And the leading women are:
Abbie Cornish in Bright Star
Fanny Brawne is a figure that could have seemed so vague, so hazy, so distant and so irrelevant in a modern landscape. Cornish makes her accessible, even while navigating Keats poetry. She modulates brilliantly between defiance and vulnerability. Every line she delivers drips with immersion into the text. You never catch her "playing" period. And bonus points for the tender kisses, while Keats lies in Brawne's lap. Sensual and understated.
Paulina Gaitan in Sin Nombre
Clearly the standout performance, her watchfulness and guard mixed with teenage naivety anchors the film and Gaitan hits every single note. Observe the scene where she first offers Caspar food. There's so much to keep track of--fear, apprehension, gratitude and yes, attraction. And through her face and body language, she is miraculously able to communicate it all. She's definitely one to watch.
Carey Mulligan in An Education
Mulligan is absolutely bewitching as young Jenny. She expresses the heroine's quick, acerbic wit with not just her words. What this young woman does with a look, a smile that seems to know more than she speaks, and a gesture as simple as smoking a cigarette speaks volumes. Jenny may not feel wise, but Mulligan certainly is.
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious
Sidibe's Precious Jones evokes images of a sort of hybrid between Whoopi Goldberg's Celie and Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar. So terse, yet conveying so much pain and internal struggle. Every word spoken is labored, every smile a miracle, as if the desire or need to do either has been frightened and beaten out of her. Heartbreaking, staggering work and an amazing debut.
Tilda Swinton in Julia
Only Swinton could take a completely, almost cartoonishly unlikeable character who makes obvious mistake after obvious mistake and make it layered, interesting and modulated. There are so many notes in her performance as the title character that it's practically a symphony. And she never forgets the humor (Swinton is very funny), even in the midst of a film that verges on Greek tragedy.
Not many. The five aforementioned performances are, to me, five fantastic performances, worthy of accolade in any year. Outside of those (and maybe this is due to my not having seen enough films in 2009), there aren't many female performances that excited me. This was the easiest list to make. I knew almost instantly when I saw each of these five performances that they would be in my top five. That being said, I have great fondness for Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia who does good work (as always). I also greatly enjoyed Maya Rudolph's terse vulnerability in Away we Go and I hope the film's tepid response (even I have backed off considerably after my over-praising review) doesn't prevent her from moving on to bigger things.