Viola Davis in The Help
Neither clumsy pacing nor on-the-nose dialogue will stop Viola Davis. Where the urge may have been present in other actors to play Aibileen as a simple woman with simple, modest goals, Davis turns the part on its head with her watchfulness, soul and complexity. Through silence and an unending register of conflicting emotions, Davis spins gold out of a role that, while not totally thankless as some have reductively called it, certainly would give no script reader to expect all that Davis gives here. Bonus points for “I told him I drank too much coffee.”
Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
An actress who has always been gifted, even if she has been adrift in roles that either don't suit her or don't utilize her talents, Dunst works marvels here as Justine. What's even more marvelous? I'm not even sure she's given much to work with on paper. Still, I love the choices she makes. Though she morphs tragically from apprehension to near complete catatonia/nihilism (only VonTrier...), she remains the most recognizably human character in this piece. Even in the film's earliest moments (the maneuvering of the limousine, for instance) she makes it interesting and modulated as we watch her play a woman playing at being happy. I hope this marks an exciting new phase in the career of an actress I've always been intrigued and impressed by, but no more so than here.
Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Watchful, reactive, without a hugely recognizable external arc. None of these elements inherently make for good drama, but man Olsen knocks it out of the park here. In one of the year's most terrifying films, she takes much of the credit for the eery pall of impending doom that envelopes Martha Marcy May Marlene. She is quiet, but still recognizably womanly and damaged. Bonus points for the film's opening scene where Olsen gives us an incredible, almost unspoken etching of a woman troubled beyond the telling of it—a promise she makes good on for the rest of the movie.
Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Swinton lands her third consecutive Pretentious Film Award nomination (I'm sure she's proud) for yet another one of her searing, indelible cinematic marks. Largely a silent, watchful performance, Swinton plays a woman whose situation we can't help but empathize with (and we do). But, she doesn't garner empathy for Eva by making her perfect or even likeable most of the time. The difference between Eva before the incident and after is not that of a woman who is whole versus one who is broken, respectively. It is that of a woman who knows the truth, even if it is self-fulfilling prophecy (how much of Kevin's proclivities are her fault?) and one who has the truth horribly confirmed from her. It is fascinating to watch a character empty out before your eyes. It is even more fascinating the way Swinton makes interesting watching a woman who has already emptied out.
Charlize Theron in Young Adult
In a category of roles that contains a downtrodden maid, the mother of a serial killer, the traumatized survivor of a cult and a recently jilted bride facing the end of the world, Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary is, believe it or not, the most damaged. I love the way Theron (and Reitman) don't easily show us the roots of Mavis's jaded and poisonous core. Theron taps into the comedienne we've seen only shades of before (her interviews, “Arrested Development”) and births a compelling, specific and funny creation. The control she has over her voice, the most important part of this performance, is something to behold. Bonus points for “I love your sweat-errr...”