1. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
While Gravity is film’s greatest technical achievement since Avatar, Sandra Bullock’s brilliant portrayal of Ryan Stone stands as the year’s most impressive female performance. As an astronaut lost in space and stuck in pure survival mode, Bullock delivers a career-best performance that pretty much validates her as a Hollywood actress. As she becomes untethered and floats through space without any idea of how to make it back alive, she becomes resourceful and understands her situation. That leads to her entering a space station and creating one of the year’s greatest shots: her floating in the fetal position, resting there for a few moments. This character becomes reborn and fights for her life, struggling with faith, family, and the ability of one’s self to survive personal trauma. I can’t think of a more important performance to a film this year, or at least one as powerful as Bullock’s.
2. Brie Larson, Short Term 12
The indie gem Short Term 12 seemed to come out of nowhere back in the fall, and it’s a shame that so few people have still not seen it. Brie Larson’s lead performance is marked by inner and outer conflict, fighting her past demons while dealing with ones right in front of her on a daily basis. She plays Grace, a supervisor at a foster care facility that helps raise children who either don’t have parents, or have ones that are absent and/or abusive. I love Larson here because she captures the essence of why someone would help at a facility with so much personal tragedy: she, along with effectively anyone else helping there, has lived a troubled life, and wishes that someone like them could’ve been there when they were younger. Short Term 12 is one of the year’s best films and contains some of the most profoundly humanist writing I’ve seen all year. Larson’s performance is career-making and heart wrenching.
3. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig creates one of the most memorable characters of 2013 as the title character in Frances Ha. Noah Baumbach’s film asks a lot of Gerwig as an actress: she has to create a likable, spunky type that becomes defined by her desire to find meaning in a world where everyone seems to be more accomplished than her. Financially, her friends are better off than her; most are in relationships; and most have stronger ties to a future, while Frances is a bit undecided. She doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, basically. But Gerwig never makes this character sad, only spontaneous and gleeful. She is far from a perfect individual, often marked by jealousy and frustration, but I think that makes her more endearing. Gerwig makes Frances more than an idea, but a tangible, amicable persona in a lovable film.
4. Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Julie Delpy’s Celine is one of the most properly defined females in the history of romantic cinema, a testament to her performance and her participation with Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater in crafting this long-lasting love. Celine now has children with the man that she met on a train 18 years ago, something that she clearly loves but leads to a growing frustration. It’s not that she’s discontent, but she’s no longer swept up in the love that defined their early years. She feels that she has fallen out of love with Jesse, which leads to arguably the year’s best scene: their topless argument in a hotel room where they hope to rekindle their love. It’s unbearably tense and heartbreaking, but Celine never feels like a type. She’s a character with a justifiable anger, and Delpy’s simply masterful.
5. Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
Adèle Exarchopoulos is a revelation in Blue is the Warmest Color, playing a high-school girl who finds a sexual awakening within an older, blue-haired woman named Emma (Léa Seydoux). As a 19-year old actress, Exarchopoulos dives deep into her character Adele in a way that very few actresses nowadays can; she effectively embodies her because we’ve never seen her before, and her performance is breathtaking. While everyone latches onto the lesbian sex scenes, which are graphic and wholly important for the effectiveness of the story, the story works because of Exarchopoulo’s emotional devastation over the film’s three-hour run time. There’s a scuffle near the film’s conclusion between Adele and Emma that’s one of the fiercest battles of love I’ve seen in film. Exarchopoulos is an extraordinary actress, one with a promising future.
6. Judi Dench, Philomena
Judi Dench’s Philomena Lee is one of my favorite protagonists from 2013, a graceful woman with a peace-of-mind that is rare in the traditionally pessimistic landscape of film. Philomena spends the first half of the film looking for her son that she unwillingly gave up for adoption while in a nunnery due to her young pregnancy. Most of the second half has her learning about her son’s past, what the nunnery hid from her, and effectively crafting a tale of faith and its effect on a person’s decisions within life. There’s much more to the strange buddy set-up with Steve Coogan’s Martin, particularly in the film’s final half hour when religion plays a vital role to the story’s characterizations and central story. I think it’s a damn near brilliant film, and Dench’s Philomena helps make that happen.
7. Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies
Drinking Buddies is a pleasantly low-key film, an advanced mumblecore feature by Joe Swanberg that features a terrific lead performance by Olivia Wilde. Wilde’s Kate works in a brewery and has a best friend in Luke (Jake Johnson), something she has never explored romantically. She’s in a relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston), a more financially successful man but one with which she doesn’t share a strong personal connection. Wilde’s persona, and lack of makeup, fits the essence of mumblecore: quiet conversations, jovial personas, and a lightness to every aspect of the story. Wilde is an exceptional actress because she can create strong emotion out of simple inflection in her voice, and her natural beauty works to her advantage in this particular performance. As she’s in tears and showing an ugly side of her personality in some of the film’s final moments, it works. Wilde’s performance is remarkable and her best to date.
8. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Enough Said is such a remarkable gem of romantic comedy that it really wouldn’t work with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s lead turn as Eva, a divorced woman raising a college-bound child. Eva runs into Albert (James Gandolfini) and doesn’t seem overly impressed by him and thinks nothing of it; she reluctantly goes on a date and finds him sweet, if unconventional. The framework for love in the film hones in on Eva’s emotional struggles with accepting that Albert may have a lot of problems, but he’s a kind, loving man at his center. Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t traditionally do dramatic acting, but when the film asks that of her, she thrives. There’s a scene where she breaks down after rejection that stands as one of the most moving scenes of the year. Louis-Dreyfus gives Eva a welcome, romantic humanity.
9. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is one of Woody Allen’s most realized characters in years, and that’s a testament to her performance. It’s topped many critics’ lists and will probably be the winner at the Oscars in early March, and I find it to be a character worthy of being called a tour-de-force. Jasmine has a mental breakdown after her wealthy life is torn apart by her husband’s financial mismanagement, leading to her relative homelessness and living with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Hawkins is terrific as well, but seeing Jasmine’s transformation not only throughout the film, but also from scene to scene is remarkable. As the film builds to its quietly poetic final scene, Jasmine is seen as a woman that has had the world take everything from her, both financially and personally. Blanchett often feels like she’s struggling with the character, yet the audience realizes that she understands the unsure nature of Jasmine, and it’s an outstanding performance.
10. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Meryl Streep’s performance can only be described as an actress acting incredibly well. She’s the best in the business and while the rest of the ensemble may not be perfectly fit for their roles, Streep is a horrifying matriarch with a smoking and drug problem that she refuses to recognize, even if it will lead to a timely death. She dons a wig that makes her look like a rock star from the ’70s, and spews hatred in a way no character has done this year. She’s spiteful, remorseless, and one of the strangest embodiments of self-destruction in film this year. Some critics have said that Streep is “acting,” in that she’s not being the character but simply going through the motions. She’s never less than gripping and a joy to watch, though, so I can’t fault her there.
Honorable Mention: Rooney Mara, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
One of my favorite romances this year, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints contains one of the most subtle female performances in Rooney Mara’s Ruth Guthrie. As a woman waiting for her husband to come back from prison, she longs for love and hopes for him to return safely. But the presence of a sheriff hunting for her husband while also longing for her leads to an unconventionally strong love triangle. It’s not forced, but self-contained and specific in emotional cues. Ruth knows that reuniting with her lover will probably result in something tragic, and the film doesn’t disappoint on that front. Mara is one of Hollywood’s best emerging talents, and delivers a performance that shows her capabilities as an established character also acting as a traditional love interest. She’s more than that, and her performance is affecting.