Emily Blunt – Sicario
I’ve been a fan of Blunt for a while now. I first tumbled to her, as a lot of people did, in her small supporting part in The Devil Wears Prada, where she was genuinely one of the best things in the movie. But I’ve been waiting for her truly great performance; she has presence and charisma, but a genuinely great performance? Maybe not. Until Sicario. As a federal agent being sucked into a world of corruption and violence that she’s unprepared to deal with, Blunt gives a raw, impassioned performance that was nothing short of brilliant. It’s everything I was waiting for.
Marion Cotillard – Macbeth
Cotillard came in for some heavy criticism over this performance by people who found her occasionally blank affectation and rather indiscriminate accent annoying. I thought she was pretty well perfect (okay, the accent might have been a mistake at times), giving a super, super minimal performance, a very interior performance, but a dark and compelling one. Chalk up another one for Cotillard.
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
And chalk up another one with this brilliant movie by the Dardenne brothers. Cotillard lost weight and deglammed quite a bit (about as much as someone as gorgeous as Cotillard could) and found a real intense brokenness and honesty as a woman fighting to keep her job in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown. As someone with some experience with nervous breakdowns, I can tell you that Cotillard nails it as well as anyone ever has; the fragility of her body language, the way she moves, the way she even breathes, the weariness in her eyes. This is maybe Cotillard’s best performance and that’s really saying something.
Ronit Elkabetz – Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem
Elkabetz wrote and directed this film about a Jewish woman seeking an Orthodox divorce from her husband and she was amazing at both. And her lead performance is also nothing short of brilliant. It’s a minimal performance, but as the injustices pile up and the case drags on and on for months, a fire begins to burn behind her eyes and when the film reaches its climax and she finally lets us see the sorrow and rage she feels, it’s nothing short of incredible.
Nina Hoss – Phoenix
Hoss’s performance in Phoenix is a thing of absolute genius. As a survivor of the Nazi prison camps of World War II, she’s scarred both physically and emotionally. Over the arc of the film, Hoss has to play her character at all points on the journey from complete brokenness to wholeness and it’s an astounding performance that continues to haunt me. Her performance in the final scene of the film is nothing short of breath-taking, as true a moment of film acting as I saw all year.
Erica Rivas – Wild Tales
Wild Tales is an anthology film (actually the best anthology film, but whatever), featuring six tales of violence, rage and revenge. Rivas is the main character in the final section; she plays a bride with a wedding day that is . . . well, not going quite the way it’s supposed to go. It’s a deliriously unhinged performance. Wild Tales wants to end with a bang and it does so with this over-the-top segment and Rivas really pushes it there with an increasingly wild-eyed and raging performance. It’s the stuff of legends.
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Ronan is an actress that a lot of people have loved for a long time. I’ve never really seen her as anything but a competent actress, certainly not a great one. But with this film, she cements her status as a great actress in my opinion. As a young Irish girl torn between a new life in America and the country of her birth, she finds an absolute truth and honesty. The performance is never melodramatic or over-blown; Ronan never hits the big moments like they’re big moments; she doesn’t have any big Oscar clip monologues or anything like that. But it’s a performance of such enduring reality and naturalism that it’s right up there in the pantheon if you ask me.
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road
Theron is another actress I’ve never really cared for (something of a theme this year), but she outdoes herself by a million miles with this brilliant performance. You don’t often see action heroes getting talked about in terms of great performances, but Theron’s turn as Furiosa is a deserving exception. Theron is ferocious but vulnerable, cynical but idealistic, a study in contrasts and Theron gets it all right. It’s a performance built to be taciturn but that makes the moments when you do see the emotions behind the mask all the more powerful.
Alicia Vikander – Testament of Youth
Vikander got on my radar with Ex Machina, but she’s even better as memoirist Vera Brittain in this devastating film about World War I. The film starts out seeming a little genteel, but by the end, Vikander has drawn all the rawness of despair and sorrow out of the story. She’s perfect as the naïve young woman unprepared for the devastation World War I brings to the lives of her family and friends; as the film progresses, she never loses her vulnerability even as she grows stronger and stronger. It’s a brilliant performance; if you loved Ex Machina, this is a must see.
Lee Young-ae – Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
The final film in Park’s Vengeance Trilogy holds up perfectly and Young-ae’s insane performance in the lead is one of the big reasons why (Park’s direction is, of course, the other). As a woman seeking revenge against the man that framed her for a murder he himself committed, she’s broken in all sorts of ways, but resolved and hardened for her task. The film asks for an incredible range of emotions, given all the flash backs and flash forwards, from innocent young girl to hardened killer to broken sinner seeking redemption. It’s a beautiful film and a beautiful performance.