Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Female Performances of the Decade

These are the actresses whose performances have stood out in the past decade of cinema, although the list could easily be twice as long. A special mention is merited by the following, who were all part of this selection at some point: Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream); Q'orianka Kilcher (The New World); Björk (Dancer in the Dark); Juliette Binoche (Code Unknown); Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love); Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake); Gillian Anderson (The House of Mirth); Amy Adams (Junebug); Diane Lane (Unfaithful).

Here are the final ten:

10 – Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko Wataya in Babel (2006)
Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel is a contrived and unconvincing film, but there's nothing false about Rinko Kikuchi's extraordinary portrayal of the film's most intriguing character. Chieko is a deaf Japanese schoolgirl, longing for some kind of human connection, whose desperate attempts to reach out to others result frequently in her own humiliation, her continued frustration, and her seething resentment. With no speech, Kikuchi does most of her acting with her face, and she expresses an aching vulnerability as a lonely girl completely cut off from the world around her. Her story is the only one of Babel's multiple narratives that feels real.

9 – Arta Dobroshi as Lorna in The Silence of Lorna (2008)
The performances in the Dardenne brothers' films are always superb. They direct their actors to give displays that are so natural and convincing that you forget you're watching actors at all. For their latest film The Silence of Lorna, they scoured Eastern Europe for a young actress who could take the lead role, and they struck gold with Arta Dobroshi. Lorna is a demanding role, one that carries the entire dramatic weight of the picture almost single-handed, but Dobroshi is flawless in it, bringing a quiet determination and sense of authority to the picture that demands the viewer's full attention. Even when she is surrounded by other actors, you can't take your eyes off her. Dobroshi has a remarkable screen presence, the kind that draws you in to a character's point of view, and in the final third of the film, when Lorna is placed in peril, the empathy that we have developed with her ensures our anxiety rises as the danger increases.

Read my interview with Arta Dobroshi here.
8 – Anamaria Marinca as Otilia in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Gabita is the character who requires the illegal abortion at the centre of the story, but this is Otilia's film. She's the one who has to make the arrangements; she's the one who has to clean up the mess left by the foolish Gabita; she's the one who has to make terrible sacrifices and risk everything for her friend. Anamaria Marinca, who plays Otilia, fully inhabits the role and conveys all of her character's thought processes and inner conflicts with incredible dexterity. Her finest showcase is the incredibly taut dinner party sequence, where she has to sit and listen to the banality of those around her while her friend lies in desperate need of her help. Just watching Marina's face and body language tells us everything we need to know about her steadily mounting panic and dread.

7 – Nicole Kidman as Anna in Birth (2004)
In this decade, Nicole Kidman emerged as a truly great actress. Within the space of a few years she made Moulin Rouge!, The Others, Birthday Girl, The Hours, Dogville and Birth, and in doing so she showed herself to be capable of a remarkable variety of performance. For this list, I'm going to select Birth as the best among equals, not only because she has rarely looked more beautiful onscreen (although that doesn't hurt), but because it's a complicated, difficult role, and she carries it off with incredible subtlety and grace. She plays a woman whose life is thrown upside-down by the appearance of a mysterious 10 year-old claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband, and her performance is a wonderful mixture of confusion, apprehension and curiosity. Jonathan Glazer is smart enough to give Kidman the time and space she needs to develop her characterisation, and he exploits her performance superbly at times, notably in the striking opera house close-up, which says so much without words.

6 – Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Yes, Kate Winslet was long overdue an Oscar when she finally picked one up for her role in The Reader, but I wish the Academy had chosen to recognise the brilliance of this role instead. As the free-spirited Clementine, who enters the life of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and later leaves him heartbroken, Winslet provides us with one of the most memorable female characters of recent years. With her ever-changing hair colour and brash attitude acting as a mask for her vulnerability and insecurity, Clementine is a far more interesting character than she initially appears to be, and Winslet brings a depth of feeling and an almost dangerous edge to this chaotic figure. In her own words, Clementine is "just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind", but Winslet makes her into something much more than that.

