Best of 2011: 20 Lead Actresses

7 Feb

A whole month after 2011 ended I have wrapped up my yearly rankings, having seen 256 films released in 2011, granting 13 perfect A+ scores and a really superb 76 scores in the A range. To remember the year that was I thought I should start a feature that will hopefully become a yearly thing for me and do a few Best of 2011 posts, choosing my Top 20 films, directing efforts, screenplays, and performances (separated by lead male, lead female, supporting male and supporting female) and doing a post honoring them with a brief paragraph explaining what made each of those 20 options so remarkable and memorable and thus made 2011 a great year for films. For the sixth entry in the series of posts we have my Top 20 Performances by Leading Actresses of 2011:

20. SAOIRSE RONAN as Hanna in Hanna

It’s kind of baffling that Hanna was so shut out from any awards love, at the very least its amazing score from The Chemical Brothers should have gotten some recognition. Saoirse Ronan who’ll turn just eighteen in a couple of months reteamed with Joe Wright, the director who get her an Oscar nod for her work in Atonement a few years ago, for this, a very different kind of role for her and one that would prove to be quite a challenge for any actress. The fact that she’s so young and so talented only means great things for the future, she’s stunning here, going toe-to-toe alongside experienced actors like Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett, and coming out on top.

19. MIRANDA JULY as Sophie in The Future

Miranda July has to be one of the most unique voices in film and literature right now. And one of the most polarizing, too, with people are loving or hating her work. I personally love everything she does, as was the case with her latest film, The Future, and the lead performance she gave in it as Sophie, one half of the duo that decides to adopt a stray kitten, Paw Paw (voiced by Ms. July), and to live the 30 days during which the kitten will live in a shelter as the last days of their lives since they believe this new small responsibility will alter their lives forever. Miranda July maybe super artsy and hipster and call her what you want, but her refreshing brand of quirky is one that I really love.

18. ANNA PAQUIN as Lisa Cohen in Margaret

When I first saw Kenneth Lonergan’s excruciatingly-delayed Margaret I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, giving it a B. But I’ve seen it another time since and I liked it much more; I would give it a better grade now actually. But even the first time when I didn’t fully appreciate it as much as I do now, I was left impressed by the performance Anna Paquin gives as Lisa Cohen, a private school girl who will have her life turned around as she witnesses a bus accident that she may have caused by distracting the driver. She lends Lisa this sort of entitled and precocious vibe that works tremendously well.

17. KEIRA KNIGHTLEY as Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method

Viggo Mortensen appeared on my Best Supporting Actors ranking (at #16) for his performance as Sigmund Freud, and now Keira Knightley, undoubtedly one of the five or ten best actresses under thirty working today, appears here. The stuff she does with her role in this film is just sensational to watch, daring to go for director David Cronenberg to some really unlikable places in a really fierce way, in a performance that, had it not been this perfect, would’ve meant the whole film falling apart. She plays Sabina, a girl who’s quite unhinged, examined by Freud and Carl Jung, and even though there’s a lot of sexual stuff, as Sabina wants people to sexually punish and humiliate her, Ms. Knightley lets go with such abandon into her performance that you don’t think sex even though she’s gorgeous, you just think she’s mad.

16. VERA FARMIGA as Corinne in Higher Ground

Vera Farmiga is an actress I’ve loved for a very long time and who I think should be a bigger name by now. In Higher Ground, a film that she also directed, she turns in another one of her typically splendid performances, while also giving a great performance behind the camera. The stuff she can do just with her eyes, which are the kind of eyes movie stars were once made of, is magnificent, the kind of eyes that draw you in but also warn you to keep a bit of distance, conveying good-heartedness as well as a sense of mischief. This was just terrific from her.

15. MIA WASIKOWSKA as Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre

Mia Wasikowska has a great future ahead of her, I think we can all agree on that. And in Jane Eyre she gives a performance that’s just wise beyond her years (she was 20 when she shot this), her performances are just so insightful that you just get the feeling that you’re watching an old soul with so much depth to her. When I saw this film at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center it included a Q&A with her and director Cary Fukunaga, and just the stuff she said about her approach to the role and her process was amazing, and it proved why she gave what to me is the definitive portrayal of the iconic character so far.

14. KRISTEN WIIG as Annie Walker in Bridesmaids

All the rage about the hilarious Bridesmaids ensemble (directed by Paul Feig, my #19 Director) has been focussed on Melissa McCarthy who got a Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her performance (I ranked her at #4 in that particular ranking of mine), and rightfully so because she’s hilarious. But Kristen Wiig (who got an Oscar nod for the screenplay, which I ranked #2 in those rankings) is just as amazing in this film, the scene against Rose Byrne with the battling maid of honor speeches is a feat of comedic genius, as is her drunken ramblings at the plane. She’s the SNL MVP for a reason, this just proves she can be one on the big screen, too.

