FIRST-HALF FYC: Best Actress

Posted by · 12:40 pm · December 29th, 2010

The fifth column in our new seasonal series — if you haven’t got the drill by now, we’re rounding up the most Oscar-worthy work from the oft-overlooked first half of the year — wraps up the performance categories with by far the most competitive race of all. Conventional wisdom has it that Best Actress is the most crowded field of this year’s awards derby, and as I looked over the January-to-June release schedule, I realized that’s just as true of the early birds.

Where I admit I had embroider a little to make up five-strong fields in one or two other categories, this week’s task found me scratching my head over who to leave out. Many of the year’s most lavishly acclaimed performances jostled for position: Kim Hye-ja may have taken the Los Angeles critics’ honors, but as much as I love the demented commitment of her performance in “Mother,” I was surprised to find myself leaving her on the sidelines. Tilda Swinton is on near-peak form in “I Am Love,” and yet she too finds herself in the honorable mention category.

I was all prepared to court controversy by citing Julianne Moore’s exemplary work in Atom Egoyan’s otherwise negligible “Chloe,” but there just wasn’t room to be that playful; in a regular year, “Father of My Children” star Chiara Caselli would easily have figured in at the halfway mark. Others might make cases for Noomi Rapace or Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and I’m still hamstrung by not having had access to “Everyone Else.” The bottom line is: there was a lot to sift through before arriving at the five names below. May future years also be this good to the ladies.

Greta Gerwig, “Greenberg”
The reigning Converse-wearing princess of mumblecore, the gangly, self-scrutinizing Gerwig made a thoroughly winning crossover into more polished Amerindie fare as Ben Stiller’s not-quite-love-interest in Noah Baumbach’s latest. Playing Florence, a Californian au pair weary of resigning her life so others may live theirs, Gerwig cleverly plays dissatisfaction without registering as simply bored or routinely ‘quirky’: wit, self-awareness and uncertain ambition clash within the performance, set off by her bemusement at having found a less functional stray soul in Stiller’s title character. It’s the film’s most clear-eyed performance, and an appealing audition for bigger things.

Katie Jarvis, “Fish Tank”
Okay, this film has popped up in every eligible category in this series thus far, but you didn’t think I was going to leave out the very focus of its energy, did you? Discovered on an Essex railway platform and just 17 years old at the time of filming, Jarvis’s debut performance could be described as the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle creation that happens when charismatic amateurs plays close to the bone, were it not for the intelligence and shading of her line readings, her quicksilver switches from aggression to coyness and her intuitive awareness of her character’s own limitations as a performer. Hard to say until her next move, but we might have a formidable actress here.

Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”
People hailing Lawrence as a “discovery” after her wily, sure-footed shouldering of Debra Granik’s grim Ozark thriller were a touch behind the beat: as impressive as it is, the performance is an expansion of the alternately fragile and bloody-minded presence she established in 2008’s “The Burning Plain.” Surrounded as she is by striking supporting turns by more seasoned players, Lawrence’s put-upon teen Ree Dolly could easily become a wan vessel of suffering at the center; instead, she asserts the character’s preternatural smarts and dry humor without losing sight of the girl she is. Her inevitable Oscar nomination has been hard-earned.

Julianna Margulies, “City Island”
“Not a word, bitch,” spits Margulies, one trembling finger raised at the hapless Emily Mortimer, during the climactic confrontation in Raymond De Felitta’s trifle of a family comedy – a dream of an Oscar-clip scene that aptly represents how the actress owns this proficient ensemble piece, and then some. As the seething, family-bound wife of Andy Garcia’s bumbling Queens prison guard, Margulies resists feisty overacting in favour of softer, less predictable anger, circled with cigarette smoke and yearning; alongside her much-lauded work in TV’s “The Good Wife,” hers was one of the year’s most welcome comebacks. More film roles, please.

Sylvie Testud, “Lourdes”
Already the recipient of a well-deserved European Film Award – with little else looking likely to join her mantelpiece, sadly – Testud served up perhaps the slowest burn among this year’s great performances: as a former paraplegic turned beneficiary of an unexplained miracle, she is tasked with negotiating the bulk of the film’s oscillations between faith and doubt, as the pressure of being so unaccountably blessed chips away at her sweetly accepting demeanor. At first glance, the performance seems expressively constricted, in no small part because Testud’s Christine is uncertain what she’s allowed to feel; when joy breaks through, however, her smile is a many-layered thing indeed.

Agree? Disagree? Which female leads from the year’s first half are still playing in your head so many months later? Share your thoughts in the comments.