5 – Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker in Far From Heaven (2002)
No other actress can play a woman who is barely keeping a lid on her emotions quite like Julianne Moore, and she is stunning in Todd Haynes' wonderful tribute to the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk. The performances in Haynes' film have the somewhat studied technique of the era the film is modelled on, but while Moore shows an incredible technical aptitude to master that acting style, she also imbues her role with real heart and soul. Cathy is the perfect housewife who is shattered by the revelation of her husband's indiscretions, and Moore gradually peels away the layers of artificiality that define her character to reveal the heartbreak of the woman underneath. Moore gave two Oscar-nominated performances in this year (she also excelled in The Hours), and while she didn't win for either, it should be clear to anyone who understands cinema that her work in Far From Heaven is nothing less than a masterclass in great acting.

4 – Charlotte Gainsbourg as 'She' in Antichrist (2009)
Playing a mother whose son has died, and who blames herself for his death, Charlotte Gainsbourg reaches new depths of pain and grief in von Trier's astonishing film. It's a remarkable transformation for an actress who has never really impressed me in any of her previous work, but whose display in this film doesn't contain a single moment that feels false or affected. The nameless 'She' is a character driven to violent extremes by both her own unstable emotions and the behaviour of her husband, who believes his therapist's approach can talk her round, and the ferocity of Gainsbourg's performance is so convincing we completely believe in it even as von Trier takes the film itself into more unrealistic territory. It is a lacerating performance; a display of sheer pain that is almost too painful to watch.

3 – Oksana Akinshina as Lilja in Lilja 4-ever (2002)
Lilja 4-ever broke my heart within its opening ten minutes. When the Russian teenager is cruelly abandoned by her mother, she sits sulkily leafing through her magazine and refuses to kiss the departing parent goodbye. But when she is left alone, her demeanour changes, and she bolts out of the door after her mother, screaming "Don't leave me, please! I won't make it!", but she is just left collapsed in the mud as the car speeds away. In those few seconds between the mother's departure and Lilja's desperate, futile dash after her, the play of emotions that runs across Oksana Akinshina's face is extraordinary. Her open features carry us along on Lilja's terrible journey; we see her self-disgust as she turns tricks for cash; the sense of pride she has as she buys groceries with her ill-gotten money; her renewed joy at seemingly finding romance; and her fear and dismay as her dreams are destroyed. Not many actresses have made me care so deeply about a character's fate as Akinshina does in this devastating film.

2 – Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher (2001)
Isabelle Huppert is undoubtedly one of the finest actresses currently working in cinema, and this performance is perhaps the finest she has ever given. In Michael Haneke's clinical adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek's novel, she plays Erika, a stiff and repressed music teacher in her 40's, who still lives at home with her domineering mother. Erika's respectable veneer hides darker impulses, however; she secretly visits porn cinemas, and she cuts herself with razor blades in the bathroom at home. The film depicts her masochistic and destructive relationship with a student, during which she reveals desires that even she seems to be slightly wary of, and Huppert's performance is a marvel of minimalist acting. Haneke frequently films her in long takes, and she manages to transmit every thought and feeling her character experiences with the slightest gesture, or without even moving a muscle. It is a stunningly controlled piece of acting, with endless, fascinating depths.

1 – Naomi Watts as Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive (2001)
There was no contest. Naomi Watts has been positioned at the top of this list ever since Mulholland Drive was released in 2001. As soon as I saw David Lynch's masterpiece, I knew I had witnessed something special; an actress being handed the role of a lifetime and doing something magical with it. As Betty, the young ingénue who turns up in Hollywood with dreams of stardom, Watts radiates wide-eyed innocence, but throughout Lynch's labyrinthine nightmare of a movie, her character is taken down much darker avenues. Watts does an incredible job of switching modes at the drop of a hat, as shown in the amazing audition sequence, and as the film careers towards its disturbing climax, Watts brings raw emotion to the surface, depicting a woman consumed by an obsessive and unrequited love. It is a stunning, multi-faceted and ceaselessly impressive piece of acting; not merely the great female performance of the decade, but one of the all-time great screen performances.