Yesterday, I ranked the fellas, today paves way for the best female acting performances I saw in 2012. Whether it was a glorified cameo or an in-every-scene starring role, here’s the best the ladies had to offer in ‘12
I’ve been in love with Rosemarie DeWitt since her shattering work in Rachel Getting Married. Since then, she’s made a name for herself in Showtime’s United States of Tara, but failed to nab stellar film roles. Noting that, 2012 really was her year, as she showed up (if ever so briefly) in Margaret, Nobody Walks, Promised Land, and hell, even The Watch. The thing all those movies have in common? They criminally underused DeWitt’s talents. Not Your Sister’s Sister. Playing a bisexual vegan with a penchant for the sauce (is that an American independent film character or what?), Hannah was the perfect forum for DeWitt to expose something we hadn’t seen from her yet: deceitfulness. Considering what Hannah does in this film, and how she so blankly means to get away with it, it’s safe to call Hannah DeWitt’s most emotionally vulnerable character yet. Well played, as ever, my dear.
14. Isabelle Huppert – Amour
The combination of Isabelle Huppert and Michael Haneke has produced some of the finest film acting ever. The Piano Teacher is the most obvious piece of evidence to support this claim, but her desperate work in Haneke’s Time of the Wolf deserves mention as well. Now, while Huppert’s costars in Amour have (justly) been stealing most of the thunder, it says something to the actress’s fiery intensity that she’s more than able to hold her own in her brief time on screen here. With her mother bedridden and her father more irritable than ever, Eva tries to mask her frustration by (futilely) dictating her mother’s care. The result? A performance equally as devastating as the film’s two leads, which is certainly saying something.
13. Amy Adams – The Master
as Peggy Dodd
Apparently, I was drawn to a handful of remarkably understated female performances in 2012. DeWitt, Huppert, and many others below certainly fall into that category, with Amy Adams’ work as Peggy heading the pack. It’s a tough gig: to act as the voice of reason without obviously acting. On the surface, you have to do nothing, when in actuality, you’re doing everything. Sure, Peggy was responsible for a few of the film’s most memorable scenes (including the scene), but for the most part, she sat in the background, nodded politely, smiled formally, and spoke only when she knew she would be heard. If I voted in the Oscars, Adams would get my bid in her category without thinking twice.
12. Michelle Williams – Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams’ despondent work in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz was a perfect depiction of jaded woman trapped in a lifeless marriage. At least that’s how she sees it. Point in fact, Margot’s husband, Lou, is a considerate warrior, quietly battling through the varying degrees of coldness exuded from his wife. Margot is a woman who knows what she wants, and when she gets it, realizes it was never good enough to begin with. I wasn’t as jazzed about Polley’s film as many others (which can be credited entirely to the film’s never-ending conclusion), but that isn’t meant to take away from Williams’ work here. She’s one of the best actresses we have right now, and Take This Waltz certainly speaks to that.
11. Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Smashed
Kate’s a tough role to play. Granted, effectively portraying an alcoholic is difficult anyway, but to do it with equal parts humor and tragedy (and to do it well) is damn near impossible. Take for example, the scene in which Kate and her husband aimlessly play poor while having a few early afternoon (or is it morning) beers? She tells him it may be time to slow down. He’s supportive, but curious as to why. Why? Because last night, while completely shitfaced, she wound up smoking crack for the first time (and sleeping on the sidewalk, and stumbling her way home around dawn, and so on). Now, this is scary stuff, and should understandably shock the audience. But the fact that Winstead follows the confession with a silly “Oh, is it really that bad,” sort of look just cements the fact that she and director James Ponsoldt were going for something different here. Different and ever lasting.
10. Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Am I the only person who is baffled by the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is 22 years old? I mean, she’s a ‘90s baby. She’s been nominated for one Oscar already, currently spearheads two huge franchises and just earned her second Oscar nom for portraying the wildly unique Tiffany. In short: this girl’s got game, and I dig it. Tiffany is fast-talking, free thinking and an overall refreshing face for romantic comedy cinema. She’s strong willed yet vulnerable, and can achieve whatever she wants whenever she wants it. Like when she demands her dance partner, Patrick, (Bradley Cooper) finish what he started and compete in a dance competition. To do this, she schools a bunch of superstitious football maniacs on the irony of her and Patrick’s dancing with the winning record of the Philadelphia Eagles. She makes her point, takes a breath, cracks a Budweiser, and takes a long swig. Yeah, this girl’s got it.
9. Dreama Walker – Compliance
I’m not sure I felt more sorry for a film character last year than I did for Becky. As an aimless teenager slowly victimized by a crafty crank caller, Dreama Walker was solely responsible for convincing us that although the events depicted in Compliance are far fetched, they may indeed happen, and happen often. I’m guilty of not believing Compliance in the moment. I found it improbable that a man could call a fast food restaurant, say he was a cop, and within minutes, have one of its workers standing naked in the manager’s office. But as I watched the film, my perception began to change, and in time, I found myself wholly convinced and utterly mortified. Various players of the cast helped, but the person chiefly responsible for me falling into Compliance’s trap is none other than Dreama Walker.
