8 February 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Female Acting

With a slight bit more fuss and fanfare than the men (mainly because the word count here is a touch higher), here are my ten selections (though I cheated, so there are actually eleven: see #2) for the top female performances of 2010. Like with the men the other day, the usual 'also good' bunch (or next ten) are below too. So which women ruled the day? (All performances are taken from films released in the UK between Jan. 1st and Dec. 31st 2010)

Also good (or roughly 11-20, from top to bottom, but not in any real strict order):

Ursula Strauss Revanche
Nora von Waldstätten Carlos
Gemma Arterton The Disappearance of Alice Creed
Brenda Blethyn London River
Rose Byrne Get Him to the Greek
María Onetto The Headless Woman
Lauren Socha The Unloved
Olivia Williams The Ghost Writer
Keira Knightley London Boulevard
Jill Hennessy Lymelife

The Top Ten:

10. Marisa Tomei Cyrus

Because: Near the start of Cyrus, just after Tomei (as Molly, single mother of awkward teen Jonah Hill) has just introduced herself to him outside, she watches soon-to-be new boyfriend John C. Reilly from the edge of the room whilst he drunkenly embarrasses himself singing the Human League's Don't You Want Me Baby? to a crowd of hip LA onlookers. When it gets to the first female vocal Tomei steps in to assist Reilly in his flailing act. Her miming of "I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar..." feels both a friendly, heartfelt act of encouragement for a fellow soul adrift and a celebration of the kind of playfully daft, in-your-face nonchalance that older performers rarely get to revel in too often on screen. (And I'm not talking about Streep & co. flapping around in Mamma Mia! either.) It's a small, wonderful moment in a great, carefree performance. Tomei has recently been besting many of her peers, both old and young, in a range of films (The Wrestler, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are the best two recent titles) and in Cyrus she's still a vibrantly comical onscreen tonic. She looks and acts better than ever.

09. Kate Hudson The Killer Inside Me 

Because: I went to and fro on what I did and didn’t like about The Killer Inside Me, but ultimately I wasn't completely sold on it. (The Grifters and The Kill-Off are both better Jim Thompson adaptations in my eyes.) Hudson had a hard task in Michael Winterbottom’s intriguing, contentious film and should indeed be lauded for her bold work. She completely surprised me. Her performance came from a place I didn’t think she could reach after a string of weak efforts – Nine prime among them. (So much for underestimating certain actors.) As Amy Stanton, the legit girlfriend of Casey Affleck’s wrong-un sheriff, Hudson made great use of her wily mannerisms and smooth way with the odd turn of phrase. Whilst the politics are rucked up in Winterbottom’s directorial decisions and adaptational skills the acting itself was stellar, as too were the film's technical achievements. Hudson’s final scene was devastating; it takes someone made of hardy stuff to act out such horrific moments. Hudson deserved much more praise for her role than what was apparent during the film's release.

08. Claude Perron La horde / The Horde

Because: Perron’s performance in La horde is not one you could warm to exactly, but then again finding any joy in a largely abandoned tower block during a mass zombie epidemic was always going to be a futile pursuit, especially when the blood gush increases with each scene. But it is a performance to be rightfully aghast at, in a good way, and in full admiration of. It’s one scene in particular which cemented Perron’s position in this list: despite her Aurore being mostly a blank-faced, internal type early on, she somehow manages to very quickly and efficiently both turn her character’s survival odds around tenfold and annihilate a particularly pesky domesticated zombie. With a kitchen. Have you ever seen a woman finish a member of the French undead off with a fridge and a gob of spit (ejected harshly as if it's a spiteful full stop)? From that point on I was alert to anything Perron was capable of on screen. She owned all of her own, and most others’, scenes thereafter. She was an unleashed force of battle-toughened dementia – a ladylike wrecking ball. If there’s to be a sequel – hinted at by the filmmakers – then this might well be referred to as Perron’s Alien.

