Note: due to release times in my area, I have yet to see Zero Dark Thirty and Amour, from which Jessica Chastain and Emmanuelle Riva would undoubtedly show up on this list. I apologize in advance for the exclusions, but I will have reviews for those films when I see them in early January.
Actresses have run rampant in various roles this year: a rebellious little girl, a physically ailing and emotionally exhausted mother, you name it. There’s a role for every woman out there, and it’s a prime example of how strong this year has been for female leads in roles that exemplify their acting abilities. Even mediocre films have boasted great performances. So now, let’s take a look at the ten best leads this year:
1. Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Breakout stars provide us with revelations that we rarely see in film. They often show promise that very few older actors can, and remind us that the future is what becomes so bright for cinema. Quvenzhané Wallis has the most important performance of the year, if primarily because she makes her film so much more special than it could’ve been in another’s hands. Here, she makes a fantasy-like film play all the more poetically, with her Hushpuppy observing this world through a wide-open lens. She sees the happiest things in life, oozing optimism and confidence. I can’t think of another performance this year that impressed me more, also because she was six at the time this film was made. The movie is a masterpiece, and I can’t help but think that she brought this movie together in a way no other actress could have.
2. Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Now here is the most emotionally powerful performance I’ve seen all year, one of such brutal strength and devastation that it’s so decidedly difficult to watch. Naomi Watts has often been the highlight in her films, whether they be King Kong or even Fair Game, yet here she is so remarkably effective as a mother who is struggling to keep her family together. Both physically and emotionally exhausting, this is a harsh, demanding performance, one of the greatest I’ve witnessed in a long time. She’s often limping around, believably so, with chunks of her body missing, and her screams of pain and acceptance of certain fates is so heartbreaking to watch. She gives the most convincing emotional performance I may have ever seen; this performance is one of those I can watch and realize how much an actor gives to their role. It’s masterful.
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Oh, the sweetheart that is Jennifer Lawrence. While her performance for Winter’s Bone is the one that put her on the map, and she was popularized by the monster hit The Hunger Games ended up being, this film will solidify her as one of Hollywood’s strongest talents. Her chemistry with Bradley Cooper is so off-putting at first, not meshing appropriately and often biting in its sarcasm, but we realize it’s because of how effective her performance is, and the eccentricities of their characters. They make this film so remarkable, so poignant and hilarious, but Lawrence has some of the film’s most heartfelt scenes. She’s a strong, independent character that ultimately becomes dependent on a man, but it’s due to love. This is a heartwarming, affectionate film, and her presence elevates that all the more.
4. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed
Smashed is one of the most underrated films of the year, for it features a triumphant lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She plays an alcoholic school teacher, yet she’s more than that when it comes to her delivery and personification. She embodies this character as if they are struggling with their personal and professional life, as if they are inseparable, and her alcohol leaks over from one to the other. Her emotions swing just as much with them, which some may say doesn’t work; it’s understandable, but it’s undeniable that she does the best with the role she’s given. The last thirty minutes of the film sold the performance for me, because her turn is convincing and scary, and that’s primarily due to us caring about this character so much. That’s the markings of a strong and effective performance.
5. Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz
I’ve often said Michelle Williams is the most consistent actress in Hollywood today, and that holds true for her performance in Take This Waltz. It’s a film that I think has a stronger lead than plot, for I think the structure begins to collapse on itself in the film’s closing moments. The four-minute montage near the end of the film is the most brilliant thematic summary I’ve seen in a film this year, and Williams has such a way of conveying emotion that we want to see her succeed so badly. She plays believable, grounded, and lovable characters, but this one is very divisive; she doesn’t hold entirely likable qualities, she’s mostly at fault, yet we still like her and want to see her find happiness. That makes the film’s final shot all the more effective and resonant. This is a remarkable performance, defining her so well.
6. Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Can a single performance elevate a movie emotionally? Outside of that excruciating “Firework” scene (which takes you so far out of the movie that it’s difficult to return), Cotillard’s performance is one of marked complexion, both restrained and rampant in its emotion. I’ve called her one of my favorite actresses, both for the roles that she chooses and how well they accent her acting abilities. If there’s something to be said about Rust and Bone, it’s that her performance demonstrates her insistence on deriving her beauty from character, not appearance. She’s a gorgeous actress, an immensely talented one as well, yet her characters often disfigure themselves or hide behind a curtain; this one loses her legs. It’s almost parallel to John Hawkes in The Sessions, showing us that we can relate to any character, injured or otherwise.
7. Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
I was harsh on Anna Karenina upon its initial release, and I still stand by saying that its artistic vision is so haphazard and frustrating that it’s ultimately a failure. But the performances in the film are all-around strong (as I previously showcased the terrific Vikander), particularly Knightley, who might have her strongest performance of her career here. She thrives with this material, of a woman who has never felt intimacy but now must react to that in her life; what I find so compelling about that is the way she can scream sexuality while at the same time playing an innocent, sad soul. I bought her character, not her motivations or actions at some points, but I’m one of the few that has consistently said she’s a talented actress. I can’t think of a better modern lead for the film, and for that reason it’s a commendable performance.
8. Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
The Deep Blue Sea is a long, seemingly poetic slog, with too much repetition and often not enough emotional heft. But Weisz is so convincing that she was the reason I cited the film as being distant, but occasionally effective. The directing is so far off here, often nonexistent in terms of demonstrating anything, but her central performance makes the scenes she’s in tolerable, which is saying something since I couldn’t stand the film in general. I think this is a clear example of a terrific actress delivering an incredible performance in the wrong film, but I mean that as an utmost compliment to Weisz. She is so good here, particularly in her desperate pleas for love, that we buy her portion of the story, even if it could’ve been told in a half hour. It’s a subpar film, but her performance is rather superb.
9. Leslie Mann, This is 40
Here’s a film that has received far too much backlash and not enough attention on the fact that Leslie Mann can, in fact, act, and that no, she’s not being cast entirely because she’s married to her director. Granted, that helps, but what becomes clear in This is 40 is that can play this type as so much more than a convention. She understands the elements of the genre, how to subvert stereotypes, and demonstrates that her comedic timing is fantastic. She’s vulnerable, flawed, yet ultimately accepting of her situation and where it can head; it’s important to note that she doesn’t seem to be stretching believability or playing shrill when the genre often demands it. This is a smart, intelligent film, but above all it’s a smart, intelligent performance.
10. Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza is one of the best comedic talents emerging today, because she provides us with both a sweetness in her sinister approach and a slightly tragic hinge to characters that works all the more. That’s evident in Safety Not Guaranteed, a movie far too few have given attention, and she shows that her character can be both the voice of reason for the audience, and the voice of wonderment that drives her character down a more believable path. In a film grounded in possible time travel, it’s only fitting that she reminds us of how absurd it is, yet falls into believing it almost immediately. This is a heartfelt character, particularly due to how her path ends, but Plaza elevates it due to her sincerity. While her dry approach off-puts some, I think it lends more here than ever before; this might be her best performance, lying within an exemplary film.