8. Rachel Weisz – The Deep Blue Sea
as Hester Collyer
Playing a woman depressed and a lover scorn, The Deep Blue Sea depicts Hester over the course of one cold day, and slowly reveals her angst in fluid flashbacks. We see how she escaped from a passionless life of luxury by falling into the arms of a soldier. How her affair evolved from loving to obsessive to emotionally draining, resulting in her attempt at suicide. Much of what is required of Weisz in the film are extended sequences of her thinking, and smoking, and looking, and remembering. I was so taken with Hester’s defeated gaze; I simply would’ve followed her anywhere.
7. Noomi Rapace – Prometheus
as Elizabeth Shaw
The most repulsive, jaw dropping and physically sickening moment of 2012 was an extended sequence in which archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw attempts to remove an alien being from within her. Accidentally impregnated and hastily falling ill, Elizabeth scrambles to fight against time by having the being extracted via a fully mechanic, futuristic C-section device. Yes, the content of the scene is enough to unsettle, but it’s Noomi Rapace’s conviction that sells. The tears, the blood, the intense wails of pain, this is physical acting at its most raw. While that’s arguably the most discussed scene of Rapace’s work in the film, it is just one scene. There was so much more to love here.
6. Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
By this point, the unparalleled acclaim that Wallis has attained for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild has been discussed ad nauseum. But there’s a damn good reason(s) for that. Only six years of age when the film was shot, Wallis asserted herself as a determined force of nature. As Hushpuppy, Wallis made me laugh, she made me cry, she broke my heart, and she picked me back up. And she was… six. I could go on, and many have, but that’s honestly a great deal of praise to throw at a seasoned actor, let alone one who learned how to speak just five short years before cameras rolled.
5. Naomi Watts – The Impossible
as Maria Bennett
Naomi Watts’ courageous performance in The Impossible deserves to be ranked among her finest work. In the film, she plays a woman who has survived a tsunami that may have taken the life of her husband and youngest sons. Her scenes during and following the storm (but namely during) demand such intensity from the actress, that they were actually quite uncomfortable to watch. And, come to think of it, that is precisely what Watts is best at: making us squirm. Whether she’s masturbating aggressively through tears, lashing out at the man who has her husband’s heart, or trying desperately to climb up a slippery tree, Naomi Watts can rattle, shake, a roll as well as the rest of them. If not better.
4. Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
I have no idea how Emmanuelle Riva pulled Anne off. Much for her work in Haneke’s film consists of her staring off absently, hardly aware of how bad her health really is. Occasionally she screams, sporadically she bellows. Mostly, Anne is framed around a series of looks. Take the film’s most popular moment, in which Anne suddenly falls mute while in conversation with her husband, Georges. Georges shakes, he pleads, he begs – but nothing. Anne stares, with the faintest of smiles, lost and alone. How you direct an actress to do that, and how the actress actually does that, is far beyond me. But she did. Every actress nominated for the lead Oscar this year is on this list, but something in me really hopes the 85-year-old Riva gets to smile and wave from the stage. She’ll be 86 on the night of the Oscars. Tell me that wouldn’t be a hell of a swan song.
3. Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
In a year filled with strong but understated female roles, perhaps the most noted one thus far is Jessica Chastain’s restrained turn as Maya. We know next to nothing about Maya, the woman. On the film’s surface, that is. At first glance, it’s obvious that the film has no intention of diving into Maya’s personal life – what motivates her to work so hard? To not have a husband, children, a white picket fence, and so on? And I honestly think the answer to that is simple: we don’t know anything about the personal Maya, because there is no personal Maya. I’ve never known anyone who has openly discussed their work for the CIA, but you can bet your ass I’ve met plenty of people who are their jobs. They live for their work, and slight everything else. And yeah, while these people are often miserable to work with (and for), you can be damn sure that in capable hands, they make for compelling film characters.
2. Ann Dowd – Compliance
How do you grow to pity a woman you spend the majority of a film disapproving of? For much of Compliance, Sandra abides to the increasing sketchy (and eventually illegal) demands a police officer requires of her. She forces her innocent employee to strip naked, atone for crimes she knows nothing about, and much much more. The horrific (and rather masterful) evolution of the film is rooted in Dowd’s performance. At first confused, ultimately cold, and always power strong, Sandra is a simple woman inexplicably thrown into a complex situation. You may not like her (let alone believe her dilemma) but by the time she’s forced to explain her actions, you can’t help but sympathize with her, if ever so briefly. Again, the fact that what is depicted in this film actually happened is something I’ll ever fully wrap my head around. We’re smarter than this. Right?
1. Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone
No surprise here, and for damn worthy reason. As the taciturn, nearly emotionless Stéphanie, there’s no reason for the audience to connect with Marion Cotillard’s character in this exquisite film. Until director Jacques Audiard gives us one. And the fact that suffering a tragic accident isn’t even the main cause of our eventual adulation for Stéphanie, really says something about everyone involved. It takes more than physical pain and emotional suffering for this character to win us over. And as the film unveils its characters’ insecurities, we’re privy to the finest that film acting has to offer.
In my initial review for Rust and Bone, I described Cotillard’s work as one of commanding poise and utter fearlessness. Whether she’s walking confidently into a nightclub, climbing determinedly out of an SUV, dancing with an orca whale, or practicing simple hand movements that used to give her joy, there’s nothing about this performance that failed to cut straight to my heart. I should make mention that every scene I just described is executed without Cotillard speaking one word. Not one. Now that’s saying something.