07. Gabourey Sidibe Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Because: Whilst I didn’t fully take all of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (it lost some momentum in its middle section) to my heart, I did adore Sidibe’s performance. It stood firmly out over many of the film’s other aspects. Plus, her character was far more psychologically involving than many of the others I saw in a wide range of films last year. How many times can we say we’ve seen characters like Precious on our screens? Characters like this, treated with able concern and conveyed through the exactly right performance style, don't often see the brighter side of a small, obscure festival run. (But it would've been different had the right people not spotted something worthwhile in the film.) Sidibe’s innate ability to subtly show many sides to Precious’ persona is evident in each of her scenes. She immerses herself in the role. It doesn’t feel like easy acting and her part – through the careful balancing of restraint and fury – never at all tips into pitiable mannerism. I’d love to see Sidibe do more intricate, intimate films where she can flex her talent and develop her inherent performance skills. Plus, come on, in the right, non-crazy movie world she should've claimed that Oscar without any question or deliberation.

06. Carice van Houten Black Death

Because: With a deceptive presence and a bordering-on-the-ridiculous accent (extracted from her own Dutch tones and mangled with some ungodly witchy verbiage), van Houten cuts a calm yet deadly figure in Black Death. She’s more effective for being so manipulatively evil whilst actually looking like a hippy-ish housewife on a medieval role-playing weekend. Van Houten is a strikingly beautiful actress, and has an uncommonly adaptable look that she’s able to exploit incredibly well from film to film; she can play a wide age range, easily appear older or younger depending on the role, although she's only 34. This is perfect for her role as Langiva, a mysterious villager managing to ward off pestilence in a particularly unforgiving England of 1348. To say more about who she is, and what she stands for, would give away a bit too much of what makes Black Death so effective and van Houten so deliciously diabolical. Needless to say, she was entirely memorable and compulsively watchable all the way in the film. Hers is a small role, but oh-so crucial to what the film was saying.

05. Drew Barrymore Going the Distance      

Because: I don’t watch a great many rom-coms, but when I find one that I can stick with for more than twenty minutes I’m usually hooked, for the duration, on the story, however unlike my – yours, theirs, or anyone’s (but mostly mine) – life the romantic-comedic shenanigans on display actually are; and they’re usually so far removed from life that it practically becomes sci-fi anyway. But who cares, eh? That’s what’s so good about a successful rom-com; they take us to a ridiculous place full of funny things and lovely (hopefully) people. The best ones that do this do it slightly on a tangent. They sit to the left of the usual mainstream centre. Going the Distance did this well, in my view; and it’s largely down to Barrymore as Erin, a journalist dallying with long distance love with Justin Long. You get pure comic class with her in the film. She - and it’s apparent right from the start - walks all over the likes of Heigl and Witherspoon as a lovestruck lass. She makes Erin feel earthy, robust and just the right shade of sassy – and far more affable and complicated than the genre often allows. Why isn’t Barrymore the first port of call for all slightly alternative-leaning romantic Hollywood ventures? She can do it in her sleep, face painted like a cat, and still compel.

04. Catalina Saavedra The Maid  

Because: I’ve watched many films where I’ve seen a character – often a periphery role, someone in the background who may have a few lines and makes a minor impact on the main plot, but doesn’t hang around too long – and thought, Hold up, I’d rather watch their story. Let’s see where their lives take us instead, shall we? With The Maid/La nana, director Sebastián Silva must have seemingly heard my plea and given us Raquel, brilliantly played by Catalina Saavedra. She’s that peripheral figure, only allowed to now flourish in the midst of her own perplexing, messy and multi-faceted life story. Everyone else is dispensable. Almost. The pull of family and new, unforeseen connections are what concern Raquel. Although behind the blank, childlike expression hides a cunning woman, well versed in cheeky – and very comical – deception; she comes with a few tricks tucked in her apron pockets. But all this abides and Saavedra blooms to give us an intimate, fantastically nuanced portrait of a woman on the edge, both literally and emotionally. She broke my heart just a little bit in La nana.