[Photos: Anchor Bay Films, Focus Features, IFC Films, Roadside Attractions, Palisades Tartan]

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25 responses so far

  • 1 12-29-2010 at 12:58 pm

    JJ1 said...

    For me, Tilda Swinton, hands down; even though I wasn’t wild about I Am Love.

  • 2 12-29-2010 at 1:05 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Good call on Gerwig.

  • 3 12-29-2010 at 1:14 pm

    billybil said...

    I agree about Julianna Margulies and her work in CITY ISLAND. I was so surprised by it on several levels – first, you’re so smart to identify the “softer” anger – I felt it but didn’t really “see” it until you wrote about it. But there was also something so lived in about her work – so real and yet so “special” just like movie stars should be. And she’s so funny and tough. I really appreciate you acknowledging her in this way.

    I’m very sad to say now that the only other performance I’ve seen you mention is, of course, Jennifer Lawrence.

    But I did see I AM LOVE and since that movie annoyed me so much – once again a woman gets punished for having sexual desires – and it was so goddamn arty – that I can’t really separate my impression of her performance enough from my annoyance so I’m glad you left her off your list! Ah the vagaries of response…

  • 4 12-29-2010 at 1:28 pm

    adelutza said...

    Sylvie Testud is , hands down , the best of the pack in my opinion. And “Lourdes” itself, one of the best film I’ve seen this year. What a pity nobody else in US saw it.

  • 5 12-29-2010 at 1:55 pm

    John said...

    1. Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
    2. Sarah Polley (Splice)
    3. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
    4. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland)
    5. ?

  • 6 12-29-2010 at 2:35 pm

    Eli said...

    I loved City Island and the pitch-perfect mixture of humor and poignancy that Julianna Margulies brought to her role. And nice call on Jennifer Lawrence in The Burning Plain – she and Charlize Theron were really dynamic presences in that film.

  • 7 12-29-2010 at 2:57 pm

    Jasper said...

    1. Jennifer Lawrence
    2. Tilda Swinton
    3. Giovanna Mezzogiorno
    4. Hye-Ja Kim
    5. Sarah Polley

  • 8 12-29-2010 at 3:02 pm

    Brian said...

    @ Guy, too bad – “Everyone Else” is streaming on Netflix in the States. Actually a lot of films I wouldn’t have had access to at all have started streaming on there in the last month

  • 9 12-29-2010 at 3:08 pm

    Parrill said...

    I thought Gerwig was the best part of Greenberg…

    And while I don’t have set rules on what constitutes Lead or Supporting, I feel hers was a supporting performance.

    I wish she wasn’t cause I liked her character a lot more than the main one, but she was support in my book.

  • 10 12-29-2010 at 3:21 pm

    Alberto said...

    I did a similar early predictions exercise in my blog and this was the result:
    JULIETTE BINOCHE in Certified Copy
    YUN JUNGHEE in Poetry
    LESLEY MANVILLE in Another Year (Winner)
    TILDA SWINTON in I Am Love
    There are obvious differences with Incontention choices, not least because of different release dates in Europe and the US. I saw Another Year in July, but had to wait until November for Winter’s Bone (I queued twice in vain in Sundance).
    Funny that I included a Korean actress, but not the right one (at least in terms of award attention).
    By the way, I have just launched a facebook initiative to get Lesley Manville an Oscar nomination. Things look so gloomy right now… But I still think the fifth slot could be hers. Feel free to join if you liked Manville’s performance and feel like it:

  • 11 12-29-2010 at 3:46 pm

    Graysmith said...

    Catherine Keener, Please Give
    Julianne Moore, Chloe
    Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

    Gerwig is in the supporting category in my book, and she’s still my no.1 pick there.

  • 12 12-29-2010 at 3:48 pm

    Bernard said...

    1. Rachel Weisz (Agora) – Perhaps a career best performance in a criminally under looked movie.
    2. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
    3. Radha Mitchell (The Crazies) – The three lead performances make The Crazies one of the strongest American horror movies in years. Paired with Let Me In, 2010 has seen the best U.S. horror showing in ages.
    4. Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – Rapace’s electric lead performance remains the only thing worth watching in the insipid sequels, but in Dragon Tattoo it amplifies an effective thriller.
    5. Alicja Bachleda (Ondine) – I guess you could argue she more properly belongs in supporting actress, but her magnetic chemistry with Farrell makes Ondine’s fairy tale for grown ups work.
    6. Carey Mulligan (The Greatest) – The movie is a rather awful Lifetime-movie sort of thing, but I’ll be damned if Mulligan doesn’t do everything in her power to elevate the material. It’s particularly impressive to see her help elevate Pierce Brosnan’s work – when Mulligan is on screen he’s great, when she’s off not so much.

