Runners-Up: Ashley Bensen/Vanessa Hudgens in Spring Breakers are chilling as the most nihilistic of the girls on a slow trip to hell – their “sex scene” with Franco is one of the best scenes of the year. Kaithlyn Dever in Short Term 12 played the angry teenager just about perfectly, as she drives much of the story along. Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers is vastly different from her co-stars in the film, and has one of the best single moments of the year when Franco tells her that when he’s with her friends, he’ll be thinking about her. Nicole Kidman in Stoker adds another ice queen to her resume – as one of the worst mothers of the year. Juliette Lewis in August: Osage County was pretty much made for this role, and doesn’t disappoint. Margo Martindale in August: Osage County makes the most of perhaps the best of the supporting roles in the film. Sarah Paulson in 12 Years a Slave is chilling in her cruelty as the master’s wife. Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station is heartbreaking as a mother who loses her son. Oprah Winfrey in Lee Daniels’ The Butler was best-in-show, in part because she isn’t stuck doing an impersonation, and gets to behave more like a normal person than anyone else in the film. Tao Zhao in A Touch of Sin has the best role in the film as a woman who is pushed too far on multiple fronts until she snaps. Zhang Ziyi in The Grandmaster delivered the film’s best performance – a woman who gives up everything on her quest for vengeance.
10. Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn DavisThe more I think about Carey Mulligan’s performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, the better and deeper it gets. I know some have dismissed it as her just being bitter and angry at Llewyn the whole time – and the scene in the park where she utterly dresses him down is a highlight on that level. But there are layers here – even in that scene, where she says simply “I miss Mike” – and late in the film where she lets Llewyn know she got him one last gig at the Gaslight. These scenes suggest there are deeper feelings in her for Llewyn – she just knows that he will continue to fail, and so Justin Timberlake’s Jim is the much safer bet. It is a wonderful performance, that isn’t quite as one note as it seems at first – and as a bonus, she can really sing.
9. Kaitlyn Dever in Short Term 12Dever has the key supporting role in Short Term 12 – a troubled teenage girl from a privileged background who has become uncontrollable. At first, she just seems like a spoiled brat, but slowly she starts showing what is really driving her behavior. Keith Stanfield has an excellent scene where he raps and lets you know everything about his character – and Dever is given a similar scene where she reads her disturbing children’s story that is a quietly devastating scene. Her character actually drives much of the plot – without her, Brie Larson doesn’t confront her own demons like she needs to in order to move forward. Dever – an actress unknown to me before this movie – leaves a lasting impression with her excellent performance.
8. Sally Hawkins in Blue JasmineSally Hawkins is one of those actresses I instinctively love whenever I see her onscreen. Perhaps some of that is because I will never forget her performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky where she plays an overly optimistic woman no matter what the situation. In Blue Jasmine, she gets her best role since that film playing the sister of the title character – someone she has every reason to hate, but cannot bring herself to do it. She even allows herself to get temporarily sucked into her sister’s delusions, almost ruining any chance of happiness she may have for herself. Hawkins perfectly plays this woman – a bundle of insecurities, just trying her best to be happy – and unlike her sister, she deserves that happiness. Without her performance to balance Blanchett’s, I’m not sure the movie works at all.
7. Jennifer Lawrence in American HustleFrom the moment Lawrence`s boozy Rosalyn enters American Hustle, she almost completely takes over the movie – when she`s onscreen, you barely notice anyone else. Like last year, she got a chance to show her tough side in a Hunger Games movie, and her screwball comedy skills in a David O. Russell film. She`s too young for her role here – but you don’t really notice. This is a ballsy, larger than life performance who often dwarfs the other actors on screen – which is saying something not only because they`re great actors also doing great work, but because of the level of screwball zaniness that surrounds her at every moment, She’s manipulative, hilarious, and not nearly as dumb as she lets on. It`s a wonderful comedic performance by an actress who continues to get better and better.
6. Emma Watson in The Bling RingOne of the most undervalued performances of the year, Emma Watson was brilliant as Nicki – one of a group of LA teens who steal from celebrities. She plays the shallowest character in the film – which is saying something considering how shallow everyone in the film is – and she is merciless in her performance, perfectly capturing the vacant headed speak of the real life person (I saw her on 48 Hours the night before I saw the film – and it’s a dead on vocal impression) – but more than that the air of entitlement the character has as well as her characters insane insistence that she really is one of the victims in all of this. Watson was the most famous actress in the movie – but she fits in perfectly with the cast of largely unknown actors. It’s as if Sofia Coppola knew this role required something a little bit more than the others – and she found the perfect actress to play her. This film is further proof that Watson should have a long, successful career post-Potter.
5. Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall StreetThe “late” release of The Wolf of Wall Street did the film no favors with awards voters – the first wave of which ignored the film – the later wave has been much better for the film. The one real victim of this though may end up being Margot Robbie – whose performance for some reason has not been recognized by anyone so far. That’s a shame, because as the main character’s second wife – a trophy wife and a gold digger, who makes no real secret of what her expectations are – Robbie is wonderful – and almost heartless. It’s there in her first scenes as she seduces Belfort – and later in the now infamous scene where she thinks she garners the upper hand on him until he turns the tables at the last second and humiliates her. And it’s there in her final scene – a disturbing one in which Belfort pretty rapes her, and then she rips into – calmly and coolly, but in a way that hurts more than he thought it would. Once the controversy around the film subsides – and it will – the film will gain in reputation – and I think so will Robbie’s wonderful performance.
4. June Squibb in NebraskaAlexander Payne has described his approach in various movies as starting with a caricature, and then slowly turning them into real people – so just when you think Payne may be mocking his characters, they become real people. Some still don’t think he achieves this – but for me, June Squibb’s role as Woody’s wife Kate is the perfect example of this approach in practice. When the film begins, she seems like a caricature – the old nagging wife who exists just to torment the main characters, and perhaps provide some comic relief. She does that – expertly – in the movie. But then – starting with the scene at the graveyard – Kate becomes quite a bit more than that, and by the time the whole family is practically extorting money that Woody hasn’t even gotten yet, and never will, and she stands up for him to his family, Squibb’s performance truly does become one of the year’s best. Squibb didn’t have her first screen credit until she was 59 years old (in Woody Allen’s Alice back in 1990) and to be honest, she hasn’t had many memorable screen roles (the only time I remember her is in a few short scenes at the beginning of Payne’s About Schmidt playing Jack Nicholson’s wife, who gets out her car keys well before they get to the car). Here, she has been given the role of her lifetime – and she makes the most of it.
3. Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest ColorLea Seydoux’s performance in Blue is the Warmest Color is a wonderful one, as she plays the slightly older, slightly wiser and much more confident Emma – who seduces the story’s teenage protagonist Adele. Seydoux is not at the center of the movie as Adele is – she is a slightly more mysterious character whose every thought is not on screen like Adele’s – but she still creates a fully rounded character – a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. Although she is justifiably angry near the end of the film for what she sees as Adele’s betrayal, she has played her own role in the eventual destruction of their relationship – she may love Adele, but I’m not sure she ever truly understands her. Seydoux dove headlong into this role, and delivers a wonderful performance – the director be damned, Seydoux was brilliant.
2. Scarlett Johansson in HerYou never see Scarlett Johansson in Her – but that doesn’t prevent her performance in the movie from being the best work she has ever done. She came to the film late – after it was filmed to replace Samantha Morton – and yet you feel a genuine connection between her character of Samantha – the voice of an operating system – and Joaquin Phoenix, the man she falls in love in with, and vice versa. Her performance is key to the entire movie – if you do not believe their connection, the whole thing falls apart – but you do believe it. Johansson uses her incredible voice to make an Operating System feels like a living, breathing character, full of thoughts and emotions. What could possibly be more difficult than that? I understand some will feel she shouldn’t be included because you never see her – but I don’t agree. This isn’t even a situation like the debate around Andy Serkis’ performances in The Lord of the Rings movie or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where CGI enhanced his work. Johansson does so much with no aid from anyone. To me, that makes it one of the most impressive performances of the year.
1. Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a SlaveNewcomer Lupita Nyong’o delivers one of the year’s most devastating and emotional performances as Patsey - the favored slave of Michael Fassbender’s cotton farmer, who leads an even harder life before he loves her and hates himself for loving her, which comes out in abusive ways. Nyong’o is stunning in her scenes of torment – either at the hands of Fassbender, or his wife, Sarah Paulson, who lashes out at her because she knows her husband’s feelings. She is also filled with humanity in much more simple, subtle, quiet scenes – having a rare opportunity to talk to Alfre Woodard, who knows what she is going through, or begging Chiwetel Ejiofor to kill her to put her out of her misery. Her performance reaches another level however when all she wants is a simple bar of soap to clean herself with – and ends up getting whipped in the harshest, most unrelenting scene of the year. Nyong’o is young and inexperienced – this is her first major role of any kind – but she is immensely talented and delivers a knockout performance here. I don’t know what the future holds for her – her talent should make for a long, great career – but this year, she deserves an Oscar for her work.