13. BÉRÉNICE BEJO as Peppy Miller in The Artist

Yes, she got an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress, but if you’ve seen The Artist you’ll know she’s very much a Lead performer, so I ranked her here instead. The film (which I already named my #8, as well as my #7 Director and #12 Screenplay) obviously needed tremendously gifted performers to capture our attention in a silent black-and-white film. Bérénice Bejo is an exquisitely talented physical performer with features that speak louder than words ever could, taking direction from her real-life husband she gives a superb performance in one of the most charming films of the year.

12. OLIVIA COLMAN as Hannah in Tyrannosaur

Tyrannosaur is a really brutal film, quite tough to see actually, but the stunningly great performance by Olivia Colman alone is worth the price of admission and withstanding the harshness of it all. The sadness of the whole film, the feelings it relies on in order to tell its story rely on the performance she manages to give to become the unforgiving human drama it is, to show a compelling and visceral look at rage and abuse and all the things that can come out of it. Certainly a performance that grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

11. LEILA HATAMI as Simin in A Separation

My #15 Film, #17 Screenplay and #16 Director gets a mention in this category for the performance Leila Hatami gives as Simin, one half of the couple that goes through the titular separation. Everyone in this film actually does a fantastic job, but chief amongst them is Ms. Hatami, who in scenes where here character may seem stereotypical she does a lot to uncover a tremendous amount of depth to the character. She acts out some really tense and interesting situations, and does a lot to make A Separation one of the films that stays the longest with you from all 2011.

10. ADEPERO ODUYE as Alike in Pariah

This is Adepero Oduye’s first proper performance in a feature, and the stuff she does with the role of Alike is just spellbinding in the way she so subtly and seamlessly captures every single emotion this young girl in search of an identity is going through. What I thought was awesome about this performance is that we don’t need an expository scene or dialogue to set up much of Alike’s life, she does that just with her presence, taking smart direction from Dee Rees and expressing with just her eyes every little change that’s going through in the mind of her character.

9. FELICITY JONES as Anna in Like Crazy

My #11 Film and #18 Director gets a shout-out for the lead performance by the beautiful Felicity Jones. The journey she takes us with her performance of Anna in just ninety minutes is unbelievable, delivering such an honest and raw performance that it’s amazing to watch, and showing us a star being born right in front of our eyes, an actress that’s made for great things. This is just a very intelligent performance by her, and just the stuff she does with her face and her eyes in those many close-ups, saying ten times more than words ever could with her expressions, this is true talent.

8. VIOLA DAVIS as Aibileen Clark in The Help

Her cast-mate (and Supporting Actress front-runner) Octavia Spencer got a mention at #5 in my Supporting Actresses rankings, and now Viola Davis, arguably the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar (barely getting the edge over Meryl Streep) gets a mention here. This is such a tour de force performance, the kind that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater, and Ms. Davis herself is just such a great woman (just look at her acceptance speech at the SAG’s) that you’re left speechless watching her be Aibileen. Three years ago she had one scene in Doubt, which she stole from Meryl Streep, and got a Supporting Actress nomination. Now she finally gets the role of her lifetime and she’s up against Ms. Streep, who you just know wants her to win more than she does herself.

7. MERYL STREEP as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

From one Oscar front-runner to the next. While Viola Davis seems to have the edge in the actual competition, Meryl Streep gets it in my rankings for the performance that got her to extend her own record with 17 nominations. And yes, she’s out of the Top 5, but that’s just because, as amazing as her performance was, the film it was in wasn’t great, and the context in which a performance is given matters to judge its worth. Meryl Streep is, to me as she should be to you, the greatest actress that’s ever lived. And this is a masterclass in acting, a monster performance from a living legend that just knows how to really go deep into her character, to empathize and understand the person she’s playing. The fact that she’s playing a polarizing world-known figure is a daunting task, and yet she impersonates Thatcher so brilliantly, from the voice to the mannerisms to the subtle changes she gives in her performance as she plays her through various years of her life. Yes, the film works as just a showcase for Ms. Streep’s talents and not much else, that’s true, but with talents as considerable as these you don’t really need much else.

