And the great women are...
Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole
She's back, y'all (not that she ever went anywhere). But for the first time in what seems like an eternity, public consensus seems to be behind one of Kidman's brilliant, fearless turns. I have paid much lip service to the wonderful actors surrounding her (Rabbit Hole is the only film to land nominations from me in all four acting categories), but make no mistake--Kidman's Becca, in all of her complex, funny, guarded and wounded glory, is the beating heart at the center.
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone
A true breakout discovery for 2010 and the best kind in that she's actually deserving of all the acclaim. It's surprisingly restrained and unfussy work--the kind of work that usually doesn't get recognized as great when coming from such a young performer. She intelligently and believably sells the backstory of a young girl grown up too fast without the luxury of time for big showy moments. Bonus points for her breakdown in the rowboat. A great, slow burn performance.
Lesley Manville in Another Year
From my review: "Manville manages to play Mary's hostility as simultaneously brimming, immature, embarrassing and (miraculously) quiet." Mike Leigh has always gotten fascinating and accomplished work from his leading ladies. Manville is no exception. She makes a human being out of a what is essentially a walking, talking open wound. Brilliant work.
Tilda Swinton in I Am Love
She's a sight to marvel in I Am Love. Emma Recchi is tight-lipped and internal, so much of her struggle and arch taking place without the aid of dialogue. But when she does speak, boy does she make it count. Her line reading of "You no longer know who I am" (in Italian, of course), still breaks my heart. Consider Tilda's Julia--a character that you couldn't imagine existing in the same time zone as Emma Recchi. What a true chameleon Swinton is, proving once again that she's one of our most fearless and vital actresses working today.
Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine
Cindy is a tricky character to play. The narrative seems hellbent on positioning her as either an idea, rather than a character or the villain of the piece. But Williams's subtlety, attention to detail and ability to match in every way the fierce honesty of her screen partner goes a long way. This is her best work to date, which is very high praise indeed.
In such a banner year for leading female performances, this was the hardest list to compile. I immediately have to cite Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right (and yes, in that order). Two are our two Oscar frontrunners and all three are great turns, worthy of the many accolades being thrown their way. But lists are all about honesty and I honestly happened to like five performances better than these turns, which surprised me.
Emma Stone does some industrial strength heavy-lifting in Easy A and she'll have continued success while doing it her way. Carey Mulligan gains points in Never Let Me Go for doing such a thematically and narratively tricky follow-up to her soft-lob, breakout role.