03. Tilda Swinton I Am Love

Because: Our Tilda had a rollicking good time in I Am Love. Well, until she didn’t, when it all went pear-shaped. But then again, thinking about it, wasn’t it a bit pear-shaped for her all along? And that rollicking good time was just a wake-up call. Her Russian-born, Italian-adopted Emma Recchi dressed up to take a trip into opulently naughty cinematic sin but came out the other end a very different, dressed-down and let it all hang out kinda gal – and, to be quite frank, a better person for it. But a hefty price was paid in the process. That – without issuing too many spoilers – was the crux of her dilemma, however. To be who she needed to be, she had to lose everything but the one thing she couldn't give up. And if that last sentence sounds like a voiceover plea for the heroine of an adaptation of a gaudy-racy novel, then it fits marvellously into the vividly overblown scheme of I Am Love’s intentions. It uses rich, throbbing and unabashedly artful-crazy emotion like a waterfall uses water. Tilda is very good, we know this already, but she’s never been more open-hearted, venturesome or defiantly cracked as she was here. It's a staggeringly great turn; she worked on refining it for eleven years- each one of them shows in the film.

02. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore The Kids Are All Right (tie)

Because: More than any other recent film, I found it hard to decide which performance, Moore or Bening, affected me most. Both actresses were splendid and the film worked largely due to the pair’s stellar work together; they acted in wonderful accordance with each other (in the same way that, say, Sarandon and Davis did in Thelma and Louise). Also, with the Oscars looming and hundreds of other awards ceremonies dishing out gongs, it's become apparent Bening is getting the lion’s share of the accolades with only a mere handful of nods in Moore's direction. Both are deserving. It’s daft to single one of them out for praise and not the other where two inexplicably entwined performances are concerned. Neither actress really needs an Oscar to confirm their talent, but the award, or the nomination at least (Bening got one, alas Moore didn't), is still a tip of the hat from one's peers. Anyway, everything considered, the acting was all right.

Moore exhibited an open, joyful grasp of her character - skittish and amiably docile gardener Jules. Her ability to blend great comedic flourish with moments of keenly felt drama, within the same character, was exemplary, and not something she always gets praised for. She’s never fused these elements together so well; her foregrounding of the former aspect is exceedingly well realised. Her natural ease with all her co-stars throughout stand out – in particular her many scenes of daily routine with Bening and the fumbled speech in front of her family later in the film. Jules was a key role for Moore and should hopefully point to further expansion of her considerable craft in future roles. Bening, in what was essentially the slightly less central role, was tremendously wonderful too. It’s her best work yet. I’ve never really had her on my radar (apart from her great turn in The Grifters), but there wasn’t any one instance here where she wasn’t on absolute top form. She makes her character, Nic, a pleasingly cynical doctor, incredibly sympathetic, but doesn’t in any way lay it on too thick to gain unearned emotion. Bening manages to do a lot without actually outwardly seeming to demonstrate much (the dinner scene is a master class in the underplaying of a daunting realisation - and one of the most affecting in the film), and she crisply delivers her lines for maximum comedic impact (similarly as Moore does) to make each one count. Nic felt real, complex and seriously likeable through Bening’s performance: not one note was off. Indeed, both actresses gave peerless turns; and both should be lauded equally.    

01. Hye-ja Kim Mother

Because: There wasn’t any other actress last year who managed to do what Hye-ja Kim did. If there was, I didn’t see the film. She dances into Bong Joon-ho’s stunning, mysterious film, often dressed with immaculate style (and with a look that even from 100 yards states, ‘I don't take any shit’), as probably the most unlikely screen detective ever. Imagine Miss Marple taking it upon herself to investigate the town of Twin Peaks. In a quick, easy summation, that’s the general tone of the film. But through Kim’s layered performance both anchors everything perfectly and allows it to veer off into unchartered territory now and again; she goes to great lengths to create much of Mother's alluringly sinister yet somewhat kindly menace. Simply, she plays Mother, out to prove her near-helpless son’s innocence after he's accused of murdering a local girl. It’s essentially a character study of a strange, complex woman: Mother is a miasmatic Mildred Pierce, a fretful bag of nerves jostling with dubious dealings and discovering revenge tactics unusual to a woman of her meagre means. When Kim’s not snooping around town with a quizzical brow and a golf club, she’s fearfully quaking at the depths of the situation she’s got herself into; what she’ll do for family is the very crux of the matter. Hye-ja Kim’s performance is without doubt the best piece of acting I saw from a female all last year. She’s more impressive, still, for the fact that before Mother she only had a mere handful of screen credits to her name. And it’s greatly encouraging that at 70 years old there we're still likely to see more talented turns from her in the future.

Next: top ten best films of 2010

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