6. CHARLIZE THERON as Mavis Gary in Young Adult

Young Adult has been well represented in my rankings (#12 Film, #15 Director, #3 Supporting Actor and #3 Screenplay) and it gets a mention here as well for Charlize Theron’s stunning performance as Mavis Gary, who’s a really unlikable lead character, which is the toughest kind to play. But she’s up to the task, to lend herself to the piercing character study of Mavis Gary we get here, delivering a really brave performance as a woman who’s still acting like a child and who can’t come to terms with the reality of her life. The film never once tries to justify Mavis’ actions, but the sincerity of Ms. Theron’s portrayal of her maybe, just maybe, may get is to somewhat sympathize with her, which is a testament to well she acted out this role.

5. TILDA SWINTON as Eva Khatchadourian in We Need to Talk About Kevin

The film has gotten mentions in my rankings before (#11 Director and #12 Supporting Actor) but it’s Tilda Swinton’s masterful performance as Eva, the mother of the teenager that’s just gone on a shooting spree, that’s by far the best thing about this whole movie. It’s her performance that makes this film compelling to watch, what grabs your attention so much in a film that had it not counted with it may have been too harsh to watch for some. This is one of the finest performances Tilda Swinton has ever given, and she never once takes the easy way out in her portrayal of Eva, delivering this tough story through her eyes and emotions, making her a distant and vulnerable character that’s not easy to pity or connect to, but telling a story that’s impossible not to be drawn into.

4. MICHELLE WILLIAMS as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh got a shout-out in my Supporting Actor rankings (at #11) but it’s the performance by Michelle Williams, who I think is the best actress under forty working today, that made this film so damn great to me. A film about a woman as iconic as Marilyn Monroe obviously depended solely on the performance by the actress playing the blonde bombshell, and in Michelle Williams it found the perfect one. Physically, it’s all there, the curves and the lips and the everything that made Marilyn, but where Ms. Williams really rocked it is in the intangibles, the vulnerability, the sweetness; she really gets us to understand Marilyn Monroe, what went on inside her head, her insecurities and how she handled her iconic status. It’s such a beautifully soulful performance by a brilliant actress.

3. KIRSTEN DUNST as Justine in Melancholia

My #16 Film, #12 Director and #14 Supporting Actress, and now my #3 Lead Actress. This is the best performance Kirsten Dunst has given in her whole career by a clear mile, and one that really should have gotten her an Oscar nomination. She’s the perfect muse for Lars von Trier, playing Justine, the woman the first half of this film is named after, who starts suffering from a severe case of depression that progresses as the film goes along; at first she’s pure magic at portraying a woman trying to hide her severely damaged state of mind, and later on she’s perfection when she gets meatier scenes to sink her teeth into as her illness worsens, being just sheer perfection at showing her pain and sadness.

2. ELIZABETH OLSEN as Martha in Martha Marcy May Marlene

On Nomination morning I was crossing my fingers to hear Elizabeth’s Olsen named called out for her masterful performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene a film that’s already featured quite a lot in my rankings (#10 Film, #14 Director, #8 Supporting Actor and #13 Screenplay). Alas, her name wasn’t called out, but we still have her performance to hold on to, one of the better debut performances I’ve seen in quite some time, making her one of the young actresses I’m most excited to see evolve. She plays three iterations of the same person, as the three names in the title correspond to three different kind of behaviors that are expected from her while she’s answering to each name; she’s brilliant as all three, making all of them believable. She’s breathtakingly gorgeous, has a wonderful screen presence and has a depth and vulnerability to her that’s hard to explain; by which I mean, she’s meant to be a star.

1. ROONEY MARA as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

My #3 Film, #5 Director and #15 Screenplay of the year gets a first place mention thanks to Rooney Mara’s Oscar-nominated turn as the insuperable Lisbeth Salander. After impressing with just a really short turn in The Social Network, David Fincher pushed for her to get this role, and look what she did with it. She brings such an incredible level to commitment to it all, and delivering an awe-inspiring performance, showing a tremendous intelligence (both her character’s and hers as an actress) while she hides the many emotional scars of Lisbeth Salander, being able to seduce you just as well as she can intimidate you. This if the best female performance of all 2011 from an actress people knew pretty much nothing about until just know, but who I’m sure will give us plenty to talk about in years to come.

Those are my Top 20 performances by actresses in leading roles. 4 of the Oscar nominees made it into my Top 20 (Glenn Close was the one that missed out), but were I to actually ran the Oscars only Mara and Williams would remain nominees. They, however, don’t really have a shot at actually winning; so let’s just sit back and enjoy the Streep vs. Davis battle, since even though their performances weren’t the very best, they were still extraordinary, and they’re two actresses who are amazing both on and off the screen, so it’ll be a deserved win no matter what happens.

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