Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2009 Year in Review: Best Actress

Not a very strong year, at least for American actresses, as most of the great roles for women came from foreign movies. The great performances by American actresses also came from the most unexpected places. It’s too bad that Fish Tank and Mother were not released by the end of the year, because Katie Jarvis and Kim Hye-ja were better than almost anyone on this list. But then again, there’s always next year.

10. Sara Paxton in The Last House on the Left
I include Paxton on this list knowing full well that I am probably going to be crucified for it. But Paxton’s performance in this horror movie is brilliant – fearless and brave. As Mari, the innocent girl who ends up being raped and almost killed by a band of psychopaths for no reason other than that she is in the wrong place at the wrong time, Paxton is unforgettable. From her early scenes, where she creates Mari as an innocent who goes along with her friend against her better judgment because “something might happen to her if I don’t”, Paxton is unforgettable. In perhaps the most difficult to watch scene in any movie this year, Mari is raped, but not before she fights back. The shot of her face when she finally lets go of her white panties and accepts what is going to happen to her (thus, making the audience accept it as well) is like a punch to the gut. Paxton’s performance is utterly fearless – she rips your heart out in this film, and is proof that great movie acting can come from any genre.

9. Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer
I always love it when actors play with their screen image, and that is precisely what Deschanel does in this movie. For a number of years now, Deschanel has been portrayed as the ideal woman – quirky, funny, chirpy, sunny, clever and sexy. It was impossible not to fall in love with her on screen persona (I know I did). But in 500 Days of Summer, Deschanel shows us the other side of that personality – showing us first how you can fall in love with her, and then over the course of time how that personality can start grating on you if you have to live with it day in and day out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in love with Deschanel, but this is a performance that makes you see the person inside that persona.

8. Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
Scoff if you want to at porn star Grey’s debut dramatic movie, but she delivers a wonderful performance in the lead role of Steven Soderbergh’s, low budget film. Grey plays a high class prostitute who specializes in delivering “the girlfriend experience” to her clients - going out on dates, listening to them talk, before, of course, going home and having sex with them. This is not an easy role for Grey - going back and forth between being on “dates” and faking with her clients, to trying to maintain a real relationship with her boyfriend, and also being a business woman. This is not as easy as Grey makes it look. I have no idea if Grey will be able to go onto a career in “legitimate” movies after her role here, but she plays this role as good as anyone else could have.

7. Gaborey Sidibe in Precious
Sidibe is a real find, and perhaps the most important element in order to make Lee Daniels’ film work as well as it does. At the beginning of the movie, Sidibe’s Precious is beaten down by life, rarely speaking up to her abusive mother, or her teachers or really anyone. She is lost in her own fantasies. But as the movie progresses, Sidibe becomes more vocal – opens her eyes wider to see the world as it really is, not how she imagines it to be. She takes charge of her own life. Precious could have been just another movie of the week, but Sidibe makes us feel for Precious. Sapphire, who wrote the book Precious is based on, said her goal was to break open a stereotype to find the real person inside. In terms of this movie, Sidibe is the most valuable asset.

6. Saorise Ronan in The Lovely Bones
Ronan has a nearly impossible role in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. She spends most of the movie in the after life, surrounded by special effects, and looking down at the major action in the film. She inhabits a world that is somewhere between a dream and nightmare, and Ronan somehow remains completely grounded and believable throughout. Her hugely expressive blue eyes carry her performance, and the movie itself. With everything going on around her, this could have been a purely visual experience, but Ronan grounds in its human story. A remarkable performance by a great young actress.

5. Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell
To many, I am sure that Lohman’s performance in Drag Me to Hell will be dismissed as yet another horror movie victim. And while Lohman is a perfect scream queen (god, can that woman scream), her performance is much more than just yet another horror movie performance. She starts out as an innocent young woman, but as the movie goes on, and she becomes more paranoid, her performance becomes deeper and more emotional. Remember the scene where she has to kill her cat? Or the scene where she meets Justin Long’s parents for the first time? These scenes rank among the best acted of the year - and Lohman does a brilliant job with her role.

4. Ok-vin Kim in Thirst
When we first meet Ok-vin Kim’s character in Chan-wook Park’s vampire film Thirst, we feel sorry for her. Forced to marry a constantly sick, idiotic man, being treated like a slave by her mother in law, and all around miserable, we respond to her gorgeous sad eyes as she looks at the “hero” of the movie. But as the movie goes along, she reveals a darker side. Sexually turned on by the fact that the hero is a priest, is only the beginning of her kinks. When she turns into a vampire herself, her playfully demonic side comes out in full force. For some reason, most critics have ignored the film, and Kim’s star making performance, but it is one of the most complex female roles of the year.

3. Tilda Swinton in Julia
There are few actresses as fearless as Tilda Swinton. There is nothing that she will not do. Here, she plays a drunken party girl well past her sell by date, she continues to swirl down the drain, losing all of her friends, unable to hold onto a job, and having nothing in her life except for the next night. She sees a chance to break free when a slightly off kilter woman she meets in AA tells her about her son that is being kept away from her by her evil father in law. Kidnapping the kid, she goes on the run hoping for ransom. But Julia is essentially about Tilda Swinton’s remarkable performance. She doesn’t waste time trying to make us like her, but instead simply completely inhabits her role. A remarkable performance by one of the best actresses on the planet.

2. Carey Mulligan in An Education
It is rare that you get to see a movie star born right before your eyes, but that is precisely what happens in this performance by Mulligan. She plays Jenny, an intelligent, 1960s English school girl who gets sucked up into a relationship with an older man. But what is remarkable is that Jenny is not a na├»ve little girl being taken advantage by an older man. She knows what she is getting into, but she it as the best of her alternatives. What are the other alternatives for a girl in her time? Sooner or later, she thinks she’s just going to wind up marrying someone, so why not choose someone who has money and is fun? You fall in love with Mulligan right from the beginning of the movie. She is a movie star, who will be around for a long time.

1. Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist
There are few actresses who would even be willing to attempt to go where Charlotte Gainsbourg goes in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. From the opening sex scene, through the scenes of almost unbearable grief, to the realization that she may not be as innocent as she appears, to her final, violent breakdown that involves genital mutilation, Gainsbourg is utterly unbelievably in the movie. She throws caution to the wind, and completely throws herself into the role, and ends up with one of the most unforgettable performances of this, or any, year.

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