    Honorable Mentions:
    – Naomi Watts (Mother and Child) – another movie where Bening seems to get credit when she isn’t even the best female lead.
    – Emilie de Ravin (Remember Me) – astoundingly bad movie, nice performance.
    – Julianne Moore (Chloe)
    – Emma Caulfield (TiMER) – Likable romantic comedy lead
    – Alice Eve (She’s Out of My League) – Honestly, I thought Eve and Baruchel do such a good job that it makes the surrounding material seem that much worse. Would love to see what she can do with some better material.

    I have a ton of foreign films I need to have seen to make this ranking more credible.

  • 13 12-29-2010 at 3:57 pm

    Glenn said...

    I haven’t seen “Lourdes” but the other four a superb picks. And, for that matter, Jennifer Lawrence is my least favourite of them! Yikes, that’s a sight of a good first half. Margulies is indeed excellent, isn’t she? So funny. Such a shame the movie got no recognition from the Globes since it’s one of the best comedies of the year. Jarvis is obviously brilliant and everyone already knows that.

    I love what you wrote about Gerwig, too. I liked how she seemed like a character that was unsatisfied with her life, but had been able to develop a personality that counteracts.

    Graysmith, how is Gerwig supporting? She’s the catalyst for everything!

  • 14 12-29-2010 at 4:12 pm

    Parrill said...

    It’s Stiller’s movie.

    It opens with a lot of time spent with Gerwig but it gets away from that and clearly follows Stiller.

    I would have liked it had it been more about her as compared to him but it wasn’t. It was about Greenberg and she is a small part of that in the end.

    Is she the highest billed female in the picture…yes.
    But that would be like saying Ruffalo is the Lead Actor in Kids are All Right.

    Supporting role…In My Opinion

  • 15 12-29-2010 at 4:15 pm

    Daniel said...

    Gerwig and Jarvis are ace. Haven’t seen the other films to properly place them. I’m unsure of the official release for The Exploding Girl, but Zoe Kazan was terrific in that. So she would get my vote.

  • 16 12-29-2010 at 4:36 pm

    James D. said...

    I thought Margulies was awful. That film was a disaster in every way to me.

  • 17 12-29-2010 at 4:56 pm

    john t. said...

    JJ1 , again , you and I are in agreement. Tilda Swinton ‘s astonishing performance deserves an Oscar nomination over Natalie Portman, Annette Bening, Michelle Williams, and Nicole Kidman. But, sadly, most Academy members will not see ” I Am Love” , and that is Swinton’s biggest stumbling block. This is similar to Javier Bardem’s well-regarded turn in “Biutiful.”

  • 18 12-29-2010 at 5:58 pm

    mikhael said...

    Katie Jarvis
    Julianne Moore
    Julianna Marguiles

  • 19 12-29-2010 at 6:44 pm

    Walter said...

    I’d sub in Kim Hye-ja and Tilda Swinton over Katie Jarvis and Sylvie Testud, but only because I haven’t seen those. So happy you included Julianna Margulies, who really surprised me in City Island. That whole movie is a pleasant surprise, but Margulies and the daughter really impressed me.

  • 20 12-29-2010 at 6:46 pm

    Bernard said...

    Never felt all that motivated to watch City Island but with all these positive notices I’ll need to check it out – easier now because it went up on Netflix streaming this past week.

  • 21 12-29-2010 at 11:51 pm

    dinasztie said...

    Yay for Julianna Margulies! For me she’s supporting, where she would even get my win, though I might even vote for her in leading. She’s brilliant.

  • 22 12-30-2010 at 1:13 am

    Marshall1 said...

    Alberto, I think the actress from “mother” is getting all the attention because the movie actually opens wide in the States this year. For me, Yun Junghee of “Poetry” is the winner hands down in a transcendental film. I like Poetry more than Mother.

  • 23 12-30-2010 at 3:20 am

    julian said...

    It´s funny that Americans seem to love I Am Love so much. Maybe because it amplifies your stereotypes about European cinema? In Europe it has garnered mediocre reviews at best, because it is so blatantly a stylish, old-fashioned “Visconti light” experience…there´s no real substance beneath all the melodrama. Reminded me why I love American cinema…!

  • 24 1-01-2011 at 7:30 pm

    Vince in WeHo said...

    Um, Paprika Steen in “Applaus”?

  • 25 1-02-2011 at 2:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Hasn’t arrived in the UK, sadly — I missed its LFF screening in 2009.