This was such a strong year for women in cinema. In general, my movie tastes frequently identify with darker material. Films that explore pain and emotional turmoil. Many of the performances below were delivered in such films. Other roles listed here were about discovery and manipulation, anger and comfort. I hope you enjoy my picks, and as always, do feel free to share your favorites as well.
15. Scarlett Johansson – Under the Skin
as The Female
The Scarlett Johansson all of us know and many of us love does not exist in Under the Skin. But her transformation extends far beyond wide eyes and a black wig. The manner in which she moves, the gentle way she speaks – it’s all so… new. You really believe her character is discovering our world for the first time.
14. Felicity Jones – Breathe In
Felicity Jones is one of the most enchanting actresses currently in the game. I’ve been taken with her work since her truthful and devastating turn in Like Crazy. And while Jones is likely to earn an Oscar nomination for playing Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything, I was personally more drawn to her understated work in Breathe In. Her Sophie was a transfixing figure, a young girl too mature for her own good. She could be evil, she could be innocent. Either way, she’s never really clean.
13. Agata Trzebuchowska & Agata Kulesza – Ida
as Ida & Wanda
You’d be hard pressed to find two women who worked better off each other than Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Ida. Their characters couldn’t be more different. Ida is a squeaky clean nun in training, and her aunt, Wanda, is a middle-aged firecracker who embraces life by drinking, smoking, and screwing through as much of it as she can. This is a clear example of opposites attracting; two performances that help make Ida one of the year’s best foreign films.
12. Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice
as Shasta Fay Hepworth
Shasta Fay Hepworth has an intoxicating way about her. A natural charm that will force most any man to do whatever the hell she says. It’s the way her eyes light up and her forehead shifts to convey her precise emotion. I can’t recall seeing Waterson in any of her previous performances, but that shouldn’t matter now. Inherent Vice is destined to make her a star.
11. Rene Russo – Nightcrawler
as Nina Romina
You can tell Nina Romina has worked hard. But although she has clearly taken lessons from the Diana Christensen school of broadcast journalism, her efforts are failing. Her network is low in ratings, and she desperately needs a boost. Enter Lou Bloom, a devilish crime journalist who’ll stop at nothing to get everything he requires. Nightcrawler is one damn thrilling movie. And although the film features exciting car chases and shootouts, rarely is it as alive as when Nina and Lou are negotiating on screen together.
10. Uma Thurman – Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1
as Mrs. H
The award for the best scene stealer of 2014 belongs to Uma Thurman for her maniacal turn in Nymphomaniac. Thurman is in the film for eight minutes, and she completely owns every second she is on screen. “Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?” Bliss.
9. Marion Cotillard – The Immigrant
as Ewa Cybulska
Marion Cotillard has such a presence in everything, but her work in The Immigrant could be her most quietly arresting performance to date. Ewa Cybulska rarely says or does more than is asked of her (and sometimes even less than that), but fear and dread permeate through her every movement. This is a scared woman, lost and on her own. And you can’t possibly take your eyes off her.
8. Emma Stone – Birdman
It’s impossible not to like Emma Stone, right? Her tell-it-like-it-is demeanor with the press, her genuine kindness with fans; and she’s a solid actress to boot. But no previous material has come close to challenging Stone as much as Birdman did. Her Sam was alive in all the right ways – tired, pissed off, vengeful, but also capable of true empathy. Plus, her freakout on Michael Keaton will certainly be one of 2014’s most discussed scenes. Cue her Oscar clip.
7. Stacy Martin – Nymphomaniac: Vols. 1 & 2
as Young Joe
Whether or not you liked Lars von Trier’s sexual opus, it’s hard to not appreciate Martin’s fearless work in it, especially considering that Nymphomaniac was her first role. Not first major role, first role period. Martin went all in here, and even if Nymphomaniac strayed at times, her performance was always on point.
6. Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
as Anna Morales
“A lot of people mention Lady Macbeth because she’s the go-to when you think of a strong female character with a husband. But the problem with that is that Lady Macbeth goes crazy. Anna doesn’t. Anna is very comfortable doing what she’s doing.” That’s a pull quote from an interview Jessica Chastain did with Indiewire last month, and truer words couldn’t be spoken. As the wife of a scrambling businessman, Anna Morales is in full control of her actions. She’s flirty when she needs to be flirty, angry when required, conniving when necessary. She’s as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, while also remaining a loyal wife. At this point, there’s nothing Jessica Chastain can’t do.
5. Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
as Olivia Evans
For the college send-off scene alone. I still can’t watch that scene without getting emotional. Arquette has been in the business for a long time now, and while she’s been lauded for her work in television, I’m so thankful that her film efforts are now being recognized on a mass scale.
4. Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
as Amy Elliott-Dunne
I’m sure I could sit here and list other similar performances worthy of being mentioned alongside Pike’s turn as Amazing Amy. But as of now, I’m at a loss. Pike currently owns this type of character. I loved to hate her and hated to love her. One of the best, most deceitful performances from this or any year. And my god, what a thrill it would be for Pike to win the Oscar.
3. Sienna Miller – American Sniper
as Taya Kyle
I’ve been an admirer of Sienna Miller’s work since her flirty performance in Layer Cake. But it wasn’t until Interview that I knew she was a great actress. Her restrained and frightened performance in American Sniper is, hands down, her finest accomplishment yet. Taya Kyle is one of the best encapsulations of the woman left home that I’ve ever seen. It’s such a shame that Miller isn’t getting more praise for this performance. It’s an absolute stunner.
2. Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
I know a lot of you haven’t seen Two Days, One Night yet, so I’ll choose my words carefully. There’s a scene in the film in which Marion Cotillard’s Sandra walks downstairs and is greeted by her husband and one of her co-workers. They tell her some good news, and Cotillard pauses, then delivers a bit of information that made me gasp aloud. It wasn’t the dialogue that shocked me, but rather Cotillard’s apathetic delivery of it. It’s a huge admission, and Cotillard says it with the importance of “Oh, I forgot to take out the trash.”
That’s just 10 seconds of Cotillard’s performance in this film. The rest measures up dutifully, and then some. Sandra is full proof that Cotillard is one of our finest living actresses.
1. Jessica Chastain – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her
as Eleanor Rigby
There was just something about her. It was the way she cut her hair so short, and applied her eyeliner so heavily. The way she had to force a smile, and wore her angst so effortlessly. Whatever it was, I can honestly say that I loved no film character more from 2014 than Eleanor Rigby. She was such an enigma, that Eleanor. A woman capable of great spite, yet we always wanted to follow her. We wanted to love and care for her, to put our arms around her and convince her that everything was going to be all right.
But everything isn’t all right. Sometimes life knocks you down. Eleanor Rigby knows that, and instead of fighting it, she embraces her pain. She slips occasionally – lashing out at those who love her, having too much to drink with strangers around – but don’t we all fall down at some point? The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which was produced by Chastain, begins with Eleanor at her worst (the Her film, anyway). Flashbacks indicate a happier Eleanor; a more alive and carefree Eleanor. But for the most part, this is a film about emotional anguish. About falling down and just maybe allowing yourself the freedom to get back up again. Walk safely, dear Eleanor. Plenty of us are still thinking about you.