2 November 2008

Looking Back to 2005: Top Ten Female Performances

Top row: 10 - 6; Bottom row: 5 - 1

10. Laura Dern as Terry Linden in We Don’t Live Here Anymore

In a strong four-hander Dern's performance stood out; she was the one character that seemed to be set apart from the rest somehow, either through the fact that she played in a few more scenes without a co-star, or that she was the only one to truly flesh out her character fully. I'm not sure if it was that I connected with her (and therefore her storyline) more, but there was something almost soulful in her fierce portrayal of a confounded wife (and mother) who is seriously not happy with her lot. Dern instills a sly fury and pathos into her role, making it much less of the token effort, a mere fourth wheel, that it could have been if played by someone without her determination and driving force. Terry was someone who needed to break free in absolutely her own way. As always, Dern excelled.

09. Mary-Lynn Rajskub as Avalyn Friesen in Mysterious Skin

Rajskub’s character is the kind of girl you might see week-in, week-out on 'The Jerry Springer Show'. Rajskub turns UFO fanatic Avalyn - a person that could have simply been laughable and pathetic - into a fully-rounded person (Araki's clear-witted writing helps here also). She's sweetly needy, instead of cloying; charming instead of indigent, right down to her subtle, not-too-quirky mannerisms and permanent walking stick. Rajskub is an underrated actress who I'd like to see move up to lead roles (she has a similar quality to Toni Collette; she's never put in a bad role). She's got heaps of talent and assured comic timing. She just needs the right role to catapult her to more weightier parts. This one should surely help.

08. Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth Malet in The Libertine

Rosamund Pike is amazing in The Libertine. I'd only seen her in Die Another Day before this, but here she holds her own amongst strong company. Her surprising and brilliantly un-vain performance (as the prim and very vain Elizabeth Malet) was astounding. There's a scene near the end of the film where she verbally spars with Johnny Depp - both have reached the absolute social nadir: she swigs wine manfully, letting it drool down her face as she spits abuse at him. She does it better than he does. She shows Malet is a force to be reckoned with; push a lady like her too far and social standing goes flying out the window. This intense scene, balanced with her earlier moments of serene composure and contemplation, made for a brave and compulsive performance. Back away and admire from a distance; she's much much more than a Bond girl.

07. Shiang-Chyi Chen as Shiang-Chyi in The Wayward Cloud

Chen doesn't exactly do a great deal in the film, but everything you need to know about her character is written all over her blank, but open-hearted face. She follows up the same role from Tsai Ming-Liang's precursor to this film, What Time Is It There?, but here she slowly and beautifully twists the character around until she ends up somewhere completely different, and sadly less happy, from where she began. It's a totally different place she finds herself in from where we thought (and surely hoped) she'd end up. The final moments of the film are hard to watch, but however dismaying Shiang-Chyi makes the film's audacious, questionable ending rind with an earned sadness. The single tear eking its way down her face in the last shot did it.

06. Abbie Cornish as Heidi in Somersault

Heidi was a character that really could've been played badly if the wrong person took the role. Abbie Cornish manages effortlessly to be many things at once here: a demure drifter, a hollow vessel for others to transfer their desires onto and an outrageous flirt, all contained behind the same pair of pleading eyes. It wouldn't surprise me if Cornish goes on to the bigger things in time; she could act many of her peers off the screen on the evidence of this role. She avoids easy dramatics and stroppy tantrums that can go with a part like this by simply bringing a variety of subtle shades to it. It's like she knew the role outright, from head to toe.

05. Valerie Tedeschi-Bruni as Marion in 5x2

From the start of the film (the end of the story) to the end (the beginning), Bruni Tedeschi's Marion changes so much, not just in those big life shifts required to show the eroding stages of the marriage, but in tiny ways that almost go unnoticed. The single, carefree woman who dances gleefully to Whigfield's ‘Saturday Night’ (hilarious song choice, that) at the end is not the woman who suffers through the - most probable - marital rape at the beginning. After the film ended, I straight away replayed it (and her performance in particular) in my mind; I realised how much of a lasting impression she immediately left . She had to shape five wildly different stages of this woman's life, in limited chunks. That Marion felt so real was down to the way Tedeschi-Bruni instinctively fleshed her character out.

04. Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake in Vera Drake

I had to put a shout out for Staunton here. She’s an actress who can inhabit this kind of role like a glove and make it feel 100% realistic (or as real as I could imagine) and, in the end, deserving of the utmost praise. It was perfect casting. Vera's frequent bustling back and forth to help out friends and family, running errands, cooking meals, having cups of tea on tap, and of course, the polemic of the film, her "assisting girls in trouble", speaks volumes about the differences between what happens on the street and what's going on behind the net curtains in Leigh's probe into '50s post-war Britain. There aren't any affected quirks or false mannerisms to the part. It's all essential to how someone like Vera is. Staunton scrunches her eyes up, and makes you feel the blind helplessness behind them, like no-one else; she turns crying into an artform; tea-making even more so. It's great to see her in a risky central role for once, too. It goes without saying that it's her best performance yet.

03. Maria Bello as Edie Stall in A History of Violence

I was in awe of just how well Bello conveyed something as straightforward as disbelief. And even more in awe of how well her character then easily accepted the secrets that surrounded her husband's past. It was more than just convincing emotional details that made her performance so good though; it was in the minor, but subtly complex particularities of the role, too. In a male-dominated film, Bello stood her ground firmly. Her clothes and surroundings were drab, but her personality and her passion for her marriage wasn't. Her outward demeanour harboured a tough, independent soul. I was totally convinced that Edie lived a full life even though very few aspects of her job, and indeed her world away from her husband (and all other areas of her existence), were shown. Bello managed to make Edie real through sheer impellent conviction and by fully enveloping herself into the part.

02. Sibel Kekilli as Sibel in Head-On

Speaking of kicking arse, Sibel Kekilli got hers well and truly booted in Head-On (in one of the most unbearably sad and harshest scenes of a film that goes to the harshest extremes in depicting a couple's tumultuous lives together). But she got up time after time, spat back and defiantly asked for more; I couldn't believe the guts this woman had. Her suicidal model of independence was one of the best characters of the year; a woman who took life by the balls and shook it up good and proper. Kekilli had this role firmly down. There's a moment where she literally stops herself in her tracks - where she is hoovering a hotel room - and looks out of the window – looking out wistfully at what her life was and now is. Without words she manages to inhabit real lived experience in a few facial gestures. Kekilli, a Turkish ex-porn star, made her "legit" film debut here. In a disheartening and ironic twist that somewhat mirrors the situation of her onscreen character, her family disowned her after seeing the film (upon discovering her former career). It was bold for her to do this role - and the performance came from a place of sincere conviction.

01. Eva Löbau as Melanie Pröschle in The Forest for the Trees

Eva Löbau enhances what is an already excellent film tenfold with her quietly stunning performance here. It's the first time in a long time where I've felt both totally sympathetic to and fully supportive of a fictional character. Which is why she gets the top spot. Löbau kinda broke my heart a little bit with her role as Melanie - a new schoolteacher, on her own and in a strange town making a life for herself. She's someone trying to meet new people, attempting to do well in a job that she feels no-one really wants her in and living as simply as she can. These things usually come as standard character-padding for this type of fish-out-of-water role in more mainstream-minded films. Löbau fully shows the character in all her good and bad attributes: Melanie was high maintenance, annoying and embarrassing, but she was also good-natured, eager and someone who is genuinely interested in other people's lives (much more so than they are with her). It's a small, quiet film with no grandstanding moments that has at its centre a performance full of humanity, complexity and charm. You don't see characters like this very often, if at all. Her car ride at the end of the film - as the Grandaddy song ‘He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot’ fades in - was unbelievably heartbreaking and is probably my favourite moment in any film from 2005.

The subs - 11. Fatoumata Coulibaly / Moolaadé 12. Jennifer Connelly / Dark Water 13. Jennifer Jason Leigh / Childstar 14. Maggie Cheung / Clean 15. Sharon Wilkins / Palindromes 16. Lola Dueñas / The Sea Inside 17. Anapola Mushkadiz / Battle in Heaven 18. Jodie Foster / A Very Long Engagement 19. Shirley Maclaine / In Her Shoes 20. María Alche / La Niña santa

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

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