Alicia Vikander landed on me like a ton of bricks. She’s an actress that I was completely unfamiliar with, having somehow missed all of her previous films, even the acclaimed ones. She could hardly have had a more auspicious introduction than this film. It’s a part that requires ambiguity on multiple levels; you have to be drawn into Ava’s world despite your own misgivings; she has to seduce the viewer though the viewer is as aware as the main character that something isn’t quite right. And Vikander doesn’t just play this part to nothing short of perfection; she makes it look absolutely effortless. Few performances this year, ironically, were less robotic.
Tao Zhao – A Touch of Sin
In A Touch of Sin, visionary Chinese director Zhangke weaves together four true stories of shocking violence in modern China; it’s a film that isn’t the masterpiece critics claimed it was, but it’s a strong, if inconsistent, omnibus film. But the story you’ll never forget is the story of a mild-mannered massage therapist, pushed to the edge, and then over it, by the vicissitudes of life and the cruelty of the human beings who manipulate and take advantage of her. She finds the sympathy you need to have for her easily and just as easily flips the switch into terrifying avenging angel when the moment arrives that breaks the camel’s back. But it’s her final scene in the film, a surprising coda to the story, that may land as well as anything else. Though flawed, A Touch of Sin is important and filled with great things; nothing, however, that’s more important or greater than this brilliant performance.
BONUS: Worst Female Performance
Tara Reid – Sharknado 2: The Second One
Does anything else really need to be said? There are close-ups in this film of actress Tara Reid attempting to emote that are among the most ludicrous images I have ever seen. She seems at times to have been taken control of by some bizarre facial tic seizure. She is not particularly good in the first Sharknado, but her expressions there do occasionally express actual human emotions – not so here. Buzzsaw hand mitigates things only slightly; this performance remains the most incompetent job of acting I saw all year.