Supporting actresses are often the lifeblood of ensemble films, making or breaking the material depending on just how rich the roles are. This year, there weren’t as many ensembles prominent that dictated these performances, but rather smaller, compact films that focused on a few main characters. It just so happened that some of these women were infinitely better than their co-stars, often becoming the spotlights of their films. There were many solid performances this year, but these were the best-of-the-best:

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1. Amy Adams, The Master

The Master is a great film in and of itself, but the three main performances are each the strongest in their categories this year. Adams, Hoffman, and Phoenix are all breathtakingly incredible, but Adams is arguably the calmest, most turbulent storm in this emotionally unstable film. She’s the brains behind the operation, the one pulling all the strings, the woman with the most power. These women are strong, aggressive, but above all manipulative of the two male characters that dominate the film; that makes them both well developed and occasionally god-like. Adams has always been terrific, delivering strong performances in every movie she inhabits, but here she’s remarkable. I think the film is a masterpiece, but her performance is the unspoken hero.

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2. Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Helen Hunt shows that she can truly make a film pop with her sex surrogate character in The Sessions, a strong comedy-drama gem that emerged from the Sundance Film Festival. What’s impressive is the lack of restraint her performance carries: she’s often naked, with the camera not shying away from her body, and she speaks bluntly about the issues at hand. She also has a family, and begins to fall in love with the man that she’s helping. It seems like that comes with the territory. Hunt is convincing, smart, but above all well-versed enough with catering to human emotion that even the film’s stretches feel genuine. This is an actors’ film, no doubt about that, but hers might be even better than her fantastic counterpart, John Hawkes. 

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3. Kelly Reilly, Flight

I hadn’t even heard of Kelly Reilly before Flight‘s release, but her performance anchors the film in the most important way. Her character is a drug-addled girl who used to be in porn; she’s a damsel-in-distress, if you will, but what becomes remarkable about her, and the film, is the navigation of the main character. She crosses paths with the similar pilot who faces alcoholism and drug problems, yet she becomes the voice of reason as his descent continues. Reilly makes this character so much more than it really is; not that the character is weak, but her performance improves upon the material vastly. Much of the film acts in the same way, but her performance is great and arguably the film’s strongest suit. 

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4. Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower surprised just about everyone, myself included, because it’s a great film driven by three of the best performances of the year. Watson’s is the most subtle, the most restrained, because it provides us with the emotional complexion of her character without necessarily saying all that much. She’s the ying to Charlie’s yang, for they love each other and even address that; she becomes his first kiss, something she says he deserves. There are a lot of fine moments with her, but she makes this film feel even more honest, more emotionally-charged, and more grounded. A lot of great performances advance the characters and make the world more refined; hers does just that.

5. Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables

An emotionally brutal performance from start to finish, Hathaway’s only on screen for about 25 minutes of the film’s running time, but her presence is startlingly strong and pervasive. She’s the thematic weight that I think holds the emotional, epic film in control, for she grounds the film with her breathtaking “I Dreamed a Dream”. I think that might be one of the best musical pieces captured on film, but Hathaway reminds us that she’s a talented actress who can bring so much when her role doesn’t demand it. She makes this character larger than life, full of love and hope, only to have it squandered. It’s revitalized near the end of the film, and we smile at her finding peace. She deserves it, and we want to see her happy.

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6. Judi Dench, Skyfall

Skyfall is the year’s best action film, but it also holds one of the strongest performances of Judi Dench’s career. Yeah, let that one sink in for a bit. She always carries gravitas through every single one of her characters, but M is one of her finest creations, making the woman-in-charge feel determined, focused, but above all looking at the past and future in equal lights. Her balance with Craig is what makes the film so unique (and Bardem’s performance, which also assists her character quite a bit), for they interact so naturally to make that final scene all the more compelling. Who would’ve known that a James Bond film, one made in present day, would give us the most old-fashioned, composed, and effortless performance of the year?

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7. Susan Sarandon, Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I love a lot of things about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but the finest for me is Sarandon’s performance, one of such optimism and love that it’s any wonder that this film was even created. So many movies make their characters unlikable, or try to create anti-heroes with aggressive supporting characters, but this is a movie about kind people living kind lives that deserve the love they so often seek. Sarandon’s mother figure is searching for that love in her office, where she has a secret admirer, and it leads to one of the biggest surprises I’ve seen in any storyline in quite some time. This is an accepting, rewarding film, but Sarandon’s performance reminds us that nice people can, in fact, finish ahead in life.

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8. Sally Field, Lincoln

I have plenty of problems structurally with Lincoln, like how it treats everything so nonchalantly and feels rather unimportant, but Sally Field brings enough emotional heft to her scenes to make it quite remarkable. Even though her screen time is not nearly as prominent as one would expect, for this is a film more about the passing of the 13th Amendment than Lincoln’s personal life, she makes her scenes feel important, and gives the movie enough emotional power to make it worth a watch. Her interactions with Day-Lewis remind us that his performance is far more subtle, but hers is driven by pure emotion, and for that reason it’s commendable and strong. 

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9. Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Weaver’s performance will be the most criminally overlooked element of the film during awards time, and that’s a shame, for hers is a minor, but incredibly powerful effort. She doesn’t hold nearly as much screen time as her counterpart and on-screen husband De Niro does, but when she enters a scene she holds her son above everyone else. She values him, wants to see him develop into the son she always dreamed of, and wants to be happy. We can tell she isn’t, especially when dealing with her gambling husband, but her presence makes certain scenes pop. It’s a very minor performance, one that a lot won’t notice, but it deserves attention because she’s an excellent actress who pulls us in.

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10. Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina

If there’s one breakout star this year, for me, it’s Alicia Vikander. She’s terrific in the lead in A Royal Affair, but her performance in Anna Karenina, a movie I mostly found rather soulless, makes the film an emotionally strong effort. Her scenes, however minor, are fueled by a strong love and passion, much like Knightley’s. I think the film ultimately comes across as lifeless and a poor vision by Wright, a director I admire, but her character is so captivating; the scene where they guess the words they spell out is beautifully rendered and wonderfully impactful. Love is a fickle bitch, particularly in film, but Vikander helps us see it in a young, lovely light.

Honorable Mention:

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Kristen Wiig, Friends With Kids

For the most oddball choice I could’ve done here, I’m going for a performance almost no one has even seen. Friends With Kids was a little film that opened in March, a movie very few appreciated (and understandably so, even though I liked it quite a bit), but it holds Wiig’s strongest film performance to date. She’s married to Jon Hamm’s character, and they both begin to deplore each other; what once started out as light jokes between a group of friends becomes a divorce that is emotionally devastating and remarkably honest. Wiig is effortless and fluid in her developments, and she deserves credit for making the most of a small role. She’s the highlight of the film, and one of the main reasons it’s worth a watch.

Written by Eric Forthun