The Lists: Top 10 Nicole Kidman performances

Posted by · 1:00 pm · October 2nd, 2012

It’s a good week to be a fan of Nicole Kidman. First off, her deliciously scuzzy performance in “The Paperboy,” Lee Daniels’ ripe Southern-Gothic-meets-Southern-Comfort thriller, hits US screens on Friday — months after hogging the headlines at May’s Cannes Film Festival. While checking that out, meanwhile, viewers may be treated to the just-released trailer for another wild-looking genre outing for the actress, “Stoker,” from an unlikely director who typifies her off-center taste in collaborators — South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook.

The icing on the cake, meanwhile, comes tomorrow at the New York Film Festival, where the Oscar-winning actress will be celebrated — and, of course, interviewed — in a two-hour Gala Tribute, followed by the US premiere of “The Paperboy.” This marks the first year the New York fest have ever done such tributes, which makes the honor all the more distinguished for Kidman, underlining her status as one of the leading actors of her generation. 

So, as I said, a good week for Nicole Kidman fans — a group among which regular readers might know I’m happy to count myself a member. Kidman’s name is one that routinely comes up when people ask me to name my favorite contemporary (or, indeed, all-time) actresses, so this seemed as good a week as any to pledge my admiration in Top 10 form.

Indeed, at some level, a list — albeit a roughly ranked one — feels like the most appropriate way to honor a career perhaps best viewed in collective terms. Not that it wants for outstanding individual performances — and in a formidable range of registers, from austere formalist drama to zonked comedy — but it’s really the vertiginous contrasts and unlikely similarities between these projects that make her oeuvre special.

Kidman may have peers or elders (Cate Blanchett, say, or Meryl Streep, or Juliette Binoche) who can equal or better her for technical aptitude and professional cunning, but it’s hard to think of anyone who matches her for sheer recklessness of instinct. Her script selections range from the defiantly uncommercial to the befuddlingly fluffy — sometimes foolhardily so, but she doesn’t much fear failure either.

Both her best and her worst choices have often been driven by her adventurous taste in collaborators: she’s braved Lars von Trier and Stanley Kubrick, coaxed such iconoclasts as John Cameron Mitchell into meeting her halfway, flirted with Wong Kar-wai (though we’ll likely never see that come to fruition) and literally broken bones for Baz Luhrmann. Detractors may jeer flops like “The Invasion,” but wouldn’t you have wanted to work with Oliver Hirschbiegel after “Downfall?” (I’m less sure why she took on “Just Go With It” or “Trespass,” but a girl’s gotta eat, I suppose.)

In the gallery below, then, I count down the ten best performances to emerge from that combination of good taste, delicate technique and Down Under bravado. It’s a greatest-hits portfolio that, for my money, can go toe-to-toe with the best of ’em — and still it leaves out some strong work. Is her dumbly opportunistic floozy in “The Paperboy” — a turn I described at Cannes as “sexually strident and earthily funny” — good enough to make the cut? Check out the gallery, and be sure to share your own thoughts and favorites in the comments.

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